So, farewell Panasonic SD-253

21 March 2011
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Extra large, crusty loaf

Our trusty breadmaker has given some 7 years service. Over that time, we’ve enjoyed white, wholemeal and mixed grain bread, spelt rolls, pizza dough, ciabatta and, more recently, pitta and naan.

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Multi-grain bread

Sadly, the old dear’s paddle and pan have worn out under the strain of, I estimate, more than 800 loaves and 300 pizzas.

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I am pizza dude

Replacing the breadmaker is only £15 to £20 more than the replacement parts.

Reluctantly I’ve agreed to retire the faithful servant. The new model, Panasonic SD-256, arrived this afternoon and has already mixed another batch of pittas.

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Panasonic SD-253: best buy ever?

So long SD-253. Here’s to your lovingly kneaded dough and firm crusts.


Labelled: Mogwai, Bristol, 19 January 2011 review

21 February 2011
Mogwai

Mogwai - "Killing All the Flies"

Arbitrary labels rarely do justice to music or artists. Take Mogwai, who I saw in Bristol Saturday night.

Going for nearly 15 years, seven studio albums and a sheaf of singles, EPs and movie scores, Mogwai’s mostly instrumental music usually gets shoved in the “post rock” pigeon hole.

What on earth is post rock? At first, the term, believed to have been coined by music journalist Simon Reynolds, described rock music that didn’t conform to normal song structures, used non-standard instrumental ensembles and eschewed lyrics.

Whilst that could apply to Mogwai’s offerings, post rock hardly describes a musical style or movement.

As much as anything, the post rock term came to represent a musical ghetto, insult even. As far back as 1999 I recall Tortoise, the quintessential post rock super group, being derided as bringing back prog rock.

Mogwai themselves were usually associated with the phrase soft-loud formula to describe their songs.

Mogwai - "Helicon 1"

Mogwai - "Helicon 1"

Whilst true that the group focussed heavily on noise, especially in their earlier work, on being very quiet and very noisy in the same song (see “Helicon 1″, “Mogwai Fear Satan”, “Xmas Steps”), this was more than a formula.

Mogwai have always been interested in the dynamics of sound, but there’s more to it than that. Through those seven albums they’ve explored song structures, instrumentation, arrangements, vocals (in Welsh and with vocoders!), beats, lyricism and, in those quiet sections, subtlety you’ll rarely hear from a rock/pop band. (See, for example, the excellent “Punk Rock”, a gentle ballad set against a monologue from Iggy “Swiftcover” Pop.)

Far from a collection of soft-loud sonic bombs, their latest album “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” is a mixed collection, including straight up proper rock tunes.

Mogwai have endured and outlasted the post rock era, if ever there was one. Their music has inspired a small number of bands ploughing the instrumental rock avenue though I’d like to think they’ve also inspired indie bands (another terrible label) that sing, such as the Twilight Sad, Saturday’s support act.

Mogwai have been part of a very productive Scottish scene since the mid-90s and as owners of a record label and general cheerleaders have helped others get the hearing they’ve deserved.

I like to think of Mogwai’s influences (admitted or otherwise):

  • heavy metal without the motorcycle leathers, bad hair, misogyny, occult references
  • punk without the self-destruction
  • prog rock without noodling, solos, bad hair, new age nonsense, impenetrable lyrics
  • a healthy disregard for Brit pop, except its tunefulness
  • the humour (where it exists) and self-regard of rap

Add to that, they have a dry, sometime sideways Glaswegian humour as reflected in song and album titles – “George Square Thatcher Death Party” from the latest album and first studio effort “Mogwai Young Team”, named after ubiquitous Glaswegian gang inspired graffiti: that is, [insert gang name] Young Team.

So what about Saturday? This was, I think, my seventh Mogwai gig, the first since the superb 2006 Royal Albert Hall concert. My first was back at the old Black Cat club in Washington DC in 1999.

The one great thing about live music is that you get a different dynamic every night. This was not one of the best nights for that. I’m not sure exactly why, but a very drunk and loud audience didn’t help.

Mogwai have never had huge stage presence. There’s no big egos on show. Guitarist Stuart Braithwaite is the undoubted leader, but I always get the impression that this is a bunch of friends who have common musical interests and more or less get on very well.

The music will usually do the talking and on some numbers – the opening “White Noise” for example – that worked, but sometimes that lack of stage presence detracts. And, that was the case on Saturday.

I enjoy the new album. There’s plenty of quality songs, even if it’s not classic post rock. ;-)


Do you know what your council spends?

10 January 2011

(This post reflects a personal view)

For every public sector organisation the horizons have changed. Budgetary cuts aside, from Whitehall to town hall greater transparency is the new landscape.

There is a wider debate about the timing and speed of bringing about transparency. But, that’s now where we’re heading. The coalition government has certainly been a catalyst in this change – certainly in its speed – but the direction of change has been on the cards for the last decade.

Of course, transparency and particularly the call for “open data” in every corner of government is a good thing. Isn’t it?

With over 20 years of tackling HMSO filing cabinets, I think I’ve got some perspective. I’ll deal with some of the broader issues in other posts.

For now, I’d like to concentrate on the looming deadline for local authorities to publish details of their expenditure over £500.

On the face of it, this sounds like a simple exercise. Just open up your accounting software, run a report and publish the information on your website.

If only.

Firstly, let’s think about the information contained in the accounting database.

Oh, let’s stop there. This assumes that all the information will be stored in one database. Unfortunately, most authorities will have more than one financials system. I’m not an accountant so someone else might need to explain, but we’ve got three basic systems. There’s also systems covering council tax, non-domestic rates and housing benefit.

Okay, we’ve run the reports, managed to import all the data into one big spreadsheet. (Thankfully by the time we came around to compiling the information guidelines – er guidance – had been published so we had a good idea what data we needed to include.)

Ah. But, some of that data could be sensitive. We’ve got council tax rebates, housing benefit payments and other personal information. The guidance allows us to redacted some information. All this had to be done by hand, by an accountant, making individual judgements.

All ready to publish and we’ve now got a process to repeat every month. That’s fine, right?

Yes, the process is there, but I’m left with a few doubts about the value of what we’ve just published.

It’s good that the public can now scrutinise how its local authority spends council tax*. But, what we’ve provided has very little context. For the council’s part, there’s a loss of control of the information and the worry that the information will be “misinterpreted”. The public, the “armchair auditors”, are presented with a lot of information presented in a particularly un-user friendly way. The content of those spreadsheets baffle me.

The financial data might not enable someone to track expenditure on a specific project. For a start the monetary cutoff could leave out some spending.

Perhaps more importantly, the description of the expenditure in many case leaves a lot to be desired. The (perhaps apocryphal) council spending on lingerie springs to mind. (The story goes that a council reimbursement of non-domestic rates to a closed lingerie shop seemed to indicate that councillors were paying for the, ahem, wife’s frilles on the rates.)

Let’s remember what that financial data represents. It’s an audit trail, yes. But – and maybe I’m being picky – it was never collected or collated with a view to exposing to the public. (Not that there’s any intention of hiding information.)

Maybe a phalanx of armchair auditors of will emerge. Maybe, some bright spark might alight upon one line out of thousands that looks odd, suspicious or whatever.

To get that bigger picture, I suspect the armchair auditors will have to take a deep breath and consult not only the expenditure data but the deeply impenetrable statement of accounts.

Having had a chance to reflect after publication, what strikes me is that councils now need an urgent rethink about data.

In the past, data was collected because:

  • government or another agency (hello, Audit Commission) told us to do so
  • it helped us do our jobs

We’ve never collected data on the assumption that the public wanted to view it, crawl over it, question it. Thought to publication must now be at the heart of data collection.

The expenditure exercise just scratches the surface. It raises questions about systems, process and presentation.

Open, but not quite fully opened data.

(* – remember councils derive income from several sources: council tax, non-domestic rates, block grants from central government and local income. Proportions vary from council to council.)


Smarter than the average bear

30 September 2010

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Sometimes my mind goes on interesting meanders.

Many of these excursions take place during physical activity. It’s probably why I get mental satisfaction from digging up at the allotment. I get a couple of hours of good muscle building exercise, plus my head gets to visit odd destinations or sort out perplexing problems.

So, this takes me to the slopes of the Pena Llesba on the outskirts of the Picos de Europa national park in northern Spain. At the top of the col sits this rather cool bear monument – not that there’s any bears left in the Picos.

As we’re climbing back towards the bear, my mind goes walkies.

Bears. Yogi Bear. Before the holiday I stumbled across the trailer for the new Yogi Bear live action/CGI film. You know the thing. Hollywood at its laziest, dragging out any old idea.

Yogi Bear. Films. Spain. Dubbing. In my limited experience, our continental partners experience of Hollywood is mainly through the prism of dubbing. Whilst you do see the odd subtitled film, I think I’m right in saying that your movie goer in Madrid is unlikely to know what Tom Hanks sounds like.

Ok. So, what about cartoons and CGI flicks like Toy Story or, in this case, Yogi Bear? In English speaking nations, star names are used to sell what are essentially kids’ films to adults. In the case of aforementioned bear, will Spaniards be sold on the basis of Dan Ackroyd – probably dubbed beyond recognition to English speaking ears in Ghostbusters – and Justin Timberlake?


Another whiff of Jeyes Fluid

3 May 2010

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Surprisingly, this is one of the most visited posts on this blog. Maybe there’s something about Jeyes Fluid that I don’t know about.

Anyway. Bank Holiday weekend. Wet Bank Holiday weekend. What are going to do?

Stink out the place and disinfect the greenhouse. Obvious.


Photo of the day – Drink more beer

27 April 2010

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… so that the pub can keep a roof over its head.

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Photo of the day – Frozen pipe

9 January 2010

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Today’s little task: defrosting a frozen precipitate overflow pipe.


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