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Travel for coffee

February 27, 2010 by james | No Comments | Filed in Urbanism

Towards the end of our last trip to the US I referred in a blog entry to the flourishing London coffee scene. Word of that continues to spread, it seems, and the New York Times travel section has become the latest publication to run a feature: London Sips a Different Cup.

I’ve yet to make it to Prufrock, the main establishment featured, because although it’s a short walk from my office it doesn’t open till 10.30am by which time I’m usually well settled with a cafetiere we’ve prepared ourselves. I can, however, vouch for the comfort of the battered sofa at Tina, We Salute You. And worry a little that it’s now going to be even harder to find an open seat at Milk Bar…

Perhaps this is why the Flat White website is currently unavailable, having exceeded their bandwidth allocation?

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The New Diggers

February 21, 2010 by james | No Comments | Filed in Environment

A mention on twitter got me listening to The New Diggers, an episode in Radio 4′s Costing the Earth series.

It’s a good listen and part of an encouraging wave of attention being paid to new-old approaches to food production such as farming small plots in urban spaces. The stories in it won’t be entirely new to anyone who’s been tracing Guerilla Gardening, Community Supported Agriculture, or Transition Towns for any length of time, but new examples are always encouraging and the people of Todmorden make an eloquent case for large institutions handing over their latent land to green-fingered locals.

I’m a little more sceptical about the second half of the programme. While I’m glad people are exploring better ways to run farms and to help people who want to become farmers, the size of our population is such that it’s now highly unlikely we could sustain a large scale return to the fields. The Guerrilla Gardening-born approach of filling in the otherwise empty spaces in dense urban environs speaks much more of the future.

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The Economist on “Broken Britain”

February 20, 2010 by james | No Comments | Filed in Current affairs

I’m always tempted to roll my eyes and respond cynically when confronted with unqualified, fear-building statements like the “Britain is broken” refrain currently popular with the Tories. It’s too easy a statement, illustrated with anecdotal evidence, and implying that since you’re the ones claiming there’s a problem, people need you to fix it.

Of course, someone living as comfortably as me needs to be reminded that rolling our eyes and bringing out a cynical line is not really enough of a response. It’s increasingly seeming like even careful analysis, counter-examples and discussion aren’t enough either, but those of us who value those things should probably keep trying. And we need to do what we can to ensure that we’re not simply blinded by our comfort.

I was glad to see The Economist’s Through a glass darkly: Britain’s Broken Society attempting to bring some sober analysis to the table. (I don’t agree with them on the tories having the best education plans, but still…)

They rightly pick up on the issue that there is a real problem not only in the fact that societal fear is out of step with the relevant statistics, but also pick up on the ongoing issue that statistics (official or otherwise) are so rarely trusted. That’s an issue that urgently needs a solution if we’re to have a hope of meaningful discourse in the run-up to the election. Statistics can always be spun, but we need to be ready to ask the right questions rather than simply dismiss them.

why is it that the idea of “broken Britain” rings true with so many, when it seems far from reality? Partly, it is because people’s ideas about the state of society are simply inaccurate: the average voter reckons that four out of ten teenagers have children, for instance, whereas in fact perhaps three in a hundred do. Official statistics to the contrary are viewed with suspicion after successive governments have relentlessly massaged them.

There’s also something very striking in an anecdote about newspapers:

Newspapers were no less lurid a century ago. But there is one big change: a shift in readership from local papers to national ones.

They talk about London knife crime fears that were blown up nationwide and rarely tempered with the local knowledge and broader information that were only reported within the city. Even though everyone theoretically has access to that local information through the wonders of the internets, we retain an inability to really contextualise the stories that are so rapidly flashed in front of our eyes.

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Downtown Church

January 16, 2010 by james | No Comments | Filed in Music

Our group of friends in Nashville has strong ties to the Downtown Presbyterian Church. Many of them attend the church, others have done at various times, and some have had art studios, worked on programs with the homeless or simply found some shelter in the building.

One of the latest initiatives based out of the church is the Nashville Contributor street newspaper. It was there that we read of Patty Griffin recording her new album in the church sanctuary, and naming it “Downtown Church” in its honour. You can read their exclusive article on their website.

First listens to the album are promising – the selection of gospel tunes and Buddy Miller’s production work well and I’m particularly enjoying the soulful backing vocals. You can preview it courtesy of NPR.

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Snow days

January 12, 2010 by james | No Comments | Filed in Uncategorized

A tweet from Jenny this evening reminded me to blog a little more about the snow in Tennessee when we were there last week.

This wasn’t the first time we’d been in Nashville when it was snowing. A few years back a few flakes fell on New Year’s Day. Nothing really remarkable in many places, but even that elicited some surprise at the time.

This year there was significantly more snow, though still barely a grazing compared to what the UK has experienced over the past week, let alone a typical winter snowfall in Michigan. It was somewhat satisfying to see another society grinding to a halt in the face of a lot less snow, having been one of the many rolling my eyes when, during the snow in February 2009, the CBI and others moaned about Britain’s poor infrastructure and the billions of pounds lost to the economy. And then there was the way many less jaded than I were loving the snow. A reminder that an economy that can’t handle a few days of unplanned collective unwinding is at least as bad as one that insists on continuing whatever the weather.

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Flying backwards

January 10, 2010 by james | No Comments | Filed in Travel

I’d never flown facing backward before last night, and had a little trepidation before take-off as I wondered how it felt. But I’d very happily do it again. The views of early-evening Chicago as we took off, circled around the city and then headed east over the lake were stunning. Somehow the fairly dull grid system that rules the city came to life and the occasional diagonal created wonderful effects.

We were travelling 24 hours later than planned—and taking a different route—because of delays on the previous day’s flights between Nashville and Washington DC. Spending an extra night in Nashville paid off as we were upgraded to business class (flights from the US to London are so backed up that the upgrade was the easiest way for them to find us seats) and got full use of the lounges during a lengthy layover and significantly more comfort during the transatlantic flight.

And so I found myself in one of the newly redesigned business cabins where half the seats face backwards. And got used to it far too easily.

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Grand Rapids Coffee

January 9, 2010 by james | 1 Comment | Filed in Uncategorized

When we lived in Grand Rapids, I did a lot of that living in coffee shops. Through my research for the (now rather neglected) Grand Rapids WiFi site I became a bit of an expert on the different outlets around town. These days—having an office—I spend a lot less time in coffee shops. Except when we’re back visiting the US and I’m crazily trying to fit work into the trip.

This time around I got the chance to check out two new coffee shops in Grand Rapids: Sparrows and Madcap. I’d heard a lot of talk about the former and really enjoyed working there, surrounded by the magazines that it also sells. The United States has an incredible magazine culture with many, many fantastic titles. But most of the country is terribly short of good places to buy them. I would have loved to have a place so near our house to walk to and browse magazines when we lived in GR, and I’m very glad it’s there now.

Since living in London I’ve noticed my coffee tastes changing, influenced by the antipodean trends that have swept the city. I found much of the coffee I drank in my older haunts lacking in body and have really been longing for a good americano or flat white, or something made in a cafetière. Madcap sated that thirst a little with their slow brewed coffees. Standing apart from the drip coffees so standard in US coffee shops, these had real depth and body to them and lots of flavour. I’m very grateful to Karl for suggesting I check the place out.

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Nathan Phillips’ Postcard

January 4, 2010 by james | No Comments | Filed in Music

Last time we were in the States, Nathan Phillips handed me a CD-R of his then-new record Postcard. Nathan had played one of our Ambridge evenings with Julie Lee while touring with her, and I was delighted to have the record. It’s a beautifully understated home recording made over the course of a year, and numerous people have asked me how to get hold of it.

Finally, having caught up with Nathan as he returns from California to Nashville, I’m able to answer that question. So if you’ve been dying to hear it, you can preview and/or buy it over at CD Baby. If you’ve not, I’d still recommend it.

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Slow geeks

February 13, 2009 by james | 1 Comment | Filed in Technology

Kevin Kelly, of Wired Magazine and Long Now Foundation fame, has a lengthy piece on his blog exploring the Amish adoption of technology. It wasn’t until we watched the documentary Devil’s Playground a few years back that I was really aware of the Amish approach to selectively adopting new technologies only once they’ve explored their likely social impact and how they fit with their core values. I’m not sure I could convince myself to slow down that much, but it’s a fascinating idea:

The Amish are steadily adopting technology — at their pace. They are slow geeks. As one Amish man told Howard Rheingold, “We don’t want to stop progress, we just want to slow it down,” But their manner of slow adoption is instructive.

  1. They are selective. They know how to say “no” and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ban more than they adopt.
  2. They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.
  3. They have criteria by which to select choices: technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
  4. The choices are not individual, but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.

This method works for the Amish, but can it work for the rest of us? I don’t know. It has not really been tried yet. And if the Amish hackers and early adopters teach us anything, it’s that you have to try things first. Try first and relinquish later if need be. We are good at trying first; not good at relinquishing – except as individuals. To fulfill the Amish model we’d have to get better at relinquishing as a group. Social relinquishing. Not merely a large number (as in a movement) but a giving up that relies on mutual support. I have not seen any evidence of that happening, but it would be a telling sign if it did appear.

The whole piece is a good read. You can find it at kk.org.

(via Jason Kottke)

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Professionally uncurious

January 31, 2009 by james | No Comments | Filed in Film

For a few years, the Oscars got quite a lot of my attention. It’s not that I often agreed with the Academy’s choice, but I did try and make sure I’d seen as many as possible of the nominated films, and was eager to engage in commentary about the rights and wrongs of the Academy’s choices.

This year, I’ve found myself almost entirely disinterested. But I did read Stephanie Zecharek’s overview—”Let’s Beat Up On The Oscars“—and enjoyed a couple of sections enough to want to share.

But the idea of being deserving or not is beside the point with the Oscars: Most of us watch the ceremony on TV as a way of matching up our own ragtag sets of likes and dislikes with those of the Hollywood professionals, who — ostensibly — know what they’re doing. That’s part of the fun, and even our frustration with the Academy is part of the fun. So why beat up on them?

Because beating up on them is also fun.


In his speech on Tuesday, President Obama cited a number of human traits that can help us get through hard times: Curiosity was one of them. The Academy Award nominations this year, as they do every year, offered a few surprises amid a gaggle of complete nonsurprises. The Academy — film professionals, all of them — appear, as a group, to be professionally uncurious. I’m certain civilian moviegoers are a much more adventurous group. In seeking out what’s truly imaginative, engaging or moving, we have to be our own pioneers.

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