California: impressions, words, photos, food

People keep asking: what’s California like? Everyone has funny accents and rain doesn’t exist.

I guess you want more than that. OK, I’ll give you my very first impression: everything is made of grids.

A plane's eye view of American grid layouts

A plane’s eye view of American grid layouts

This is a fairly well known fact amongst us Brits. U.S. cities were founded when we knew how big cities would get, so they just laid everything out in grids. Want to give someone an exact location in a city? Just say “On <x street> & <y street>” and they’ll turn up at the intersection of x and y. Neat!

Another funny thing about grids is that I apparently say it like “grits”, which resulted in an Uber driver who was completely baffled that I would say “Everything is made of grits here!”. Why is that baffling?



Because this is grits, “a food made by boiling ground maize (also known as corn), and usually served with other flavourings as a breakfast dish, usually savoury.” Basically corn porridge, except they don’t really have the word “porridge” here. Going back to the bit where people misunderstand me, why does everything think I’m saying “Jeff” when I say “Joe”? It’s happened so much, I think I might rename myself to Jeff.

But anyway, things get weirder.

Chicken, Waffles, syrup and ice-cream.

I have no words

This, my English friends, is the Chicken and Waffles which the grits came with. Yes, chicken and waffles. Us British folks have a great appetite for American food culture; we have McDonalds and burgers and american style pizza. And there are some things we know that they have but we just reject, such as deep fried butter. And then there’s chicken and waffles.

Why haven’t we heard of chicken and waffles before? Here’s it’s just a Thing. You can just go to a chicken and waffles place. It’s not as common as pizza or burgers, but every decent sized town will have some chicken and waffles. Every English person I have spoken to is baffled by the concept. I asked a Belgian friend if she had heard of chicken and waffles and she said “yes”, then I said, “no, chicken and waffles”. She was disgusted. When my friend Katarina took me to this chicken and waffles joint in Oakland – fairly intoxicated, I will add – I spent the entire time laughing at chicken and waffles, grits/grids, and my own sorry state of intoxication. I feel like I’ve said “chicken and waffles” more times here than any other phrase ever.

But actually, as you’d expect, if you like waffles and also chicken, you’ll like chicken and waffles. Americans took two unrelated food items and slapped them together. Well done! I suppose I could do the same thing. Hmm. Chocolate… blueberry… bagels…

Raspberry cream-cheese in a chocolate chip bagel

There is no one to blame for this abomination but me.

Chocolate chip bagel with blueberry cream-cheese? Nope OK I’ll leave the food invention to other people. Bagel places here are unsurprisingly Better Than Ours. The best ones have a large varieties of bagels, baked in store, a large selection of cream cheeses, and they let you combine them however you like. Honestly, Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels is probably the best place to get breakfast on University Avenue, and that’s not just my Jewish heritage talking. But when you go, you should get something more like this:

Cream cheese bagel

A sensible, tasty bagel

I think that was chive cream cheese and sun-dried tomato bagel, or something along those lines. Whatever you get, it’ll probably be better bang for your buck than this place:

Eggs Benedict with potatoes

The sauce kind of looks like melted plastic

Why do they serve… boiled/roast potatoes(?) with Eggs Benedict? Anyway, this place on California Avenue made it clear that the U.S. is just as capable as us at doing slightly overpriced breakfast, except they add strange sides that don’t really fit.

On the topic of sides: you know the whole “America has huge portions” thing? Well, it’s often very true, specifically at sit-down restaurants. This was a relatively bourgey (rhymes with Bruges-eee) Mexican joint also on California Avenue: Palo Alto Del Sol, where I had my first ever shot of genuinely tasty Tequila. Apologies for the terrible quality, the iPhone 5S camera isn’t spectacular in low light.

Enchiladas, rice and beans

It’s like a flag in enchilada form

To give you an idea of the scale of this: they took a normal good-sized plate and then stretched it, and filled it with very dense beans, steak-filled wraps, and rice, and smothered it all in sauce and cheese. I’ve been thinking carefully about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that finishing all of your food seems more optional in this country than in the UK. They give you too many chips, too much rice, too many potatoes. Sure you can finish it all if you’re hungry, but if you sit there trying to force it all down, people look at you funny. “Why are you trying to finish that? It’s just potatoes!”. Unbridled prosperity can have some interesting consequences.

Anyway, that’s the ‘upper-tier’ Mexican food which the British are mostly used to, but I’m in California, a place which the U.S. bought from Mexico. They have actual Mexican food here. So here’s a question: what is a taco?

Three soft tacos

Flat things with stuff on them

Many things are tacos, but these are one of the most common kinds! I think I might once have seen tacos like this in the UK, but still they were at some upmarket place in London. But no, my friends, this is also tacos, a blob of meat spooned on top of floppy tortilla bread. You can get one of these babies for $1 from a taco truck – that’s $3-4 dollars for a full meal. Or you can pay three times as much if you want tacos that aren’t as good. Or in this case, you can go to a Hackathon where Pebble rents out a taco truck and gives everyone free tacos. Yay tech! So, what else is Mexican?

Menudo - beef-stomach (tripe) soup

It feels odd to put stomach inside your stomach, but #yolo

This is Menudo, basically a bowl of beef stomach, which you would have for breakfast. I was directed by Katarina to rip a corn tortilla up into little pieces and drop them in to “thicken” the soup, which felt kind of exotically unfamiliar. As a whole, I feel like this is the kind of food which many English folk might turn their noses at, but I can tell you that it was delicious. Other tortilla related products: blue tortilla chips!

A blue tortilla chip

I try to always qualify “chips” with “tortilla”, since if I don’t I’ll start referring to “crisps” as “chips”. That way lies madness.

Yep, blue corn is a real thing, and an unfortunate victim of bad lighting.

In general, food from The Americas in general is more plentiful here. Here’s a messy photo from a mom-and-pop Salvadorian café we went to in San Francisco’s Mission District:

Papusa, rice and beans

A jumble of half-eaten Stuff on a plate. A note on portion sizes: this was large enough for both of us.

This is papusa, a kind of soft tortilla filled with delicious things like cheese and beans and maybe pork too, served with rice and beans. It’s reminiscent of omelettes or pancakes, in that flat carby/proteiny way. In terms of price:satisfaction ratio, papusa is the best food I’ve had here. It’s fatty and salty and umami but not too oily, every component is delicious, each part complements the other perfectly, there’s nothing pretentious about it. It’s just good, simple food. And it’s from El Salvador, a country which seems to have zero restaurant representation in the United Kingdom. Don’t believe me? I googled “Salvadorian restaurant UK” and all I found was Salvadoran Armada, a “Spanish” restaurant, which has no papusa. A crying shame, if you ask me.

So you’ve seen one of the three food-specialisms in the bay area I’ve identified: food from south of the border. Another one is avocados. Subway has a “local special” with avocados in it. Pebble’s work catering regularly puts avocados in the salad. This is an avocado sandwich with turkey and bacon, the Nifty from the lovely Peninsula Creamery.

An avocado, turkey, bacon, cheese, mayo and lettuce sandwich.

The second best thing on the menu, next to Jefe.

Besides its extensive and excellent selection of sandwiches and breakfast items, their menu exhibits something else which seems to be more prevalent in the bay area than elsewhere: a larger selection of cheeses. When you order a sandwich, you’ll then have to decide between one of five different kinds of cheese.

5 different kinds of cheese. Sometimes they make you pick your bread too. It's all too much for me

5 different kinds of cheese. Sometimes they make you pick your bread too. It’s all too much for me. I just choose randomly these days. Also: “hot links” are sausages in buns.

This experience threw me off at first, since it’s quite unlike the UK where “cheese” basically means “cheddar” unless you qualify it with “cream”. The same place also sells a product called Orange Whip. My English friends, I am about to bring to you a new and amazing recipe that even you at home can make all by yourself. Here are the steps

  1. Blend ice-cream with an orange fizzy-drink (or “soda”)

That’s it. It is beautiful. It tastes like a fizzy orange sweet except that you’re drinking it. Today, however, it occurred to me that I could ask for Orange Whip with an ice-cream that’s not vanilla. Today, I invented the Raspberry Orange Whip.

Orange whip made with raspberry ice-cream

It just looks like a milkshake, but it tastes like a divine elixir of love

A new-hire was at the counter at the time and I think he wasn’t actually sure how to make it, so he asked his manager. She then called me up to the counter to let me know that “that’s not how we make it here. Are you sure that’s what you want? It might not be good, I just want you to understand that”. She pulled a friendly yet disgusted face which said “you’re not allowed to complain when this is inevitably terrible”. I’m happy to say that she was very wrong. The Raspberry Orange Whip is amazing.

The J1 visa that I’m on is technically a “cultural exchange” visa, with which I am supposed to bring part of the U.S. back home, and also contribute to the U.S. This is my contribution.

Another California Classic is clam chowder, since seafood in general is very popular. So far all I’ve had is a small cup of clam chowder in a fancy hipster bar in downtown Palo Alto (Local Union 271). It tasted like cream of mushroom soup with clams in it, which is good because I happen to like cream of mushroom soup. I will include this heavily adjusted photograph for the sake of completeness.

A cup of clam chowder with cheesy bread

What is this, a clam chowder for ants? (in fact, the small portion was a welcome change)

I found out about this place from the bartender at the Gravity Wine Bar. I was told that America has excellent service, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Well, one could dedicate a whole blog post to American service, but instead, here’s a single example.

IMG_4495 IMG_4497 IMG_4498 IMG_4496





When I idly asked the bartender “do you know any other good spots in the area?” he proceeded to dump his entire knowledge of bars, restaurants and nightlife in this and all neighbouring cities until I heavily hinted that I was very grateful and had more than enough. For service like this, I can give a 25% tip.

But sometimes, America just gets things wrong.

Upside down pizza

Did they just put stuff on in the wrong order by accident and call it a day?

Why is the tomato on top of the cheese and fillings? This is incorrect. This is not how you pizza. Sure, its delicious and allows you to include more cheese and lets you really taste the tomato sauce, but it’s wrong. And then, biscuits.

"American" biscuits


Anything which we call “cookies”, americans call “biscuits”. The word “biscuit” in America refers to this abomination. It’s a vaguely scone-like ball of bread, which doesn’t really need to exist. Apparently you eat it with gravy, but I declined to put myself through that ordeal out of sheer indignation.

OK, they weren’t actually that bad. But they’re not biscuits. Digestives are biscuits. I argued with Katarina for half a day to convince her that digestives are biscuits. Eventually she agreed on the grounds that digestives are a thing that you dip in tea, and tea is particularly British, so we reserve the right to call them biscuits. However she won’t agree that bourbons are biscuits and not cookies, despite the accompanying cup of tea in Wikipedia’s photo. Americans…

So, surprise! You might have thought you were going to read a varied and interesting analysis of the differences between the Bay Area and the United Kingdom, but in fact I just tricked you into reading a food-blog post with practically every single self-indulgent food snap I’ve taken since landing. Luckily for you, I don’t intend to continue this way. Future planned topics include “socioeconomic observations: urban contrast” and “doorknobs”.

Hummus Pasta Salad

I made this recently by searching for “hummus pasta salad” on google, taking inspiration for a recipe or two and then improvising with what I had. It’s surprisingly tasty! The flavours of each component stay relatively separated, so the better your olives/feta/tomatoes/hummus, the better your dish will be.

Hummus pasta salad

Pictured in tupperware because I was lazy


  • About 250g of pasta (e.g. Fusilli. Wholewheat is nice/optional)
  • Three/four tablespoons of hummus. I make my own with this recipe.
  • A bowl of cherry tomatoes
  • Half a jar of olives (about 90g?)
  • A single red pepper
  • About 200g of feta, chopped (vegan option: omit!)
  • A glove of garlic, chopped
  • Spices (e.g. black pepper, paprika, basil)
  • A bit of oil for frying


Add red pepper, half of the tomatoes and garlic to a frying pan, fry on a medium heat for a few minutes, then turn down to low and add the olives and spices.

Meanwhile, mix the hummus with water until it takes on the consistency of cheese sauce. If you didn’t add enough lemon juice before, now’s your chance!

When the tomatoes have just started to fall apart, add the pasta, the hummus and the rest of the tomatoes. Simmer for a few minutes (more if you made your sauce too thin), adding the feta halfway through.

Serve warm or cold!



I hosted CollabPaint! And got annoyed at 4-years-ago-Joe.


I put my old collaborative whiteboard project CollabPaint back up on the internet! Multiple people can log in to a room and paint at the same time, without having to register for an account or sign up.

CollabPaint Screenshot

You can set the size/colour/opacity for your brush and also draw lines, rectangles and ovals. There’s even a chat box and the option to save download the thing you draw.

I wrote CollabPaint about four years ago, and it was one of my first forays in to node.js and after CollabBox. Like all of my other projects, I never really polished it. It’s still missing a few things such as an undo button (and some overdue bugfixes…), but otherwise it gets the job done!

On future-proofing Code and following best practice

Sadly I had trouble getting CollabBox to run, because I used old crusty versions of all the libraries and never made a package.json file to record which versions of what things I used, so everything is broken. But, here it is on github anyway.

If I could go back four years, I’d tell myself the following set of related things:

  • Keep a record of which versions of everything you use, if you can
  • When you start using a new language or ecosystem, make sure you actually look up the best practices for the things you’re using.
  • For example, with node.js and npm, actually bother to write package.json files to track all your dependancies!

This kind of stuff should really go without saying, but it strikes me as interesting that – as a hobbyist coder four+ years ago – it didn’t really occur to me. So if you ever see your hobby-programmer kids writing code and they forget to make a package.json file, set them straight so they don’t make the same mistakes I did!

Setting up shop, proximity mines and Dokku

I decided to bite the bullet and get myself an actual server on the internets to host my thingamabobs, and here I write about my experience.

I was pointed to Digital Ocean. 5/month/server for a 512MB an actual VPS on an SSD (actually,0.007/hour since you can turn your server off and on), not bad!

But that's not all!

Like other server providers, they let you create servers with pre-installed software like WordPress, and Dokku. Wait, Dokku? What’s that?

In the words of a friend:

I set one up at Then I git pushed a Go web app to and it was up and running at

That sounds fun! So I decided to get my old WebMines game running with Dokku, and all it took was one change to the code (I had host the server on the port specified by the PORT environment variable), two files

requirements.txt (naming the versions of libraries I’ve used)


and Procfile (pointing to the name of the main file),

web: python

and two commands:

git remote add dokku dokku@server.ip.address:webmines
git push dokku master

And done! My terrible, three year old long-polling-based Python-powered incomplete minesweepers game has a place on the internet, and when I want to update it, all I have to do is another git push. Be warned, it’s occasionally broken and doesn’t include a concept of points/success/failure.

WebMines screenshot

Multiplayer Minesweeper!

As for hosting static pages like Plotter and Automa, all I had to do was make sure the main page was called index.php, and dokku figured out it was a php application and set up an ngnix server for me. This makes me very happy because it means I get to continue my run of never having have to learn how to actually set up a web server properly.
P.S: Once I get a bunch of my things up and running, I’ll probably do a post about it. Or just make a page for them and post about the page. Or maybe a post about how much I’m annoyed that NodeJS’s API has changed so much in three years that I basically have to rewrite half of everything I made back then, but how it’s really my fault for not keeping track of which versions of which modules and nodejs runtimes I was using for which app. *grumble*

Removing dead files from iTunes

So, I made a blog. Mainly so I have a place to put my things. I used to have a website which I meticulously handcrafted and put all my stuff on, but it got wiped from the internet and now I’m significantly lazier, WordPress is a much more attractive option.

Without further ado, I begin the reverse chronological journey through the catalogue of Crap I Made with an underwhelming but still kind of useful entry: an AppleScript which goes through whatever songs you have selected in iTunes and removes any which don’t actually point to any files.

Here’s the gist. My first Applescript! Hacked together from various bits and pieces on The Internet. And because I feel it will make the blog post look nicer, I’ll put the code here too:

And here’s a python script to accompany it which goes through all your subfolders and deletes the newest of any two files which have the same name except for a different extension.

Can you guess what I’ve been doing today? That’s right, failing to import things in to iTunes properly and then writing code to patch up my mistakes. Could I have combined the two scripts in to a single applescript which actually does the job of hunting for duplicates and deleting the newest? Probably, yes.

Edit: want easy access to that AppleScript, or indeed any script for iTunes? /Library/iTunes/Scripts. Create the folder if it doesn’t exist already, then it’ll show up in a funky little scripts menu in the menubar.