Growing Kashmiri chili peppers

When I encounter Indian recipes, they occasionally call for Kashmiri chilies. These are said to have a relatively mild taste and give a red color to dishes. For a long time I searched for these chilies in vain. What complicates the issue is that the authentic Kashmiri chili is actually medium hot and that the mild Kashmiri chili powder is apparently made from the Byadagi chili. That chili is grown in Karnataka, in South West India, rather than the Kashmir region of North India. Kashmiri chilies are in high demand but relatively scarce, so the confusion possibly arose from fraudulent vendors who started selling Kashmiri chilies as Byadagi chilies.

However, in some cases the names are not used interchangeably. In Rotterdam I found a shop, Remon Afro Asian Market at West-Kruiskade 87, which has the most extensive assortment of Indian food ingredients here that I know of. They sell two packages produced by MDH: one called Deggi Mirch powder and one called Kashmiri Mirch powder. The former is described as follows on their website:

Deggi Mirch is a unique, age old blend, processed from special varieties of colourful Indian red chilies. It is mild-hot and imparts glowing natural red colour to curried dishes making them attractive and more palatable.

The description of the latter is:

Exotic Kashmiri Mirch is a special blend of medium hot quality Red Pepper that is used for Tandoori (Clay oven) preparations. When used in curry it imparts bright red colour making food more appealing and palatable.

So both apparently are used for their capacity to color dishes red, but Deggi Mirch is mild hot and Kashmiri Mirch is medium hot. This still leaves a lot of questions. What kind of chili peppers are exactly used as ingredients and what are their Scoville ratings? My guess is Byadagi chilies are used for their Deggi Mirch, but considering the scarcity of authentic Kashmiri chili peppers I suspect a similar chili peper is used as a substitute for their Kashmiri Mirch.

Even though I can now simply buy the powders (if you don’t live close to a physical store which supplies it, you can easily find it at online shops), I still thought it was fun to grow them myself. In May 2014 I inquired about the seeds at various websites which sell chili seeds. I finally managed to find them at Chillies on the Web, a British shop. After discussing the uncertainty of the origins of the Kashmiri chili with them through e-mail, they told me they were not sure either. Chili cultivars are crossed so often that it is difficult to keep track of their origins, so there is no guarantee that their product is the real thing from Kashmir, or a similar chili from elsewhere in India. Even so, I was grateful for their help and got their dried Kashmiri chilies so I could harvest the seeds. After tasting, I concluded that these chilies are indeed medium hot, so they at least have some resemblance to original.

I was warned that most seeds would be dead because the chilies were dried, so I was surprised to a see a lot of seeds germinate, at least twenty plants. However, I did not manage to harvest chilies at the end of last year’s summer. First of all, I started growing the plants relatively late, at the end of May or June. Another problem was that my garden doesn’t receive much sunlight, its does face southwest, but there’s a large apartment block which blocks out the sun during the late afternoon, especially early or late in the year. The wooden garden fences restrict sunlight as well. Vermin in my garden bumped off a few plants too after I transplanted them from their pots to full soil.

Kashmiri chilli plants

Thanks to some plant fertilizer I did manage to get chili plants which reached a height of 70 centimers, but they did not develop fruits. Fortunately I did take one plants to my parents, who have a small glass greenhouse which catches sunlight practically the whole day. During the autumn this plant had produced one green fruit. Right now the seeds of that fruit are hopefully germinating in small pots which I placed on a radiator. One small plant has shown up so far, but I don’t know if it’s a weed or a chili plant. Last year I was negligent in following the instructions for growing chili plants, so this year I should pay more attention.

Recently my interest in chili peppers drove me to completly rewrite the problematic articles on two Italian varieties, the peperoncino and the friggitello. I’d like to improve the article on the Byadagi chili and write a new article for the Kashmiri chili, but the almost complete lack of good and reliable sources is preventing me from doing this.

Visited Sicily in April 2014

In April 2014 I visited Sicily again, this time with my girlfriend Stephanie and by car instead of public transport. I showed Stephanie some of the best attractions I had already seen on my previous trip in 2012, but I also managed to see some new things. Our schedule was as follows:

  • Sat 19th: arrive at Trapani Airport late at night.
  • Sun 20th: retrieve rental car, Cave di Cusa, Selinunte.
  • Mon 21st: Heraclea Minoa, Scala dei Turchi, Agrigento (Valle dei Templi).
  • Tue 22nd: Gela (Archeological Museum), Modica.
  • Wed 23rd: Villa Romana del Tellaro, Helorus, Noto, Siracusa (Archeological Park).
  • Thu 24th: Palazzolo Acreide (Akrai), Necropolis of Pantalica, Siracusa (Archeological Museum).
  • Fri 25th: Siracusa (Euryalus Castle), Aidone (Morgantina, Archeological Museum), Piazza Armerina (Villa Romana del Casale).
  • Sat 26th: Cefalú, Palermo.
  • Sun 27th: Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo (Botanical Garden).
  • Mon 28th: Segesta, Erice, Trapani.
  • Tue 29th: Trapani, Nubia (Salt Museum), Marsala (Archeological Museum), Trapani Airport for flight home.

We arrived at the airport of Trapani late at night, so on the morning after we went back to the airport to pick up our car at Avis. We were surprised to hear that we had to pay € 20 per day extra because Stephanie was classified as a young driver under 25 years of age. It was not possible for me to drive, because only Stephanie had a credit card. We grudgingly paid the extra fee. We got screwed by, through which we found the offer for the car. Their website asked for the age of the driver, but it never incorporated the extra fee for young drivers in the total price presented to us. After our holiday we contacted them, but they were unapologetic, referring to the terms of the rental which mentioned the extra fee and arguing that we should have read it. I wish I had taken the time to fight these frauds through legal means, but in the end I was too occupied with other things after my holiday.

Using a car allowed us to see much more in the time we had available. In hindsight we thought the schedule was a little bit too tight on certain days, if we had to do it again we would have made it more relaxed. Another thing I considered is that we could have restricted ourselves to traveling through either the North, East, South or West of Sicily. What we did was drive around the whole island in a counterclockwise direction from Trapani. Except for the northeast, which we skipped when we went from Siracusa to Central Sicily. This meant we had to drive long distances on some days, something we prefer to avoid. On the other hand, this plan was good for seeing the majority of the highlights in one holiday.

If I would make the same trip again, I probably would make some changes to the plan if I wanted to make the most efficient use of my time. I would scrap the minor archeological sites like Cave di Cusa, Heraclea Minoa, Helorus and Palazzolo Acreide. And possibly the modern cities Gela and Trapani. We were never bored, but there’s a lot more to see on the more famous archeological sites. If you are short on time it’s better to skip these, unless you’re quite interested in archeology and history like me. In the case of Helorus though, we didn’t learn anything at all about the ruins we saw there because there were no information boards on the site. On the other hand, I was curious about the minor archeological sites of Motya, Kamarina, Megara Hyblaea and Thapsos, but these didn’t fit into the schedule. I wish we would have had the time to see Ragusa on the way to Modica. Had we decided to see the northeastern part of Sicily as well, we would have definitely visited Taormina.

Scala dei Turchi is nice with it’s peculiar white marl cliff, but there are better beaches to visit in Sicily. Unfortunately, there was no time for visiting San Vito Lo Capo after Palermo, which is supposed to have a nice beach. More importantly, in April the seawater is still a bit cool. We swam at the beach near Scala dei Turchi for a short time, but we were almost the only ones who did. In fact, a lot of Sicilians were walking around in winter coats. Don’t get me wrong, except for one or two rainy days we never needed a jacket to stay warm. But it would have been more fun if the seawater would have been a bit warmer and if there had been more sunshine. When I visited in October 2012 it was sunny almost all the time and I didn’t see a single raindrop. And at the end of the summer or autumn you get all the great food like ripe peaches, grapes, prickly pears and eggplants.

I want to emphasize that anyone who visits Sicily (and Italy in general) should take the strange opening hours of important attractions and museums into account. The Archeological Museum of Agrigento is closed on Monday in the afternoon, so we were not able to visit it. The greatest disappointment was that the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo was closed on Sunday afternoon, like many other attractions. I had already seen it in 2012, but I was disappointed I couldn’t show it to Stephanie. It’s ridiculous the Archeological Museum of Palermo is still closed for renovation, which it already was when I visited in 2012.

Of the new places I visited, Selinunte, Noto, the Necropolis of Pantalica, Euryalus Castle, Morgantina and Cefalú were definite high points of this holiday. The archeological site of Selinunte is huge with both impressive ruins of the city and well preserved temples. I liked this site more than Agrigento: there you only see the temples and part of a necropolis, but there are almost no visible remains of the city itself there. It’s strange that unlike Agrigento, Selinunte hasn’t been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site yet. Apparently it was submitted as a candidate in 1987, but it has not been accepted yet.

Noto has many beautifully decorated churches, surprising for a relatively small town. The Necropolis of Pantalica lies rather remote, but the rock-cut tombs and the scenic views are worth it. Expect to walk a few kilometers on small paths which are not easy to travel on though. Castle Euryalus speaks to the imagination, what would this impregnable fortress have looked like in its prime? To our surprise the castle had a few tunnels and its complex layout was still preserved somewhat.

Morgantina is another impressive archeological site, it doesn’t feature large temples like Selinunte, but the remains of the ancient city there are quite well preserved as well. Cefalú is an eyecather, a coastal town with a huge rock towering over the settlement. Definitely climb to the top for the great view. Even though we had seen plenty of ancient Greek temples in Selinunte and Agrigento, the lonely temple of Segesta was an interesting sight.

Finally, some restaurant recommendations, for you and for myself when I might visit Sicily again. Of course Southern Italian and Sicilian food alone is sufficient reason to visit those regions.

  • Marinella di Selinunte: Africa da Bruno.
  • Agrigento: Opera, which was memorable for serving us a delicious plate full of bruschetta al pomodoro for just a few euro’s.
  • Modica: Osteria dei Sapori Perdutti.
  • Siracusa: none, Ortigia is a tourist trap where restaurants are relatively expensive. In Ambasciata d’Ortigia I ordered bruschetta al pomodoro for a similar price, but got just three pieces. There may be good restaurants elsewhere in Siracusa, but they’re harder to find.
  • Palermo: Vino e Pomodoro and Il Baro.

The Odyssey

A year ago I finished reading the Odyssey. I read the English prose translation by Walter Shewring, published as Oxford’s World Classics. I liked this translation, it evoked emotions of disgust with me as I read about the various gruesome ways in which Odysseus’ crew meet their end. Also, I like that the Odyssey has a more diverse environment than the Iliad, which is restricted to Troy and its surroundings.

What struck me was the emphasis on the importance of hospitality in the story. We did not see this in the Iliad, which was about the Trojan War, but the setting of the Odyssey is different. Odysseus and Telemachus are treated very generously as guests when they visit those people who bear them no ill will. This was the concept of xenia for the ancient Greeks, who considered it a religious obligation. The plot of the Odyssey moralizes about this issue. Penelope’s suitors abuse the hospitality of Odysseus’ household while he is away. When Odysseus visits the suitors in his palace disguised as a beggar to ask for food, the suitors insult and mistreat him. Together with their other misdeeds, this is a huge transgression which condemns the suitors to their fate. Ultimately, Odysseus sheds his disguise and kills them with the approval of the Gods.

We can still see how other non-Western cultures attach a similar degree of importance to hospitality. A friend who traveled through Iran told me he was amazed by the hospitality he was offered there as a stranger. It’s a pity we don’t have value hospitality in our Western culture anymore. Fortunately CouchSurfing is a notable exception, which I contribute to myself as a host of foreign travelers in Rotterdam.

The concept of xenia brings me to a part of the plot of the Odyssey which I did not understand. When Odysseus and his crew visit the island of the Cyclopes, the Cyclops Polyphemus makes it clear he does care for the Gods of Olympus. He even goes as far as saying that the Cyclopes are stronger than the Gods. He violates the custom of xenia by eating six of Odysseus’ men. When Odyssey and his crew blind him and escape, Polyphemus reveals he is the son of Poseidon and prays to his father to curse Odysseus’ journey. Even though Odysseus sacrifices to Zeus, in hindsight Odysseus thinks the supreme God did not accept his sacrifice and wanted to see his ships and crew destroyed. Zeus seems to consent to the vengeance of Poseidon, who wishes to prevent Odysseus from swiftly sailing home to Ithaca.

Brown (1996) explains that the concept of xenia does not apply to the Cyclopes because they live a society very different from that of the Greeks. Because Odysseus cannot make a claim to xenia, Zeus does not support him and allows to Poseidon proceed with his vengeance. Segal (1992) argues that Homer’s contemporaries would approve of the right of a family member to take vengeance if someone in their family were injured, which justifies Poseidon’s anger. Also, Odysseus does not interpret the will of the Zeus correctly. Poseidon’s wrath is the reason Odysseus is prevented from a swift homecoming, but Zeus did not plan it. Furthermore, the destruction of Odysseus’ ships and crew are not caused by Poseidon’s anger: it is the consequence of the impious acts of his men and the according divine punishment.

I think the most extensive and convincing analysis is given by Friedrich (1991) however. Poseidon’s anger is pure vengeance, but in the prologue Zeus asserts the Gods do not cause human suffering on an arbitrary basis. Zeus condones Poseidon’s persecution of Odysseus because he needed to be punished for his hybris. Odysseus visits the island of the Cyclopes because he wants to see if they are civilized or savage, but subjecting mortals to this test is the prerogative of the Gods. While Polyphemus is absent from his cave, Odysseus helps himself to the food stored in the cave, making him the first to violate the code of hospitality. When Odysseus and his men escape from Polyphemus, he presumptuously asserts that he punished him in the name of the Gods for failing the ‘hospitality test’. He forgets that the Gods did not sanction his ‘mission’. In his final remark, he insults Poseidon by claiming that the God cannot heal the eye of Polyphemus. As a consequence, Poseidon punishes him out of vengeance and Zeus punishes him for his hybris.

There is one more thing which seems inconsistent in the plot: the age of Odysseus. Before he left for Troy he was already king of Ithaca and married with Penelope, who was pregnant with Telemachus at the time of his departure. To enjoy some measure of authority with the other Greek leaders I think it is unlikely he was 20 years old, probably more like 25 or 30. The Siege of Troy lasts ten years. He wanders for ten years before he returns to Ithaca. In the tenth year he ends up on Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, before sailing to Ithaca. During an athletic competition on Scheria the Phaeacian Laodamas remarks that Odysseus is not old at all. This seems strange, even if we assume that Odysseus was 20 years old when he left for Troy, he must have been at least 40 years old at this point. I can’t find any comments on this issue by scholars however.

One more thing which I though was remarkable is that the suitors invade the palace of Odysseus with ease. There is no one to stop them and protect Penelope and Telemachus. If Odysseus gathered such a large contingent of Ithacans to follow him to Troy, surely he could have appointed a servant to rule in his absence and some guards to protect his palace? You could argue that we should forgive Homer for this, because without the suitors and their demise the Odyssey wouldn’t been such an exciting story. If I were Homer however, I would have constructed the story in such a way that Odysseus did make proper arrangements for the interim rule of his kingdom before his departure. Then it could be told how the servants tasked with taking care of the kingdom eventually betray Odysseus and collaborate with the suitors, so the finale of the Odyssey is kept intact.

I think the Odyssey is a great story to read, but I’m divided on whether I actually like the character of Odysseus. On the one hand you sympathize with him, you appreciate his cunning and consider him a hero. Especially memorable for me is how he tricks Polyphemus with his name. On the other hand, he is a lowly pirate. When he tells the story of his travels to king Alcinous of the Phaeacians he describes how he raided and killed the Cicones as the first thing he did on the way home from Troy. The Trojan War, if we are to believe Homer, was at least justified because Paris had taken Helen. But the Cicones were simply unfortunate to live along the route of Odysseus’ journey home. Odysseus tells of the raid so casually at the court of Alcinous, where nobody seems to be startled by the fact that he is a pirate. This seems to indicate that piracy was an accepted practice in Mycenaean Greece. Assuming that the Cicones were probably non-Greek ‘barbarians’, raiding them was probably even less objectionable.

First marathon attempt failed

I haven’t been blogging for far too long, so to catch up I have a lot to write. Let’s start with my plan to run the marathon of Rotterdam in 2014.

In January or February this year I decided on running the marathon held annually in my city. I still didn’t like running much, but I decided it was something I should do at least once in my life, just because I want to have the experience. Financial considerations were an important factor in this. I couldn’t afford to pay the fee for kickboxing lessons, which I used to do frequently when I still lived with my parents last year. After visiting one kickboxing school in my neighborhood, I didn’t like the atmosphere there, it wasn’t as good as my previous school.

Running, on the other hand, didn’t cost me anything. I don’t like running shoes and my shoes in general deteriorate quickly due to friction at my heels, so by running barefoot I could avoid having to buy expensive new running shoes.

Sounds dangerous, running barefoot in Rotterdam? Others have told me they think its risky because I might step on broken glass, but actually the streets are surprisingly clean. I’ve traveled several hundred kilometers through Rotterdam on my bare feet this year, but I’ve never injured them even once. And even if there were broken glass, if you keep your eyes open it should be easy to avoid. I’m more worried about stepping on dog feces.

Unfortunately, some of the asphalt in certain areas is old or badly maintained. This means it’s rather coarse and very uncomfortable to walk on. My greatest annoyances are the bicycle path north of Rotterdam The Hague Airport, the bicycle path west of the Erasmus University Woudestein campus and basically all the asphalt in the Kralingse Bos. So I decided to get myself some minimalist sandals to use for traversing these spots.

Apart from more comfort on lower quality asphalt, I have other reasons to use minimalist sandals. They can be a lot cheaper than shoes. They also last much longer because they aren’t affected by wear and tear as much. In wet weather, the skin under the feet gets softer from the water, which slightly increases the chance of injury. Similarly, if I want to run late during the day when it’s already dark, it’s hard to see where you are placing your feet, also increasing chances of injury. Even so, I still intended to run the marathon itself on my bare feet.

I bought the XeroShoes Connect 4mm sole from a Dutch dealer, Barefoot Schoenen. I paid something like € 30 for them and they come with a warranty for 8000 kilometers. This sandal is just a sole with separate laces and a hole punch, which you have to assemble yourself. This was were the problems started for me. Even though I tried to measure precisely, it was difficult to punch the hole at the exact right spot. Tying the laces was horribly tedious.

During my first run with the sandals they made a lot of noise because it was hard to get laces tied tightly. Because the hole in the left sandal wasn’t punched at the right spot, the left sandal didn’t fit well and gave a blister. The next time I ran barefoot again, causing the blister to move upwards from the bottom of my feet. I had never gotten any injury or blister when I ran barefoot during the weeks before I got the sandals.

Marathon practice blister
After that first run I never used these sandals again. I guess these do-it-yourself sandals might work for some people, but not for me. I continued training for the marathon on my bare feet and eventually succeeded in running 30 kilometers in three hours. At this time I had a part-time job for two days, so I would usually practice two or three times a week. While I used to get bored with running for a few kilometers, running ten or more kilometers was strangely satisfying. Maybe this was the runner’s high?

Unfortunately, my effort ended in a huge anti-climax. A week or so before the marathon would start at 12 April, I increasingly started to feel pain in my knees. During my final practice run a few days before the marathon, it was so painful that I could not run more than 5 kilometers. I suspect it was runner’s knee, caused by my desire to prepare for the marathon in just two months. I was very disappointed I couldn’t participate in the marathon anymore. After some days of rest the knee pain was gone.

I’ve already paid the entrance fee for Rotterdam’s marathon in 2015. This time I’ll start training earlier, at the start of January, so that I get at least three months to prepare, even though some think this will still be too short. I’ll make sure to buy read to wear sandals this time, probably the XeroShoes Sensori or Amuri models.

Embedding Flickr on my WordPress weblog

Since I switched to Flickr for hosting my photos I’ve used the Awesome Flickr Gallery WordPress plugin to embed photos in posts. To be precise I used a different version which works with the responsive theme on my weblog, because the original plugin is no longer in active development. But I wasn’t satisfied with the complexity this plugin introduced. So I switched to Flickr’s own embedding functionality. Flickr made some changes to how their photos can be embedded in December 2013. As of now, you can embed a single photo (the “HTML” option on Flickr), or a single photo which allows you to move back or forward in the photostream with buttons appearing in an overlay (the “Embed” option). Compare:

Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon

The latter functionality is preferable if I want to embed a lot of photos, but the problem is that I want to able to limit moving through the photostream only to photos with a specific tag. This way I can exclude unrelated photos from being shown. Apparently quite a few people were upset by the changes to embedding. It surprises me that Flickr didn’t anticipate that their users desire such a feature. For now I’ll deal with it and embed photos sparingly mostly with the HTML option, but I hope Flickr can implement these features soon. I’ve posted a feature request for it on Flickr Ideas.

My new apartment in Rotterdam

At the end of 2013 I expected to be successful in a solicitation procedure for an information management traineeship in the Hague. I knew it could still turn sour, but I was curious what kind of house or apartment you could get in the Hague. I started looking and quickly came to the conclusion that the Hague was expensive for my taste. In Rotterdam however, you could buy a reasonable apartment for a much lower price. I was enthusiastic about the prospect of living on my own. I was still living with my parents because I hadn’t found work since I graduated. When I was told I wasn’t selected for the traineeship I was quite disappointed, with my expectations dashed.

Fortunately my amazing parents offered to support me. They could offer me a home loan of € 55.000 with 3% interest if I wanted to buy an apartment. I quickly decided to see the cheap apartments in Rotterdam I had been eyeing. In the end my choice fell on an apartment on the ground level with a small garden for which I paid € 60.000. I got bang for the buck when I compare this with other apartments in the same price class: my apartment was renovated in 2013 by the housing corporation which owned it. So it has a modern central heating system instead of a gas furnace and a very nice shower cabin.

The apartment did have one big issue: it had a wall separating the kitchen and the living room, which made both rooms very small. It was also detrimental to cooking as a social activity. The first thing I did was hire some handymen to take out this wall for € 2.900. It turned out the wall didn’t support the weight of the roof, which made the job less complicated. The removal of the wall resulted in a merged living room and kitchen, a big improvement.

While that was done my family and friends helped me with cleaning, painting, laying the laminate flooring and other work. I’m so grateful for their help, for without their skills it would have taken me much more time and money. While I’m good at assembling computers, I have little experience with do-it-yourself tasks around the house and couldn’t have done such a good job as they did.

The original kitchen didn’t include a cabinet with a built-in gas stove, so I got one second hand. My father, the master handyman, managed to elevate it at the same height as the original kitchen cabinets so that it blends in reasonably well. The fridge was a present from family members, the convection microwave is new. The kitchen takes up a prominent place in the living room, so I’d prefer a new kitchen with built-in appliances, but that will have to wait until I have the money.

The garden is important to me because I got used to having a garden at my parent’s house. It wasn’t maintained for quite a while, so I’ll have a lot to do when spring comes. I plan to sow grass and some flowers. With a few dwarf evergreen trees it won’t look like a wasteland in the winter. I don’t like the small balcony which separates my garden from the back entrance of my house, it’s ugly and occupies space which could have been part of the garden. I would have preferred a small set of stairs from the back door. Apparently it’s difficult to demolish the thick layer of concrete which constitutes the balcony, but we’ll see about that later. The garden has a small shed were I can place my bike safely. Right now the rubble from the former wall in my living room is still in my garden because it was cheaper if I got rid of that myself.

I chose to live in Rotterdam primarily because this apartment happened to be here. My opinion of Rotterdam hasn’t changed much so far since I lived here last time, when I studied at Erasmus University from 2006–2007. It’s okay, it’s not a bad city to live in, but it lacks the beauty and atmosphere of Amsterdam’s canal ring and Utrecht’s center for example. Rotterdam is praised for its architecture, which was apparently the reason for Rough Guides to mention it in the top 10 cities to visit for 2014. But you’ll only find that architecture near the city center and the Kop van Zuid, not in the Tarwewijk neighborhood in Southern Rotterdam where I live. There you’ll see the same 1930’s era apartment blocks over and over. I haven’t explored most of the city yet, but I simply haven’t seen a cozy square with cafe’s and restaurants at all. Something similar to the Tolsteegbarrière in Utrecht for example.

On the other hand, some of the finest Dutch beaches in the Zeeland province can be reached within two hours with the public transport. I live at a distance of 1,2 kilometer from the Zuiderpark, the largest city park of the Netherlands with 215 hectare. I feel that distance is just a bit too long to go running there regularly though, in that light it would have been better if my apartment was located a few hundred meters further to the south. Rotterdam also has some nice gardens like the Cultuurhistorische Plantentuin and the Arboretum Trompenburg, which I intend to visit soon.

I haven’t made photos of my bedroom and bathroom because the 35 mm lens on my camera doesn’t offer a sufficiently wide field of view to photograph such a small space. I should get a wide-angle lens for that.

Review of the Panasonic TX-L42E6EW LCD TV

When I moved to my new apartment (more on that in the following post in a minute) I needed a TV. I didn’t want to spend much, but the TV still needed to provide a good image quality. After reading this review and considering the other options, I decided to buy the Panasonic TX-L42E6EW LCD TV for € 490. Having considered the competitors, I think this Panasonic model is one of the best choices in this price range. But another factor which influenced my decision is that Panasonic has a plan to adopt Firefox OS for their TV’s, which earned them significant goodwill with me. A photo of the TV is seen in the following post.

I chose a 42 inch model because the combination of that size with the distance from my couch allows the benefit of full HD to become visible. A larger TV would have been too dominant in the room. I think the white color of the TV blends nicely into the white wall and matches with the white Audioengine A2 speakers. I’m not really bothered by the supposed lower quality of the TV’s integrated speakers, but I got a separate speaker set because I also use my TV to stream music from Deezer. This way I don’t need a separate device to stream music, which would cost more money and consume more electricity.

I barely watch TV channels, so I didn’t bother with getting a subscription to receive them. The only thing I like to watch frequently is the TV news of the Dutch public broadcasting service, but I do that on my PC. For films and TV series I watch Netflix on my TV for just € 8 a month. So all I need is the Internet connection. With Tele2’s VDSL2 I get an excellent speed of 50/5Mb/s down/up for just € 10 a month (in the first year, in the second year it will be € 30). I actually measured 8,95 Mb/s down and 5,45 Mb/s up with the Speedtest website, but  I’m really satisfied with the fast upload speed. It allows me to upload large photos to Flickr quickly.

I’m satisfied with the TV, but it does have some issues. Downright stupid is that the headphone volume is separate from the main volume, and that the integrated speakers still keep playing when I connect with the headphone input. Obviously they should be muted, why would you connect a headphone otherwise? In my case I don’t connect a headphone but the Audioengine A2 speakers, as far as I know the headphone input is the only way to connect them (RCA cables don’t work). Because the remote control can only change the main volume I have to walk over to the speakers and change the volume by hand.

Three other issues are that you can’t design your own home screen without the live TV widget, which would be useful because I don’t have a TV subscription. Some of the smart TV apps require that you have a VIERA Connect account if you want to use them, even if they are free, which is silly. I would also like to a button to turn of the panel while the TV remains turned on so that energy is conserved when it’s streaming music.

Couch and Panasonic TX-L42E6EW LCD TV

Review of the Cooler Master QuickFire Ultimate keyboard

With my new computer I also ordered a Cooler Master QuickFire Ultimate keyboard for € 83. Why so expensive you might ask? Because this is a mechanical keyboard. I admit it’s a luxury and in my experience so far it doesn’t really offer a significantly better typing experience. The difference is minor, but I appreciate it. Compared with a standard rubber dome switch keyboard the Cherry MX Brown mechanical switches in this keyboard require very little force to be pressed. This does allow you to type slightly faster, even though I don’t gain much because I only use my two index fingers to type. Compared to the other types of Cherry MX switches, the brown switches occupy the middle ground and are suitable for both gaming and typing.

Maybe an even more important motive for me to buy this keyboard is that it seems to be more durable. My previous keyboard was a Logitech UltraX Flat, which had rubber dome switches and laptop style keys. Nice keyboard, but when you want to clean it and pull off the keys you have to be very careful not to destroy the key press mechanism. Putting them back on is a challenge too. This QuickFire Ultimate comes with a key puller and allows for easier removal which is certainly not destructive. I still have to try this though because I didn’t need to clean it so far.

All the keys also have a red backlight which can optionally be activated. It’s a nice gimmick, but I never use it. I can touch type – with two index fingers –and my bedroom is adequately lit when it’s dark, so I don’t see the point in having a backlit keyboard. It might be useful for a laptop if you’re outside at night though. I’d prefer having no backlight at all and a lower purchase price instead. The keyboard is marketed towards gamers and that’s probably why it has the fancy name and the “Quick Fire” on the space bar, but I would have preferred a slightly more formal look. But this keyboard was the one of the cheapest mechanical keyboards and the only one I could find with Cherry MX Brown switches for such a price, so that’s why I bought it anyway.

One disadvantage is that it didn’t work at all when an OS wasn’t booted yet – i.e. in GRUB and the BIOS – on my older PC. My older PC had a Gigabyte P35-DS3L motherboard, but my latest PC doesn’t have this issue.

It was hard for me to justify spending € 83 on a keyboard, but in the end the fact that I use my keyboard every day convinced me. If this one can last many years and last longer than a rubber dome switch keyboard, it will be money well spent. I wouldn’t spend more than € 100 though.

Review of the Bitfenix Raider enclosure

For some months now I’ve got a new PC. I’m quite satisfied with the performance: the Samsung 840 EVO 120 GB solid state disk is really fast, it starts Fedora Linux within a few seconds. The be quiet! Straight Power E9 450 Watt power supply powers the Nvidia GeForce 770 GTX video card without problems when I run demanding video games, even though Nvidia itself says a 600 Watt power supply is the minimum.  They probably take low quality power supplies into account. The maximum power consumption I’ve measured is 265 Watt, so I’m fine.

The enclosure is controversial for me however. Originally I ordered a Cooler Master Silencio 352 enclosure which can only accommodate smaller micro-ATX motherboards. The webstore were I bought my hardware fouled up and sent me a ATX-motherboard instead of a micro-ATX motherboard, so I decided to return that enclosure and buy a larger ATX enclosure. I was in a hurry and quickly ordered the Bitfenix Raider because I knew it was a good choice in this category. It’s not a bad choice, but I think I would have preferred one of Cooler Master’s larger Silencio enclosures which can house ATX motherboards.

The Bitfenix Raider has good looks, offers enough room for cable management and a large video card like the GTX 770. But my main complaint with it is that it doesn’t have an option to cover the top intake opening. You could optionally place a fan there, but I don’t need it. Without a cover, dust will easily enter the enclosure, defeating the purpose of the dust filters for the power supply intake fan on the bottom and the fans on the front. I solved this by fixing a piece of black cardboard over the hole with adhesive tape, but I think an appropriate cover should have been shipped with the Raider. Cooler Master does include covers.

My other complaint is the manual. It describes the screws included with the Raider on the first page, but it turns out two pairs of screws look very much alike, even though they are used for different purposes. I confused some of these different screws, which could have been avoided if the manual had images of the screws to help me distinguish them. For example the black thumb screws used externally for the side panels of the Raider, and the black thumb screws which are used internally for fixing disk drives.

Why Deezer trumps Rdio and Spotify

A month ago I wrote about my reasons for preferring Rdio above Spotify. Now I’ve come to the conclusion that Deezer is even better than both of these music streaming services.

I decided that getting a PayPal account to pay for my Rdio subscription was unacceptable after all, so I took another look at the second-best option, Spotify. But after some more investigation it turns out that Spotify has a slew of other issues for me.

Using a TV for music streaming

Because I’m about to move to my own apartment (more on that later) I’ve been pondering what the best way is to supply my living room with music. I’ve considered many other options, but I came to the conclusion that using a TV for this would be the most simple solution which also keeps the audio quality intact.

The Logitech UE Smart Radio which I mentioned in my previous post could also be an option, but the sound quality won’t be as good as with separate high-end speakers. Using Bluetooth to stream from a laptop to the speakers requires an adapter and will lower the audio quality, other methods of streaming also require adapters and are expensive, streaming via DLNA with Rygel is too complicated and Sonos is way too expensive.

Currently my plan is to buy the Audioengine A5+ speakers (rated very highly in this review, in Dutch) and connect those to my TV. There are smart TV apps for music streaming services which then allow the TV to stream the music and pass it on to the speakers. As a bonus I can also use the speakers when I watch Netflix or play games with the Playstation 4 which I intend to buy later. This way I only need one speakerset in my living room and no extra devices apart from a TV; the amplifier is integrated in the speakers.

My issues with Spotify

The problem with Spotify is that they only have a Smart TV app for Samsung TV’s. While I like to have some choice, Samsung makes good TV’s, so this isn’t necessarily a problem. What is a problem however is that you do not get the improved sound quality. Even though you need a Spotify Premium account (€ 10 a month) to use Spotify on a Samsung TV, you don’t benefit from the 320 kbps bitrate offered to Premium subscribers. You get the default 160 kbps bitrate. Spotify has been aware of this for more than a year and their employee wrote (see link) that there is no reason for Samsung not to support 320 kbps. Even so, Spotify has done nothing about it.

Spotify’s web application doesn’t benefit from the 320 kbps bitrate either. If you do want it you can use the desktop clients for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. But I don’t want to use the desktop client, web applications are more convenient for several reasons.

Finally, just like Rdio Spotify doesn’t accept bank transfers or iDeal. Unlike Rdio though, you can buy Spotify gift cards in physical stores in the Netherlands. While far from ideal, this would allow me to pay for a Spotify subscription without using a credit card or PayPal. Still, there is no excuse for Spotify’s inability to offer iDeal as a payment method.

I can understand an American company like Rdio, which doesn’t do active marketing on the Dutch market, doesn’t offer it. But Spotify is Swedish and they do advertise actively on the Dutch market. And Netflix (which is American) offered iDeal right away when they started operating on the Dutch market. Spotify’s Dutch customers started asking for iDeal support over a year ago, but like the bitrate problem they’ve still done naught about it.

Deezer is the best alternative

Reading through the comments on the request for Spotify to support iDeal, I noticed it was mentioned that Deezer does support iDeal. They don’t seem to mention this anywhere on their website, but I’ve confirmed that this is indeed the case. And apart from Samsung TV’s their app is also available for TV’s from LG, Toshiba, Panasonic and Philips. That’s good, because I’m considering to buy this Panasonic TV instead of a Samsung TV.

And as far as I know, please correct me if I’m wrong, you’ll always enjoy the 320 kbps bitrate with their Premium+ account (€ 10 a month just like Spotify) which is necessary for using it on TV’s. Because they don’t have a desktop client, this high bitrate is available through their web application. Because Deezer has none of the disadvantages of Rdio or Spotify, I canceled my Rdio subscription and subscribed to Deezer’s Premium+ account right away.

However, apart from these two advantages of Deezer, I still think Rdio is qualitatively the better service. Its radio station functionality is much more refined, in my experience it chooses much more interesting music for me to listen. Deezer doesn’t even have a radio station for country music for example. Plus, Deezer’s interface is inferior to Rdio’s interface. Hopefully the Deezer developers could rip off the positive aspects of Rdio to improve their own service.