Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Family history and "cultural identity"

I answered a questionnaire today, set by a cultural studies researcher doing a doctorate on how family history research affects cultural identity. I don't think my replies will have helped her much. For example, one question was "How did you see other people's cultural identities before you started doing family history research?" My reply was "It was something I never thought about". I found most of the questions baffling. Are there really people who have thoughts beginning "My cultural identity is..." or "His cultural identity is..."? That is, apart from cultural studies academics.

I attempted to answer the questionnaire for two reasons. Firstly I'm always in favour of people completing their doctorates, even in the field of cultural studies. There are far too many abandoned doctoral theses out there haunting their hapless progenitors' lives like the ghost of Jacob Marley. Secondly, I think that the popularity of family history research is an interesting cultural phenomenon and someone should be studying it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Amazon gift certificate and Kindle

My brother sent me an gift-certificate for my birthday. He was probably thinking that I could use it to buy e-books for my new Kindle. Only I can't, because to buy e-books I've got to use the Kindle shop at either or, and Amazon gift-tokens cannot be transferred from one of their domains to another. He wasn't to know this, but you'd think could flag up "Hey, if you buy a gift-certificate here it can't be used for e-books!".

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Amazon as Big Brother for Kindle

There is an interesting debate going on on the Linux Ubuntu forums about the implications of e-books for freedom from censorship.

What this amounts to is that the Kindle owner does not have ultimate control over the books on their Kindle. This is retained by Amazon which can delete them.

This may not matter much now, but imagine a society in which physical books are no longer produced and everyone has their library on an e-book reader instead. Then suppose the government in that society decides to ban Orwell's 1984. One press of a button and 1984 is deleted from everyone's library simultaneously.

Even now, one can see how the potential of e-book readers like Kindle might appeal to regimes like China that want to control their population's access to information and monitor what they are reading.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Pope again

I admit that I'm finding the Pope's visit to Britain quite disturbing. I'm reminded that I may be an atheist but (to use Christopher Hitchen's terminology), I'm a protestant atheist. I learned Latimer's words to Ridley at the stake by heart when I was at school, and somewhere deep in my brain, all that early indoctrination must have stuck.

I wish the Pope didn't have such a cloth ear for history and culture. For a Pope to visit England and then make references to Sir Thomas More is not tactful. I can almost hear my puritan Congregationalist ancestors turning in their graves. It makes me want to go out and lay a great big flowery wreath at one of the memorials to Protestant Martyrs.

On the other hand, as a humanist and a secularist, I find the people purporting to speak on my behalf almost equally annoying, and none more so than Polly Toynbee. Her astonishingly shallow statement in today's Guardian that the great moral question of our time is how to share the nation's wealth, almost makes the Pope look like a profound thinker, rather than the intellectually sclerotic old man he really is.

So thank whatever isn't up there, for Julian Baggini's article in today's Guardian. In my opinion he's spot on.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Bushiness post Bush

Also in today's Edmonton Journal, a report that the Harper Government is muzzling scientists working for Natural Resources Canada. NRCan was even prevented from discussing a study in a major research journal that had nothing to do with climate change, but was about a huge flood caused by a collapsing ice-dam that occurred 13,000 years ago. It's reminiscent of Bush's attempt to muzzle climate scientists.

Another CAPP ad

CAPP's latest full page ad in today's Edmonton Journal features Syrie Crouch, who works for Shell, looking soulful with some rocks.

Syrie works on C02 storage and she finds it exciting. I wonder if she was excited by the report that said that CCS cannot significantly counter the high levels of greenhouse gases emitted by the tarsands and the process cannot possibly achieve what is claimed by the oil companies and the Canadian government?

Parading my ignorance

While I do not oppose the Pope's visit, the complaint by Opus Dei's spokesman that nobody knows anything about religion in the UK and we Brits know more about Paul Newman than Cardinal Newman is a provocation.

I decided to apply the 1066 and All That test -- i.e. everything I can remember about Cardinal Newman without Googling:
  • He was a Roman Catholic cardinal.
  • He was effeminate
  • He had a very good friend, never got over his death and asked that they be buried together, which makes him the Heathcliff of repressed homosexual priests.
  • I know a lot more about Paul Newman.
I'm puzzled by the beatification thing. This Pope and the last Pope seem to do a lot of beatifying. Applying the 1066 test again, I thought that to be a saint you had to be an apostle, a martyr, an angel, a demoted celtic god, or a pubertal girl trying to get attention by claiming to see visions.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Green v Nerd

My inner Green who wishes to consume less and my inner Nerd fascinated by gadgets are in frequent conflict, and currently the Nerd is winning.

A while ago this was not the case. Nerd wanted to buy an all American coffee maker that actually ground the beans as well as filtering the coffee. Nerd almost won on the basis that the device was space saving, but then Green noticed the machine also had a programmable clock. Green drew the line at coffee makers that tell the time.

However Nerd learned from that experience and now realises that if she wants something she only has to say the magic words "you need this because it is energy efficient" and gullible Green will weaken.

Earlier this week our electric kettle died so today we went to the kitchen shop to replace it and came away with a Chefs Choice Smart Kettle which can be set to turn itself off at any temperature you choose up to boiling point.

It is an interesting fact about Edmonton that although the landscape is as flat as a pancake, we are in fact about a thousand feet above the comfort zone for a Swiss mountain goat. Our high altitude means that boiling point is lower here than at sea level, around 208˚F rather than 212˚F. This may have been why our old kettle packed up. It always took a while to shut itself off after the water boiled and eventually the automatic cut-off failed altogether.

Cunning Nerd used these facts today to defeat Green. Nerd argued that since the Smart Kettle can be set to cut off at 208˚F, electricity will be saved. Only when we got home did Green realise that the Smart Kettle has to be filled with a minimum of half a litre of water -- a lot more than one cup of coffee, and there is an LED display, which means the kettle has to be unplugged when not in use.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nancy Pelosi discussing tar-sands

Nancy Pelosi is in Canada today and tomorrow to discuss the tar-sands issue in a series of meetings with Canadian politicians, campaigners and oilmen. She is accompanied by democrat congressman Ed Markey. Both Pelosi and Markey are known for their support for environmental causes, so this bodes well.

The Pope's Visit

I'm an atheist, so I could be expected to support the Protest the Pope's campaign. Actually, I don't. I neither object to the Pope's visit, or object to public money being spent on it, and I think the protests are a little ridiculous.

Stating the bleeding obvious, there are more than a billion Roman Catholics in the world which makes the Pope a significant world leader whether we like it or not. Yes, the church's opposition to condoms is helping spread AIDS and it has dealt too slowly and very badly with sexual abuse of children by priests, but for human rights abuses I don't think that puts the Roman Catholic Church in the same league as China or Saudi Arabia, two countries whose leaders have also made state visits in the last decade.

Dialogue with the RC church makes a lot more sense to me than campaigning to have the Pope arrested, so I have no problem with the state visit.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Tarsands employees love fluffy bunnies.

The oil industry and the governments of Canada and Alberta, continue to respond to the growing international concern about the tar-sands ecocide as if it is nothing more than a public relations problem.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) have started running a series of ads in which photogenic tarsands employees state how much they love fluffy bunnies, or words to that effect. For example a full page ad today's Edmonton Journal shows biologist Megan Blampin looking soulful beside a lake with the quote:

"We know what was here before, what's here now, and what we need to do before we leave".

Which is really informative isn't it? I bet reading that you've realised how wrong you were about the tar-sands up to now.

Bamplin works for Devon Energy which has a tarsands project at Jackfish using steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) to extract the oil. It is claimed that this method is more environmentally friendly than open cast mining since it has less impact on the forest. However, SAGD requires vast amounts of energy, far more than open cast mining, and huge areas of forest still have to be destroyed to make space for the necessary infrastructure.

But that's all right because Megan's out there monitoring

"rare species like Arctic Grayling and Woodland Caribou. Everyone I work with loves the outdoors."

That's the outdoors that Albertans love exploring in their mammoth 4x4 pick-up trucks.

So what if the world temperature rises by a few degrees by the end of Megan's life and the millions of people we saw affected by climate catastrophe this year increase every year, until our species itself is threatened? At least Megan, with her creamy skin and blonde highlights cared.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cookery Books

With the grim prospect of another winter in Alberta before me, I've been cheering myself up by buying lots of cookery books so I can liven up our diet over the winter, which has inspired me to make a list of my favourite cookbooks:


If you are a new cook, this is the one to get. I don't currently own a copy, but I'm intending to inherit my mum's, and meanwhile I can ring her up and get her to read out the recipes.

I have mixed feelings about Delia. My main criticism is that the book uses too many different different sizes of casseroles, cake tins, etc. You'd need a farmhouse kitchen to house the containers to do all the recipes, not the single cupboard that most of us have. Secondly, some of the recipes are not good (use the Dairy Book's recipe for lemon meringue pie, and don't do Delia's chocolate mousse either). Nevertheless, I admit that my copy is dog-eared.

La Varenne Pratique also published as the Reader's Digest Guide to Cookery
Anne Willan is not well enough known in the UK. This is a superb book for the serious cook; it has some recipes, but it concentrates on explaining cooking techniques in detail. I used it to learn how to joint a chicken. I followed its guidance to prepare garden snails for cooking, and I had it open in front of me while I plucked and drew a pair of wood-pigeons and then made a casserole of them with vegetables and herbs from the garden.

Ian consults it every time he wants to boil an egg. I use the jam recipes.

Jocasta Innes is best known for her interior decorating shops, but this is a very good book for the starter cook. It's a great present for someone setting up home for the first time. Unlike Delia, Jocasta does not assume you have the space or the money for huge amounts of kitchen equipment.


Sussex Pond Pudding, Gooseberry Sauce for mackerel, Gooseberry fool. Actually, I'd buy it for the gooseberry recipes alone.

This book is from a 1970's series on Yorkshire TV that showcased regional recipes sent in by the general public. It includes Staffordshire oatcakes, Nottingham gingerbread and so on. These are the real local kitchen recipes, not made over by a TV chef.


by Marcella Hazan
I own the American edition. Widely regarded as the best Italian cookbook in English. I use it constantly. As an Americanised Venetian, Hazan uses very large quantities of salt and butter; I reduce the salt and substitute olive oil for the butter.

A more health conscious Hazan.

by Edward Giobbi
I found this book on a second-hand stall years ago, when I was looking for a book on southern Italian cooking which uses more olive oil and less butter. Giobbi is not a southern Italian, but an Italian-American artist who lived for a while in Tuscany, but I prefer a lot of Giobbi's versions of classic Italian dishes to Hazan's, including his meatball recipes and caponata.

I've just acquired this classic, having coveted it for years. I'm overawed by the size of the book and the number of recipes.


As well as La Varenne Pratique (see General Cooking above), I own three other books by Willan: French Cookery. Chateau Cuisine and Country Cooking of France. She is a marvelous teacher, but she is also a very prolific author, which leads to some repetition. Many of her books are sumptuously illustrated, which makes them expensive and not very practical for use in the kitchen. Nevertheless, I'm a big fan and I prefer following her instructions to Elizabeth David or Julia Child.


The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen
I was a vegetarian until my mid-thirties. These two books were my main cookbooks in the seventies and I still use recipes from them. As far as I know, Clare Bryant never wrote another book, whereas Mollie Katzen is still going strong -- there is now a whole Moosewood library available.


This very pretty book has given me a lot of fun and the nasturtium and beetroot salad has become one of our summer favourites.