Recipe: too much passata

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.

Government spending visualisations

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

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.)

Stasiland

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.)