Archive for the 'ephemera' Category

Autumn

The smell of roasting dust heralds the fan heater’s first use of the autumn, like the smell of the crematorium we’re all another year closer to.

The Tax Return Blues

I’m trying to do my self-assessment tax form. I’m not a stupid man, so it shouldn’t be too hard (and I got a grade B Maths O Level in 1983!) and I want to be fair and pay my share. My salary is PAYE but I have a small amount of extra income from a book I wrote 4 years ago – and, as it’s a tech book, it’s quite old so the sums are small.

That, plus derisory rates of interest from money I save (as breadwinner in a Hard Working British Family™, I save for a rainy day) means I have to fill in a form. Once again, it’s defeated me. Why, for example, do I have to tell them how many dollars I was paid in royalties? The money hits my bank in pounds, so I note it down like a good boy in pounds so I can pay income tax on it in pounds. So I can’t fill that bit in. How do I record my ISA savings which are tax free (there’s only a place to record net interest and gross interest).

The whole thing seems like a conspiracy to create jobs for accountants. I have nothing against accountants (except for my karate sparring partner Mohammed, because he’s loads better than me), but I shouldn’t need a professional to record a few hundred quid in book royalties and ISA interest.

And the website is so shockingly rubbish it’s embarrassing to be in the web industry.

So, tomorrow, like every other bloody year, I’ll call their overloaded phone help line and be coached through the form, at great expense to the tax payer.

Slow-cooked lamb with 40 garlic cloves

I don’t usually follow recipes from magazines, because they usually need zillions of ingredients and take ages to prep. But I had six people around for dinner, and a whole leg of lamb, so Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Six-hour spiced lamb with 40 cloves of garlic seemed a good choice. (All of us like garlic, but it’s not actually death-by-alium, as you don’t crush the garlic, just add it to the juices.)

It took about 10 minutes longer to prepare than any other roast, and that was toasting the spices and pulversising them in a pestle and mortar, but it was time well spent as it was absolutely delicious.

It did list some ingredients I didn’t have, so I adapted it thus:

  • For the sauce, I didn’t have paprika, caraway or fennel. So I added a couple of cloves, and some chilli flakes (about a teaspoon).
  • After the first 30 minutes, when you’re supposed to add a cup of water, I added a mug of water and a cup of red wine. (I knew my guests would want lots of gravy.)
  • An hour before the end, when you add all the garlic, I also added a couple of sprigs of rosemary from the garden, a couple of handfulls of black olives, and another cup of wine.

The gravy was really intense, even before I squished some cloves of garlic and a few olives into it and sieved it. The remaining olives tasted great for people to munch while the meat was resting. I served it with carrots that I cooked around the lamb for the last hour, potatoes roasted in goose-fat, Yorkshire puddings, roast butternut squash and boiled broccoli and cauli.

Best lamb ever, my friends said.

Why Norman Tebbit is cool

I was reading a Reddit post on which celebs are “assholes” and which aren’t, and can exclusively reveal that Chris Tarrant is a tosspot, whereas Irish post-punk bands The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers are jolly nice people — Jake Burns wished me happy birthday, and Undertones’ bassist Micky Bradley gave me a can of Stella when I was 14.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Thatcher-era government minister Norman Tebbit is a good guy too, although he’s largely remembered as a leather-clad psychotic enforcer in the satirical show Spitting Image.

However, Tebbit also has a sense of humour. At University, my housemates and I would write letters to TV personalities requesting autographed photos to decorate our rented house on De Grey Street, Hull, AKA “Raunchy Studsville”. (Note, this is before the Web existed to divert students from essays etc).

We wrote to Tebbit at the House of Commons:

Dear Norm, we’ve watched your rise through the Tory party with admiration. Market Forces dictate that you send us a signed photograph. Get Down! The Raunchy Studs.

A week later, an House of Commons envelope addressed to “Raunchy Studsville, 1 De Grey St, Hull” landed on our doormat, containing a hand-written note on headed note paper:

Dear Studs, who am I to argue with Market Forces? Here’s your photo. Get Down!

and the photo was signed “Norm”.

Where’s my bloody xmas card?

I didn’t send you one. Not because I hate you (I don’t – I love you, especially in that outfit and the way you toss your hair when you laugh), but because I don’t send them to anyone. If I did, I’d have to post them to friends in Thailand, Norway, USA, Australia, India, Russia, Japan and elsewhere, polluting the planet so that twee pictures and shop-bought sentiments can end up in landfills. What a waste of money.

Instead, I donate the money I’d spend on cards and postage to a charity. This year, I’m sending some cash to the Bhopal Medical Appeal which gives free medical care to the people hurt in Bhopal and so shamefully treated by those responsible, Union Carbide (now part of Dow).

To date our Sambhavna Clinic has treated more than 35,000 people. We employ over 60 staff, roughly a third of whom are themselves gas survivors. We carry out valuable studies, inform, educate and train people in gas-affected communities to monitor their health.

…In the Bhopal Medical Appeal ‘we’ don’t ask ‘you’ to help ‘us’ help ‘them’. The Appeal and the Sambhavna Clinic are shared efforts between those of us who are survivors, those of us who run the Clinic and the Appeal and those of us who support the effort with our money and by volunteering our skills or just our enthusiasm.

So that’s your card. Have a merry consumerfest, and a happy new year.

The joys of double glazing: Amber and Anglian review

Finally, a boring post about something other than web minutiae!

Eighteen months ago, we moved into a large Victorian house that needed lots of work. Twitter chums have responded to my requests for recommendations for builders, roofers, tree surgeons, decorators, plumbers, electricians and plasterers enthusiastically. But when I innocently tweeted “Can anyone recommend a decent double-glazing company that aren’t pressure-salesmen, cowboys or criminals” I got no replies at all. Not any. Twice. That’s telling in itself. So I decided get a couple of quotes and compare them.

Firstly, I called Amber Windows, told them what I wanted and told them that I had an hour maximum for them to measure (two doors – how long should it take?), and emphasised that I didn’t want to waste time with faux-discounts; give me your best price and go away.

Needless to say, Cliff, the Amber Windows salesman, told me of a “special discount” to reduce the £5600 cost (ha!) to £2500. Then came the usual palaver of “calling his manager” to ask if there was an extra special deal. Lo and behold! there was. Mild pressure was applied; a curt “that’s the lowest price, if you sign up today. Take it or leave it”. I told them I’d leave it as I hate people pressuring me and insulting my intelligence. Other the next two weeks I received several phone calls, from different people, offering me wildly different prices until I told them to stop calling me.

I told Jim, the Anglian Windows salesman, not to waste my time and simply to give me his best price. He was direct, but was clearly anxious to sign me up there and then with the implication that there was a further discount. (I said no, as I wanted to discuss the various different designs with my wife at our leisure). He also didn’t seem to know about his products; the Anglian brochures boasted of a certain British Standards that their windows meet; my insurance requires a different Standard and he couldn’t tell me if Anglian’s windows meet More>Than’s minimum security standard.

His price was good, so I invited him back to take a deposit, provided that he could answer the British Standards question. He didn’t come prepared with an answer, and was visibly annoyed at my asking the question. I signed the contract and gave him a cheque on condition that her find out (this was written into the contract) and I emailed him several times subsequently but he never satisfactorily answered my question. Eventually I gave up and the surveyor gave me the answer on headed notepaper as Jim had promised (but failed) to do.

Jim also promised me that my burglar alarm contacts would fit on the new doors, and that I would have a trickle vent to prevent condensation forming. This was written into the contract. When they were eventually installed today, the trickle vent was missing on a door, and the burglar alarm contacts wouldn’t fit. I can only assume that the factory misread the words “trickle vents to be fitted above doors” as “trickle vents to be fitted above only one door”, and Jim’s error regarding my burglar alarm was nothing to do with his eagerness to get a sale.

After signing the contract and paying a 20% deposit in August, I waited and waited and eventually chased up Anglian myself for a survey date and a fitting date. The fitting date was postponed by Anglian at the last minute, three times. The first two times because of bad weather, the third time because of lack of fitters. When I complained on Twitter, they mysteriously found a fitter who came today. They’ve done a nice job, but have yet to return today to finish the job (to put trim around the back door, put in a spyhole and a knocker and install a trickle vent. The burglar alarm contacts I’ll have to sort out by myself). I was hoping to visit the doctors on Monday morning, but now I’ll have to wait a week.

I have another window that needs double-glazing, but simply don’t feel like going through this rigmarole again.

If there is an Apple-style “just works” double glazing firm that doesn’t entirely ignore customer satisfaction in its haste for profit, I hope it will clean up the market.

New Spam Call: Charlotte

I got a call last night over dinner from “Charlotte” at “PC support”. As usual, I like to record them keep them talking for as long as possible, to waste their time and in the hope that they’ll blacklist me. I got Charlotte so grumpy that she hung up on me after 5 minutes.

Listen to Spam Call: Charlotte gets grumpy

There are more spam calls, and Reverend Bruce’s replies to spam emails, over at my Spam Letters.

Live Coverage – WooFone Developers Conference 2012

I had tickets and meant to go to the Apple developer conference yesterday, but took the wrong train and ended up at the Acme wooFone Worldwide Developers Conference instead. As I was already here, I decided to stay and, for posterity, here are my tweets.

10:00 am: Music stops. Audience members begin moistening. Some consumer electronics are about to be shown!

10:02 am: Not-Steve looks sharp as hell, bluejeans and black button up shirt, sou-wester and novelty Hello Kitty aqualungs. Crikey, he’s good looking. I mean, phew. Oh wow! I’m sure he just looked at me!! Hi, Not-Steve!! I love you, Not-Steve!!!!

10:07 am: “Our goal has always been to do great work, and in doing so, make shitloads of money.”

10:15 am: Holy Crap! Acme vacuum cleaners: instruction manuals in 4 new languages, including Aramaic!

10:20 am: Ask-the-Acme AnswerTastic™ any question about root vegetables or Nicaraguan pogostick champions! 24/ FUCKING 7 !!!!!!!!

10:25 am: Ask-the-Acme AnswerTastic™ has 2 different voices – John Inman from Are You Being Served, or comedy Latvian! Awesome!

10:26 am: Lady next to me has full rectal prolapse due to excitement.

10:29 am: Also, Acme Nut-o-lump ScanFabulous™! Rest testicles on screen and it instantly detects any change in density, shape or volume!!!!

10:31 am: Acme Laydee-Bump ScanFabulous™ Companion model for ladies nestles between breasts and performs similar function.

10:38 am: All devices to be 10% smaller due to government of Somewhere Poor agreeing to reduce legal of age of the children mining raw materials. Crowd goes Wild!

10:42 am: Wow! The Acme Upload-a-Foto™ feature brings NATIVE #HTML5 UPLOAD STUFF OFF PHONE TO THE FUCKING CLOUD !!!!!!!!!!! A Miracle!!! Now, you can TAKE A PHOTO on your device AND UPLOAD IT TO A WEBSITE. Competitors must be trembling now!!!!!!!!

10:44 am: entire front row hyperventilate and are stretchered out.

11:00 am: Acme Hipsta-Helpa™ brings turn-by-turn navigation to guide hipsters to the nearest wanky bar for microbrewery beer and obscure music!

11:07 am: Man in front of me with elaborate facial hair and a skateboard spontaneously human combusts. It’s what he would have wanted.

11:10 am: Acme wooFone now with HDMI !!!!!! HDM – FUCKING – I !!!!!!! Which stands for “Handover Da Money, Idiot”. Cloud-based! always-on! Social! HDMI!!!!!

11:12 am: The exclamation mark key on my keyboard falls off.

11:15 am: Ushers issue umbrellas (with “I love Not-Steve” slogan) as there is a tsunami of body fluids squirting from the press gallery.

11:18 am: Two minutes hate start. Android phones ceremonially burned.

11:20 am Keynote ends. Without a doubt, the most important day in human history. He has gone, but His legacy is with us. Not a dry seat in the house.

Luckily for me, Macrumours live-blogged the Apple conference, which was, of course, completely different from the one I attended.

Where’s my bloody Xmas card?

Regular readers will be familiar with my unique blend of misanthropy and parsimony, and will no doubt blame that for the fact that no festive card from me has dropped through their letterbox, especially if you’ve sent me one (thank you for that).

But they’d be wrong. It just seems to me a little wasteful to transport bits of paper to faraway towns or distant countries (half of our family is overseas) just to send you pre-printed religiously-based greetings which then go in a landfill.

So I don’t send cards. Instead, I donate what I’d usually spend on paper and postage to a charidee where it does good instead of polluting the place.

So, your Xmas card this year is a small part of a donation to Medecins Sans Frontieres which is “an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, healthcare exclusion and natural or man-made disasters.”

If you really want a card, feel free to print out my limited edition Xmas mankini card (NSFW) and put it on your mantlepiece.

I hope that’s OK with you. And, even if it isn’t (you miserable sod), I hope you and those you care about enjoy your holidays and have a happy, healthy and peaceful 2012.

Full Frontal 2011 notes

Full Frontal is organised by my co-author, Remy Sharp and his wife Julie (who both juggled recent parenthood with conference running – respect!). I’ve been unable to attend in previous years due to being out of the country but was looking forward to this one, even though I was a little worried that the JavaScript content would be well over my head.

I needn’t have been too scared. The first talk was on CoffeeScript which seemed to me quite intriguing as it (seems to) encourage you to continue thinking of JS as JS (rather than turning it into Java or some such horror) but smooths away some of the syntactical gotchas that get on my moobs. (See Mike Davis’ write-up.) However, I’m a great believer in not cheating until you know the rules properly, so I’ll be delaying CoffeeScript until I’m more confident in my JS.

The second talk was Phil Hawksworth “Excessive Enhancement – Are we taking proper care of the Web?”, which wittily harangued developers to ensure there is proper semantics underneath the JS shizzle and CSS bling – a subject dear to my heart recently. (And he even quoted me, which is nice!)

I skipped talk #3 “Respectable code-editing in the browser” for some synergy-leveraging as I thought it would be too advanced for me. Only afterwards did I realise that the talk was by Marijn Haverbeke, the author of Eloquent JavaScript that I was greatly enjoying on the train coming down on the recommendation of Noo Yoik JS lovegod Mike Taylor.

The talk on Cloud9 IDE by Rik Arends was a bit of a product pitch, but interesting. I wonder if it works across all browsers?

“Scalable JavaScript Application Architecture” by Nicholas Zakas was the tech highlight for me. He discussed a method of structuring an application so that everything was controlled by a main control app with messages passed into it and back out, with everything else being a black box to everything else. This means the programmer must spend a lot of time at the start of the project, designing the sandbox, controller and APIs. This may not be revelatory to most JS coders (or it may be, I don’t know) but it reminded me of learning Jackson Structured Programming in the late 80s when a systems analyst at AT&T. I’d like to see Zakas do a follow-up talk on how to design the sandbox and controller.

Glenn Jones’ “Beyond the Page” talk discussed – and demoed – techniques and emerging standards/ idioms to make Web sites less separated from other apps. We saw Drag and Drop, Web Intents etc. Some evil hackery, too!

Brendan Dawes always scrubs up nice and today was no exception. Although he’s a quivering Flash-lovin’ aesthete (albeit with a Northern accent), he had the techy crowd warming to him and then in stitches with a stream-of-consciousness talk about creativity, new interfaces and expensive pencils.

Last on was Marcin Wichary from Google, who talked of Google Doodles. Who knews that they user-test them? It was a fascinating talk and the good news is that he’ll be blogging about them in the future.

FullFrontal was a super day. The after party had lavish quantities of free grog. The venue was quirky and fun, with free coffee all day. Each talk was handpicked – in fact, everything about the event was curated by Remy and Julie. I’ll be going next year (although not staying in the Travelodge, Preston Road, which was a dump, and nothing to do with the event).