Friday, February 28, 2014

Bill O'Reilly Fondles Donkeys' Balls ...

To be quite honest, I cannot categorically state that this person (for "human being" might be pushing it a bit) does in fact indulge in inappropriate conduct with equus asinus. But then, I have no evidence that he does not, and so am reluctantly forced to assume the worst. For god's sake, America, will you just get your act together and get back to making decent cheesecakes and bad sitcoms? (Preferably, ones that do not involve a big fat obnoxious bald white twat, one Archie Bunker was quite enough thank you, just saying.) For chrissakes, what have we ever done to you, that we deserve Pox News?

So I lunched with Sophie the other day, being up in Chambéry, and as I was waiting for her to turn up at the Café de Lyon I looked about me, and at the wine fridge in particular (for these things tend to weigh on my mind) and the thought came to me that SMEG is a pretty piss-poor brand name, especially for a fridge. Don't know what it brings to your mind, but to mine, it's not a happy sound.

Had occasion to go to Bordeaux this week, passing myself off as a Claval-ite to go look at a problem at the Lyonnaise des Eaux. The guy was so kind as to show me around the control room, which would be immediately familiar to those of you that watch the remake of Hawaii Five-O, even down to the desk with the 2 x 1m monitor set into it. But they did not demonstrate the possibility of pulling up pictures of hot blondes out of bikinis from there onto the wall screens, which left me kind of disappointed.

But I am getting ahead of myself. (This happens, more often than you'd think, or so I'm told.)

Meeting was Thursday moaning, at some ungodly hour when I'm still back in reptile mode and only the hindbrain is more or less functional (ontogeny, recapitulating phylogeny, or whatever) or at least, capable of autonomous operation, so headed up Wednesday. It's a fair trot, by car or train - do not let people tell you that Bordeaux is but a short drive from Toulouse. I suppose it is, for a given value of "short". It's even further, from here. Never mind.

It was odd weather heading up: sunglasses one minute, to cope with the glare, and then pissing down the next. But got in around 15:00 and as if to make amends, the moment I decided to head down to the quais on the Gironde the sun came out, and the clouds buggered embarrassedly off, muttering vague excuses about climate change and how it wasn't really their fault. And the sky went blue, and I had to drag the sunglasses out again, which is a right bitch when you're trying to take photos. (You know, getting eye up to viewfinder ... yeah, it's alright for you smarmy sods who can use LCD screens.)

Had booked a hotel for the night - La Cour Carrée, in the centre of town, which I would recommend unreservedly were it not for the fact that their interior decorator apparently had a psychopathic aversion to soap trays in the shower, and also to having a holder at a useful height for the actual shower head. So not only are you balancing this designer shower head in your hand trying to get yourself decently wet, you're also constantly bending down to get the soap, or the shampoo, or whatever ... not so good, when you get to a certain age, which I am rapidly (the brakes don't seem to work these days) approaching.

Also, it's an old hôtel particulier, which is part of its charm, and the stairs are perpendicular. To be avoided if you are old, or obese, or very drunk. But apart from that, it's charming, and comfortable, and the staff are very friendly and helpful, and even extremely competent. So if you don't fall into one of those three categories, try it: 5 rue de Lurbe, and say I sent you.

Anyway, had time to spare, so took a wander around. Back in the whenevers the wine merchants did their bit for conspicuous consumption by building themselves magnificent homes on the waterfront, hemicycles with neo-classical façades: it's when you go past on foot that you notice that the wonderful arched windows that once offered a view out over the Gironde are now harbouring a shop that will unlock your cell-phone, or give you cheap calls to the Maghreb, or a decent kebab. And a small pile of vomit in one corner, which I guess is par for the course.

The place is also lousy with churches. I tend to suffer from ABC** syndrome so only made it into two of them: basilique St-Michel, which is in what the French would call a quartier populaire or we Anglo-Saxons, less euphemistically, a low-rent district (quoting from the website,  there is "a regular market, where you can find all things and above all it is better to ignore the source" which sounds kind of alarming to me) - and the cathedrale St-André, which is most definitely not.

The first thing you notice about both of them is that the belfrey is totally independent from the church. Seems they learnt (and why does google not recognise that word - nor "recognise", for that matter?) from the Italians that as the place was a swamp back in the day, it was not necessarily a Good Idea to have big (as in 9-tonne), clangy and above all vibrating bells intimately connected to the fabric of your cathedral. If you want it to stay up, that is. (The cathedral, not the belfrey. Sorry, couldn't for the life of me fit a double-entendre in there.)

Both are Gothic, more or less Flamboyant, and have some wonderful stained glass. If you happen to be into that sort of thing, that is. St-Michel lost a good deal during the war, what with it being bombed and everything, and that got replaced back in the 60s with some rather marvelous modern stuff (if you don't mind that - I don't) that looks like jeweled panels, but somehow St-André managed to keep the originals. Which are, hanging twenty metres up in those great stone walls that somehow seem to be insubstantial, with the light streaming in from behind, extremely beautiful. And very educational.

This particular pane, for instance, illustrates one of the passages from the Apocrypha which is usually omitted from modern versions of the Bible, on the grounds that it is just too silly, concerning the foolish angel who overslept on Judgement Day.

You can see that in his haste and confusion he has omitted to don his trousers, and has instead put on some rather fetching garters which he borrowed from the Great Whore of Babylon* - just what they were doing together at the time is not noted, but I suppose it could explain why he overslept. He also seems to have brought a besom to the party, doubtless thinking it to be fancy-dress, rather than the flaming sword as specifically requested in the invitation.

The windows in the next chapel depict, in rather graphic detail, the results of his later job evaluation interview: they are not pretty, and I will not post them here. And in the chapel of St John the Saviour the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is illustrated, just going to show that it didn't really matter if you were Wise or Foolish, you weren't going to stay a virgin very long. (This may be a lie turns out not to be actually the case, as such, but it was too good an opportunity to let slip.)

Dead Bishops
Whatever, spiritual satisfaction and bloating oneself with artwork is all very well and good but let's face it, it fails to fill the belly. (Now if only those bloody mediaeval peasants had worked that one out for themselves, we might have managed to avoid the Dark Ages. Stupid bastards. We could have had flying cars by now if they'd pulled finger, burnt the clergy, got on with their lives and invented technology. For god's sake, do we have to do everything?

So anyway, as you might have guessed there's any number of restaurants in the centre of Bordeaux, and more specifically around place Gambetta. There are also pubs, of which more later ... but after inspecting most of them, dove into Tio Pepe for a surprisingly good meal. Nothing out of the ordinary, if you don't count the manzana that he served as a digestif (have to admit I'd never come across that one before, and it took some time, with my rudimentary notions of Spanish, to work out that it meant an apple liqueur) but done more than competently, in pleasant if admittedly eccentric surroundings. (You have a problem eating dinner with Brigitte Bardot's breasts peeping out from a towel and looking at you? Me, no.)

That was fine but the night was yet young(ish): the obvious thing to do was to slope off and find a bar. With which Bordeaux is also relatively well-endowed. Fair enough, they have a big university, and if the students are too thick to learn anything else (some are) they can at least learn how to drink.

Coming in along the quais there was the Charles Dickens: not too far from the hotel was Sherlock Holmes, promising proper English beer (served, luckily, French-style: they don't insist on it's being tepid) so guess where I ended up? Despite being the oldest in the place, by about 20 years or so.

Sad to say the Bombardier (pression, not bottled) failed to make the impression I'd expected from its name but that's alright, it was Trivial Pursuit night. According to the blackboard the theme was "Culture générale" but if you ask me it was more "kids' TV series from the 80s" because who else would know the names of Shredder's two henchmen? (Hint: that's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, people. Go google it. Actually, I think they'd blocked the Wifi, just to stop that sort of thing.)

Managed to work out the name of the last dinosaur in California (Denver!) and Dexter's sister's name (Deborah!) but wasn't actually competing, so missed out on the bottle of vodka that was touted as first prize.

The really fun part was this French guy bawling out the questions at the top of his voice in a rough approximation of English, and the little groups of students scattered around the place, elbows in a beery mess on the table tops, getting into the spirit of things - in between popping out every five minutes for a fag.

Apparently it's a regular thing - you know, I could quite get to like Bordeaux. Although it does rain: even the municipal rental bikes have handy clips on the handlebars for your umbrella, not a good sign.

* Incidentally, that's a bit of an exaggeration. According to contemporary sources, she was pretty good, and hideously expensive, but not actually Great as such. Just saying.

** Someone is bound to ask. Another Bloody Cathedral/Church/Chateau (strike out where not applicable).

Monday, February 17, 2014

One-Track Mind: Food ...

In order to avoid problems with Alzheimer's later in our lives, we very cunningly got married the day before St Valentine's, which means that yesterday marked our 33rd anniversary. (And if I use both feet and hands I can calculate that this incidentally means that Jeremy will be 20 this year, but that's another problem.) The great google tells me that amethyst is the gift of choice these days, but I'll have none of that, so we went out for dinner again instead. (I personally look on this as being as much a question of duty as anything else, we are expected to know about restaurants around the place, and in any case we had that cash from Tom to burn through ...)

As it happens there are eight Michelin-starred restaurants in the Aude, and one of them, la Barbacane, is only fifty metres or so from where we actually went. But being an indecisive person I checked all the restaurant websites, and theirs promised me "Dîner romantique aux chandelles, accompagné d'interprétations musicales au piano" - loosely translated as "Romantic dinner by candle-light so that you can't see what's on the plate, and some tin-eared arsehole banging away on a frikkin piano while you're trying to eat" - so I crossed them off the list immediately.

Incidentally, "Interprétations musicales" is an ambiguous phrase that never fails to fill me with dread. You may have had an aunt, or a cousin, that would insist on playing a musical instrument despite all the available evidence - and a number of police reports - indicating that, in fact, they could not, and were physically incapable of such an act?

The piano is indeed a favourite weapon, and has the advantage of being readily available (its sale, for some reason, being uncontrolled). But most people agree that the violin, in the paws of a completely untalented amateur, is absolutely dreadful.

It may also refer to persons in possession of a piano-accordion, and sad to say in my experience such persons require absolutely no encouragement whatsoever before going on to demonstrate exactly what it is of which they are capable. Which I had thought to have been banned by the Geneva accords, but I am apparently mistaken.

That was a digression. Sorry. Anyway, two-starred restaurants tend to be kind of on the expensive side - I'm talking about taking on a second mortgage here, not just cutting back on the Nuits St-George for a couple of weeks - so we wound up at le Comte Roger, which is also in the heart of the old walled cité of Carcassonne.

It actually makes for quite an impressive evening out, starting when you arrive in front of the great arched gateway of the porte Narbonnaise, set in those bloody massive walls and of course flood-lit so it stands out against the black sky.

I know, I know - we both went for the foie gras as an entrée despite what I've said, but just let me say that the slice that had been poached in coffee was exceptionally good. The bitterness of the coffee cut the sweetness of the liver perfectly, left a slight smoky taste on the tongue (my tongue anyway, but according to Margo everything should taste of smoke to me - untrue!). Heaven on a plate.

(Incidental hint to restaurateurs, especially when you run a posh joint - do get your menus translated by someone who is bilingual and who knows something about food: resist the temptation to get your 16 year-old who's doing English at high school to do it for you. Somehow, "White breast airy creamy mousse" is just a noisy concatenation of adjectives as far as I'm concerned, and does sod-all for me. Should it interest you, my services are available at remarkably reasonable cost. Just saying.)

Sadly, Margo spitefully chose the magret de canard roti à l'orange with rutabaga chips and pumpkin purée for the main course, which left me with no choice but to go with the cassoulet, bubbling hot and extremely filling. Wrapped that lot up with a parfait au muscat in which the alcohol was not in-yer-face, and after finishing the bottle of cuvée des Coquelicots rolled out into the night to walk some of it off before heading back to the car. (Well, Margo rolled. I was supposed to be driving.)

All in all, excellent, but not especially inventive cuisine to my way of thinking. Not a criticism, just a comment. So if you want a very well-executed meal, with better-than good service in nice surroundings, feel free. Just don't expect the unexpected.

Need bras.
And right now, even though it's grey (I suppose brilliant blue skies absolutely every day would get a bit boring) the landscape is dotted with clumps of white and delicate pink in amongst the olive trees and the pines as the pruniers sauvages and the almond trees all seem to have burst into flower overnight. So I guess that for us, at least, spring is on its way. Shan't complain.

Headed off to the market at Narbonne for a change, and went past the butcher who sells côtes de boeuf rassis de 15 jours, tendre comme mon coeur as the little sign proudly proclaims. I cannot answer for his heart, but I have eaten his aged prime rib of beef before and it is indeed meltingly tender and tastes wonderful, just browned in butter in the old and well-travelled Copco cast iron pan before being finished off in the oven. Deglazing the pan with a bit of wine and maybe some shallots while the meat rests is also not a bad idea.

Unfortunately it looked as though everyone else had much the same thought for the queue was far too long, so I left it for that time and went off to another butcher who will do me hampe. Where, as only 600gms of meat seemed like a ridiculously small amount, I felt obliged to pick up five or six côtes d'échine in one piece, for roasting (neck end chops. I am a great believer in the Cap'n Rum school of argument, and no matter what anyone else may say I hold that they are the best, being nicely marbled and thus staying juicy and tender when cooked.), and a bit of filet mignon just for fun.

Actually, I might dig out the old Australian Womans' Weekly Chinese cookbook and get the recipe for Chinese-style marinated pork fillet: been ages since I last did that. And if it turns out fine on Tuesday, could even cook it on the barbecue I guess.

(As it turns out, I need not have bothered rummaging through the cardboard boxes that tower precariously in my office, waiting for work to be finished so that they may be opened and their contents redistributed to their final resting-place in actual bookshelves. That cookbook, and its recipes, may be found all over the web - mostly unattributed, I'm sad to say. Still, I'm glad to see that it lives on.)

Although sometimes, you have to wonder. "Stick it", they say, "into the marinade, and refrigerate overnight, turning occasionally." Sorry? I am supposed to get up, maybe every couple of hours (because they're not exactly precise here, are they? Hell, 2gm of baking powder I can handle, that's clear, but turning "occasionally"? Every 15 minutes? When you have time? Finished having sex on the counter?), empty my bladder, stumble down the stairs, burst into the kitchen and give the meat a half-turn? I don't think so.

Quite frankly it's in there under gladwrap and as far as I'm concerned it can stay that way, until such time as I need it. Yes, I'll probably give it a shake tomorrow morning, and again in the evening, but that's as far as it goes. I simply will not be having with needy food.

As usual I'm a bit behind the times - no matter what you may think I do not spend all my time following breaking news, nor watching cute kitty porn - and so it's but recently that I learned that you people elected as Prime Minister someone - or should I say some thing - that may or may not be an alien shape-shifting reptilian life-form bent on total planetary domination. Although I must say that NooZild seems an odd place to start for that sort of thing. You really had to go one better than the US of A, now didn't you? Trying to give the tinfoil-hat brigade apoplexy?

Anyway, I have things to do - as no doubt do you - like, for instance, getting dinner ready before turning my brain off and slumping in front of the goggle box for a new episode of Castle. Also, packing my bag for another trip up to Chambéry, which is going to involve hunting through the clean linen basket in search of matching socks (not so much of a problem these days, now that Jeremy is not around to pluck odd socks directly from the clothesline) and clean knickers that EBK hasn't chewed. Too much.

Mind how you go, now.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Food, And Bottom-Feeders ...

EBK is Gecko!
"Threadworms!", you cry. Sadly, no.

An afterthought and post-scrotum to my previous moan: after much effort, I finally managed to get OpenOffice to create a table of contents (or, as we Frog-things would say, "une table de matières") to my taste. All well and good. And I edited my document, and added a few sections, and sent it off to my client ... who promptly engeueled me, because what I had added did not appear in the contents. Quite true, I had to admit. So tell me people, why the hell should I have to explicitly update that? I kind of thought, naively I admit, that the whole point of setting up a table of contents was to have it automatically updated as you added things. Apparently, I'm missing something here.

Which I suppose just goes to show why FOSS (and I'm including Linux in that) has been the "solution of the future" for the past twenty years or so. Scoff as you may, companies like Microsoft can afford to pay for usability labs and useless things like "testing" because we pay them for their products, and they're better for it. I'm sorry, I really am, but FOSS does not have those resources, or that mind-set, behind it.

"Hey, you can always download the source code, fix what you don't like and recompile!" Indeed I can, but do you know, I really can't be arsed. I'd rather pay someone else for something that works: I have other things to do, that pay me money; it's a more efficient use of resources. Sorry, people.

Whatever, purely in a spirit of enquiry, and also because our good friend Tom sent us a thank-you letter stuffed with freshly-minted banknotes that looked just like the real thing, we bravely headed off to Carcassonne the other night, to dine Chez Fred. Don't blame me, that's the name of the place, and of its eponymous chef.

I suppose the decor was trendy at some point: minimalist lime-green sign with white lettering outside a muddy courtyard, and inside some expensively low lighting around the room, with blocky gray tables and gray or deep burgundy chairs. And lime-green napkins. Industrial modernist I guess, as opposed to a modern industrialist. And sticking out into the centre a well-lit bar in wood and steel, and taking pride of place behind that an impressive Josper charcoal-fired oven.

They have apparently - and quite reasonably - decided to dispense with the expense of having a long wine list and the concomitantly huge cellar, and by the door there was a hi-tech dispenser with four or five bottles of local wine hooked up to a sort of drip-feed apparatus: after a bit of instruction I was judged certified in its use and at that point, we sat down and looked over the menu.

There are two dishes around these parts that are, if not inevitable, at least omnipresent: these are, of course, foie gras and cassoulet (maison). As if any restaurateur who hoped to stay in business would proudly announce on the menu that his cassoulet was bought in 50 gallon drums from an industrial producer who just happens to share the premises with a knacker's yard, and that his sole contribution to humanity was shoveling it into a bowl, sticking it into the microwave for a bit and then sprinkling parsley on top.

Seriously, that reminds me of a meal we had in Paris, back in '87, in Gare du Nord just before hopping on the night train to Brussels to renew our passports (we got woken up just after crossing the border by friendly cops out of The Sweeney with flash leather greatcoats and Glocks on their hips, if I remember correctly). The boeuf bourguignon, pommes vapeur looked pretty appetizing on the menu, but back in those days microwaves were pretty much rare birds - or maybe the guy behind the counter at the brasserie just couldn't be arsed doing it right - for what actually got plonked on the table was two plates, each with a pile of beef stew and some steamed potatoes: the northern end was still semi-frozen and the southern continent was hot enough that my fork started to wilt. I suppose, with hindsight, that we were lucky in that the "cook" had at least taken the trouble to remove the "food" from its plastic colostomy bag.

And that, in turn, brings to mind another meal we had in Paris that same year, at a little bourguignon restaurant - at least, it said on the menu that such was their spécialité - not far from Théatre Molière, in the second. There the food was indeed excellent, prepared and cooked on the premises and, unfortunately, just about inedible due to the cook's belief in salt as a food group. Had we been older and more self-assured we would probably have said something but both the cook and the waiter were cheerful and enthusiastic and obviously took great pride and pleasure in what they did: it would've been like kicking a puppy.

Also, they didn't exactly seem to be lacking for clients and quite frankly, even to this day many of the French tend, to my palette at least, to over-salt everything something dreadful. At the time, knowing France to be the birthplace and home of fine cooking (we knew this, for many French-things had assured us that it was true), I suppose we thought that we just didn't appreciate it and better to shut up.

But I digress. People around us got served their cassoulet as we were still scanning the menu and it smelled pretty bloody delicious but on the rare occasions that I do eat out for pleasure I am usually looking for something that I have not had before and/or do not do (or do poorly) myself so I made a principled stand and refused both that, and the foie gras as an entrée.

Mind you, the foie gras managed to get its nose under the door there anyway for whilst Margo took the crumble au chèvre et saumon fumé I decided to go for the galantine de blanc de poulet farci au foie gras, delivered with a healthy glop of sweet confit d'oignons. The crumble in particular was both original and excellent - fresh chèvre moussed up with cream, I'd say, piled into a large ramequin and topped with persillade and breadcrumbs fried in butter before being grilled at great heat and served with strips of smoked salmon on top. A real treat.

Another glass of wine and we were ready for the plat principal: Margo opted for the fishburger but I succumbed to temptation and went for the coquilles St-Jacques, mousseuse de cèpes. Three huge scallops, seared to perfection and served in a bubbling sauce of cèpes bordelaises in cream. Miam, as they say.

The place is not without fault: I still think you need an engineering degree to divine the operation of the wine dispenser, and their servings are sufficiently copious that neither of us could face the prospect of dessert. (More their problem than ours, I admit.)

But did I mention that their bread is excellent? And the service friendly, and efficient? (All too-often, it's one or the other: getting both is a bonus.) Whatever, should you happen to find yourself in Carcassonne and in need of a decent meal, you could do worse (probably, a lot worse) than to go see Fred. And by a happy coincidence, his establishment is just across from the gare.

Anyway, I is a happy man as I write this, for the postie came past to be barked at by Shaun (not, I suspect, one of the highlights of her day) and delivered a huge parcel containing my digital candy thermometer, a casserole bain-marie and a 50cm silicon coated rolling pin! Also, two malabar mixed in with the packing paper, which I'm guessing were a present. The rolling pin works as advertised: I have not as yet had the occasion to make toffee or melt chocolate (yes, those Valrhona nibs are still waiting in the cupboard) so I cannot say as to the other two, but I will find out.

Now sometimes, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and 700 years of technological progress, I do wonder if Dante didn't miss a few tricks. To where exactly, in all the nine circles of hell, would you condemn crapware bundlers? The Eighth, I guess, and I kind of like the idea of them being sewn mouth to ass together, Human Centipede style only more Worm Ourobouros because the circle is closed, dining on their own shit ...

Case in point, a friend rang to say that a friend of hers had come around to use OpenOffice and now it wouldn't start ... any sane man would have asked first of all "have you rebooted your machine?" but obviously I am not one of those sane people because I suggested reinstalling it. Given that I set it up in the first place, I said "go look in your downloads folder, you'll find an OpenOffice installer, double-click on that and off it will go ..."

The first inkling that something was not quite kosher came when she said "Oh! There's a little guy with green hair and glasses in my icons" which is not, to my knowledge, something usually associated with any legit installer, and then up popped a flurry of windows offering to install MobieGenie or somesuch and any number of other things. At which point I did what I should have done in the first place, and logged on to her machine with TeamViewer.

(Incidentally, let me give that product a shameless plug. Like the Citrix offerings it lets you log onto a remote machine over the innertoobz, but unlike Citrix it is standalone and does not have to try to integrate with your browser: it is free for non-commercial use and if you happen to be technical support for friends and family it is invaluable. I will likely pay for a license one of these days, because it sees some commercial use around here, and rewarding people who make actual useful stuff is a Good Idea.)

I don't know where it came from, and do not care to ask, but in her downloads folder there was indeed a program called OpenOfficeInstall.exe: someone had taken the trouble to bundle an honest-to-god downloader with stuff that downloaded and installed a number of bits of useless crapware. To its credit it did ask if you wanted to install each piece of shit: on the downside, whatever the answer, it installed it anyway. It did indeed also download the latest version of OpenOffice: just didn't install it. Probably just as well, 'cos I'd have nuked that from orbit as well, just on general principles.

So anyway, having logged on I fired up the task manager and discovered that, probably, the reason OpenOffice wasn't starting was that there were already at least 40 copies running: you'd think it could at least degrade gracefully but apparently not, whatever, I killed them all. Without guilt. (Also, how in hell does anyone manage to start 40 instances of a program?) Then I went off to look and see what else was running that I didn't like the looks of.

Honestly, it's not so much the initial act of infection I mind so much, it's the cleaning-up afterwards. (Bit like genital herpes really, I suppose. Or the clap. Actually contracting it - unwittingly, of course - might well be rather fun, but it does tend to outstay its welcome.) In this particular case it wasn't actual malware as such (just low-grade, passive, soul-numbing badness rather than active evil) and took no pains to hide itself, so killing a few services that displeased me and uninstalling everything that had been installed that day did the job - then of course you have to go and put your browser settings back the way you want them, so that your search engine is no longer some shitty portal laced with ads, and the page that opens when you start up is not one selling discreet personal entertainment devices.

I simply could not be arsed doing a forensic analysis but judging from the directory contents MobieGenie is a bit of Chinese crap destined for mobile phones, doubtless designed to nick gaming passwords, and Context! is just another ad-laden search portal that links through to Google and harvests clicks: I twepped the fuckers.

But having to do all that is something that really, really pisses me off. I understand that human beings are rational economic actors and that if there's a chance of profit we will take it but still, this is like robbing grannies! It's low, it's slimy bottom-feeding behaviour worthy only of a politician, and on top of that, it wastes my time. I only wish I knew how to bill the bastards for that, I'd make it not worth their while.

Actually, given a choice, I'd do worse than that, but in these enlightened times singing loudly, and capering with a glass of whisky on the embers of what used to be the house of your foe, under which are buried he, his family, friends and dogs, is firmly discouraged by the plods. And rightly so, for the whisky may catch fire, and give you a nasty burn. (Health & Safety Hint #37! Only here, at The Shamblings!)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Hopeless People on TGV Trains ...

Bose speakers, c. 1870
So you go away for a week, get back home to decent internet access (and the time to use it), and find out that someone's been playing silly buggers in your absence. I only say this because once I'd put up the last (admittedly rather belated) post I happened to check the stats that the great google so thoughtfully supplies, only to find out that on the 28th of January there were about 1300 unique visits, about 95% of those being attracted by an item on thread-worms. I really cannot think why this should be so.

I also got three spam comments that day (hey, they may be spam, but they're still comments - I take what I can get) so I can only guess that for some strange reason a bot got interested (and then, very quickly, bored: hopefully terminally). Anyone have an idea how I can get rid of this blip from the statistics?

Spiky lemmings
Whatever, it came to my mind as I was sitting waiting in the TGV station at Valence on my way north that there are some announcements that you really do not want to hear. OK, "the TGV 9648 from Lille, destination Marseilles St-Charles, departure initially planned at 14:53, is announced with a delay of 10 minutes due to the breakdown of another train" is not exactly something that inspires dread, and absolutely every time I've had the occasion to be there, rain or shine, they always announce "Mesdames, messieurs, today's meteorological conditions make the platforms particularly slippery. Please take care." which to me means that someone actually specified a mirror-like surface for the platforms when the place got built simply because it would look so good, and to hell with the consequences, just blame it on the weather.

In a minor discursion, the French have form there. I can recall the rumblings when the bibliothèque nationale aka the François Mitterand Library was erected out around Austerlitz way - a great set of airy towers apparently especially designed to let full sunlight in on to all those books. Also, air-con was an afterthought, it seems - after all, you have heaps of books sitting around your house, don't you, and the absence of a controlled environment has never done them any harm. And closer to home, back in Chambéry, the Carré Curial is surrounded by an interesting loop road: the surface is broken by transversal brick and concrete slabs every few metres, and lights are embedded in the tarmac at seemingly random intervals. It's a bitch to negociate in a low-slung car, but apparently it looks wonderful - especially by night - if you look down on it from a helicopter. As one does.

That was not the point, the point was that this time the announcement was a little more out of the ordinary and I'm not sure that I really want to know what's going on when someone comes on to say that "the TGV 9873 from Paris, destination Barcelona, departure initially planned at 15:30, is announced with a delay of 30 minutes due to an intervention by the forces of law and order." I just hope the driver wasn't hopped up on crack or something.

Still, it could have been worse. Like the return trip, for example. I crawled out from my grubby heap of blankets in the corner early Saturday morning, stumbled down to the bathroom and scrubbed my eyes and rinsed my mouth and ears with vodka (essential for personal hygiene, and doesn't smell as much as gin), and blearily headed off to the gare, pausing only occasionally en route for a glass of chardonnay to fight off the alsatians. Got there with twenty minutes to spare, enough time to appreciate the aromas of a Chignin Bergeron, especially as the dogs had shrunk to small poodles, with the occasional Jack Russell terrier.

Must say that the SNCF did a good job, the train rolled up on time and despite a little contretemps when it became apparent that the carriage I and a number of Parisians headed off to the ski-fields were in was not actually going anywhere (exactly why the Parisians thought that Valence would be a good place to ski is beyond me, but I don't like to ask questions, nor look a gift horse in the dentures, and they were mixing up rum and coke in a gallon jar: not my favourite, especially at that hour, but beggars can't be choosers) we all headed vaguely south. No dogs, apparently, although there were a couple of bicycles.

Two hours and a decent nap later I was duly decanted at Valence TGV, to await the arrival - and, hopefully, the eventual departure - of TGV 6065, schizophrenic destination Perpignan and Barcelona but either way, supposedly stopping at Narbonne with the express purpose, I gather, of letting me off. I know that I have written of this station before, all very modern and hung cantilever-fashion over the rails, so I'll say no more than that should you wish something more than beer and sandwiches, bring your own.

Time passed, as it tends to even in train stations, and at some point the train screeched to a halt and the speakers quacked and wibbled and the Parisians and I fought our way on board. No-one was injured, despite the "conditions méteorologiques qui rendent les quais de notre gare glissant", which I suppose is a good thing.

I plonked my arse in my designated seat and heaved a sigh of relief as a pretty young woman heaved herself into the seat next to me, pulled out a thick folder and promptly started to snore softly but the moment of calm was short-lived, as the young woman in the seat in front was phoning her boy-friend.

I learnt quite a bit about her: she'd gone up to Strasbourg to see him and then headed down to Paris to go to the sales at the grands magasins, but sadly she'd not been able to go to as many as she'd have liked for her friends were party-poopers and refused to go to every single boutique in the 15th. They also very cruelly refused to go to the tour Eiffel with her, so she couldn't pick up a snow-globe, which does seem rather a shame. But she did manage to pick up a nice jacket, really quite cheap, at Jennyfer ... also, her friend Charlotte is a grosse conasse (which is as rude as you think) who will only drink tepid tap water, has to have the room hermetically sealed to sleep, and doesn't want to go out to bars until the wee hours of the morning.

I'd hoped for some respite when the phone cut off - as it tends to do from time to time, especially going through tunnels - but no, that was just the signal to call back and take up where she left off, plus going back over some bits just in case they'd been lost or forgotten ... around Nimes I was seriously considering strangling myself with my own small intestine but contented myself with muttering snarky replies in English to her rhetorical questions.

Coming up to Montpellier and getting back to her sex life I'd just about decided to strangle her instead, using that angora scarf that was such a bargain at Galeries Lafayette, but luckily for me (although I'm sure I'd have been acquitted on appeal) the conducteur came past and pointed out that it is interdit to telephone in the actual carriages, and she blushingly headed off to the toilets. Where she stayed, until just before Narbonne.

Whatever, as I took the dog out for his first dejection of the day this morning (no, Virginia, "un déjection de chien" does not mean a depressed dog) and as I was staring courteously out in another direction I could not help but notice that the wild plum trees are starting to flower.

At which point a magnificent moustache hove into view, followed a short while later by its owner, the local chemist. A big bluff hearty outdoors type, and when he's not out hunting or tending to his vines I understand that he sells the occasional pill or homeopathic cold remedy. But like the doctor, probably not a good idea to try to find him when it's wine-making time.

You know, I really want to like FOSS, I do. Honestly. I use Eclipse (which, apparently out of a desire to make you appreciate the sheer blazing speed of your PC, is written entirely in Java, to slow it down to a glacial crawl) and I use LibreOffice, or OpenOffice, but I can see I'm just going to have to bite the bullet, grit my teeth, hold my nose or any other idiom of your choice, and actually pay money for a Microsoft product.

Because, after a certain point, these things just don't do it. Hell, even using .odt format, neither LibreOffice nor OpenOffice will render a document in the same way. And I have some documents in .docx format, of which each page is watermarked with a big "Confidential" sign: well and good, but in both the FOSS offerings this is displayed as a big opaque white splodge on the page, which kind of defeats the purpose.

And don't get me on to the formatting options, whereby I can right-click on selected text and have some options come up: if I pick the "Format" menu I have other options. And editing tables comes under the heading of "shit you never want to do". I have saved documents, and opened them, and found them empty. So I am sorry people, for all your work and the love you've put into it, but I want it to actually do something useful and not be a bitch to work with, and you are not actually there yet. I would even pay for that privilege - of having something that works - which is probably why I shall pay Microsoft for something that does, in fact, do what it says on the tin.

Early photo of Alice Cooper, with his Mum
Mind you, little Sammy came with a free six-month trial of Office: when I came to download it it, saying to myself that I'd at least kick the tires before buying, it turned out to be their cloudy offering, Office 365. What the hell, I thought, and carried on. Didn't take long for me to uninstall that with extreme prejudice: you might, if you're as innocent as I, think that it would at least be capable of reading older Word files but sad to say that turned out not to be the case - it committed suicide each and every time I tried to open one.

I'm sure that if I looked hard enough in some of the dirtier corners of thar innatoobz I could find a copy of MultiMate. Then I just have to download DOSbox or something, so I can actually run it. On second thoughts, just forget about it. I'll go pay my Bill.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Cat Classification ...

So just to be clear here, we have Primary Systems Cat (PSC, the doyenne), Emergency Backup Kitten (or EBK for short) and, far down the food chain, Shaun the Dog. In case of standard maintenance or other scheduled downtime for PSC, EBK will take over essential functions, like licking hands, clawing legs, bonking any other gratuitous bits of anatomy, and generally being obstreperous. If necessary, crapping on the carpet, as old mainframes are wont to do.

In the eventuation of catastrophic or terminal failure of PSC, EBK is promoted to full PSC status with a simple firmware update (basically, it involves upgrading the grumpy bits), and a new EBK is rolled in. I sometimes think it would be so much easier if I just migrated the whole damn lot to the cloud, paying sod-all for a few instances of APS (that's Amazon Pussy Services, should you be wondering) for example. It's cheap, and you have guaranteed five nines up-time, which means purgles and warm spit every morning. On your Kindle, admittedly.

Also, you don't have to fill up the tub of kitty kibbles every morning, due to how between the lot of them a single kilo of crunchy kitty treats seems to disappear overnight. Is a mystery, because unless they're crapping somewhere we've not yet found, I don't know where it all goes. In, apparently, but I have not yet found the "Out" door. A lurking surprise, no doubt. All will doubtless be resolved the next time I go to find my cufflinks somewhere in the top drawer.

Margo has to take photos now, for the odd magazine column, and she can't stand using my ancient SLR (in Frog, ça fait chier, lit. "makes one shit" but more correctly, "annoys the hell out of one") and - quite frankly - I don't like her using it, because I have to fiddle with the settings and change lenses and all: anyway, as the FNAC had a sale on when I was in Chambéry I picked up a little Canon Eos as a belated Christmas present. It has everything you could possibly want, including more megapixels than you can shake a stick at, apart from an optical viewfinder.

Which means that I can't use it, because after 30 years or so of using SLRs, and being long-sighted to boot, if I can't stick the viewfinder to my eye to see the shot I'm going to take then I simply do not want to know. Holding the camera at arm's length and squinting at the screen just does not cut it. I know some people actually like that experience - well I bloody don't. Probably just as well, it is her camera, not mine.

I also picked up a kilo or so of fromage whilst I was up there, because I was going through the market on a Saturday morning and, to be totally honest, ça fait chier to pay 34€ the kilo for aged Comté around here when I can pick it up for 18€ in Chambéry, and it was probably just as well that I bought the stuff and returned home on a cool - not to say chilly - day because a large ripe reblochon was included in the lot. And you don't really want to have one of those in your backpack when it's stifling hot. Believe me, it is worse than a runny Camembert, which is pretty foul in summer. (Truth to tell, I personally find a Camembert pretty foul at any time. That's just me. I blame my parents.)

As I was saying, a reblochon's vocation in life is to go into a tartiflette, the Savoyard dish made with tartiffes (don't worry, they're nowt but spuds dressed in patois): no more complicated than cubing a vast heap of potatoes, mixing them up in a large baking dish with bacon chunks and sliced onions, drowning them in cream and then smothering them with the cheese, cut in half and placed on top, cut side down. As it cooks in the oven the potatoes soak up the cream and soften, the cheese melts into the top and the rind goes crispy for the pleasure of those who like such things ... pure cholesterol and carbohydrate, guaranteed 100% natural and therefore healthy.

So as I was on a roll, having got that lot into the oven I turned my attention to an apricot clafouti, which I've not made for some time due to the lack of starving mouths to feed: so I made the batter, whisked the egg-whites, folded the one into the other and opened a tin of apricots and assembled the thing in a baking dish - and then I went to put it into the oven.

Which was when I discovered that the gas bottle that feeds the oven was empty, that the tartiflette had warmed to blood temperature and no more, that I had not got around to swapping the spare (empty) gas bottle waiting patiently at the door for a full one, and that dinner was likely to be something involving nothing more complicated than toast. (It's an odd thing, no doubt an old charter or some such, but no matter how many spare gas bottles you happen to have, and regardless of your good intentions, there is only ever but one gas bottle in the house with any gas actually in it, and that is the one that is currently guttering to an end as dinner signally fails to cook. Strange, but true.)

And just to put the candle with the handle on the gateau from the chateau, we have had no heating since Sunday night, when the chaudière decided to have a hissy-fit and stop working. The plumber has dutifully beaten it with a hammer, and menaced it with a screw-driver, but to no avail: he reckons it's the clapet anti-retour on the fuel line or something technical ... oh, did I mention also that we've just flung the last log of wood in our possession on the fire? Whatever, I guess we'll survive until tomorrow. Burning the furniture if required. And should it come to that, we shall move in with the plumber, until he gets everything working again. (That should speed things up.)

There is a fine old tradition in France, especially in small rural villages such as ours, where the entire population can fit without crowding into the salle des fêtes, of the présentation des voeux du maire et du conseil municipal.  It's the occasion for everyone to get together, listen patiently and applaud when prompted as the mayor takes credit for gouging the cash out of the conseil régional to pay for repairs to the local sewage treatment station and what an asset his idiot nephew has been to the team before wishing a good year to all and sundry, and then take a dive towards the trestle tables lined up on either side of the room, groaning under the weight of slaughtered pizzas, chips, and serried ranks of bottles - red, white and rosé, pastis and whisky (Label 5, but still better than paint-stripper) ...

A lot of people bring their kids, because the little buggers cost a lot to feed and you don't want to miss the opportunity of a solid, and above all free, meal when it's going.

The event is, of course, mandated by law (is that an oxymoron?) and it is also - Margo informs me - totally illegal to use the occasion for political ends. And I have to say that there was no overt electioneering, just a few words to the effect that after the municipal elections "we will carry on with our platform": also, those people that we know on the other side of the political fence were notable by their absence. Doubtless pure coincidence.

In my opinion, small-town politics is so much more vicious and underhand than it is in cities, if only because it's, well, personal. Everyone does actually know everyone else - hell, they're related, even if only distantly, through a sheep - and the memory of what our Doreen said, seventy-three years ago, and cousin Harold's answer, still burns balefully in the back of their brains. (Hey! I've just done onomatopoeia! Was that clever, or what?)

Back up to Chambéry again for a week, and made the big mistake of deciding to head off to the Creativa salon at Montpellier in the morning, and catch the TGV from the St Roch station. I say "mistake" because although Creativa is principally about patchwork and stuff like that (which is why Margo wanted to head off there, to catch up with friends and acquaintances) it is not exclusively so and in fact they have a little section devoted to cooking.

Which, of course, I found. I was pretty restrained, and made it out of the first stand with just two microplane graters and a kilo of Valrhona couverture chocolate: the result, I've read, of an accident with a batch of white that got left in the bain-marie overnight and thus slowly caramelised. Supposedly a right bitch to work with, not that it's difficult or anything, just that you tend to eat it rather than cook with it. Or so it's said.

Second stand was people I've already met, in Grenoble back in the day: they sell nowt but tea and spices. I know, I have no actual need for more of that sort of thing, but what else could I do? Madras curry, Bombay curry, green curry - check. Szechuan pepper - check. Smoked paprika and vanilla powder - OK. I came to my senses about then, and decided to leave whilst I could still walk.

Whatever, it's a good thing that Cook-Shop (for such is the name of the place) have not only an honest physical bricks'n'mortar shop at Pézenas, not too far from here, but also an internet boutique where, I have just discovered, I may order such indispensable things as a candy thermometer. Indispensable to me, at any rate, for now that I have that chocolate I can see no other option than to make some salted butter caramel and top the one with the other. If you get my drift.