Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fresh Raspberry Chocolate Linzertorte

One last bit of baking from ‘Chocolate’ before university started.

Fresh Raspberry Chocolate Linzertorte
  • 230g of Hazelnuts
  • 110g of Unsalted Butter (room temperature)
  • 100g Icing Sugar (sifted)
  • 3 large Egg yolks
  • 200g of Plain Flour
  • ½ teaspoons of Baking Powder
  • 2 teaspoons of Ground Cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoons of Grated Nutmeg
  • 25g of Cocoa Powder
Raspberry Filling
  • 1½ tablespoons of Corn Flour
  • 5 tablespoons of Castor Sugar
  • 600g of fresh Raspberries

Toast the hazelnuts in a preheated oven at 180°C for about 20 minutes or until light golden brown. If the nuts still have their skin, put them in a clean dry dish cloth and rub them together to loosen the skins. Grind the skinned nuts to a fine powder in a food processor.

Put the butter into a mixing bowl and, using a wooden spoon or electric mixer, beat until creamy. Add the icing sugar and beat, slowly at first, until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and cocoa onto the mixture and work in using a wooden spoon. Finally add the ground nuts and work in, using your hands to bring the pastry together.

Take three quarters of the pastry and crumble it into the prepared tin. Using your fingers, press the pastry over the base and up the sides to cover the inside of the tin completely and form a layer about 1 cm thick. Chill for 15 minutes. Put the remaining pastry onto a well floured surface and roll out, slightly thinner, to a rectangle about 23 × 14 cm. Cut into strips about 1 cm wide.

Sprinkle the cornflour and sugar over the raspberries and toss gently until almost mixed. Transfer the filling into the pastry case and spread it gently and evenly.

Arrange the lattice strips over the filling, pressing any broken pastry back together. Bake in the preheated oven at 180°C for about 25-30 minutes, until the pastry darkens and is slightly firm. Let cool, remove from the pan and serve sprinkled with icing sugar.

See more pictures on facebook.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Prejudice and Opinion

'Well, Americans are stupid and racist.'

This opinion, presented as a fact was one of the most striking responses I received today when people heard that I had actually lived for nine months in the United States of America. Not only was this comment made spontaneously and entirely off-hand, almost an involuntary reaction, in fact (and yet with an alarming veneer of confidence), but it elicited knowledgeable and amenable nods and murmurs all round that showed unquestioning acceptance of this very vague view.

Having been fortunate enough to have travelled to, and lived for some time in the country, I could speak somewhat from experience when I challenged the speaker. Now, I understand fully that  for the majority of my nine months there, I was at Deerfield  Academy, whose selectivity  meant the people I met were singularly outstanding and almost without fail intelligently open minded. This, of course, was far from a cross section or microcosm of the USA at large, but that was enough to give me a leg to stand on when - without realising it - I began to defend America. Indeed, before I went to the United States, I took  quite a dim view of the country - it was expected. After all, my only sources of information were the news and popular opinion, which reported at length on the follies of America and the mistakes and shortcomings of the then president, George W Bush. Nobody really liked him, which reflected negatively on his country who were blamed for voting him into power at least once. American media is also to blame; American television and movies that propagate through most of the world present a largely unflattering view of American people and culture. Two wars, of which at least one had doubtful motives, and both of which were largely unpopular in the world did not help America's case. Still, I travelled there with a fairly open mind - I am thankfully slow to judge - willing to see for myself what the controversial country was about.

When I left nine months later, I was not exactly a patriotic Amurikan, but I had developed a respect for America, dismissed some preconceptions and learned new (and sometimes shocking or downright disturbing things) for myself. I had experienced a slender slice of America, and - as with any experience - found positives and negatives partout. The consumerism of America is fascinating and ghastly, and American marketing is appalling. Scenes of unimaginable beauty abound too, both artificial and natural. The peculiar American cultures and traditions, like Halloween and Thanksgiving, and the enthusiasm with which they are celebrated, lend a charm and independence to it. I neither love nor hate America, and I certainly do not agree with the above statement. Stupidity and racism (and any other generic negativity for that matter) exist everywhere, and so it is redundant to point it out in so general a space as a country. 

I could list all the things that I found attractive and abhorrent, balance them on either side of a scale and pass a verdict on the country, but once again, I would be making an all-encompassing generalisation, which is ultimately a fallacy. So I'll skip that and get to the real issue, which was not so much the opinion as the attitude. There is a song that suggests that if everyone in the world knew everyone else personally, there would no longer be international conflict or tension. That kind of idealism is questionable, but it does strike a chord with me.
I do not claim to be without misconceptions or prejudices - no one truly is - but I like to think I attempt to recognise vague opinion and rethink before I speak or judge. When I questioned the speaker further, pressing them for the personal experience that had given them such fervour and conviction, they told me they had 'spent a week on holiday in America once, and yeah...'
There's the issue: if people are so ready to make generalizations, based on vague notions, stubborn preconceptions and popular opinion, then they are robbed of the opportunity to experience, think, learn and then form an educated and personally motivated opinion. These opinions may not be accurate, or what might be considered 'right' by others, but at least they are well founded in first-hand knowledge and experience, and can therefore be reasoned through and defended with certainty. 

This universal experience and clear-sight is also an ideal, as there is just not the time or resources to allow everyone to know everything and everyone, but if we are able to recognise unfounded or shaky views, opinions presented as fact, originating both from ourselves and others, and to challenge their sources, then we will have taken a step in the right direction.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Niagara Falls, May 2009-

I dunno why, but this sign always makes me smile a little :)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Bold Statement: Facebook Note Editor

At times in the past, I've encountered those chain-notes that float around on Facebook extracting secrets, surprises and truths from people before fading and vanishing into the void. I duly pass along those that amuse or intrigue me, and - being me - I can't resist fiddling with the basic HTML-esque code that the lay user can insert into their notes to spice them up a little.

The problem was that in order to achieve a fairly simple look like this:

I needed to manually open and close each part of the HTML code around exactly the text I wanted formatted, which was a drag - although well worth it. The code for basic formatting ends up looking something like this:

Too simple and tedious to be fun for more than a special few. Ahem...

I therefore decided to try my hand at an editor that would make wonders of Facebook note formatting more readily accessible. I had very little hands on experience with HTML and web page coding, but my years of self taught VB counted for something. After banging my head against a wall of HTML for a few days, I finally cracked it (the wall, not my head). Pretty soon after that, I had constructed a passable note editor.

The main window, at rest

Editing. Just select a word, phrase or paragraph and click one of the format buttons along the top to
apply the corresponding fbHTML code. The colours help keep track of text and code.

The same text as published on facebook

A quick redesign of the splash screen at the suggestion of a friend who claimed the original one wasn't bold enough made it shine and live up to its name, and now I upload the first incarnation.

I know there are a some bugs; let me know about them and I'll do what I can for the next version. Also, there's a high likelihood that I've slipped up here and there, or left something out or could have done something better. Once again, tell me so I can attempt a remedy...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Widescreen Obesity and HDTV

Since the advent of widescreen televisions, be they Plasma, LCD or (the latest big thing) LED tvs, I have noticed something very odd: an affliction I like to call 'Widescreen Obesity'. These ultra slim (unbelievably so in some cases) and ultra shiny gadgets adorn countless households, borne of the frenzy not to be left behind in the consumer technology boom, and are the staple of display almost everywhere. Some of the time, technology noobs get the input right, the aspect ratios sync up, and all is well. Most of the time, however, especially when the input is a regular television broadcast - either NTSC or PAL, both of which the aspect ratio is 4:3 -, everything is stretched and distorted in order to fit the original aspect ratio into a 16:9 or 1.85:1 or some such mid-widescreen ratio. The end result is that everything onscreen appears noticeably fatter.

The weirdest part, for me at least, is that people seem perfectly okay with it. They proudly mount their sleek new screens on the wall, turn them on and seem never to notice that everything's messed up.  I believe that this is the moden version of the 'Emeperor's New Clothes'. They watch people who're obviously uncomfortably pulled, but cannot admit that this quite costly investment is - to all appearances - a bust. The solution, of course, is high definition television broadcast, which is sent out in widescreen resolution, but that is, as with any new technology, unaffordable and far from widely supported.
A less satisfying but more attainable answer, is to make standard a function that some screens have, that allows the ratio of the onscreen picture to be detected and adjusted accordingly. The downside to this is that after spending all that money on a massive screen, the final picture is only about as big as that of a 50cm 'old fashioned tv' after adjustment.

Even the letterbox format that most DVDs use doesn't fit. It doesn't stretch it, but instead leaves black bars above and below the picture, thereby wasting much of the valuable screen real-estate.

Speaking of high definition television... I think that it is one of the biggest gimmicks of all time. Think of the original chunky crt tv:

Remember them?

Well, I have a question: what was so lo-def about them? Really? Surely the images onscreen didn't look anything like this?


We've still got our trusty Panasonic Tsunami Home Theatre 54cm CRT TV, and my eyes do not suffer any mals because the picture is unclear or undefined. I cannot deny that the vibrance or sheer size of an HDTV is spectacular and colourful and very very attractive, especially to a tech-geek like me. But is it REALLY necessary?

It always tickles me when an advert for high definition television airs because they usually have some high action shot (I'm thinking of extreme urban cycling) set in some exotic and gorgeous location to grab your attention. The cyclists whip by, jumping against a clear azure sky, crashing into the rich ochre paving, while controversial camera angles steal your breath, and cranked up contrast turns everything glorious. Suddenly the camera zooms out and pans left to show some attractive and appropriately awestruck people being blown away by the picture on their oh so amazing LED HDTV. Yes, you say, I have to have that colour! That definition! That smoothness! All of which you've just seen on your very own, but now unworthy television. If you want strange cinematography and  unreasonably high contrast, just watch CSI Miami.
Another gimmick is high refresh rates. A standard screen's refresh rate is between 50 and 60Hz, which means the display is updated between 50 and 60 times a second. I think that's pretty often. Maybe I'm slow, but I can't make out that kind of change when I'm just, you know, watching TV. Newer televisions boast refresh rates of 100 and even 200+Hz. Really? It makes motion that much smoother that any human could notice? Once again, an old chunky box displays smooth - to the eye, which is what matters - movement.

Due only to societal pressures always to advance, even at the cost of sense and satisfaction, HDTV will one day be ubiquitous. But I already hear tell of new technology that allows SUPER DUPER MEGA ULTRA HIGH DEFINITION, which claims detail so fine it is 10 times smaller than current 1080p screens, approaching the definition of human sight. This is all very cool, but cooler still is that the human eye and brain can be tricked into believing that visibly clear and smooth pictures are, in fact, clear and smooth.
That should be enough for anyone who sees in colour and pictures, and not in numbers too large to comprehend, or too small to matter.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I was intrigued to notice people pulling rudimetary garbage trolleys around the streets in some areas. They would start in the morning with an empty trolley, as seen above, moving from dustbin to dustbin plucking out objects and placing them in their trolley. By the end of the day, they can be seen lugging precarious towers of garbage into the setting sun.
I soon realised that they were not simply rummaging through the bins, but actually extracting recyclable rubbish from them. They would then turn their spoils in at a recycling centre in exchange for nominal compensation. I was surprised to find that these recyclers were doing all of this under their own steam; I had assumed that they were employed in some way - given this job to do.

I think that this is a missed opportunity, primarily for government. The volume of recycling that these collectors get through by the end of each day is immense. If this could be harvested and coordinated, it would not only create productive employment in a novel way, it would also contribute significantly to country's recycling.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

'...hear them down in Soho Square, dropping h's everywhere, speaking English any way they like!'

As I listened to an Australian speaking on television the other day, I was struck by something. Their accent.

This got me thinking. I soon realised that many people who claim to speak English as their first language actually communicate in a sort of broken version of the real thing - not unlike that spoken by people for whom English is a second language. The amount of bending and contortion that the language undergoes before emerging from the speaker's mouth is incredible. Ironically, even the English are guilty of this, speaking in a delightfully round and clipped way that at times becomes difficult to understand.
People speaking English as a second language are often plagued by intonations and mannerisms that follow them from their first language. This accent, as far as I'm concerned, is very similar to that of a New Zealander, or an American Southerner, or a Liverpudlian in that all of them are so unique and flavourful that they almost stray from the path of English altogether.

Well, that was a remarkably short rant, but I've run out of things to say on the subject.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

'You only get them in big countries, like Africa, or India.'

On Friday, the Togolese soccer team were ambushed shortly after crossing the border into Angola on their way to an Africa Cup of Nations game. They were six kilometres into the country, in the tumultuous region of Cabinda when a team of gunmen opened fire with machine guns, killing three - the driver, team spokesman and assistant coach - and injuring eight.

Soon after this awful incident, murmurs surfaced - I'm not sure where from - that this gave rise to concerns about security in South Africa during the 2010 Soccer World Cup. This speaks to a very narrow minded view of Africa, as one giant chaotic wartorn country, which is patently untrue. Of course, parts of Africa (i.e. Countries) suffer more than their fair share of turmoil, hardship and conflict, but some of them have managed to achieve stability and prosperity. I lived for nine years in Botswana, which shares a border with ailing Zimbabwe, and yet it is a very rich and peaceful country. It is also probably the most boring and uneventful place on the continent.

For all the political bickering and parastatal scandal, South Africa is admirably peaceful and stable, and very ready to welcome the world. Yes, it does have an astronomical crime rate, there's no denying that; what annoys me is that this suddenly became an issue when viewed in light of this attack. South Africa is well known for its crime - no one should be surprised about that - but it cannot be compared or judged because of this attack in any way. South Africa and Angola are two disparate countries, with two very different temperaments. Angola is over 2,500 kilometres away, and yet people worry. This was an act of terrorism, not crime.  When the time comes, we'll have our criminals to deal with, not terrorists.
And we'll be ready.

Friday, January 8, 2010

iTunes - Genius? Almost, but not quite...


Basically, I'm stuck using iTunes because it's where all my music is. I'm too cautious to attempt a transfer into Media Monkey, I detest Windows Media Player, Nokia music is a joke, and so iTunes lingers on, long after my erstwhile ipod.

In some ways, iTunes is perfect. Media Monkey is too intense and technical for someone who loves listening to music for music's sake and needs their quick fix. iTunes is simple. It has five buttons and a hypnotic visualiser. What more could one want?

Well, I've thought of something.

Frequency vs. Play Count
iTunes keeps track of how many times you play each song, and that's all very well, until you realise that this number soon becomes a function of how long a song has been in your library. Passing crazes now sit neglected at the very top of the 'most played' smart list with 400 plays, while my new favourites must content themselves with hovering out of sight until they've mustered enough plays to take on the hogs.
Indeed, when I first started using iTunes, I was delighted to find this feature, the 'most played' playlist. I soon found that relying on this for my listening meant that 90% of my music was ignored. I've since remedied that by compiling a playlist called 'Whimsical' into which I've put all my top music (1900 songs at the last count!) and shuffling this gives me a  fairly even spread of good music.
But still, there's something missing: Frequency. I wish there was another column for each song where the play frequency was recorded. This would be truly valuable, because it would shift easily to accommodate the aforementioned passing crazes, and when I'd listened each to death and couldn't bear their being played again, they would fade quietly into obscurity.
I'm working on a small program that (with a little bit of luck) will do something like this, but it will still be clumsy, slow and graceless. Accessing the library and handling its sheer size are tasks best left to iTunes, which is why I hope that Apple stop changing how iTunes looks and start working on it!


Now Playing popup
The one thing I missed when I changed from Windows Media Player to iTunes was the now playing popup window. I have found a plug in that does something similar, and it works quite well, actually.

Intelligent playlists
As far as I can tell, the old 'Smart Shuffle' seems to have vanished. Maybe it's now standard rather than options, but it still falls short. I'm planning my own playlist maker which will ensure that artists/albums/genres/etc. are evenly spaced throughout a playlist. Now that would be a smart playlist.

Syncing with something other than an ipod
Pretty self-explanatory; I'm using my Nokia for music now, and getting music onto it is clumsy. I use iTunes Agent, and I intend to program something similar for my own use, but once again - it would be best if it were built into iTunes.


I've never found the iTunes Genius particularly helpful, but maybe I'm just stuck under a rock. I can say for certain, however, that iTunes would be truly scintillating if it did the frequency thing, at least. Please?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Panoramic 360 Degree Tripod: Doing it my way (with Lego)

While there may be a reality in photography more real than reality, the field of view of a photograph, even one taken with a wide angle lens, can never compare to that of one's eyes. There's a way to come close, though: Panoramic photography. Basically several pictures, usually taken panning across a landscape, are stitched together to give a greater field of view than that of any one picture. The result can sometimes be breathtaking.

Some cameras, such as my late Kodak M1063 (one of the best point-and-shoot cameras, in my opinion), had a three picture auto-stitch feature, which worked brilliantly. It went so far as to show you a little of the last picture in the viewfinder so that you could align the shot perfectly. Three clicks and a short wait later, and you had a perfect panorama.

The Canon I now use doesn't come with this feature, but what it did have was a nifty piece of  in-box software, Canon Photostitch. It works a charm as long as you've been careful when taking the pictures. The main problem I encounter when doing this by hand is that it is difficult to position the camera perfectly, especially when taking close up or 360° panoramas. This is because holding the camera in front of you and pivoting about your rough centre is wrong. When the subject of the panorama is far away, then this is negligible, but indoor panoramas - or those in enclosed or smaller space - are ruined.

Somewhere along the way, I heard of a panoramic tripod head, which differs from a standard tripod head in that it keeps the entrance of the lens at the same point in space as the camera moves. This is handy because it removes the error of parallax completely, allowing for seamless and natural looking panoramas.
I had to get me one.
So I looked it up online, and was surprised at the price. A good one can cost close to $100, and looks something like this. So that was out for me, seeing as my budget - besides not existing - doesn't allow for that kind of expenditure on a tripod.

My next step, of course, was to find an alternative. That's when I found this wikihow article, which explains how to make one from some wood. It seemed like I had the answer, but I didn't get around to it immediately. I then had a 'Eureka!' worthy moment (in more ways than one). I'd make one out of LEGO!

Now, Lego has come a long way from being merely some coloured blocks. I've had the Lego Robotics Invention System 2.0 for some time, and it seemed perfectly suited to the task. Combined with some pieces from my Vision Command set, I was able to construct my own motorised panoramic base.

It's not at all sleek, and it looks nothing like either the real thing or the wooden knock-off, but it works beautifully and left me feeling well chuffed.
I started building the cradle for the camera first, reasoning that this would be the hardest and most important part. Turns out I was right, and it took three attempts to get it just right. The thing about it is that I had to design - using only Lego - a support system for a camera of unobliging proportions. Had I used the VGA camera from the vision command set, it would've slotted neatly into any Lego contruction, being Lego itself, but then I'd have to settle for grainy washed out panoramas of approximately 5 megapixels. Sounds like a lot, yes, but that's spread across 18 pictures, the average panorama image. This way, I could use a 9.0MP Canon which would produces on average 100 megapixel panoramas at full size, a notable difference.

This, the first manifestation, was perfectly suited to holding the Canon SX110is. It even locked shut, so the camera could be securely tilted. The only problem was that it consumed too many pieces and left little for the construction of the base and motor structure. It was beautiful, but useless, so I reluctantly broke it up and tried again, bearing in mind the great Economic challenge of unlimited wants and limited resources.

The next was much more successful. It used about twelve major pieces, as opposed to the greedy monstrosity above. The compromise was that the camera would fit in from above and rely on gravity and side supports to keep it there.

This time, the part that didn't work was the counterweight and my choice of axis. In a moment of mental absence, I worked out that the whole deal would pivot about the middle (where the grey bits are). I then realised that the entrance to the lens would be considerably closer to the cradle, and therefore so would the pivot be. I'd finally hit on a promising idea; all that was left was to make it work.

Above is a profile of the final thing, camera included. As you can see, it's much stubbier and compact than v2, although it retains the camera support structure. Notice that the point where light enters the lens is above the pivot - the purpose of the entire exercise.

I used the chunky original Lego Bricks to form a rigid base, allowing the entire contraption to be moved easily and without fear of buckling. The reason for the vivid colours is that I didn't have enough black bricks.

The cradle worked out surprisingly well, considering the clash between the perfect harmony of Lego and the weird bulbous intrusion that is the camera. The Canon slips easily in, but is firmly secured once it rests on the pedestal inside the cradle.
The brain that runs the whole thing is the yellow Lego RCX Brick, a little marvel of technology, with three output ports for motors and lights, and three input ports for touch, light, temperature and rotational sensors. I needed only one motor and two touch sensors (bottom, right).

I used one Lego motor and two consecutive worm-gear set-ups at right angles (left). One worm gear is usually slow and powerful enough, but I wanted to be safe and not stress the motor. The second worm gear means that the axle's movement is almost undetectable, but its torque is almost inexorable.
The stiffness and shape of the shutter button, combined with the inverse relationship between speed and power when using Lego gears meant that I was unable to make an automatic shutter. That would've been nice, because then the machine could spin a full circle taking pictures on its own. My attempts at an automatic shutter actuator ended up squeezing the cradle to pieces without ever taking a picture. Perhaps next time. As it stands now, I use the little blue gadget (right) to press the shutter button. I use a custom timer that waits a second before taking the picture, so that any shake introduced by my pressing has time to stop.

When I get up the nerve to take this one apart, I'm hoping to make one that looks a bit more like the real thing, with motorised movement in both the X and Y axes, or an automatic shutter.

Normal panoramas, with three to nine component images, like those below, can usually be displayed as is, and one can fully appreciate the scope of the picture.

The effect of 360° panoramas is not so readily apparent. At a glance, it looks like a very long, but stock standard panorama. Things close to the camera are very distorted, and the whole picture rises and falls as you move from corner to corner if it's in a small space. Upon closer inspection, you might notice that all four walls have somehow made it into one picture, or that the two opposite edges of the picture seem to match up.
Unfortunately, the stand is not very portable and so I have not yet braved the outside world with it. All the panoramas I've taken it with have been perfect, but boring, mostly of the inside of our house.

The one below was taken at sunrise in our garden.

Still, this is not enough. To get a true sense of the scope of a full panorama, it needs to be viewed like this.

(I have no idea if this will work. If it doesn't, then click here to open the panorama in a separate window.  I think there's an issue with Firefox, but Safari seems to work fine. If that doesn't work then you'll just have to imagine the picture wrapped around your head)

Mail & Guardian