Monday, June 27, 2005

What's it like having lunch at the Best Restaurant in the World?

There are few experiences where my skills as a writer are seriously put to the test, and this is one of those times. Even searching for a title to this post was difficult. I tried 'Visiting the Mozart of Food' , 'I will never be able to look at lesser foods again' and 'I am a lucky bastard and you all should hate me'. I think the last one is closest to the truth, but it makes for a horrible title.

My friend Russ worked with a chef now working at the Fat Duck. This is a Michelin 3-star restaurant with a two-month waiting list, and justifiably voted Best in the World in a recent survey. And I knew this all beforehand, so when Russ called me as a last-minute replacement to attend his birthday lunch, I naturally jumped at the chance.

I had managed to play second fiddle in a little plan which turned out to be one of the most excellent days of my life. I have been to a few Michelin starred restuarants many times, as well as many other unrecognized restaurants of similar calibre. With all the travel I do on expenses, I get to visit a wide range of restaurants all across the world, so I think my credentials as someone who can appreciate fine food are well-established.

So how does one quantify food - such a qualifiable experience? Certainly, quality of the raw ingredients and preparation is the foundation of quality, simple cooking. There are few things more pleasurable than simple food, done well with quality ingredients. Great food takes that base and adds preparation, service and accompanyments (sauces, deserts, wines, etc.) The Fat Duck was another level entirely. The menu is filled with such oddities as snail porridge, mango and douglas fir puree, and smoked bacon and egg ice cream. Each dish greets you with unexpected tastes, colours and interactions that are quite unlike anything I've ever had before. Some courses almost brought tears to my eyes and my delice of chocolate made me positively giddy with laughter.

There was no greater joy than to share my dishes with my friends and multiply our collective taste experiences. Scott had poached sea bass with generous helpings of lovely truffles. Russ had a fantastic leg of lamb, and most dishes came with some culinary foreshadowing to clense and prepare your palette for the next course.

The well-deserved moniker 'Best Restaurant in the World' is not simply an acknowledgement of the success and novelty of his methods, but also the fact that Heston Blumenthal actually knows what he's doing and the food is worthy of praise given to him.

I had:

Taittinger Champagne to start (as a complement for Russell's birthday from Sam)
Jabugo Ham, shaved fennel
Sanserre with our starters
Roast foie gras, crystallised seaweed, rhubarb and oyster vinaigrette
Shiraz with our mains
Celeriac, marron glace, sauce poivrade
Chocolate sorbet, cumin caramel
Tokaji Desert Wine with our deserts
Bavarois of lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet, blackcurrant and green peppercorn jelly
Calvados as a digestif

Change of plans

Unfortunately, there are no pictures of 'The Writer' as promised. Although Sunday had wonderful weather, something came up and I'll have to write about that little event instead. Stay tuned, it'll be a long one.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Visting 'The Writer'

The Heath Writer
Originally uploaded by MykReeve.

This weekend I'll make my way up to Hampstead Heath with my camera to pay a visit to 'The Writer' a scupture (temporarily) installed near Parliament Hill.

As you can tell, it's a simple desk - made in ridiculously large proportions. Personally I think it's quite neat and all those straight lines will appeal to my sense of architecture.
You can also read The Guardian Article, view some nice photos or view the Flickr tag for it.

Semantic Web

I think the history of computing can be divided into a few distinct stages based upon how it fits into office/technical life and its relation to knowledge workers

1) Computers are used solely for calculation - as an executive you need to contact someone in your computing division who will take your requirements and make a set of punch cards to get your answer. Communication is done by the secratarial pool which will transribe your dictations and mail your letter.

2) In 1980, the personal PC brings an age of removing one intermediary - a user can start to do their own calculations (advent of Lotus 1-2-3 etc.) and may even type their own letters (Wordperfect), but mail and (eventually) fax still is the only easy way to send/receive information.

3) With the advent of email (the internet's killer app), communication is instant and coupled with the ability of a user to create their own documents, it effectively brings about the end of secrataries in the traditional sense. Only senior exectives have a PA now, whose role has expanded to include other tasks beyond data entry and communications management.

I think the next big wave will be 'agent' software. Currently many major websites expose their functionality via web services, however without a semantic understanding of these services, you need to 'hard-code' logic for each service you want to interact with. If one was to write an agent to say, find the cheapest price for a book - you would need to know first of all, which online stores sell books, but then you also need to know the data format for each, in order to properly query each service.

However, I think once content starts to become semantically tagged, things will start to become more obvious to agent software and the potential for a 'personal secratary in your PC' will become real. However there are many hurdles to overcome. Take the simple order "Ask Jay if he wants to go for a ride this weekend and find us a good route" contains many potential pitfalls for any automated system - it would have to infer many things from that sentence.

1) Jay is a shortform for Jason
2) I know many Jasons, so how it would have to know that the email was personal and not business related, eliminating some of the potential recipients
3) Of my friends Jason, it would need to know that only Jason Prini lives in the same city that I live in, and riding is likely a local activity.
4) And last, by riding - it would need to know by our personal interests that riding is bike riding, not say, horse riding.
5) Finding an appropriate route would require access to a map system with metadata information (indicated bike trails or safe roads).

Each of those tasks on it's own is a potential programming nightmare. Agent software would have to be able to draw upon many sources to obtain this understanding of the world, including sources like Wikipedia, Google Maps, my contacts, my past correspondence with Jason(s) and my habits and preferences in general (which can be devined from emails and blog postings)

This framework is gradually being built internally in disparate parts of the web - Amazon knows what books I like, Flickr knows some of my friends and what pictures I take and like (and where I was on certain dates). The key will be drawing this together in a unified framework.

A good place to start reading is the Wikipedia Article on the Semantic Web. And as always, Cringely has some good articles. Of course, once your computer can understand in every sense, you don't need a keyboard or even a monitor for most tasks. I think that computing is becoming interesting again.


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Slugs facing extinction in HOV lanes

In the US, because the main roads are so crowded, they introducted High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to encourage carpooling. As a result, a social practice known as "slugging" formed where, in symbiosis, people wanting a ride would gather at specific destinations, and a single driver would pick them up, allowing them both to use the much faster HOV lanes. Apparently Virginia officials said that most of the 35,000 or so carpoolers who use the I-95 HOV lanes daily are "sluggers".

This practice could be greatly reduced as state governments are rushing to convert the HOV lanes into HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes. Basically it's a way to buy yourself out of the traffic that the rest of the cheap-ass proles have to sit in. Plastic has a discussion on the subject.

I think the US needs a major rethink regarding public transportation infrastructure. I prefer to take public transport - I don't own a car, and while travelling for work I examine other options before renting a car. And sadly, when visiting cities in Europe, I have *never* rented a car, and in the US I almost always have to do so.

My understanding is that public and alternative transportations make up an ever smaller percentage of the DOT budget - when transportation needs to be looked at as a whole. If there is a way to save $2 on highways by spending $1 on public transport then these options need to be examined.

I am very pleased to see Ottawa plan to move forward with the O-Train extensions to utilize existing rail lines (cheap!) and extend the existing infrastructure. Ottawa is a wonderful city for getting to and from downtown, but my commute to Kanata means being a "slug".

Monday, June 20, 2005

Seperated at birth?

Vatican Museum - Giuseppe Momo, 1932

New York Guggenheim - Frank Lloyd Wright, 1957
My friend Allan was kind enough to give a Flickr Pro account to me. I recently started the process of identifying my best shots for my new Flickr set and recalled that when I was in Rome, I noticed a stark similarity between the circular staircase in the Vatican museum and the New York Guggenheim.
There's no point beyond that really, aside from the joy of recognising great architecture in different places. But now that I've started, I recall a few other architectural coincidences I've come across, which I'll try to add in the future.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The entirety of Beethoven's works symphonies for free at the BBC

The entirety of Beethoven's works symphonies are available for free at the BBC as they celebrate 'The Beethoven Experience'. As they play each symphony, the works will be available for about two weeks. Currently the first through fifth are available.

While I personally enjoyed the BBC commentary bookending each track, you can use the Start Time and Stop Time options in iTunes (right-click on the track, select Get Info, click on the Options tab) to limit the play of the track to only the music for subsequent classical goodness.

(Found via BoingBoing - corrected via Jen)

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Oui to Democracy?

It's been an interesting week in Europe as both France and the Netherlands - founding members of the EU - both rejected the new EU constitution.

The interesting thing is that generally the vote was not seen as a rejection of the constitution, but as a rejection of certain EU practices and their governments themselves. However, despite these setbacks Brussels still plans to go ahead and ratify the constitution (all or in part) which I think is a mistake. Brussels can take this defeat and certainly learn from it. The 'No' vote is not a complete rejection of the EU, but a recognition that many aspects of the EU are starting to be rejected; namely burdensome bureaucracy and too-rapid expansion. If Brussels takes this vote and largely ignores it, it will shake the faith in the EU framework.

I personally feel that a 'Yes' vote is best for Europe overall. However, a 'No' vote is a victory for democracy and ironically the EU itself - it shows the system works and does listen to its citizens. Forcing ratification in spite of this will demonstrate the opposite and will seriously weaken faith in the EU framework.

It's been hard to find decent analysis of the subject, and as I find articles that articulate the issues faced I will add them, but here's a start:

The Independent: Hamish McRae in Amsterdam: Sun shines on Dutch but the economic shadows lengthen