October 31, 2003

Suitably Spooky Stuff

The Extreme Pumpkin Photo Gallery.

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Neil Asleep In A Chair

This cake is a prime example of the lateral thinking sometimes needed when deciding what to make for someone. My mate Neil is into mountain-biking, walking, dancing to Ricky Martin ;-) and has been quite the market-gardener this year, but none of that lent itself to expression in cake. Neil also has a talent for falling asleep at the end of parties, with his beer still in hand, yet never spills a drop - thankfully Lynne realised that this was a suitably cake-worthy subject, and so I could get on with the task of expressing the idea in sponge.

First off, you need to bake the cake. Had I been able to find my loaf-tin, I think it would've made a better basis for the chair, but I couldn't, and so settled on my 10" square cake tin. See here for the basic sponge recipe. Once baked you should have something similar to this.

Next you must cut the cake. There are four pieces to make up the chair: base, back, and two arms. In the picture, I haven't yet separated the arms, but they will come from the long thin piece. The larger of the other two pieces will form the back.

With the cake cut, it makes sense to do a dry-run assembly, to make sure it all fits together okay, while it's still easy enough to make adjustments.

Now you can mix a load of buttercream (I haven't got a recipe for that I'm afraid, I just throw butter, a little milk, and lots of icing sugar into a mixer until I get something of the right consistency. Usually I end up with far too much because I get the consistency wrong to begin with!) and use that to cement the pieces of cake together, and upholster the chair.

Finally, you need to create the marzipan "Neil" to sit on the chair. Break the marzipan into rough proportions ready for colouring: a small amount for the beer can, a bit more for his shoes, more again for his head and hands, and the remainder roughly into two halves, one for his legs and the other for his torso and arms. Once the marzipan is coloured, it's then a case of moulding it to the relevant shapes, and assembling into a person shape. Easier said than done, I know, maybe next time I make a figure I'll take pictures and describe it better. Fine details, like facial features, hair, lettering on the beer can, etc. are best applied in food colouring with a fine paintbrush.

All that remains is to present, and assist in the consumption of, the finished cake.

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The Art Of Novelty Cakes

Anyone who has known me for any length of time will more than likely have sampled one of my cakes, and if they're lucky, they'll have been the recipient of one such confection. So, in the spirit of the great masters, and with a passing nod to londonmark, I present the Art of Novelty Cakes. Although this series will be a little less academic than Mark's, more vocational. My polytechnic to his "proper" university.

Cake is a wonderful medium in which to express oneself. It brings a whole new dimension of enjoyment to the consumer of the piece, for they literally get to do just that. In addition to the aesthetics of the cake, a good novelty cake will taste divine, and smell wonderful, and the true artist will bring this interplay of looks, tastes and textures together into the final work.

However, this brings us to the most important rule, and possibly the only immutable law in the art of novelty cakes: the cake must be eaten.

There will come a time when one recipient of a cake will proclaim "it is too nice to eat", and will want to keep it. For me, this happened with Julie's Pingu cake. It was kept in its box for the ten weeks of that summer term at university, untouched, and then transplanted, along with its marzipan penguins, to tin foil, so that she could return the cake box to me, and take the cake home. Maybe it still lies, mouldy, on a shelf at her parents'. Cake does not age well, like a fine wine, or a good Cohiba; any attempts to preserve it are destined to fail, and just deny the gustatory half of the experience.

The hardest part of any novelty cake project is the initial idea. This needs to be something which is relevant to the recipient of the finished cake, whilst also being achievable using the basic building blocks: cake, buttercream, and icing. For some cakes this will be obvious; the pool table for the avid player, the VW Golf GTI for the obsessed VW-fan (beware of combining roll-out icing with overly warm weather though...). Other cakes require more creative thinking; the bacon & egg buttie for the person who'll often rustle one up when you call round to see them, or the computer for the engagement of a work colleague. It helps if you have some knowledge of the interests and hobbies of the person for whom the cake is being made, but often restraint must be exercised, otherwise one could be tempted into designs which are too complicated or intricate to implement. Once the idea has been settled upon, then there is the minor task of bringing it into being.

There are four levels of competence on the path to the artist of novelty cakes.

  1. Assistant. Ideally for the first stage of the novelty cake craft, the student will train under the guidance of an accomplished master. Growing up, my sisters and I always had novelty cakes for our birthdays, and as I got older, I became well versed in the basics of the art by helping my Mum to prepare cakes for relatives' birthdays. Of course, initially, helping meant giving her more practice at applying chocolate buttons to the cake, by removing and eating those she'd already applied so she had to do it again, and licking the bowl (still one of the most important parts of any cake preparation). This progressed to more useful roles: applying the silver balls, then applying icing, and finally to helping design templates to aid cutting of the cake (during assembly, obviously no-one needs a template to tell them how to cut it when divvying up for eating :-)
  2. Imitation. The second stage marks the beginning of the student's branching out on their own. They make initial moves to see how their work may be received, either with simple forms imaginatively iced (such as my first solo piece, the alloy wheel) or copies of more elaborate items first prepared under the tutalege of the master (for example, the classic hedgehog).
  3. Realism. In this next stage, the artist's confidence is growing. Their ideas are becoming more ambitious but their quest for realism is often hampered by the limitations of sponge and icing.
  4. Acceptance. Finally, comes acceptance. Accepting of the materials available. Realisation that their role is not to recreate, but to capture the essence of the subject. To convey the impression of the subject. Realisation that in the best novelty cakes, the materials add to the piece, rather than getting in the way. The burger and the bacon & egg buttie are the best examples of this from the Adrian McEwen Portfolio.

What follows is not a foolproof method to recreate the cakes that I have made, merely some notes on how I made some cakes, at some point in time. To quote Nigel Slater in his excellent book "Appetite":
"I am convinced that a recipe should not be a set of rules to be followed to the letter for a mind-numbingly uniform result... Is that all there is to it? A recipe must work? Surely there is more to it than that[?]"

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October 30, 2003

Wanna Buy A Link?

Having trouble selling things? Not sure where to start? I just might be able to help. See, I've got this nice link to justsell.com, although the registration has put me off exploring further just at the minute. However, they do host Sales Talk, an interesting discussion forum of all things sales (probably, I wouldn't really know, not being a salesman ;-)

(Via the Inc.com blog).

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Post-mortems on the living

This Gamasutra article lists a load of problems with project post-mortems, and proposes Critical Stage Analysis as an alternative. It's a bit heavy on the problems with post-mortems, and I'm not sure I agree with all of them. In non-games development it's more common for largely the same team to work on the next revision of a similar product, giving more chance for lessons to be learnt rather than forgotten, and lack of ownership of the problems is just as likely if critical stage analysis isn't implemented properly.

However, I agree that critical stage analysis is an improvement over post-mortems; it's basically mini-post-mortems at each milestone, which means there's an opportunity to improve things during a project, rather than just after it, and problems early on in a project are more likely to be remembered as they're still fresh in the mind. The idea of rating the importance of each issue is a good one too.

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October 29, 2003

30 is just a number

As I've been telling my mates from school who are starting to turn 30, it's just a number, it doesn't mean you're getting old or anything.

You need to read what today's kids think of the computer games you used to play for it to really hit you ;-)

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October 27, 2003

It's About Time

For the past six months I've been working at Trigenix, helping them finish off Trigplayer, their over-the-air customisable mobile phone UI software for Series 60 phones (Nokia 7650, 3650, etc.). On October 15th, T-Mobile launched the Trigenix solution as "Screen Styles".

The release happened to coincide with my contract coming up for renewal. I've really enjoyed working at Trigenix, they've got some very bright people, and it's been a good application of my experience in shipping software; plus they've been very happy with my work, so I'll be continuing to help them as they expand onto more handsets with more carriers.

However, my main priority professionally is to get my own business up and running, something which has been pretty much on hold since April. So I'll now only be working three days a week at Trigenix, and have the other two days to progress my own company.

I'll be at Trigenix Wednesdays through Fridays, which means that today is my first day back at the "home office". It feels good to get back to sitting in front of my laptop, listening to 6 Music, with my morning mug of coffee, fresh from the stovetop coffee maker.

Before the work can resume in earnest though, there's some catching up on admin (like sorting my tax return), and some final clearing up after Saturday's party, but more on that later...

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October 24, 2003

And I Thought Geek Was Losing Its Negative Connotations

Or is that "I hoped..." ;-)

The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century :: THIS is why I dropped out of engineering

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October 22, 2003

Join In If You Know The Words

I'd like to teach the world to blog,
And furnish it with posts,
With trackback pings,
And blogging rings,
And links from host to host...

Actually, I don't really want to teach the world to blog, and the world isn't paying any attention to me when I suggest it anyhow. But I happened upon the first line accidentally earlier on, and passed the time on my bike ride home coming up with the rest.

I'll let someone else come up with the next verse :-)

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October 21, 2003

The Backlash Begins

I am not alone! For ages now, it has seemed that I'm the only person in the entire universe who hadn't found dough-nirvana after buying a bread machine. Mark Pilgrim has had a similar complete lack of success with his bread machine.

I mean, I consider myself a relatively decent cook, and my cakes are lauded throughout the land (well, people seem to like them), but so far I've only been able to use the bread machine to make the house smell nice and feed the birds. Not exactly what I envisioned when I bought it. My only solace has been that the manual says that bread-making (in a bread machine) isn't like cooking - it's a science, where the ingredients must be measured carefully. And I see myself as more of an artist when it comes to cooking, past the stage where I need to measure everything precisely.

Maybe I'll blow the dust off, and give it another go.

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October 14, 2003


My rowing fitness is starting to come back. I just hadn't thought about it, and so was a little disappointed when my 5k time was about half a minute off my best. Still, only six rows into the "winter season" and today I set a new personal best!

20m 00.8s for 5000m! A whole five seconds off my previous best.

Although I was rather gutted not to have broken the 20 minute barrier. I'm sure it won't be long...

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Pick a Colour...

...any colour, and the 6-Colormatch will give you five more that go nicely with it.

(Via Andrea's Weblog).

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Emergent Design Considered Harmful

At lunch today I used the term "just-in-time design", but I meant the same as Emergent Design. The ensuing discussion quickly highlighted that, despite my initial assertion, I don't actually favour just-in-time design. My preferred solution is a mixture - up-front design for the overall framework for the system, and just-in-time design for the internals of the components defined in the framework. I think defining the API to a module is a good first task for the implementation; it makes you think through how the module will work, sort out the error handling... all useful things to have considered before you start spewing out code.

The Folly of Emergent Design puts forward some good arguments for what's wrong with the agile, lightweight, emergent design methodology. The redundant code argument is less of an issue in the embedded/mobile world, because when you have to worry about downloading your software over a GPRS network, onto a "disk" that's only a couple of megabytes, there is value in refactoring just to save space. Then again, performance and size are more critical, and it's better to consider that in an up-front design...

(Via Archipelago).

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October 13, 2003

Because You're Worth It

Marcia Yudkin takes the five most common myths about pricing and explains why they aren't true. Still not sure whether that makes pricing any easier mind...

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October 11, 2003

Forward Thinking BBC

I think it's excellent that the BBC has people like Ashley Highfield involved. In his speech TV's Tipping Point: Why The Digital Revolution Is Only Just Beginning: PaidContent.org, he shows the sorts of exciting, out-of-the-box thinking that can carry the BBC forward into the brave new world of PVRs (Personal Video Recorders, like TiVo or Sky+), downloading over broadband, "ambient TV"... The talk is of embracing technology, rather than fighting it as the music industry is.

"We should create more programmes that come with the meta-data, the tags in the programme that allow it to be chopped up and consumed piece meal by the viewer."

The future of TV is going to be fun!

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Unicode Primer

In The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!), Joel does his usual excellent treatment to the problems of character encodings. A good introduction to why UTF-8 isn't the same as ASCII, and why UCS-2 and UTF-8 are worth worrying about.

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October 10, 2003

I am your density!

What is Your Destiny? by Valcion
DestinyLegendary Hero
Date when you fufill your destinySeptember 26, 2011
Created with quill18's MemeGen!

Okay, so 37 isn't that young, but it's a lot earlier than I was hoping. Still, at least I get to be a Lengendary Hero, although given the date it could be a flaming-Sambuca-related incident at Jo's 38th birthday party...

Update: Aha! Just realised that the date is when I fulfill my destiny, not when I die. So it's just downhill from age 37 then...

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The Art Of Parenthood

The Joys Of Parenthood... I think I'm most worried about number 5, although an Integrale could be classed as a "practical 5-door saloon", I'm not sure I'm ready for her to be abused in such a way. Which is obviously why I've not gotten married and had kids yet, I'm waiting until I can afford a spare-car-to-take-the-kid(s)-in...

(Via Troubled Diva)

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October 04, 2003

Mark Hurst on Usability Research

Good Experience - Four Words to Improve User Research explains how Mark Hurst goes about usability studies.

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October 01, 2003

One In Four?!?!!!

Frankly, I'm ashamed.

I'll let my subconscious ponder over this Album Cover Challenge before I submit my answers and see if I can get any more than the current fifteen.

(Via Troubled Diva)

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