Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Google Maps API

Google opens up the Google Maps API: good. This opens the door to a lot of creative Maps hacking.

Here’s my own little contribution: fullscreen-map. A webpage which does nothing but display a map, remembering the current position and zoom. Why is this useful? Because it makes a very handy Active Desktop item.

For a while now I’ve had a satellite view of the neighbourhood as my desktop wallpaper. Set this page as a desktop item (Control Panel → Display →Desktop → Customize Desktop → Web → New) and I can have a live map on my desktop.

My desktop, with a Google Maps satellite view of Walnut Creek as the Active Desktop wallpaper.
I’m not sure how useful this is—it’s mildly annoying that the Maps controls fall exactly where the desktop icons normally would—but it’s fun; I keep reaching off the sides of windows to jiggle the map underneath.

Feel free to link or steal, although if you copy it to your own server you’ll need to sign up for your own Maps API key.

[Updated July 16th: added the Scale control.]
[Updated July 24th: persist the Hybrid map type setting.]

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Contra Costa Canal Trail, revisited

Last day of low-ish temperatures for a while, before the heat rises back up into the nineties, so we thought we’d hike a bit of the Contra Costa Canal Trail; a stretch that I’ve done before, but that Melinda hasn’t.

Start at Heather Farm: lots and lots of parking for the playing fields on San Carlos Drive. We meandered a little around Heather Farm, into the flower garden and through the wildlife preserve—ducks, coots with chicks, bright red dragonflies— before joining the Canal Trail heading east.

After the Lafayette–Moraga Trail, it’s a little disappointing. Hotter and less shaded, although that’s partly our fault for walking earlier in the afternoon. And less to see: Melinda likes to peer into the back yards that border the trail, and most of these have fences to keep prying eyes out.

Contra Costa Canal Trail, Heather Farm–Citrus Avenue.

I was a little snarky about the canal last time—no narrowboats travelling this concrete trough—but it is none-the-less a functioning canal: the tail end of a 48-mile waterway which brings untreated water from the Sacramento Delta to the Contra Costa Water Authority’s reservoirs and treatment plants.

Contra Costa Water Authority system.

We walk down to the trail junction at Citrus Avenue, where the trail connects with several of our previous hikes, and head back. About a five mile round trip; but it felt like a much longer and sweatier trek than the previous one.

Categories: Hiking

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Lafayette–Moraga Trail, revisited

Today, a spur-of-the-moment walk, on a section of the Lafayette–Moraga Trail north of our previous hike there.

We parked at the staging parking lot, at the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Pleasant Hill Road, and started walking west on the trail. The Las Trampas creek runs alongside, in a deep wooded gorge.

Map of the Lafayette–Moraga Trail, Olympic Boulevard to Glenside Drive.
Satellite view of the Lafayette–Moraga Trail.

Fuelled up with water from the fountain at Foye Drive—good, if a little warm— we pushed on until Glenside Drive, where Melinda’s “is it time to turn around yet?” questions got too insistent to ignore.

Walking on the flat makes it surprisingly easy to cover a lot of distance in a short time. I was surprised, totting up the mileage for this one, that we’d walked just short of 9½ miles. It didn’t feel like it. (“Oh yes it did!”, says Melinda.)

Part of that ease is due to the trail itself. It’s excellent: wide, shady, and quiet. Although it’s suburban, it’s set far enough from the roads that you rarely see or hear a car. The trail itself is quite heavily used by cyclists, but they’re a lot more polite here than on the Iron Horse Trail. The standard trail etiquette is that cyclists warn hikers ahead of them with an “on your left!” call: on this trail, at least, it works well.

[Update: I'm deeply suspicious of the map’s marked mileages; measuring it with a piece of string gives a five mile round-trip, which feels a lot more like what we walked.]

Categories: Hiking

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Misguided adverts, redux

From Quiznos’ current TV advert, this shot of the Angus Double Steak and Cheese sandwich:

Quiznos advert: shot of gravied steak and cheese on a sub roll.

The look they’re going for: Juicy steak sub.
The look they achieved: Meaty chunks in gravy: dogfood on a bap.

But then again, I’m not a fan of Quiznos’ whole “Baby Bob” campaign. Talking animals: cute-to-tolerable. Talking babies: creepy. And this advert—talking gruff-voiced baby leering at an adult woman—is even creepier. (The “adult mind in a baby’s body” theme is, of course, a steal from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.)

Carl’s Jr. took the “talking babies” theme a little further earlier this year: talking unborn babies? Very creepy. And does not make me feel like a Six Dollar Burger.

I made this: Chickpea Walnut Burgers

Another recipe from the same TV series as the previous, very successful effort; these, however, fell far shorter.

I’m always vaguely attracted to vegetarian burger recipes. All the fun of a burger, none of the red-meat saturated-fat guilt. But the sad truth is this: meat, red meat, fatty red meat… tastes good. Vegetables pretending to be meat… not so good.

This recipe turns out cooked chickpea burgers that are too self-conscious of their meat-substitute role. They even come out a similar colour to a real burger. (Mine turned out fatter, browner, and less green than the staged Food Network photo.) The heavy handful of walnuts gives them a strong nutty taste, and this may be their downfall: at heart, this is that old and dull vegetarian cliché, nut loaf.

So, not a success as a burger; so much so that neither of us could face them a second time. Tonight, though, I tried recasting the rest of the mixture as a walnutty take on falafel, reasoning that a pita bread, some salad, and a creamy garlic sauce is a much more natural home for a chickpea than is a hamburger bun. Much better.

But still not a keeper: why make something which dully approaches falafel when you could just make falafel to begin with? But never mind; another day, another recipe, right?

Categories: Food

Friday, June 24, 2005

“First post!”: gaming the system

Here’s something that I’ve occasionally noticed on This Is Broken: some people revel in claiming the position of first to comment. Here’s one today; some older examples; a failed attempt.

These are mildly irritating: the vapid “first!” comments provide a lot more entertainment to their posters than to the rest of their readers. But it would seem that first-posters present a bigger problem on high-traffic blogs. Engadget temporarily turned off comments today, saying:

[W]e’ve all gotten a little tired of spending so much time deleting comment spam and dealing with trolls and all that “first post!” crap, so we’re switching off comments on new posts for the next day or two while we think about what we’re going to do to try and make the comment boards not completely sucky.
The Second Rule of the Internet: wherever there’s a system, some people will try to game it. (The First Rule is, of course: wherever there’s a system, some people will try to spam it.)

The Motley Fool UK takes an interesting slant on managing gaming of its discussion boards. The Fool boards invite gaming in various ways: posters get progressively-bigger stars for making certain numbers of posts, and get trophies for becoming most-recommended or most-favourite posters. Posts to boards are numbered making round and palindromic numbers attractive to “landmark” hunters. And some posters subvert the Fool message-boards, using them for real-time chat.

The Fool’s unofficial policy is that such gaming is tolerated only on a few “fringe” boards. For example, here’s a cluster of posts chasing the recent 600,000-posts landmark on the Land of Off Topic Posts board. Irrelevant posts on mainstream boards are removed, under the Fool’s self-policing moderation scheme: a “Report This Post” button on each post allows readers to bring inappropriate posts to the moderators’ attention.

The result has been an (occasionally uneasy) truce between gamers and non-gamers. “Frivolous” posting still happens, but out of sight of more seriously-minded readers.

Of course, this then invites the next level of gaming: is it possible for gamers to sneak in undetected, with an ostensibly on-topic post, and claim a landmark on a mainstream board? Probably yes; I’ve seen a few posts that were just a little too convenient. But almost-imperceptible gaming is also almost-harmless gaming. The policy works.

Twinkie serendipity

Blogger Buzz announces Blogger image uploading, in a post including this picture:

[S]ince I can just click a button, here is a photo I took earlier today:

Beach stall: Deep Fried Twinkies.

I’m pretty sure local laws require a doctor to be on-site wherever deep fried twinkies are being sold. (If they don’t, they should.)
I know where Biz was: the same place that last Sunday’s Chronicle travel section visited. It’s Santa Cruz. Here’s their article, complete with a photo of the same Twinkies stand.

Obviously professional bloggers and professional journalists think along similar artery-clogging lines when confronted with a deep fried Twinkie:

It looked like something that would have killed Elvis, had he lived long enough to see its advent. I had intended to sample one purely in the interest of journalistic thoroughness, but fortunately the stand was closed. Presumably the owners were out getting a new defibrillator.
(Oh, and the image uploading: good, but a little point-and-clicky, and the markup it adds is a little verbose. No way to delete uploaded images. And are images resized on upload, or not?)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

How-to: Static pages in Blogger

A while ago, I wanted to add a couple of static pages to my blog; a static page being one which falls outside the rigid reverse-chronological blogging timeline. In my case, I wanted to use them as poor man’s category archives, to hold lists of hike writeups and movie reviews.

This isn’t easy to do in Blogger. Blogger isn’t a general-purpose content management service; it’s built around the central blogging concept of sequential dated posts.

So, the trick to static pages is twofold: disguise a dated post as an undated page; and prevent such posts from appearing in Blogger’s generated main and archive page content. Blogger’s templating language does not allow conditional generation at the level of individual posts (the Blogger conditional tags allow conditional behaviour only on the type of page—main, archive, item—being generated) which leaves two other options for tweaking individual posts: styling them with CSS, or massaging them with Javascript. I went with the CSS option.

The key to styling individual posts with CSS is Blogger’s <$BlogItemNumber$> template tag; this expands to an item number unique to each post. Armed with this tag, we can apply a unique class attribute to all posts and links to posts; and then we can use a CSS class selector to hide static posts and links to them.

So, templating. First, edit the template to wrap a <div> around the entire post:

<div class="post-<$BlogItemNumber$>"> date header, blog item, blog comments etc...

This gives us an class we can later select on to suppress display of the entire post on main and archive pages. But we also want to suppress display of the date on static pages; to allow this, wrap a <div> around the post’s date header:

<div class="date">
<BlogDateHeader> heading...

and a <span> around the timestamp in the post’s byline:

<span class="date"><$BlogItemDateTime$> | </span>

And finally, we want to suppress display of links to static pages from any sidebar lists of current or previous posts. To do this, apply a class attribute to the list item for each post. In my sidebar, I list posts on the current page, so:

<li class="post-<$BlogItemNumber$>"><a href="#<$BlogItemNumber$>"><$BlogItemTitle$></a></li>

Note that the class is the same as the one we applied to the post; this will let us hide both post and link with a single CSS selector.

OK: time to add a static page. Add it by creating a new post. And the best date to apply to the posts: 12:00AM on the date of your first weblog post. Two reasons for this:
  1. Dating it early keeps them outside the horizons of your blog’s Atom feed, ensuring that updates to the post won’t be broadcast as updated items in the feed.
  2. Putting it on a day containing a normal post means we don’t need to suppress that day’s date header from the archive page template.
While you’re editing the post, make a note of the post’s item number; you’ll see it in the Edit page’s URL:

Publish it, view the first month of your blog’s archives, and you’ll see the new post. Now to hide it. But before you do, make a note of it’s permanent link; once it’s hidden, the only way to get to it is for you to explicitly link to it.

To hide the post, revisit the template and add the following lines in the <style> section of the header, using the item number you noted above:

.post-YYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY <ItemPage>.date</ItemPage> {display:none;}

This rule suppresses display of the entire post, and of links to it, on all but item pages; on item pages, it suppresses display only of the post’s date header and timestamp.

Done: we have created a page which appears to sit entirely outside the chronological flow of the blog, but which still inherits the styling and commenting of a blog entry. The only remaining hint that it is a dated blog entry is its calendar-dated URL.

The <$BlogItemNumber%> tag has plenty of other uses for Blogger hacking. As it’s unique to each post, it lends itself very neatly to forming unique id attributes on tags, for later targeted manipulation by Javascript code using the document.getElementById method. Blogger’s own article on peek-a-boo comments, a variation of which I’m using here, uses just this technique. More Javascripting later.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

I made this: Creamy Corn and Spinach Enchiladas

The range of tortillas available here is a revelation. Tortillas are big business, with their own industry association.

In Britain, you’d be lucky to find a couple of flavours of wraps. Here supermarkets devote an entire aisle-cap to tortillas, in various sizes (taco, fajita, burrito), thicknesses (tortillas for gorditas are fajita-sized but thicker) and brands (Mission seems the biggest brand here, but I rather like El Aguila’s motto: “life without Mexican food is no life at all”).

And best of all: corn tortillas. Very different to the flour tortillas: flatter and stiffer, and they need heat to make them pliable and tasty. Fry them, or steam them, or heat them in the oven; or easier, give ’em about 15 seconds a side on a hot dry skillet. Good from the supermarket, but best fresh from a tortilla factory. There’s one in the Las Montanas supermarket in Concord which does a steady business in bags of 50 or 100 still-warm tortillas.

Anyway, the recipe. I toned down its over-reliance on convenience food by substituting poached chicken—from the chickens I dismembered earlier—for the supermarket rotisserie chicken; 4 fresh jalapenos for the canned chiles; and a package of frozen chopped spinach for the creamed spinach. Creamed spinach doesn’t seem to exist in California supermarkets; and there’s enough creaminess going on with the sour cream and the creamed corn already.

Very, very good. The tip for using a third-cup measure for the filling works out pretty well: 12 enchiladas. Which is a problem when there’s just two of you. So a tip from me: the assembled enchiladas don’t keep well in the fridge, the filling makes the tortillas a bit soggy. Better to keep the filling in the fridge and assemble the enchiladas just before you cook them.

Categories: Food

Monday, June 20, 2005


Americans, unless they’re skilled and expertly-coached actors, do not do convincing British accents.

So, a note to Dave Winer: British people do not talk remotely like this:

Still twawkin wak a Bwitesh wanka.
or this:

I don’t feel that bad about being a Yank tawkin lawk a Bwit.
Sorry, but no. You’re talking like a cross between Elmer Fudd and Eliza Doolittle. And frankly, us Brits find it a little bit annoying. Mind you, annoying Brits may be on Dave’s agenda anyway, given his ongoing sniping at Ben Hammersley

And Americans are not good at distinguishing the various British accents—not, of course, that Brits are any good at distinguishing all but the most heavily stereotyped of American accents. I was told while waiting in line at See’s that I “sound just like Prince William”. Well, not really: my Essex childhood makes my accent more estuary, less RP.

I’m not quite sure I like being compared to the misguided toff. But hey, it was a compliment; I smiled and said thank you.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Point Pinole Regional Shoreline

Today a hike at Point Pinole, a small park on the edge of San Pablo Bay with an odd industrial history: from 1881 to 1960 it was the site of explosives manufacturing, in particular dynamite production. Briefly considered as a site for NASA Mission Control—and how very different the East Bay would be with NASA operations here—and subsequently cleaned up as the site of a proposed steel plant, the narrow-gauge railroads sold off to Disneyland, it finally became part of the East Bay Regional Park District in 1971.

There’s still traces of the past: earthen embankments and rows of eucalyptus trees, intended to screen explosive blasts in case of accident (a frequent problem for the Giant Powder Company, who were forced to leave locations in San Francisco and Berkeley after major explosions); and the remains of piers and railway tracks used to transport materials and explosives.

On a hot day, it’s a good choice; lots of shade from the trees, and a cool breeze coming in off the bay. We walked a loop out to the pier and back. Out on Cook’s Point Trail, under the eucalyptus trees, and on Marsh Trail, home to hundreds of huge dragonflies. Out to the end of the pier, and back for a picnic looking out over the bay, watching the ferries go back and forth between Vallejo and San Francisco. And back on the Bay View Trail, which runs along the top of shallow cliffs. About 4½ miles.

Parking $5, but “only when kiosk is attended”, which seems to be only weekends and holidays. And careful with the driving directions: although you turn onto Richmond Parkway from I-80, the exit is signposted for San Rafael / Fitzgerald Drive.

Categories: Hiking

Monday, June 13, 2005

Hot hot hot

One of the hottest days so far: 93°F, according to the sign outside Bank of Walnut Creek. That's 32.8°C, to Europeans and scientists, although I have to get used to thinking in Fahrenheit; nobody here uses Celsius. (Similarly, gas is always in gallons; icecream in pints and quarts; liquids in fluid ounces; dry goods in ounces and pounds.)

And as if to protest, the PC went into thermal shutdown. I know how it feels. Tip for Shuttle owners: although the heatpipe doohickey conducts heat away from the CPU very well, it's wasted if you allow the heatsink to get dusty. The main fan blows through the vanes of the heatsink; clogging it up with dust obstructs the airflow and impedes cooling. A quick disassembly and cleaning and all is well.

Misguided adverts

An occasional series, if I get around to keeping it up.

From a local free paper, this advert for Dirito Brothers, a local car dealership whose slick website belies their often-cheesy print and TV advertising:

Dirito Brothers advert: Come Catch the Summertime Savings, They Are Out of the Park!; the two brothers’ heads superimposed over baseballs with prominent seams.

The look they’re going for: Summer baseball.
The look they achieved: Horrific brain surgery.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Too much Coke

Spotted in Andronico’s: a new display of Coca-Cola Zero, Coke’s new “zero calorie” brand.

It joins the already-less-than-one calorie (urban legends notwithstanding) Diet Coke brand, in regular, cherry, vanilla, lemon, lime, caffeine-free, and with-Splenda varieties; the full-calorie Coke brand, in regular, cherry, vanilla, and caffeine-free varieties; and the half-the-calories Coca-Cola C2 brand.

Is Coke losing its way again? Or is this some sort of clever choose-your-own-brand strategy which will ultimately end up at a personalised-for-you-only My Coke?

Categories: Food

Lime Ridge III

A late writeup of a hike earlier in the week; a cooler-than-normal day, so we got out onto Lime Ridge Open Space for a hike combining portions of three previous hikes.

Parking at Arbolado Park, we followed the Ygnacio Canal Trail north, past Boundary Oak Golf Course, and up to Ygnacio Valley Road. The tunnel here is narrow and clad in corrugated iron. Continuing north, the trail is bordered on both sides by loose dirt and dry brush, and was swarming with ground squirrels and lizards.

At the trailhead near Rock Oak Road, we turned into the Lime Ridge Open Space on the Woodlands West Trail, heading back towards Ygnacio Valley Road, and eventually turning onto the Lime Ridge Trail and taking the concrete tunnel back under the road. From here Lime Ridge Trail heads upwards some 600 feet in a series of switchbacks through varying habitats: first grassland, then woods, and then scrubby chaparral — the last with fine sand underfoot. A couple of benches along the trail provide places to rest, and for us to eat our picnic.

It's a beautiful trail, but it'd be nicer if it didn't have Ygnacio Valley Road at the bottom of it; it's a busy road, and the noise from it drifts up the trail and stops it from being completely peaceful.

At the top of the trail, at the transmission towers, Lime Ridge Trail hits the Manzanita Trail, which took us back down towards the golf course. A quick detour on the Ohlone Trail avoids the embarrassing climbing-over-the-locked-gate episode of the last hike. An unmarked side trail on the right leads into a gravelly turnout alongside the Walnut Creek P.D. shooting range.

Trails map of Boundary Oak Golf Course.Satellite view of Boundary Oak Golf Course, showing Walnut Creek P.D. range.

From here, it was a quick trek through the parking lot and a quick hop back on the Ohlone Trail to arrive back at Arbolado Park, some 4 hours and 5½ miles after the start.

Categories: Hiking

Friday, June 10, 2005

I made this: Lemon Cream Cheese Pie

Potluck at the in-laws. A good excuse to make a dessert; this time, the Top Secret Recipes version of Lemon Cream Cheese Pie.

TSR’s an old favourite of mine: it reverse-engineers brand-name restaurant dishes for home use. But their “one week only” policy for recipes is annoying; if you want to keep a recipe, make sure you save it. (Although—and you didn’t hear this from me, right?—a Google search for “Lemon Cream Cheese Pie” currently turns up an exact copy of the recipe as the first result.)

The verdict, though: not so great. More fun to make than to eat. It’s a so-so lemon curd layer on top of a so-so cheesecake layer. Not a keeper.

Notes for Brits: if you want to fit in, don’t pronounce the “ha” in Graham crackers: it’s more like “gram crackers.” The closest UK equivalent is probably the digestive biscuit. But the history of the Graham cracker is rather more interesting: Graham, like Kellog, was a sexual-purity crusader.

Categories: Food

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Blogger feeds are screwy

My Atom feed is broken; I’m blaming Blogger.

I’m set to produce full-content feeds, but at the moment my feed’s looking rather slimmer than it should. Recent articles:

So I’m a sucker for whizzy visualisations
Here melinda from 41090 to 2437. Every name I tried shows the same order-of-magnitude increase. People are more interested in themselves than the world at large is.

Butchering the chicken
Biting the bullet: whole chickens are ridiculously cheap this week (59 maybe some apple or mango, and a sour cream or mayo-based dressing) and enchiladas. The next one should be perfect.

On tea
Neil Gaiman grumbles about America Jack in the Box restaurants.

Amusing, but not terribly useful for anyone reading in an aggregator. Blogger Status has nothing to say; I’ve sent a message to Blogger Support. I notice the Site Feed options has grown an AdSense-for-Feeds related field; could be some Blogger work-in-progress?

[Update: Blogger Status says “fixed within the next hour”. Although that was an hour and a half ago and it isn’t fixed yet… First rule of estimating: estimate long and deliver short. It's always better to exceed expectations.] [Update 2: Fixed.]

Sorry for the inconvenience.

So I’m a sucker for whizzy visualisations

Here’s another: WordCount, an interactive visualisation of word frequency in British English.

The data is from the British National Corpus, built between 1991–1994 from samples of written and spoken English. It’s interesting how fast the corpus has aged in the 10 years since then, which saw the rise of the Internet out of the realms of academics and hobbyists and into the general population: look how lowly rated internet (30525), email (44758), browser (51513) are. Website and webpage don’t appear at all. The World Wide Web was just starting to emerge in the period in which the corpus was being compiled, but hadn’t yet hit the public eye much.

Modem (13751) comes in a lot higher than broadband (45214) — a ratio now reversed, if Google is anything to go by. (64.5 million hits for “broadband”; 24.9 million for “modem”, and that includes 2.3 million for “cable modem”.)

WordCount results for “kew”: rank 19914.

In the obligatory vanity search, my reasonably-unusual surname — common enough that there’s a few in every phonebook, uncommon enough to usually require me to spell it out (“That’s K-E-W.”) — comes in higher than most of these internet-related keywords: james (1000) kew (19914). I would guess the usage is inflated a bit by sharing a surname with a district of London, not to mention a prominent botanic garden. (“Yes, Kew, like the Gardens.”)

And a nice bit of data collection: the WordCount people keep count of queries made and use it to generate QueryCount, applying the same visualisation to queries. The results confirm what we already know: given a dictionary, the first thing most people will do is look up naughty words. And it also suggests that their second impulse is to look up their own name: forenames rank a lot higher in QueryCount than in WordCount. James, ranked 1000 in WordCount, leaps to 70 in QueryCount; melinda from 41090 to 2437. Every name I tried shows the same order-of-magnitude increase. People are more interested in themselves than the world at large is.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Butchering the chicken

Biting the bullet: whole chickens are ridiculously cheap this week (59¢ a pound, which makes a 4lb-ish chicken about $2.50), so I bought a couple.

I’ve never had much luck cutting up chickens before — usually resorting to brute force and ending up with a mangled mess of flesh — but Cooking For Engineers makes it look reasonably easy. How hard can it be?

Well, still quite hard. Legs and wings went well, giving me a false sense of confidence: removing and jointing these is not about forcefully cleaving your way through, it’s about careful cutting and feeling your way for the weak point of the joint.

Breasts: not so good. The key point I missed here: remember which way is up, otherwise you end up proudly and pointlessly cutting down either side of the keel bone rather than the backbone. Oops.

Still, this one’s for poaching, and ultimately destined for chicken salad (a toss-it-together effort, probably chicken, grapes, celery, walnuts — a bit Waldorfy so far, hmm — maybe some apple or mango, and a sour cream or mayo-based dressing) and enchiladas. The next one should be perfect.

Categories: Food

On tea

Neil Gaiman grumbles about America’s lack of tea-making skills:

In America, you have a country filled from sea to shining sea with people in the food service industries all of them convinced that a person can somehow make a drinkable cup of tea using only a) a teabag and b) a cup and c) a container holding water that was once reasonably hot.
Very true: tea, or at least hot tea, just is not culturally significant here. Coffee will usually be decent; tea’s an inconvenience. And getting milk for tea is difficult, as it’s so unusual here: tea’s usually drunk with lemon.

But to be fair, the teabag-and-pot-of-hot-water routine is pretty much standard in the UK too. The only places you’re guaranteed a properly-brewed mug of tea: greasy spoon cafés.

Gaiman’s followup addresses the much-asked question, presumably from his large American audience: “How do you make tea then?” His answer is pragmatic:

This is the biggest, most important thing to know: For a black tea, you pour boiling water on tea leaves. That’s ninety percent of the art of making a decent cup of tea. […] It’s the final ten percent of the cup of tea that you’ll get people calling each other heretics for.
And finally, his respondents note that, in the grumbling about tea stakes, it’s hard to beat Douglas Adams: “Americans are all mystified about why the English make such a big thing out of tea because most Americans have never had a good cup of tea.”

Lipton teabag envelope: Lipton, the “BRISK” tea, 100% natural. But American tea itself is not bad. No need to pay through the nose for imported English tea, unless you’re a real tea snob. Lipton is the most common brand here, and it’s good; and I rather like the retro quaintness of its description as the “BRISK” tea. Another oddity: in America, teabags always come individually wrapped in little paper envelopes, and with a string and tag attached to make the bag easy to dunk.

America does have the best tea invention: iced tea, the best and cheapest cold drink ever. Lipton’s website claims that 80% of teabags sold in the US are used for making iced tea: *boggle*.

Anyway, iced tea my way: two or three teabags in a big jug. A kettle’s worth of hot water — or two kettles’ worth, from our dinky American kettle. Cool. Drink from a pint glass with lots of ice and a big squeeze of lemon.

Melinda likes Nestea iced tea mix, which reminds her of her childhood: instant freeze-dried tea, which you mix in cold water to make iced tea. Can’t stand it myself: it has a very distinctive chemical tang which, to borrow from Douglas Adams again, tastes almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

As the Nestea page suggests, iced tea is very frequently either sweetened or flavoured, both of which result in something too sickly-sweet to be really refreshing. Iced tea in restaurants, at least here in California, is typically unsweetened. Iced tea from fast-food joint soda fountains is usually one of the sweetened varieties: and when it’s unsweetened, it’s often hard to find the necessary lemon. Melinda’s tips for decent fast-food iced tea: Nordstrom cafés; Jack in the Box restaurants.

Categories: Food

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Hummingbirds, again

The hummingbird feeders — we added a window feeder to the original hanging feeder — have been one of our best-value entertainment buys. Hummingbirds are wonderful little things: full of energy and character. The Chihuahuas of the bird world. And they’ve become pretty fearless about approaching the feeders: they’ll happily feed while we’re watching them through the screen door, and even when we’re sitting out near the feeders.

In the last few days we’ve seen some new behaviour: a young Anna’s comes to the feeder and perches for five or ten minutes — an eternity in the hummingbird world — beak in the air, chest heaving, tongue flicking in and out. I jokingly named it “panting”, thinking I was surely anthropomorphising. But a quick Google suggests I’m right: birds do pant to cool down.

And today, some very aggressively territorial behaviour. An adult Anna’s male perching in the tree opposite seems to have claimed our balcony as part of his territory, chasing off any other birds who try to approach the feeders, and making possessive displays around the feeders. Hummingbird territorial confrontations are quick but dramatic: the defending bird zooms over from his perch, his red gorget flashing in the sunlight, twitters angrily at the interloper, and chases it off at high speed.

All very dramatic, but I’m not sure us being annexed into his territory is altogether a good thing: we get to see more confrontations, but fewer close-up views of hummingbirds feeding.

[Update: he’s here for good, it would seem. We’ve nicknamed him the Mob Boss.]

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Expectations confounded: Revenge of the Sith

After my recent viewing of Episode 2, my expectations for Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith were not high. Maybe that’s the best way to approach it; because I was surprised to find it overshot my expectations by a long way. Better than not-too-bad; it’s really pretty good.

That’s not to say it doesn’t suffer from the same old Lucas troubles. The opening space battle is overly frenetic and polished, ending up looking more like sterile videogame footage than the original trilogy’s sparse and grungy dogfights. There’s the usual throwaway bad guy, present merely as lightsaber-fodder; this time it’s the droid leader, General Grievous. R2D2 continues to get recast as a mini action hero, complete with weapons and the ability to fly: this is, remember, the bumbling little droid who falls into a swamp in The Empire Strikes Back. And all the dialogue between Anakin and Padmé is, as usual, flat and featureless. Lucas simply cannot write love scenes. Or indeed any sort of scenes for strong women; Padmé spends the entire movie either looking worried or crying, and the few female Jedi promptly get struck down from behind.

But there’s a lot to like. The story of Anakin’s gradual but inevitable seduction to, and poisoning by, the Dark Side is strong and compelling: the first of the prequels which actually made me care about the outcome. Ian McDiarmid’s performance as the snaky Palpatine is excellent. And much to my surprise, Hayden Christensen has grown into the Anakin role. His performance is convincing here, and a long way from the pouty teenager of Epsiode 2. And the action rocks: we finally see Yoda at full force fighting Darth Sidious, and the final lightsaber showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan is epic.

More than anything, it has a direction. The previous two episodes wallowed in directionless slapstick and windbag politics. This episode is confident of the story it’s telling: it’s all about Vader, all about the creation of a monster.

4/5: recommended.

Categories: Movies