Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Don't let them eat cake

On the whole, I'm not impressed by the UK's catering and hospitality industry. Things may be improving, but over many years, the dismal food served in chain pubs and restaurants helped to secure the UK's reputation as a food-hating nation, whilst the the industry contains many employers who treat their staff disgracefully.

I was therefore saddened, but not surprised to hear a recent example of corporate catering bastardy from my own neck of the woods. There's a small nursery on the Open University campus in Milton Keynes used mainly, but not exclusively, by children of Open University staff. In order to raise money for the nursery, nursery staff and parents came up with the idea of having a cake sale. A little bit of home-made victoria sponge or carrot cake to raise a few pennies for a nursery looking after pre-school kids. What could be more innocent and wholesome? What sort of petty-minded, nasty, pompous, killjoy jobsworth could possibly object? Step forward the company responsible for the Open University's catering (appointed as the result of a catering "Strategy", involving a "Proposed Ideal Food Model" intended to " support the process of consumer focus", with references to "menu and market engineering" something called "Operating Buzz" and similar abominations of marketing jargon)

Anyway, the corporate catering behemoth thusly appointed, proceeded to go puce in the face and wave a badly-drafted catering contract under everyone's noses, pointing out that it was the only entity entitled to sell food on campus and claiming that a little cake stall would damage corporate profits. They probably dragged health and safety concerns into the mix somewhere as well. Arseholes. And their food's not much cop, either.

IDiocy update

Hip, hip!

Climbdown on compulsory ID cards

Home Secretary Alan Johnson has dropped plans to make ID cards compulsory for pilots and airside workers at Manchester and London City airports



However, in a statement, the campaign group No2ID said the "humiliating climbdown" was not the end of the scheme.

"It's just part of the ongoing attempt by senior Home Office officials to fortify the scheme against cancellation and to bind the hands of a future government," the statement added.

Well, modified rapture, anyway...

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Conspiracy theory - they want your money

Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, has accused ITV, Channel 4 and Ofcom of trying to undermine the Corporation by "top-slicing" the television licence fee...

Mr Thompson said: "There is a suspicion that for some years now there has been a small group of people who have been ideologically focused more on the principle of getting a wedge into the licence fee and trying to prove a point about the principle of top-slicing, rather than having a particular urgent need.

"When Ofcom was interested in a public service publisher, it was going to take about £100m and the licence fee looked like a good source for that. Then it was Channel 4 that was going to need perhaps £100m and the licence fee was a good source for it. Now, we are told regional news might need £100m," he said in an interview with The Media Show, on Radio 4.

I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but what if the recent decline of Channel 4 into a trashy freak-show wasn't just a result of relentlessly pursuing viewers by serving up a diet of ever more sensational (and cheap) reality TV? Maybe there's been a hidden agenda, too. "Dear taxpayer", insinuates Channel 4, "quality television is just so expensive to produce. We'd love to produce intelligent, entertaining programmes, but we're so poor and needy that all we can afford to make these days is a relentless stream of prurient tabloid drivel. Now if you could just see your way to bunging us a bit of that licence fee, I'm sure we could knock out something a bit classier."

Exhibit A - a (not unrepresentative) selection of C4's recent offerings:

Big Brother - yet another tired outing for the show which started C4's descent down the slippery slope into inanity

- Big Brother with palm trees

Wife Swap - another excuse to bring a selection of ill-matched, shallow exhibitionists together and watch them bicker inanely (see Big Brother and Shipwrecked, above)

Bodyshock - Half Ton Mum/Dad/Son - an excuse to gawp, slack-jawed, at a selection of very fat people

Supersize vs Superskinny
- an excuse to gawp, slack-jawed, at a selection of very fat and very skinny people

Fat March USA - an excuse to to gawp, slack-jawed, at a selection of fat Americans

Bodyshock - Two Foot Tall Teen, The Girl with Eight Limbs, etc, etc - an excuse to gawp, slack-jawed, at a selection of people afflicted with bizarre medical conditions.

Extreme Male Beauty
- an excuse to to gawp, slack-jawed, at a selection vain and insecure blokes getting waxed, pumping themselves up with steroids, having their private bits hacked about and extended and generally humiliating themselves painfully in public

Embarrassing Bodies - by the time I've watched the grinning medic with the perma-cocked eyebrow who clearly fancies himself something rotten and the doctor cringe-makingly called Pixie pulling on their surgical gloves with a knowing smirk, I've experienced quite enough embarrassment without being subjected to people's flatulence, unsightly hair, incontinence, misshapen genitalia and other comedy ailments. This load of old tosh masquerades as a public service, but it's no NHS Direct - more like an unfunny version of Carry On Matron.

Embarrassing Teenage Bodies
- leave them alone, for heaven's sake - being a teenager is embarrassing enough without sharing your acne with the nation

Tears, Tiaras and Transsexuals
- the conveyor-belt of tedious, exploitative trash rolls on

A WI Lady's Guide to Brothels, Desperate Virgins, Virgin School, Dawn Porter, Extreme Wife
- soft porn dressed up as documentary

A Place In The Sun: Home or Away? Grand Designs, Grand Designs Revisited, Location, Location, Location, Relocation, Relocation, Relocation, Room For Improvement, A Place In The Sun, - eye-wateringly boring property porn dressed up as entertainment

Extreme Celebrity Detox
- please, just make it stop...

I'm not saying it is a conspiracy - just that anyone cynical enough enough to come up with anything as painfully awful as the current Channel 4 schedules is probably evil enough to devise such a dastardly plot.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


I've been using Panoramio to add a few pictures to Google Earth recently. They're not the best pictures ever taken, although some of them are OK, but it's strangely satisfying to put your old snaps in geographical context. Sometimes there are a few surprises - for example, when I stopped to take this picture of an old, presumably volcanic mountain in the Canaries, it was mainly because I was struck by what seemed to be its perfect cone shape. I was obviously looking somewhere else before we stopped and when we drove off again, as Google Earth shows that it's really a completely different shape, and only looks like a cone from a certain viewpoint.

The best thing about Panoramio is the way it groups your photos with ones others have taken in the same area. Sometimes I'm just impressed by the quality of the photos other people have taken, sometimes other people's photos bring back half-forgotten memories of scenes I saw but didn't snap, sometimes I find unexpected things which I hadn't noticed just round the corner from whatever I was photographing.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Good grief...

According to the BBC:

Sir Alan Sugar will continue to front BBC One's The Apprentice, despite concerns over his new role working for the government as an "enterprise tsar".

So it's probably too late to stop the freakish contestants from breeding - it's like Jurassic Park, only worse:

APPRENTICE stars Phil Taylor and Kate Walsh could be dangerously close to making numerous, smaller versions of themselves, experts warned last night...
Amid reports the pair were now dating, scientists said that if the couple's DNA is not kept at least 20 miles apart it could combine to produce an army of gibbering, soulless freaks obsessed with their own shallow, pointless ambitions...

Professor Brubaker and his team conducted a series of computer modelling experiments to predict what a Kate-Phil hybrid would look like. "We reckon it would be shaped like a Toblerone," he added.

"The entire raison d'etre of such a creature would be to pathetically ingratiate itself with millionaires by performing a series of demeaning voluntary tasks, like bleaching dogs' scrotums on Clapham Common. Other than that, it would just hop around pissing people off."
There's an excellent article in the Guardian, about the 0845 / 0870 telephone number scam:

It took just a few weeks for Sarah, who had her finances under control, to find herself on the verge of eviction. Due to an administrative error, the single mother in Manchester had her child benefit stopped.

As a result, her entitlement to income support, housing and council tax benefits also, incorrectly, dried up. What really made her situation impossible, however, was that she had to phone an 0845 number to reach the child benefit helpline to try and sort out the problem.

Like many other people on low incomes, she only has a mobile - and calls to 0845 numbers can easily cost 10p a minute. She and her son found themselves with no money left for essentials (including paying the rent), as all her cash was going on calls to the helpline.

Meanwhile in foreign news, those Iranian "elections" in full.

Having got all the "the world's going to hell in a handcart" stories out of the way in one fell swoop, maybe I'll find something more optimistic to link to next time.

Sraps and fragments

I've just been taking some old fibreglass insulation out of our loft, which we're going to have re-insulated. We could just have had the new insulation laid on top of the old stuff, but the insulation that was already there looked pretty disgusting, being covered in a decades-old layer of black dust, so I decided to take it out. It was mucky job and I ended up covered in dust, cobwebs and grime, but it was worth it to clean the place up.

Whilst stripping out the old stuff I kept coming across little scraps of discarded paper, a fragmentary record of the lives of those who have lived here before. I liked the unintentionally hilarious cover of the 1960 DIY magazine I found, (shown above), with a firm-jawed chap sawing away, his wife in the background putting up partition walls whilst tottering about in stiletto heels and a pencil skirt.

There was a child's vaccination record from around 1960, recording vaccinations for whooping cough, polio and the like. There were pages from of a correspondence course in "Scientific Salesmanship" from the early 1960's (associated correspondence suggests that this course may have resulted in somebody landing a £1,000-a-year sales job with company car, although this may have just been a puff piece by the people running the correspondence course, rather than an actual letter). There were unsent Christmas cards, a recipe magazine, a bloodthirsty child's comic-strip magazine called Warlord, with a Tiger tank advancing menacingly from the cover, more DIY magazines and some pages furtively torn from a copy of The Perfumed Garden.

Philip Larkin thought that "what will survive of us is love." Maybe. Or maybe, only rustling scraps of ephemera will survive, feeble scraps of what we once were:

Come let us now consider the generations of man,
Compound of dust and clay, strengthless,
Tentative, passing away as leaves in autumn
Pass, shadows, wingless, forlorn,
Phantoms, deathbound, a dream.


Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Compare and contrast

One consolation of living in "interesting" political times is that there's plenty of room for argument. Here are some links to a few contrasting opinions worth poking with the pointy stick of critical thought. According to Mr Eugenides, Gordon Brown is Labour's chief liability:

Brown is a godsend to the Tories; for all the sniping of left-wing commentators that voters have not yet warmed to the Opposition, the truth is that standing as the not-Brown, while it may infuriate critics on left and right, will surely now be enough to see Dave elected with a handsome majority.

Or maybe, as the Flying Rodent asserts, he's merely the first problem among equals:

But let's not dance around what we've seen with last week's press circle jerk and shows like tonight's Dispatches. It's a naked attempt by a massive chunk of the nation's ruling class to pin all the faults of the country they created - the fucked financial system, the sleaze-ridden politics, the empty PR machine that is New Labour - on Brown, leaving the rest of them to get on with business as usual.

Then there's the shame and embarassment of having fascist MEPs representing British constituencies. Do you chuck eggs at the buggers?

Griffin: Egg him until he drops

Today, when standing outside the House of Commons for a press conference Nick Griffin and some attendant goons were driven off the streets by members of Unite Against Fascism, determined to show that the majority do not find fascism acceptable...

Personally I thought it was marvellous to see the little toad scuttling about all frightened and I commend the UAF members who took part in this action.

Or is that simply playing into their hands?

In case you haven’t yet seen it, here is footage from the BBC which shows members of Unite Against Fascism - a joint venture between the extremist Socialist Workers’ Party and the Ken Livingstone’s Socialist Action - mobbing the BNP leader Nick Griffin.

Eggs are thrown.

No doubt, the counter-demonstrators believe that they are “fighting fascism”.

In reality, they are helping the BNP.

I think I'm with the eggy faction - you'd need a heart of stone to deny the world the joyous spectacle of the sneering Übermensch collapsing into a blubbering wreck:

We must obviously deplore.....not the way to fight the BNP.....playing in to their hands...etc. etc.....

For some people the catastophic Euro Election results call for desperate measures ... and I mean really desperate ones:

Labour must now do what is at the back of everyone’s minds but which no-one has the balls to stand up and say - Bring Back Blair.

For others, the only hope is a left of centre popular front (well, more of a distant dream than a realistic hope):

The consensus is that the Right triumphed at the Euro elections. We say it's courtesy of a leftist vote split into a myriad of tiny fractions...There's absolutely no doubt the government was handed a drubbing of epic proportions, perhaps the natural consequence of 12 years of New Labour meticulously eating away at what was left of Britain's progressive politics. And yet, here too, the Green Party managed a historic 8.6%, suggesting many disillusioned Labour ballots found a temporary shelter.

But then witness the the depressing sight of leftists groupuscules fighting for the crumbs- if that.

Say what you like about this blogosphere thingy, but it's more thought-provoking than listening to the constipated earnestnessof Michael Buerk as he referees yet more shouty, bickering fruitloops on the Moral Maze.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Steaming aluminium

People who care about such things often have their personal favourite Italian design classic. Not being a petrolhead or a fan of conspicuous consumption, I'm fairly lukewarm to the charms of Ferrari sports cars. I find the Vespa motor scooter more impressive, in the sense that it's easy to build cutting-edge design into something that ridiculously wealthy will pay for, but to give flair to something affordable and mass produced takes a bit more ingenuity. But the Vespa isn't my classic of the moment. Neither are immaculately tailored Italian clothes - I don't know enough about fashion to spend my time coveting la bella figura or eagerly pursuing all the latest fads and trends.

What I do like is the Italian moka coffee pot. It's a modest and easily overlooked object - in fact I'd managed to pretty much overlook it myself until quite recently. I'd seen the little octagonal aluminum pots around before, but hadn't paid them much attention until I actually used one for the first time last year.

Previously I used one of those those glass jugs - normally called a cafetière, French press, or plunger - in which you put your ground coffee, pour on hot water, leave to brew for a few minutes, then push down the filter to trap the grounds before pouring. You can make decent cup of coffee in one of these, so I'd had no reason to look at any other method. In Italy, last year, I found myself in a kitchen, with no other coffee-making equipment but a moka pot. I'd no idea how to use one until I was told how, but when I tried it out, the resulting coffee was as smooth as silk, with a kick like a shire horse. The strength is due to the amount of coffee you put in the filter and the percolating process, which extracts more caffeine than the cafetière method. The smoothness must be due to the filter retaining more of the coffee grounds. The moka is, strictly speaking, for preparing espresso, so it's not surprising that the caffeine dial goes up to eleven. What truth there is behind the stereotype of Italians shouting and waving their arms about probably owes something to the ubiquity of the moka pot.

There's something very satisfying about brewing coffee in a moka. This is partly because it's like a tiny steam engine and makes a satisfying gurgling noise when your coffee's ready. Even the freshly-brewed coffee aroma seems more pungent and enticing than what you get out of a cafetière, although that's just my subjective judgement. Here's a diagram showing how the magic happens:

You fill the lower chamber (A) with water and the filter (B) with coffee. Screw on the upper pot (C). Place the pot on the heat. The water in the bottom chamber gets hot and gives off steam. The steam forces boiling water through the coffee in the filter, so coffee bubbles up into the upper pot. When the lower chamber's almost empty, steam bubbles are forced up through the remaining liquid to produce the gurgling noise that signals your coffee's ready (apparently purists say that by the time the pot starts to gurgle, the coffee's already at too high a temperature and the flavour has already started to spoil - for the perfect cup of coffee, you should be able to anticipate the gurgling and take the coffee off the heat before it starts making a noise).

The moka pot was invented in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti and there's one of the Bialetti company's coffee pots in the majority of Italian homes (or another manufacturer's design based on the same principle). The simple, octagonal industrial styling seems to go with the moka pot's steam engine-style splutterings and has hardly been changed since it was first introduced. I was recently given a moka pot which works on this principle as a present. It's not a Bialetti, but another brand made of stainless steel rather than aluminum, and not in the original's octagonal shape. I sometimes think a classic Bialletti would be better, but on reflection, I'm not that fussed. It does the same job and, although I like the Bialetti, I can appreciate the design without fetishizing it and getting into that horrible marketing-manipulated state of having "brand loyalty" (it is only an object for heaven's sake). The idea of any branded product being a "must have" seems incredibly superficial and just deeply wrong to me (it really is only an object).

I remember long ago, as a student, being amused to see some American students trying to make tea. They'd put teabags into the teapot and were trying to boil them up on the ring of a cooker. I wouldn't laugh at such naivety in beverage preparation these days. After all, until last year, I'd never used a stove-top coffee pot and didn't know how to without being told. Even worse, many years back, when I started using "real" coffee (as opposed to instant), it didn't even occur to me that it was a fresh product which needs to be kept in the fridge once opened. I was merrily keeping mine in a cupboard, like tea or instant coffee, then wondering why my coffee started tasting terrible after a short while. I've decided that ignorance isn't anything to be ashamed of - it's only failing to learn and correct that ignorance which should cause us to blush.

Anyway, here's to the moka pot - it's only an object, but it's rather a splendid one.

Friday, 5 June 2009

When stabbed in the back, shoot self in foot...

First James Purnell whipped out the knife

I now believe your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely. That would be disastrous for our country.

Et tu Brute (although if we're going to get all Roman, I don't think Purnell has anything like the stature of a Brutus - he's more like Caligula's horse).

Then the wheels really started to fall off Gordon's chariot:

Defence Secretary John Hutton has become the latest minister to quit the government...Mr Brown is reshuffling his top team as he fights for his political future...And Labour is still bracing itself for further bad results after heavy losses declared so far in English local elections.

He looks doomed. There are some good reasons for for his extreme unpopularity - his appalling misjudgement in declaring an end to "boom and bust", the miscalculation he made when failed to call an election when he could have beaten Cameron and gained much-needed legitimacy, failing to cull the intrusive, wasteful ID Card scheme.

There are also some less sound reasons. There's the whirlwind of sleaze - well, several Labour MPs and Ministers have been caught out, but Tories with their duck islands and moat cleaning bills are just as mucky. The weakest argument is that Brown suffers from alleged "personalty disorders". Although he's got some rather unfortunate mannerisms, I don't think he's much more of a weird psycho loon than your average power-hungry alpha male - or female, for that matter. So I wouldn't normally go along with this sort of attack:

And you can't even look to Brown's personality to find something positive to right about. He is a nasty, vile little man surrounded by nasty, vile little men. He is a bully, an oaf, and is socially incompetent. He is self-serving, paranoid, and afraid of democracy.

But right now, I don't have the heart to even offer a defence on this level. On a day when he'd do well to reassure people by not doing something crass and gimmicky, he's chosen to appoint celebrity bully Alan Sugar as his "Enterprise Czar". It's as if he wants to confirm all the gossip and innuendo and hand the next election to somebody with just as many personality flaws, (but better PR). I fear there's not much to look forward to in the near political future, except, just possibly, Czar Alan sharing the fate of the Romanovs, come the revolution.