Thursday, January 29, 2015

Speaking of Bad News Coverage...

I have become increasingly disgusted by the election coverage by, well, pretty much everyone really. It seems that they're all doing a spectacularly poor job, especially the supposedly 'quality' reporters.

There are two sides to the problem, one on a UK-wide level and a second on a Scotland-wide one.

The big problem when using the UK-wide lens is that the media seem to have failed utterly to adapt to the changed situation in the country - they still act as if it's a binary choice between Labour or the Tories, and they still seem to think of the Lib Dems as a major party (as opposed to a zombie about to receive a headshot). And, when they consider other parties at all, the story is all about UKIP and the surge they're trying to make happen. (You can decide for yourself who I mean by 'they're' in that last sentence.)

The crucial problem with that approach is that politics has changed, and changed dramatically. It's very likely that neither Labour nor the Tories will gain a majority, which means the really important bit are those 'minor' parties who will make the difference - it really matters whether it's the Lib Dems, or UKIP, or the SNP who hold the balance of power. And, indeed, with things as finely judged as they are, it may well even be crucial whether the Greens end up with 0, 1, 2, or more seats. (Indeed, it could turn out to be the Northern Irish parties, who have thus far been almost totally ignored, who end up making the key difference.)

The problem when using the narrower Scotland-wide lens is that the media still seem to be in referendum mode, where "Yes" means the SNP and "No" means Labour. Which is a nonsense on both counts - it's likely that much of "Labour for Independence" won't be voting SNP, for instance, while the "No" vote will be split, at least to some extent, between the Lab/Con/Lib parties. (Well, okay, between Labour and the Tories.)

And it really doesn't help that I don't trust them.

Snowpocalypse? Naw!

Once again, there was a hint of snow about the weather, and so once again the weather forecasters and the news channels were predicting massive disruption, travel chaos, and all the attendant woes.

In the event, two inches of snow fell, the gritters were out in force, the roads got cleared, and it was all okay. That's not to say there was no disruption - of course there was some - but it most certainly was not the disaster that had been threatened.

I find myself wondering: is this all still a reaction to them getting thoroughly caught out by the freak snowfall of five years ago? Or is it instead a desperate attempt to turn "Snow! In January!" into news fit for a 24-hour news cycle? Because on the face of it, it's utterly mad - what people need is accurate information so that they can make wise decisions. False predictions of doom are every bit as problematic, and much more common, than us being caught out by freak weather events.

This Week's Mug: A somewhat delayed anecdote this week, but this week's mug is a simple white mug with a wraparound design showing Ashness Bridge and Keswick, as painted by Colin Williamson. As the design suggests, this was purchased while in Keswick some five years ago, on the event of LC and my first trip away together. A weekend away marked by some nice walks, an issue with some smelly cheese in the car, and, yes, snow.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Experimental Cookery 2015 #2: Piri Piri Prawns

This week's recipe comes from the third Hairy Dieters book, "Good Eating". To be honest, I've not been hugely impressed with this book, partly because I had unfairly high expectations after the last one, but partly because it just feels like one book too far. However, I did think I should at least give it a go.

The method here was really easy - blitz up a marinade in a food processor, leave the prawns in it overnight, and then 6 minutes in a blazing hot griddle.

The result was very tasty, though I suspect I did slightly over-cook the prawns. However, I did feel that the meal as a whole was a bit lacking - we paired it with a crunchy salad, and it was filling enough, but... I dunno, I just didn't feel completely satisfied.

Still, I do expect we'll do these again, possibly when entertaining guests or as part of a barbeque. I didn't have any complaints about the dish itself, I just feel it would be better paired with something else.

#3: "Wars of the Roses: Stormbird", by Conn Iggulden
#4: "Pirate's Promise", by Chris A. Jackson
#5: "William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope", by Ian Doescher

This Week's Mug: At great risk, I have selected my "Icelandic Vikings" mug for this week. The reason I consider this a risk is that I bought this mug in my one and only stopover in Iceland, when I was travelling en route to Minnesota. I suspect I'm unlikely to go that way again, certainly not any time soon, so am not in a position to replace it. I have no real idea who the "Icelandic Vikings" are; I just thought having a mug with vikings on would be cool.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Firefly/Serenity Expanded Universe

Late last week I ordered the four volumes of Serenity graphic novels, which constitute the entirety of that setting's "expanded universe". Over the weekend I read through these, and my opinion was... mixed.

A couple of the stories ("Better Days" and "A Shepherd's Tale") either feel very much like an episode of the show or they serve to fill in some of the gaps in the show, while also adding something new to the setting. Those were definitely the more worthwhile of the stories.

Some of the stories ("Downtime", "The Other Half") were fine, but they were too short to really be of too much interest - just stuff that happened. Similarly, one of the bigger stories ("Float Out") was largely inconsequential.

But some of the stories ("Those Left Behind", "Leaves on the Wind") just didn't quite sit right. There are two reasons for this, both of which have been issues with either the Star Wars prequels or its expanded universe.

The first issue is the repeated use of recurring characters: Dobson, Jubal Early, the Operative (confusingly, the same actor with a different character). Badger is also reused, but he's a somewhat different case as he wasn't a one-off in the first place.

The problem here is that continued reuse of the same characters actually shrinks the universe rather than expanding it. If the same half dozen heroes keep bouncing around the same half dozen villains, that suggests that the 'Verse, rather than being populated by billions, actually only houses a dozen or so people of any interest. It's actually better only to reuse characters very sparingly, and even then only when that most definitely is the right character to use - no other will do.

The second issue is that Serenity and Mal Reynolds seem to be undergoing the same sort of legendary ascension as the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo have undergone in Star Wars. Where the Falcon was once just a stock light freighter that Han had made some "special modifications" to, it became the result of a freakishly good build in the plant, then passed through the hands of several legendary owners, before coming to Han as the most wonderfully unique ship in the galaxy... not the "piece of junk" it started out. And where Han started out as a somewhat amoral smuggler who happens to get caught up in great events despite himself, he instead becomes the outstanding Imperial pilot of his generation who dropped out in a grand statement of moral outrage, before proceeding to become the greatest of military geniuses, and...

Serenity and Mal Reynolds are very much the image of the Falcon and its owner before Star Wars started out, only perhaps moreso - Mal was a soldier in the war who had a certain competence but a general lack of respect for his officers, who lost his faith as a result of that war, and was thus generally pretty embittered. Nowhere in there is he a legend. And Serenity is pretty much a Ford Transit. No, seriously.

So when the comics show Serenity blowing up a reaver ship simply by flying near it, and when Mal is described somehow as being the foremost military genius of his age, it really doesn't sit right.

(Incidentally, my latest Star Wars thought: you know that saying the some people are born great, others achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them? Anakin is the first, Luke is the second, and Han is the third.)

Still, there's some interesting material in here, and the stories that are good are pretty good. So, I'll keep tabs on whatever comes next and give it a read. Though for my RPG exploits, my intention is to ignore it almost completely.

Leaders' Debates

It's fair to say I'm not a fan of the debates - my view is that in the UK we don't elect a government or a Prime Minister but rather elect a representative, so unless my local candidates are going to have a debate then I'm not sure of the relevance. However, the debates are a fact, and probably do have at least some impact on the outcome of the election. And so they must be done right.

The way I see it, there are two possible ways of looking at these debates:

They might be "Prime Ministerial" debates, in which case they really should be a head-to-head between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, because whatever happens in May it's 99% likely that one of those two will become Prime Minister thereafter. (There's always the possibility of injury or illness, or the possibility that coalition agreement requires a new leader - c.f. Gordon Brown. But any thought that the PM won't be from either Labour or the Conservatives is the stuff of fantasy, more's the pity.)

The other possibility is that they're about who might form the next government, which is especially pertinent this time out when a hung parliament looks very likely. In that case, the debates really need to have representatives from Labour and the Tories, plus the Lib Dems, UKIP, and the SNP.

(Alternately, you could argue that the SNP spot should go instead to a representative of the new SNP/Plaid Cymru/Green voting block. Fair enough... but in practice that means the SNP anyway, they being the largest partner.)

Because while the polls don't (and can't) give a definitive indication, what they do seem to say is that any one of those three parties (and, indeed, only those three parties) may hold the balance of power after the election, and so be critical in the formation of the next government. They should all be heard, and in a UK-wide context they should all be heard equally.

Additionally, the fact that the SNP only stand in Scotland is an irrelevancy, for two reasons. The first is simple mathematics: despite standing in only 59 constitutencies, if they take enough of those 59 then they can hold the balance of power. And, frankly, they're more likely to do that than UKIP are to jump from 2 MPs to 30+.

The second reason is this: the people of England (and Wales and NI) may well find their government decided by the SNP, and they therefore need to know what the SNP have to say. Voters in England will most likely have heard the Lib Dem message, and will have heard the UKIP message (thanks to the BBC publicising their every move). And, of course, we all know that the Tories stand for the rich getting richer and that Labour don't stand for anything.

But it's unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of English voters will know anything about the SNP beyond the caricature shown in the Daily Mail and Guardian. Yes, it's true that their main focus is independence for Scotland, but given that five years of government would be about much more than that (and, indeed, in the event of a Labour/SNP government wouldn't be about that), it's kind of important to know more - where do they stand on schools, on health, on defence...?

(If nothing else, if voters in England heard what the SNP had to say and found that they hated it, then they have the power to ensure the SNP get nowhere near controlling the balance of power - just vote for a majority Labour or Tory administration.)

So, that's my take: either the debates should be a Cameron/Miliband head-to-head, or they should involve the five parties who might be involved in making up the next government (Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, UKIP, and SNP).

Monday, January 12, 2015

So... Cold...

The heating in the office isn't working, and as it is usually switched off over the weekend to conserve energy this means that the office is freezing. Thus far, nobody has suggested we huddle together to conserve body heat. The moment someone does, I'm heading home.

This Week's Mug: This week's mug is the Superman mug I've mentioned before. It is a deep blue all over, with the Superman crest on front and back. And it bears a marking indicating that it is neither microwave nor dishwasher safe on the bottom. I received this mug as a Christmas gift in 2013.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Experimental Cookery 2015 #1: Beef Goulash

One of the things I'm hoping to do in 2015 is to resume my too-sporadic "Experimental Cookery" series. That being the case, here's the first entry of the new year.

This one comes from the Hairy Dieters book "Eat For Life" (the yellow one). This is a book I've used several times and that has never let me down.

And tonight's dinner was no exception. Truth is, it was never going to be very demanding - a handful of veg to chop, a few minutes browing the meat, and then a little time on the hop and a lot of time in the oven, and it's done.

The only thing to note is that the recipe really needs more water - I added the 600ml at the start, and then a further 400ml (ish) when I added the peppers after an hour and a half, and it was still awfully dry by the end. I think perhaps more regular additions of 200ml here and there would have done better. (That said, I'm somewhat inclined to adapt this recipe for the slow cooker, in which case the liquid needs should be re-adjusted anyway.)

The result was once again quite pleasing - nice tender meat, a hearty taste, and a very filling meal all around. This one will definitely be being added to my rotation.

It's also worth noting that that second Hairy Dieters book is definitely my recommended volume of the three. The first is good two, with the third being a comparitive let-down, but the second is definitely the star. It's also one of my big three recommends, along with "Jamie's Ministry of Food" and Hugh's "River Cottage Every Day". I have several other cookbooks that are decent, but those are the three that I come back to again and again.

#2: "D&D: Hoard of the Dragon Queen", by Wolfgang Baur and Steve Winter

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

It Has Gone To a Better Place

While I'm on the topic of Christmas presents, I shall tell you about socks. For Christmas I received seven pairs of socks. One person bought me a pack of five pairs of Doctor Who socks, while another person bought me two individual pairs of Doctor Who socks. This suggests that I might be becoming typecast as a person who likes Doctor Who.

Or wearing socks. It's definitely one of the two. But that's not really important right not.

Anyway, for some time LC has been talking about throwing away some of my socks, despite them still being perfectly good. Apparently, she is unaware of the manly convention that any sock with fewer than three holes in it is barely worn.

And so it was that a few days ago I opened the bin to find a single discarded sock staring accusingly up at me. "How could you fail us so," it seemed to ask. "We trusted you to protect us!"

Grief-stricken, I therefore threw a bunch of other rubbish on top (that being why I opened the bin) and then mourned my loss. For a sock to have passed so young was a real tragedy - it was only two!

Still, I have since come to terms with my loss, and accepted that it has indeed gone to a better place. Well, landfill.

Of course, I couldn't help but notice that there was only one sock in the bin. But I've been instructed not to mention the Sock Conspiracy any more...

This Week's Mug: This week's mug is a Star Wars mug with a black experior on which the legends "Stormtrooper", "Legion", and "TK-421" are marked. I received this mug as a Christmas present from CJ, prompting my recent mug contemplations.

Mug Rotation

One of the presents I received for Christmas was a rather spiffing coffee mug. This was especially appreciated as I've been having some mug-related issues at work ever since my official work mug got broken in a freak "why did I do that?" accident - for a short while I was using an Icelandic Vikings mug until I realised the great risk that this involved, then I briefly switched to a Superman mug, before settling on a TARDIS mug for the bulk of last year (which could contain more coffee than most of my other mugs. Feel free to insert the obvious joke here).

Plus, LC was particularly glad I got a new mug, as she is frequently heard encouraging me to buy some new ones to reduce our crippling shortage.

I was quite excited to try out my new mug at work, until I noticed a fatal weakness, in fact the same weakness that caused me to stop using the Superman mug. Printed on the bottom of the mug is the dire warning, "Not suitable for use in a dishwasher or microwave" (or in the presence of Kryptonite in the case of the Superman mug, obviously). Deflated, I sadly placed the mug on a shelf, never again to see the light of day.

Until I had my wonderful idea!

One of the mug-related issues that I constantly face is that I have many mugs from my travels, but only ever actually use one at home: my favouritest-ever special mug that I especially bought while in Brittany (at the Festival de Saint Loup with the band). Which means that those many other mugs spend most of their time sitting in their trees, jealously waiting the day when we have people round to drink coffee (or, more likely, I need to crack an egg).

My wonderful idea, therefore, is that 2015 will be The Year of Mug Rotation! Each week I shall take a different mug to work for coffee-drinking purposes, until such time that I have used them all.

This will have three benefits. Firstly, it will allow all of my mugs to have their week in the sun, thus preventing ill-feeling amongst those that seldom get used. Secondly, it will make work just that little bit more interesting, which is obviously key. And, thirdly, there's always the possibility that one or more of my colleagues might remark on the weekly mug change, allowing me to regale them with my aptly-named Mug Anecdotes.

And as we know, everyone loves a mug anecdote...

#1: "Pathfinder: Palace of Fallen Stars", by Tim Hitchcock

Friday, January 02, 2015

Goals for 2015

Okay, it's a day late, but here's the promised post with my goals for 2015.

Setting goals is actually a bit tricky this year, because I'm a great believer in SMART goals - a 'good' goal should be Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, and Time-bound. The AT of this is easily achieved, but I've had some difficulties with SMR for the rest of them, as for most things I'm in quite a good position and the goal is really, "more of the same, please".

Because of the nature of this year, I don't have any monthly or quarterly goals. All my goals are set to run for the whole of the year. Still, there should be some ability to measure them as we go:

  • Weight: The big carry-over from last year, this goal is unchanged: I would like to lose a stone and a half this year. More would be nice, but given the failure of the last two years I'm going to focus on the stated goal and not worry about anything beyond that.
  • Books: The other repeat goal is also the same: I would like to read 60 books this year, including 12 from The List. I do have a couple of other sub-lists for the year, but am largely ignoring this.
  • Games: I would like to take part in twelve game sessions this year, giving an average of one a month. Ideally, I would like four sessions as a player amongst these, but that's an aspiration and not a formal goal.
  • Work: This one really is "more of the same". Work has been going pretty well, and I would like to continue in this same vein.
  • Band: I'm not setting a goal for our competition season, as that is largely outwith my control. However, I would like to see my current students start breaking into the main band. So that's the target: to see one of my students play in one of our competitions this year. (Unless the Development Band does indeed restart, in which case this goal will need to be reformulated.)
  • Super Secret Goal #4: Actually, this isn't exactly secret: ideally, we're hoping to move house late this year. This will involve several steps, as we'll need to get the roof fixed, redecorate the whole flat, and sell up, all while also looking for a suitable new place to live. All of which is slightly complicated by LC's work situation - because she's on long-term supply rather than in a permanent position, it's difficult to pick a place that's going to suit both our commutes. Oh well...

So that's it: six goals for the year, including one that has carried-over, two repeats, and three that are nicely measurable. That'll do.