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Tea-smoked turkish delight

At our local International Supermarket they do some great turkish delight. However, the batch I bought recently tasted funny - I think they must have stored the turkish delight alongside a big mound of parsley, because it had obviously absorbed some flavours which didn't really suit it!

So what can you do if your turkish delight has absorbed some flavours? Make it absorb some more!

So I experimented with tea-smoking the turkish delight. I was nervous that something weird would happen in the wok (I've never tried warming up turkish delight before...) but it turned out fine and the smoky flavour works well.

Actually I'd like them a bit more smoky than they are, so you might want to increase some of the proportions here:

  • One pack of turkish delight (mine had pistachios in)
  • Three teabags
  • Dark sugar
  • Rice

Get a wok (or similar) and put a layer of tinfoil in.

Rip open the teabags and pour their contents onto the foil. Then add roughly equal quantities of rice and sugar. Mix it up a bit with your fingers. Put the wok on a medium heat. It'll take a few minutes until it starts smoking.

Meanwhile, you'll need something into the wok which will hold the turkish delight well away from the heat, but will allow the smoke to circulate. Maybe some sort of steaming pan. I used a thing for stopping oil from spitting at you.

Don't put the "thing" into the wok yet, keep it to one side. On top of the thing, put some tinfoil and put the pieces of turkish delight onto that. Space them out, and make sure the foil won't stop smoke from circulating.

Turkish delight, ready to get smoked

When the tea has started smoking, put the thing-and-foil-and-delight into it, and put a tight lid on top. (You could use foil, if you don't have a good lid.)

Turn the heat down a bit and let the thing smoke gently for about 15 minutes. Don't peek inside! You don't want the smoke to escape! After 15 minutes, turn off the heat and just leave the pan there for a couple of hours to let the process continue.

When it's all finally done, open the pan - in a well-ventilated area. Take the delight out, and sprinkle with a bit more icing sugar to serve.

Friday 21st November 2014 | recipes | Permalink / Comment

I nearly bought shared ownership - here's why I didn't

In the UK we have these "shared ownership" schemes. They're provided by Housing Associations and they're meant to make homebuying more affordable for people who can't get on the housing ladder. The thing is, I do have some savings so I could afford to get a flat the "normal" way, but I saw this shared-ownership flat and it was so ideal - very close to work, etc etc. No way I could have afforded that if I was buying it outright.

So I went for it. But after spending thousands of pounds, two months and many sleepless nights, I had to conclude it wasn't as affordable as it had looked - and after some gnashing of teeth I had to pull out, go back to square one, and start looking all over again. I don't want other people to have to do that. So here's my advice:

  • If you can afford to buy outright, you should definitely do that instead (even if the shared-ownership homes are more attractive). Only go for shared ownership if you can't get a "normal" place. (In that case, though, renting might still be better. Plus there are currently schemes like help-to-buy which might sort you out.)

Shared ownership is more complex than normal homebuying, in many ways. First because you have to work out your mortgage costs for the share that you'll be buying, AND your rent costs for the bit that you'll not be buying, plus the other costs (service charges etc) - and how all those things will change over time. I wish the people selling me their shared-ownership flat had put all the costs up-front, or they wouldn't have had the cost and hassle of a sale falling through.

Here are some of the reasons shared ownership was not for me:

  • The rent that you'll pay is cheap compared to market rates - so the monthly costs will probably be lower than if you were renting an equivalent place privately - BUT the rent is typically locked in to increase annually, faster than inflation (RPI+0.5%). This is very poor compared against a mortgage, whose monthly payments don't increase. And many people's wages haven't been keeping up with inflation recently, so you might find yourself locked in to paying rents (and service charges) you can't afford. Plus, unlike renting you can't just leave with a few weeks' notice, so if it's near the edge of your affordability you really need to be mega-careful.
  • Selling/buying shared-ownership is slow - first of all the vendor has to give 8 weeks' notice to the Housing Association, who gets to decide if they want to buy it first. Then once a sale is agreed the contractual stuff is more complicated (and there's one more set of solicitors involved than normal!), so the conveyancing process is slower. Plus there are extra little fees here and there: e.g. the Housing Association charged a hefty little fee to check my identity, i.e. for someone to photocopy my passport, which I thought was cheeky.
  • "Staircasing" is the right for shared owners to buy more portions, until they own the whole thing. But it's extremely unlikely staircasing will be worth it for you - you'd be better to sell up and buy a normal place, rather than staircasing. For a start, if your first share is 50%, then in practical terms it's "worth" more than 50% to you, because it brings benefits such as "access" to the below-market rent offer. This means than in practical terms the remaining chunk is worth less than 50% to you. You'd only want to buy it if you were sure you wanted to stay put, and if house prices had slumped. (Note: even after you buy outright, the Housing Association still has some first-dibs rights to buy it back off you when you want to sell.)
  • Quite a few things make shared-ownership the "worst of both worlds" versus buying or renting. I've already mentioned that the rent can fluctuate yet you're just as tied-down as if you'd bought (or more so). Another example: you're responsible for the upkeep of the flat just as if you'd bought leasehold, yet you have to apply for permission for any non-trivial modifications, just as if you were renting.

I've nothing against Housing Associations and I think they're providing a useful service. They provide some of the role that council house-building programmes used to, and especially now that the coalition government has revved up right-to-buy again, there's a shortage of social housing, so at least these "affordable" housing options are there for people who can't get a place on a mortgage. But shared ownership can easily look like a better deal than it really is.

Friday 21st November 2014 | money | Permalink / Comment

PhD opportunity! Study machine learning and bird sounds with me

I have a fully-funded PhD position available to study machine learning and bird sounds with me!

For full details please see the PhD advertisement on jobs.ac.uk. Application deadline Monday 12th January 2015.

Please do email me if you're interested or if you have any questions.

– and is there anyone you know who might be interested? Send them the link!

Thursday 6th November 2014 | science | Permalink / Comment

Carpenters Estate - Is it viable or not?

Newham Council has handled the current Carpenters Estate protest shockingly badly. Issuing a press release describing the protesting mothers as "agitators and hangers-on" is just idiotically bad handling.

BUT they have also described Carpenters Estate as not "viable", and many commentators (such as Zoe Williams, Russell Brand) have lampooned them for it. After all, they can see the protesting mothers occupying a perfectly decent-looking little home. How can it be not "viable"?

Are they judging viability compared against the market rate for selling off the land? That's what Zoe Williams says, and that's what I assumed too from some conversations. But that's not it at all.

Newham's current problem with the Carpenters Estate is basically caused by the two different types of housing stock on the estate:

  • They have some tall old tower blocks which housed many hundreds of people, but they can't renovate them to a basic decent standard - the council can't afford to do it themselves and the leaseholders couldn't afford to shoulder the costs. (In council reports it's been calculated that the renovation cost per flat would cost more than the value of the flat itself - which means that the private leaseholders totally wouldn't be able to get a mortgage for the renovations.)
  • All the little two-storey houses next to the tower blocks are basically viable, at least in the sense that they should be easy to refurbish. However, they can't just leave people in those houses if they intend to demolish the tower blocks. I'm no expert in demolition but I assume it'd be impossible to demolish the 23-storey block next door while keeping the surrounding houses safe, and that's why Doran Walk is also slated for demolition.

So "not viable" means they can't find any way to refurbish those tower blocks to basic living standards - especially not in the face of the Tory cuts to council budgets - and that affects the whole estate as well as just the tower blocks. This appears to be the fundamental reason they're "decanting" people, in order to demolish and redevelop the whole place. (Discussed eg in minutes from 2012.) It's also the reason they have a big PR problem right now, because those two-storey houses appear "viable" and perfectly decent homes, yet they do indeed have a reason to get everyone out of them!

After the UCL plan for Carpenters Estate fell through it's understandable that they're still casting around for development plans, and we might charitably assume the development plans would be required to include plenty of social housing and affordable housing. You can see from the council minutes that they do take this stuff seriously when they approve/reject plans.

(Could the council simply build a whole new estate there, develop a plan itself, without casting around for partners? Well yes, it's what councils used to do before the 1980s. It's not their habit these days, and there may be financial constraints that make it implausible, but in principle I guess it must be an option. Either way, that doesn't really affect the question of viability, which is about the current un-demolished estate.)

But the lack of a plan has meant that there's no obvious "story" of what's supposed to be happening with the estate, which just leaves space for people to draw their own conclusions. I don't think anyone's deliberately misrepresenting what the council means when they talk about viability. I think the council failed badly in some of its early communication, and that led to misunderstandings that fed too easily into a narrative of bureaucratic excuses.

Wednesday 1st October 2014 | politics | Permalink / Comment

Carpenters Estate, Stratford - some background

"A group of local mothers are squatting next to London’s Olympic Park to tell the government we need social housing, not social cleansing" as featured in the Guardian and on Russell Brand's Youtube channel. The estate is Carpenters Estate, Stratford.

"Carpenters Estate," I thought to myself, "that rings a bell..."

It turns out Carpenters Estate is the one that UCL had proposed in 2011 to redevelop into a new university campus. The Greater Carpenters Neighbourhood "has been earmarked for redevelopment since 2010". "All proposals will take into account existing commitments made by the Council to those people affected by the re-housing programme." However, locals raised concerns, as did UCL's own Bartlett School (architecture/planning school) students and staff. (There's a full report here written by Bartlett students.) In mid-2013 negotiations broke down between Newham and UCL and the idea was ditched.

It seems that the council, the locals and others have been stuck in disagreement about the future of the estate for a while. At first the council promised to re-house people without breaking up the community too much, then it realised it didn't know how to do that, and eventually it came to the point where it's just gradually "decanting" people from the area and hoping that other things such as "affordable housing" (a shadow of a substitute for social housing) will mop things up. I can see how they got here and I can see how they can't find a good resolution of all this. But the Focus E15 mothers campaign makes a really good point, that irrespective of the high land prices (which probably mean Newham Council get offered some tempting offers), the one thing East London needs is social housing to prevent low-income groups and long-time locals from being forced out of London by gentrification.

The gentrification was already well underway before the London Olympic bid was won, but that had also added extremely predictable extra heat to the housing market around there. One part of the Olympic plan included plenty of "affordable housing" on the site afterwards - in August 2012, housing charity Shelter said it was good that "almost half" of the new homes built in the Athlete's Village would be "affordable housing". Oh but then they calculated that it wouldn't be that affordable after all, since the rules had been relaxed so the prices could go as high as 80% of market rate. (80% of bonkers is still crazy.)

Oh and it wasn't "almost half" (even though in the Olympic Bid they had said it would be 50% of 9,000 homes), by this point the target had been scaled back officially to about 40%. In November 2012 Boris Johnson insisted "that more than a third of the 7,000 new homes in the Olympic Park would be affordable". The Mayor said: 'There’s no point in doing this unless you can accommodate all income groups.'"

Oh but then in January 2014 Boris Johnson announced that they were changing their mind, and instead of 40% affordable housing, it's now going to be 30%. "Fewer homes will be built overall, and a smaller than promised percentage of those would be affordable." ("The dream of affordable housing is fading," said Nicky Gavron.) The new target contravenes the House of Lords Select Committee on Olympic Legacy report 2013-14 which said "It is important that a fair proportion, at least [...] 35%, of this housing is affordable for, and accessible to, local residents". Boris Johnson said it was a "price well worth paying" as a trade off for more economic activity. Strange assertion to make, since East London has bucketloads of economic activity and a crisis in social and affordable housing!

P.S. and guess why they decided not to build as many homes as they had planned? It's to make room for a cultural centre codenamed Olympicopolis. (Compare against this 2010 map of planned housing in the park.) Plans for this are led by... UCL! Hello again UCL, welcome back into the story. I love UCL as much as anyone - I worked there for years - but we need to fix the housing crisis a billion times more than we need to solve UCL's real-estate issues.

Saturday 27th September 2014 | politics | 3 Comments

ArcTanGent 2014 festival

I'll admit it: I wasn't sure I could tolerate 48 hours of nothing but post-rock. Lots of great stuff in that scene - but all at once? Wouldn't it wear a bit thin? Well no, ArcTanGent festival was chuffing fab. My top three awesome stickers are awarded to:

  • Bear Makes Ninja - wow like math-rock with great indie-rock vocals and harmonies, and some blinding drumming which isn't obvious in that video I linked but you should really see.

  • AK/DK - a twopiece, and both of them play synths and effects and vocals and drums, shifting roles as they go to make great electro stuff totally live. Fun and danceable as hell.

  • Cleft - another twopiece, drums and guitar, using a loopstation to fill it out and make mathy tuneful stuff. Oh and great crowd interaction - this might violate postrock ethics but I do like a band that talks to the crowd. This crowd was pretty dedicated, they were actually singing along with the zany time-signature riffs.

Unfortunately we missed Rumour Cubes while putting our tent up in the rain, so I'll never know if they would have earnt a top awesome sticker. But loads of other stuff was also great: Jamie Lenman (from heavy to tuneful, like early Nirvana), Sleep Beggar (heavy angry hip-hop and chuffing rocking), Luo (ensemble postrock with some delicious intricate drum breaks), Year Of No Light (dark slow heavy doomy, like a black hole), Alarmist (another dose of good ensemble postrock), and Human Pyramids (sort of like a school orchestra playing postrock compositions... in a good way).

Almost all of these things I've mentioned were non-headline acts, and most of them were amazed to be in a tent with so many people digging their shit, since they were used to being the niche odd-time-signature weirdos at normal festivals :)

By way of contrast, a couple of the big names I found a bit boring to be honest, but I'll spare you that since overall the weekend was great with so much great stuff. Mono was a nice headliner to end with, enveloping, orchestral and often low-key - we were actually not "at" the main stage but sitting on a bench 50m or so up the slope. Lots of people were doing as we did, letting the sound wash its way up the hill as we took in the night.

I didn't join in the silent disco in the middle of the night but it had a lovely effect, as hundreds of people with headphones sang along to some indie rock classics, and from afar you could hear nothing except their perfectly-timed amateur indie choir, it sounded great.

Sunday 31st August 2014 | music | Permalink / Comment
Jabberwocky, ATP, and London (Thursday 14th August 2014)
Rapists know your limits (Wednesday 23rd July 2014)
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