Friday, February 27, 2015

Bamboozled By Labels ...

So what the fuck is it - pardon my French - with packaging these days? Every time I see something marked "ouverture facile" I feel my temples starting to throb and I get a sinking feeling in my gut as it brings back memories of the bad old days when a hostess would stroll down the aisle on short-haul flights and casually toss a few impenetrable packets of crackers in your lap (no point in giving you actual food poisoning if you're not going to be stuck in a steel tube at 30 000m altitude long enough to really appreciate it).

You knew damn well that by the time you'd wrestled the thing to the ground and ripped it open with your teeth (or, if careful about dental hygiene, the dentures of the guy sitting next to you) the crackers would have been reduced to fine dust ...

Anyway, hope springing eternal and all that, a label such as that makes me think "Aha! I have just to prise up that little corner and pull, and then half the plastic film will pull off and then it will start to tear and I will gash my wrists on the razor-sharp edges ..." but it's not even that easy.

What it really means is that if you happen to have a set of hydraulic shears about your person it is relatively easy to slice through the Kevlar-reinforced vacuum-shrunk packaging (whilst reducing the contents to an unmentionable pulp) probably with only minor flesh wounds, at which point - once the first flush of triumph has faded - you can chuck the lot out and go get some bandages before trying to open a tin of something instead, first checking that your can-opener is certified for use on titanium alloys.

And then there's another of my pet peeves, those biscuit packets that come with a handy tear-off strip around one end, to facilitate opening - what bloody genius decided that the location of this strip should only be visible from inside the packet?

We were honoured by André's presence the other day, and he straightaway set to plumbing mightily on the first floor. Of course this involved turning the water off from time to time - great fun if you just happen to be, as it might be, actually in the shower - and a few imprecations which I shall not repeat because you are a) of a delicate nature and b) ignorant of French swearing, probably just as well as it can be quite inventive and extremely vulgar.

But that was OK, and eventually he left, having done his worst, and it wasn't until around 19:00 when I was cooking that I noticed that there was no water in the kitchen.This is not particularly convenient, but as I was sure that he'd just closed a valve and forgotten to open it again I went upstairs and looked at the handiwork. He'd installed a nourrice - sort of a distributor with hot and cold water coming in, and any number of feeder pipes going off in different directions to bathrooms and such, each with their own valve.

Easy, I thought: just leave the taps on in the kitchen and open valves until water starts spurting out - of course I'd forgotten that most of the pipes headed off to bathrooms as yet unfinished, with no taps at the end of them ... the resultant flooding was not particularly dramatic, and no drownings were reported.

After that débâcle I actually managed to get him on the phone and he suggested gently that I try taking the filter off the kitchen tap: sure enough, it was totally gunged up with a loose bit of Teflon that had got in there. I guess I shall never make a plumber.

And the next morning we woke up to find ourselves completely without water. Fortunately, before ringing André yet again and giving him a piece of my mind I looked outside and saw the municipal workmen wandering about, happily turning off mains supplies in preparation for a bit of work. Just as well, I was feeling rather paranoid by then.

Don't know about you, but I find this well worth a look. Then go take a look around the other articles while you're at it.

Whatever, I have received word from The Elder One that I've been a bit dilatory recently and that she is Not Impressed, so I suppose I really ought to push the go-button on this before anything worse happens. Mind how you go, now.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

ENIAC and I ...

You may recall that a few years back Margo bought herself a little Samsung N150 netbook, the "Wave of the Future!" or whatever: an admittedly pretty, but horribly under-powered thing imminently destined to be made redundant by tablets (the "New Future of Computing!") and full-fat phones with 10" screens or whatever. (So pretty, in fact, that I think it's only since it got tossed into the pile of "junk we might as well bring with us anyway, it might come in useful some day" that the protective plastic film came off it.)

(Incidentally, she just got herself an HTC Desire, which I personally find so bloody huge as to be unusable. I mean, whatever happened to the days when you could get a phone that would slip comfortably into your hip pocket, without fear of snapping it in two if you bent over, and which you needed to charge once a week if you talked a lot?

I sometimes feel that we've regressed somewhat, back to the time when your "portable" phone and associated battery pack was the size of a small sewing machine. Also, I feel a right dick holding up what feels like an A5 notepad to my ear ... but I digress.

While I'm digressing, we had a friend who'd kitted himself out with one of the first car phones, all those years ago. Good thing he had a Range Rover: he didn't really need a trailer for the batteries. Although it was a tight fit for two in the back.)

Anyway, despite the fact that Jeremy was not allowed within a five-metre distance of the thing, one day the screen did a Tennyson and crack'd from side to side anyway and it got slung into a box and came down here with us to The Shamblings™ where it led a quiet life in the dark until recently, when I had occasion to take one of my laptops - one of the pair with self-destructing disk drives - in to the local computer shop at Lézignan to have the fan looked at (for the CPU was getting up to 80°, which would be handy if I wished to fry eggs but is a bit hot for a computer) and thought I might as well take it in as well to see if they couldn't replace the screen.

The guy looked at it dubiously, and did the sucking of the teeth and the sighing of gloom, but promised to see what he could do ...

One week and 95€ later she was back, which was very convenient because Margo would rather like to have her laptop more or less permanently up in her office but still have something downstairs to browse the web of a morning (I told you, The Daily Fail and suchlike over her morning coffee) and that we could plug in to the big 27" Viewsonic monitor in the evenings for a gross-out session of Hawaii Five-O or whatever. So as I had at some point zapped the installed version of Windows 7 Starter Edition (have I ever mentioned that you just don't seem to get the installation DVDs these days?) I "just" had to download some version of Linux to get her fit for purpose.

That turned out to take a bit longer than I'd expected. I read up a bit on it, in between checking up on security bulletins to see if I needed to rebuild a kernel for Cla-Val to block some gaping security hole in their gear, and thought I'd try Mint with Cinnamon, which everyone agreed was a nice, lightweight system suitable for installation on a gruntless processor ...

Downloaded that, made a bootable thumb drive with it, installed it: so far so good, it worked. It even latched onto the WiFi here without my even asking: this was promising. Then I plugged it into the Viewsonic. OK, then I had to go into the system setup, ask it to check for a second screen - she found it, and up it came in glorious 64-colour 800x600 resolution. But it worked.

"Fear not!" I thought, "I have but to diddle with the parameters, and all will be well, and we shall be able to watch 'Death In Paradise' tonight" ... sad to say, it was not to be. I set the screen resolution to the native full-colour, 1920x1080, and lo! it changed - and then, 30 seconds later, reverted. I finally worked out that it was displaying a dialog box asking me to confirm the changes and that this dialog box was being displayed on the built-in screen at a location suitable for a 1920x1080 screen, which sadly made it invisible.

Eventually I also worked out the keyboard shortcuts required to confirm an invisible dialog box (in this particular case, hit "Alt" twice to get its attention, then "Tab" three times, then the "Enter" key on the numeric keypad - if you're interested) and did so, and it did indeed work. Sort of.

Because for some reason, running the external monitor at full resolution slowed things down to the point where you'd click on an icon, or on a button in a dialog box, and three minutes later something would happen. This is not what I would personally call a reasonable response time, so it was back to the drawing board.

I happen to like Fedora - mainly because for me, it just worked - so I thought I'd give that a whirl. Download, make another bootable thumb drive, install ... first thing you cannot help but notice is that the install screens just do not work on the small screen of a netbook. Trying to select the keyboard layout, for instance, causes a popup list to appear with the various layouts in it: unfortunately, only half of that list is visible, but the scroll bar seems to have a mind of its own and reckons stubbornly that what you see is what you've got so it does nothing. All you can do is bang hopelessly on the down arrow key - which will change the selected line but will, crucially, not bring it into view - and press "Enter" when you feel it's more or less in the right place.

After a couple of goes I got it to recognise the timezone as Paris and - I thought - the keyboard as French, and let it carry on installing: it chundered on for a while, cheerily told me that installation was complete, and would I please reboot. So I did, and it asked me to log on, and as I hadn't created a user I just tried to log on as root with the password I'd supplied ... after the third fruitless attempt I actually noticed that the date and time were displayed in Magyar, and that this probably did not bode well for the keyboard layout.

I had also downloaded Mint with Mate, and at that point I'd nothing to lose by trying that (I mean, apart from an hour's time faffing about, but I'll bill that to someone, one way or another) so I made yet another bloody thumb drive and let it install and - without, I must admit, too much optimism - took it downstairs.

Oddly enough I had to tell it to connect to the WiFi but - to my stunned-mullet surprise - when I plugged in the monitor it came up, straight away, native resolution and no noticeable delays. Not more than you'd expect from an Atom processor. The only tweak I had to make was setting the external display to be on the left side, because that's how it physically is and I see no point in straining my brain more than necessary.

Strange, but true. Go figure. Now I just have to work out why it is that the Adobe Flash player dies regularly, for that does little for the viewing experience. (Alright, I know, it dies because it is, in fact, Adobe Flash player and therefore a piece of shit. But still ...)

I know I said something at some point about how, sometime soon, the almonds would blossom and then, eventually, the wild plums (not feral prunes) would follow: got it wrong. Under normal circumstances this is indeed what happens but as it happens this year the plums are out first, enjolivating the roadside.

And incidentally, I could not but notice at the market that the first Spanish strawberries of the year have made their appearance. I shan't be buying any: I am not really one of those who abjure and abstain from any fruit that is not in season and grown locally, nor do I knit my own yurt out of farm-sourced sustainable yoghurt, but I must admit that I do like my fruit to have a bit of flavour.

And although every year it's the same thing - hope springing eternal wrestles bitter experience to the ground - I hope I shall be able to resist for just a little bit longer. At least until they start to smell, at which point I will be unable to hold out. (Do they, I wonder, make aerosols with strawberry smell in them, like they do ones with "new car" aroma? Bound to be a market out there.)

Forewarned, they say, is forearmed: I shall thus let you know now that Jeremy is headed off to NooZild on or about March 12th, for an indefinite stay. We must head up at the end of the month to remove him and all other superfluous junk from his apartment before he hands the keys over: then we come back down here with the junk and enjoy the pleasure of his company for a week or so before tearfully decanting him onto the TGV, hoping that he will not manage to miss the flight out of Charles de Gaulle.

If you need another reason to avoid Christchurch, that's where he's heading. Just saying.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Where The Huskies Go ...

One of Margo's more unpleasant habits involves reading The Daily Fail and other journals of that ilk over her breakfast. I don't know how she does it, I'd be spewing coffee all over my keyboard ... be that as it may, she was perusing the august HTML of Metro this morning, and felt obliged to point out to me the headline reading "Woman Finds Jesus in Bird Poop". More than that, I did not care to ask, so I cannot tell you whether it was just a portrait or an actual figurine. (Because I prefer not to believe that anyone could have a revelation contemplating sparrow-shit.)

In other news, you may recall that we fled Savoie to find decent weather. It was, then, somewhat to our disgust that around 10am unmistakeable snow started falling from the sky, blocking the busy streets of Moux. OK, there I might exaggerate a tiny bit, but there was actual snow, actually falling and momentarily whitening our terrace, and I have enclosed a photograph or two for your viewing pleasure.

And EBK has just come in: he is not a happy kitton. He's never met snow before, and quite frankly I think he could have done without the experience.

For your edification, an article on toad erections: the irresponsible practice of toad licking, reportedly popular among the more time-rich Australian youngsters. Don't say I never do anything for you.

Just saying, but should you happen to be a Bear of Little Brain, and it comes into your head to have a Bright Idea - such as it might be sticking the tepid bottle of crémant du Loire that your dinner guest has brought round into the freezer "just for half an hour" before sitting down to eat and, what with one thing and another, and there's quite enough to drink here at The Shamblings™ anyway, forgetting about it - well, let me just ask you to consider the possibility that you might be mistaken.

On the bright side, the freezer compartment needed defrosting anyway, although I suppose I could have just scraped it out and served the contents as (mostly) champagne sorbet ... it was also the occasion to rediscover tubs of ice-cream and all sorts of other stuff lurking at the back. I'm pretty sure that normal people do not freeze over-ripe bananas.

We've had the electricians in all last week, re-routing the phone line so that it actually winds up in my office, and stringing cables all over the place on the first floor so that Cédric can finish putting up the gib-board on the walls and ceilings. The idea is that the two top floors are completely rewired, with their own distribution board, so at least part of the house will be "conforme aux normes", as they say.

Of course, it would have to have been the coldest day of the year when they had to cut the electricity in the place, which incidentally means that the central heating was off. And it was after they'd left on Tuesday night that we discovered that they'd cut the phone line (OK, no blame, they could hardly have known that it actually arrives in what used to be our bedroom, they thought it was an extension) which meant no phone and so no internet and so no TV.

We had to spend an evening in one another's company. What, in heaven's name, did people do of an evening, back in the days before Al Gore invented the innatoobz? Play Scrabble? No wonder there was so much domestic violence.

Whatever, as I was making my rounds at the market the other day I was pleasantly surprised to come across some bigarade, better known perhaps as the bitter Seville orange. I can see that the immediate future is going to involve a bit of time spent at the stove, making marmelade. I still have fond memories of Keiller's Dundee marmelade with navy rum, although I don't know where I'd be able to get some of that. I suppose that I shall have to content myself with a shot of Grand Marnier.

Also, why in hell should Dundee, Scotland, become a centre of the marmelade-making trade? It's not as though bitter oranges grow on trees, not up there anyway. (Although apparently around here, they do. The season is short - I shall take advantage of it. And if ever I happen to find bergamot as well, I shall be extremely happy.)

It is supposed to be warming up next week: I for one will be extremely pleased if this turns out to be the case. Whatever, the days are getting longer and soon the almonds will be blossoming, then the pruniers sauvages will burst out in white and rather startling pink.

Oh, we still have a few months of chilly winds to look forward to but that's just one of those things, and it certainly makes you appreciate the central heating, and a decent (and copious) hot meal. Anyway, mind how you go, now.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Things That Piss Me Off ...

I tend to rather go on about it I know, but I really do wish that people would not rely on their high-school children or Google Translate to do an English version of the restaurant menu. All along the Mediterranean coast you can find the local version of bouillabaisse au rouille, vociferously claimed as their own by Nice and Marseilles: the rouille in question being a fiery concoction of hot red peppers mashed with olive oil in a pestle. Calling it "fish soup with rust" does not really do it justice.

Also, a côte de boeuf flambé au cognac should not, in my opinion, come out as "steak with outbreaks". Outbreaks of what exactly is unclear to me, possibly herpes but could be worse - whatever, it seems unlikely to incite the punters to try one.

In a dyspeptic aside (mood not helped by having a bad cold for the first time in a couple of years) some of you have asked what the mood is in France after the Paris killings. I have to admit that I've never really liked Charlie Hebdo: I can handle satire but theirs was resolutely stuck in the 18th century scatological mode. So no, I'm not going to go out and buy a copy of the latest issue: to turn that apocryphal quote on its head, "just because I defend to the death your right to say something doesn't mean I have to agree with it".

Yeah, the plan Vigipirate is at code infrared and I guess that in Paris there's a squad of soldiers in every Métro station: around here it's a little more laid back, although when the other day Margo got stopped at a police checkpoint (no she hadn't done anything, just random stops) one came up to check her papers and the other two stood back with submachine guns cocked and pointed ...

Possibly the worst bit is, as one of the French online satirical journals (, recommended) pointed out, "the enormous piles of hypocrisy confronting the Paris street cleaners all along the path of the march". Thousands march and millions buy a copy of Charlie Hebdo to support free speech: then the French arrest Dieudonné for cracking what could be considered an offensive joke and that upper class twit David Cameron wants to ensure that all communications are decryptable. What a laugh.

And of course the Turkish prime minister was there, marching to show support for free speech. And without even having a hernia or whatever it is that cognitive dissonance results in, back in Turkey he can say - with a straight face - "freedom of expression ... does not grant anybody the right to insult another’s beliefs ... In this country, we don’t allow insults to the Prophet".

I see his point, of course: free speech is a privilege that is not to be abused - by actually using it, for instance.

And another thing: when Linus Torvalds arose from the toilet one day many years ago, having locked himself in for four days whilst he wrote down the original source code for Linux (the dog later managed to play with the third toilet-roll, which may explain why the signal handling code is kinda crap and missing a few bits) he was doubtless a happy man.

I have no problem with that. Where I have a problem is when I wish to auto-instrument my code, so that ever - gods forbid - something like a divide-by-zero should occur, I can log this fact, and the address of the offending code.  This should be clean, and simple. Sadly, it is not. But after only two days on the toilet, reading kernel source and stack dumps, I have managed to do it. This should make me happy, but somehow there is festering resentment that I have to dig into non-documented holes in the code and then kludge the magic number 143 in to my routines.

Maybe I should try to become a more forgiving person, and perhaps drink more.

Don't know about you, but I keep having problems with Google Maps. "How can this be?" you cry, astounded. "Why, it is so simple that, unlike a VCR" (remember those?) "you do not even need a twelve-year old child to operate it!". True enough, but that is not my problem: it is just that it is either operating in some parallel universe (one of those squished butterfly wrong trouser-leg of Time things) or in some temporal zone which is not entirely contiguous with the one I happen to inhabit.

In a number of cases, having the occasion to head off to a garage or shop or whatever, the Great Google finds the place no problem, gives directions and off I head, only to find when I arrive in the middle of a deserted building site that the place I'm looking for was last seen in that vicinity some five years ago. In others, I get there to discover that it will be there, but not for another six months. It's the latter one that worries me some.

Recent excitement in our lives includes Margo vomiting, and Indra doing the same. Both our dogs are "normal", insofar as that word can be applied, and so the highlight of their daily walks is finding something repulsive under a toad - like a toad-stool (only actually poisonous if the toad's eaten something nasty) - and scarfing it down. Shaun, as befits his stolid, phlegmatic disposition, has a cast-iron constitution and bowels to match: sadly Indra, being a lady, is more delicate.

At least I now know the origin of the expression "sick as a dog" (incidentally, and exceptionnellement, it is identique in Frog-speak - "malade comme un chien"), and I can also say, as one will under the circumstances, "if you're going to eat mummified cat-shit, live with the consequences." Sadly it was we that really had to live with the consequences, because quite honestly she could care more about living in a pool of yellow lumpy barf.

Off to the vet who said something along the lines of "Wow! That must have been really bad cat-shit!" and gave a prescription for no food or water for a bit: Indra is not happy with this. I thought I'd been clever putting the water bowl up on the table, out of reach: turns out that it is not inaccessible to a gracile dog with a long neck.

As for Margo, she woke up in agony and proceeded to vomit everywhere, which occasioned a quick trip to the quack and then off to A&E at the Narbonne clinique. I suspect that A&E is the same everywhere on the planet: if they had one in the middle of the jungle in Papua you'd still have to sit for an hour on a chair made of skulls and sharpened bamboo whilst they registered you in the system before trotting off to the other end of the jungle to see a specialist for a scan. He too has a room-full of impatients.

Once that's done you just grab a convenient liana vine and swing back across the crocodile-infested river to get back to the waiting room where, if you're lucky, only an hour or so more will pass before some professional-looking person picks up your folder and wanders off with it ... then an ambulance comes in with a cargo of people who are really unlucky, so you go back to reading Gala. Which is, for some strange reason, the only reading matter available. My brain is starting to go green and drippy at the edges.

Whatever, the MRI scan (why one of those? Guess if you have a machine that goes "ping!" you want to get as much out of it as you can) confirmed the quack's diagnosis, which was that a kidney stone was making its way down. So she finally got a morphine drip to help deal with the pain, they decided to keep her in overnight until the thing hit the porcelain, and being of no immediate use I headed back home to deal with the hairy retards.

Just saying, but as I was idly toying with ideas for dinner it came to my attention that the estimable Mr Lebovitz (whom god preserve) had published this. I am not saying that you have to go and make it, just that you should give the idea serious consideration. As luck would have it there was a tub of cream cheese in the fridge rapidly approaching its use-by date, Margo had left the dregs of a jar of confiture de lait in there, and I managed to scavenge enough speculoos biscuits to make a smaller version, which turned out to be just the right size for two.

And then, last weekend we headed off, found, and ordered some 20m² of hideously expensive Italian tiles to go on the floor of the landing/corridor up in our apartment, and in a couple of the bathrooms on the first floor. I asked Cédric if he wouldn't mind picking them up from Montredon, but was kind of surprised when he dinged the bell this afternoon with a small palette on the back of his shiny new truck.

Twenty square metres of tiles comes to 13 cartons, each of eight tiles: each tile weighs in at about 3.5kg (yeah, I weighed a couple, just to see) which means that I have just shifted 400kg up 10 metres. Also, each carton weighs about 30kg. I weigh (without boots) around 65kg so there are plenty of people around who weigh 30kg more than me, and they seem to have no trouble shifting all that weight around. Me, I don't know how they manage it.

Finally, Provence is showing its ugly side, the one they don't talk about in the tourist brochures. The one where the sky is low and leaden, the cold lazy wind goes straight through you rather than taking the trouble to go around, and spiteful rain stings your face. At least we've not had the snow that has fallen abundantly in the Pyrenées and the Alps, and the central heating is still working nicely, thanks very much. Enjoy your summer, and the barbecues. Be our turn soon enough.