Saturday, December 26, 2009

KQED: Curiously Arbitrary Music Awards 2009

As yet another year stumbles drunkenly to a close in a similar fashion to one of Lady Gaga's weird death dances, it's time to take a look back at some of the highest highs and lowest lows from the world of music in 2009.

Most Obviously Self-Sabotaging Band Name:
King Kong Ding Dong

Killjoys of the Year:
California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

Best Album that Should Have Sucked but Didn't:
Karen O and the Kids, "Where the Wild Things Are Motion Picture Soundtrack"

Special "The Music Industry Is Killing Music" Award for Encouraging the Illegal Downloading of Music:

Biggest, Silliest, Deluxest, Specialest, Most Limited Box Set:
Pixies, "Minotaur"

Hat of the Year:
Aretha Franklin

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chow: Gordon Ramsay's Live Nightmare

Billed as “the biggest cooking event America has ever seen,” Gordon Ramsay’s Cookalong Live on Fox last night was certainly an exciting televisual challenge. But the toughest part wasn’t keeping up with the pace of the onscreen culinary endeavours (as we were encouraged to do at home), but to endure Ramsay’s weirdly uncomfortable agitation for more than a few minutes. What was wrong with the man: Hasn’t he ever cooked and talked at the same time before?

Granted, he was juggling a stack of studio guests and multiple live satellite/Internet feeds from around the country while simultaneously demonstrating how to knock together a three-course dinner in less than 60 minutes. But he’s also a Michelin-starred chef who has (presumably) endured far more stressful cooking environments than this. The nonexpert guest participants seemed positively laidback next to Ramsay’s bouncing bundle of nerves.

You could put it down to first-time jitters, except El Gordo has already done a whole series of similar shows for Channel 4 in the UK. Maybe it was just the strain of making it through a live broadcast on American TV without losing his temper and dropping the F-bomb. Or perhaps Ramsay just needed to pee really, really badly. Regardless, his performance was possibly the most uncomfortable thing to appear on TV since Glenn Beck went public with his experiences of hemorrhoid surgery.

By Keith Laidlaw. Originally published at

KQED: Home is Where The Rural Alberta Advantage Are

When a Canadian indie outfit is touring the U.S. to promote a record called Hometowns, the temptation to turn to matters geographical is almost overwhelming. But The Rural Alberta Advantage's folk-tinged debut can also be viewed from a more scientific perspective. As the plural in the title implies, this record is concerned with both place and time, and the two don't always interact in a straightforward fashion. Like Einstein said, time can stretch or contract depending on where you are and what you're doing, and all distance is relative. Of course, he was interested only in the laws of the physical universe, whereas these songs aim to examine how movement interacts with our inner, emotional lives.

The one constant according to The Rural Alberta Advantage is that hometowns are places to leave rather than return to. Some of their songs are written from the point of view of the person who has escaped but can't shake off the past; in others, the perspective shifts to the one left behind in abandoned stasis after events have overtaken them.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dragon: Just Say the Words

The new Dragon Dictation app for the iPhone is incredibly impressive. It even understands my strange foreign accent. You want proof? Well here it is. This post was dictated within a single mistake. Okay, without a lot of mistakes. But for a free application it really doesn't get any better than this. Download it now (before you have to pay for it).

Originally published at

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

KQED: Yo La Tengo's Unpopular Populism

On the evidence of Yo La Tengo's most recent release, Popular Songs, these perennial indie darlings are in danger of slipping into meandering meaninglessness. It isn't so much a bad album as it is a disappointing one. It's the kind of record that has you reaching for their older releases to see if they are as good as you remembered (they are), or wondering if the band recently "did an REM" and signed some creativity-killing megadeal with a major (they haven't). You could almost be forgiven for thinking it was a collection of B-sides, if only Yo La Tengo hadn't already released at least two collections of far more interesting offcuts.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Monday, October 5, 2009

KQED: A Timeless Classic You've Never Heard Of

Forget the Beatles' remastered cash cows, and check out the reissue of Harmonia & Brian Eno's obscure mid-seventies krautrock/electronic/ambient masterpiece Tracks and Traces instead.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Best iPhone App Review Site, Reviewed

Actually, it's not just the best iPhone app website, it's also the only one I've seen that's any good at all. One might imagine that anyone setting out to help users sift through the 85,000+ programs now available via Apple's app store would take a cue from the gadget itself by creating a website that's reasonably simple and intuitive. Instead, pretty much all of the dedicated app review sites available are bloated, hard to use, and ugly.

In contrast, First & 20 takes a simple idea and executes it beautifully: it has asked a growing collection of "designers, developers and tech writers" to provide a pic of their iPhone home screens and to write a little about some of the apps they use most. The website's simple design also takes many cues from the iPhone's user interface. But most of all, it answers the first question if want to ask anyone with an iPhone: what apps do you like and use the most?

Of course, it would be even better if the net was widened a little to include people from some other, less techie industries. Judging by the choices up there right now, you'd be forgiven for thinking that everyone who uses an iPhone is also obsessed by Twitter (the two most popular apps are Tweetie and Birdfeed). And the running count of white/black phones seems rather superfluous. But, these small grumbles aside, I love it simply for introducing me to a bunch of excellent apps people with brains actually use.

Originally published at

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

KQED: The Most Serene Republic's State of Distress

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder as "a persistent pattern of inattention or hyperactivity/impulsivity that is more frequently displayed and more severe than is typically observed in individuals at a comparable level of development." I only mention this as an illustration of the lengths I went to in trying to find some sort of useful description for the manic, breathless, ever-changing, and generally unclassifiable confusion that is The Most Serene Republic's third album ...And the Ever Expanding Universe.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Last Post: When and How to Close a Blog

I've just posted the final entry on my other blog Strange Things Will Happen. I started it a couple of years ago when I moved to the States from Britain, and it was my first adventure in blogging. Closing it was therefore a difficult decision to make, but ultimately the central idea -- me writing about life on the wrong side of the pond -- had run out of steam. Over time, the lack of desire to write fresh posts tells its own story. But, after realizing that it's time was up, I decided to finish with a definite full stop rather than just let it die through neglect alone: hence the concluding post.

Still, I feel slightly weird that it will continue to be available online for the foreseeable future. Part of me wants to delete it now, rather than let it grow old and stale in plain sight. But I realize that this is just my inner print journalist talking. Sure, libraries always do their best to make sure printed copies of newspapers and magazines don't ever disappear completely, but prior to around 1996 the effort you would have to make to find any publication more than a few months old meant that, to all intents and purposes, it had ceased to exist. The same is still true for many print-only publications. Being put in an archive box or relegated to microfiche may not be death, but it's close enough.

Here online, everything stays as it is -- or at least it's supposed to. Google is even digging up old books and resurrecting their pages through the god-like power of scanning. Soon nothing will disappear, and everything will be available with a few taps of a keyboard -- unless one of those taps is marked "delete," that is.

Originally published at

Saturday, September 12, 2009

KQED: SFBC's Bike-In Movies

Some things are just better outdoors. Food, for one: why else would so many otherwise sane people choose to endure traffic fumes and jostling pedestrians while dining at sidewalk tables outside restaurants? Alcohol also gains something special from alfresco consumption (although it seems that our local abstinence authorities would prefer that we kept our beer drinking hidden away indoors). Even culture benefits from a little extra space now and then, as pale, sun-deprived performers of all kinds are dragged blinking and confused to play at outdoor festivals across the land. But in our age of 3D movie megaplexes and surround-sound high-definition nuclear-powered plasma screens at home, are we in danger of forgetting the simple joys of seeing a movie beneath a blanket of stars?

Thankfully, help is at hand and fresh-air filmgoing seems to be undergoing a mini revival in San Francisco. Two annual programs (Dolores Park Movie Night and Film Night in the Park) have already blazed a trail, and now these established screeners are being joined by an unlikely new champion of non-movie-theater big-screen movies: the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Not content with harrassing city officials into building a labyrinth of bike lanes around town that will eventually form a picture of Greg LeMond's face visible only from space, the SFBC has also been busy organizing a series of free Bike-in Movie Nights in a SOMA hotel parking lot.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

KQED: The Amazing Vivian Girls Time Machine

We all know about the well-worn link between smell and memory. One sniff is apparently all it takes to whisk your mind to some moment from the past. Music can spark a similar experience and, because tunes can be recorded, you get to examine the strange tricks your brain plays on you in ways you can't with a fleeting whiff. Did that cheese really smell like your best friend's sweater from elementary school? Who knows (or cares). But do fresh-faced Brooklyn-based lo-fi power pop trio Vivian Girls really sound like my life circa 1991? Well that's a different matter entirely.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

KQED: Wavves of White Noise

Here's an incontrovertible theory for you to agree with: anyone who doesn't like loud music is OLD and BORING. Of course, I first developed and proposed this subtly nuanced hypothesis when I was a) young and b) incredibly excited by music that involved as much overwrought amplification and obnoxiousness as possible. But even as I've grown up (a bit) and matured (a little), I can't quite bring myself to admit the underlying premise is in any way flawed. Sure, these days I tend to listen to music that's more muted, understated, and fragile, but I'm also developing an ulcer and a beer gut. Aren't all these things just so many signs of middle-aged tedium and fast-approaching death?

So thank the gods of noise for the arrival of Wavves in my life to shake things up a bit.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Euphemism Watch: Working for Free

As a freelance writer and an editor, I feel a strange compulsion - no, a duty - to check the writing/editing job listings on Craigslist on a regular basis. It has become a depressing and humbling ritual in recent times. In fact, about the only pleasurable part of it for me is marveling at all the creative ways the only prospective "employers" left these days attempt to infer that working for them for nothing is somehow a lucrative opportunity, while simultaneously avoiding any explicit mention of, you know, having to work for them for nothing.

Indeed, I heartily recommend this sleazy exercise in euphemism-spotting to others. Rubbernecking through these lonely missives from a dying industry can be a darkly amusing experience, especially if you're the kind of person who greets news of any major disaster by packing a picnic and loading the kids into the car, or if you enjoy seeing the English language being abused to within an inch of reality.

To give you a taste, today I saw perhaps my favorite attempt yet at turning a lack of meaningful pay into a benefit. This ad seeking a voluntary editorial manager for some unnamed, underfunded internet startup helpfully mentions "... if you happen to be on unemployment insurance, this work will not jeopardize your benefits." No, and it won't trouble your bank balance either.

Interviews will be taking place soon; please leave your dignity at the door.

Originally published at

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

KQED: Kronos Quartet on Grass

I love experiencing art in weird places. Unconventional settings challenge our entrenched ideas and opinions, and are normally lots more fun too. Which is why I jumped at the chance to see the Kronos Quartet at Rancho Nicasio in Marin on Sunday, August 16. True, this is a group that's known for straying far from the traditional confines of classical music, and they've made this appearance an annual tradition in recent years. But let's face it, it's still pretty unusual to see an internationally-renowned string ensemble play in the beer garden of a rural Californian bar.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

How Stupid Is the US Postal Service?

This letter arrived at our house yesterday. I've messed around with the photo a little (to protect our privacy), but on the original you can clearly see our house number and street address, under a long-departed previous resident's name. Well, you can as long as you ignore the large black cross my wife added to the envelope the first time it passed through our mailbox about a week ago, along with the big circle round the return address and the lettering that says "return to sender addressee unknown."

Maybe we missed some detail of the US Postal Service's protocol for correctly marking return mail, but the intention seems fairly clear. While I realise that much of the sorting system is automated these days, I was still labouring under the delusion that someone human would look at a letter before it gets delivered. Perhaps not.

We've now released this salmon-like letter back into the wild, intrigued to see if it manages to find its way to the wrong destination for a third time.

Originally published at

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

KQED: Bowling for San Francisco

The biggest cultural smackdown in San Francisco for years has ended, but with no clear winner. In one corner, Gap founder Donald Fisher has been forced to abandon his plan to build a monumental new gallery in the Presidio, but he hasn't had to give up on his vanity art project completely. Let's face it, anyone looking to spend $100 million on a showcase for a billion-dollar art collection is unlikely to have too much trouble finding an alternate location. Meanwhile, the venerable Presidio Bowling Center, which was facing destruction to make way for Don's mega art shack, has escaped the wrecking ball for now, but its long-term future is still far from secure.

You may think I'm overstating the cultural signifigance of this battle royal, and you're probably right. The Fisherarium was never going to make much of an impact on the arts scene of an area already well served with internationally renowned exhibition spaces. But the Presidio Bowling Center is a different matter. It's pretty much the only place to roll in San Francisco, and losing it would leave a deep gap (no pun intended) in the city's leisure landscape.

Of course, my perspective on the importance of bowling may be a little skewed...

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

KQED: When Service Is Just Another Word for Screw

Can anyone explain gig ticket charges to me? What are those "convenience costs" and "building fees?" And why do the supplementary costs get bigger as the tickets themselves go up in price? Are more expensive tickets heavier or made from swan's tears and gold leaf?

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

KQED Music: Blonde Redhead - Business as Unusual

New York indie sophisticates Blonde Redhead are hitting San Francisco for two nights this week on a strange and unique musical mission. They aren't in the middle of a tour. They have no promotional schedule to speak of. Their most recent album of idiosyncratic mood music, 23, was released more than two years ago. Sure, they're in the early stages of writing a follow-up, but no one knows when that might be released, not even their PR rep. Indeed, if it wasn't for the dubious claim that their gig is being held as part of the Bicycle Film Festival (yeah, that's right, a film festival) then they would be crossing the country for absolutely no reason at all.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Monday, July 6, 2009

KQED Music: SF Music Venues Against ABC

As a seasoned music fan who has had the misfortune to follow bands into too many shitty night spots and bars to mention, I was overjoyed when I first heard California state officials had gone on the attack against a bunch of Bay Area venues. They were probably fighting against over-aggressive bouncers and surly bar staff, right? Maybe they planned to clean up the sweat-soaked walls, broken toilets, and sticky, drink-stained floors. Or perhaps they were leading a crusade against those stingy, undersized plastic beer cups. Yes! Go for it, fearless warriors of law and order.

But then I discovered the big problem was that the venues weren't selling enough burgers and fries. Huh? Indeed, it turns out that the dispute between the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) and several of San Francisco's finest music venues makes almost no sense to anyone outside the administrative body that started it. Nevertheless, it could yet rip the heart out of the city's vibrant live music scene ...

By Keith Laidlaw. Read the full article here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

KQED: Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band

One of the Ten Commandments of Rock states that certain albums from each era will become "great." These immutable classics are the ones that top list after list of all-time favorites, becoming immunized to the ravages of time or whims of fashion by a lazy drip-drip of critical praise. Albums like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side of the Moon, OK Computer. But these particular untouchable masterpieces have something else in common other than slightly over-inflated reputations. All three have also been re-recorded in their entireties by an evolving group of fearless musical adventurers called the Easy Star All-Stars, based around the New York reggae record label Easy Star.

Dark Side of the Moon was the first in 2003, refracted through a prism of red, gold, and green light to become Dub Side of the Moon. The concept sounded like a bit of a joke at first (and the added samples of clicking lighters and bubbling bongs probably didn't help in this regard), but overall what resulted was the sound of a stoner favorite coming home to its ganja roots, as Pink Floyd's tunes settled seamlessly into their new dub, dancehall, and drum 'n' bass surroundings. Three years later came the even less obvious choice of Radiohead's OK Computer, and another triumph for music over snobbishness. With a deft lightness of touch, the Radiodread album celebrated the original's experimentalism, but also smoothed off the roughest edges of Thom Yorke's alienated paranoia with a new layer of emotional tenderness. Both albums work so well that a casual listener could almost be forgiven for wondering whose version came first.

And now the Easy Star All-Stars have taken on perhaps the holiest of rock's holy cows, a record so revered that critics are almost legally obliged to use adjectives like "seminal" and "revolutionary" before mentioning its hallowed name. Undaunted by such earthly considerations, Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band once again adds a welcome new perspective on an album most music fans think they know backward (perhaps literally if you've ever tried to find those hidden messages about Paul's unfortunate death). Listening to this new version, I realized how little I really knew the original. It was as if it had disappeared in my mind under the weight of its own reknown. Of course, it is also fitting that this famously experimental album should find new life in reggae and dub, a genre that has, over the years, relied so heavily on innovation and creativity in the studio.

As with the previous All-Star efforts, it's the album's most psychedelic moments that are given the extended dub treatment, with tracks like "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and, particularly, "Fixing A Hole (Extended Dub Mix)" responding well to the extra space and bass. But it's Sgt. Pepper's weakest links that are exploited to greatest effect: the stolid, dum-te-dum plunk of tracks such as "With A Little Help From My Friends" and "Good Morning, Good Morning" emerge fresh and alive after receiving healthy injections of dancehall bounce. Even "A Day In The Life" veers dangerously close to becoming a party tune, and is worth listening to if only to hear Menny More sing: "Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged my fingers through my dreads."

Best of all, the All-Stars remind us that Sgt. Pepper's is, first and foremost, a pop album -- which was also one of the main reasons it was so important when it was first released. Of course, whether you like this version or not is going to depend a lot on how dearly you hold the Beatles' original. But, personally, I believe it's always a joy to see someone -- anyone -- refuse to be intimidated by the gods.

The Easy Star All Stars play Slim's in San Francisco on June 20, 2009. 'Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band' is out now on Easy Star Records.

By Keith Laidlaw. Originally published at

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Stationery Porn 2: Black n' Red Notebooks

black n red notebooks

I blame Moleskines. I had never even though about notepad brands until I picked up one of those expensive little tarts in a store. Then I saw the little sticker they all have that boasts about how they were once the workbook of choice for Hemingway, Picasso, Jesus, or whoever. I wasn't immune to the romance of the idea. In that moment I suddenly had a vision of a bookshelf loaded with pleasingly battered-but-matching notebooks, each filled to bursting with my scribblings. What could be better?

Well, them not being Moleskines for a start. Regardless of their rather ridiculously high price, I discovered that I don't much care for them. The paper is too shiny and doesn't seem to absorb ink very well (an important factor when you're trying to write in a smudge-prone hurry). Plus, they make you look, well, a bit pretentious.

So now I'm going steady with the Black n' Red notepads pictured above instead: hardback, casebound, A5, ruled.

As well as being pleasingly European, the A5 size (148 x 210mm, or slightly wider than a sheet of letter paper folded in half) is just right for my needs. The books are small enough to be portable, but big enough to make writing on my lap reasonably easy. I'd already discovered that smaller pocket-sized pads are hard to write in when you don't have a desk handy as they offer no wrist support, which is the same reason a hard cover is also essential.

black n red scruffy edges Black n' Red offers similar books with a spiral wire binding, but I've never really cared for these: the pages can be ripped out too easily (often by accident) and the looser binding makes the whole thing feel flimsy and cheap. In contrast, these casebound pads have proper sewn-in pages, as well as a handy marker ribbon to make up for the lack of a place to store your pen.

But the thing I really love about these notebooks is the way that, as they wear and get scuffed around, the black around the edges rubs off to reveal red colouring underneath; sometimes it's the little things in life that are the most pleasing.

Originally published at

Saturday, May 2, 2009

San Francisco's Sidewalk Street Signs

One of San Francisco's many little quirks is the way that its street names are written on the sidewalks – either embossed or inlaid into the concrete – on each and every street corner. Unfortunately, the concrete guy seems to have had a little trouble at the meeting of Howard and 2nd streets, a discovery which led me to discover a whole Flickr collection of misspelled or mutilated street names from around the city.

But, while lots of people gleefully post pictures of similar mistakes, I can't seem to confirm the story I've heard about why the names are there in the first place. Supposedly, the practice began after the 1906 earthquake and fire, when parts of the city were devastated to such an extent that the emergency services had trouble finding their way around – with large areas razed to the ground, all the normal buildings and landmarks they would have used to navigate by had disappeared. But, while walls may still

Indeed, they already help people to find their way around; as this Flickr user says, "It's hard to get lost in San Francisco." But what I like most about them is that they reinforce a powerful sense of place for those of us lucky enough to live here.

Originally published at

Monday, April 13, 2009

Chow: The World's Cheapest, Greenest Oven

A solar-powered, flat-pack wonder.

The BBC reports on an ingeniously simple oven which has won this year's Forum for the Future Climate Change Challenge. Designed for use in the Third World, the Kyoto Box is made with cardboard and acrylic, packs flat for transportation, and costs less than $7 to manufacture. It harnesses the power of the sun to sterilize water and cook food without the need for electricity, gas, or - most importantly - firewood.

Granted, it may not be as fast as a microwave, but it can boil an impressive 10 liters of water in around two hours. Eliminating the need for firewood saves money, reduces greenhouse emissions, slows deforestation, and even helps save some of the many lives lost to indoor smoke inhalation each year.

Maybe someone should tell Alice Waters that she can finally get rid of that in-kitchen hearth of hers.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Dead Bad Timing

A little while ago - around the same time I realised I had a better than moderate chance of outliving Jesus - a great idea for a website popped into my brain. First you would input your date of birth, and then a message would pop up telling you about dead people you had recently outlived, something like: "You are 28. Jimi Hendrix was a guitar god and changed rock'n'roll as we know it, but he died at 27 and you didn't so who's laughing now?" - or words to that effect.

I even started compiling a list of notable persons who had shuffled off this mortal coil before their (and my) time: Sid Vicious at 21. Buddy Holly, 22. River Phoenix, 23. Lee Harvey Oswald, 24, and so on. Not only that, but I foresaw a time after the site was up and running when I could begin to milk the obvious spinoff potential, particularly in the greetings cards market: "Happy 25th Birthday and Congratulations! You've totally outlived James Dean ..."

But then I saw this: Dead At Your Age. The bastards.

The moral? Even though I've now lived longer than Jesus, I still haven't quite completed that world-changing religion project I've been talking about.

Originally published at

Monday, March 30, 2009

Great Ideas: Grolsch Guitar Strap Holder

These two pieces of minor-key music memorabilia were retrieved from the stage of San Francisco's Great American Music Hall after a Tindersticks gig on 15 March.

A British roadie, on-hand for helpful observations, pointed out that the plectrum is of a type available at pretty much any music store "for pennies." But that was kind of missing the point: thanks to an accident of circumstance, this particular piece of grey plastic had become more valuable - at least to me.

However, the other item is definitely the more interesting of the two. Originally a seal from a traditional ceramic Grolsch bottletop, musicians the world over use these little pieces of rubber to help keep their guitar straps fixed to their guitars. (This isn't so much of a problem when straps are new, but as they age the leather ends become softer and more pliable, and therefore more prone to coming unfixed).

Of course, you can buy much more elaborate metal or plastic devices to lock your strap in place but, like the aforementioned plectrum, this version is both cheap and easy to get hold of.

Originally published at

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hero Worship: MacGyver

Forget your A-Team movie ideas, cancel that rubbish Knight Rider rehash (oops, too late), and please don't give these geeks any more reason to discuss what kind of helicopter should be cast in the title role of an Airwolf remake. Instead, it's time to stock up on chewing gum and get your Swiss army knife ready. That's right kids, a real hero of Eighties television is returning: MacGyver.

The only mystery is what took him so long. Despite his occasional use of non-ecofriendly ingredients (that pesticide, soap flakes and tile cleaner smokescreen in season one, episode 16, for example), his improvised gadgets introduced a whole generation of impressionable youngsters to the principles of recycling. And it's probably no coincidence that, as they've grown up, a thriving subculture has emerged surrounding the MacGyver-esque use of household objects in all kinds of DIY gizmos and projects, as exemplified by the Maker Faire, and magazines like Make and ReadyMade (the latter even features a monthly competition called the MacGyver Challenge).

So welcome back, Mac - at last, the world is ready for a sustainable action hero.

Originally published at

Monday, March 9, 2009

Chow: Kenclucky Fried Chicken

Fast-food fowl that won't upset the Colonel's lawyers.

So you want to run a fried chicken joint, but you don't want to have to go through all the hassle and expense of operating a fully fledged KFC franchise? No problem. In London, an entire subgenre of Southern-style chicken fast-food joints has slipped out from under the shadow of Colonel Sanders's wing. Just follow a few simple rules when it comes to choosing your restaurant's name (to avoid any retribution from clucking lawyers), and then watch low-cost, greasy, breaded bird parts fly out the door.

Restaurants across the British capital claim to have culinary roots in Southern states such as Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, and Carolina, as well as not-so-Southern places including Chicago, New York, and even California. Pretty much anywhere American, in fact, except Kentucky.

Now this curious phenomenon has given rise to a book, Chicken: Low Art, High Calorie by Siâron Hughes, which celebrates the chicken-inspired designs and branding of these cheeky restaurants. It also reveals a startling truth: Nearly all of their brightly lit plastic signs and logos are the work of just one sign-maker, naturally known as "Mr Chicken."

We just hope he wasn't responsible for creating the slightly painful pun that graces the front of Kent's Tuck Inn Fried Chicken. Ouch.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Chow: Your New Kitchen Tool Has a Motherboard

The maker of the new Touch Book, a miniature netbook-style laptop, says it boasts many attractive features: affordable price, very portable dimensions, excellent battery life, and “always on” instant startup. So far, impressively techie. But why are we talking about it here?

Well, this little laptop has a secret: You can detach the keyboard to create an even smaller, screen-only tablet PC that is controlled via touchscreen technology. Better still, the designers have made the display half of the device magnetic, which means that you can stick it to the fridge while you’re using it. So now you’ll be able to browse CHOW for recipes and ideas in the kitchen without losing valuable counter space or risk spilling stuff on your computer.

Touch Book, $299 (screen only) or $399 with keyboard, available for pre-order now and due to start shipping May or June.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Chow: Foie Gras for Grown-Ups

San Francisco restaurateur refuses to pander to knee-jerk food fanaticism.

Sadly it seems that too many debates surrounding food ethics are dominated by the shrill voices of nut jobs on the fringes. Sure, important issues and difficult problems engender strong opinions and passionate argument—but shouts, insults, and even threats are unlikely to help anyone to find solutions.

Thank heavens then for people like Mark Pastore, the owner of San Francisco’s Incanto restaurant. He has published an open letter on the topic of food sustainability in general and foie gras in particular that is both eloquent and mature. You may not agree with his point of view—a fact he openly acknowledges—but his firm repudiation of the scare tactics being used by some extremist campaigners is much harder to find fault with.

Thanks to the Noe Valley, SF blog for bringing Pastore’s letter to our attention.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

KQED Music: No More Tears

Every now and then, a piece of music will become indelibly linked to a specific time or place in our lives. The song that was playing when you first met. The album that got you through your breakup. The track that always seems to be playing on the jukebox of your favorite bar. The soundtrack to one long, golden summer. The tape your parents played in the car when you were a kid. "Songs are like tattoos," sings Joni Mitchell on "Blue," a lyric that's permanently inked somewhere on my soul. And it has plenty of company.

A few years ago, I went through a rough patch in my life that I only truly recognized when I started to get out of it. There was no sudden trauma, no terrible illness or accident, no single event that marked the beginning or even the end. Just a low period of my life I'm happy is in the past now. But somewhere in the middle of it, I came to rely on one album in particular to help keep me going: I Am a Bird Now by Antony and the Johnsons.

It's hard to describe Antony Hegarty's singing voice to people who have never heard him. Try to imagine a choirboy singing with the soulful depth of Nina Simone. It is strange and unique, like the sound of salted caramel ice cream. I loved it from the first moment I heard it, and it became a comforting companion to me. No matter how low I felt, hearing him sing, "I hope there's someone to take care of me," at the start of that album made me feel as if, even here, at the bottom of the well, I wasn't alone. And music is like that. An album might sell millions of copies, but it can still feel like it's speaking only to you. It was as if Antony himself was helping me get through my dip, even though I now know the same album has helped countless other people too.

After my life turned a corner for the better, I began to find the album painful to listen to. It had become an integral part of that difficult time, entwined with every emotion I was feeling back then. It was essentially ruined for me, and I began to fear that I had lost not just that one record but Hegarty's voice too. Would I ever be able to hear it the same way again? So it was with some trepidation that I greeted word of a new Antony and the Johnsons album and tour.

Thankfully, The Crying Light is a delight. "No one can stop you now," he sings at the start of this album's opening song, "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground," and for me it is the sound of a page turning, a new chapter beginning. The sorrow and heartbreak are still there, but now, once again, I can hear the positives in his music too. The delicate beauty and grace of "Another World" and "Dust and Water." The soaring, surreal musical flights of fancy on "Epilepsy is Dancing" and "Everglade." The self-assuredness of "Kiss My Name" and "Aeon." Indeed, there seems to be a confidence here that has replaced some of the darker doubts and fears of older tracks such as "Hope There's Someone." But that may also just be me.

And, if this new album has begun to renew my relationship with Antony and the Johnsons, then seeing them play San Francisco this month should help even more. Live, the emotional power of Hegarty's bittersweet voice only increases. But he is also a playful presence on stage, never letting the drama of the music weigh too heavily, injecting a little levity into proceedings now and then lest we forget ourselves and let the sadness drag us under.

Antony and the Johsons play Nob Hill Masonic Center as part of Noise Pop on Tuesday, February 24. Their new album 'The Crying Light' is out now on Secretly Canadian.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Career Has Cancer

As a writer and editor, I've been forced to face some hard truths about my profession lately. Basically, it's fucked. Regardless of the impact of the economic crisis, the publishing industry has been going through its own internet-generated shitstorm of change for some time now. And no matter which way you look at it, there seems to be dwindling amounts of money available for people like me.

The evidence is clear. I'm writing this for free, for example, a rate that is only marginally worse than some of my recent paid jobs. Shrinking income is nothing new for journalists, but when I started out in the mid-1990s staff salaries and freelance rates were contracting at an almost imperceptibly slow rate, mainly by failing to keep pace with inflation; now pay is crashing faster than a dropped brick.

Increasingly in the new media economy, the creators of content can't seem to make enough money, if any at all, from the content they create. What was once a proper job and a reasonable way to make a living is fast turning into a hobby.

There are lots of people out there trying hard to come up with a new business model for publishing that will change this, but so far they've failed. There is no iTunes for journalism, and the ideas designed to create one seem to range from the hopelessly idealistic to the plain dumb. Holding out for a solution like this is increasingly looking like hoping to be saved from a terminal disease by a miracle cure that hasn't been invented yet. It's a nice thought, but not a very realistic one.

Of course, these changes have been happening for some time now, so it shouldn't be so much of a shock. But it is. At first I wondered optimistically when things were going to take a turn for the better, and I looked for any encouraging signs of recovery, or at least remission. I got online, I started a blog or three, I embraced the new media revolution in the hope of not being left behind. But all the while the good jobs have been drying up, leaving more journalists chasing fewer jobs that are paying less.

Lately my thinking has changed, and I've found myself wondering about how long I should fight this. At what point should I simply give up and go do something else instead? My career has cancer. It has spread. The prognosis isn't good. But, like a smoker who keeps on puffing cigarettes even when he has to do it through a hole in his throat, I just can't give it up.

Originally published at

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It's Hard to Be Wealthy

When is the New York Times going to get it? In the midst of our current economic clusterfuck, almost no one is feeling sorry for the rich bankers who caused it. Well, except for rich bankers themselves and NYT hacks that is.

But today sees publication of the latest in the grey lady's series of poorly judged articles about poor rich folks, this one hilariously titled "You Try to Live on 500K in This Town." It's all about the harsh choices faced by top executives forced onto the breadline by President Obama's proposed limits on pay for incompetence:

"As hard as it is to believe, bankers who are living on the Upper East Side making $2 or $3 million a year have set up a life for themselves in which they are also at zero at the end of the year with credit cards and mortgage bills that are inescapable," said Holly Peterson, the author of an Upper East Side novel of manners, The Manny, and the daughter of Peter G. Peterson, a founder of the equity firm the Blackstone Group. "Five hundred thousand dollars means taking their kids out of private school and selling their home in a fire sale."
Apparently rich bankers also spend lots of money on designer clothes, big houses, and fancy cars. I mean, they're practically broke but for their stock options, property portfolios, and other valuable assets. And it's not like they caused the current financial shitstorm, is it?

Oh, actually, wait a minute ...

Originally published at

Friday, February 6, 2009

Chow: Drink Beer, Save the Planet

You probably don’t need another excuse to be thinking about beer on a Friday afternoon, but over at Salon, friend of CHOW Andrew Leonard reports on the fabulous news that Sierra Nevada Brewing Company has partnered with the inventor of a home-ethanol-making system to turn waste from the beer-making process into ethanol fuel for cars:

"I've had a lot to be thankful for in 2009, but the notion that draining a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale could help deliver the United States from its parlous state of foreign oil dependence is a bounteous gift so great that I might have to consider whether, perhaps, just maybe, there is a God."

Proof of the Almighty? Not quite. For that, we'd need to discover some way for the bacon-producing industry to do the same thing.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Chow: Manhattan Maple Mystery Solved

New Yorkers finally discover the source of that strange, sweet smell: New Jersey.

New York's Daily News reports that after several years of searching, the source of Manhattan's mystery maple syrup smell has finally been tracked down to a New Jersey food additives plant processing fenugreek seeds.

While we're happy that this sweet story of phantom pancakery can finally be finished off, there is a downside to the news: It means an end to Gothamist's amazing maple maps and its readers' colorful conspiracy theories about the causes of the unearthly odor.

Some of our favorites (in no particular order):

  • "I thought it was my own sweet bo at first!"
  • "Is it ... a fleet of cabs that runs on Aunt Jemima?"
  • "We thought ... it was [my friend's] neighbors doing something kinky."
  • "You do realize it's the cops testing air dispersion patterns so they can be prepared in the event of a chemical or biological attack, don't you?"
  • "Must be a lot of flatulent tourists from Vermont in town."
  • "It is a Jewish Bolshevik attempt to take over the upper west side ... Note this is only a theory of mine. Nothing definite yet."
  • "Holy crap! I thought it was my neighbors! They are weirdass cooks."

And possibly the finest piece of wayward syrup speculation, from a user appropriately named Jesus Christ:

"The smell is SHIT! seriously it's the Dept of sanitation's time of cleaning out septic tanks. Now if you are close to it it smells like total ass droppings but if you are like far away like 5-10 blocks away the diluted smell is similar to maple syrup."

JC, listen to us: It's time to switch to a different brand of sweet breakfast condiment.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

KQED Music: Loch Lomond - Trumpets for Paper Children

Prejudice is never an attractive trait, but sometimes it's completely unavoidable. Forgivable, even. One such instance might be when an act describes itself as a "chamber folk ensemble," an unfortunate choice of words that screams "band geek" almost as loudly as naming your Portland, Oregon band after Scotland's largest lake says "geography dork."

But you shouldn't allow these minor (albeit troubling) details to stop you from giving Loch Lomond a chance to redeem themselves. After all, you have very little to lose: the band's new EP Trumpets for Paper Children is available as a free download from Hush Records, and it would be unwise for any of us to let our assumptions get in the way of a free lunch in these grim economic times. And taking this small leap of faith will bring rich rewards. Sure, the music skirts the fringes of pretension in places, momentarily reinforcing some of the preconceptions and fears you might have started out with, but there is more than enough invention and imagination packed into these five tracks to compensate.

That "chamber folk" tag is most likely an attempt by the band to distance themselves from the far more dreary "alt folk" albatross they may have been lumbered with otherwise. And to be fair to the band, their songs do feel almost orchestral at times. Lush strings sweep in around moments of quieter acoustic introspection, perhaps most notably on "Field Report," which quickly builds from its understated, stripped-down introduction into a lush landscape of sound. But to characterize their music is merely "folk plus classical" is to ignore other, equally compelling parts of a much more complex equation. These include the idiosyncratic vocal flourishes of lead singer Ritchie Young, the band's gloriously ramshackle rhythm section, and even the surpising inclusion of a singing saw on at least two songs on this EP.

Perhaps "circus folk" would be a more appropriate description. The songs certainly tumble and swoop, while Young's voice acts as ring leader for the multitalented cast of performers he has gathered around him (their numbers vary, but the band is currently performing as a seven-piece). Together they conjur up a joyful sense of youthful innocence and wide-eyed magic, one that suggests endless possibilities, unconstrained by such earthly concerns as dull conformity or cynical calculation.

The lyrics reflect this too, with colorful imagery occasionally evolving into strange stories and streaks of playful surrealism. "I never learned to spin plates on sticks," Young intones at the start of "Bird and a Bear," before proceeding to demonstrate his masterful ability to juggle words and phrases instead. Unexpected, certainly. But it's amazing what surprises can lie in wait when we put aside our prejudices.

Loch Lomond's 'Trumpets for Paper Children' is available as a free download from Hush Records. They play San Francisco's Rickshaw Stop as part of Noise Pop on February 28, 2009.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Blog: The terrible curse of the shrinking pint

When you order a pint of beer in Britain, you know exactly what you'll get: a pint. But depending on where you order one here, it will vary in size from a full British pint, through a standard 16-ounce US measure, all the way down to 12 fluid ounces or less – which isn't much bigger than a half pint back home.

To compensate for serving smaller drinks, some sneaky bars even use special glasses with thicker sides and a heavy bottom that look and feel like the real thing, except that you run out of beer unexpectedly quickly ...

Read the full post at Strange Things Will Happen.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

KQED Music: New Year, Old Records

January is rarely an exciting musical month new-release-wise, which is a shame; the New Year should be all about fresh, new things, after all. But this year I've found musical refreshment from a less obvious source: the latest edition of Tom Moon's 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. The title is fairly self-explanatory, and there are plenty other best-ever-record-list books out there, but this really is a superior example of the genre.

First of all, it is impressively eclectic, taking in genres such as classical, folk, and blues next to the standard rock/pop mix. And it's organized alphabetically by artist, which means lots of fun collisions such as Public Enemy being held back by millions from Puccini's La Bohème, and the Sex Pistols neglecting to mind their bollocks next to Shakira ...

[Read full article]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chow: When Probiotics Kill

Relax: Your yogurt drinks are safe.

Manufacturers of "healthy yogurts" have long been telling us about the benefits of probiotics and "friendly" bacteria. But new research reveals you can have too much of a good thing ... particularly if you happen to be suffering from a severe inflammation of the pancreas.

NutraIngredients reports on a medical trial in the Netherlands that was designed to find out if probiotics could be used to reduce infection rates in intensive care patients with acute pancreatitis, a rare but serious condition. Unfortunately, the results demonstrated that patients who were given the treatment were more than twice as likely to die compared with those who weren't.

Dr. Marc Besselink told BBC Radio that "nothing went wrong" in the study, it just revealed that probiotics seem to kill patients with certain serious medical conditions. We shudder to think what might happen when a study does go wrong.

The good news is that probiotics are still perfectly safe for the rest of us.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Chow: Saved by Whiskey

Man survives terrifying sofa-related ordeal thanks to "water of life."

The BBC brings us this unusual tale of a man trapped by his own sofa, which had flipped over and pinned him for more than two days. The shaken senior citizen says he managed to stay alive by sipping from a bottle of whiskey, which had handily rolled within reach of his soft-furnished prison.

Disregarding small details like the fact that most people can survive that long without liquids, or that drinking alcohol will only hasten dehydration, this inspiring story is the ultimate proof of whiskey’s life-giving powers. No wonder sofa survivor Joe Galliott’s making sure to keep a bottle handy in case of similar emergencies in the future.

Unfortunately the article doesn’t make clear exactly how much whiskey a man needs to consume before he’s able to crash into a three-seater couch with enough force to tip it upside down in the first place.

Check out the BBC’s video coverage here.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Chow: Burn Dinner, Destroy the Earth

Cooking places parts of Asia under a cloud

The delightfully named Atmospheric Brown Cloud (or ABC for short) is a dirty, soupy fug of pollution that hangs over South Asia. So it’s cars and power plants that are to blame, right? Not so, according to new research reported in the New York Times. Apparently the main culprits are ... cooking and agriculture.

So are charred Pop Tarts and AstroTurf lawns causing LA’s smog too?

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chow: Chinese Melamine Milk Kills Two More

This pair will be executed by the state.

The Los Angeles Times reports that a Chinese court has sentenced two men to death for their parts in the tainted milk scandal which killed six babies and poisoned almost 300,000 more.

Despite the severity of the sentences, which also included a life sentence for the boss of the dairy that manufactured the contaminated baby formula, the LA Times says many victims are still angry about those who had escaped punishment:

“Teng Biao, a lawyer for some of the parents, said that the men given the death sentence were scapegoats in a failed product-safety system. ‘This involved the whole political and social system. There were politicians and bureaucrats who should have taken more responsibility as well,’ Teng said today.”

The BBC’s report on the trial describes the widespread conspiracy which led to the introduction of the protein-boosting melamine to watered-down milk in the first place, as well as a systematic failure to subsequently test milk products for safety.

The scandal led to global product recalls, and seriously harmed the reputation of Chinese-made goods around the world. It happened just four years after another fake baby milk incident killed 13 babies in China.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Chow: Some People Can't Help Being Thin

We all know someone who can eat and drink whatever fatty, sugary, carb-loaded food is put in front of him, doesn’t seem to do much exercise, and yet never seems to put on an ounce of weight. “I just can’t help it,” he’ll say with wide-eyed innocence, while others quietly seethe.

It turns out that he may be right. A new BBC documentary explores the idea that some people seem to have a genetic predisposition to skinniness. On the show, 10 thin people were asked to gorge on junk food for four weeks while also cutting back on any aerobic activity, even walking. Copying an experiment carried out in a Vermont state prison in 1967, the program produced much the same results: It seems that some people just can’t put on weight, no matter how much they eat or how idle they are.

The next question: How long until we can all get our hands on these genes? Burger King and La-Z-Boy are probably working on it as we speak.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Chow: BBC Butchers Reality TV

Is that the sound of knives being sharpened, or the bottom of a barrel being scraped?

Picture the scene: BBC television executives are busy scratching their heads trying to come up with the Next Big Hit Show. They know what works: Reality programs like American Idol and Top Chef are just as popular in the UK as they are here. But singing has been done. Cooking has been done. Dancing has been done. Bachelors, desert islands, models—done, done, done. So what's next?

"OK guys, we want something the public can really get involved in, but is also young. We need to target the teenage demographic."

"Everyone likes food, even teenagers."

Pause while the assembled minds work their magical alchemy.

"How about butchering?"

Thus, the BBC's new Britain's Young Butcher of the Year is launched, and the assembled creatives slap one another on the back for a job well done.

And according to the BBC Press Office’s website, "The search for Britain's Young Butcher Of The Year will be followed by contests for other professions including hairdressers." Expect to see America’s Next Top Cheesemonger and Dishwashing with the Stars arriving in the near future.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Palm Reading: I see an iPhone in your future

The news that Palm is about to re-enter the smartphone market with the Pré is unlikely to tempt many users away from buying a BlackBerry or iPhone. That includes me, a long-term Palm PDA user.

The one thing that has given me cause to reconsider is the realisation that my Palm Zire 71 has worked without hassle or serious complaint for six years now. That's six whole years. Translated into human terms, it's the gadget equivalent of living to the age of 200. But, while senility hasn't set in yet (it still remembers my dates and addresses without error), it doesn't have the energy it used to and now requires far more frequent trips to the charger. The end, I fear, is nigh.

Of course, there's no place for silly feelings like nostalgia or pity when it comes to technology (unlike, say, blind adherence to trends and the whims of fashion) so I will soon be replacing it with something shiny, new, and - more likely than not - made by Apple. Proof, if any were needed, that even making really good, reliable products is no guarantee of success these days.

Originally published at

Monday, January 12, 2009

Chow: Hard to Swallow

You may have heard about Natural Harvest, a cookbook centered around an ingredient perhaps best described as "man milk" on a family website like ours. We've certainly been sent quite a few emails about it (normally marked things like "ew," "gross," and "NSFW"). While you'd have to be nuts to take it seriously, it has made us see quite a few other cookbooks in a whole new light.

Here's a list of popular food titles that may never seem the same again:

Cooking for One (Quick and Easy)
Going Solo in the Kitchen
Two Dudes, One Pan
The Omnivore's Dilemma
The Sneaky Chef
Joy of Cooking
Jamie at Home
The Billionaire's Vinegar
Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin

Have any suggestions of your own?

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Stationery Porn: Leitz Folders

I recently took delivery of these Leitz hanging files. I won't bore you with the reasons I need larger European A4 folders rather than standard US letter ones, but it took a surprisingly long time to find an American supplier that stocked such subversively sized pieces of stationery. I guess there isn't much call for metric filing round these parts; indeed, the mere act of ordering them probably means my name will shortly appear on some Homeland Security watch list or other.

And little wonder: these functional, utilitarian beauties certainly look as if they might have Communist sympathies. They are German-made, and look bleakly efficient in a Lives of Others sort of way. The simple act of filing may never be quite the same for me.

By Keith Laidlaw. Originally published on

Chow: Squirrel-Flavored Snacks

What is it with the squirrel-munching? First the New York Times tells us that adorable, fluffy-tailed rodents are ending up in cooking pots and on dinner plates across the UK. And now Gawker reports that a leading potato chip manufacturer there has come up with new squirrel flavor for its so-called “crisps.”

Cajun Squirrel “flavour” is part of Walkers’s Do Us a Flavour campaign, in which crisp-eaters can vote for their favorite new flavor through May to see which one of six finalists stays on the shelf. The other five flavors in the running are fish and chips, onion bhaji, crispy duck and hoisin, chili and chocolate, and builder’s breakfast (beans, eggs, sausage, bacon).

But this last piece of news won’t come as so much of a surprise to anyone familiar with eccentric tastes in salted snacks on the far side of the pond. We’re talking about a nation where the most popular potato chip flavors include cheese’n’onion, lamb and mint, tomato ketchup, and even prawn cocktail (no, really). And other woodland creatures aren’t safe either, as this picture of Hedgehog crisps proves.

What’s next? Bambi tortillas? Toad pretzels? Roasted badger nuts? This sickness has to stop!

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

KQED Music: Special Delivery from Glasvegas

There's no mistaking that Glasvegas hail from Glasgow, Scotland, and not the gambling oasis that gave them the other half of their name. Their music is much more northern gloom than Nevadan glam; this is the sound of rainy tenements, not neon-drenched desert. And then there's the simple fact that vocalist James Allan sings with a strong Scottish accent, which is always a dead giveaway.

Or is it?

[Read full article]