Not a legend

A week or two ago, a couple of my colleagues came back from the Microsoft Tech-Ed conference in Barcelona. They were loaded down with all kinds of freebies, including CDs and cardboard cut-outs of “Software Legends”. The Software Legends are a gang of some of the most respected programmers and authors doing work on Microsoft technologies right now–people like Chris Sells, Don Box, David Platt… the usual suspects.

They even have their own web site:

Eric Sink, himself no slouch in the “respected programmer” league tables, has now done a brilliant parody:

I should now also take the time to point out an excellent series of articles Eric has written recently on the subject of marketing. They’re from the perspective of an independent software vendor, but most of the principles should apply to other industries, too.

Search engines: filling the googleholes

In the article “Digging for Googleholes” on Slate, Steven Johnson talks about some of the reasons why you might not be able to find information using the “all-knowing” Google:

“Search for ‘apple’ on Google, and you have to troll through a couple pages of results before you get anything not directly related to Apple Computer?and it’s a page promoting a public TV show called Newton’s Apple. After that it’s all Mac-related links until Fiona Apple’s home page. You have to sift through 50 results before you reach a link that deals with apples that grow on trees: the home page for the Washington State Apple Growers Association. To a certain extent, this probably reflects the interest of people searching as well as those linking, but is the world really that much more interested in Apple Computer than in old-fashioned apples?”

Some of the arguments he uses are spurious. The one I quoted, for example, is like complaining that your friendly local librarian gave you a book on computers when went up to them and just said “apple.” Without more specific information, a human isn’t going to know you wanted to know about fruit. Google may have the knowledge of thousands of librarians at its fingertips, but it still can’t read your mind.

However, this does highlight the issue that Google (and other search engines) don’t make it clear how much information you have to specify before they’ll bring back a relevant set of search results. If you enter one term, you’ll often get back a lot of useless junk. But if you enter twenty words, you might get nothing back at all. Is it better to enter ten words and get a single, highly targeted page that matches them all; or five words to get a single page of results, with the benefit that you can scan the list and see which one is most promising?

(As a side note, I wonder how many words (on average) are sufficient to narrow down a query to a single page of results?)

Searching is a skill that has to be learned. You don’t step into a typical university library and expect to be able to dig up the most relevant information about Mesopotamian goat-herding in an eyeblink. Unless you’ve spent time learning how to use a library, you probably wouldn’t even know where to start. It is often said that knowing how to find information is just as, if not more useful than knowing the information itself. In our information-rich world, this skill is only going to become more important.

Google provides a good, simple starting point, so that even novice searchers should be able to find something. At the other end of the bell curve you have people skilled enough to act as the human back-end for Google Answers. What about the people in the middle, though? Do they even know about all the advanced searching techniques you can use? How will they find out about them? Will they have the time to spend coming to grips with them? The “advanced search” link on most search engines is easily overlooked, and when you get to the advanced page, it is usually orders of magnitude more complex than the simple search.

Personally, I think that Google is as good as we’ve got right now. But I do reckon there’s lots of scope for improvement. And I wouldn’t bet too heavily against Microsoft pulling it off. They have a history of targeting the middle ground of computing, and making it the default option. (And then proceeding to make good money from it.)

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The ultimate hot sauce

I’m a big fan of hot foods. A very big fan. Unfortunately Abi isn’t, and Alex is still too young to properly appreciate my badass voodoo chili. So when I’m in the mood for something spicy, I usually make a plain version and sex up my own portion with some hot sauce.

Sambal OelekI used to use sambal oelek for this purpose. A small jar of sambal is a standard condiment on the tables of Chinese-Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands. If you get a take-away, you’ll be asked if you want a little sachet of sambal to go with it. Sambal tastes great in chili, and is lovely in scrambled eggs. But it has three drawbacks. First of all, it is still relatively hard to find good sambal here in Britain. Secondly, it tends to be a bit salty. Depending on the dish, you might not want that kind of additional seasoning. And finally, sambal is a mash of peppers rather than a sauce. It still contains whole seeds and small chunks of pepper, which can sometimes detract from the presentation of your dish. (Also, I find sambal a bit mild these days.)

Encona West Indian Original Hot Pepper SauceOne of the biggest brands in hot sauces in Britain is Encona, who make a selection of different flavours. I’ve tried two of them, their “West Indian Original Hot Pepper Sauce”, and their relatively new “Cajun Hot Pepper Sauce”. The West Indian sauce is made from the exceedingly hot scotch bonnet pepper. It has a powerful up-front burn, with a slightly fruity aftertaste. It can add a lot of heat to a dish with very little sauce, but because it front-loads the burn it kills a lot of the flavour from your main ingredients. I’ve tried it in chili, pasta sauces and soups, and although it has plenty of fire, it’s about as subtle as a brick to the head.

Their Cajun sauce is made from cayenne peppers (my favourite), and has a more easy-going taste. It has a much rounder, wider burn that fills your mouth much more gradually. But it is also very, very sweet, and that can have an adverse effect on the flavour of the dish you’re trying to spice up. It’s not as hot than the West Indian sauce, so although you have to add more sauce to raise the flames (which makes it easier to control the heat), you’re also adding more extraneous flavour to your dish. Which of these two sauces you’d be better off with will depend on the type of food you’re cooking, and on your personal preference for heat.

Dan T's Inferno White Hot Cayenne Pepper SauceBut I’ve been saving the best for last. Sambal isn’t the ultimate hot sauce, and neither are the Encona varieties. The best hot sauce I have ever tasted has got to be Dan T’s Inferno White Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce. It has a deep, full-mouth burn that arrives slowly and lingers. It has a rich, dark flavour that maintains the classic zing of the cayenne pepper, but also adds depth and maturity to its spicy exuberance. The texture is smooth, with a tiny amount of dark red and orange grit that buries itself deep in the crevasses between your tongue’s taste buds. It is capable of raising a sweat in small quantities, but even larger amounts don’t kill the flavour of your original dish. It opens up a wormhole into an alternate dimension of fiery gastronomic pleasure.

It is, in short, amazing.

It also seems to have vanished from all supermarket shelves here in Edinburgh. I’ve tried Asda, Safeway, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. None of them have it. I bought my original bottle from one of them, I’m sure, but now it’s gone! The Encona Cajun sauce just isn’t an adequate replacement, but where else can I get it? I haven’t found an on-line source for it here in the UK yet, either. If you see Dan T’s in your supermarket, or if you find an on-line merchant selling it, please let me know!

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A gardening state of mind

Much though I hate gardening, it does get me out into the sunlight and the fresh air, and it gets me working with my hands rather than with my head. What happens then is that my minds starts wandering. It came up with a couple of interesting bits and pieces today:

Country names

Isn’t it funny how countries with adjectives in their names never seem to live up to those adjectives for any length of time? For example, the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Okay, so Northern Ireland remains a pretty accurate description. But I reckon that generally, countries should stick to old-fashioned, purely locale-based nation names. To do anything else is clearly tempting fate.


William Gibson and other cyberpunk authors envisioned “cyberspace” as a separate environment, where people would exist as avatars of their real-world selves, wandering around in a 3D environment. But that’s not the way it’s turning out. It looks to me like cyberspace is just going to be an extension of the real world. Web sites, weblogs, chat rooms, instant messaging, texting on mobile phones…we don’t need a separate avatar to navigate these information spaces.

Cyberspace right now is made up of a series of windows on the real world, that allow us to see views, or facets, or aspects of people elsewhere. We don’t see the whole person, just the side of themselves they choose to expose to that particular window. Cyberspace is thus more like science-fictional hyperspace (or wormholes), existing purely to enable very fast point-to-point links, rather than being a habitable space in its own right.


While uprooting a particularly vicious thistle larger than myself, a few disparate ideas that had been floating around in my head for a couple of years synthesized themselves into something that could make an interesting short story. This is the first time I’ve felt inclined to write any fiction in quite some time.

Maybe I should spend more time gardening. No, scratch that. Silly idea. I don’t think it’s the garden that makes the difference, I think it’s being away from the computer. Now that I’ve spent some time getting our garage tidied up, What I really ought to do is get my drums set up again. I’m feeling the need to hit some skins.

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