Ubuntu

Every couple of days, the hard drive of the G4 I use in work starts 'clicking'. Well, more like 'ke-CHUNK'ing. If I'm lucky, my computer freezes for a few minutes and comes back to life. If I'm not, I spend the next half hour or so rebooting until it goes away.

Finally, I'm facing up to the fact that my hard disk is dying and until I can get a replacement, I'm without a Mac to work on. So I'm giving Ubuntu a whirl.

One of the biggest complains thrown around about 'free' software is that it's only free if your time is worthless. The hours wasted getting things configured just the way you like them do add up. It's very easy to spend an entire day tweaking your desktop instead of just acccepting what you have and getting on with your job.

The guys in Ubuntu seem to understand this - they've packed Debian (the smart choice of a Linux distribution) in such a way that they take all the pain out of the installation and day-to-day administration.

My personal experience is that Ubuntu has detected almost everything I've thrown at it - sound and video were auto-configured (and in a nice way too, any previous attempt at auto-configuring my video in the past has left me with a headache-inducing 60hz refresh rate and no obvious way to change it). Bluetooth setup was relatively painless (gnome-bluetooth and gnome-phone-manager took care of this). Today, it even auto-detected my USB keyring and auto-mounted it, putting a link to it on my desktop.

But there are also some things I dislike about Ubuntu. For example, the default behaviour for nautilus (the file manager) is a variation on the new 'spatial' nautilus. When you go into a child directory, nautilus closes the parent window automatically. I love spatial nautilus, but hate this behaviour. After a little bit of playing around, I found that it could be changed with the following:

gconftool-2 --type bool --set /apps/nautilus/preferences/no_ubuntu-spatial true

Matthew Thomas recently provided a fantastic round-up of other outstanding issues with Ubuntu.

Other nice things:

  • evolution has some really nice new features aimed at increasing productivity, including an ability to create a task from a message with one click
  • liferea has a 'condensed view' option for feeds, a feature I'd previously praised in Pheeder. Even better, this is feed-configurable, so you can set only certain feeds to use the 'condensed view'. Liferea is still my favourite RSS reader on any platform.
  • beagle is amazing - I know that something similar is going to be available in Tiger, but... wow.

But I still miss Quicksilver. Gnome Launch Box just doesn't cut it.

Cooking

A couple of weeks ago, on the recommendation of a couple of food blogs (101 cookbooks being the big one), I picked up a copy of Nigel Slater's 'Appetite'.

I think I'm in love.

I already own a few cookbooks. Standard fare like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Then things like "1000 Quick and Easy Recipes". And "Good Mood Food". And they have all, without exception, bored me rigid.

You see, I'm not much for following instructions. I was brought up by people who were quite happy to boil/roast the shit out of every meal. This taught me that not everyone's palette was the same. And from this, it taught me that slavishly following recipes is no way to create a meal. Especially when you're just cooking for yourself - how do I know my tastes are going to be the same as Jamie's? (For the record, they're not. His recipe for Chicken Maryland made me quite ill).

In comes Nigel Slater.

His book explains everything I knew instictively about cooking but had never heard from someone who actually knew how to cook: recipes are not gospel and should be used only as a guide. He reminds us that recipes were originally used by chefs to keep track of where the housekeeping money was spent. And as he so correctly points out, being told to "put it in the oven for 35 minutes" will not give the same result for everyone, since everyone's setup is different, everyone's meal is different. Everyone's palette is different.

Another thing I love about Nigel Slater's book is the straightforward way he presents his food. There is no trace of snobbery in his writing. In fact, he writes as elegantly about the delights of a Big Mac as he does of any of his other recipes. Lines like "there is nothing wrong with using a stock cube, not all stock has to be home-made" have led my girlfriend to refer to the book as "vidication" for all the frilly 'domestic goddess' nonsense being thrown about by other food writers that make us normal people who can't spend all day reducing stock feel slightly boorish for turning to Knorr for some help.

Also unusual about Nigel Slater's book is the way the writing lends itself to casual reading. Unlike the other cookbooks in my collection which have a brief introduction and go straight to the recipies, Slater's book has a conversational tone, and almost half the book is given over to best practices - how to best cook a steak, how to best store food, and how to best enjoy your food. This leads to 'Appetite' being the kind of book you can pick up and read at any time, not just when you're looking for ideas for something to cook.

I also can't argue with anyone who extols the beauty of a simple sausage and mash done well.

And with that, my first attempt at a homemade ragu.

A Simple Ragu*

*"Simple" in this case meaning "made with things we had lying around in our kitchen".

If you're like me, you probably buy a load of ingredients with good intentions and never get around to using them before they go off. The three main culprits for me are tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. So last night, I decided to do something about this. I decided to make my own ragu.

For this, you will need

  • Plenty of tomatoes (12 or so small ones)
  • A large onion (or a couple of small ones)
  • Balsamic Vinegar
  • Garlic
  • Basil
  • Dijon Mustard
  • Dried Chillis

Get a few cloves of garlic (I'm fond of garlic and used 3 large cloves, which didn't overpower the flavour of the rest of the ingredients), and slice them very thin. As thin as you can.

Then cut the onion, as thin as you can. If you're no good at cutting onions, or want to improve your onion-cutting skills, you could do a whole lot worse than checking out Peter Hertzmann's article on "How to cut...".

Finally, cut the tomatoes into small chunks about the size of a jellybean. Keep every part of the tomato, don't try getting all fancy and de-seeding it. We'll need everything.

Warm a good, solid non-stick pan and in it, melt some butter with a little olive oil to keep the butter from burning. When it starts to warm up, throw in the garlic and fry until it starts to brown. Then add the tomatoes and onions.

You'll need to keep stirring the tomatoes until they start to get really mushy. This should take about 20 minutes. Then season well with plenty of salt and black pepper.

Right now, you have a very basic ragu. From here, it's up to your individual taste. Personally, I was in the mood for something with a little kick, so I put in a bit of balsamic vinegar, basil and a heap of dijon mustard. I also put in a good helping of red wine. To spice it up, I crushed some dried chillies and put them in too. Once you've added your last incredients, you should leave it for another 10 minutes or so before it gets really sticky.

This is perfect for putting over your favourite pasta. If you want to mix in some mince, you should put your ragu through a blender first, and cook it with the meat for about 20 minutes until the meat soaks up all of the flavour.

If you do decide to try this, comment and let me know how you got on. Although don't worry, I'm under no illusions as to how many people are going to try cooking something they found on a random website.

Wordpress spam

There's trouble a-brewing with Wordpress.

Right now, the Wordpress site is unavailable, and I'll bet cash money it has a lot to do the recent kerfluffle over the seedy business practices Wordpress has begun engaging in.

Since my blog is powered by Wordpress, I'm slightly disappointed in this. I chose Wordpress as much for the quality of their politics as the quality of their software. Even more disappointing is Wordpress' unconvincing response to the criticism.

I sincerely hope this gets sorted soon.

DSL Update

A couple of months ago, I posted that our DSL went kablooie. And now, a couple of months later, it's still down. Here's the story of what happened.

Early February - Get home to discover that although our DSL modem is connecting and giving solid green lights all the way, when we try to actually log into UTV, we get a "remote host not responding". Phoned UTV immediately, and they reckoned it was a modem problem, and that I should try out a few things and then report the modem as 'broken' to receive a replacement

next day - modem can't even connect any more. Permanent state of flashing green lights. Phone UTV support and they tell me that it's something more than that. I should ring back in a couple of days.

A couple of days later - I phone back and they say they're going to get Eircom to test our line. This should take 5-8 working days.

two weeks later, around the end of February - I phone UTV back, and they say that the line check revealed that Eircom had disconnected our DSL line. Why? I don't know. UTV support guy says that this sometimes happens by accident, and sometimes it's an accounts issue. Our account was fine, so it wasn't that. Advises me that I should ring Eircom to find out why we were disconnected.

Next day - Phone Eircom to find out why we were disconnected. Person on the other end was most unhelpful and wouldn't tell me why. I asked if I could speak to someone else to find out why. They assure me that noone would be able to tell me why I was disconnected.

So I phone UTV and tell them that Eircom won't tell me why. They say they won't arrange a reconnection until they know why we were disconnected, so that they can be sure it won't happen again. I explain that Eircom won't tell me why. UTV's response (paraphrasing here): "Not my problem."

A couple of days later - Phone UTV again. No movement. Told that even if UTV were to reconnect me, it would take fully 10-14 working days to reconnect me.

A week later - I flip out at the lack of help from either side and email sales@u.tv to ask them to sort this mess out (if you're wondering why I emailed sales@u.tv - I was informed that the UTV accounts department is the exact same as the support department. Since they were spectacularly unhelpful, I thought sales might be more interested).

5 days later - No response at all, so I have a minor panic attack and tell UTV that their lack of cooperation or understanding on this matter was completely unacceptable and that they should cancel my account immediately. I get a reply within the hour telling me my account was disconnected.

yesterday - Since Smart aren't going to be launching their broadband in my area until early may, I've signed up for Esat's three-month broadband trial. This is initially 1MB, but will be increased to 2MB come April 4th (with no increase in the cap - but we're only going to be using this for a month or so). I botched my application and decided to try again some other time.

today - Got a phone call from Esat saying they saw that I'd been trying to apply for their broadband, and if I'd like to go through the application over the phone with them. After all the fucking around with UTV, I was genuinely taken aback by the friendly, helpful service from Esat.

Hopefully, we should have broadband in the next 8-10 working days.