Thursday, April 19, 2018

Hey Samsung...

Next time you update your phone software, how about adding a button that allows you to not only hang up a call but instantly add the caller to your block list? As it is, my daily annoyance with the "have you had an accident" calls (or sometimes the "have you checked your PPI?" calls) is then compounded by needing to go through a six-tap process to block the number (not counting unlocking my phone) - getting that down to just one would be a very satisfying addition.

Also: isn't it amazing how when technology improves to make everything hugely and immediately better (such as upgrading to a smart-phone), the level of perceived annoyance experienced as a result of the remaining irritations jumps as a consequence?

So What Am I Supposed to Drink?

To my horror, I discovered about a week ago that Robinson's "Fruit and Barley" has now reformulated to remove the added sugar and replace it with artificial sweeteners. With the net effect that that's another thing I now can't drink. (Rather naively, I had assumed that diluting fruit juices were sweetened with, you know, fruit, and so wouldn't include masses of additional sugar. I guess not.)

Anyway, this caused me to go have a look at the various brands that are available... and the results are not good. Pretty much all of the big brands and all of the 'own' brands loudly trumpet that they have "no added sugar", which translates as "added sweeteners", which translates as "you can't drink this". There are a very few more obscure brands, mostly the very expensive niche brands, that are still not using sweeteners but there's no indication as to how long this will last.

I also learned yesterday that San Pellegrino had also reformulated to reduce sugar and added artificial sweeteners. So that's another thing I can't drink.

I'm rapidly coming to a point where there is very little I actually can drink, and those options are significantly flawed: either they include huge amounts of caffeine (Coke and Pepsi), or they're hugely expensive (Fentimans), or they're very much niche products and so not widely available. Or, of course, there are alcoholic drinks, but they don't work when I often have to drive.

So I'm left with a question: just what am I supposed to drink? Is the answer seriously going to be water and nothing else?

Monday, April 16, 2018

Days Like These Are Far Too Rare

Yesterday was the baptism of Funsize, which took place at our new church in Livingston. This is another of our Great Days, joining the Wedding of Kilt/Man and Lady Chocolat and the Epic of the Cakes.

We had been planning the baptism for some time, indeed pretty much since Funsize was born. This shouldn't come as a shock, since our faith is rather important to us, and baptism is one of the key sacraments through which that faith is marked. So we spoke to the minister, and made it so.

It was a gloriously sunny day, at least for the morning and early afternoon. This paired well with the baptismal gown that FS was given to wear - the same gown that LC wore back when it was her turn. The gown was gleaming white, and in the sunlight it was radiant.

The church service itself was a fairly simple affair, as is appropriate to the occasion. We had selected the first two hymns, before and after the event - "Great is Thy Faithfulness", which featured at our wedding, and "Shine Jesus Shine", which ties into the name. (We were also lucky enough that the reading, which we did not select, fit neatly into the same theme. And the cake likewise bore an appopriate inscription.)

For the baptism itself, LC and I stood at the front together with FS's god-fathers, who are two of her uncles (my brother G and LC's brother A). One other nice touch was that the minister had invited the children forward for the all-age talk (as they had been displaced from their normal scenes), and he had them stay at the front so they could easily see. All in all, it was a really lovely occasion.

Afterwards, there was a buffet lunch and the aforementioned cake. This was really another highlight of the day, as it was a great opportunity for our families to mingle, for the many nephews and nieces to play together, and to catch up with friends - including some we hadn't seen since FS arrived, and some I hadn't seen since my 40th birthday. It was all a really positive event, with good feeling all around.

There are many thanks that should be given: to the church for allowing us the use of their hall after the service, to the caterers and the cake-maker for providing the food, and most of all to LC for arranging both. And to so many friends and family for their well-wishes and for the pleasure of their company.

Hopes For Our Daughter

One of the things we were given by the church was a storybook Bible, and for this we were asked to contribute some words of hopes for our daughter. I had somewhat expected these to be read out as part of the service (or, indeed, to be asked to read them out myself), but it was not to be. That being the case, and since we gave quite some thought to them, I thought I'd add them here:

First and foremost, may you always know that you are loved and that you are treasured.

As you go through life, may you make friends easily. May you know that words may be a balm and also a weapon, and therefore may you have the wisdom always to know the right words to use. May you always have the courage to be whoever it is that you decide to become.

May you be a light for others, even when all other lights go out. And may God go between you and harm, in all of the dark places where you must walk.

#16: "Coruscant and the Core Worlds", by Craig R. Carey, Chris Doyle, Jason Fry, Paul Sudlow, John Terra, and Daniel Wallace
#17: "Espedair Street", by Iain Banks

Friday, April 13, 2018

Ready Player One

G and I went to see the film of "Ready Player One" on Monday - LC and I had hoped to go together, but the timing with Funsize didn't really work out. As I mentioned on the blog, I had read the book last month, so I was curious to see how they'd translated it to film. I was also somewhat doubtful - with the book fresh in my mind, and given that the book is always * better, how would the film stack up?

* Not always - the actual rule is that the first version is always better. But since, these days, I'm much more likely to see a film that has been adapted from a book, rather than reading the book of the film, that effectively means the book is better. Anyway...

I didn't like RP1.

From here on out there are major spoilers for both the book and the film. So, if you want to avoid them, skip the rest of this post - there's nothing at the end to come back to!

The truth is that the book of RP1 is basically a piece of lightweight fluff, with an extremely basic plot. The only real reason it is so well regarded is that 80's nostalgia is big right now, and the book wallows unashamedly in it. And that's fair enough - there's a place for lightweight fluff, and there's a good reason that particular plot is retold again and again. And there were a couple of really quite clever moments... in addition to some quite lame ones.

In theory, the film version should be much the same. Indeed, they took the wise step of replacing most of the geek references from the book with other geek references in the film. Which means that it's fundamentally the same, but should also be different enough to stand on its own.

Unfortunately, it really felt to me like all the things they'd changed were for the worse, and all the things they kept were weaknesses in the book. Mostly, then, it made me nostalgic for other, better films - and knowing that I have many of those films on DVD, and many of the others are shown fairly regularly on TV, I'm left wondering why bother with RP1 - just watch those other films instead!

The problems start pretty much right away. One of the big changes between the book and the film, at least in gamer circles, was the replacement of the "Tomb of Horrors" with an unwinnable race. On the face of it, that's wise, since the book both gets the Tomb wrong and then has the protagonist play against Acererack at "Joust" which is, frankly, lame. So switching to something more cinematic and being able to introduce all the characters very quickly should be a good thing.

Except...

One of the few genuinely clever parts of the book is the placement of the Tomb on the school-planet of Ludus. Which is a Latin pun, but also shows one of Halliday's key values - you don't need money to win at his quest.

Switching to the unwinnable race removes that. Suddenly, you do need money, for vehicles, fuel, etc, in order to meaningfully compete.

Unfortunately, it also makes everyone in the setting an idiot. The notion, in the book, that nobody found the Tomb in five years of searching is a stretch, but it's just about feasible - it's hidden in plain sight, but somewhere nobody would really think to look.

But faced with an unwinnable race, coded by someone who is known to have a great delight in Easter Eggs, and in five whole years of searching, we're expected to believe that nobody thought to look for secret doors?

Hell, there's a real good chance that somebody's grandma would find that one entirely by accident!

But, okay, I guess.

Then we come to the next problems in the film: the supporting cast. Specifically, Art3mis and Aech. In the book, these are very much peers of our hero. Indeed, both are actually much more established Gunters than Parzival - if anything, Aech is the mentor figure, while Art3mis is actually better at it all than Parzival, but has missed one lucky guess.

In the film, Art3mis is introduced almost immediately as needing Parzival to rescue her. Then, when they decamp to Aech's workshop, he proceeds to inflict on her a test for "fake geek girls" (where the supposed geek girl must prove her credentials by recognising each and every reference the gatekeeper can muster - and yes, it's exactly as offensive as that sounds). Why they thought that was a good idea to include, I'm not sure.

Aech, meanwhile, is recast mostly as comic relief, and notably in the middle section of the film. On the face of it, this section is really good, transporting the characters into "The Shining". It's really well done, except for one thing - we're supposed to accept that Aech has never seen the film (because he "doesn't like scary movies"). When pretty much the sole qualification to be a Gunter is to immerse yourself in the culture loved by Halliday, and when that's one of his top films, that rather negates Aech's claim to competence.

Most of the rest of that middle section is absolutely fine - sure, they bring together the "High Five" in the real world rather more quickly than in the book, but that's fairly harmless. And, frankly, they should have killed off Daito (as in the book), as again that was one of the few things that gave it any weight. Oh well.

One other big change to the film is the means by which Parzival comes by his Extra Life. In the book, he stumbles on another Easter Egg, 'wastes' quite a lot of time on what seems a red herring, and so comes by a priceless artifact. In the film, he is basically given the Extra Life on a whim by another character... just because. But, I guess, in a 2 hour 20 minute film they can't include everything.

But then we come to the end, where it all proceeds to fall apart.

In another change from the book, Art3mis is captured by the enemy and sent to one of their "Loyaly Centres" (because, of course, the female character is the one who should be captured and need a rescue). The bad guys then proceed to show their massive incompetence - they put her to work inside the impregnable shield. For the main reason that if they didn't, the plot would come to a screaming halt.

So, of course, the heroes get Art3mis out of her prison, but she stays within the Matrix in order to bring down the shield. The bad guys, realising that she must still be inside, proceed to run around desperately trying to locate her. You'd think they'd have mechanisms to determine which of their rigs is currently using her unique login ID, or at the very least a mechanism to lock her out of the system, or something. (Also, see below...)

While Art3mis is busy bringing down the shield, Parzival and the others whistle up an army. In the book, this takes some time - they make the announcement, set a date, and wait to see who shows up. In the film, Parzival makes his speech and the army shows up seconds later. This highlights something really quite important - it takes very little time to get around in that setting.

So, they have the big fight. It's standard stuff these days - a mess of CGI fighting it out, with very little ability to actually see what's going on. It's all very pretty, but mostly just a waste of time. Especially since we've seen it all before.

Anyway, the good guys win, leading to the bad guys using their Ultimate Weapon - a bomb that kills all avatars in Sector 14. Except Parzival, of course, since he has the Extra Life. This therefore gives him a free run to the final challenge, and since he knows how to solve it, he can do so in a few minutes.

Except...

For those few minutes, he has to stand right there out in the open. And as we've just discussed, it takes little to no time to travel to his location. So it's a matter of a few seconds of one of the bad guys' reserve forces to go there and shoot his avatar dead. And the bad guys win.

(The book addresses this point - when you engage with the final challenge, you get shunted into a pocket dimension where you can't be interfered with. So Parzival gets a few minutes' head start, but can't be stopped by a simple bullet. The film omits this, to its cost.)

Anyway, our bad guys don't bother with any of that. Instead, they rush around in the real world trying to stop our heroes. Which is nicely cinematic but hugely inefficient. Especially as they've been shown to have drones that are quite capable of delivering an explosive package. So it would be nice and easy for them to find the van, drop off some explosives. And the bad guys win.

Anyway, they don't do that. Instead, they get themselves defeated, their agent gets himself arrested, and our heroes win the game. Yay!

Except, again...

When Art3mis was imprisoned in the "Loyalty Centre", she wasn't being detailed illegally. Instead, she had been assessed as owing the company some thousands of dollars that she needed to work off. And while working it off, she would be charged for any failure to do her job, any damage to company equipment, and pretty much anything else they felt like charging her for. And, indeed, they company had been shown to be utter bastards about that - indeed, that was exactly what they had done to her father.

Now, Art3mis wasn't an observer in the final battle; she was very much an active participant. And, indeed, she triggered the battle by disabling a priceless one-use artifact.

So, being utter bastards, and given that they had just lost the contest directly as a result of the actions of someone who (a) has just been given a fifth of the prize and (b) who represents significant leverage on the other four winners, the bad guys would surely not simply take that lying down. Sure, a couple of their agents had just been arrested, but corporations have rogue employees all the time, of course, so they can be easily disavowed.

Our bad guys, therefore, should just levy absurd charges to Art3mis' account, potentially charging her for everything that was lost in the final battle, including the priceless one-use artifact. At the very least, that gives them a 20% control in the system; most likely, it leads to the other winners buying her out. And the bad guys win.

The upshot of all this, I'm afraid, was that I was unimpressed.

Ultimately, the film is very pretty, but it's also pretty dull - a very basic plot, very thin characters, and a requirement that the bad guys make really bad mistakes at key times just left me cold. It reminded me too much of better films, and didn't have enough in itself for me to recommend it. Which is a shame, though maybe something I should have expected.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Day 100: Update on... Stuff

It's day 100, so time for another update...

Books: By day 100, I 'should' be at 16.44 books read. I'm currently at 15 and a bit, so I'm some way behind. I had actually caught up last month, but "A Fine Balance" took me ages to get through.

In terms of the actual goal I set, I'm just about on target, in that I've read 3 of the remaining books, leaving a further 8 (or 7 - "Hamlet"). But given that "A Fine Balance" was one of them, and they're getting harder...

Band: Things have been going well, but there's not much to report since last time. We do have a heavy schedule of gala days and similar events for the summer, but I won't be doing them all. In fact, unless they sort out what they're doing with getting me a uniform, I might not be doing any of them!

Gaming: Nothing to report since last time.

Weight: I got back to the gym just before going back on holiday, which was a good thing. Between that and carrying Funsize around, I've actually lost about half a stone, which is good.

Blogging: This has fallen way behind, with me not having posted anything on either blog this month. We'll see if that rate picks up any over the next while.

And leaving the most important until last...

Project Tadpole: As noted, this came to its end in February. Funsize is due to be baptised on Sunday. Beyond that, though, I won't be reporting on events in these regular updates, though I daresay I may mention her once or twice elsewhere in the blog!

Until next time...

#14: "A Fine Balance", by Rohinton Mistry (a book from The List)
#15: "Pathfinder: Crownfall", by Thurston Hillman

Friday, March 30, 2018

Why the Return of Optimus Prime is a Bad Thing

This blog is never one to shy away from controversial topics, nor from addressing the burning issues of the day, and so we come to a blog post that may surprise some.

A few weeks ago, as part of my project to retire my Region One DVDs, I purchased a set of the Transformers DVDs for series 2-4. I'm now nearly at the end of my watch-though, with only two episodes in series 3 (plus the 3 episodes of series 4) to watch. Those last two episodes are the long-awaited "Return of Optimus Prime", where the producers responded to the massive backlash from the film by bringing back the most beloved of all Saturday morning heroes. (Indeed, so massive was the controversy that when the film was released in the UK they felt the need to add an epilogue in which that very return was promised! And they call this the Snowflake generation!)

But there's a big problem with the return of Optimus Prime - it's a really bad thing.

"Transformers: the Movie" is little more than yet another retelling of the Hero's Journey - Hot Rod starts as the brash young hope, gradually learns maturity and leadership, and eventually fulfils his destiny to release the power of the Matrix. (Incidentally, it's also something of a retelling of the end of the Exodus - Optimus Prime is Moses, the leader who is allowed to see, but not to enter, the Promised Land, Ultra Magnus is Joshua the warrior, and Hot Rod is David the promised king. Oh, and Unicron is Goliath. But I digress.) And the Hero's Journey is essentially the story of the transition to adulthood - the boy becomes the man.

One of the big themes of the third series of Transformers is Rodimus Prime's (Hot Rod's) struggle to live up to the legacy of Optimus Prime. He's constantly doubting himself, and needs reassured that he's doing a good job. Indeed, in two episodes ("Dark Awakening" and "The Burden Hardest to Bear") gives up leadership for one reason or another. But in both cases he eventually learns his lesson, resumes the mantle, and grows as a result.

Now, Rodimus Prime frankly isn't a patch on Optimus, partly because nobody could be, and partly because the character is really quite lame - right from the name ('Rodimus' comes from mashing up 'Hot Rod' and 'Optimus'); the fact that the toy is less good than Optimus, Ultra Magnus, or even Hot Rod; and that self-doubt makes for difficult storytelling. And yet, that character arc is actually one of the strongest parts of the otherwise very poor series 3 - having to overcome doubt and learn that you don't have to live up to an illustrious predecessor is a surprisingly mature theme for a children's TV show.

The problem with the return of Optimus Prime is that it necessarily reverses all that, and negates everything that has gone before. Rodimus is forces to give up the Matrix, and leadership. He reverts to the brash young hope that is Hot Rod. He ceases to be the adult he has become, and instead returns to being a child. Which, as life lessons go, just sucks.

The death of Optimus Prime is one of those things that I'm sure the makers of the series really wish they hadn't done, but it's also one of the biggest strengths of the movie, and one of the reasons that it still holds up where so much else from that time just falls by the wayside. And replacing Optimus with Rodimus was always going to be a really hard sell. But, from a storytelling perspective, it is really better to live with it and move on, rather than just negate the whole thing and pretend it never happened.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

None of the Above

In light of the recent events in Catalonia, and especially the EU's silence on the matter (especially of elected politicians being jailed pre-trial by the Spanish authorities), I find I can no longer support the EU or our continued membership in it.

Unfortunately, I'm also in a position where I can't support the decision to leave, won as it was through outright lies (see: the bus), and fuelled by a mix of nostalgia for a golden age that never was (and an Empire that the world is better off without) and an unpleasant amount of xenophobia. (I should note: voting Leave doesn't make a person a racist, but unfortunately it does put you on the same side.)

Which means I now find myself in a position where, given a binary choice, my answer is "none of the above".

(Realistically, I would still vote to Remain, but it is despite the EU rather than because of it. Having seen the damage that leaving has caused already, and knowing that what's coming is going to be much worse, it's a no-brainer. But it's not a matter of self-interest, rather than of principle. Which is a lousy position to be in.)

Fake News

The BBC Scotland website currently has an article, "Irn Bru sales go up after new recipe introduced", indicating that Barrs have just had their best-ever year of sales.

Specifically, the sales numbers referred to are those up to the 27th of January this year (see the twelfth paragraph). The problem with that being that the recipe change occurred in late January of this year - indeed, I purchased at least some original Irn Bru even in February of this year.

So, in fact, this is a story about Irn Bru sales going up before the new recipe was introduced.

Ultimately, this is a story that doesn't really matter - Barrs will no doubt be looking at the up-to-date sales figures and will make a decision based on the reality and not the friendly spin the media has chosen to give them.

But it raises (again) a question: if they're willing to lie to you about this, what else are they willing to lie to you about? (Well... I suppose it's possible that this is just gross incompetence on the person who wrote the headline. I'm not sure that's really any better.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Another Cause for Celebration

Today I received confirmation that I'm getting a promotion at work. Which is good - it's something that has been on the cards for quite some time, and that I've been working very hard to secure.

Later, there may be cake. Or ice cream. Or both.