Pancake mix

It’s Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras. Or, as we usually call it round these parts, Pancake Day. So I made some pancakes. Hey, it’s as good a reason as any, right? What I don’t get, though, is the existence of a product called pancake mix.

Pancakes are really, really easy to make. You mix eggs, milk, flour, and a dash of oil or melted butter. Maybe a bit of sodium bicarbonate if you like. It doesn’t even have to be wheat flour: almost any starch will do. I’ve used yam flour and rice flour to make gluten-free pancakes very successfully in the past. If you want thick, American-style pancakes, add more flour; add less for crêpes.

And yet, every year, the shops are full of packets of pancake mix. Pancake mix! And people buy it! The very idea that someone would take a recipe so trivially simple, made with everyday basic ingredients, and commoditise it into a branded product—well, it makes me quite irrationally angry.

There’s something disempowering about the whole thing. What was once a simple recipe made with things that everyone had in their larder is now cast as a niche product that can only be manufactured with the assistance of corporations.

Perhaps I’m overreacting. I’ll tell you what, though: come the end of civilisation, it’ll be the people who bought ready-made pancake mix who die out first.

Do I need a tinfoil wallet now?

I just had my first experience of contactless payments, and it didn’t really fill me with confidence.

I’m in the local CostCutter (note: does not actually cut costs) to pick up a bottle of white wine.

— That’s £7.75

— Do I put my card in here?

I gesticulate towards the nearer of the two chip and pin handsets.

— The minimum’s £8. Wait, what kind of card is that?

I show her.

— Oh, it’s contactless.

I’d never really given any thought to that logo on my card up till now.

— But I haven’t put any money on it. I’ve never used it before. I’m not sure it’ll work. Well, let’s see!

She takes the card and waves it in the general direction of something on the till. Something beeps. A till printer cranks into action.

I wait expectantly for my receipt.

— Oh, you don’t get a receipt with these.

She shows me her printout with the correct amount to reassure me, but I’m still confused and a little terrified.

As a transaction, it works, but the human dimension seems to have been missed by the designers of the system. As a purchaser, I don’t know what’s really happened. Something went beep. I think I’m now £7.75 worse off, but I don’t really know.

Worse, I’m now confused. It seems like I can now conveniently pay without taking my card out of my wallet. But if I have two cards with contactless features, which seems quite likely as I carry a bank card and credit card, and the banks push the technology on us without asking, which card gets used? How close is close enough to pay?

And, apparently, by summer, the Oyster card readers will accept contactless cards. Will it be smart enough to use the same card at both ends, or will TfL shortly benefit from massive growth in bogus incomplete journey charges?

Once you take out physical contact from the purchasing process, it all gets a bit too easy to spend money for my liking. Maybe that’s why it’s being pushed.

Do I need a tinfoil wallet now?

Chūgoku

How did Yahoo come to render the name of the Chugoku Expressway (a motorway in western Japan) into English as China Road?

Some 14 cars in all were involved in the chain-reaction crash on an expressway named China Road in Yamaguchi prefecture, leaving 10 people with minor injuries.

The name Chūgoku (中国) in Japanese refers both to the country China and to a region of western Japan. In both cases, the literal meaning is middle country (or kingdom); in the latter, that’s a reflection of the fact that Japanese culture was historically centred a bit further west than it is now.

But isn’t that confusing? Not really; the context is usually clear enough, though the tourism industry is a notable exception. It’s no worse than having Georgia refer to both a state of the US and a country in the Caucasus: in practice, it’s rarely an issue.

Here’s coverage of the same incident from a Japanese newspaper:

山口県下関市の中国自動車道で4日に発生した高級スポーツカーなど14台が絡んだ事故で、14台のうち8台がフェラーリ、1台はランボルギーニ、3台はベンツ、2台はトヨタ車で、自動車販売店などによると、フェラーリとランボルギーニの車体価格は約1600万~3000万円台で、総額2億円程度とみられる。

In this instance, the road in question is called 中国自動車道 (chūgoku jidōshadō), usually and officially given in English as Chugoku Expressway. You could translate it literally as China Car Road, but that would be wrong. Moreover, you’d have to be able to read Japanese without actually knowing anything about the geography and culture of the country. My hypothesis is that someone put a Japanese article through an automatic translator and tidied up the English.

Merry October!

Hearing that the Christmas decorations have already gone up in Oxford Street has given me an idea for how we could resist the annual months-long assault on taste and decency. It’s a very simple idea.

Between now and December, every time that you visit an establishment featuring an indecently-early Christmas-themed display, greet each employee with a hearty ‘Merry Christmas!’ They’ll be sick of the whole thing by Hallowe’en.

Banking is hard

I recently signed up for email notification of my credit card bill. I received my first ‘Payment Due’ email a few days ago, and—well, let’s just say that it’s not entirely accurate:

Hello Rajesh,

The next payment for your Barclaycard Visa card account ending 2007 is due on 14 Oct 11.

I’m not called Rajesh, my card number does not end in 2007, and my payment is not due on that date. But apart from that, flawless service.

It doesn’t fill you with confidence, does it?

Working for the Man

Tomorrow is the start of my second week at my new job, working for the Government. Working for the Man. Maybe we are the Man. It’s probably different from what you might expect: I still don’t wear a suit to go to work, for example. So far, I’m really enjoying it.

More specifically, I’m working for Government Digital Service on the single government domain project. Government procurement is typically associated with big consultancies, bigger budgets, and long delivery timelines. By contrast, this is being developed in-house by a small team using agile practices—and we’re going to do it better!

Some of you might find it, well, surprising that I’d choose to go and work for the government, but the idea of making government online services actually good feels pretty revolutionary and even a bit seditious. Given that some amount of government is necessary (which is, I think, accepted by most people with the exception of anarchists), it’s also necessary for people to interact with the various arms of the state, but the online facilitation of this hasn’t always been as good as it could be (to be generous). I’ve got a chance to be part of the solution, and to work on a project with national impact that really should make things better for everyone in the UK.

If you want to know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, you should probably read:

It really does feel like working in a start-up: there’s a lot to do in a short time, and a sense of energy and urgency about the work. I’m finding it quite invigorating.

Recreating Club-Mate

I first tried Club-Mate at Metalab in Vienna in 2006, but I hadn’t drunk it again until I was in Berlin last month for Euruko 2011, where it was freely available. Over the course of a weekend, I grew to like it. It’s a German soft drink brewed from yerba mate, and it’s popular with hacker types in Germany. There is a UK importer who sells it by mail order, but as it’s a bit expensive and inconvenient, I thought I’d attempt to recreate the drink.

I used the OpenCola recipe as a benchmark for quantities, and adjusted the amount of sugar using the nutritional information of Club-Mate. The recipe’s pretty simple: mix hot water, yerba mate, sugar and lemon juice, leave to brew and cool down, filter out the bits, and you have the syrup. This is then diluted with carbonated water to make the final beverage.

Here’s the recipe for the syrup (yields about 500ml):

50g yerba mate (with stems/con palos)
500ml water (boiled and allowed to cool slightly)
250g unbleached cane sugar
5ml lemon juice

Mix ingredients and stir well. Allow to cool for 1 hour. Remove larger particles using a cafetière and allow to settle. Alternatively, you could make a monstrous teabag with some muslin and save a lot of effort with the cafetière.

To prepare the beverage, mix 1 part syrup with 5 parts carbonated water.

I used Rosamonte yerba mate con palos, which conveniently gives nutritional information on the side for 50g in 500ml of water—exactly what I used. On this basis, the finished drink according to my recipe contains 0.16g of caffeine per litre, slightly lower than the 0.20g of the genuine article.

My verdict? It’s pretty close, at least, as far as I can tell without having a bottle of Club-Mate to compare it with. It tastes like it might be a bit too sweet, although my measurements tell me it has less sugar than the real thing. Let me know if you try it or come up with any improvements.

I subsequently discovered that I’m not the first to try: I’ve come across some other attempts to recreate the beverage, some of which require more complicated equipment.

Lie down with Adobe, get up with a broken cross-platform strategy

Sells cross-platform solution; drops platform support

I’ve said in the past that I think the BBC’s approach to cross-platform support is flawed. In summary, instead of using non-preferential open standards and protocols1, it relies heavily on a single supplier—Adobe—to support multiple platforms. It turns out that relying on Adobe for cross-platform support is not a very sensible thing to do.

Monocultures tend to be harmful, and Flash retards innovation: you can port a web browser to almost any platform with enough memory and MIPS, but you can only run Flash on devices for which Adobe has ported it and on which they will license you to use it2. The barrier to entry for new systems and architectures is thus higher than it needs to be. We’ve been using 64-bit computers for years, and yet Adobe still hasn’t managed to port the chthonic horrors3 of the Flash codebase to 64 bit Linux4. Apple has in fact done the world a huge favour by making Flash seem simultaneously undesirable and unnecessary.

If you want to use the BBC iPlayer and you’re not using one of the blessed platforms that get a custom implementation, you have to use Flash, because it’s cross-platform, innit?

Well, yes, it is cross-platform, insofar as it works on a few of them: Windows (Intel architectures only), OS X, and Linux (x86 only).

There’s also an offline application, the iPlayer desktop. That’s cross-platform, too: it uses Adobe Air. I say it’s cross-platform, but with Adobe’s attentions and engineering standards being what they are, Air was only ever available as a 32-bit Linux build, and I could never get it to work on my 64-bit machines.

That’s possibly one of the reasons it’s had such a low uptake, along with the fact that Air applications feel unpleasantly alien on every platform, of course.

And that’s why Adobe has given up on Air for Linux.

But the really important point is this: if your cross-platform solution relies on the vagaries of a single supplier, it’s not really cross-platform.

I doubt that many people will mourn the loss of Adobe Air, but the corollary is that the BBC iPlayer desktop can no longer claim to support Linux.

That’s a shame, but it was also an utterly predictable consequence of the strategy of relying on Adobe.

1 The iPlayer for iOS uses plain old HTTPS, but manages to lock things down by checking that the device has an Apple-signed client certificate. All open standards, but not a level playing field.

2 “Authorized Operating System(s)” means the desktop or standard-laptop version(s) of the operating system(s) set forth in Exhibit A […] For the avoidance of doubt, “Authorized Operating Systems” does not include embedded or device versions of such operating systems.

3 Have a look at the RTMP spec, for example: the endianness of the protocol is not even consistent. That’s not the hallmark of good engineering practice.

4 An alpha build of Flash for Linux x86_64 was available for a while, but they withdrew it after one of the regular cross-platform zero-day vulnerabilities was announced. Yeah, that’s right: the exploits are cross-platform, too. D’oh.

The Daily Express is racist

One can imagine that one of the tasks of sub-editors at the Daily Express is to go through the copy and change all references to darkies to ethnics or non-whites instead, in the mistaken belief that that somehow makes the whole thing not racist. Perhaps it’s even an automated computerised process.

It’s still racist.

This is the Express’s front page for today:

BRITAIN'S 40% SURGE IN ETHNIC NUMBERS

9 million living here are non-white, says government report.

So what? It’s true, but … so what? Didn’t we have enough of the idea of racial purity after Germany, Yugoslavia, or Rwanda? Nothing good can come of this line of thinking. What matters is how people get on with each other and with the rest of society, something that this front page does nothing to contribute towards.

The huge rise over just eight years means more than nine million people in England and Wales – equivalent to one in six of the population – are now from a “non-white” background.

Why does it matter what colour they are? Plenty of people immigrate from elsewhere in the EU, but the Express doesn’t care about that. It’s the number of “non-white” faces that it focuses on.

I don’t know how these statistics were measured, but it’s also worth pointing out that children from mixed couples will augment the number of people from a “non-white” background. Unless you’re an armchair racial theorist obsessed with the dangers of miscegenation (the Daily Express’s target market?), that’s actually a positive story about immigrants integrating into society. We know that Muslims are more likely to marry non-Muslims than Christians are to marry non-Christians, after all [link to follow].

“And if immigration continues at this rate our population will hit 70 million within 20 years and immigrants will account for half of new households. We are already feeling the pressures on maternity units and schools.”

At last, an argument that’s not obviously racist. However, it’s flawed. First, there’s nothing magic about the number 70 million. Second, more immigrants means more taxpayers—as you may recall, immigrants are a net contributor to society through their taxes. We’ll need to build more schools and maternity facilities, but we’ll have more money to pay for those things.

In contrast, the number of white Britons has remained static over the same period.

And here’s something that’s just not true: a table in the same paper shows that the number of “White Britons” fell from 45.72 to 45.68 million over the 2001-2009 period mentioned.

Next time someone starts wringing their hands about how free online news is destroying newspapers and quality journalism, show them this and raise an eyebrow.

Vote YES to AV

Tomorrow is the last chance for electoral reform in our lifetimes.

The choice is between AV, the Alternative Vote, and FPTP, First Past The Post, the current system. Other forms of voting exist, but tomorrow’s choice is simple:

  • Yes: change the system to AV
  • No: stick with the current system

Be assured: voting No is a vote for the status quo. You won’t get another choice for PR or MMP or anything else at a later date. In this respect, the referendum echoes the binary choice that is often forced on voters by FPTP.

If you believe the Conservative narrative, FPTP delivered three terms of a Labour government that left the country broken and destitute.

If you believe the Labour narrative, FPTP has delivered a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government that is going to destroy the NHS, education, and leave the poor and disabled to starve.

If you believe either (or, indeed, both!) of those narratives and still think that FPTP serves us well, I’d invite you to interrogate your internal assumptions very carefully.

Some of the arguments against AV are rather specious: in particular, I refer to the idea that some voters are counted multiple times. This is meaningless from a mathematical perspective, but it also misses the point, which is to return a candidate with broad support from the constituency. In this respect, the fact that the Monster Raving Loony candidate is eliminated early and his voters’ second preferences go to a more popular candidate does not give them multiple votes: rather, it results in the returning of a candidate with wide appeal and greater legitimacy.

AV will, for the first time, allow us simply to vote for the people whom we want to represent us. No longer will we be forced into a binary choice between the only two possible winners in a constituency. No longer will we have to second-guess our neighbours’ voting patterns in order to cast our own ballots. No longer will the ballot choice resemble a dilemma from a dissertation on game theory. No longer will the direction of government be determined by the votes of a few tens of thousands of swing voters in marginal seats.

I encourage you to read a couple of very good posts on the subject before you vote:

  • Is AV better than FPTP?—a mathematician’s analysis of the subject that addresses many of the No to AV campaign’s arguments
  • On AV—a discussion of the relative merits and demerits of AV, FPTP, and PR

Vote yes tomorrow. Vote for a better system. Vote for a change, because it’s your last chance in this lifetime.