Archive for November, 2009

Borders slowly dying

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

The Bookseller reports that Borders UK is a short distance from collapse; it’s been cut off by several major wholesale suppliers, it’s unable to meet its bills, and it’s sitting on the sale block.

The sale block is not a particularly enticing one, either; WH Smiths have turned down the opportunity to buy the firm, and HMV (who own Waterstones) are only interested in cherry-picking a few stores, presumably ones where they’re not in direct competition. There’s always the possibility someone new might swoop in and try to set up their own position in the market, but media retailers with spare cash are few and far between this year, and high-street bookselling isn’t a very tempting prospect these days.

There’s interesting implications here for the book market as a whole. Borders has far fewer stores than Waterstones, who have a very large share of the book market, but it has a high turnover; on 2008 figures, it had about 40% the business of Waterstones – Blackwells and Amazon UK equalled about a quarter of Waterstones apiece, though obviously the latter includes a large non-book element. It’s not unreasonable to say that Borders represents 5-10% of the British book market, at least.

So where’s that going to go? Interesting times loom ahead – but given the distribution of Waterstones and Borders stores, which are usually very closely placed and directly competing for the same passing trade, it seems pretty easy to guess who’ll get the benefit of it over Christmas.

Archives for the 21st Century

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Mike Peel of WMUK points out the new governmental policy on public archives. A couple of interesting figures to highlight:

  • There are about 300 publicly funded archives; half local government, a quarter universities, then museums etc making up the remaining third.
  • Per-capita funding for archive services by local government varies by a factor of twenty-two between the best and least funded regions. (In absolute terms, which is a bit less meaningful due to sharp population distinctions, it’s a factor of forty)
  • Less than 50% of material is described in online catalogues; less than 1% is accessible via digitisation programs. (I suspect the missing word there is vastly less than 1%…) [p. 14]
  • The National Archives provides 170 digital documents for every one used in a reading room, and given the overall figures (112m) that suggests a reading-room usage of 650,000 per year. [p.18]

One figure that would have been very helpful would be an estimate – even an order-of-magnitude ballpark estimate – as to the economic value of public archives. Section 2 talks at some length about the tangible benefits of archives, and indeed mentions economic benefits twice alongside things such as supporting public decision-making or academic research, but the whole section is quite vague and devoid of numbers to quantify what those economic benefits are.

Whatever the plan that follows this report turns out to be, it’ll imply government spending in some way or another; to help make the case for supporting these services properly we need to be able to say – archives are [potentially] worth fifty million to the country a year, or a hundred million, or whatever number it might be. People make these numbers for libraries, for museums, for school playing fields… it shouldn’t be too difficult for the sector to say, upfront, this is what we’re worth to you, treat us accordingly.

(It may seem a bit blunt – but, well, arguing for more public funding without hard numbers is like going unarmed to a duel. You may go through all the motions, but unless your opponent is very scrupulous, you’ll lose)

Recipe: too much passata

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Last night, we made pizzas. (This is now my favourite way of feeding a dozen people – the work can be shared out easily, it allows for complex democratisation of who eats what and how much of it, and you can spread it over an hour so you only need one oven.)

The problem was, we ended up with too much sauce. A small bowl of heavy, thick, gloopy passata-and-garlic-and-basil sauce which I salvaged for dinner today; nice and rich, but too thick to put on pasta.

So, take the sauce, bulk it out a bit with a small tin of tomato pureé and an equal amount of warm water; mix in chopped cooked sausages, chopped carrots, and some mushrooms. Cook for about thirty minutes at 200 degrees; stir, add some cheese on top, another twenty minutes. Serve with an enormous pile of rice.

Not bad, all told, but more filling than it looked at first! Two things that’d have improved it:

  • parboiling the carrots before adding them, as they came out a little too crunchy
  • using equal amounts of red wine and pureé, rather than water and pureé

We had red wine to hand, in fact, but vetoed using it because it seemed too nice to cook with and there wasn’t much left. I think that was the right decision, but it’s tough to say.

Recipe: something to do with sausages

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Easy as pie, this one, but surprisingly nice.

-three sausages, good ones – I used pork and caramelised onion;
-one baking apple;
-one red onion;
-olive oil;

Peel and chop the apple into rough chunks and throw into a deep baking tray. Add the onion, chopped into fair-sized chunks (not slices). Toss with olive oil, and stir some honey through it all. Put in the oven at 180 degrees Centigrade for twenty-five minutes.

In the meantime, grill or fry the sausages – I recommend grilling, because this is already a fairly oily mix. When done, the apple and onion ought to be done as well (check to see the apple is soft enough to turn into goo in your mouth). Chop the sausage into bitesized pieces, toss in a bowl with the apple and onions, mix well and add a sprig of parsley if you’re feeling decadent. Done.

This is enough for one hungry person, but it scales perfectly – just double everything. It really is rather nice.

Book review: Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Seriously? This book is truly excellent. I mean it. Yes, it’s slight, yes it’s yet another of those blog-turned-book-deal things, but it’s razor-sharp and poignant, hilarious and sometimes sad, but always engaging and frequently educational. It’s a treat.

The premise: thirty-year-old Julie Powell, a secretary living in the outer boroughs of NYC in apartment that her mother is convinced she’s going to die in, decides apropos of not much that in the space of one year, she is going to cook her way through the five-hundred-plus recipes in Julia Child’s famous cookbook, Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Of course, she blogged it – but this was in 2001, when such things weren’t quite ubiquitous – and, something I think is enormously in her favour, the book is not simply a rehash of the greatest hits of the blog but tries to tell a complete narrative, with some blog entries merely reproduced where appropriate.

And, well, it’s fabulous and compulsively readable. While she writes reams about the recipes – all of which feature tonnes and tonnes of butter – she punctuates it with tales of her own life, her work for the government agency clearing up the debris after 9/11, her long-suffering husband, her romantic-hero brother, her mother, her friends, and she brings all of them to life. She’s cheerfully rude about her Republican colleagues, at one point feeds them a cake filled with ceramic shards and antifreeze, and is relentlessly cutting about the Bush administration, in and around her adventures cooking marrowbones, calves’ brains and apples in aspic and other such horrifying delicacies. She writes very well indeed, and with a kind of intimate familiarity; in any case, in her description of herself as a foul-mouthed hysteric with misanthropic tendencies, she rang very familiar for me.

The one flaw of the book, I think, is the attempts at vignettes in the real life of Julia Child – while these aren’t bad, per se, I really think they’re unnecessary and a sign of lack of confidence in her own story, which is entirely unjustified.

In short: please look beyond the provenance and the cover, and don’t be afraid for a minute that this is going to be one of those cook-yourself-thin horrors (not only is it all butter all the time, nowhere does anyone discuss diets in this book). It’s one of the best I’ve read this year.

NB. I see after publishing this review to LibraryThing that a lot of people think Powell is boorish and swears too much, and so you shouldn’t read her book. Coincidentally, most of those people are fucking cunts.

Government spending visualisations

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

An interesting new project: Where Does My Money Go? [currently an alpha version; details; announcement]

Basically, interactive visualisations of UK governmental spending, broken down by topic or by region. There’s also a time-series function, which is quite interesting to see – overall government spending, as a proportion of GDP, has just hit the bad old days of 1992.

Things that currently stand out as major issues:

  • uncleaned data means hideous governmental terminology – “n.e.c.” everywhere
  • expanding on that, the data needs a bit more organising – ensuring you can switch between subdivisions on the national-level, for example, would mean linking the ‘economic > transport’ sections together in the same way that the ‘economic’ sections currently are
  • the main charts are a little ambiguous as to which circles are subdivisions of each other
  • there’s no way to apply the time-series graph to “second level” data – so you can compare “general public services” spending over time, but you can’t compare the amount spent on debt servicing
  • mousing over a column really should display its numeric value

On the whole, though, promising – definitely worth ten minutes playing with. Gets the concept across a lot more clearly than the bare figures might.

Piglet squid

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

One of my current projects involves rebuilding the ePrints repository system to work as a well-structured database for archiving photographs. It’s going quite well, but the problem is that I can’t really demo it to anyone – the test server has virtually no content. So, any time I have to explain how it’ll work, I keep referring them to someone else doing the same sort of thing; the SERPENT project, who’re building up quite a nice collection of photographs of deep-sea creatures which have blundered into industrial submersibles.

Which means I occasionally spend a few minutes going, right, I need something to show what thumbnails on a multiple-image record look like, could I use manta rays? Dog sharks? Maybe something novel…

…and then I tripped over this, a Helicocranchia squid.

That is, in fact, a “piglet squid” – about 5-10cm long, and as the name suggests, looks like a cheerfully rotund piglet. I’m not sure quite how fads for pets begin, but that sentence sounds like a good attempt.

(More on the piglet squid – and some better photographs – here.)

A word on the Stupak Amendment

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

In brief: the US House of Representatives passed the health care reform bill. It is called the Affordable Health Care For America Act and expands federal healthcare provision enormously – 36 million more people will be eligible for Medicaid, most employers will be required to provide healthcare coverage for their workers, and there will be a government-funded “public option”. Also notably, health insurers will be prevented from refusing coverage based on medical history (no more gender-based “pre-existing conditions” such as pregnancy, rape and domestic violence) and the exemption for insurance companies from antitrust legislation will be repealed.

So far, so hoopy. The Stupak Amendment, with which this Act has been passsed, is as follows:

“No funds authorised or appropriated by this Act… may be used to pay for any abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion, except in the case where a woman suffers from a physical disorder, physical injury or physical injury which would… place the woman in danger of death unless an abortion is performed… or unless the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.”[1]

In other words, to get this Act passed, someone had to be the sacrificial lamb and 150 million American women were it. (Also, something else I have just spotted – the obvious women are excluded, women who want abortions for what are nauseatingly called “social” reasons, because pregnancy is not the right thing for them, but also, women who have mental illnesses which pregnancy would exacerbate are excluded, too.)

I actually have no further commentary to make on the issue, and I wondered if that were just me, but actually, I think there is nothing very profound to say about it. Institutional politics, particularly in the United States, is boring and it doesn’t yield to analysis. Feminist analysis of the narratives of privilege and oppression, that is interesting; so is sociological thinking about why people think the way they do such that amendments like this are seen as a good idea, but on the institutional level of why, in the specific instance, the House of Representatives has voted like this, I’m coming up with nothing. They voted like this because they’re misogynists, fundamentalists, or spineless; you can lobby them, but to be effective, you either run for the House of Representatives or wait for the current incumbents to die, or both. You can’t argue, you can’t write about women’s rights to their own bodies, you can’t talk about restriction of reproductive options as a form of control of women. Well, you can, but it’s a category error to think you can convince an edifice of misogyny to change their minds because that, I think, fundamentally misunderstands why they hold the opinions they do – it’s not because they arrived at them through logical argument.

(Evidence in point: thirty-nine Democrats voted against the reform bill. Twenty-one of them, besides Stupak, voted for the amendment. Institutional politics defies logical analysis.)[2]

It will go to the Senate, but I’m not optimistic.

[1] Yes, yes, this is not proper legal citation.

[2] From here. And yes, lawyers are allowed to run a defence in the alternative, but I suspect it’s not the same thing.


Monday, November 9th, 2009

Today is the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and – to a first approximation – the end of the German Democratic Republic. I don’t really have anything intelligent to say on the matter; I was seven at the time, and failed to notice much about it. I do remember, a couple of years later, visiting a relative with a little fragment of the Wall in the glass china case in their living room, and being duly impressed, but I’m not sure I could have explained why. (This is odd – I know I was aware of world news stories a year earlier, in 1988, perhaps even late ’87. Maybe my memory is at fault here, not my childish attention-spans.)

But it does reminds me, on the other hand, that I wanted to mention that:

  • there is a new discount bookshop open on St. Aldates;
  • it is selling copies of Stasiland for £2;
  • which is one of the best books I’ve read this year;
  • and you should be able to deduce #4 for yourself.

(Why, look at the tangential relevance. Classy, me.)

Stasiland is great. Absolutely, unqualifiedly, great. Well-written, moving, direct, vivid and detached; it describes horrors and terror without either dwelling on them or glossing over them, which is a rare skill. It’s a series of linked stories of daily life in East Germany – mostly East Berlin – told by former citizens, interspersed with a narrative of life in contemporary Berlin as the author tracked them down. She deliberately included interviews with ex-Stasi members, some devoted and some compelled, which provides an interesting second layer to the reminiscences.

Following on from Stasiland, I read Timothy Garton Ash’s The File a few months later. It was an interesting corollary, an attempt by a privileged observer – a Western historian – to trace back his time in East Germany through studying his file, to trace back the contacts with bystanders and informers. The problem is that neither is the book you’d really want to read; Funder tells a lot of stories second-hand, and Ash tells his own story and those entwined with his, but we never quite get a first-hand memoir of someone who actually lived under the regime and couldn’t, as Ash could, walk away.

Suggestions for further reading on East Germany, either from a social or a historic perspective, appreciated.

On a lighter note, Ben Lewis’s Hammer and Tickle was enjoyable as a jokebook and a vaguely serious study of humour in adversity – I did like his idea that you could follow the trajectory of people’s faith in The Whole Grand Communist Project by looking at the tone of their jokes about it – but could have done with cutting out the 20% of padding about the author’s private life. Perhaps best just to read the original essay.

And finally, I have not yet bought a copy of K Blows Top, but I expect it to be all you’d expect from a book detailing Khruschev’s wacky road-trip across fifties America. (This must be one of the few sentences where “wacky” is the only appropriate adjective.)

Recipe: potatoes with sundried tomatoes and stilton

Monday, November 9th, 2009

I can cook quite well. If you ask me to rustle up a dinner for three with salad and dessert, I can do it. But – I cannot follow recipes. At all. Everything I have ever cooked was made up on the spot, or a variation on something I’ve previously made up on the spot. In the interests of the latter, this is what I had for dinner tonight.

-three large baking potatoes, elderly, sprouting;
-one red onion;
-generic tomato sauce – the kind that comes in a jar, or one tin chopped tomatoes drained well and mixed with passata;
-peppered ham (or ordinary thick ham, and add black pepper to the finished product);
-niceish olive oil;
-sundried tomato paste.

Preheat oven to 180 degrees Centigrade. Peel and chop the potatoes into thin slices, and toss into boiling water for five or ten minutes until softened (I forgot to do this, and regretted it). Drain, and put in a flattish ovenproof dish. Pour over tomato sauce, stir until potatoes are covered, add sundried tomato paste to taste and a splash of olive oil. Stick into oven for twenty minutes.

In the meantime, chop the onion into small bits and tear up the ham roughly, mix them together. Take the dish out, and (carefully! – I burned my fingers, as usual) stir them into the mixture so they’re also covered in tomato gloop. Put in the oven for another twenty minutes, go away and do some hoovering.

Crumble enough stilton to cover the top of the dish. After the twenty minutes are up, make a layer of it on the top of the potatoes, and put it back in the oven. After five minutes or ten minutes or however long it takes for the cheese to brown and bubble and sink, you’re done. Serve with green salad, it’s nice. And freeze the rest, if you’re only cooking for one, it’s perfectly defrostable.

I like it – but next time I think maybe more sundried tomato paste, and maybe I’ll stretch to cooked bacon rather than ham.