Site menu:

 

Recent Posts

Site search

Watching

Links:

Arduino Nanos, Chinese Clones and WCH CH340 Drivers

One of the things I’ve learned during my recent electronics tinkery, is that China produces very cheap components. Intellectually I knew this to be the case, but after a few searches on Amazon I discovered in a much more practical way quite how cheap they are. So, I now have a big ‘bits’ box full of sensors and displays, which I’ve been playing with. However, one recent foray didn’t work quite as well as expected until this morning – Arduino Nano clones.

Arduino Nano
It’s so tiny!

The Nano is, as you may expect from the name, a tiny Arduino. It is, as with all Arduinos, open source and designers Gravitech have published the schematics. This, inevitably, led to boards being produced in China and sold around the world for stupidly small amounts of money. For example, in the UK a bare Nano (no soldered headers) will set you back about £27 from Farnell, however, the pair I picked up from eBay (with headers) set me back £2.79 each, including shipping and a USB cable. However, things are never that simple…

The original Gravitech schematic had an error in it. The USB controller on the original Nano has a TEST pin, that should be pulled low when you’re using the chip. However, the reference design had it floating, which leads to entirely random USB operation and a not particularly reliable piece of kit. The Gravtech produced Nanos were patched early on, but many of the clone boards used the original design, complete with error.

Fortunately, it’s a known issue and there’s a known solution: solder the reset pin (26) to the analogue ground pin (25) – there are a few guides to the fix online. So, when my Chinese Nanos didn’t work, I assumed it was that issue, and started looking for really really fine soldering iron tips.

However, when checking out my boards this morning to see what I’d actually need to solder (and having seen pictures now, it’s something I’d not even try – my hands are way too shaky), I found out that I don’t have the same USB controller. The problem also didn’t present itself in quite the same way – the USB just didn’t connect rather than spitting out a pile of errors. It seems that some of the Chinese producers have switched over to using a WCH CH340 chip instead of the FTDI chip that’s in the spec – the current theory is that licensing the chip is too expensive. Fortunately, while my Nanos were still not working, the fix was much easier and doesn’t involve me burning myself.

WCH CH340
Not only does it say CH340 on it, it has way fewer pins that the FTDI chip

Simply put, you need a driver for the CH340 chip installed on your computer. WCH have drivers from the end of 2013 on their (remarkably slow) website – download them, install them, reboot (as necessary), play with your cheap Nano. There’s an extra step on a Mac running Yosemite (and probably later), as the driver isn’t signed. You can find details here, but it’s just running a command to disable checks for signed kernel extensions. That’s potentially a dangerous thing to do, but I’ve not heard of anyone having their Mac destroyed by a malicious kernel extension yet…

And now that I have an even smaller microcontroller, it’s time to start actually thinking of things to do with it. So far I’ve managed to plug it into a breadboard. Well done me.

Arduino Ethernet, a DHT11 sensor and ThingSpeak

Back before the Christmas season hit properly, I went along to the London Perl Workshop. While I’ve not written any Perl for a few years, other than the occasional script to process lists of whiskies faster than I can in Excel, I try to make it along each year to vaguely keep up with what’s going on in my former programming language of choice. This time, I had an ulterior motive, and one that has divorced me further from the perly goodness – Arduinos.

This year, behind the main track of Perl talks was a day of learning how to use an Arduino, entitled Perl and the Internet of Things. I’ve had an Arduino for a few years, as mentioned back in the days when I used to write more here, and while I’ve occasionally pulled it out to have a tinker, I’ve been meaning to play with it more of late – here was my opportunity. While I didn’t end up writing any Perl, and mainly spent my day learning about switch debouncing and interrupts, I did walk away with an Arduino Ethernet which I’ve spent the last month tinkering with. I’ve not written anything on here for a while, so I thought I’d start again, documenting some of the things I’ve put together.

Firstly, a simple weather station.

This seems to be one of the first internet connected projects that most Arduino users play with. The sensors are cheap (especially if you buy them from China, like I did), there are a selection of libraries that all do the same thing in different ways, and in many cases there’s no electronics to do other than to connect three wires to an Arduino.

DHT11

The DHT11 is a very cheap ($5 from Adafruit and even less from the numerous Chinese sellers on Amazon) and simple temperature and humidity sensor. It’s a bit crap, with ±2ºC accuracy from 0-50ºC and ±5% accuracy from 20%-80% humidity, but gives sufficiently accurate results for a first project. There’s a more expensive ($10 from Adafruit) DHT22 that’s better, but that’s a toy for another day.

The DHT11 has three pins – power, ground and data – and communicates using a single wire protocol that fortunately already has a number of libraries available. I’ve had a dig into them and once I’ve got this laptop setup as a better development environment I’ll be pulling my one of choice (an adaptation of Rob Tillaarts DHT22 library that I grabbed from somewhere on the web which hasn’t even updated his header comments in the CPP file) apart. There’s a lot in the DHT11 libraries that I’ve found that seems to add to memory usage and size, which I don’t think’s necessary – most of my playing with Arduinos so far has been about minimising code and hardware, hence my love of interrupts and shift registers (of which more for another day), and also the reason why I like the DHT11′s single pin approach to data.

A potential gotcha: my DHT11 came on a little PCB with a couple of extra components, including a pull-up resistor. If you just have a sensor on its own you’ll need to connect the data line to the positive pin via a resistor.

Arduino Ethernet

The Arduino Ethernet comes with an ethernet socket and the various hardware it needs onboard, and the Arduino core ethernet library happily works with it. If you’ve plugged your Arduino into a router that does DHCP, then all you need to do is: make up a MAC address for your Arduino, create an Ethernet object, call the begin(byte[6] MACAddress) method, and wait for it to grab an IP address and connect to your network. Once that’s done, you can create EthernetServer and EthernetClient objects to do server and client things, all of which work as you might expect.

The end point for my temperature and humidity data is ThingSpeak. Having already put together a minimal webserver that reported the data when you connected to the Arduino (only to find that my router didn’t like port forwarding properly, so that the data wasn’t accessible outside of my local network), I wanted to push the data elsewhere so that the Arduino wasn’t doing as much – this seems to be rule #1 of internet connected devices: keep them simple and push the logic to somewhere with more grunt. ThingSpeak is a free service specifically put together to gather data from internet connected devices and then display it.

To use ThingSpeak, you set up a channel, define some data within that channel and then either do a HTTP POST or GET to their API URL (api.thingspeak.com) with your data, making sure to include a supplied API key in the HTTP headers so that they know where to route the data. Data will be displayed on a customisable graph by default, but you can write your own visualisation plugins through the ThingSpeak site. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but it all works rather nicely.

My ThingSpeak gotchas: their example code needs some tweaking to work with the current version of the Arduino ethernet library; putting newlines in the POST body confuses the API: you should just send your data on a single line in the form field1=data1&field2=data2 and so on (if I’d read the whole of the example page I would have realised this…); your data items are called fieldN rather than the nice names you set up in your channel, those are just used when your data is displayed (the example code seems to suggest this isn’t the case – more experimentation required).

So, putting it all together. Firstly, you can find the code on GitHub.

Connecting up the Arduino is simple: connect the positive and negative leads from the DHT11 to 5V and GND on the Arduino, and connect the data pin to an input of your choice – I went for number 8, which is specified with #define dht_pin in the sketch. Plug in your ethernet, add power and off you go.

I poked the sensor out of the window, shutting it behind as it’s quite cold at the moment, plugged everything in and then headed over to my ThingSpeak channel to see what it said:

I also used the example plugin to make a humidity gauge:

Those are all included using iframes, so they are showing the most recently uploaded data. Which is nice.

Next step: sort out some more sensors and use the various datafeeds that ThingSpeak has to make a dashboard website with some potential for a bit of home automation.

On Air Travel and the Inevitability of Mediocrity

I have long had a strange relationship with air travel. Since I was a child, I’ve both loved and hated it in almost equal proportions. As I’ve aged, the hatred has changed from being due to a fear of crashing to an annoyance with people who don’t seem to understand the way that an airport works, but behind it the love has stayed the same.

That love breaks down in to two parts. Firstly there’s the physical act of flying itself. Even in my days of petrified fear, I still appreciated the strange beauty of looking out of the window and seeing the land- or cloudscape stretching off into the distance below us. However, even stronger than that is a love of the onboard service.

Over the years I’ve lost the fascination with the novelty of shopping while on a plane, although the piles of incomplete decks of playing cards emblazoned with the logos of Lauda Air, British Airways and  a selection of late-and-unlamented charter companies show that was not always the case. These days the service element that interests me is, fairly obviously based on my current proclivities, the food and drink.

Ever since I discovered that Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, purveyors of the ‘drinks are included in the price of your flight’ way of running a plane, will give you multiple drinks during a single seat-side visit, my fear of flying has significantly reduced. These days I don’t load up with booze, but in my initial working years, with regular seven hour flits to New York on the cards, a Bloody Mary, G&T and a beer would happily drop the anxiety levels long enough for me to sit calmly until my inflight meal and miniature bottle of inappropriately cold bottle of red wine would appear.

The Bloody Mary still holds a place in my heart due to those flights. For some reason, it had never occurred to me to drink a Bloody Mary when on the ground, but as soon as we hit the clouds it made sense. I’ve read articles that suggest the combination of acidic tomato juice and spice overcome the tastebud-dulling effects of recirculated air and a pressurised cabin, but for whatever reason my love of the Bloody Mary spilled over from up in the air to down on the ground, and eventually became a love of adulterated tomato juice. These days the addition of vodka just seems like a waste of tomato juice to me, although a Red Snapper, with gin rather than vodka, is a different matter altogether…

Food remains one of the most important pieces of any journey for me, with my occasionally obsessive planning always including opportunities to eat. With air travel, this includes the oft-criticised airline meal, something of which I remain incredibly fond. I can safely say that I have eaten very part of every meal I have been given on an airline since I first flew 30 years ago, apart from the suspicious looking mushrooms that Virgin Atlantic used to serve as part of their ‘English Breakfast’ on early morning flights from JFK and Newark in the early 2000s. I still remember their worrying and unique shade of grey. It’s not generally good, but I love the way that they produce food of the impressive quality that they do under the space, storage, reheating, serving and financial constraints that they operate under.

At school, during a home economics project where I burned onions and made a grey quiche ‘to be served in the cafeteria of a municipal leisure centre’, a brief I somehow came up with myself, one of my classmates rustled up an airline meal. His mother worked for Monarch and had scored him a liveried set of dishes and a tray, which he filled with food and presented to our teacher. I have no memory of what he cooked, but I still remember that I was jealous of him having had the chance to have a go. And for having a better idea than cooking for a leisure centre, a type of institution I had then, and still have now, managed to avoid.

That love of the usually-grim eating experience extends to the terminal food options, the word terminal being especially appropriate to my recent experience in Terminal Five. London Heathrow’s shiny new wing has decided to up the game from the old school pub-grub and occasional-passable-restaurant affair of terminals 1-4, and has brought in chains and names. I’ve now eaten in the three biggest, finishing on this trip with the meal that inspired me to give up my reading time on the flight and tap this out on an airplane-moded iPad instead.

Firstly, Gordon Ramsey’s Plane Food.  I tried this out shortly after it opened and found it to be quite pleasant. Not too badly priced and along the same level of quality as Chez Gerard, my ‘this is on expenses’ hangout in Terminal 3 from the days when I used to travel more frequently. The only serious issue I had was one common across all airport eating experiences in recent times – the knives.

To ensure that you don’t smuggle the blunt cutlery out of a restaurant and on to a plane, therein to commit mayhem, they issue something that is akin to a handle with a slightly thinned end. These seem to offer about the same amount of potential menace as a regular restaurant knife, but without the same levels of utility in the cutting and general shifting around of food departments. They annoy me almost as much as the ban on liquids in hand luggage does. Which, with my tendency to travel only with hand luggage and my occasional weakness for purchasing booze, is a lot.

Secondly, we have Wagamama. The T5 Wagamama has a twist on their regular restaurants (noodle and rice heavy, anglicised Japanese food), with breakfasts available during the usual hours when breakfasts are available. My last trip, to Glasgow on my way to the Islay Festival, fell within those hours, so breakfast was sought. Along with the various traditionally English breakfast options, they have some more Japanese choices, and, being a lovely of rice and pickles, I partook. The food was good but slow to appear,  despite the simplicity, and it took even longer to attract the attention of a member of staff to pay, despite my being sat right next to the till, in the entrance of the restaurant, where all the staff congregate. They get a definite pass though, as I always arrive horrifically early to ensure I get the most out of my airport experience, and therefore had time to fill. I would have returned on my most recent trip if it wasn’t for their kitchen being inexplicably closed at 12:30pm. “I don’t know if it will be 5 minutes, 15 or 30 before it reopens,” the apologetic waitress barring entry explained. Despite having time, I don’t hang around when I’m at an airport, so I left and went to the remaining option.

So, thirdly: Giraffe. I generally consider Giraffe to be inoffensive enough. Their burgers aren’t bad, their ‘Mexican’ dishes are okay, and in general they’re a fairly safe bet for finding edible food that shouldn’t take too long to appear. While service was snappy, I was wrong about the edibility.

Eschewing my regular order, the tried and tested huevos rancheros, having filled up earlier with an ‘all of the things in my fridge that might go off before Friday’ breakfast of bacon lardons and slightly gamey eggs, I went for the Chilli Beef Enchilada. The menu describes it thusly:

Oven baked soft tortillas stuffed with chilli beef & herby rice, topped with adobe sauce, melting cheese, tomato salsa & toasted seeds. served with chopped seasonal salad.

I received an earthenware dish containing what looked like a be-tortilla’d take on a lasagne. So far so good, despite it having the usual ‘digging lasagne out of a single serving dish’ issue that I get at the cafe near work, where small chunks of volcanic food are removed and then held, dripping, above the rest of one’s plate until they have cooled to the extent that the enamel of your teeth does not melt on contact. This issue is exacerbated by my peeve of a few paragraphs ago, the airport knife. The lack of any useful food manipulation surface on the knife and a short blade make the already tricky task even more so.

My main problem with the dish appeared once I had been able manipulate a portion of enchilada out of the dish and into a position where I could eat it with minimal heat-related discomfort: the rice was not inside the enchilada. Now, this may seem like a small annoyance, but when you are creating an oven-baked, tortilla-wrapped dish, the removal of any ingredient from within the confines of the wrap is a crime. The turning of rice from being a filling to being a sprinkling in the bottom of the cooking dish is a capital one. However, it didn’t stop there. Rather than a gentle herby seasoning, as I expected from the description, I instead received a blast of lemon more than vaguely reminiscent of toilet cleaner. A lemon unlike any lemon that had walked the earth, squirted from the bowels of satan’s very own bathroom. I tried to douse it with escaped beef, inexplicably liquid cheese and flavourless tomato salsa, but to no avail. It lingered and cut through the flavours of everything more effectively than Domestos. It was an abomination.

I finished every last grain.

Gatwick is next on my itinerary. It’s an early morning flight and I see a breakfast in my future, planned into my schedule weeks in advance, despite the 5am rising time needed to get to the airport on time. Some might say that eating breakfast at the other end, once I get to Glasgow city centre hours before the bus to Dramboree leaves, would be a better option, but that wouldn’t be in an airport. Which makes it a poor substitute, no matter how much better it might be.

Mobile Blogging

I’m someone who’s quite good at getting obsessed with things. The latest on that list (which has also included sous-vide cooking, skateboarding, and the use of parentheses within parentheses [with a focus on changing from rounded to square brackets {with occasional forays into curly braces}] with emphasis on ensuring that they are closed in the order that they were opened) is mobile blogging.

It all started way back in 2005, when I ‘liveblogged’ an attempt at visiting every tube station on the network in a day (first post in the series here). I blagged a bluetooth and mobile internet equipped Nokia phone from work, paired it with my trusty Palm device (maybe an m505 – I forget which one I was on back then), setup the email->blog post interface, and tapped out notes as we ran from train to train and station to station, pressing publish every time we hit the open air.

Things have moved on in the last 8 years and liveblogging is now a Thing. I first started properly thinking of it again when I visited Canada earlier this year for the Victoria Whisky Festival. I wanted to cover the event on my Booze Blog, but didn’t want to take a laptop with me, so used it as an excuse to grab an iPad mini – the device that I promised I would buy if Apple ever got round to releasing one.

While in Canada I had no trouble doing 90% of the tasks that I wanted to: I browsed the web, checked email, played with Twitter, edited photos shot on my SLR (thanks to an iPad/SD card adapter and Snapseed) and even managed to tap out a few thousand words into Evernote ready for later posting. However, typing was not fun and blogging while on location didn’t happen.

Further tinkering has occurred since the beginning of the year and I discovered that by happy accident not only does Apple’s bluetooth keyboard work with iPads, I also had a spare one sat on the side (thanks to a nice Apple employee just giving me a free wired keyboard when I asked if I could switch the wireless one that came with my iMac). This helped considerably, taking up minimal space and even allowing the typing of STUFF! while sat on the tiny tabled trains run by Chiltern Railways.

However, carrying my keyboard around wrapped up in a cloth bag for protection and relying on the increasingly weak magnets of my iPad smartcover to hold it in a sensible standing position has meant that I’ve not deployed my mobile solution very often. Not being able to stand the iPad up in a portrait position when typing longer pieces of text has also been something I’ve longed for. With the upcoming European Beer Blogger’s Conference on my todo list I’ve been looking for further refinement.

Ever since getting a copy of Games Workshop’s Chainsaw Warrior from him in a swap meet, I’ve been following Adam Tinworth on Twitter and reading his blog, as he’s progressed from being a salaried writer to a freelancer known for being mobile when needed. On his blog last week he mentioned that he’d been refining his liveblogging gear and one piece of kit stood out – the final piece of my jigsaw puzzle, the Incase Origami Workstation.

Mobile BloggingIt’s a simple thing – a case for the Apple bluetooth keyboard that you can slot an iPad into when it’s open. I took a chance yesterday on it working with an iPad Mini as well as the full-sized versions and have been very pleased with the results – I’m typing this on my bluetooth keyboard into my portrait oriented mini. It’s sturdy, the iPad isn’t going to fall over, and it even provides a solid base for the keyboard that stops it from rattling against uneven surfaces as you type – it’s currently resting on a slatted wooden patio table which makes mountain ranges look merely slightly bumpy. And, in a world where Apple charge horrendous amounts of money for every accessory they make, it was only £20.

Hardware-wise I think I’m pretty much there now, however I need a bit more work on the software front. As somewhere to dump unstyled text, Evernote works well – the editor is good and it syncs automatically to the internet to save across all of my devices. The WordPress app works pretty well for my Booze Blog, but this one isn’t quite set up to do so yet (I need to do some serious upgrade work on it other than just hardening it against attack). The WordPress app has got much better in recent times, but due to certain customisations I’ve got in place over on the Booze Blog I need to do final posting from the website itself. It’s not much of an issue, as the WordPress dashboard works fine with mobile Safari, but it’s still another step in the process. The final piece is image editing. While Snapseed is really impressive, getting pictures on to Flickr is slightly annoying still thanks to their upload app being iPhone only. I also need to find a good app to resize images, as posting full res piccies on my Flickr account is a habit I got out of many years ago.

However, all in all I think I’m pretty much set. I suspect I’ll be taking notes on paper during the European Beer Bloggers Conference, as such is my wont, but I’ll be tapping away sans-laptop on the train there and back.

Update: No Live Blogging as such at The European Beer Bloggers Conference, but a bunch of posts were written up on my iPad over the last few weeks. The setup is working well enough that my keyboard goes with me to work everyday for any meeting away from my desk. Shiny.

Olympic openings

So, sport has now begun. I’m good at becoming obsessively interested in things so generally try and avoid the Olympics, but my inability to meld calendars with reality means that this year I’m going to Edinburgh on the day of the closing ceremony, thus avoiding London in one of the two weeks between the two segments of sporting endeavour and potential travel destruction. I was saved from interaction with the Olympics during Beijing’s curatorship by my first trip to the Edinburgh Festival and an obsession with jamming myself into as many small, damp rooms as possible before running again between venues in the rain. This time it seems that I only have the joys of work and the 10+ button presses it takes to turn on my TV and related equipment to dissuade me from consuming sport that I have generally no interest in or understanding of.

On Saturday morning I found myself cheering on a lady in a hat during the 10m Air Rifle shooting. I didn’t realise that such a thing existed as a sport.

This evening I spent my time watching some gymnastics, having learned a tiny amount about it from the most recent Thomyk podcast, although my flaky internet connection and a need to finish writing some stuff has wrenched me away. This is my writing procrastination.

Anyways, the opening ceremony. As I know a few people performing in it and possess a grudging respect for the greatness of Danny Boyle, I loaded up with bourbon (to counter any over-patriotism) and a bucket of ice (to cool the bourbon), and sat back to enjoy. It was rather good. The opening switch from rural idyll to spark drenched industrial wasteland was brilliant (even if I did miss buddy Michael carrying his roll of grass); the NHS bit was mad in a lovely way; the childhood literature swayed too much in the Potter era for my bitter and twisted mind to accept; the Bond bit made me look very carefully at my paused screen and try and work out if it was an impersonator or if the Queen really walked like that; Mr Bean was funny; Trevor Nelson was a bell-end; the music bit sort of passed my by, although I do know all about Mr Rascal thanks to seeing him support the Red Hot Chili Peppers last month (he’s quite good); I didn’t see the NeXT cube by St Tim Berners-Lee and shed my first tear of the ceremony when I realised I’d missed it; I liked the Arctic Monkeys; I liked Mike Oldfield; I liked the British team’s uniform’s corrosion proof armits; I like the American team’s berets; and after all that I think I understood the inclusion of Paul McCartney.

About half an hour into the ceremony I tweeted “I imagine that the rest of the world who are watching this have no clue what is going on”.

The ceremony was packed full of bits of cultural reference that barely make their way outside of our shores: the shipping forecast, the NHS, Beth Jordache, Isembard Kingdom Brunel, Maypoles, Dizzee Rascal, Tiger Feet. While we may like to think that the Olympic opening ceremony was just for us, it was transmitted (with primetime advertising protecting delays by NBC, the official ruiners of the Olympics in the USA) to people all over the world. The people of Saudi Arabia caught a glimpse of a lesbian kiss, the people of the USA were exposed to bed bouncing socialist healthcare and the people of North Korea (even if they’re showing it on state TV and claiming their team has won every medal due to Kim Il-Sung inventing the sports) saw a medley involving Freddie Mercury. They all probably had no idea what was going on, with the massively choreographed but occasional ramshackle-feeling display being tailored to a very specifically British palate.

In the end there were four touchstones for the world, growing in touchstone-ness as they went along: Mike Oldfield, Voldemort, Mr Bean and Paul McCartney. After you’ve shown the world the Arctic Monkeys covering a Beatles song and an ‘everyone joins together to light the cauldron’ flame ignition, all we’ve got left so as to leave the people with something that they have a vague understanding of is a husk of a man with wig-like hair singing a song that almost everyone on the Earth knows.

We had a mention of sea conditions around the British Isles, let them have a Beatle. Just remember that it could have been Ringo singing With A Little Help From My Friends. Actually…

The Dark Knight Rises

Here be spoilers. Go away if you don’t want spoilers. Stop now. Or just stop if you don’t want to read stuff that has flowed from my head, which is a very sensible thing to do. This is a brain dump, you have been warned.

dkrmondo
The Mondo teaser poster. It is lovely.

Read more »

On Fish Fingers and Sandwiches

I am a man with many obsessions. Unfortunately, in most cases they are merely half-arsed obsessions, mild over attentiveness that is generally seen as being between slightly worrying and worthy of medical attention. However, one of them that tips just over into the “he’s actually putting some effort into that, best leave him alone” is sandwiches.

Now, I’m not a creator of multilayered gastronomic delights with interesting viands, a selection of exotic salad fronds and home made sauces to hold the whole mess together. I sit more on the “I can’t be bothered with cutlery, how can I best get this thing I like into my mouth without needing to wash my hands afterwards” side of the sandwich creating fence. To give an example – this week I put lettuce in a sandwich for the first time. The same sandwich also contained mayonnaise, another first for me (unless you include tuna where it is a key ingredient in converting the fish into a building material), but as it was mixed with English mustard I feel it was allowable, if not excellent evidence of the middle class nature of my sandwich making existence.

However, there is one sandwich (non-toasted – the toasted sandwich is an entirely different beast) that I am particularly obsessed with, and after a small discussion on Twitter this week I have felt compelled to a) write about it and b) use the excuse of writing as justification to make and eat one. The item in question is the Fish Finger Sandwich.

Fish Finger Sandwich
A fish finger sandwich, earlier today

It is a strange sandwich which I assumed was unique to me and a group of pre-teen school friends, but in recent years it has become a mainstay of gastro-pub menus, afflicted with ciabatta and tartare sauce. My take on the sandwich is much simpler, but with two non-canonical and occasionally controversial elements.

The first of these is cheese. Now, this is the least difficult to accept of the additional components, with the McDonald’s McFish/Filet o’Fish/Fish-wich/whatever existing as an unpopular but well known piece of prior art, but there are those who blanche at this first step away from the pure. To them I say but this – cheese makes all food better, get over it.

The second is more challenging – Marmite. While I consider Marmite to be a universal food stuff that should be enjoyed by all, and even put it into the “goes into a sandwich as I don’t want to dirty a spoon” category of sandwich making, I can understand the resistance. The apocryphal binary opinion of Marmite that has been the mainstay of its advertising campaigns for the last decade has forced people into one of the two camps, with the no camp getting a rather worrying intake of inmates. My love of Marmite is deep rooted, but my addition of it to the fish finger sandwich is one with history. Let me take you back to my childhood…

I am, as is fairly obvious within a short while of speaking to me, a perfect example of private schooling in the UK. I went to boarding school between the ages of 11 and 18 and it made me the man I am today – fond of yoghurt, good at sleeping in company and enamoured by young biology teachers with long dark hair and a penchant for a rugby. However, in my formative years at prep-school certain food related habits forced themselves onto me – the aforementioned fondness for yoghurt1, a tolerance for Sunblest white bread and red flavoured jam, and a need to combine fish fingers with Marmite.

While the yoghurt was pretty good (mainly black cherry), much of the other fare we were presented with was less than appetising2, with no meal being quite so demoralising as breakfast. This was far beyond the days when all boarders were forced to sit down on Saturday mornings to write letters home, full of euphemism so as to avoid the brutal hand of censorship, so there was little fear of parents hearing about the bleakness of breakfast. This was especially true as they filled us with Club biscuits and E110 laden orange squash at 3pm every day and there was an unspoken feeling that this was buying our silence. Breakfast had a few configurations involving fried animal remains and precursors, fried bread products3, yoghurt and, the most feared, fish fingers.

Fish fingers when cooked en masse, allowed to cool and then reheated in an oven become quiet a strange beast – blackened on the outside, just cooked on the inside, devoid of moisture and with the texture of stiff cardboard. However, being growing animals we needed all the food we could get and needed to find coping strategies for not only being able to ingest the fish fingers without incident but also to digest them afterwards. The first stage was one loved by chefs the world over – butter. We would steal butter dishes from other tables and then soak our fish fingers in fat until such time as they softened enough to be cut with an institutional knife. However, this led to a further problem – they tasted of low quality, slightly rancid butter. It was at this point that Marmite came into play – strongly flavoured and able to mask the various evils, as well as full of the vitamins and minerals and growing child requires. We didn’t come to Marmite without experimentation, but red flavoured jam and Heinz Sandwich Spread4 were quickly discarded as being unsuitable.

From thence my love of Marmite and fish fingers arose, with the addition of cheese happening due to the aforementioned making of everything better, especially when Marmite is involved. The fish finger sandwich still remains at the core of my guilty comfort foods, as the packs of fish fingers sat in my freezer5 at almost all times will attest, but the addition of Marmite adds more than just fond memories – it also means noone’s going to pinch my sandwich.

 


 

1I held the school record for the amount of yoghurt eaten at lunchtime from age 10 until I left at 13 – 11 bowls. The entire dining room watched as I repeatedly returned for ‘seconds’ with the kitchen staff’s bemusement eventually turning into focused looks of challenge. I like to think that the deputy head opened a book on the final number and hope that Tom White, irreverent games teacher of the good kind, cleaned out his colleagues due to his faith in my eating ability and my ridiculously overactive fat child appetite. I suspect that in reality my showboating and eventual need of assistance to leave the dining hall were all beneath their notice and the adulation of my peers was all I got. I still like yoghurt.

2The situation changed shortly after I left when a new regime of school food was brought in. It had the ‘jolly’ name of Capers and was run by a smiling man called Julian. He was also my brother’s dance instructor outside of school. I heard there were vegetables involved. I don’t think I would have liked it.

3The amount of oil a single slice of Sunblest white bread can soak up is incredible.

4Every table at lunch and dinner was supplied with a jar of Sandwich Spread. Noone ate it, other than by a dare, apart from the Headmaster. Occasionally he would ‘take’ breakfast or tea, sitting at the head of the table nearest the door, and would happily force down numerous pieces of bread spread thinly with the stuff, and for this reason alone it sat on each table, ready for use as a punishment device by the bigger kids.

5I normally buy the cheapest fish fingers I can, as they are merely an aid to delivering cheese and Marmite into my body with a dose of nostalgia, but my latest shopping delivery substituted my breaded white fish bits with huge rafts of cod covered in Real Breadcrumbs(tm). They don’t feel right, are large enough that I can only fit 3 onto a slice of bread (with significant overhang) and they need to be arranged perpendicular to my normal arrangement. They look like small floorboards. They scare me.

Prometheus

Spoiler Alert – this will contain spoilers. Probably from the next sentence.

Read more »

Perfect food

This blog seems to lay fallow quite a lot of the time at the moment. With a job that involves writing, a booze blog that I feel needs to be updated on occasion and my traditionally high levels of apathy, laziness and ooh look at the shiny thing over there!-ness I don’t often get round to spewing the random brain excrement that builds up in my beautiful head onto this rather cleanly designed (but also cluttered in a way that only I can see the organisation) page. But today I have broken that rule for two reasons.

  1. It’s NomNomNom time again, and I seem to be entering for a 3rd time. With a 3rd different partner. I am fickle
  2. Someone mentioned the act of deep frying on Twitter.

Deep frying is something that I have done precisely one (1) time. I made battered sausages (with a side order of cherry jam and frou-frou ponciness, as is often my wont), some homemade crisps (aka Blackened Potato slices) and then saved the oil in a bottle in my pantry (for I once had one of those) for a year before throwing it out when I moved house. It had black bits in. It wasn’t a bad thing to dispose of it. However, I posit a hypothesis – Deep frying makes any food stuff better. And now for some proofs.

Firstly, outrageously hypothetical (to make the following paragraphs seem sane in comparison): Poo. I have never had an urge to eat poo. I may utilise the phrase “I eat a lot of crap”, but that refers generally to the fetid outpourings of Messrs B King, R MacDonald and K Fried-Chicken (of the Indiana Fried Chickens [Harlan Sanders was born there, to save you the inevitable Wikipedia lookup. I read his autobiograpy - it took me months to find a copy and is awesome. It starts with the word 'Dadgummit' and gets better from there. "Life as I have known it has been finger lickin' good" RIP The 'Colonel']). However, while considering this while headbanging to the dulcid tones of the little people of the band SOiL in a lift this evening, I realised something. If I was going to have to eat a log of human excrement I’d rather it was battered and deep fried. There’s not a lot more I can add to that. On with the less crazy talk.

[Aside: I am currently smoking half of a large cigar that I just bisected. It's about 10 years old, 20cm long, and was given to me by a colleague when he left my old place of employment. He'd had it in his drawer for a while and gave it to me as he thought I might like the dried up husk more than he would. I've had it in a drawer since then and recently in my laughably named and incredibly dry humidor. The former colleague in question is a chap named Herbie Leonelli. He went from being a finance guy who feigned back problems to avoid scary Italian clients to being a pizza chef - you should all go and eat in his restaurant, Datte Foco. He's a dude. This cigar is very stale. Aside ends]

Anyway, taking the concept of battering making things better to the next level, I have discussed in great details with m’colleague Mr Morris (aka Dave aka My Landlord aka The Ideas Man who can’t be arsed to tell anyone his ideas) we chose a variety of battered foods which could be thought of the best ever. Starting with a simple concept, we decided to embellish until we could find an incredible foodstuff. First up – pizza. Pizza is pretty awesome, for a substance that is basically posh cheese on toast (joke stolen from the Mary Whitehouse Experience Encyclopedia, circa 1991) but the addition of a deep frying step at the end of its production will, based on the hypothesis above, make it better. We decided to add things to a theoretical pizza and after a number of days of debate ended up with this combination:

Folded
Doner kebab meat
Chilli Sauce
and
Roast Potato
Pizza
Deep Fried

The ultimate food stuff we originally thought. The addition of roast potatoes also makes all meals better, so why not a kebab meat pizza? However, we then decided to decompose this pinnacle of gastronomy – who needs the other items? Roast potatoes are almost the perfect foodstuff. If cooked in an animal fat they count as including meat and with a crunchy external counting and an internal nutritional paste of potato they are the ultimate food. So after further discussion we decided on the ultimate food:

Battered, deep-fried, roast potatoes

Just think about that for a bit. Have a private moment. What could be better, we posited? Then the mathematical side of our brains kicked in and we came up with an incredible plan: If battering and deep frying makes things better, how far could we take this?

Start with a void. An emptiness. A hard vacuum is Hard and we are lazy animals, so just take a blob of batter. On its own, fairly shit, but when deep fried it becomes a lot better. Take that blob of deep fried batter, batter it again and then deep fry it. This is now, by definition, a better food stuff. By the laws of mathematical induction we can then apply that process to a theoretical infinite series of battering and deep-fryings, which leads, after infinite time, to the ultimate food stuff.

So, according to maths(tm) air is the finest food stuff in the world, when prepared properly. This may remind me of the parable of the soup stone (stick a stone in a pot and you can make an excellent soup, as long as everyone else who’s eating it sticks in some tasty things) but as we all know that that maths is Law we can be safe in the knowledge that deep fried and battered air (to the power n, as n tends to infinity) is the end of the road when it comes to tastiness.

Apart from deep fried and battered Dr Pepper.

NomNomNom is in on July 12th and Dr Reeve and I will be The Booze Brothers for the day.

On sense descriptions, the joys of transport and my ability to injure myself

It surprises me how easily I dismiss other people’s descriptions of how their brain interprets the world. Being that I’m now about to embark on career that, in part, will ask me to describe flavours, I really should know by now that everyone experiences things differently and that interpreting the words that are used in describing sensations is what it’s all about.

I still remember writing up joke beer descriptions on the board when I used to be barman, talking of a beer having a hint of baked apple by an abandoned cooking fire, and laughing at the ridiculousness of Jilly Goolden’s histrionic explanations of the make-up of wines, and am shocked by how foolish my past self now seems to my then future self. These days I can happily wax lyrical about cloth plasters, fresh struck matches and primary school plimsolls in whisky, gravelly minerality and green vegetables in tequila, and metholated cherries in port (all three of which I have done in one-day-to-be-published-booze-blog-posts this weekend) but even a couple of years back I’d have given you a funny look and ticked my mental ‘pretentious idiot’ box without a second thought. Before I started finding out the joys of sciatica I thought my uncle’s description of it as being like ‘having a tooth-ache in your leg’ was a strange way of saying ‘it hurts a bit’ until the first night that I woke up to find that it was an incredibly accurate bit of wording.

This contemplation has been brought about by latest awesome bit of self injury, complete with ridiculous circumstances. My sciatica was brought on by playing Fallout 3 for way to long in a single sitting; I painfully broke a tooth hours before catching a plane to the USA, leading to a week of an unwise liquid diet (beer and bourbon) due to a lack of ability to chew, while eating a very soft fish finger; and I brought my potentially award winning taekwondo career to a shuddering fault after falling over on a set of very wide, very unslippery steps while considering a story from an insane chemistry supply teacher of a colleague who had run down some steps while carrying a bottle of hydrochloric acid under each arm with predictably fatal results. Today’s sensation was the ‘pinging’ of a muscle under strain, as while increasing the weight on my left leg to give a burst of speed I felt that incredible sensation and just had enough time to contemplate on the correctness of the sensation’s description before I stumbled into a lamp post in quite impressive levels of pain.

Unfortunately I can’t quite claim to have been doing anything as interesting as the London marathon, sedentary animal that I am, but instead was bending one of my primary rules of living in London – not to run to ensure that I can catch a means of public transport. In this case it was a bus, which to add insult to injury was not only a mere 5 yards from the starting point of my ‘run’ but also sat at the bus stop for a further 5 minutes after I crippled myself, but my original resolution was made thanks to the tube. One rainy evening while changing platforms at speed to make sure I got my train I missed a step, hit a slippery step and fell face first onto the platform. Luckily my self-preservation instincts kicked in, preventing my beautiful face (9/10 fit according to the iPhone ‘Fit or Fugly’ app, backed by Real Science) from doing anything more than impacting into my delicate wrist as I reached out to stop myself, but my plastic bag of goodies with ejected by the saving hand, skidding across the platform towards the open tube door. A kind punter stepped down for long enough to stop its kamikaze slide with his foot before inquiring if I was alright. I looked up from the wet, gravelly ground, scraped some muck from my cheek and said ‘Yeah’, at which point he nodded, climbed back on the train and waved as the doors closed. I rose from the ground, brushed down my damp front, picked up my bag and limped behind a tree to have a pee.

Since that day I have vowed never to run for a train (recently reinforced as I saw someone run face first into the recently closed door of the tube, before bouncing off and trying to make it look like it what was they were trying to do all along) and as of today my running ban has extended to buses. I am considering extending that to trams, as the other main form of public conveyance in London, but a) I’ve used a tram precisely three times since they appeared, b) they’re so irregular that the chance of one being at a stop when I get there is so remote that I doubt I’ll see it in my lifetime and c) I like trams enough as a concept that I am happy to watch one pull away just for the joy of seeing a tram’s arse, that I reckon I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

So, time to break out my walking stick again for the next week of cross London trekking. It may have the bonus of magically getting me a seat on the tube from time to time, but it also carries an incredible guilt as the only people who seem to give up seats are those that probably need them more than I – mainly the elderly, pregnant women and those with obvious physical injuries that a seat will help to assuage for a short time. I will try and carry myself in such a manner as to suggest that my black stick with black horses head handle is merely a fashion accessory (and I do have at least one hat that will help me carry this off), but that does carry the danger that my fake pimp limp will merely exacerbate my already existing ‘conditions’ and make me walk with an even more exaggerated fools gait than I am already pulling off.

So there it is. Don’t run for a train. Eat your greens and then remember what they smell like – one day you might need to describe a tequila.

(I’ve been thinking too much today, can you tell?)