Friday, April 21, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #9: Minestrone

This is another one from the "Let's Cook..." book, and another by Antonio Carluccio. And it was quick and easy, albeit involving a fair amount of chopping of vegetables.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite work - the resulting meal felt more like eating a big bowl of vegetables than soup. And it was just really bland. A real shame.

Needless to say, I don't plan on doing this one again. I do, however, have several other recipes for minestrone, so I'm somewhat hopeful that one of them may be better...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Chance

Edit: Immediately after posting this, I discovered that the Lib Dems have ruled out the possibility of a deal with Labour. That being the case, you can downgrade "one chance" to "no chance", and forget the advice below on how to vote - we're getting the Tories regardless.

In any* UK General Election, there are only two possible (final) outcomes: either we get a Tory-led government, or we get a Labour-led government. It's also just possible that we get a situation where nobody can form a government, but that just results in us having to vote again.

(* Okay, that's the current paradigm. Long-term, there's the possibility that one of the big two parties will collapse so completely that they are overtaken by a different national party. In which the same "three outcomes" apply, just with one of the names changed. For an example of this happening, see the rise of Labour at the expense of the old Liberal (not Lib Dem) party.)

So, this election boils down to a choice: which is it to be - Tory or Labour? They both suck, but they're the only options, so when it really comes down to it and you have to choose, what's it to be?

Now, if you chose Tory, here's the good news: you're almost certainly going to get what you want. I suggest you go out and vote Tory, though you do have a few other options available.

But if you chose Labour, then the news is nothing but bad. Firstly, because you're almost certainly not going to get your wish, but also because you're probably going to have to do something you really don't want to do.

Here's the thing: to have any chance of a Labour government, we really need to maximise the number of non-Tory MPs in the House of Commons. When push comes to shove, the Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, and similar will vote to support a Labour PM but not a Tory one, while the Lib Dems will probably join such an alliance if the numbers are otherwise there. And when push comes to shove, Labour will probably accept that support in order to keep the Tories out. (Besides, we might as well assume that that's the case - if it's not, we might as well not bother voting.)

So, since getting the Tories out means voting as many non-Tory MPs as possible in, here's how it needs to work:

If you live in a Tory-held constituency (or Douglas Carswell's constituency), then you need to go and vote for whichever party came second in 2015. Unless that was UKIP (or the Tories, in Clackton), in which case go for the third party. If you live in a constituency that is not Tory-held (or, again, Douglas Carswell's seat), then you need to go and vote for the party that won the seat last time.

Now, this does mean that a lot of people will have to vote for people and parties they really don't like - it means lots of traditional Labour voters in Scotland voting SNP, it means a lot of people who detest Jeremy Corbyn going and voting for him, and it means that the people who gave the Lib Dems a well-deserved kicking in 2015 voting them back in. I'm sure none of that appeals.

(It also means that, in the very best case, we get a government formed from a crazy coalition who don't agree about almost anything, led by a Labour party in disarray, and with the Prime Minister who can't even command the support of a majority of his own MPs. Which I would normally consider a profoundly irresponsible thing to vote for, except that I'm convinced that if the Tories win then England and Wales are headed for economic catastrophe while Scotland and, probably, Northern Ireland are headed for the exit door.)

But that's the price. The margins we're working with are so small, and the polling situation so desperate, that even a mass tactical vote is highly unlikely to be enough to swing this one; without that mass tactical vote, there's no chance at all.

(No, really. The most recent poll of voting intentions put the Tories in 48%. That's already an almost unbeatable position - blocking them requires the rest of the vote to line up just right.)

Given the position that we are in, a vote for anybody else, or even an abstention, is effectively a vote for the Tories.

Your call.

Monday, April 17, 2017

On Universal Suffrage

Captain Ric and I happened to find ourselves talking yesterday evening about the topic of various votes, at which point he expressed the opinion that we really should be using the same franchise for all our various votes - and specifically that it doesn't make sense that 16 year olds have the vote in Independence Referendums but not General Elections.

Now, in principle, I agree with this. Indeed, in principle I would also tend to the view that not only should we be using the same franchise for all relevant votes, but that we should also be using the same voting system for all elections - it really doesn't make sense that we use First Past the Post for General Elections, a modified d'Hondt system for Holyrood elections, Single Transferrable Vote for Council Elections, and an unmodified d'Hondt system for EU Elections.

However...

There are a handful of things in Scottish society that are in fact better than their equivalents in the rest of the UK - notably, things like free university tuition, and free prescriptions. (I have a great deal of sympathy with people from England who complain about this being unfair. It is unfair.) Also, the lower drink-drive limit in Scotland seems to have worked out extremely well.

And I would certainly include extending the vote to 16-year-olds as one of those "better things", and I most certainly would include the use of proportional representation systems - one need only look at Scotland's cohort of MPs to show the failure of First Past the Post, with the SNP winning 56 out of 59 seats on just 50% of the vote.

And so, while I would agree that we should indeed use the same franchise in Scotland as in the rest of the UK, I would argue very strongly that this is a case where it is the rest of the UK that should be changing. And if Westminster won't change these things in the rest of the UK, I don't think Scotland should force itself to use a lesser system just to remain consistent. Why shackle yourself to an inferior system?

(And, likewise, where English people complain about the unfairness of Scots getting free tuition and prescriptions, their complaint shouldn't be about us getting them - it should be directed at Westminster for them not getting them.)

And it's worth noting that the reason Westminster won't change the voting system from First Past the Post is because that system very heavily favours the Tory and Labour parties. Which is a terrible reason for sticking with a lousy system, but it makes it very difficult to change - the only people who can change things are the very ones who benefit from keeping things as they are.

As regards the voting age, my position is fairly simple: by sixteen a person could, at least in theory, have left school and be in full-time employment, and therefore paying Income Tax, and I agree wholeheartedly with that old American slogan: no taxation without representation. If they're old enough to pay taxes, they absolutely should have the vote.

Of course, the main argument deployed against giving 16-year-olds the vote runs like this: why 16 and not 14? This same argument was no doubt deployed in exactly the same way when the age was moved from 21 down to 18, and it is the first step in an inevitable reductio ad absurdum argument - if 16 is conceded, why not 14, and then why not 12, 10, 8... heck, why not give newborns the vote?

Well, actually...

Increasingly, I've been coming to the view that maybe universal suffrage should mean exactly that. That is, a person should be assigned a vote as soon as they are born, with that vote to be exercised on their behalf by their primary caregiver (usually the mother) until either the person turns 16 or they fill in an appropriate form declaring that they will be voting in their own right.

And here's the thing: my youngest niece is a little over a year old. Consequently, she won't have any say in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. But whichever way that vote goes it will have a very profound effect on the rest of her life. Surely, then, someone should speak on her behalf?

Of course, this could give rise to the seemingly odd situation where someone votes at an extremely young age. But so what? If they care enough to have filled in the form to get a vote, and they care enough to go and exercise that vote, then presumably they care enough to have educated themselves on whatever it is they're voting about. Which, frankly, is rather more than can be said about a lot of current voters.

(It's worth noting that this arrangement would give disproportionate influence to the country's population of mums, who would suddenly find themselves exercising many more votes. And that's likely to have the effect of skewing public policy in their favour, which is perhaps not desirable. But the hard fact is that at present our public policy is already being skewed - in favour of pensioners, because older folk vote in disproportionately large numbers. And, bluntly, if the government is going to favour some groups over others because of a need to chase votes, then I'd rather it was mums - at least that would give education an appropriate level of importance.)

Actually, I would go even further than that. Not only would I grant a vote by proxy even to the youngest child in the country, I would also extend the franchise to any and all foreign nationals who are permanently resident here. If you're living in this country long-term, you're contributing to the future of this country - why then should you not have a say in how the country is run?

(I'd also end the practice of disenfranchising all our prisoners. Amongst other things, the EU have ruled that this practice is illegal under human rights legislation. The UK government, to their shame, promptly ignored this.)

Basically, I'm inclined to take the view that the right to vote should be considered a human right - something you get simply by virtue of being human, and something that can't be taken away from you as long as you remain human.

#18: "Armageddon's Children", by Terry Brooks
#19: "Pathfinder: Trail of the Hunted", by Amber E. Scott

Monday, April 10, 2017

Day 100: Update on Goals

Time for another update on the goals for the year. Shockingly, we still haven't moved, which means most things are still on hold. Still, where do we stand...?

  • Weight: Finally, some progress - I've lost about half a stone over the course of Lent, which is obviously good. Still a long way to go, though.
  • Books: By this point in the year I should have read about 16.5 books, and I'm a little further on than that. So that's in good shape. I'm also up-to-date on all the sublists, which is good. Also, I've decided to continue with the Shannara sub-list, which saves me coming up with a replacement sub-list.
  • Super Secret Goal #4: As I said above, we still haven't moved. The latest indications are that it's imminent, but there's still no solid date. It's all very frustrating.
  • Part Five: The House: Obviously, this is on hold, with nothing to report.
  • Part Five: Church: Obviously, this is on hold, with nothing to report.
  • Part Five: Band: We've now reached a point where I've had to commit to seeing out the competition season with the band. My plan now is to do that and then tender my resignation at the AGM in September - that seems a good time to bow out. My hope it to have a really good season with the band, and perhaps help the band secure promotion out of Grade 4B (again), and thus leave on a high.
  • Part Five: Gaming: This is likewise on hold. There has been no gaming since the previous update, and I don't expect any before the next.
  • Super Secret Goal #5: Due to... circumstances, this goal has been set aside for the time being.

This is a fairly disappointing update, due entirely to the move still being stuck. It would be really nice if there was some solid movement before the next update, in mid-May, but I'll believe it when I see it, and not before.

The one real success of the period is the movement, at long last, on the weight goal. Hopefully, this will continue after Lent ends - I'll need to make sure to keep a close eye on that. I'm also quite glad to have my set of books for the year locked in, and also to have decided to take SSG#5 off the list.

But the big thing is still the house move. And that still sucks.

#17: "The Color Purple", by Alice Walker (a book from The List)

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #8: Raspberry and White Chocolate Muffins

The band are playing at a fund-raiser tomorrow, for which we're also running a home-baking stall, and so by way of contribution I'm offering some of Lorraine Pascale's Cookie & Cream Brownies, and also a batch of these muffins. The method for these comes from "The Women's Institute Big Book of Baking", which technically belongs to LC but which, I think, I've actually had more use from.

The method for these is, as you might expect, pretty simple - it's more or less just a cake mixture, with things being folded together, then the fruit added and mixed gently, and then baked.

And, having tested one (for quality control purposes, of course - very important), I can confirm that they've worked well. So I'm happy with that. I just hope they shift well enough tomorrow. And yes, I do fully expect to make these again - either these, or other types of muffin.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

The X-Men Films, Ranked Worst to Best

This afternoon I finished watching my way through my boxed set of the eight X-Men films (it didn't include "Deadpool" or, for obvious reasons, "Logan"). Having just finished that, and since it makes for a good topic for a post, here's my ordering of the films from worst to best:

#10: "X-Men Origins: Wolverine": I have a theory that the fourth film in any series always sucks. It's not an absolute rule, but does seem to hold very well - "The Phantom Menace", "Lethal Weapon 4", "Superman 4", "Batman and Robin"... "X-Men Origins: Wolverine". That seems to be the point where a series really starts to lose steam, where the creative barrel has really run dry, and where it needs to find new direction. And this film doesn't find it. It does have some good moments, but there's a lot of wasted potential here. And a lot of it is just bad.

#9: "X-Men: The Last Stand": If the fourth film is where the creative barrel has run dry, the third film is often where is starts to run low - all the best ideas have been used, you've got the end of the story to tell but have, if you're lucky, built enormous expectations, and it's just hard. X-Men 3 had it particularly tough, following the exceptional X-Men 2, and also because the studio insisted on getting the film out before "Superman Returns". Couple that with the loss of the director, and that one of the key characters (Cyclops) was only available for little more than a cameo, and you have problems. A real shame, because the worst thing about this film is the glimpse of what might have been.

#8: "The Wolverine": I generally take the view that there are six 'good' films, two 'okay' films, and two 'bad' films. "The Wolverine", then, is the weaker of the two 'okay' films. I definitely like it more than the other two, and could sit down to watch it reasonably happily, but there are a few things that just don't work, mostly in the conclusion - one heel/face turn has no coherent build-up, and one of the fight scenes is extremely well-shot but makes no narrative sense. Plus, it features one of my cardinal sins in story-telling - where a character does something stupid for no other reason than that the plot requires it of him (in this case, Wolverine walks through a gauntlet of bad guys rather than either trying to fight his way through or, better, sneaking past).

#7: "X-Men: Apocalypse": The most recent film isn't bad, but it's over-long, and it suffers from basically just showing us lots of stuff we've seen before in other films, but mostly done better. By this point, we've seen Magneto do his thing, we've seen Logan hack his way through bad guys, etc etc. They really need to do something different next time out.

And so, on to the 'good' films.

#6: "Logan": In terms of being a good film, this should be higher on the list. However, "Logan" wasn't enjoyable - I could appreciate how well made it was, how excellent the performances were, and everything else about it, but I didn't enjoy it. Hence the relatively low rating.

#5: "X-Men: First Class": The first of the 'beginnings' trilogy, this film had a lot riding on it - after two poor films in succession, they needed a win. And "First Class" is that win - a reboot for the series that got it going again, introduced a new cast, and told a solid story. I like it. But I don't like it quite as much as...

#4: "X-Men": The first X-Men film has the big advantage of being the foundation on which all the rest are built, which means that much of the good stuff that follows is founded here. But the big thing that makes this film work is the gravitas provided by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, which helps anchor the philosophical underpinnings of the series in something solid - they elevate this from being just another superhero movie into something more.

#3: "Deadpool": Remember how I said that after "X-Men: Apocalypse" they really needed to do something different? Well, "Deadpool" (and "Logan") have the distinct advantage of being examples of 'different'. That doesn't mean that I think the next X-Men film should just copy those - there are lots of ways to do 'different' - but it does give this film room to breathe. And after years of very serious superhero films, with the world being saved dozens of time, and so on and so on, it's nice to have a breather, have a laugh, and just have some fun. So, yeah, I like this one.

#2: "X-Men: Days of Future Past": I don't have much to say about this one - it's just a great film.

#1: "X-Men 2": Likewise, I don't have much to say about this film. For a long time, this was my top superhero film, and although it has since been eclipsed (as I've mentioned before), I still count it as one of very few 'perfect' films (others being "The Empire Strikes Back", "Back to the Future", and "The Wrath of Khan"). Though 'perfect' is perhaps the wrong word - it's not that the film is without flaws, but rather that it's extremely hard to see how it could be improved, because any change you make would probably make it worse (even fixing a flaw, since that will probably take time, affecting the pacing).

And that's my list. Naturally, I don't expect anyone to agree with it, since where would be the fun in that, but I think I'll stick with it. At least until I go through the series again and change my mind, of course!

A Milestone: 1,500th Post

I notice that this blog has now reached another milestone - after eleven and a half years, this marks the 1,500th post. Which is quite a lot, really.

I thought I'd take the opportunity afforded by this milestone to comment on a subject that has been vexing me for some time, an issue of the utmost importance, and a truly crucial matter: my R2-D2 kitchen timer.

Here's the thing: I have three kitchen timers. One of these is the dial on the cooker, which is a fairly standard analogue timer. It's not very good, but that's not unexpected - it does a job in the cheapest way possible. But the other two are a little more annoying, since in both cases the designers have decided that their main consideration should be "looks nice", rather than "actually does the job".

One of these is a little blue bird, in the shape of the Twitter logo. The other is, as mentioned, R2-D2. To use either, you twist the head to the appropriate position and wait, and a bell rings when it ends. Which seems okay.

But no! For there are two weaknesses with both of these timers. Firstly, the method of twisting the head to the appropriate position is inexact at best. If I want to set a timer for 10 minutes, I need to twist it to... round about here. Maybe, ish. That's not exactly great - ten minutes, by the nature of the timer, now means "somewhere between nine and eleven minutes". But it's worse even than that, because both timers actually run slow. So setting it for ten minutes actually means at least eleven, with the corresponding burning of all food.

Huzzah! And so what I have is two timers that have one job, and can't actually achieve it between them. Honestly, you wouldn't think it should be hard - perhaps some sort of digital display, possibly hooking into wi-fi so that it can get time from an accurate source, or something?

Or, and here's a crazy idea, why doesn't our microwave have an option to run the timer without actually cooking anything? After all, that's a digital source, it's pretty accurate, and all it's doing most of the time is sitting there showing the current time. (And, as an added bonus for that one, most things you cook in the microwave then need to be left to stand for some time after cooking but before eating - how much easier would it be if we could just get the timer to count that for us?)

Edit: it turns out that my microwave does, in fact, have a kitchen timer mode. Thus rendering this rant even more pointless on both counts - not only does this mean my complaint about the microwave is invalid, but it means I'm not reliant on either R2-D2 or the Twitter bird for accuracy. They can go back to looking decorative.

Anyway, that's my trivial rant to mark the blog's 1,500th post. I'm sure you'll agree it was worth waiting for. Or, more likely, not.

#16: "The Immortal Throne", by Stella Gemmell (my current candidate for book of the year, though I don't expect it to remain top dog for the rest of the year - it's good, but it's not that good)

Monday, April 03, 2017

Blessings

My Grandma passed away on Saturday.

The last time I saw my Grandfather was just a few months before he died. He obviously knew time was short, and so during that visit he made sure to sit me down and say a number of things that had clearly been on his mind. It was very much a matter of making sure that everything that needed to be said was said, and finally of saying goodbye. I've always counted myself lucky that we had that opportunity.

A few months ago, LC and I took a trip down to Nottingham to see Grandma over a long weekend. And, as it turned out, that weekend coincided with her having a very good weekend, to the extent even that she was able to make it out for a meal one evening, and then to church and to a lunch out the next day. Indeed, it's entirely possible that that was her last good weekend, as shortly thereafter she was going in and out of hospital, and then to the care home where she spent her final few weeks.

(And, not incidentally, it's worth noting that my other grandparents have been ailing considerably in the last couple of years, and yet those weekends when I have managed a visit seem to have aligned very neatly with those weekends when they have seemed to have an especially good weekend.)

Visiting Grandma in the care home was never a pleasant experience, but especially so in the last couple of weeks, when she was clearly going downhill fast and clearly suffering. And on Wednesday I was advised not to delay any future visits.

My final visit was on Friday and, remarkably, it was considerably better than the previous few - Grandma was much more relaxed, and much more coherent than had been the case previously. She was tired, of course, but nowhere near as distressed as previously. As I left, I made sure to say goodbye, but more importantly to tell her that I loved her.

From what I've been told, her final hours were very peaceful - she wanted people to sit with her, but mostly drifted between wakefulness and sleep. And then, when the time was right, she was gone.

It's difficult to write about blessings at a time like this, as I'm sure you can understand. But the story was coming to its end one way or another, and I find it remarkable just how neatly things fell out, once again, for the good - a blessing indeed.