Fixed the home pages

Fixed the home pages and edit pages so they work properly in Netscape 4
now. It’s not identical to what you see with IE4+, but it’s close enough.

Life’s a lot easier (and faster!) now that I’ve got a development version up
and running locally on my PC now. With a combination of MySQL, Apache, and
PHP all up and running on Win98, I can write identical code and deploy it to
the Linux box hosting!


Abi fancied some wild rice

Abi fancied some wild rice last night, so I cooked up something a little different: pork loin with a maple syrup and pineapple glaze with wild rice and lentils.

  • Put the wild rice and lentils in separate pans. Fill with water, and bring both to a gentle boil. (Cooking them till soft takes about an hour.)
  • Cut the pork loin into two halves, and sear them in a pan with some butter & olive oil (or bacon dripping, if you happen to have any left over 🙂
  • Put the pork in an oven-proof dish. Pour a generous helping of maple syrup, and a small tin (225g) of pineapple chunks over them. Cover the dish, and put into a hot oven (gas mark 7) for about 45 minutes.
  • When the rice and lentils are soft, take them off the heat, and drain them.
  • Take the pork out of the oven, and put it on a warmed plate to rest. While it’s resting, pour the juices and pineapple chunks into a pan, and reduce until thick.
  • Slice the pork, and pour the glaze over it. Serve alongside, or on a bed of the rice and lentils.
  • Sweet and tangy–rather tasty!

An interesting (as always) article

An interesting (as always) article by Joel Spolsky on supposed bloatware:

“Version 5.0 of Microsoft’s flagship spreadsheet program Excel came out in
1993. It was positively huge: it required a whole 15 megabytes of hard drive
space. In those days we could still remember our first 20MB PC hard drives
(around 1985) and so 15MB sure seemed like a lot.

By the time Excel 2000 came out, it required a whopping 146MB … almost a
tenfold increase! Dang those sloppy Microsoft programmers, right?

Wrong.” (more…)

It includes a reference to a different article on the historic cost of hard drives.

New home page! PHP! MySQL!

New home page! PHP! MySQL! Database-driven! Easy to update! Automatic links to Everthing2


What is the world coming to?

This does prove to me, however, just how easy PHP is to use. It took me well over a week to do the initial “dynamic” version of the sunpig site in perl/cgi, and it didn’t work nearly so well. I started this new version yesterday (Saturday) afternoon, and by evening I had the edit facility all ready. Today I tidied up the calendar, and did the home pages, so they display n day logs.

Over and done with in a single weekend!

Of course, there are still a whole bundle of improvements to be made:

  • Put a “today” button on the calendar (particularly for the edit screens)
  • Bring the sidebars into the database as well, and make them editable too.
  • Allow uploading of images through the edit interface
  • Allow user to set how many logs should be displayed on their home page
  • Automated backups of the database.

Then, of course, there is Amazing But False to automate as well…

Also, the code is all over the place, and could use to be tidied up. But seeing as it’s my first attempt at PHP and MySQL, I figure I can only get better from here.

The Atrium

Another day, another dose of DIY. At the start of 2001 darling Snoogums and I embarked on an ambitious programme of decoration and renovation to get the house ready for our first baby. (Due just one month from now–ack!) We’ve got a new wooden floor in our living room. We’ve stripped wallpaper, painted, put up skirting boards, hung blinds, panelled ceilings and clad walls. We’ve bought rugs, sofas, shelves, pictures, mirrors, a changing table, a cot, and a rocking chair. We’re on a first-name basis with the staff our local Mothercare, and if we spent any more money at Ikea, they’d probably just forget about checkouts altogether and give us the title deeds to the store.

Boy, am I now sick of home improvements.

Fortunately, my parents came down to help us out this last weekend. Together, we managed to finish off both our living room and the baby room. The interior of our house is now completely done. Only the garage remains. And with Snoogums looking like she has a 20lb turkey strapped to her tummy, that has now become my personal responsibility.

And what could be better, after a long and stressful day’s work (please don’t ever ask us about attaching venetian blinds), than to relax with a fine meal and a bottle of wine? Well, by the time 18:30 rolled around, I think we would all have preferred to say “bed”, but we forced ourselves to go out anyway.

The Atrium restaurant resides in the same building as the Traverse Theatre on Cambridge Street. This is just behind the Usher Hall, and not a million miles away from the King’s Theatre and the Cameo Cinema, so if you’re planning a night’s entertainment, its location could hardly be better.

The restaurant’s decor is subdued, mellow, and chunky. Heavy dark wood is everywhere, as is aged copper and bronze. The scalloped ceiling is partly covered with sail-like hangings, and a similar material is used to cover th
e spindly chairs. (The chairs were, unfortunately, a bit on the hard side. By the end of our meal we found ourselves shifting from cheek to cheek trying to get comfortable.) Intricate modern chandeliers and carefully placed indirect spots produce soft light and a warm atmosphere.

The menu comes on an A5 sheet of high-quality paper, with its corners slipped into slits on a thick sheet of brushed copper. There were five starters, five main courses, and five desserts on it, but there was also a fixed menu with a different selection of items. (The fixed menu was £25 per head. For an extra £13.50, though, you could get a glass of Sommelier’s choice wine to match each dish. For that price, the menu and wine combination represents excellent value.)

While we were making our selections, my parents both had a glass of Chardonnay Kir, which they said was very good. My gin and tonic was pretty mediocre, but it served its evolutionary purpose of refreshing my mouth and relaxing me into the evening.

Before our starters arrived, we were presented with a few amuse-bouches of melba toast with goats’ cheese and red pepper, and salmon tartare tartlets. The goats’ cheese was wonderfully creamy, nasal and pungent. The salmon tartare didn’t strike me quite so well, but that’s probably because I’m not a huge tartare fan in general. There’s something about the raw meat and onions that just doesn’t work for me. (I pick the onions off the top of my hamburgers at McDonalds, too.)

My starter was a mussels, sweetcorn and saffron stew (£8.50)–an interesting combination. It arrived beautifully presented on the plate, a delicate pile of steamed mussels, thin strips of onion, and crunchy sweetcorn at the centre of a moat of creamy yellow sauce. But scattered around the plate were what appeared to be chunks of tinned pineapple. Hello, I thought; that’s even more unusual than I was expecting. A quick poke with a fork showed that they were, in fact, cubes of steamed potato which had absorbed the saffron colour of the sauce.

Also, contrary to my expectations, the dish turned out to be rather tangy. The mussels provided a layer of seafoody flavour, but the onions and the sauce gave it a definite bite. The wine we had chosen for the meal was a Lingenfelder 1997 Riesling spatlese (£24.50). It was crisp and fizzy up-front, and pleasantly dry, but I found that its own tanginess was too close a match for my starter.

By contrast, the Riesling turned out to be the perfect accompaniment for my main course: a thick slice of roast pork loin, with roast apples and parsnips, and a generous ovoid of buttery mashed potatoes (£18.50). I don’t normally like parsnips, but these were roasted to the point of being sweet and caramelised on the outside. The mash was perfectly smooth, yet not excessively creamy. It retained a starchy potato texture, while still melting in the mouth. The pork was in prime condition, dense, a bit dry, and hugely flavourful. It also had a delicious layer of crispy golden crackling attached. The only thing that let it down was the bed of shredded cabbage on which it was served. I know that cabbage traditionally goes with pork, but I’ve never been able to stomach the stuff. (And the menu never said anything about it. If I’d known, I may have gone for the venison instead.)

Now so far, the meal had been gradually following an upward trend. Little did I realise how much better it could get.

My dessert was an apple tarte tatin with caramel ice cream (£4.50), and it is one of the best desserts I have ever tasted. My first bite of the ice cream was like taking a bite of fresh caramel–the kind you make yourself straight from sugar. It was creamy, with the back-of-the-mouth tang you get from something so intensely sweet and strong it tries to burrow straight from your mouth into your brain.

The tarte tatin itself was baked almost black, sticky and caramelised. The flavour of the apples shone through like a blazing Northern Star. The pastry was dense yet easily cuttable, and drenched in sweet apple and sugar. The tarte was surrounded by a delicate vanilla glaze: a simple, thin sugar syrup, dotted with almost microscopic vanilla seeds. I put my nose close to the plate and breathed it in deeply. I fingered it and took a fingertipful into my mough, enjoying it in its own right, completely separate from the rest of the dish. It was heaven on a plate.

Darling Snoogums, in the meantime, was tucking into a lemongrass crème brulée, with a brandy snap full of lemon and lime sorbet. I managed to convince her to give me a bite, and at that moment I realised that the next time I go back to the Atrium, I will just be ordering a complete selection of their desserts–nothing else.

If I do that, though, I’ll have to make sure to get a proper dessert wine to go with it, though, as unfortunately the Riesling just couldn’t cut it going up against all that sweetness.

But seriously, folks–the Atrium serves some excellent food. The reason I’m giving it four stars rather than five is because the starter was a bit strange (not bad, mind you, just…different), and because the main course, although wonderful in flavour, was a bit ordinary in scope for a restaurant of this calibre. (I think I may be starting to get more critical in my old age 🙂

Price-wise, we paid £45 a head, including pre-dinner drinks, wine and water. This may seem quite hefty, but that just reflects Edinburgh pricing for a top-quality restaurant. And there is no doubt that the Atrium is top quality. We all had a fantastic time, and got back home feeling as if the whole day had been one big party. If a restaurant can do that after DIY hell, I can’t do anything but give it a hearty recommendation!

Pearl Rhythm Traveller Drum Kit

About this time last year, I decided it was finally time for me to fulfil a life-long ambition, and learn to play the drums.

I never played any kind of musical instrument when I was younger, and my knowledge of music theory used to be shaky at best. (A quaver? A delicious potato snack. And isn’t a crotchet something to do with wool and knitting?) Yet whenever I listen to music (and I have always listened to a lot of music) I feel in sync with the beat. I tap my feet, and patter out rhythms with my fingers. I love a good melody, but for me, the beat is what drives a song along. That’s where I wanted to be.

Plus, drums are severely cool.

A couple of years ago, darling Snoogums bought me a pair of bongos for my birthday. I tried to learn to play them on my own, but I didn’t make it very far, and they eventually disappeared into the pile of old stuff in our garage. I knew that if I really wanted to play the drums, I had to take lessons. Going to a teacher every week would keep me honest. If I was paying money for lessons, I would have something more than just my time invested in the learning process. I would feel an obligation to both myself and my teacher to do my homework, to study the theory and to do the exercises.

I also had to refrain from going out and buying myself a set of drums. I wanted them–oh, how I wanted them!–but over the years I have learned that my interests and enthusiasms come and go in cycles. I’ll go through a phase of playing computer games non-stop for a period of a couple of months, and then I won’t touch them again for half a year. I’ll write several short stories, then lose interest in them, and not put pen to paper (in a virtual, word-processing sense) for months. Likewise, the time I spend on Dooyoo, varies enormously.

Drums are expensive. If drumming turned out to be just another one of my fads, I would feel pretty foolish to have splashed out half a grand on something I would never use again. So Snoogums and I made a deal: if I was still playing by the time of my birthday (late November, about six months after I first picked up a pair of sticks), then my combined birthday/Christmas present would be a drum kit. Fantastic! I had a goal to work towards!

And verily, come November I was still playing. Drum city, yeah! After having researched them on the net, we got me a Pearl Rhythm Traveller drum kit for £430.

The main reason I wanted this particular kit was its quietness. This is not normally a quality associated with drums, but Pearl make these special things called “muffle heads”. These are like normal drum heads, but they are made of a fine nylon mesh rather than a solid sheet of material. When you hit them, they feel like normal heads. The stick rebound you get is quite natural. But the mesh dissipates sound in a completely different way, and sounds nothing at all like a normal drum. In fact, you can strike one in one room, and hear almost nothing at all in the next room. They’re quieter than the average practice pad.

This, of course, has some serious advantages for the drummer who lives in a flat, or a semi-detached house (like we do). You can practice all you like without the neighbours showing up on your doorstep with baseball bats. Just the other day, one of our neighbours came round to visit. Until we told her, she hadn’t even realized I had a drum kit. How cool is that?

The Rhythm Traveller comes with the following pieces of equipment:
1 x 13″ snare drum
1 x 10″ high tom
1 x 12″ medium tom
1 x 14″ floor tom
1 x 20″ bass drum
1 x H-70W hi-hat stand
1 x S-70W snare stand
1 x C-70W cymbal stand
1 x P-70 bass pedal
1 set of muffle heads, and 1 set of ordinary heads for all drums
2 x plastic practice cymbals
+ various bits of mounting hardware

The kit doesn’t, however, come with any instructions on how to set it up. This was a bit of a problem for me, as I had only ever played on pre-assembled kits. However, Snoogums and I did manage to figure it all out after carefully studying the pictures on the front of the box. If you have ever set up a drum kit before, though, it should be a doddle. The high and middle toms mount on the bass drum, and the floor tom clamps on to the cymbal stand.

One thing that is conspicuously missing from the set-up is a drummer’s stool, or “throne” (for all you non-drummers out there, yes, they’re really called thrones). You can use an ordinary chair, or a small stool, but you’ll probably want to invest in a proper, height-adjustable throne sooner or later. Very few drum kits do come with a throne supplied, but if you’re buying your first kit, you should be aware of this additional expense.

Another thing that’s (sort-of) missing, is a second cymbal stand. I learned to play on a kit with a hi-hat, a crash cymbal, and a ride cymbal. The Rhythm Traveller comes with just the hi-hat and a single cymbal stand and cymbal. Snoogums got me a second cymbal stand (a Pearl B-800W boom stand) for my Christmas, so I was a happy bunny again after that.

She also got me a better set of practice cymbals than came with the basic Rhythm Traveller because, frankly, they’re pants. They’re a piece of plastic shaped like one-third circle segment of a cymbal, with a slice of foam rubber stuck on top. (Imagine a poorly baked cymbal cake, cut up into three equal pieces, and you’re not too far off.) Consequently, they have an unfortunate habit of rotating out of the way when you’re playing them. I would get myself into a nice little groove, look the other way for a second, and then–BAM–I’d strike air. Maybe that should be “WHOOSH” instead. Whatever the effect, it was very distracting. If you’re planning to buy a Rhythm Traveller, I suggest that you buy a set of proper practice cymbals at the same time. It will save you a *lot* of irritation.

So those are the kit’s shortcomings. What about its good points? Well, the big, big benefit has got to be its silence. I really can lay into the gear without the neighbours objecting. This also means that I can play along to my stereo when it’s playing at a normal volume, rather than having to crank it up to 11 just to hear the guitar solo. I’m still reluctant to play it in the middle of the night, though. Although the drums themselves don’t make much noise, I do worry about the vibrations of the bass drum travelling through the floors and walls.

A second benefit of the kit is its portability. Compared to most kits, it is quite light and small. The three toms only have a drum head on top, and none on the bottom. This means that when you take the whole thing apart (to travel to a gig, or–more realistically–to a friend’s house), some of the drums fit inside the others, making it easier to lug about. Realistically, you’ll still need a car to take it anywhere, though.

Pearl claim that you could use the Rhythm Traveller for playing live at “small, intimate gigs.” Indeed, if you take the muffle heads off, and put on the regular heads, it makes a pretty good noise. The small size of the toms means that they come out sounding a bit light and bongo-ish, but rather funky nevertheless. And if you add a set of real cymbals (like I did just last week), you’re sorted.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “Cymbals–real cymbals–don’t they make even more noise than the drums themselves? How are you going to get away with playing those puppies in a three-bedroom semi-detached?”

Aha. You are quite observant, little one. Fortunately, my Zen Master of drumming (Craig Hunter of Banana Row in Edinburgh) provided me with the perfect solution: 2″ wide gusset elastic. Yes, gusset elastic. The kind you get at any ordinary fabric shop.

What you do, see, is take a length of the elastic (about twice the diameter of your cymbal, plus 2 inches for overlap), then sew it into a band. Then you stretch this band around the rim of your cymbal, and, as if by magic, the cymbal makes no more noise than its plastic counterpart. This works because it’s the edge of the cymbal that vibrates most strongly when you hit it, and it’s these vibrations that make the noise. The taut elastic prevents the rim from vibrating so strongly, and thus deadens the sound.

So now I have a full drum kit which looks and feels exactly right, but which I can play without breaching the peace. And if I want to rock out and deafen myself, all I do is switch drum heads, and remove the elastic. It couldn’t be simpler, or more fun.

Any drummer, from beginner to expert, who has to cope with the everyday realities of thin walls and neighbours, will fall in love with this kit in minutes. As for me, I think I’m going to head off now and kick some grooves.

Pearl Rhythm Traveller: £430
Drum throne: £75
Extra cymbal stand: £75
Solar Cymbals (14″ hi-hat, 16″ crash, 20″ ride): £79
Pro-Mark 5B oak sticks: £8.50
3 metres 2″ wide gusset elastic: £7.50

Total: £675