Friday, 30 December 2005

HP Printer

I discovered last week that if I was setting up my own business to be able to offer freelance consultancy services, it would be a good idea to invest in a printer. Up until now, I would print the odd page I had to print in the office. Obviously, if the office is now my home, I need a printer at home. So, I went to the Apple store to find something that would work well with my Mac. I ended up choosing the HP Officejet 7410 all-in-one. What sold me to this printer is:

  • The price is right, less than £400 for a printer/scanner/fax/photocopier is good;
  • It can do double-sided printing;
  • It can connect to a wireless network;
  • It is completely supported on Mac OS-X;
  • It is quite fast.

The Apple store says it can deliver it in 2 to 3 weeks. So I was very surprised when it arrived today, two days after I ordered it.

I followed the installation procedure step by step until I got to installing then ink cartridges. The printer wasn't happy with the cartridges and told me so, saying I should check them and insert them again. Which I did. 3 times. I went through the troubleshooting section in the manual. Nothing. I went to HP's online support and found a promising entry that involved cleaning the copper contacts on the cartridges. I did. 3 times. To no avail. So I tried the next step: clean the contacts on the carriage itself. No luck. I went back to the manual and found the support phone number. I called. The UK number directed me to a call centre that was obviously somewhere on the Indian sub-continent. I was asked for a lot of personal details in order to create a file for me, details that I had already given via the support web site, and this even before I had a chance to mention anything about the problem. After a good 30 minutes, the conclusion of the support guy was that the printer was defective and needed to be replaced. This is where I was offered two options: either get the original provider (in this case the Apple Store) to replace the appliance or get a direct HP replacement but if it was replaced by HP directly, it would be a refurbished printer, not a new one.

How can HP even begin to think that it might be remotely acceptable to replace my brand new non-working expensive piece of kit with a refurbished one? I wonder.

So I called the Apple Store. The call was answered very quickly and in 10 minutes they had arranged for a new printer to be delivered to me and the old one picked up. The only thing I have to do is pack everything back in the box and write a return number on it. They do the rest.

the final support score is:

Apple Store

Rain drops

Every year, people in the UK wish for a white Christmas. More often than not, this wish is not granted, especially in London. Outside of London, temperatures very seldom go low enough for snow to form. In town, it happens even less as it is always a few degrees warmer.

Then yesterday, we had about 2 minutes of snow and we were all hoping it would transform into real snow today. Tough luck, we got rain so I took a picture of the drops on my bedroom window.

Thursday, 29 December 2005

The mystery of the # key solved!

If you have a recent Mac with a UK English keyboard, you might have noticed that nowhere on the keyboard is there a key with the # symbol (aka hash in the UK, aka pound in the US). I have lost hair trying to find out how to print one without resorting to the character palette. I just found the answer to the problem on HTML Dog: press left alt + 3. Similarly, to obtain the € symbol, press left alt + 2. However, the € is marked on the keyboard, the # symbol isn't. Surely Apple could have gone the extra mile (or rather the extra nanometre in this case) and marked the # symbol on the keyboard? Or maybe they could have used the same UK English layout that is used with PCs? Anyway, that's one mystery solved.

Wednesday, 28 December 2005

Time Piece

I need a new watch. I accidentally broke mine a few months ago. I suspect I could have it repaired but then I would miss the excitement of getting a new toy. I also want a watch that can handle multiple time zones so that I can check the time at home while I am travelling. I also thought that a radio controlled watch that I would not need to set would be a cool thing.

I've never seen anything like this in the shops here. Ok, I haven't looked very hard.

So rather than go out in the freezing cold of London, I decided to see if Google could help. And indeed it could. By giving it the query watch traveller multiple time zone radio controlled, it came up with Handy Watches, which looks like a nice UK site with a lot of choice, and Watch Report, which looks like a good advice site, with lots of models tested. Browsing the latter, I ended up finding YES Watches. I'll grant you that none of those watches are radio controlled but they are beautiful time pieces and, as a keen photographer, having solar and lunar rhythms on my wrist would be just great. I love them, especially the black titanium models, obviously the most expensive. Digging a bit further, I found out that you can buy them online from ThinkGeek or

Interestingly enough, I want one of those doesn't have them but if you search their products for yes watch, you end up finding some watches and... pole dancing experience vouchers.

Merry Christmas!

I hope you all had a great Christmas. I spent mine in Dijon, Burgundy, France, with my family. As usual, there was a lot to eat and drink. This year, deer was on the menu, which is quite traditional in that region of France. And then yesterday, just before I left, we had snow! Not much but enough to turn the roofs of the town white.

Some people might notice that the photograph was not taken at Christmas but a couple of weeks earlier. If you look closely at the reflection in the decoration, you might recognise the setting of a traditional English pub. I didn't even think of taking a similar one when in France and I don't have a Christmas tree at home.

Wednesday, 21 December 2005

Drunken Cooking

Right, I'm drunk while writing this. Something to do with a few too many bottles of wine in the company of a mad Venetian and a mad Slovenian. Ladies. Yes, ladies but mad. One used to be my flatmate, the other one is my neighbour. They are both lovely. But mad. End result, we drunk way too many bottles of Chardonnay (or rather I drunk way too much of it while they were sipping it).

So, the end result is I came home wanting food and I had lots of raw ingredients in the fridge. But I was still sober enough to remember Irina's email I got earlier today, on how to make sure a grown man won't cry. This involved putting salt on the onion while peeling and cutting it. It worked! I didn't cry. And then I got on with my cooking, ending up with this beautiful mushroom, scallop and salmon brown basmati rice. Very healthy while very filling.

So I might be drunk but I can still cook. Or so says my stomach. A big kiss to Irina for the salty tip as I'm not crying tonight.

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Ice Skating

I went ice skating today, at Kew Gardens. Every year in winter they have this outdoor skating ring and it's great. The price is sort of reasonable: £10 for 1 hour, including rental skates.

I was a bit shaky on my feet at first because I hadn't skated for years. But then it's like cycling or skiing: once you're back on the ice, your body remembers. After 10 minutes I was ok and really enjoying it. However the weather is quite mild at the moment considering it's the end of December so the ice was quite wet and deteriorated very quickly. The rental skates were also quite blunt. This plus the fact that I'm a very average skater meant the skates were constantly sliding sideways so it was a bit more strenuous than it should have been.

All in all it was a great exercise and I really enjoyed it. I'll have to go try the rink at Somerset House to compare.

Monday, 19 December 2005

How to make a grown man cry

Get him to peel and slice onions, I tell ya! I was crying my eyes out making this gratin Dauphinois last night but the result was worth the pain. That's what you get when you spend too long at home away from work: you end up trying unusual things like cooking.

So for whoever is interested, here's my recipe. You will need, per person:

  • 1 Onion;
  • 100g of or bacon;
  • 3 big or 5 small potatoes (you can mix in sweet potatoes);
  • 100ml of single cream;
  • 200g grated cheese or fresh mozzarella;
  • some butter or oil to fry the onions and lardons.

Start boiling a saucepan of water to cook the potatoes, while peeling and cutting the onions. If using bacon, cut it in small strips.

Fry the onions in butter (or olive oil if you prefer) on a very gentle fire in a small frying pan. If you have a real non-stick frying pan, you can leave them frying on their own without having to check too much. Make sure they don't burn and if they do bring the fire down. In the meantime, put the potatoes in your boiling water and let them boil away. Also start pre-heating the oven on a grill setting or whatever setting that heats only from above. If you are planning on drinking white wine with it, pour a little over the onions.

Have a break. A glass of the wine you poured on the onions will do nicely at this stage.

When the onions are getting to a nice golden colour, pour in the lardons.

When the potatoes are cooked (stick a knife through them to check), take them out of the water and let them cool down a bit. Peel them off and cut them in thin slices. If using mozzarella, cut it in small pieces.

By now, the lardons should be properly fried so pour the onions and lardons in an oven safe dish so that they cover the bottom. Arrange the slices of potatoes on top. Pour the single cream on top so that everything bathes in it. Add salt and pepper to your liking. Sprinkle the cheese on top making sure you cover the whole surface.

Put in the oven until the cheese is a nice golden brown colour, as in the picture.

Enjoy with a nice dry white wine.

Monday, 12 December 2005

High Speed Downloads

I wanted to download NeoOffice today, an OS-X office suite based on The package file is 107 megabytes so there was plenty of opportunity for the download to get cancelled. This is where I discovered curl. I suppose this tool is available on Linux and other variants of UNIX so *nix gurus who know about it, you can stop reading now.

curl is a command line download tool that is full of useful options. The simplest way to use it is to trigger a resumable download. The easiest way to do this is to issue the command curl -C - -O remote-file. The -C - option tells curl to resume the download where it was previously stopped. So if the download is interrupted for any reason, rerun the same command and it will find where to pick up from. The -O options tells it to store the file locally with the same name as the remote file. You can specify a different file name with the -o option of you wish.

This is the basics but curl is much more complex than that. In particular, it can download a series of file that follow a logical numeric or alphabetic sequence. It can also use multiple threads to speed up download. The best thing is to type man curl to have a look at what it can do.

Does it work and how fast is it then? You bet it does: it took me 10 minutes and 36 seconds to download the 107 megabytes of NeoOffice over a 2Mb broadband connection, which amounts to curl using 2/3 of the bandwidth, thus being fast but still letting me surf the net at the same time. Nice toy.

Cool Servers

How sexy can a rack mounted server be? What about the processor that is inside? Not very much. Unless it was designed by Sun Microsystems. I was in their city offices on Thursday and discovered their new servers with technology, based on the new processor, also known as Niagara (see also the Wikipedia article). When I first read about Niagara earlier this year, I thought it was cool technology but was really lab stuff and would not be available any time soon. Obviously Sun had other plans.

So what's this chip about then? It is an 8-core processor with 4 threads per core. This means that it has 32 simultaneous threads of execution. Compare this to the newest chips from Intel that are dual core, with 2 threads per core for a total of 4 simultaneous threads of execution. But who would need a processor that can do 32 things at the same time? Obviously it is not geared towards the personal PC or workstation market, but it is ideal for web servers and applications servers, machines that receive thousands of requests a second.

The chips are impressive when reading the spec but what really brought it home was seeing the schematic diagrams of the chip. It is pure Sun: elegant, well designed, a real work of art. If we can talk of The Art of Computer Programming, we can surely talk of The Art of Processor Design. And Sun are masters of their art. But more importantly, the direct result of such a well thought out design is that the chip is extremely resource efficient. It requires less power than other equivalent processors and doesn't heat as much. The heat chart is amazing, I wish I could find a version of it online.

Anyway, for more by Sun people themselves, see their weblogs:


Friday was a very strange day. It was the day we closed the office for good. By lunchtime, we had no desks, chairs or phones. So those amongst us who still had some work to do were doing it on the floor. The rest of us were going to the skip to throw away what nobody wanted to take home. Then at about 5, we took the last photo of the 5 of us that were left, in the empty office, and we went to the pub, were quite a few former colleagues joined us. It was a very emotional and drunken evening and I eventually staggered home around 4am.

Thank you to all the people I worked with while in this job, we had a great time and I, for one, learnt an awful lot. But it was time to turn the page and start a new chapter. I bet it will be as exiting as the previous one, if not more.

Tuesday, 6 December 2005

Quotes of the Day

From the same article at the BBC, one of the most meaningless technical comment ever:

The Xbox 360 is the first next generation games console.

Lawsuit targets Xbox 360 console, BBC News

And very sensible business advice:

If you are going to have after a company, you might as well go after one with lots of cash.

Paul Jackson, Forrester Research

Monday, 5 December 2005

Broken Branch Locator

I am currently filling out a direct debit form. In the form, like in all direct debit forms, they require the full address of my branch, information that I never have with me because HSBC claim that everything can be done from any branch and the only place where I have this full address is on my cheque book that I never, ever use. So, seeing that we are in the age of the Internet and that everything can supposedly be done online, I go to HSBC's web site to check the address of my branch. Once there, I need about 10 minutes to find the branch locator application which is reachable by going through the Contact us section and clicking through a couple of vaguely related links. So far so good. I'm only mildly annoyed because I seem to remember a direct obvious link from the home page. Then I click on the nice map of the UK until I narrow it down to OL postcodes and there at the top of the list is Ashton-under-Lyne, the branch I'm looking for. I click and I get:

There is no HSBC branch in Ashton-under-Lyne.

How did that happen? And when? Were they all abducted by aliens while I was sleeping? Did they close the branch recently but only half updated their branch locator? The most likely explanation is that their branch locator is simply broken. By that time I am quite annoyed as I've been trawling through their web site for a good 15 minutes in search of information that should be easy to find. Luckily, I went through the Contact us section before so I click on the Feedback section and explain my problem:

I have had an account with your Ashton-under-Lyne branch for 11 years so I am quite sure of its existence. However, when I went to the HSBC site to check the address of the branch, your branch locator claimed there was no branch in Ashton-under-Lyne. Note that this was after I had to navigate your web site in inventive ways as there is no obvious link to the branch locator from the front page. I do understand that in this day and age, when everything can be done through the internet, less and less people need the details of their branch but it would still be a nice service to offer your customers.

Yours sincerely,

That won't help me fill in my direct debit form but it has vented the frustration and it might potentially get them to solve the problem. Or confirm to me that their branch doesn't exist anymore because they've all been abducted by aliens.

Thursday, 1 December 2005

The End or The Beginning?

This is it. I got my redundancy letter on Tuesday and we are completely winding down the company. So I will be officially jobless in the new year.

Knowing this would happen last week, I started the process of setting up my own limited company to offer my services as freelance consultant. It should all be up and running within a week or so.

Then I had a few interesting talks with different people on Wednesday and it looks like I'm likely to be working on 3 different contract come mid-January. This is the good side of being freelance: I can do different things and not get bored. The icing on the cake is that between those 3 contracts, I am likely to end up visiting the US (Atlanta), Ireland and Malta.

In the meantime, and assuming everything pans out as expected, I'll have a nice Christmas holiday.