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Wednesday 26 March 2008

In search of the perfect espresso machine [Lurks]

Following on from the blog about the free Nescafe Dolche Gusto machine I scored as part of this Bzz word-of-mouth marketing campaign thing (recap: It's not bad! Pretty good coffee but I'm not really mad about buying plastic one-use pods of an extremely limited range), my mind was made up - I need a proper full monty espresso machine. Then I got a nice phat bonus at work so what better time!

I do some cursory Internet research and, as is usual for this sort of thing, find pretty much bugger all. If it's not a sexy gadget there's fuck all on the Net. Eventually I settled on an Ascaso Dream. Looks pretty good there don't ya think? Helpfully available in a pile of colours too but it was way cheaper from Comet in red so I went for that. It seemed to be pretty well rated. Ticked the boxes I wanted ticking, uses real coffee AND pods. Has a removable water reservoir. Actually those are both the boxes...

The problem is never having owned one before I didn't really know what was what. I quickly discovered another box. Must be able to fit an actual proper fucking mug underneath it. Alright another box too, should be able to make entire long drink. Hot. These, I should note, are both things solved by the Krups-made Dolche Gusto machine admirably. As you may guess, the Ascaso was a failure on both counts. I found if I removed the little dribble thing from the coffee cup thing I could get one of my shorter mugs under it but it's still gash. And a long drink? It ends up barely luke warm.

Also, I 'tamped' down the coffee with a handy provided tool. Because the UK importers handily inserted a leaf saying you should do this to ensure a decent 9 and 12 bars of pressure through the coffee. Well, I did this, and the most I ever got was 7.5 bars. This is pretty shit tbh. Unsurprisingly the coffee it made was shit. Worse still, the thing showed up flecked with bits of paint and crap. The knob on the side is ridiculously cheap and rubbish. There's no way this machine is worth over three hundred pounds. I think the key problem here is that it's made in Italy. And as we all know, the Italians can't make anything right.So, it's time to call in the collective intellect of the clan (somewhat greater than that of a labrador and somewhat less than a ringneck parakeet) to find the perfect espresso machine. To recap let's just list the vital features.
  • Removable water reservoir (because pouring jugs of water in when it's tucked away is not on).
  • Ability to use pods and proper coffee - ideally two cup handle things provided.
  • Proficiency at making long drinks: A hot full-sized mug is the order of the day.
  • Decent fucking build quality (perhaps Mazda make one?).
  • Secondary: Relatively quick prime time, less than jackhammer sounding compressor, funky looking chrome shit with temp and pressure gauges.

Promising brands probably include Francis Francis, Gaggia and, er, Krups?

Update 04-April-08: after the failed attempt with the Ascaso machine, I shopped around for a bit and eventually found a full deal with a Gagga Baby D Class, uber measuring grinder type thing and a base for the whole thing to sit on complete with knock-out draw. All for less money than the Ascaso!

And beyond, a suitably produced Americano!

Very happy with this. Strangely it turns up with limescale in the machine (eh?!) and bits of foam/insulation tape coming out between the chassis at the back (Italian craftsmanship sigh) but it's waaaay better than the Ascaso. They sent me the Baby Class thing instead of the Classic I asked for, but there's nothing in it really. At least I can fit a mug under it. Even knocks up a wicked brew with a pod, not that I'll be using it for that because it's so easy to use ground with this measuring grinder gadget.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

How do you go about writing a book/screenplay? [Brit]

For the last few years, I've found myself constantly coming back to a semi fictional story idea I had some ten or so years ago, and whilst I've never done anything about it, in the last few months it has resurfaced repeatedly to the point that I'm exploring the idea of Doing Something About It(TM).

I have, mentally and across various notes, an overarching plot, and three fairly well established characters (the principal 'cast' if you like will be double if not triple that, so I've got some way to go); and the idea lends itself as well to a book as it does a screen.

My stumbling point - aside from the usual, time - is now that I don't know how to proceed. I've been looking around and there seems to be a long list of things to do and things to avoid, from early doors writing classes to ways in which to plot the thing out visually, to tools that help you actually structure and flesh out an idea.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this? I'm not a writer by trade (another obstacle I must overcome if this is to be a goer) but I am very used to turning rambling streams of often apparently unconnected conciousness into concisely edited biz docs & presentations...

I know Lurks has dabbled in the writing game before, but more generally, does anyone have any thoughts on where to kick off in a slightly more formal way?

Hats off to the working classes [Shedir]

In the pub I'm often called "pete the typist" in a derisory fashion by my mates who are generally hands on grafters. So on Saturday I had waited long enough on my mates joiner buddy sorting my skirting boards out, so did it myself.

5 and a half hours later my legs were killing me. A nice hot bath with a beer and some tunes helped, but its only today *Tuesday* my legs feel like they're my own again.

It wasn't difficult to do, panel pins and no more nails, just damn hard work. Which from my ergonomic chair with anti RSI keyboard is something I'm not used too :)

Romantic notions of leaving IT behind and taking up a traditional trade are now well and truly shelved.

MP3 player with FLAC support [Am]

Shortly I shall be off on Hols and would like to take an mp3 player with me for lounging around with condusive tunes. However I have been ripping an awful lot of stuff to FLAC and I'm not sure that I really want to go through all the arse of converting it to MP3 and having stuff on my hard-disk in dual format. On the other hand, I haven't really looked into how onerous that conversion would be.

So the question is; if you were in my position with about 60 albums on FLAC, is there a decent mp3 player which isn't the size of a house-brick and has sufficient capacity (surely less of a problem now?) to play those natively without mucking about with hacks which are incompatible with the legal brain. Or would you go through the convert process and if so is there a program that will do this on a nice batch basis you would recommend?

Thursday 20 March 2008

Have TFT panels got worse? [Beej]

The price of 20" panels is good right now, you can pickup the Samsung 2032 monitor for about £170, or the 22 for not much more. A friend has been trying to buy a 100% working monitor and three times in a row he has ended up with dead pixels.

The first monitor came from Amazon. It had a single stuck-blue pixel in the middle of the screen. He returned it and in parallel bought a second.

The second monitor came from eBuyer. It had a single fairly prominent stuck-red pixel, and as it didn't have the usual sticker you get on the screen itself it appeared to have already been returned to eBuyer before and they were recirculating it. He still wasn't happy with his double luck so he returned this one for a refund.

The third monitor came from Amazon again. This one had two dead pixels. Now he just wants to give up.

So is this a panel quality issue, or are the sellers to blame for recirculating panels that they know have less than 5 dead pixels on? Or, are his expectations too high, and he should put up and shut up? To be fair he's a fairly serious gamer so he's just trying to get the right gear like any of us would.

Are panels getting cheaper but worse? Would you return a monitor with a single colour-frozen pixel?

Hungry ATMs [Shedir]

I go to left a tenspot out the RBS ATM at work, no big deal. Except it hadn't been fed in a while, while it licks its cash dispensing lips I whistle on carefree and full of the joys.


"What the fuck, it's REBOOTING" Yes a P3 with 256mb of ram ate my card, while it digested it and came back to the usual interface I waited calmly. Then it asked for a card again, sated for now.

I call the RBS and get put on hold, call my bank (the clydesdale) and there is where the frustration sets in.

"Hi, ATM swallowed my card".

"OK sir, we need to re-register you for telephone banking"

"Sorry? I'm not calling for that, I need my bank card"

"please stop interrupting sir" - At this point rage meter raises a notch "Im trying to get you another card as yours has been destroyed"

click, another notch

"Why has it been destroyed, its in the ATM in front of me. I can just collect from my home branch surely?" - I had my card swallowed 7 years ago, 2 days after 1st kid born...just lucky I guess.

"No sir, any card taken by an ATM is shredded. Now you're reregistered for telephone banking it'll be 3-5 days before your card is set. Then 3-5 days after that before a new PIN has been issued".

It's a bank holiday weekend eh. So those days will be WORKING days, I'll be without access to my cash for probably better part of two and half weeks (just before I go on hols). MARVELOUS. Because the banking system ATM ate my card.

What a bloody stupid system, I'm left with the feeling the drone I spoke to has screwed this up and my card probably will go to the home branch. But you're powerless against these fuckers, as well my account is a joint one with missus. Or I'd have been left potless until they deign to give me access to my cash again, mental.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

eBuyer's eMediocre eService [Beej]

Over the years we've all used eBuyer and we've all had enough experience with them to know that they're pretty mediocre on the customer service front. Things randomly don't turn up or randomly aren't in stock - we know this and that's why all of us here tend to make our serious orders from somewhere transparent and reliable - like Dabs or Komplett or Amazon.
ebuyer logo
So eBuyer have expanded greatly of late. They have a banal glossy catalogue and sell bench presses and now proudly do eNotes in a 6pt font. Unfortunately, even with a spangly eNote system, their customer service is still crap.

I recently ordered another drive, another Seagate Barracuda in fact. The price was excellent, really can;t complain about it, and I was happy to play the eBuyer delivery lottery as there's no rush (I chose 5-day free delivery, and they sent it same day... last time I bought from them I paid extra for 2-day delivery, and it took 6-days to arrive... classic ebuyer).

When I noticed eBuyer have my name wrong, I wrote them an eNote. How spiffy, a customer service message portal. This will be easy, thinks I! Now they funnel you through FAQs of course before you're permitted to write an eNote, and natch there isn't a FAQ for having the wrong name on your account.

What do eBuyer say when I write my eNote? No they can't change my name. You see, they understand that my first name isn't "mister", yes thank you for your eNote, but no sir, we can't fix that.

Muppets. Same old eBuyer muppets.

Monday 17 March 2008

Nescafe Dolche Gusto [Lurks]

You remember these' Bzzagent guys I told you about before? Marketing outfit aimed at word of mouth. Well anyway I signed up and didn't really see anything I wanted to do that took my fancy, and they never sent any invites to anything either. It seemd a bit of a faff for not much reward.Then out of the blue last week they invited me to the Nescafe Colche Gusto campaign, this is one of those coffee machine things based on a pod. It's not something I'd ordinarily do. I want a real espresso machine and I kind of don't approve of having just a single range of stuff you can use in it, meaning you have to buy your coffee from Nescafe. And there's the environmental concern of disposable plastic pods for every cup.But fuck, they only went and sent me one for free didn't they. In a big box, 90 quid worth of kit and a box of pods. So it's rude NOT to try it out eh? What have I got to lose.So I did and... it's pretty good if I'm honest. It really is piss easy though. I like it because it's actually got a sort of cute looking water pod thing that fits on the back so you can fill it up from the tap and just slap it on the back. Putting in one of the pods is absolute piss, twist to the side and out comes coffee... there's nothing to clean at all. The lack of even having to fill a kettle or wait around means it's a question of slapping in the pod and getting a cup from the cupboard and it's good to go. The machine is made by Krupps, who know about this stuff, and it's very practical, good looking and pretty good quality. It's not all metal like some ninja espresso machine, but it's pretty good. Seems you can get them for about 80 quid in the shops.The coffee? First the Dolche Lungo pod, mild coffee. It wasn't what I expected. It's not got the powerful bitter hit of fresh coffee as I expected - it's more like a ... sort of smoother vastly more mild affair not unlike instant, but with aroma and the foam etc. I'm not sure if I'm describing that well, but it's pretty good. Not the sort of coffee (too mild) I'd regularly choose. Instead I went for the espresso and filled a whole cup, making a kind of 'americano' and sure enough that had more of the bitter hit. Very good. Not fantastic by any means, but very good.I thought I'd use up the free supply and chuck it on ebay. Might still do that. But I did come to realise it kind of has a place. Basically it's as piss to operate as making a cup of instant, it really is. And that's what I mostly make now because I tend to jump up from work (or before playing a game for that matter) when I realise something is going to take a little while, make a really fast coffee and come back. If I have longer than 15 seconds, I make a cup of green tea. And I'd like to be able to make late night hot chocolates too - which is a bit of a much around normally, any which way it swings.
And it does this stuff really. It manages to kind of deliver a near espresso machine experience just as quickly as instant coffee. There's no doubt in my mind that pods are a bit of an environmental drawback though, as is the lack of range. But then I vastly prefer Nescafe instant (Cap Columbie) over anything else anyway so it might not be a killer. On the other hand it basically only heats the water you use, which is a bit of a win over a kettle. I shudder when I see the 3 kilowatts of power drawn by our kettle... one just has to remember to switch the machine off after making the first morning coffees etc otherwise it keeps a little reservoir of water hot inside which isn't great either.

The Bzz campaign thing said they'd send me another box of pods if I regged on the Dolce Gusto site. This was all a bit weird, at first I thought the 200 points they gave me was what I had to use to buy a box of pods but fortunately it isn't, they just send a voucher for them which presumably you claim from a supermarket? I say fortunately because they wanted to charge £2.95 for postage. Given a box of pods is £2.83 from Tesco it's clearly not worth bothering with unless you had a couple of boxes to claim for free.

Converted? Not exactly. I'd still like an espresso machine and I'm a bit iffy about the whole two pod process to make a cuppercino (works out at about 35p a cup then), which probably has God only knows What in the milk pod. I wouldn't know because bizarrely they only sent me the cuppercino pods and not the milk pods. Why wouldn't you use an espresso pod and a milk pod? Marketing bollocks I assume.

However I've been pretty impressed by how it all works and right now it's giving me a much better cup of coffee in the same time it takes to make an instant so it's kind of hard to completely write it off. If it makes a decent hot chocolate too it might just earn a place in the kitchen.

It's definately made me a bit less negative about pod coffee machines and I can definately see how they're a complete win for some people. Course what it really needs is people like Dowe Egberts making coffee for it and some sort of bamboo decomposable paper pods. Moon on a stick eh? :)

Friday 14 March 2008

Delia Smith Cheats at Cooking? [Lurks]

Delia Smith, the original British celebrity cook, has released a book called How to Cheat at Cooking. There's also something on TV, I don't know where. I turned it on and saw it. To my horror Delia was constructing some dish out of frozen mashed potato.

So, I'm sort of fond of Delia just because I find her likeable, shallow I know. However as a food educator I was never very impressed. We've got a couple of old Delia food bibles on the shelf and we've tried to cook from it. In Delia's time anyone who did this sort of thing was as snooty as you could get. It'd be rammed with ingredients you couldn't even buy in any supermarket and of all other concerns such as cooking technique, and health considerations... there were none. To Delia an undercooked vegetable or daring to skim off fat, it was all a strict no-no. That's not to say she was useless, you have to remember how bad British food was and the fact that NO ONE could cook. She taught people to boil eggs who didn't know how.

My god how things have moved on though! Celebrity chefs are here in spades and largely they all do something of incalculable value. They show ordinary people how to make good healthy food from ingredients you can actually buy. I think this has turned the UK around. The best bit of television I watched this year was Masterchef. I'm not sure we're as a nation yet obsessed with food, we still don't take our time over lunch and dinner as the French, but at least we now understand real food and largely we're all cooking for ourselves.

So what to make of Delia's latest? I'm gobsmacked really. Her argument is basically that we shouldn't be snobbish about food (am I the only one that finds that pretty damn ironic?) and that she's doing a service for people who can't or wont cook, who don't have time, or the money, etc. People who would otherwise eather eat takeaway or ready meals. That's a pretty laudible goal but I am a little perplexed that Delia of all people feels qualified to tackle it.

Further to that, what is she actually showing off? Well, essentially she's proposing that one puts together actual proper meals out of things ostensibly sold in packets, tins and jars so there's pretty much zero actual raw ingredient preparation. Among her ingredients include pre-packed crispy bacon, frozen mashed potato and frozen char grilled aubergines, tinned lambs mince and... much more. The hilarious thing is that many of the ingredients she's chosen can't be easily found so at least she's retaining an air of consistency in her career.

What, though, is the point of it all? The Guardian got together a panel of people to look at the food. The conclusion is that in several of the cases it takes longer to make the dish this way than the 'proper' way. The ingredients were nowhere to be found and even if you could buy them they'd be more expensive than the normal ingredients.

The worst thing of all, quite clearly, is that by using pre-processed food such as this you are not only compromising to ridiculous degree in the taste department but you're also using ingredients with severely unhealthy levels of fat, salt, and god knows what else. For what possible upside? Longer to prepare, more expensive, loads more environmentally unsound packaging. The only possible upside I can think is to sell her book!

Why the hell do we even need this nonsense? The shelves are rammed with relatively tasty ready meals if you really can't be arsed to do anything, and if you can be bothered to do slightly more supermarkets have countless solutions such as sauces in jars. Brown a bit mince, boil up some pasta, chuck a jar of sauce in there. And there's so much more exotic than that, grab some frozen prawns, tin of stir-fry vegetables and a green curry sauce package. There's loads of this stuff, we keep some of it when we haven't the time to cook properly.

Lest we forget what supermarkets have: There's on-shelf packets of pre-prepared salads, sealed packets of stir fry vegetables with a helpful soy sauce sachel. There's fresh filled ravioli and tortellini complete with large variety of chilled pasta sauces. There's even high quality pizzas and shelves full of sliced exotic meats for additional topings. There's kippers in packets, countless lovely read-to-eat stuff from the Deli including a fresh 'curry kit' from Waitrose and Sainsburys. There's those cracking Old El Paso boxes to make mexican food with just an onion and a packet of mince.

Since this is in the UK there's every different curry sauce known to man in a jar with every type of angle on it from severely anglesized through to real imported Indian concentrates. There's jars of chopped finicky ingredients like garlic and chilli. There's tins of tuna and red kidney beans, mix beans, corn, tubes of handy tomato puree - allowing for a fantastic spicy tuna pasta type dish in 3 goddamn minutes... the list goes on and on and on.

So what's Delia's real argument here? She's actually ignored ALL of the sensible real solutions on the shelves on the supermarket and deliberately gone for the entirely suspect ingredients as if to prove a point, sow some controversy, possibly, and to sell some books, definately.

Well she can fuck right off. This book isn't a help. The food is shit, expensive, hard to make and bad for you. Shame on you Delia. Anyone that wants to make a meal should go pick up handy recipe sheets from their supermarket, or just browse the shelves or, far better yet, buy a book from an actual modern relevant celebrity chef or watch one of their television programs.

It's time to let sleeping dogs lie.

Saturday 1 March 2008

The last screensaver [Slim]

Finally, I've found the last screensaver I'll ever need! It's called Slickr and it simply hooks into flickr and pulls hi rez picks down from either your folder, your mates, or even better by 'interestingness'. It rules, it's small, fast, no nag screens and dissapears when you wiggle your mouse.

Another option I tried and quite liked is the google picassa screensaver in the google pack. This is ace because it's nice and open, so it'll work with any RSS and your picassa account, which I use over flickr and doesn't require a key like slickr does, but it wont piss off on a mouse wiggle, so is a bit flawed.