Eating in Japan

I’ve been in Japan for two weeks, and by now have been able to sample quite a few different dishes, either famously from, or originating in Japan.

The food in Japan is quite something – for my palate at least, both in good and bad ways. At first I could not figure out why there were so many savoury dishes served with an abundance of sweetness.

The eventual understanding of this was an eye opener – mandatory knowledge actually to fully appreciate what is going on in Japanese cooking, even though hardly anybody seems to mention this when talking about Japanese food. The difference lies between the traditional food, washoku, and the fusion food, yóshoku.

I talk about that duality in the previous post. The following was written in diary form, before I wrote that.

Safety nets: my staple food

When I was in Hong Kong several years ago, I discovered a very magical Japanese item: onigiri sold from convenience stores (kombini). These are literally fist-sized triangular rice balls, at the centre of which is a filling – several types exist, but I always look for the tune, salmon, chicken or beef options, and always wrapped in a sheet of nori seaweed.

These have been my go-to items when I need to be sure I can eat something both filling and familiar, and best of all, I can buy a bunch of them in the morning and have them in my bag, to eat in appropriate spots (eating on public transport is discouraged, find a bench!)

A lot of times when I haven’t eaten my fill, I have opened up my map and searched for the nearest Seven-Eleven or FamilyMart – they both sell these, and they’ve been a life saver for me several times.

The rest is where the experience truly starts…


For one, the sushi and sashimi whilst nice is not anything to write home about much as far as I’m concerned, apart from more esoteric things like several varieties of shellfish to choose from, and more than one cut of tuna being used in most places.

Apart from that, my feeling is that Scotland has a much fresher selection of fish, albeit a narrower one, than the big cities here. I am told that the sushi in Hokkaido is exceptionally fresh, so perhaps it’s just a thing around the big metropoles of the south. I’ll soon see. That being said, I have not had any signs of digestive issues with the sushi I’ve eaten here, so it’s certainly likely fresh enough.

One place I went to had an option of tuna rolls, for which the chef was using a minced tuna paste, squeezed out of its plastic bag container like icing. That was surprising, given what I know of food safety procedures, and that it was still otherwise raw fish, but hey, this is supposed to be an adventure….! The reviews on Google Maps were all raving about the place being great, 4-5 stars, and the freshest they’ve ever had (mostly Americans by their own avowal), whereas for my part, I’d say it’s a pretty middling 3-star.

Since writing the above, I’ve done some reading up on sushi and food safety expectations. From what I understand, to ensure food safety, all European and American fish must be subjected to a quick-freeze process below -35 degrees celcius to kill the potential parasites in the fish, often done immediately on the boat; whereas Japanese fish possibly comes unfrozen off the boat. You’d think the Japanese approach would mean fresher fish right? Well, no. The fish are just dead on the Japanese boats, and if served the same day as the catch, will probably have had at least 12 hours of “decay.” Conversely, the (compliant) European fish will have been preserved – the fact that they are flash-frozen prevents the detrimental ice crystals from forming in the flesh of the fish, and when thawed, do not lose in texture as a result.

Hence why I experience Scottish fish as “fresher.” This is all conjecture though – educated, but conjecture nonetheless.


The other thing that many people think about when talking about “Japanese food” is ramen. Well. This has been quite an… interesting experience so far.

On my first night in Japan, in Asakusa, I felt I needed to start with a safe option, so I walked in to the first place my jetlagged brain could identify as a ramen place. I opted for a standard cha siu (barbecued pork) dish. The flavour of the broth was rather off, a little sour, and I would certainly not rate it any much above a 3. I haven’t checked the reviews online, and by now I forget where it was… I feared for the worst at this point in my ramen-loving experience, as I had once eaten a very similar fare in Paris in a well-reviewed Japanese restaurant, complete with outdoor queuing which is a common thing here, and this style has flagged in my head as now being the “authentic” Japanese taste. I was disappointed by the bolognese in Bologna, and now by the ramen in Japan. Uh oh.

My second ramen experience was on the recommendation of our Tokyo day tour guide, a place called “Ramen Nagi” (because “Ichiran is for tourists,” he said). What he failed to mention, and what is not visible on their web page, is that ALL the ramen in this restaurant, including the pork ramen, is based on niboshi, which is dried young sardines. The intense fishiness permeates through the entire dish and filled the air in the restaurant. Even the dressing sauce on the counter where you’d normally find a soy bottle, was a clear bottle with vinegar and the little niboshi infusing in it. Needless to say, not my favorite experience by far!

My third ramen experience was in a 4.6-star-rated restaurant by Osaka Castle, called Mankai Tembashi. Compared to the previous two experiences, this one was OK, though lacking in the subtle richness I have come to expect from my regular outlet back home. Another recommended place to go for ramen was Zundoya in Shinsaibashi in Osaka, which was again decent enough, but not quite to my liking.

At this point I have to wonder – is my palate just too foreign to deal with proper Japanese ramen, or if my standards are just that insufferably high…?


In Japan, an izakaya is what we’d possibly equate with a pub – it serves food and alcohol and is a hub for after-work socializing. What is different though, apart from the style of food, is that everybody is eating a full meal whilst drinking just as copiously as in a British pub.

I was directed to an izakaya in Asakusa by my friends from the standing bar, in which they were purported to serve good *oden*. After I fumbled into the place and was seated by the very friendly but non-English-speaking staff, I was at a complete loss as to how to proceed. I have since learned how to operate in an izakaya a little, but at that point I just looked at the chefs behind their counter with the most apologetic expression I could muster. The chef, whose job it normally is not to take orders directly, was sympathetic and asked me directly what I wanted. “…. oden….?” I chanced, and with a smile he hollered across the room that he was serving me oden, so the waiters could tally my tab properly.

The oden promptly arrived and I set about eating. To my relief, even as strange as it looked to me, I can happily say it was a pleasant experience. I suspect the majority of items were root- and tofu-based, each with their own preparation style, and textures, mostly taking flavour from the broth they were sitting in, along with a fishcake item which was very good itself – neither too fishy nor too sweet. A win for me on that one! I might try getting oden somewhere else again for comparison; then again, I’d hate to taint my palate with a sub-par oden on my second try… we’ll see.

On the Shinjuku pub crawl, our guide took us to a few izakayas, and ordered such things as yakiton (think yakitori, but instead of chicken skewers, it’s pork skewers), fried smelt (not my thing, whole little fishies is definitely not my thing, not my thing, yaadaa!), karaage (think battered and fried chicken pieces), sahimi (just raw fish, no rolls or rice, etc), and other little things. Izakaya culture is about drinking, but most certainly about eating whilst drinking. You could equate it with north-Spanish-style tapas which is a pub style experience, rather than a restaurant one.

At the conclusion of the Deep Back Street Osaka tour, our guide Andy took us to a local izakaya and ordered a variety of items for us, including a beef and tofu stew, karaage again, takitori, and other small things, topped off at the end with taiyaki. During the tour itself he had us try takoyaki, fried dough-and-octopus balls topped with teriyaki sauce (it’s not too bad, but teriyaki is not for me on account of being too sweet) and some very special yakitori, one made from chicken hearts, the other from chicken innards. The hearts were decent enough, though I’m pretty sure I had a psychosomatic reaction in the gut and declined to try the other variety…!

At this point, if I ever do try to navigate an izakaya again, I think I’ll be alright. But only if I need to. Certainly if I come across someone culinarily adventurous, I’ll know how to do the ordering. But on my own… not too sure…!


Nabe is a type of hot-pot dish. On two of my Tokyo tours, we were served a variation thereof. The dish as served consisted each time of an iron pot on top of an open flame burner, ingredients sitting in a stew and cooked at the table. Contents included enoki mushrooms (to date the only mushroom which I have actually found palatable to my personal tastes), chicken pieces (raw to begin with), tofu, nappa cabbage, broccoli, spring onions, noodles… anything you’d care to chuck in really, so long as it fits. It takes around 10-15 minutes to cook through, and there is likely some miso paste in the mix as well for extra flavour, so in the meantime you eat your appetizers, typically rice with various pickled vegetable toppings.

The principle itself is quite appealing otherwise, and with the right ingredients, probably quite easy to replicate at home as a one-pot. If anything, I think what I have gained is a little more confidence in the variety I can play with here. Probably the most important thing is preparing it with a *dashi* of your choice and a spoon ful of miso, amking it essentially a super-souped-up-miso-soup.

Another type of hot-pot I’ve eaten is “shabu-shabu”, which uses extremely thin cuts of meat, which you only need to leave in the broth for a few seconds, and so is served on the side. I’m not a fan of it decidedly – boiled meat really only works with tougher, salty cuts, stewed over hours, as far as I’m concerned; personal preference of course.


During my stay in the Tokyo hotel, breakfast typically involved a taishoku – several small dishes on a tray. Several pre-assembled sets of dishes exist to be chosen from, allowing the restaurant to churn them out fast, and for the most part consisted of some rice dish, various pickled vegetables, and some sort of fish (except for the vegetarian meal, and the “western” breakfast).

I ended up settling most times on the “raw tuna on rice with udon side dish” as after trying the “western” dish and another one that included miso soup, this was the most filling item with the most familiar ingredients. The western item had a number of overly-sweetened savoury items, in too otherwise too small quantities, including a “biifu sttekku” – a mini beef cutlet, crumbed and deep fried, with teriyaki sauce.

I made up for the lack of proper bulk here with onigiri…


The last point I’ve noticed about Japanese cuisine is that if it isn’t something like ramen or fish, most Japanese dishes tend to be sweet. Excessively sweet.

As I said in the intro, this is before I had read up on the fundamental duality of the nature of Japanese cuisine, washoku and yóshoku.

I had a bit of a bad day mentally in Yokohama, feeling the awkwardness of being a foreigner in Japan, and decided to try to eat a safe option. This led me to a pasta restaurant, with a ticket machine in lieu of ordering – I chose this because of the fact is was the only place where the menu was also in English. I ordered what I hoped would be a familiar dish, spaghetti with meat sauce. Hah! It tasted like they had added a full tablespoon of sugar to it.

Same thing with the fried skewers, which often come dressed in a teriyaki-like sauce, which is mirin, soy and sugar. Very sweet. The one time I had yakisoba in Edinburgh, it too was noticeably sweet. I haven’t had the heart to try any yakisoba here. I’m pretty sure I know what’ll happen.

I made the mistake once of ordering omurice having in a split-moment forgotten that it is comprised of one of my most detested ingredients – an abundance of ketchup, that sickly sweet condiment so many people seem to enjoy in vast quantities. Perhaps it is this quality that underlies the reason many people rant and rave about Japanese cooking and I do not: I hate that sickly sweetness. So, well, I find I have to give up on a lot of Japanese fare. If sticking to sushi and ramen (and oden perhaps?) is what I am confiend to, so be it…

I also made a point on my last day in Osaka to locate an eatry serving oknomiyaki, the “Japanese pancake” filled with savoury fare. Mine was a negitama, or green onions with egg yolk topping. Of course, it came lathered with teriyaki and Japanese mayonnaise, and whilst I was able to mostly finish it and have no regrets, I will certainly not be ordering that again! That’s just me though – the vast majority of people who try it find it superb, and I can most certainly understand the appeal. Just, not me.


Thankfully I have had two reprieves from the culinary onslaughts.

The first was a Latin American-themed steak restaurant which did exactly what it needed to, without messing around with the dish. Just a plain, juicy, rare steak.

The second was a wagyu beef restaurant which again did exactly what it needed to: steak pieces brought raw, which I was left to cook to my liking. And that stuff is so tender it nearly melts in the mouth. Hardly any chewing needed.

Wagyu costs a pretty penny though, and whilst I’m glad I had the experience, I think of the two styles of cooking… I still prefer a thick cut of a lesser grade steak expertly grilled over a wagyu slender slice.

Washoku VS Yóshoku

This is a bit of a preview of the blog posts to come, as I am traveling in Japan and trying to experience, amongst other things, Japanese cuisine as much as I can.

I’m posting this prematurely because I feel like I’ve had such a eureka moment, I am just that elated, and want to share the knowledge.

Photos to follow another time.

What follows is what I have gathered as the most essential concept to help understand “Japanese” cuisine. Whilst you may be familiar with the idea that there is “no single Chinese cuisine” or “no single Italian cuisine,” the Japanese take this even further, transcending regionality altogether.

It was only later in my trip that I did some reading up on something called “yóshoku.”

In a nutshell, Japan followed Buddhist principles for close to 2,000 years, and during that time, eating land mammals was forbidden, even taboo, and emphasis on minimal handling of ingredients and seasonality was de rigueur. Cooking with oil was very rare. Stewing, broiling and grilling were the only notable ways of cooking. For most of the country, fish was eaten only occasionally, largely due to poverty, with soy and rice being the staple diet, along with various root vegetables. Pickling became an important technique for preserving food, but also for flavouring; spices apparently were not common fare. With Japanese isolationism in place, very little influence came in until the 19th century. At that time, Emperor Meiji decided that interaction with the outside world, most notably Europe and America, would greatly benefit the advancement of Japan and the taboo on eating meat was lifted. Japan then entered the “modernization era.”

Two things happened at this point culinarily: oil cooking, and European fusion cooking. What we know today as “tempura” is a style of cooking the Japanese adapted from Portuguese cuisine. Where oil frying used to be a very rare thing, this now was a possibility, and production and common use of cooking oils expanded. The second thing is that many European dishes were adopted and adapted to Japanese tastes. Both of these are a form of yóshoku, which translates as “Western Cuisine.” An important thing to stress is that yóshoku is not in fact Western cuisine, but specifically a Japanese practice using Western food as its base.

One thing I still have not quite pieced together is that yóshoku is always heavily sweetened. Teriyaki sauce, regarded as so quintessentially representative of Japanese cuisine is yóshoku, at least as far as I can tell. “Katsu,” the Japanese breaded meat slice, is derived from the loan-word “katsuretsu,” the word “cutlet” in katakana spelling. I’ve been told by one person that it probably stems from the early development of the cuisine when sugar started entering the market at the same time as yóshoku, as a luxury commodity. Using it in Western-based dishes was probably an expression of sophistication by the elite classes who were able to afford fancy Western dishes. I suspect that this is the same symptom as to what happened in Britain, when we started sweetening tea… which was unheard of in China!

This explains the sweetened pasta meat sauces, the sweetness of the dressing on various takoyaki and yakitori, and the yakisoba. The omuraisu is most definitely of this category. Ketchup is well loved, the recipes for mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce (“Worcester sauce” in Japan) and others all call for significant amounts of sugar (a tablespoon’s worth is common for every three eggs in mayonnaise for example).

This also explains why the sweetness is not experienced in the dishes that make use of roots and vegetables, soy and other items – such as soba, oden, nabe and the likes. These are washoku, traditional Japanese, and are not expected to be sweetened.

And so, you can expect any heavily meat based dish to step from yóshoku. I am due to be in a cooking class that will involve “nikujaga,” translating as “meat and potatoes,” which is an interpretation by the Japanese navy of a British-style beef stew. And sure enough, the recipe calls for sugar

This, is enlightenment.

About That: Article 13 pushback

The Open Rights Group are campaigning to have Article 13 voted down in its existing form and have set up a summary and email tool:

You can write your email in the box they provide, and on submitting, present you with the list of MEPs to choose for your constituency to which your mail will be sent.

You can also find your constituency MEPs here:

I’d highly recommend you put together an email too, for the sake of independent creativity and online freedom of expression.

This is what I wrote:

Dear MEPs for Scotland,

I would like to add to the concern all we independent and ordinary content creators share, on the matter of Article 13 which will be imminently coming to a vote.

As it stands, Article 13 is not workable, and puts legislative judgement in the hands of profit-oriented organisations and their undiscerning algorithms.

Such an automated and sweeping system has already been once implemented, by YouTube, under the name “Content ID”

It is widely considered a failure by small and independent content creators, content critique professionals, and rights movements. [1] [2] [3]

Music creators most notably have been blocked from posting their own original content because the algorithm decided a false positive match. False positives are rife. [4] [5]

It has not improved significantly in 10 years, and would be far from a fair arm of law enforcement.

YouTube’s creator, Google, is well respected in the areas of machine learning and artificial intelligence, which is leveraged for implementing Content ID. If 10 years of improvement still yield false positives, at a rate of 28-31% by one count [6], can we really trust a better rate from other companies to be an implementation of law?

Even the USA’s concept of Fair Use carries no weight against an algorithm’s decision, implemented at an American company.

Pushing execution of law into the hands of large companies will only encourage them to focus on serving the needs of large companies in turn — it will only serve those who can mobilize large legal teams.

Pushing decision-making solely onto algorithms, without requiring the provision of an impartial and and diligent complaints and review system, approachable by creators of any size and jurisdiction, will only ensure that content is created as commercial commodity.

Article 13 would effectively alienate any grass-roots creativity to gain a hold online ever again.

It will most assuredly prevent any commentary and criticism to be shared online – be it art critiques to political activism.

Content platform companies will be compelled to over-block for fear of litigation under the new legislation, and in dispute will feel compelled to side with the side that has the largest legal team behind them.

Algorithms do not know the difference between “copyright infringement” and “citation,” between “infringement” and “example,” between “infringement” and “reinterpretation.”

This calls for judgement and discernment that only a human can bring.

Implementation of legislation cannot be left as the responsibility for for-profit entities.

Please vote to downturn Article 13 as it stands,

please urge your peers in the European Parliament to do the same,

and please push to involve such organisations as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Rights Group to advise meaningfully to drive a legislation that takes ordinary people, expressing themselves online, into account, from the start.

Yours faithfully









Edit 1: The first response is in from Alyn Smith, MEP for Scotland, SNP (Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance)

His office wrote back:

Many thanks for raising your concerns regarding the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. I share your assessment that while the proposals are well intentioned, this goes beyond the issue of copyright and poses a challenge to the rights of EU citizens and businesses.

As regards the two particularly contentious articles, I am not a member of the Legal Affairs Committee myself, but on Articles 11 and 13 respectively, our Group has worked hard to consult with citizens and businesses across Scotland and understand the implications for them of this potential legislation. Accordingly, we have adopted a firm position on both articles.

On Article 11, we oppose the proposal of the European Commission to create a neighbouring right, which would oblige anyone using snippets of journalistic content online would be required to obtain a license (which would apply for twenty years) from the publishers. We believe the negative repercussions of this proposal would be serious and numerous, the most onerous of these being that it would limit freedom of expression and access to information for individuals in particular. We would have supported instead the proposal made in council by the then-presidency Estonia on a presumption rule but short of that we cannot support the inclusion of this article and will push for its removal.
On Article 13, we explicitly reject the introduction of mandatory upload filters on platforms hosting “large amounts” of user-uploaded content (such as YouTube), for the simple reason that such software cannot differentiate between copyright infringements and legal use, meaning that perfectly legal content will be taken down. This amounts to a limitation of freedom of expression, among other things, and therefore the Green/EFA Group is pushing for the removal of this article from the legislation.

I was, I will confess, surprised that both proposals were approved by the Legal Affairs Committee, so the issues now come before the whole house and we have a chance to, to my mind, rectify these decisions. While there may be some alterations to the text before it comes to the vote, I will be casting my vote against the ideas put forward in Articles 11 and 13.

I trust this clearly explains our stance on the key aspects of this important legislation, and I thank you for your support.

A good stance, and of course with all the hubub I had forgotten that Article 11 was its own thing. Good to bring back to the fore.

Fixing Broken Kernel Packages in Debian/Ubuntu

Sometimes you just hit really bad luck, or you’ve done something without due caution. Having too small a /boot partition, or uninstalling the wrong package can cause a system to be non-upgradable, or even non-bootable.

Filled up boot partition

If the boot partition filled up, then kernel upgrades will continually fail until space is cleared. Unfortunately, this also means that attempts to uninstall kernels through APT will fail too, because the package manager must try to finish the last failed install operation before it can proceed to further work.

You can use this script to forcefully remove excess kernel images, and then run apt-get -f install :


wget -O

# Keep 2 most recent kernels
bash 2 | sudo bash

# Fix broken installation process
apt-get -f install

Removing kernels in this way forcibly removes them, then runs the dependency fix, hopefully completing the incomplete kernel build operation that normally fails.

In future, during regular maintenance, remember to run the sudo apt-get autoclean && sudo apt-get autoremove command. You can automate this by placing the appropriate script in /etc/cron.daily/

Debian/Ubuntu keeps booting to memory test / cannot find kernel

If no kernel can be found, the system cannot boot. You need to rescue the system at this point.

These steps describe the process when using a Ubuntu Server DVD, but a similar workflow is applicable to pretty much any standard GNU/Linux system

1. Boot from the Ubuntu Server installation DVD

To boot from DVD in a hypervisor, poweroff the VM, edit its configuration and choose to mount a CD/DVD from filesystem (or datastore in a hosted environment).

You may find you need to force entering BIOS configuration to ensure that the CD drive is booted from before the First Hard Disk

2. Once booted in to Ubuntu, choose “Rescue a broken system” from the first menu.

You will be asked a few questions, of which network setup etc. Answer as appropriate

3. You will eventually be asked to choose a root partition – choose the appropriate partition (usually the largest one on /dev/sda)

If prompted to mount the separate /boot partition, do so

4. Get a shell “in the installer” ; you will be informed that the target (your main system you are rescuing) is mounted to /target

You will need to move/copy over the installer environment’s /etc/resolv.conf to /target/etc/resolv.conf (unlink the existing /target/etc/resolv.conf first though)

5. Switch to your target system by running chroot /target

You will now be in the same context as your original server. Run bash to get back to bash shell (by default you start in sh)

6. Run the following – note the dpkg section is one line of pipes, do not forget those “|” characters ! This is a modified version of what exists in the script from above, which essentially purges all existing kernel installation data to start anew.

dpkg --list 'linux-image*' |
 grep ii |
 awk '{print $2}' | while read; do
     dpkg --force-all --remove "$REPLY"; 

apt-get update && apt-get install linux-image-generic

7. Power off the machine. Ensure there is no CD in the disk drive anymore, and bring the machine back up, this should be fixed now


If the above still does not add at least one bootable kernel, you may need to install a different/new kernel. Look for “linux-image” and install the latest

# find a suitable kernel image
apt-cache search linux-image

# In this example, the package chosen from the above step is linux-image-4.4.0-109-generic
apt-get install linux-image-4.4.0-109-generic

You will have a particular version of a kernel now, which may or may not continue to receive updates ; you need to consider moving to a new server or further fixing the existing one.

Taking the long drive home

There’s a song by Jim Malcolm, Losin’ Auld Reekie, which follows in the notable tradition of wistful, somewhat melancholic and yet not quite sad, singing about places and scenes in the home country. It charts a driver’s decision (implicitly, Malcolm himself as he leaves Edinburgh and its busy, business-oriented music scenes behind) to take the “lang way home”, whereby instead of taking the more direct route from North Queensferry up the M90 via Perth and Dundee to get to Forfar (short of 2 hours), they take a lengthy route along country roads, driving through a number of Scottish towns.

The drive sounds quite charming, and I’ve been meaning for years to give it a go one idle afternoon… though charting it on a map, it turns out they really, *really* took the long way, winging significantly west for the first half, and on the final lap, arcing much further north than one would expect to go through Kilry (if I transcribed the song correctly!). I would in fact have to consider giving it a full day’s worth, just to be sure I don’t roll in to forfar past dinner time!

So unlike our traveler, I *won’t* be holding out for a Forfar bridie the whole way !

I drew up a map, each red X is a place the traveler seems to have driven through, the blue X’s marking places mentioned, but not traversed. The last parts of Sma’ Glen, Amulree and Dunkeld look as though they were indeed driven through, though it is merely implied.

So what would I do on this trip? Well, in the spirit of the song, I would say it is about enjoying the ride. I might take a film camera to be old fashioned about it with two or three rolls of film, and take a few pics at each named destination, plus anything nice on the way, as well as a guitar should I be able to chance a song or two at my stops along the way.

And maybe I’ll make a point of baking some bridies before I set off.

Here’s the music video, and I’ve made some brief annotations on references in the song lyrics, as well as on some of the quintessentially Scottish words and curios, for those not attuned to the dialect.

Read more

An Independence Isolate?

ScotEur flag

[This article is released and provided under a CC-BY-ND 4.0 license – re-publish it as you wish, but please give credit anywhere you post this 🙂 ; quoting excerpts is allowed, so long as you link back here, or include the full text in appendix]

Several prominent figures in Europe – if not the elected leaders themselves – have expressed support for welcoming an independent Scotland into the EU.

This brings me hope on the one hand of continued European identity and membership, but also gives me some dread as to how the political and national landscapes will transform in the very near future.

On the one hand, as a British-national, Scottish-dwelling, French-educated, Polish-named, multi-cultural, bilingual, Eastern-blooded individual, I welcome with delight these encouraging messages, and if we further hear from state leaders themselves their firm intentions of working to speedily include Scotland into the EU on the basis of our former ties and goodwill to all Europeans, then I would certainly vote Yes in a second Independence referendum.

I did however vote “No” in the first.

Back then, we did not have such warm or even active support from the EU council or leaders, and the discussion was framed in the light of “departure”, not unification.

An independent Scotland would need to be in some trade bloc, no matter how small or limited in scope, to ensure it could rely on the weight of supporting equals when facing larger rival allegiances. Be that the UK, the Nordic Council, or the EU, we do not have the negotiating power to strive fully alone, not least because as a country, we have never operated such without the additional power of the UK, nor much to offer that others cannot already provide.

If we do have the expressed support of the EU this time around however, the discussion would specifically be framed in the context of ensuring our coexistence in a larger union of countries – not a smaller one. We would be voting Yes to joining a larger venture, as opposed to voting No to a wholesale reduction of our prospects.

And this is where I am most concerned:

The far right movements of a number of countries across Europe – and a certain prominent American – have become emboldened by the UK’s decision to leave and “take back” their country. Such movements towards independence are expressed in isolationist terms – a mentality of “we fare better alone” – the very sentiment I voted No to myself in 2014.

I would urge, beyond my right and remit, that those other European countries seriously consider what is happening in Britain: the European Union needn’t be harsh to the United Kingdom during the upcoming negotiations at all, as the punishment still would be that it would be solely dealing with the United Kingdom of England and Wales alone, whilst the EU welcomes with satisfaction the arrival of a proud, and in pockets smug, independent Scotland; and perhaps too a Greater Ireland, at the cost of the no-longer so great Britain.

Splintering is an extremely hefty price for any country to pay.

So I’m looking at France, with its Basques, Bretons and Corsicans; at Spain, with its Basques, Catalonians, and Galicians; at Belgium, with its Flemmish and its Walloons; and all other EU countries with its independence-yearning nations – consider very carefully what you do next, and how you phrase your stances.

Strive to be part of something – and not a lone voice in a see of Others. We will always be different from one another, but we must always try to find common ground and camaraderie. Even being united in adversity is better than alone against the entire world.

And to those Basques, Bretons, Catalonians, Corsicans, Flemmish, Galicians, Walloons and the rest – you too need to think carefully how you navigate these murky waters, and hold to account those larger nations you are embedded in.

Scotland is receiving a good deal of heartfelt praise, but who knows how long this will last, and even how it will truly play out in the end. Even within our country here there are reports of increasingly overt xenonphobia where once it was merely latent. Nationalism is not a thing to handle lightly, and (for it to be productive and beneficial to all) should be called upon only to look outward at the world, as a goal to aspire to, not as a place to cut away from.

Above all, I would caution: we are better off with more friends and more allies — Independence should not be the standard-bearer of Isolationism.

[This article is released and provided under a CC-BY-ND 4.0 license – re-publish it as you wish, but please give credit anywhere you post this 🙂 ; quoting excerpts is allowed, so long as you link back here, or include the full text in appendix]

The “Bite Me” Minetest Server

Rendered logo - by Blockmen

For those who do not know, Minetest is an open-source free-to-play and free-to-modify alternative to Minecraft. It’s Free as in Freedom – and as in Free Lunch.

For the past few days I had been running a  Minetest server – it was fun whilst it lasted, but I have been extremely busy with work and it turns out I need to liberate that server node for something more productive… so for now, Bite Me, and its villages, are defunct.


Originally the idea was to run a Minetest server with a difference – during the week, an easy setup would have allowed players to create whatever they wanted in the world; settle villages and such, without any aggressive mobs or PvP.

On Friday nights however the world would be backed up, and NSSM would be turned on, PvP would be enabled, and random protector blocks would be deleted.

On Monday, the world would be reverted to its state as registered on Friday.

It would have been oh so fun…

I did keep a backup of the world data though, and all tools I had written to monitor and manage the server. It’ll be back online some day, but with a little bit more pre-prep; I’ll post some of the tools on my github page eventually, including the items allowing swithcing between the week-day safe mode, and the week-end massacre mode…..


For those of you who are curious about stats and requirements, I was running this on a Ubuntu 16.04 server with 512 MB RAM and 1 GB swap, 20 GB storage (more than enough) and a single CPU at 2.3 GHz, courtesy of digitalOcean.

At peak, I think I had about 10 players all playing simultaneously, with a good few off exploring different caves and causing the map gen to work in several locations siultaneously, and the server was handling fairly well I believe.

I expect if you want to run a properly specced server, 2GB RAM, 2 CPUs and 2GB swap would be a better bet. I might use that in future.


Here’s some screenshots from when I was exploring as admin:

Exhibit 1 – some weird shadows from the clouds. These shadows were persistent (never changed location), and dark enough that stone monsters would spawn in them….! You can see a htop report showing server stats too




Exhibit 2 – I was using maikerumine’s esmobs mod to generate some difficult mobs. For some reason, they would hardly ever spawn in my main village – but they did everywhere else and my goodness were they a handful… see the log how much damage they would have been doing if I hadn’t my admin shield equipped! (probably from 3d-Armor mod, made easily accessible from the Unified Inventory)




Exhibit 3 – Sokomine’s mg and mg_villages mods, combined with VanessaE’s moretrees mod produce some superb settings…



Here’s the full list of mods I was using:

Why is

I am easily amused.

When you type into your Google search bar, you get suggested searches that others have typed – not simply those that are popular, but just any that vaguely match (in the case where not many searches have been done).

Searching on operating system names and letting the suggestions display is a fun way of seeing their popularity (and also as far from scientific and statistically relevant as you can get with public data…!) Read more

The Power of #!/bin/bash


Escaping the subshell

The pictured snippet is probably one of the dirtier pieces of code I have had the misfortune of needing – and not being able to refactor to anything cleaner.

I am trying to make bash my main programming language, and to this goal I have created a number of tools to aid me on my way: a library of code snippets that anybody can re-use, a packing tool to create executables, a pre-compilation tool to add compiler directives to bash, a build tool to pull all these together, and a make/release tool to manage versions. And I’m not yet done.

Of the main efforts here is the library of scriptlets.

Once of the main attractions of one language over the other is the availability of a large amount of re-usable code released as libraries and which are, pretty much, taken for granted.

Python can get modules from pip, there are Java libraries in JAR files around the web and even JavaScript has such libraries as jQuery to help to write terser, more manageable code more easily.

bash has none of this. And quite a few quirks. You have to contend with the very string-y way of passing data around (arrays are a bit of a nightmare until you get used to the arcane notations), and nearly every non-trivial operation you want to do is a command, an external process.

The inset image depicts some code I wrote so that assigning variables

But that is also exactly what makes so appealing – any language, and its associated libraries, can become your library!

For starters, python, perl and PHP can all be leveraged for their respective strengths in specific situations, and it is possible to write and store additional scripts such as long MySQL tasks in their own files. Use a perl script to write change on the fly, and pipe to MySQL.

Consider the following silly example:

controlapp -getusers |
    perl "$SCENARIO/mysqltemplate.sql" |
    mysql -u "$sqluser" -p"$sqlpass" "$mydb" |
    php to_xml.php |
    controlapp -dostuff

It looks quite awful at first glance, but consider the power of perl to perform text processing, keeping your mysql files ordered in a directory-based hierarchy, and passing the result to PHP which will handle outputting XML much more ergonomically than PHP.

So whilst bash does have its odd and at times even infuriating quirks, I am learning to love it.

It is now after all the de facto language of DevOps. It seems even Windows can no longer do without it 🙂

Let It B…SD – and how to record songs with Audacity (Open Source Free Software)

A few week-ends ago I had a go at recording “Let It BSD,” a pastiche of “Let It Be,” focused on the BSD operating system. It was the first time for me in years that I had had a go at recording music.

What I used to do when I was in high school was to record myself playing on a cassette tape, then play that back through my parents’ dual-tape hi-fi system whilst recording the vocal track onto the second tape. If I was happy with that I would be able to record a third time by re-recording in similar fashion over the first tape. Onerous, time-consuming (especially when I made mistakes), and with very limited mixing opportunities (read: none), it was a rather challenging (vexing) experience.

That was 2002. 14 years on, the technology available for casual hobbyist recording has come leaps and bounds; and no, I did not need any particularly powerful equipment for this at all. A modern laptop (from within the last couple of years) and a couple of small accessories are enough.

The song, the subject


Play Let It BSD (new tab)

  • BSD stands for “Berkley Software Distribution,” and generally refers to a variety of related operating systems based off of the original 386BSD from the 80’s, itself derived from the original portable version of UNIX.
  • Let It Be is a fairly cheesy, albeit popular, song by the Beatles, which I am not sure is appropriate to sing in all times of conflict (I was never sure of what we should “let be.”)
  • Let It BSD“‘s lyrics were written by Jacqueline Kory Westlund, as a result of having heard one too many episodes of her husband’s favorite tech security and systems podcasts, TechSnap and BSD Now.
  • JKW released her parody lyrics under a Creative Commons with Attribution license (CC/Attr), which is a license for content creators that allows everyone to share and modify material, so long as the original author/s is/are given credit in appropriate and visible form. Which is fortunate for me, because I was not able to place a comment on her blog to ask/thank her.
  • My recorded track is, as such, also released under Creative Commons/Attr 4.0 license, for anyone to do what they would like to with.

My Setup – hardware and software

On the hardware side, I used

  • a Lenovo Flex laptop and simply its built-in mic
  • a set of headphones (really good Sony ones, cost me about £40 a few months ago)
  • and a USB stick.

I used headphones (not earbuds) to get the best pitch range on playback.

I used the USB stick to record the temp files to – in Audacity preferences under the Directories section, you can specify what space to use for the temp directory. Since my laptop has a HDD and I did not want the fans or disk kicking in, a USB was a suitable workaround. It wouldn’t have been necessary if I’d had an SSD.

4GB might have been just about sufficient with no other apps present and a lightweight desktop; and as I type, I wonder, if I’d had less RAM, if using a file on the USB stick for a swap file, would have helped…

For the software, recording and “mixing” was done in Audacity, running on Ubuntu MATE (a Linux system — yes, ironic isn’t it). I had two windows with the lyrics open so that I could have everything in front of me fully annotated, so no scrolling would ever be needed. Paper would have been an acceptable substitute.


Instruments involved

  • a mandolin (two actually for different sound qualities and ease of handling)
  • a steel string acoustic guitar
  • a Spanish nylon-strung guitar
  • a tambourine
  • and a metronome (because I had not yet found out about the click track feature built-in to Audacity!)

You can tune manually, but having a guitar tuner makes it all the easier. Pity my cheap penny whistles are all out of tune.



The most frequently used keyboard shortcuts used during recording will likely be these:

  • (R) record
  • (P) pause
  • (Space) stop/play
  • (J) jump to start of track
  • (K) jump to end of track

Starting a recording writes to a new track, always. You can use the ←→ dual arrow tool to move track pieces around, and split tracks on the cursor in the Edit menu: Labeled Audio.

  • First take: I recorded myself strumming and singing against a metronome, to lay down the reference track.
  • Second take: playing the first take back in the headphones, I did a new take solely recording the guitar being strummed.
  • Third take: this was supposed to be the vocal track, but since I had to turn off the first recording I lost the metronome ticks, so third take was …. clapping in time to the first track to create a poor man’s click track.
  • Third take (bis): I recorded a first take of the vocals. This was not so much to be a final take, but rather to serve as a guide as to where I was in the song on subsequent takes.
  • Fourth take: tambourine. It turns out playing a tambourine so that it blends in to a song decently is not quite as easy as just shaking and beating it. You want to shake it fairly deftly to avoid jangling at odd moments, which requires constant concentration…!
  • Fifth take: Spanish guitar arpeggiations, nothing too fancy. The bright timbre of the steel string folk guitar was much more preferable for strumming the background, so arpeggiation was left to the mellower nylon-strung Spanish guitar. I could have used an electric guitar to get a different timbre, but I wanted to keep it all as “acoustic” as possible.
  • Sixth take: Here’s where I cheated a little – I tuned the Spanish guitar to a drop-D, and played my bass track on it. In Audacity I then used the Change Pitch effect to drop the track by an octave, amplified it a little to bring the sound back and voilà – I have no bass guitar, but still have a bass track 🙂 The downside is that the low D does not translate well to digital re-tuning down by an octave, so it sounds a little funky. Not sure how to resolve this.
  • Seventh & Eighth takes: by now with my old cassette tape method I’d probably have been tearing my hair out and weeping in despair. At this point I was recording two backing vocals at the end of the track; harmonies to accompany the final slew of choruses. I actually reduced the volume on the reference vocal track to minimize distraction. Singing a harmony and keeping to it is not easy when a more familiar tune is being sung into your head. Even trickier to get two harmony voices in and keep to them. I sang in my normal voice, and in falsetto, to be sure to get different timbres.
  • Ninth track: solo time. Grabbed the ash mandolin to do this, it has a slightly higher action which suits me better for melody playing. I didn’t write anything for this, in fact I replayed the entire track from the beginning and practised scales and mini-licks until I got to the solo area, paused a bit, and improvised along through the solo area. I cut the rest from the take, it took me about 2-3 takes to get something I liked, then another one when I realized I had deleted it during an ill-advised bout of undo-redo. Bleh. No two takes were the same.
  • Tenth track: easy one – redburst mandolin with a lower action, which I just tried to strum as fast as possible. I was originally going to have it all through the choruses, but sustaining that proved too much for me, so only kept it in the final flourish.
  • Eleventh track: final vocals. I can sing in different registers. You don’t want to hear what happened when I went up an octave. For this one, rather than use my normal baritone voice, I tried to keep the timbre higher. The original take (3bis) made me sound a bit like an opera singer trying to do folk. Yeuch.
  • Final track: the Allan track. My intention was to grab clips of Allan Jude saying the names of each of the BSD flavours and substituting them accordingly, but I didn’t have the courage to actually go through a whole heap of shows to identify where he might have said each line, if at all. So we’re stuck with my cheap imitation-Canadian accent.

How affordable does this make hobbyist music recording?

(The rig I did all this with is a little more powerful than regular laptops; I have a small Gigabyte Brix with 4GB RAM and a HDD, 2 processors. I will need to use an external webcam as it has no built-in mic, but could still make sure to keep it near the unit to simulate an internal mic. I’ll do some tests there too to find out whether recording with that setup would be viable.)


If you do not have access to high-end PCs or modern laptops with top-specs, you’re probably finding yourself limited in choice. Getting a second-hand laptop from the last 3 years would probably work fine for the task, preferably with at least 4GB RAM

Your base minimum would probably be dual-core at 1.4GHz, 2-4GB RAM, and 2-4 USB ports. Any PC/laptop produced within the last 4 years should be able to manage that.

The laptop I used has 8GB RAM which probably helps in keeping recording + playback in memory responsive, reducing recourse to the fans I expect.

If you do not have this amount of RAM, and can’t get/afford any modules to expand, there still might be a way – create a swap file on a second USB stick, which would burn through the stick faster (and you probably would only ever want to use it as swap thereafter), but would prevent the HDD from kicking in when memory needs to be offloaded to disk. I’ve heard that the stick burns out faster used in this way, but no idea what timeframes – hours, days, weeks or months of usage.

I don’t think you can explicitly and dynamically configure swap location in Windows or OS X (even though the latter is lightly related to BSD), but in strict BSD and Linux it’s a doozy – as root just do the following

swapoff # turn off normal swap, wherever it is  
dd if=/dev/zero of="$SWAPFILE" bs=1024 count=$(( 4 * 1024 * 1024 )) # 4GB swap file
mkswap "$SWAPFILE"
swapon "$SWAPFILE" # since we turned off all other swap, we only swap on this file

And then remove it from swap and turn on the normal swap

mount -a # assuming swap is normally set up in fstab

Recording Software

You would be hard pressed to get such a complete solution for basic audio recording and mixing as Audacity for free. Apple’s Garage Band costs to acquire now if you don’t have it preinstalled (I don’t, I had to reinstall my Mac some time in the past) or want the latest version, and requires off the bat that you buy a Mac. Microsoft does not make or bundle any similar-grade software out of the box, and Adobe’s solution is aimed at professionals, with a price tag to match.

Audacity works on BSD, Linux, Windows and Mac OS X and whilst not as feature-complete and pretty as its commercial counterparts is still very flexible and powerful. Also it doesn’t chew memory just to launch – it’s a lean mean recording machine.

It is Open Source Free Software, and supports recording to OGG (for lossy compressed files) and FLAC (non-lossy compressed files), both open standards that any software can read (if it wants to). There’s no patent tax on the software makers to pass down to their users.

If you want to record video at the same time as the audio, you can try Open Broadcaster Software which is released for Linux, Mac, and Windows which can record desktop, multiple webcams, and audio as required; also open source free.

To mix the video portions you could check out Blender which is also multi-platform, including BSD, open source free as well.

If you are into electronic music and trackers, there’s LMMS, which I have not tried but may eventually come to explore if I get back into recording with trackers more frequently.


I don’t think I could have done this easily on commodity hardware without Linux and Open Source Free Software in general. To do even simple home recording, I expect without FOSS, I would have had to shell out for a proper system – or stuck to tapes and hi-fis.

And Allan’s wish for this to be sung at a BSD con may yet come true; what I hope to have done is laid down a reference version to build upon. It would be fun to see an instrumental team get together to record a version, or do a live take at a meetup, with Allan doing his part too…

Or at least a Jupiter Broadcasting version, recorded on Noah and Chris’s pro-grade equipment – if they can put aside their other allegiance for the sake of a song 😉