Thursday, September 30, 2004


Visa interview day. And it turns out it's a cakewalk: all the work is in the preparation, they interview itself is largely a rubber-stamping exercise.

So what's it like?

7:50: We arrive outside the US Embassy. The Embassy is a hideous 1960s building. And it's put a blight on Grosvenor Square: one entire side of the square is blocked to traffic by concrete-slab barriers. The Embassy itself is surrounded by two separate security fences and rows of concrete bollards. It's like a prison camp in the heart of London.

There's already a queue. We've been told that as immigrant visa applicants we can skip the queue by presenting ourselves to the guard at the door; but for now, there's no guard and not really a door, just a gate in the outer fence leading to a security checkpoint. We join the queue; I squint at other people's paperwork and notice that the woman in front of us also has an immigrant-visa letter.

There are signs of life behind the gate. The queue starts to press forward in anticipation.

I clutch my bagful of documents. It strikes me that I'm walking around with the perfect identity-theft kit: passport, birth and marriage certificates, biographic information, and documentation on all our finances.

8:00: The gates open. An Embassy staffer walks the line calling out for any green card applicants. Me and the woman in front wave back; and yes, we do get to jump the queue leaving all the non-immigrant applicants behind.

We are checked and screened; and we're now through the outer fence. The entrance to the Visa Unit is on the other side of the building. We walk there between the inner and outer fences; it's a little like walking in no-mans-land. It's not US soil yet, but it doesn't feel completely British either.

Into the Visa Unit, which feels like an airport terminal; information boards direct applicants to interview windows. You take a number when you arrive; I am immigrant visa applicant 004. The non-immigrant applicants get numbers from 100 upwards. I buy a courier envelope for £10 cash; the Embassy uses the envelope to return the passport and visa the day after the interview.

Applicants start getting called to windows immediately. It turns out there are only 3 windows dealing with immigrant visas, so I have to wait. Non-immigrant visa applicants get called in a steady stream; they're soon up to number 130. I try reading my book, but the frequent announcements make it hard to concentrate: my ears prick on each new announcement in case it's for me.

8:20: 004 is called. We hustle up to the window. I'm asked for my appointment letter, number, and passport; the interviewer fetches my file. He asks for original and copy of each required document in turn. Embarrassingly, the noise of the room makes it hard to hear him clearly and I have to keep asking him to repeat himself.

We have at least half-an-inch's thickness of documents accompanying the affidavit of support — Melinda's statement of income and assets which demonstrates that I won't be a burden on the state. As it turns out, though, he's only really interested in Melinda's tax returns and in the documents relating to the flat: our largest asset.

He's filling out a checklist as he goes. After collecting all our documents, he hands me a chit to take to the cashier's window and tells me to pay there and wait to be called again. We do so; another $335.

9:05: 004 is called again. A different window, this time around the side away from the hubbub of the main room. And a different interviewer. She's nice, but brisk. I am fingerscanned: an inkless fingerprint of both index fingers. I get the originals of my documents back. I'm asked to confirm that everything on my forms is true. I'm asked a couple of almost conversational questions. I sign my form. Melinda signs the affidavit of support. And that — surprisingly — is that.

The interviewer hands me a sheet of paper. It is headed "I'm approved — what happens now?", describes what happens now and when I travel, and ends "Congratulations, and welcome to the U.S.!"

9:15: We leave the Embassy. I still have the medical to go to — and that's another story — but if that's OK I am in.

I have been wary of the Embassy and terrified of the interview for months. The process has been slow-moving and bureaucratic. We've had to organise, photocopy, and bring reams of documents most of which have been ignored. But on the day itself, the process has been quick, painless, and has moved like clockwork.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

KitKatFest 2K4

Nestlé seem unable to stop playing with KitKat variations at the moment. So in the interests of science gluttony we've been trying a few out.

Firstly, the two Chunky special editions; going for the sophisticated crowd here, with a darker chocolate and an upmarket price tag:

KitKat Chunky Seville Orange: nasty. A cross between a Jaffa Cake and a KitKat chunky: contains orangey goop. But as it's Seville orange, the orange goop is bitter and marmaladey. A bad combination, and not a repeat buy.

KitKat Chunky Rich Golden Caramel: better, but way, way too sweet. The caramel is very gooey and exceptionally sugary. As a chocolate bar, it's much too rich. I only got one bite of this one as I had to eat all the orangey one; I might try it again.

Secondly, the KitKat classic variations. Both white chocolate, and the packaging makes these appear more healthy — it's light, it's yoghurty, it must be good for you! — but as with all white chocolate this is an illusion hiding lots more sugar:

KitKat Luscious Lime: So-so. A good try, but not a wholly successful combination; there's a reason why lime doesn't often appear in chocolate products. Not good enough to make a repeat buy, especially when compared to...

KitKat White Lemon & Yoghurt: A winner. The lemon and yoghurt work well together and with the white chocolate. This manages to be at the same time very much like a KitKat (the biscuit filling) but very different (the chocolate coating). A keeper: I hope this one's around for a while.

The limey ones are new, as are the Chunky editions. The lemony ones used to be scarce around here — limited stocks in Superdrug stores. But today, Woolworths had decent stocks of all four. And a 4-for-a-quid offer on the classic versions: too good to resist.

Oddly, Nestlé seem to have very little web presence behind the brand; their KitKat website is an insubstantial bit of Flash puffery which gives little but a potted history and which makes no mention of anything outside the standard KitKat and KitKat Chunky products.

However, Snackspot hints at further intriguing variations out now and yet to come. Is there no end to this experimentation?

Categories: Food

Deslammed, not destressed

Week of training: done. And I'm sure that while it was hard work for me to present in a structured, coherent way for five days, it was much harder work for the delegates: they had to absorb 5+ years of information and experience in 5 days and in a foreign language.

As predicted, I ran out of slides at about day 1.5 and from there it was a lot of standing, talking, drawing diagrams, and pulling up code and documents on the projector.

I also had a bit of help from colleages on Thursday and Friday; it's really nice to be able to sit back and let someone else do the talking for a while. Particularly when they do a great job of it: it's a joy to watch someone doing a confident, rigorous, and enthusiastic presentation. (Yes Karl, I mean you.)

Still stressed, though: the flat sale was due to exchange on Tuesday but didn't. Last minute complications. We're still on, but still waiting for "any day now".

Visa interview next Thursday: so a final check over all the documents this weekend, and we'll be ready to go.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Ketchup Conundrum

Clipped from Accordion Guy earlier in the week, but I've only now found time to read it: Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece on The Ketchup Conundrum.

I find food technology strangely — and sometimes repellingly — fascinating: it takes something as intensely personal as "that tastes good to me" and attempts to apply the full rigour of science, statistics, and mechanics to make food more attractive to more consumers.

I'm rather warmed, then, by Howard Moscowitz's theory of plural perfection. As the article describes it, for many foods there is no one "best" recipe that everyone will favour. Rather, preferences tend to form clumps, so there are multiple best recipes: hence, food manufacturers are often better off specialising to cover all the favourites than they are generalising to an average preference. Moscowitz, quoted in the article:

"If you create only one product the best you can get across all the segments is a 60—if you're lucky. That's if you were to treat everybody as one big happy family. But if I do the sensory segmentation, I can get 70, 71, 72. Is that big? Ahhh. It's a very big difference. In coffee, a 71 is something you'll die for."

Good old Moscowitz: his science has given us choice rather than uniformity.

On the other hand, though, I'm less pleased to hear about how unassailable "high-amplitude" foods can be. A high-amplitude food is one which hits all five tastes (salt, sweet, sour, bitter, umami) in equal and well-blended proportions. Coke and Pepsi are high-amplitude; supermarket knock-offs aren't. High-amplitude foods are percieved as "complete" and "sensorily satisfying".

Linking back to his title, Gladwell describes how Heinz ketchup's high-amplitude formulation — high in umami-rich tomatoes, sweetened with sugar and soured with vinegar — helps it fight off less balanced rivals. He concludes that maybe ketchup is an exception to Moscowitz's theories.

I'm more worried: does this mean that, over time, the diversity that Moscowitz created will gradually contract back to a handful of carefully-formulated big-hitting high-amplitude brands? Won't all manufacturers strive to be fully balanced; sensorily satisfying maybe, but ultimately all uniformly dull?

Balance is safe, but often imbalance is much more interesting: the super-sweet sharpness of a ripe strawberry, the vinegary meatiness of a pork adobo. The food technologist quoted in the article sneers at so-called "pik! pik! pik! spikiness". But isn't it exactly that spikiness that makes food fun?

Categories: Food

Saturday, September 18, 2004

It's here!

Immigrant visa interview: 30th September.

Friday, September 17, 2004


Mouth ulcers are "more common during times of stress", says NHS Direct.

No ****ing kidding: I've got five of the buggers right now. Bonjela time.


Crunch time at work: I have to deliver 5 days of training next week to our French colleagues. I've had 5 days to prepare.

It's going to be a little ragged around the edges I think. I've inherited a lot of out-of-date slides which I've been able to bring up-to-date and flesh out, but there's still going to be a lot of chalk-and-talk, handwaving, and "why don't we just look at the code" by the end of the week.

To some extent I prefer busking it over having a formal presentation. It's more engaging to actually talk to your audience. It's easy to fall into lazy PowerPoint traps: reading out the slides, or sticking rigidly to the rails that the slides set out for you.

But to busk it successfully, you need two things: a strong and intimate knowledge of the subject material, and some structure (even if it's just in your head) to apply to the subject material so that it tells a cohesive story.

I have more material to cover, in more breadth and depth, than I have background knowledge. I shall be flying without wires in some of the sessions. Wish me luck.

Monday, September 13, 2004

On richer shadows

Corante's Got Game weblog returns from hiatus with an interesting post: why are shadows in games so flat?

And he's right: pitch blackness in games is often more frustrating than it is exciting.


I had MMR and diphtheria/tetanus jabs recently. Part of the US Embassy medical is a check of your vaccination history. Although the Embassy doctor can do the jabs there and then, I decided to have them done at my local GP surgery. They're the ones who have my records, and they charge a lot less for it.

And blimey: there's really nothing to it, is there? I remember vaccinations at school were always blow up to ridiculous proportions by us kids: needles the size of nails, pain, swelling, blisters, dead arms. By the time you got into the nurse's office, you'd convinced yourself it was going to be awful. No amount of reassurance was going to shake that belief.

As an adult, though, you realise that the needles are tiny. You barely even feel the prick, let alone hurt from it.

I still looked away when the nurse told me to, though. I think there are two sorts of people, those who will look at the needle going in and those who won't. I'd like to believe I'm in the first fearless group, but in practice I always turn out to be a squeamish coward.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Yesterday's charity-shop find

The Definitive Everly Brothers, £2.99 in the BHF shop. Cracking.

One reviewer comments: "It has one track, Ebony Eyes, that will really touch you." Well, maybe. If you like mawkish songs about plane crashes with spoken interludes, that is.

From the office window

The block of flats across the way is getting its windows cleaned.

It's five stories high.

The windowcleaner is cleaning the top-floor windows, from the pavement, using a bloody great long pole.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Should I rip this?

Via boingboing: Should I Rip This?

Cute, but mistitled. I've always understood "rip" to mean "copy CD to MP3". For most routes through this flowchart, the title should really be "should I steal this?"

And it seems way too complex to me. I mean really, how ethically ambigous is the question "do I own it"? As I see it, if I've bought it -- in any form -- it's mine and I'm ethically free to copy it to any other form for my own use. If not, it's not mine and I can't copy it. (Exceptions: where permission to copy is given; where the work is in public domain.)

Finally, I'm sick of the "rich megastars won't miss the income" and "expoitative record companies deserve it" posturing. Didn't we all learn "two wrongs don't make a right" as kids?

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Why is it that...

...when I arrive at work, there's usually a great song on the radio which gets cut off as I drive into the (basement) carpark?

Today's example: Aztec Camera, Somewhere In My Heart.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Big Dumb Movie Weekend

The Chronicles of Riddick: ho hum. A Big Dumb Movie which takes itself way too seriously.

A bit of a jarring shift from Pitch Black, which was an okay little self-contained low-budget sci-fi film; Riddick is an ambitious mega-budget epic with ambitions of starting a mythology. Very post-Lord of The Rings.

And let's face it, the man can't act. Look big and fight, yes. Act, no. 2/5.

Hellboy: love it. It's Big and Dumb but unashamed of it, and it never forgets that it's a Movie. Stylish, exciting, well-acted, and obviously made by a director who both knows his craft and is passionate about it.

It's enormously derivative of other movies, but does it with such panache that you don't really mind that much. References I spotted: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Men In Black, X-Men, Ghostbusters, Alien, Star Wars, The Mummy, Lord of the Rings.

Much better than Riddick. Better than Spiderman 2: Hellboy is gritty, grimy, and heart-felt; Spidey is glitzy CGI glimmer and ultimately vacuous.

Maybe the best comparison is with Van Helsing, which had similar monster-mash ambitions but which got it so spectacularly wrong. Van Helsing's borrowings from other movies feel cheap and lazy; its characters are cartoon charicatures and barely there amongst the reams of expensive (but dodgy) CGI; its action is non-stop but you never actually care much about the outcome.

Hellboy gets all this right and delivers a much, much better movie. (And for much less: Van Helsing cost $180M, Spiderman 2 $200M; Hellboy cost only $66M, but made it go a hella long way...)

Recommended. 4/5.

Categories: Movies

Friday, September 03, 2004

No bugger'll eat 'em

Gave blood. As ever, it's the biscuits that make it worthwhile.

I've never seen TUC Cheese Sandwiches anywhere outside a donation session: does Jacobs sell them to anyone except the National Blood Service? (I'd give you a link, but they barely seem to exist on the Web...)

And even so, I was the only one who disturbed the nearly-arranged pyramid of 'em. Everyone else was tucking into the bourbon creams, shortbreads, and jam rings.

"Lasts longer than any other type of milk, dog's milk."
"No bugger'll drink it."

-- Red Dwarf, Kryten

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Why would you get rid of that?

Serendipity: This morning, iTunes Party Shuffle threw up the Lightning Seeds' Lucky You. This lunchtime, I came across a copy of Jollification in the charity shop -- I like to trawl through their CDs every now and then for lucky finds.

Now really. That's a great album: full of bouncy summer pop, with a slightly bitter edge. Why on earth would you want to get rid of it?

(£2.99 in the British Heart Foundation shop on Staines High Street, if anyone wants it. They tend to overprice CDs, but it's still a steal at that price.)

Similarly, last time I was in Amoeba, they had about 10 copies of k.d. lang's Ingenue priced between $1 and $2. Another superb album: so why so many unwanted copies?

You can check out any time you like...

Damn. I'm in the mood, but there's no Eagles on my iTunes here at work; nor on any of the 5 shared libraries visible right now. (Although I do have 4 versions of Abba's Eagle; heh.) Must bring the Greatest Hits in from home tomorrow.

And why am I in an Eagles mood? Well, last time we went to the supermarket the radio came on after I started the car; I reflexively stabbed it off; all we heard was a quarter-second of guitar twang. "Put it back on," says Melinda, "that sounds like Hotel California."

And it was, too.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

What will you miss?

People keep asking me: what will you miss when you're in the US?

The classic British expat answers seem to be: chocolate Hob-Nobs, Quick-Brew tea, Heinz baked beans, and Marmite. Oh, and beer.

Well, one out of four: the Marmite's coming with me. And I'll miss British chocolate; US chocolate always seems wimpier, less chocolatey and more sugary, and somehow greasier to eat. KitKat Chunky in particular I'll miss; the US has a version (KitKat BigKat) but it's just not the same.

But looking back wistfully at things that used to be seems to me the wrong way of embracing the experience of living abroad. Like Brits who go to Spain but spend all their time seeking out the Daily Mirror, Tetley bitter, and egg-and-chips: why bother going if you're going to try to recreate Little Britain when you're there?

I'm actively looking forward to exploring all that American supermarkets have to offer. Especially as it's the Bay Area I'm going to. Californian fruit and veg. Mexican food -- 20 sorts of tortilla, rather than the 2 we get here. Microbrewery beer. Frozen pink lemonade concentrate!

Plus Trader Joes. And farmers' markets. And -- well, at $5 a pop, who needs Hob-Nobs anyway?

Blood donation

I make what's hopefully my last UK blood donation on Friday. Damn; now I won't ever get my gold badge.

Possibly my last ever, anywhere, given that the Americans won't take blood from anyone who's lived in England for 3 months or more.

Bah; another thing I'll miss. Perfectly good O neg baby-panel-safe blood going spare, and nowhere to give it to.

Adventures In Moving, eh?

Well, Blogger wanted a blog title, and this was the best I could do on the spur of the moment.

I'm emigrating from the UK to the USA, which should be adventurous, and probably will be soon; but right now, it's more adventures in waiting.

Current status:

Flat sale: Slowly, so slowly, moving towards exchange.

Visa: Ready for interview. Almost all the dull paperwork and preparation is done. But the US Embassy does not move fast. They call you for interview when they're ready for you; but until then, they won't tell you anything about when that might be. They'll quite happily take £1.30 a minute off you to tell you by phone that they can't tell you anything, though...

Job: A little bit fiddly: how do you give notice if you know you're leaving but don't really know when? I haven't formally given my 3 months notice, but I have had an informal chat with HR to start the process: "it's always negotiable".

So, at the moment we're in limbo: we can't do much planning on moving out of the flat as we don't know when completion date is; and we can't do much planning on moving to the US as we don't know when I'll get the visa. Melinda's itching to fly to the US to get things started there, but can't yet in case the sale of the flat falls through and we have to start all over again.

I feel very powerless, but at the same time quite nervous of the work that is to come when things do start to happen...

Also, I fear I've run out of things to procrastinate with: it's time to write my CV. Or resume, as I must now get used to calling it.


Reviews here

The Chronicles Of Riddick (September 2004, 2/5)
Hellboy (September 2004, 4/5)
Collateral (October 2004, 2½/5)
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (October 2004, 2½/5)
Shark Tale (November 2004, 2/5)
The Incredibles (November 2004, 3/5)
Ocean’s Twelve (January 2005, 1/5)
The Aviator (January 2005, 4/5)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (May 2005, 1½/5)
Kung Fu Hustle (May 2005, 3/5)
Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith (June 2005, 4/5)
Batman Begins (July 2005, 3½/5)
War of the Worlds (July 2005, 1½/5)
Me and You and Everyone We Know (July 2005, 4/5)
March of the Penguins (July 2005, 3/5)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (September 2005, 3/5)
The Aristocrats (September 2005, 1½/5)

Information elsewhere

IMDB (comprehensive movie database)
Roger Ebert (decent movie reviews & commentary)


Hikes here

Big Basin Redwoods State Park (July 2005)
Bishop Ranch Regional Preserve (December 2004)
Briones Regional Park (Lafayette Ridge) (April 2005)
Contra Costa Canal Regional Trail (Loop including Ygnacio Canal Trail) (April 2005)
Contra Costa Canal Regional Trail (Heather Farm–Citrus Avenue) (June 2005)
Contra Costa Canal Regional Trail (Walden Park–Lockwood Lane) (August 2005)
Contra Costa Canal Regional Trail (Citrus Avenue–Willow Pass Road) (September 2005)
Contra Costa Canal Regional Trail (Muir Road–Walden Park) (September 2005)
Diablo Foothills Regional Park (December 2004)
Half Moon Bay State Beach (February 2005)
Heather Farm (night walk) (September 2005)
revisited (September 2005)
Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve (February 2005)
Iron Horse Regional Trail (Danville–Alamo) (February 2005)
Iron Horse Regional Trail (Walnut Creek–Alamo) (March 2005)
Iron Horse Regional Trail (loop including Shell Ridge) (August 2005)
Lafayette–Moraga Regional Trail (Lafayette Community Park–Moraga Commons (April 2005)
Lafayette–Moraga Regional Trail (Olympic Boulevard–Glenside Drive) (April 2005)
Lafayette Reservoir (Rim Trail) (May 2005)
Lafayette Reservoir (Lower Trail) (October 2005)
Las Trampas Regional Wilderness (Las Trampas Ridge) (May 2005)
Las Trampas Regional Wilderness (Rocky Ridge) (December 2004)
... revisited (March 2005)
Lime Ridge Open Space (March 2005)
Lime Ridge Open Space (loop including Contra Costa Canal Trail) (April 2005)
Lime Ridge Open Space (loop including Lime Ridge Trail) (June 2005)
Lime Ridge Open Space (loop including Paraiso Trail) (September 2005)
Mount Diablo State Park (Donner Canyon) (December 2004)
revisited (March 2005)
Mount Diablo State Park (Eagle Peak) (April 2005)
Redwood Regional Park (March 2005)
Remington Loop (October 2005)
Robert Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve (August 2005)
Round Valley Regional Preserve (August 2005)
Sawyer Camp Trail (February 2005)
Shell Ridge Open Space (February 2005)
Shell Ridge Open Space (loop including Sugarloaf) (March 2005)
Shell Ridge Open Space (Costanoan Trail loop) (July 2005)
Shell Ridge Open Space (Ridge Top/Corral Spring Trail loop) (August 2005)
Shell Ridge Open Space (loop including Iron Horse Trail) (August 2005)
Shell Ridge Open Space (Borges Ranch) (September 2005)
Shell Ridge Open Space (Lower Buck Trail) (September 2005)
Tilden Regional Park (February 2005)
Tilden Regional Park (Nimitz Way) (February 2005)

Information elsewhere

California State Parks
East Bay Regional Park District (park information, PDF maps)
Mount Diablo Interpretative Association (events)
Walnut Creek Open Space (PDF trail map) (lots and lots of well-described hikes)
Bay Area Backroads (local interest TV show; occasional hiking segments)

East Bay Casual Hikers (local hiking group, usually hikes Sundays)
Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter (Hiking Section) (free to join hikes)


Comment spam ramps up
eBay: home of the brave, land of the scared?
Spamflagging SaturSunday
Comment spam, and a Blogger feature request
Spamflagging Saturday, redux
Spam: is Blogger missing the point?
Spamflagging Saturday
BlogSpot’s Flag button: assuming the worst
More on BlogSpot’s Flag button
Well this is interesting
Gaming the system: hidden ads and comment spam



Eating out

Cold Stone Creamery
Bad Chinese Food
Mission: Burrito
Good burrito, bad burrito
Fentons Creamery
In-N-Out Burger
El Balazo
Auntie Anne's

Buying in

The agony of choice
10 for $10
Coupons & rebates


Coke (redux)
Graham Crackers
Hostess Snack Cakes
Candy bars
Frozen burritos
It’s-It ice-cream
Margarita mix
KitKats (again)


Chocolate Tofu Mousse Pie
Chickpea Walnut Burgers
Creamy Corn and Spinach Enchiladas
Lemon Cream Cheese Pie
Pistachio Cake
Onion Dip
Asian Chicken Salad

and see also my recipelog (announcement).

Food links elsewhere

Food Network: food TV channel. Lots (lots) of fluff, but some decent recipes to be had; Alton Brown is usually reliable.
America’s Test Kitchen: the PBS alternative. In-depth analysis, rock-solid recipes. The books are excellent.