Tuesday, April 26, 2005

My new pets

I have a few million new pets! They demand to be fed regularly, and are currently living in the fridge... And after a few days of service, my fabourite activity is shoving them in the oven and eating them!

Sounds barbaric, eh? I'm talking about yeast :)
After Ben's wife brought some delicious home-made bread to our wine tasting a few Fridays ago, I've been interested in making bread "the old-fashioned way". Quick bread dough is pretty good, but I thought it'd be interesting to try something new, so I've been trying bread recipes using a sponge starter.

The starter is basically yeast, flour and water - much more runny than the final bread dough. The yeast consumes the sugar in the flour and gradually multiples. Each "iteration" of the sponge uses just 3/4 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of warm water. You then let the least do their stuff (4-6 hours at room temp, or 12-14 hours in the fridge). After this time, you either use some of the sponge to make bread dough, or feed it again and keep it active.

So far, I've been using "The Joy of Cooking"as my recipe book, but last weekend I got a copy of "The Bread Bible" from the library - quite a thick tome! I've made 2 batches of bread using the sponge starter, and so far I love the texture and flavour. The flavour still could be richer and more "bready" - I have yet to get a real fermented taste from the bread, so I can probably let the starter go for longer... Anyway, more experimenting is ahead.

One of these days I'd also like to try making sourdough using airborne yeast. (And of course, lambic beer, but that needs a ton of equipment, and A wouldn't like the beer bottles sitting in the bath tub a la Alton Brown)

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Friday Wine Tasting: 2001 Simonsig Merindol Syrah

I bought this in 2002 at the winery in South Africa. Sadly, the travelling the wine has done and dodgy storage (I don't have a wine cellar or wine fridge) took their toll. This wine was not "off" but was pretty close, and my tummy didn't appreciate it.

I'd write more about the aroma and flavour that was still evident, but it'd be a sad reflection of the wine's true character. Instead, I'll keep my eyes open for well-stored bottles if they ever make it to the U.S., and start storing my wines better.
Check out the site below for information on the awards Simonsig has won recently for their Shiraz wines. Oh, and some time I should dig into why some wineries call their Shiraz 'Syrah' - is it pretention, or a difference in the grapes, or ... ? South African wineries seem to use 'Shiraz' more often than 'Syrah'

Link: http://www.simonsig.co.za/

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Fun with SkypeOut

I installed Skype last week, and was very excited to get it working. The main attraction for me was making cheap long-distance calls to my mom back in South Africa - $0.09/min is a great rate, a fair amount cheaper than my current dial-around service. Plus, being able to call from work or anywhere my laptop can get broadband Internet access would have been call.

Today I uninstalled it.

Here's why:
To make calls to land lines, you need to buy credits - called SkypeOut credits, using a credit card or other online payment (paypal, etc.) "No problem", I though, whipping our my VISA card.
But several tries led nowhere - each time I got close to the final payment step, the Skype website would inform me that "one of the address fields is missing or invalid" and I'd have to re-start the process.
Firstly, this error is patheticly vague. Which field is in error? Is the information missing or invalid?
Secondly, I'd entered the information exactly as I've always done for online purchases. I've never had a problem on any other website. Clearly, Skype had issues.

Then, I finally got past this hurdle (I moved the street number for my condo, so instead of:
Street:XXX Blah St #YYY
House number: {empt}
I had:
Street: Blah St #YYY
House number: XXX

Now, the VISA authorization seemed to be in progress. Sadly another speedbump was on the way - Verified by VISA, a new credit-card validation service kicked in. My bank recently started publicizing this, but I though you had to "opt in" to the service. It looks like VISA opted me in automatically? Anyway, no problem here. The process went smoothly, and I set up the card.

However, something got gummed up in the Skype billing process anyway, and my transaction was rejected. (Probably by VISA?). I tried again, and got another rejection - both are listed in my Skype account, and now I am unable to try using my VISA card again. Payment by VISA or MC is not listed as an option anymore (possibly Skype blocks credit cards if you fail 2 attempts?)

Inline support was singularly unhelpful. They blamed me (the customer) and said I had entered my information incorrectly, with no hint that there was a problem with Skype itself.
A quick Google search brings up tons of other people hitting the same problem:
link 1 - 50% voted they can't even buy SkypeOut credits.
link 2
Google search for more...

It's pretty shocking to not see this mentioned on the Skype FAQ at all, and to see the same broken behaviour months after people started complaining publicly.

So, bye-bye Skype. I'll look for a better alternative.

Update: 5/5/2005

So after ranting, uninstalling Skype, and responding to their uninstall survey to tell them it was due to SkypeOut sucking, I tried adding SkypeOut credit again a few days later. (I must be a sucker for punishment, or just a sucker...) Anyway, it worked this time, so I re-installed and am giving it another go. We'll have to see how re-fueling my account goes...
So far the voice quality is OK - a call to my mom this past weekend worked well, although she reported a delay before my voice made it through to her. (Her voice seemed to come through without any noticeable delay).