Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #27: Chicken Tikka Masala

Ages ago, I mentioned that the chicken fajitas was an opportunity for Jamie to convert me from a boxed kit to fresh-cooked food. On that occasion, he failed to convert me; the fajitas were just too much hassle to prepare (although they were great). We come now to another great favourite, and another opportunity for conversion.

As I've just discussed, the home-cooked option turns out to be considerably cheaper than the jar option, which was somewhat surprising. The tikka masala is also the quickest of Jamie's curries to cook - the simmer step is 'only' twenty minutes. (Besides, I think the best plan is to cook up a batch on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday when I have time, and fill my freezer with curries to eat later.) And the instructions were simple enough to follow, with very little real risk of going wrong. So, it was all down to taste.

And so, I'm pleased to report, I have been converted. The chicken tikka was a triumph, tasting much the same as the jar version, but perhaps slightly smoother. Basically, it's another winner.

So, that will be 4-1 in "Easy Curries". I still haven't managed to find time for any of his rice variants, nor for the vegetable bhajis, which is unfortunate. Next up is "Vindaloo", which could be interesting.

The Grand Experiment, Week Two

This week I again shopped in Tesco. Do to an unfortunate mix-up, I actually had to make several trips. The list below represents the combined list from these three.
  • Fresh Chicken Breast (800g), £7.78
  • Coriander, £1.49
  • Coconut Milk, 1 tin, £1.29
  • Chopped Tomatoes, 1 tin, £0.56
  • Pappadums, £1.49
  • Onions (2), £0.37
  • Irn Bru (24 cans), £6.78
  • Sandwich meat, £1.80
  • Muller Lite Yoghurt (12), £5
  • Finish Dishwasher Tablets (30), £3.67
  • Shampoo, £2
  • Tomatoes (6), £0.80
  • Soap (4), £0.76
  • Air Freshener, £0.59 (not counted)
  • Bananas (6), £0.83

The reason the air freshener isn't counted is that that spray is likely to last at least a year. The total of the three trips was £36.68 (actually, much higher than I'd expected). The running total is now £71.36.

I was also unable to get cotton buds, which was annoying. Of course, it's always possible that they've stopped making them due to the risk of ruptured eardrums.

Why Cans?

As I'm sure you've noticed, I purchased 24 cans of Irn Bru. Clearly, it would be much cheaper to buy four 2 litre bottles instead. There are two reasons for this: a single 2 litre bottle would be expected to last a whole week, all being well. Of course, it would be flat after two days, which isn't good. Also, when pouring a glass from a bottle, it's quite hard to judge the serving size, such that that bottle might only be five glasses. A can, on the other hand, is a fixed quantity.

The cost of home-cooked food

This week's "Experimental Cookery Tuesday" is chicken tikka masala, which is something I have had frequently. This provided an ideal opportunity to compare the costs of doing business. My gut feeling was that Jamie's version would be more expensive, but by how much?

While in Tesco, I priced up the two methods of cooking.

From a Jar: This version requires one jar of Tikka Masala sauce (£1.46) and 400g of chicken (£3.89). This makes for two servings, giving a cost of £2.68 per serving.

Home cooked: Ingredients: 800g chicken (£7.78), 2 Onions (0.37), 1 Chilli (£0.18), Ginger (0.30), Coriander (£0.35 approx), Tikka Paste (£0.68), Chopped Tomatoes (£0.56), Coconut Milk (£1.29), Yoghurt (£0.65), Almonds (£0.17 approx), Lemon (£0.30). This cooks up six servings, giving a total cost of £2.11 per serving.

Neither of these include incidentals, such as salt, pepper, cooking oil or butter; or sides such as rice.

So, surprisingly, the home-cooked option costs more than 50 pence less per serving than the version from the jar. I suspect the reason for this is that the jar option is all meat and sauce, while the home-cooked option is bulked out with vegetables, which are obviously considerably less expensive.

Experimental Cookery Breakfasts #9: Omlette

My Egg Odyssey is finally at its end!

While Jamie has taken great strides in rehabilitating my old food nemesis, fish, he has utterly failed to do the same for eggs. While this foodstuff has the undeniable virtue of a versatility rivalled only by the potato, it remains something I really don't like. And the omlette did nothing for that - once again I ate just enough to count as having tried it, then ferried the rest to the bin.

He's now running at 4-5 against in the breakfasts chapter. It will be a while before I get chance to try the next item on the list: granola.


I was informed today that I've allowed myself to slip back into an old habit that really needs broken. This was unfortunate, but it's better to know.

Unfortunately, where I thought this meant today was a good day disguised as a bad day, it turned out to be a bad day disguised as a bad day. Cunning.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

How can that be a good idea?

There is a new entry in my "Telephone Heirarchy of Loathing"!

My phone rang this morning. I picked it up, wedged it between ear and shoulder, and proceeded to do what I was busy doing. It turned out to be an automated telesales message, wanting to sell me broadband.

Of course, my standard response to such calls is to hang up. (Actual telemarketers do at least get the courtesy of a "no thanks" before I do this - even that guy who wanted me to sign up for a new credit card.) However, I had both hands full, and so had to listen in for a moment.

Anyway, the first sentence of the message ended, and then the voice said, "Answering yes or no, would you be interested..." Fortunately, I had emptied a hand by this time, and so hung up.

But did you see it?

They've actually combined an automated switchboard (#1 on the list) with automated telesales (#2)! And they've made it voice-activated as well!

Ah, it warms the cold depths of my heart to find a new high entry for my "Telephone Heirarchy of Loathing". Today has been a most productive day.

Experimental Cookery Breakfasts #8: Poached Eggs

This one was not bad actually. I knew what I was in for, as the full monty breakfast had included a poached egg. Still, I think it works better as a part of the larger breakfast, and not so well as a breakfast in itself.

I'm going to call this 4-4, although this was definitely the most successful of the eggs thus far. Still, it remained a case of eating just enough to count it as having been done, and then binning the rest.

Tomorrow, I should be trying the omlette, and then I'll be done with eggs. Huzzah!

Also, there are now some four breakfasts to go, so I'm nearing the end of that chapter. After which, I think I'll move on to "Experimental Cookery Lunches", and tackle the soups.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Two Quick Follow-ups

  • I decided to take a walk back to Tesco to get the two missing items. I will update the 'shopping list' post as soon as I'm done here.
  • The AA replied to my email, inviting me to phone their renewals department (and giving detailed instructions for navigating their automatic switchboard!). Once I got through and explained my concern, I was very quickly offered a 35% discount on my renewal. Given that I was really wanting a 25% discount, to match the online offering, I was more than happy with this*. (Actually, I'm now a little concerned. It is right that companies should make a reasonable profit for offering a service, and I'm not sure what their margin is. Which is really why I was going for parity with the offer for new customers, which I'm sure must be calculated to be profitable. Still, I haven't had to call them out in the last year, so I guess that was almost pure profit, so... I think that's the principle I'll adhere to: if I have to call them out, then I'll accept the renewal price as-is. If not, I'll expect them to at least match their 'new customer' discount.)

* In the same vein as yesterday's marketing note (about the 10x cost difference for new vs repeat customers), here's a note about customer service: studies have shown that if a customer meets with a problem that is then swiftly and correctly resolved, that customer will rate the overall service as being better than they would if there had been no problem at all. Presumably, the psychology is that if things go wrong, that can be put down to luck, but it is in the fixing of problems that people show their quality.

And that's part of the reason why I was always going to renew with the AA if they matched their 25% online discount. I'm aware that cheaper alternatives exist out there, and on the face of it, it makes no sense to pay more for the same service. However, the truth is that their service has always been very very good, so as a matter of principle I wasn't going to abandon that simply over money. It's just that there was another principle that was also at work - that I shouldn't pay more than a new customer, because loyalty should go both ways.

(Or, at least, that's how I justify it to myself. Perhaps I'm either a fool or am unreasonably mercenary. Feel free to let me know.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #26: Leftover Curry Biriani

This one was constructed using three of the remaining five servings from last week's rogan josh. It essentially amounts to a different way to prepare a curry, with the added effect of expanding three servings of curry into four fairly generous portions.

Whatever, it tasted very nice, and is certainly something I may well prepare again at some point.

That'll be 3-1 to Jamie in the "Easy Curries" chapter. The next dish on the menu is a real classic: Chicken Tikka Masala. This next one represents another chance for Jamie to convert me from 'kit food' to 'home-cooked food' (the previous time being the fajitas, which he didn't quite manage). This will also give me opportunity to analyse the relative costs of eating home-cooked food versus food prepared from a jar. My gut feeling is that there really isn't much in it, but the home-cooked food certainly tastes better (and is better for me).

So, all in all, it should be interesting. Also, I'm enjoying this curries chapter.

Oh, wow

I have been a member of the AA (for those crazy folks States-side: that's the Automobile Association) for ten years. And, to be fair to them, I have been entirely happy with the service I have received from them. Whenever I have needed to call them out, they have come out, and usually managed to fix the problem at the roadside, as promised.

I have also been on an automated renewal scheme for those ten years, and my renewal notice has recently arrived. At the time, I noted that the price had gone up, and thought it looked a bit steep (but not too bad, all in all).

Anyway, I checked their website, and found that new customers are offered the same service at a 25% discount. So, in other words, my reward for ten years of loyalty is the wonderful opportunity to pay a lot extra for the same service.

Now, I understand the fact that web prices will generally be lower than the equivalent price bought in a store. After all, the web price reflects the reduction in costs, in terms of floor space, staffing, and so forth. But then, an automated renewal costs even less to process than a new order from any source whatsoever.

I also understand the concept of an introductory rate. The problem here is that marketing guys will tell you that it costs much more to attract new customers than it does to retain existing ones. In fact, it costs about ten times as much per customer to do so. So, actually, if there's anyone who should receive a discount, it is repeat customers rather than new ones.

And there's a third factor here. If I wanted, I could cancel my renewal, then immediately rejoin as a member, and thus take advantage of the 25% discount. And, next year, I could do the same again, and so on and so forth. But then, it doesn't really make sense to do so. A better solution is to cancel, then visit one of the price comparison websites, find the best and cheapest provider (who, incidentally, isn't the AA), and save even more money. Rather than lose out on a 25% introductory deposit, they'd find themselves losing out on 100% of my custom.

I've emailed them, pointing all this out. It will be interesting to see their response.

However, I do find myself rather troubled by this development. I'm a very strong believer in the concept of paying a fair price for a fair service and, taken in isolation, the price they were quoting probably was fair. It's only when contrasted with a 25% discount for new customers that it becomes manifestly unfair. That, frankly, is rather insulting.

And that, I believe, is the rub. The relative costs of acquiring versus keeping customers means that successful businesses should be built around repeat business, and keeping customers happy. But, more and more we see companies offering extremely generous limited-time introductory offers to attract new business, and treating new customers extremely well, while at the same time treating loyal and repeat customers very poorly by comparison. (Indeed, Sky are displaying exactly this behaviour right now - had I been a new customer, I bet they would have had me installed, and all problems fixed, within a week of me moving in. Instead, more than a month later, they still haven't managed to get everything working right.)

So, we'll see what happens. Ideally, the AA will respond with a comment to the effect that they'll renew my cover at the same price they'd offer to new customers. (Even better would be if they actually fix the problem permanently, but that's too much to hope for.) Unfortunately, I rather expect them to respond with a form email about "web exclusives", "limited time offers" and "policy". In which case, I will reward their loyalty with my own.

Update on Goals

I'm a bit concerned about the two goals I stated in January.

In order to read 52 books in the year, I 'should' have read about 13 by the end of this month. Which would seem to put me squarely on course. However, I should also be reading books at a rate of about one a week, but this has not been the case recently. The most recent book took me three weeks to get through, and this was quite a quick read. In order to get through my current book in a week, I would need to read 68 pages per night without fail, and that's a rate I just can't commit to. There are too many other things that I want to get done.

Still, I'm not going to abandon the goal, for two reasons. The first is that maintaining the goal, even if it ultimately fails, should push me onwards, which is a good thing. And the second, of course, is that I'm actually still ahead of where I should be, albeit just barely - it doesn't make much sense to give up at this point!

Similarly, the weight loss gain has been frustratingly elusive of late. This morning, the scales moved downward for the first time in about four weeks. The end is in sight, but it remains a blip on the horizon for the time being - there are some eight pounds to go.

Back in January, I said I would decide on some other goals for this year. I never quite got around to it, but I do now have a (partial) list to share:

  • Super Secret Goal #1.
  • Super Secret Goal #2
  • Pick up a new skill - it has been too long. At the moment, I'm torn between learning Java (again) and really getting to grips with the whole Object Oriented paradigm; or learning either Italian (most likely) or Spanish. The first would probably be better from a professional standpoint, but the latter has the advantage of not being work-related.
  • Save £2,000 by the start of June, in case I need to buy a new car - that's the shortfall between my current budget and the estimated cost of my most likely next car. That said, I'm still hoping to get one more year out of my current car.
  • I have decided that this coming financial year will be the one in which I really get a grip on my finances. They're actually pretty solid, but there are a few things that have been allowed to drift, and where money is bleeding out. That's why I'm conducting the Grand Experiment. It is also my intention to revisit my charitable donations (most of which were set up years ago and then forgotten about, which means they're a bit light), to ensure my pension arrangements are properly optimised, to start rebuilding the savings I've just spent on buying a house, and to determine if there's anything else I should be doing.
  • Improve on last year's dismal performance with the band. I believe the goal here should be to pick up more than one prize in the season, and to qualify for the final at at least three out of the four 'majors' we attend. I believe these are realistic goals, and indeed the Pipe Major may feel those are actually under-ambitious goals. However, this is also the only goal that isn't mine alone, so I'm disinclined to be too ambitious.
  • 'Complete' the move to the new apartment. This involves finishing the living area with dining table and chairs, setting up bookshelves in the Purple Room, acquiring a tumble drier and some pictures for the walls, and hosting the housewarming party. Oh, and getting that damn Sky installation fixed.
  • Reduce the amount of TV I watch. With "Clone Wars" finished and "Battlestar Galactica" ending tonight, that's an hour and a half per week freed up. However, I'd like to eventually get down to no more than six hours a week (plus perhaps a movie or two a week). Ironically, the first step in this appears to be to get caught up on all the shows I've missed in the past month.
  • Complete the "Star Wars Saga Edition" campaign, and begin my next "Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay" campaign.

And that's it. There may be other goals crop up, but with eleven to work on in the next nine to twelve months, that's more than enough. In fact, it's probably too much to do.

The Grand Experiment Begins

Back in Yeovil, there was a choice of two supermarkets, Asda and Tesco. The Asda was twice as far from home as the Tesco, and was not well stocked, and so I fell into shopping at Tesco by default.

In Falkirk, the town centre has an Asda, a Tesco and a Morrisons, all within half a mile of each other. However, out of pure inertia, I have continued shopping at Tesco. The thing is that while each of the supermarkets will claim that they sell some number of things cheaper than their rivals, that statistic is actually rather meaningless. The key questions are, instead, which supermarket sells the things that I buy most cheaply? And, do they sell all the things that I actually want to buy?

Of course, there's another wrinkle to this, which is that the list of things I buy is not the same each week. Where possible, I buy things in bulk, which means that the cost varies. And that means that a simple one-week comparison shop just won't get to the heart of the matter.

So, instead, I have started a grand experiment, one that will last for the next twelve weeks. The plan is simple: for four consecutive weeks I will shop at one of the supermarkets, keep track of what was bought and the costs, and also anything that they didn't have. At the end of the four weeks, I will have an approximate monthly total for that supermarket. Once all three are done, a choice can be made.

One caveat: there may be key items that get discounted from comparison (indeed, there is one this first week), because they represent an unusual expense. For example, the food and drink I'll be buying for the housewarming party won't be counted in the totals. Naturally, these will be marked appropriately.

And so, week one. The store of the month is Tesco. I got everything that was on my list.
The itemised list is as follows:

  • "Quantum of Solace" DVD, £7 (not counted)
  • Toilet rolls (9), £4.72
  • Muller Lite yoghurt (12), £5
  • Microwave Steamed Veg, £1.25
  • Cooked Chicken, £1.80
  • Milk (4 pints), £1.72
  • Bread (2 loaves), £1.30
  • Basmati Rice, £3.36
  • Turmeric, £1.26
  • Fennel Seeds, £1.61
  • Whole Cloves, £2.34
  • Fruit Juice (2 litres), £2
  • Tomatoes (6), £0.80
  • Lettuce, £0.98
  • Bananas (6), £0.66
  • Onions (2), £0.24
  • Greek Yoghurt, £0.65
  • Mouthwash (blue), £2
  • Whole Almonds (700g), £2.99
The total was £41.68, but once the DVD is discounted, this drops to £34.68.

Note: this post has been edited with the addition of the last two items.

#13, "Emperor: The Death of Kings", by Conn Iggulden

Friday, March 20, 2009

Three down - eventually

Would you believe that the day my internet was connected, my broadband modem decided to die on me? Well, it did. There then followed a lengthy period of messing around with an old wired modem, that turned out to be incompatible with Windows Vista (of course), then a trip to Maplin just before they closed, and now I'm back online.

Now all I need to do is persuade the Sky Guy that there really is a problem with my box, and have it replaced (it's currently in a working-again phase), and I'll be all set up.


On the other hand, maybe I should just give up Sky when my current contract expires next year. By then, "24", "Lost", "Prison Break" and "Battlestar Galactica" will all have finished, and I wouldn't be surprised to see "Terminator" cancelled by then also. That only leaves "Clone Wars" amongst my must-watch shows. (Sadly, "Chuck" seems to have disappeared entirely, and I lost track of "The Unit" after the end of the second season.)

And the raft of new shows that seem to be about to start really don't grab me. There are a couple of things I might be enticed to give a go, but there's nothing that's really making waves. Back when "Heroes" and "Lost" started, there was huge buzz from the States, such that it was pretty clear that I had to at least give them a go. But now? Nothing.

A lucky escape

Yesterday, I very nearly cancelled the appointment to have the Sky Guy come back. Fortunately I didn't, because late in the evening my system suddenly stopped working.

Based on the nature of the failure, I'm actually reasonably sure that the problem isn't in the actual connections, but rather in the box itself. As mentioned before, there are two TV inputs, and when I made the appointment one of the two wasn't working right, but switching the connections over seemed to fix the problem. It is now that same input that isn't working again, despite now being connected to the other wire. This suggests its the input, rather than the wire. New box.

Which rather neatly brings me to another topic.

As we know, extended warranties on appliances are generally a con. They're a means by which stores can first sell you appliances, and then sell you insurance, so that if they turn out to be defective, they might actually replace them. When, in fact, a three or even five-year warranty should be standard on these things - anything less shows sloppy build quality. (Bear in mind - if the appliances are sufficiently well-built, a three-year warranty will be a net zero cost to the supplier, since nobody will have to actually use it.)

However, somehow, I managed to let myself be talked into an extended warranty for my Sky+ box. It is the only extended warranty I have on anything (except my bed - the salesman threw the warranty in as a 'sweetener' to help seal the deal). And, somehow, I've managed to actually come out ahead on the deal - assuming I'm right that it is the box, I will now have had to have two boxes replaced thanks to the extended warranty.

The truth is, though, that this isn't surprising. As far as consumer electronics go, the Sky+ box is quite obviously an example of cheap rubbish (albeit actually quite expensive cheap rubbish - the benefit of being exclusively supplied). It seems to be designed to do a job, just barely, with lots of glitches, and regular breakdowns.

By contrast, my DVD player has survived nine years, heavy usage, three house moves, several weeks in storage, and being dropped rather spectacularly by my father. My previous (rather expensive) TV lasted eight years of very heavy use before it finally failed.

And that's the cruel reality of consumerism. Quality is expensive, but does count. And, paradoxically, this means that the rich (who can afford the immediate expense of buying quality) end up paying less for things than do the poor (who much go for cheaper options, and replace more often).

Unfortunately, as I noted, Sky boxes appear to be supplied exclusively through Sky, there doesn't seem to be a choice, and even if there were there seem to be only a few variants, each as bad as the others. I guess it really is just a matter of enduring near-annual failures to get these boxes replaced, and continuing to pay the fees for the extended warranty (since it works out cheaper - just - to pay that than to pay for a new box each time). Yay.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #25: Lamb Rogan Josh

With having to leave work early on Monday to meet the Sky Guy, I had two hours extra time to work. I made up those hours on Tuesday, which made the day a bit of an epic. And, on arriving home, I decided I really didn't fancy cooking, and especially cooking a meal with a one-hour simmer stage.

However, last night I made up for this, cooking up the lamb rogan josh. It was worth the wait.
This one was very easy to put together, despite the long cook time. Basically, chop the ingredients, and then add them to the pot in the right order. Once each is cooked, add the next, then simmer (for an hour), and then serve. Easy.

However, these long cooking times are a real problem. I'll definately have this again, but I will need to do it by stocking up the freezer with a batch cooked at the weekends when I'm free. I won't be cooking this again on a weeknight.

Anyway, that will be 2-1 in "Easy Curries". The next one is "Leftover Curry Biryani", the meal I skipped in order to have the lamb rogan josh to use as the leftover curry. Also, I still haven't gotten anywhere on the rice issue.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

England 2018?

In light of the recession, the team responsible for putting together the Olympics in London in 2012 have said that they probably would not have bid, had they known the true costs and the state of the economy.

The economy is currently dire. And, even when the recession does end, we're going to have a long period when things are still pretty tough. We're going to have to pay higher taxes to cover the currently-reduced rate of VAT, to fill the black hole caused by buying all those banks, to pay for the government's current raft of social projects, and to undo the damage caused by the so-called easing that is going on. Things are going to be hard for a good long time.

Which leads me to question just why it is that the powers-that-be thought now would be a good time to put in bids for England to host the World Cup in either 2018 or 2022. It has to be considered a massive extravagance, and is very likely to be a net-loss maker. Even if it does make money overall, those gains are going to be heavily concentrated around London, and not even close to balanced across England, never mind the UK as a whole.

This isn't an "England shouldn't have the World Cup" rant. In general, it is right that this country bids for prestigious events of this nature. ("This country" being the UK, of course. But, in real terms, only England can host the World Cup. That's the price we pay for having four national teams.) It's just that this really isn't the time.

Single Sex Schooling

So, according to this article, girls do better in single-sex schools. This is not a surprise. What the article doesn't say, and what is also not surprising, is that boys also do better in single-sex schools, especially when taught primarily by male teachers. And, in fact, the disparity is rather greater than for girls.

(Of course, I'm also not at all surprised that we have an article like this commenting on the benefits to girls, but not a corresponding article for boys. Despite the fact that girls do better than boys at school anyway, and have done for many years. Despite the fact that, with the occasional blip here and there, girls pull further ahead with each year. And despite the fact that our mixed-sex schools are structured with a very strong pro-female bias.)


One of the things that invariably gets missed in discussions of this sort, and also the inevitable raft of condemnations that follow from yet another improvement in the pass rate in exams, is that there is more to education that pure exam performance. Indeed, not everything that needs to be learnt at school is academic at all.

There is also a social aspect to schooling that gets neglected. Indeed, I completely missed the importance of this at the time, because it wasn't flagged up. It's only in hindsight that I realise that something has been missed.

And, indeed, it is because of this social aspect that school is often referred to as, "the best years of my life". (Though, obviously, not my life.) Those were the years when most people had most friends. That was the time when they were forced to deal with all manner of people, and not merely isolate themselves from anyone they found even slightly annoying, as is so common these days. They were also the years when most people had their best ever access to members of the opposite sex, rivalled only by university.

Single sex education removes that. It removes pupils from interaction with fully 50% of the population, and indeed the 50% who are biologically and culturally programmed to think in a distinctly different manner, at the crucial time when they are best able to actually learn the social interaction skills that they will need later in life.

Note: that's need, not would like. Those skills are at least as necessary as reading, writing and arithmetic, and a whole lot more necessary than French, Geography, Art, or many of the other pointless things we were forced to do to fill up the hours.

So, it's fair to say that I'm not a fan of single sex schooling, and even less so of home schooling. And also single-faith schools, single-race schools, or any of the other -ism schools that one might dream up (many of which are nobly motivated by ideals of equality, but many of which undermine the very social inclusion that they hope to foster).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

And throw away the key!

Last night, while I was at band, I missed a call from cousin Juliet. "Uh oh," I thought to myself, "she is so incensed at being called the second most interesting part of my weekend that she has called to wreak her revenge!"

It turned out to be Chris calling on another matter, but then I got to work this morning and found a comment from her questioning this very statement. So, I guess I'd best explain.

On Saturday night I was pulled over by the police. This was something of a shock. Fortunately, I have managed a Jack Bauer-esque escape, and am currently on the run. At work. Um...

It being my neice's baptism on Sunday, my parents had several visitors over, including all three grandparents. Due to my scheduling mishap, I was no longer triple-booked, and so went over to keep them entertained. En route home, I stopped at the Tesco about half a mile from home, and filled up the car, in order to be able to actually get to the baptism. So far, so good.

Anyway, on leaving the station, it being a clear night with good visibility, and there being absolutely no-one around, I drove home quickly. Very quickly, you might say, although I didn't actually break the speed limit at any point, if for no other reason that the roads just wouldn't allow for it. But, what I did do was take a handful of corners very quickly. (One of the advantages of having driven the same car for eight years, and having done more than 100,000 miles in it, is that I know pretty much exactly what it can and can't do.)

Well, they didn't like it. And so, just as I made the last turn before home (which, actually, I slowed right down for, it being a tight turn into a fairly narrow street), they lit up, and stopped me.

I was approached first by the police woman. Was I in a hurry? Because I'd been driving quickly, and taking those turns very fast. Her account of the drive was rather exaggerated, but I elected not to contradict it - that's never an argument that you're going to win. We were joined then by her partner.

At this point, it was becoming rather clear that I wasn't what they had expected. I think they'd expected a boy racer type, probably somewhat drunk. The cinema car park (which adjoins Tesco) is their typical haunt. And, let's face it, I do drive an old car, the sort that someone on their 'first car' might drive. So, they probably weren't expecting me.

Anyway, they decided they should probably run the standard checks, to be sure - a registration check on the vehicle (good thing I'd updated the registration promptly on moving in), a check on the tyres (slighty frisson of doubt on that one - how often does one really change the tyres?), and then the "have you had anything to drink" question. When the answer came back no, they didn't doubt it.

I guess at that point they had weighed up that actually, they had nothing on me. I wasn't speeding, I hadn't been drinking, the car was road worthy, registered, insured, MOT'ed, and I had a license. The only thing that might possibly have been there was maybe dangerous driving - but that one is inherently subjective, and in the absence of an accident, or some other law broken, I don't think that one can be made to stick. And, besides, appearances to the contrary I had always been in control of the car, so that was that.

Slightly amusingly, after they had done all their checks, while waiting for the DVLA checks to finally come back, they elected to engage me in small talk. When I said I was just heading home for the night, they commented that they were on until 7 the next morning. And, when I commented that I quite liked Falkirk, the response was that I must not see the parts that they see. I guess that's true. (Although, I suspect even those worst parts aren't actually all that bad. There doesn't really seem to be anything to compare with, say, Glasgow. And, besides, when compared with Yeovil, which was essentially dead on the weekend, even what trouble there is is probably preferable. And, to their credit, the police in Falkirk actually do a very good job.)

Anyway, they let me go, without even a warning. Of course, that didn't do too much good for my ability to get a decent night's sleep that night. But, hey, it gives me something to talk about.

(I must say, though, that between this and the TV license thing, I'm beginning to feel like the world's worst criminal. I mean, how am I supposed to develop a reputation as a rogue and scoundrel if I keep not actually doing anything wrong? I can't even turn myself in for the reward!)

Two down. Or not. Yes it is! Or is it?

The answer is a resounding: maybe.

By about 2 yesterday, I was becoming increasingly sure that the Sky Guy wasn't coming. And, to be fair, there was justification for that - the previous team had said that the job couldn't be done on a wet roof, and it had been raining hard when I left in the morning. But, much to my surprise, I received a call just after half two, and off home I went.

An hour later, the team arrived, and an hour after that, the installation was done. They wired up the system, checked that the key functions were all working (I could see Sky 1, Sky Sports 1, Sky Movies Premier, could record, playback, and view one programme while recording another). All in all, it looked good. And so off they went, and all was well with the world.

For about ten minutes.

After a while, I chanced to flick across to Sky 2, to be met with the message, "No satellite signal is being received." Sky 3 was the same, as was Virgin 1, and a number of other channels. But Sky 1 remained intact, as did the others I had been able to view.

So, I called technical services, and the guy there took me through retuning the box, and a few other things, but to no avail. We'd need to book in a visit to have the system looked at. And so I was put through to yet another guy.

And, of course, the next available appointment was next Monday.

But, just before signing off, the guy did mention one trick: if I set the system to record a channel, and then tuned to a channel I couldn't otherwise see, that would force the system to use its other input, and might help. Which, indeed, it did. (At this point, a suspicion emerged - there had been a wire already connected to the pre-existing dish, and it had been reused for this installation. So, perhaps I had one 'good' wire, and one that needed replaced?) Anyway, in light of this, the guy suggested unplugging both wires and switching them over. And then the call was over.

When I switched the cables over, the problems disappeared entirely. All channels are now available, and I can record two of the previously-bad channels simultaneously without issue. It's entirely possible that the root cause was nothing more than a loose connection, that has now been fixed, and won't be coming back.

So... I'm going to leave the appointment in place until Saturday evening. If I don't have any further problems by then, I'll call and cancel - no point getting a team out to a system that is actually working, and I can do without the hassle.

It will be good if this really is the end of the matter. The past three weeks have actually shown quite clearly that Sky (and, actually, TV in general) really isn't something I'm all that dependent on, especially once I'm no longer 'current' on the shows I'm watching. However, it was always something that I 'should' have been able to get, and having the constant battle to actually get it installed was a real source of stress.

And now, all that remains is for the broadband to get switched on, hopefully on Thursday.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #24: Vegetable Jalfrezi

Due to scheduling mix up, I found myself going from being triple-booked on Saturday afternoon to being at a loose end. Which provided a fine opportunity for me to steal a march of this week's Tuesday (which may be similarly busy). Hence this post.

For reasons unknown, I found it impossible for find the required jalfrezi paste for this recipe. I tried four different supermarkets, and while I was able to track down every other paste in the range, the jalfrezi eluded me. (I did take the opportunity to stock up on the others for later use.) In the end, therefore, I was forced to substitute, using a jalfrezi cook-in sauce that seemed about as close as I was going to get. In the end, I don't think it made much difference.

This meal was also a fine opportunity for me to break in my exciting new casserole dish, which was obviously hugely exciting. It is a sad comment on the state of my life that this represents the third most interesting thing to happen to me on Saturday. (The second most interesting was receiving a long-expected call from Juliet about the weeding of the year. As for the most interesting, well, watch this space...)

The meal itself cooked fairly easily, despite being fairly time consuming. Lots of chopping of vegetables, and then that long 45-minute simmer stage.

And when it came out... eh. Like so much vegetarian food, it was nice enough but rather lacking. I ended up with eight servings, seven of which are now in my freezer to be consumed at a later date. But, once those are done, I don't expect I'll be having this one again.
I'm going to call that 1-1.

The next entry in the book is "Leftover Curry Biryani". However, as this obviously requires a leftover curry as one of the ingredents, and as I don't really fancy using either the korma or the jalfrezi in this capacity, I am instead going to take the dangerous step of skipping this meal for a week. Instead, I shall move on to "Lamb Rogan Josh", and next week I shall use that to complete the biryani. Also, I still haven't had occasion to try any of the rice variants, nor the bhajis.

Experimental Cookery Breakfasts #6 and #7: Fried Eggs and Scrambled Eggs

These were another two instances of "cook it for a bit, eat enough to count as having tried it, and then ferry the rest to the bin." The scrambled eggs were rather better than the fried eggs, and both actually came out as they were intended, but I still don't like eggs.

That'll be 4-3.

There are now two more episodes in the egg odyssey, being poached eggs and omlettes. I'm thinking I'll try only one of them this weekend, as I have to go see the optician on Saturday.

Friday, March 13, 2009

One Down

As of last night, my telephone line has finally been renumbered. So, that's that done. The list is now down to three entries.

The word on my internet connection is that it might be another week yet before it is connected. To say that is annoying is an understatement, but there's nothing can be done about it (allegedly).

With a lot of luck, I'll get Sky connected on Monday. To be honest, I don't hold out too much hope for this. However, even if it were to be connected, I've now missed several episodes of each of the shows I watch, and with the heavy continuity those shows all use, there's very little point in trying to jump back in. Sigh.

The only other task on my list is finding a new GP. I have a list of phone numbers for all the local practices, so it's really just a matter of phoning around. I'll try to get on with that today.

And that should do it - once these are all completed, the process of moving in will finally be complete. And, in under the five months it took to finally get broadband in my previous flat.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Offensively Incompetent

Amongst the TV adverts that I find particularly offensive are a trio of "Big Brother is watching you" styled adverts. The first claims that the TV licensing database is keeping a close eye, the second that the car tax database knows exactly which cars aren't registered, and the third claims that they're closing in on benefits cheats. It's as if these various organisations have read "Nineteen Eighty-Four", but haven't realised that it's a warning, and not a how-to guide for good governance.

(The car tax one is particularly offensive. If the powers-that-be were really concerned about getting in all the money due for car tax, they would actually abolish the tax disk, and instead roll the charge into fuel duties. This would have the benefit of being much easier to administer and much harder to dodge. It would also be inherently fairer, as heavy road users would use more fuel and so pay more tax, would ensure that vehicles that damage the roads more would pay more by virtue of using more fuel, and would ensure that foreign vehicles using our roads would pay an appropriate level of tax. It would also be yet another step towards the governments green agenda, since again vehicles that are more efficient cause less pollution by virtue of using less fuel. But, in fact, car tax isn't about the money, but rather about control - the government want to keep track of who owns which car and where. Or perhaps it's about making work for another layer of civil servants.)

Anyway, offensive as these adverts are, I think I am more annoyed by the utter failure of these supposed systems to actually work. Now, I can't speak about the "benefits cheats" issue, since the one and only time I actually tried to claim a benefit I was entitled to, I was turned down. Since the Job Centre was peopled by zombies, I decided to let the money go rather than fight for it.

Although, perhaps there's this: if the database is so good at identifying cheats, why haven't they cut off the benefits to these people?


On Saturday, I looked out of my window, and saw a traffic warden making his way down the street. he stopped briefly at each vehicle, as if checking something. At this, I felt a moment of panic - was there perhaps some parking restriction that I didn't know about? Sure, there weren't any lines on the street, nor any signs stating a restriction, but that wouldn't necessarily stop them - a standard tactic is for them to write the ticket anyway, and then close all the bureaucratic doors so that it's easier and less costly just to pay rather than fight the ticket.

But, no. It turned out there is no restriction. Instead, he was busily checking the tax disks of the vehicles on the street. Which raises the question: what about the database? Surely, if it is so wonderful and up-to-date, then they don't need to actually check the physical disks, but can rather perform a query electronically?

Apparently not. I guess Big Brother isn't really watching us after all.

But then there's the TV license. Ah, the joys of the TV license.

I moved house on the 21st of February. And, as Graeme will confirm, on the 21st of February I refused to let him put the TV on because the license hadn't been transferred. This was finally done early on the 23rd.

Now, the best way to transfer the license would have been online, of course, but that wasn't an option. Instead, I was forced to use the telephone, which put me through an automated system. After several minutes of dealing with this, I had completed the task, although I was never entirely convinced that it actually had the right data in place.

Yesterday, I received a threatening letter from the TV licensing people. My address wasn't licensed, and they were all set to release the hounds. I had to act NOW NOW NOW, or they'd come and stab me repeatedly in the head. Or something.

Importantly, the post-mark on this letter was the 9th of March.

So, I phoned them to set things right. Which put me through to an electronic switchboard, which neatly directed me to the same change-of-address system that I assumed was wrong the first time.

At this point I hung up, rang back, and steadfastly refused to press any keys. Eventually, the menu timed out and put me through to a real person. (Useful trick, that. I think I'll use it more often.)

Anyway, I explained the situation, gave my license number, and he looked it up. And, sure enough, my license was correctly registered at my new address, following the change-of-address logged on the 23rd.

So, despite the fact that I had updated my details in a timely fashion, despite the fact that their own database knew I had a valid license, they still sent me a threatening letter saying I didn't have a license, and they would be taking steps?

(Oh, and incidentally, this isn't the first time - exactly the same thing happened when I moved into my flat in Yeovil. The archives of this blog will confirm as such.)


In other news, my telephone still hasn't been renumbered, and my broadband connection still has not been enabled. I find I am totally unsurprised by these developments.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The trouble with haemodialysis

Apparently, le Welsh was quite excited by the thought that my post "The Trouble with HD" might be about haemodialysis, and rather disappointed to find it was actually about High Definition television. Although quite why I would post about such a thing is beyond me, but still... Anyway, not wanting to disappoint, here is my follow up.

The trouble with haemodialysis, at least from a blogging perspective, is that I don't really know quite what it is. Still, I do know the dialysis is something used for kidney failure, and that the kidneys are responsible for flushing toxins from our systems. Also, the prefix "haemo" implies blood, so I'll surmise that it's a process by which the blood is cleaned of toxins. Probably with an exciting machine that goes, "bing!" every so often.

A quick Google of the topic reveals that this surmise is broadly correct. Although wikipedia fails to indicate exactly what noise the exciting machine makes. I feel I shall have to investigate further.

It seems to me that the other fundamental problem with haemodialysis is that it actually does nothing to solve the problem. It does nothing to repair the failed kidney and so, fundamentally, is only of use to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.

Clearly, what we need is some means to repair or replace a damaged kidney, preferably without being bound by the limited supply of donor organs. I can see three (maybe four) possible ways to do this:

  • It might theoretically be possible to engineer some nanotech devices to enter a failed kidney, fix the damage, clear out the toxins, and therefore bring it back to health. (The possible fourth solution would be to do much the same thing with some application of stem cells. However, in reality I suspect neither the nanotech nor the stem cell solution would work in isolation. A combination of the two, perhaps...)
  • We could perhaps construct a mechanical artifical kidney, in the same way we almost have a functional artifical heart. Essentially, this would be a very small-scale dialysis machine (probably without the exciting "bing!" sound, or whatever). It is likely that this would also be a short-term solution until a permanent solution could be developed, but it would probably be a step forward at least. I wouldn't be surprised to see this being the first solution implemented, and wouldn't be terribly surprised to see them in common usage by the end of the next decade.
  • Finally, there exists the possibility of using stem cells to clone a new kidney from the patient's own tissues. This would dodge the issues of the shortage of donor organs, and remove the risk of organ rejection, both of which would be a good thing. And, as scientists seem to have found techniques to reprogram 'adult' stem cells to work like embrionic stem cells, the ethical concerns here need no longer apply, which is nice.

So, I think there is cause for hope. Of course, everything I have just written could be a load of utter tosh. Five minutes of research on Google while waiting for an email is hardly a substitute for actual expertise.

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #23: Chicken Korma

There was a Plan, and it was good. I would finish work, head home, make lunch for today, make dinner, eat dinner, and then head out to the band's committee meeting. I might even fit in watching an episode of "The Blackadder" in while eating dinner. That was the Plan.

Unfortunately, there was a small flaw in the Plan: "Simmer for 30 minutes". It turned out that I'm now past the 'quick' meals, and into some that are a tad more lengthy to prepare. I may need to rethink the whole notion of "Experimental Cookery Tuesday", perhaps moving it to a Friday or even the weekend.

Anyway, fortunately I spotted the fact that I wouldn't have time to complete the job before I reached the point of no return, and so was able to pause, head out to the meeting, and then return to finish the job. This meant that I didn't eat until 9, which was somewhat unfortunate, but couldn't really be helped.

So, anyway, how was the korma itself? Well, the truth is, korma isn't really my curry of choice. There's nothing wrong with it, as such, but it's all a bit bland. Fortunately, though, Jamie had thought of that, and added the inspired ingredient of a green chilli to proceedings.

In the end, the meal tasted exactly as I expected. This was at once very reassuring but also a little disappointing: what is the point of going to all that trouble if it tastes exactly the same as I would get with a jar of sauce and a 10-minute cooking job? (The answer to that is actually quite simple: there are significant health benefits of avoiding fried chicken, and using actual vegetables in the recipe in place of the stuff in the jar. Also, this made up five servings rather than the jar's 2, and having a freezer full of ready-made food is definately a good thing. Still...)

Anyway, all in all it was a winner. So, that would be 1-0 in "Easy Curries". Next up is "Vegetable Jalfrezi", which should be interesting. I'm particularly looking forward to the 45-minute simmer step.

(One other note: in addition to eight actual curries, this chapter includes instructions for five different rice variants and for vegetable bhajis. I won't be doing these separately, but will try them each at various times. Before I can tackle the rice, though, I'm going to have to get a finer collander, as uncooked rice just washes straight through the one I have!)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The trouble with HD

As you know, I watch a fair amount of TV, and a lot of movies at home. As a consequence of this, I am more than a little interested in the option of upgrading to High Definition. Until now, I have held off, out of the belief that the technology really wasn't ready. However, with the Blu-ray/HD-DVD format war over, with second and third generation players becoming available, and with Sky now offering a significant number of channels, we're just about getting to the point where HD represents a worthwhile step.

Recently, I had to visit my bank to inform them of my change of address, a visit that required a trip on the Subway. En route to the Subway, though, I realised I'd neglected to bring a book for the trip. And, not wanting to start yet another novel at the time, I decided instead to purchase a copy of Home Cinema Choice, and thus to catch up on the state of the art.

However, there is a problem with upgrading to HD:

In order to move to HD, I would need to upgrade my TV (obviously). I would also need to add a Blu-ray player (probably the Playstation 3, although apparently the sound output isn't great). However, I would also need to upgrade my DVD player to a multiregion upscaling model (for all those region 1 DVDs). And, as my A/V receiver doesn't do HDMI, that would need upgraded too. And, most likely, so too would my speakers need replaced.

But I didn't buy all this kit at once. Shortly after I first started working, I bought what was then a large-screen TV. Shortly thereafter, I invested in a DVD player (back before everyone had them). A PS2 was added on release say, and then several years later I completed the setup with an AV receiver and surround sound speakers. Each step along this path represented a significant step forward in terms of viewing experience.

With HD, a piecemeal upgrade like this wouldn't represent a step forward. Pairing an HD source with a standard definition TV is pointless. And pairing a standard definition source with a high definition TV may even represent a downward step, rather than an improvement.

The only upgrade that it would really make sense to make on its own is to get a Playstation 3... and that doesn't make too much sense since I don't actually play electronic games enough to justify the expense.

And so, it would be a matter of upgrading the whole thing in one fell swoop, or at least over the course of a handful of weeks. At a cost of some thousands of pounds. Essentially, it's of the same order of magnitude as buying a new car.

And therein lies the problem with HD. It's not so much the inherent cost of the items themselves, which would have to be divided across the decade of service I would expect to get from them, but rather that the money would have to be spent all at once.

Anyway, it's all academic for the moment. I'm fully expecting to have to buy a new car in June, which means I don't have the funds to spare. And anyway, with the economy as uncertain as it currently is, it simply wouldn't be wise to spend all that money on something so fundamentally unnecessary.

Still, it makes a nice topic to talk about, other than my endless complaints about not getting Sky, or the latest in my epic series on food...

Monday, March 09, 2009

Experimental Cookery Breakfast #5: Boiled Eggs

In Rob Grant's novel "Fat", there is a running gag about a cookery book which opens with a long and lovingly-detailed recipe for boiled eggs. It's really quite amusing. And so it was some measure of merriment that I tackled Jamie's recipe for the same. Yes, seriously.

The ingredients list for tackling this most complex of tasks was long and obscure, including such diverse items as eggs.

Anyway, I duly followed the instructions, producing two nice soft-boiled eggs. (No, I don't concern myself with salmonella. The latest studies suggest there isn't a link after all. And besides, they weren't that soft-boiled.) I also decided to go dangerously off-book and cooked up a slice of toast for soldiers. Truly I am a rebel.

Anyway, having cooked up the eggs, I found myself vexed by two issues. The first, and the lesser of the two was a complete lack of egg-cups. Since I don't eat eggs, I don't keep egg-cups in the apartment, since there is never a need for them. Um...

But, more challeging, I was faced by that most controversial of software engineering questions: little-endian or big? Now, I have made many enquiries into this matter, but in all my Travels I have not found a definitive answer. And let's not understate the importance of getting the right answer: wars have been fought over such things.

In the end, I settled for little-endian. I then proceeded to attack the egg with soldiers, then pepper, then knife and fork, until such time that I had eaten just enough to persuade myself that I had fulfilled my obligation to try the meal. And then I fed the rest to the bin.

Really not a fan of eggs.

So, that will be 4-1. He's not getting the mark for a recipe that is basically "boil it into submission, then chuck it in the bin", especially since I didn't like it.

Next up in the egg-odyssey is fried eggs. Then scrambled, poached, and then omlettes. It's like the fish-trilogy all over again.

Now, I'm sure there's some egg-themed pun that I could end the post with, but I don't know what it could be. Indeed, trying to bring it to mind has left me quite Dizzy.

Experimental Cookery Breakfast #4: Frozen Fruit Smoothies

Having purchased a liquidizer recently, I felt the time had come to tackle the next breakfast on the list. And so was born the first of many smoothies.

This one worked out fine, although I was uninspired by the frozen fruit part of the equation. As far as I could taste, it was mostly a banana smoothie.

Still, no matter. I rather enjoyed it, and will be having these again, in various permutations.

So, I'll give him the win on that one, since it looks like he's about to need the lead. Which, having checked back to the last breakfast, gives him a 4-0 lead. Still, a long way to go there, and next up is that most difficult of challenges: the boiled egg...

A weekend to forget

It started brightly enough. I finished the document I was working on, sent it out to the people who needed it, and left work. An exceptionally quick journey and I was home just after four.

On arriving home, I immediately put the first load of washing on (why wait?), then started making phone calls. These included some of the few remaining change-of-address calls, which are now all in hand. Unfortunately, time ran out before I was able to handle the "finding a new doctor" task, but that's not currently urgent (just annoying).

And then the calls to various service providers. First on my list is BT. Now, I had thought their task should be easy. When I moved in, the phone line was already connected, so all they should have had to do was renumber the line, no?

Apparently, no. Instead, they felt the need to first cancel the existing line. Then, they enabled a new line to the same address. (Why?) Of course, they did both of these at the same time, since they didn't want me to have any actual loss of service. And then, there was the renumbering of the new line to my old number. Which still isn't done, but which might be done by Wednesday, although I am skeptical.

Anyway, whatever the trials and tribulations that this all entails, I'm annoyed about two things. The first is their insistence on using an automated switchboard to "route my call to the right person". This isn't entirely unreasonable, except that the number of menu steps has gradually increased to an absurd depth, systems now mostly include several 'security' steps (that the eventual operator then repeats anyway), and at the end of the process you tend to get through to the wrong person anyway!

Also, it really shouldn't take two and a half weeks to reassign a number from one address to another. I don't care what lines they wish to spin, it's not that complex a job.

Still, that's all in hand. I'm sure they'll sort it out. Eventually.

Next in the firing line is Virgin, who still haven't sorted out my broadband connection. Now, in fairness, part of this is BT's fault, since connecting broadband on the line isn't going to be easy when BT are monkeying around with the line. Still, the absence of broadband is a major annoyance.

Anyway, having now determined exactly what was happening with broadband, I decided to call Virgin to get a status update. The only problem: I didn't have their number to hand. Not to worry though, since I had their confirmation email. Surely that would have a number at which to contact them?

Turns out it doesn't, but it did have a handy link to a webpage where I could fill in a nice form. Or an email address at which I could contact them. In order to ask why my internet connection wasn't working. Muppets.

So, I consulted that most archaic of tomes, the phone book, and got their number - and with no guys in moustaches helping me, either! One arcane and complex automated switchboard later, and I was through to a guy in their internet division.

Or so I thought, because it turns out they have two internet divisions, and I was through to the wrong one. Of course.

Anyway, he put me through to the right guy, who informed me that my installation date had been changed from the 26th of Feb to the 10th of March. Which explains why my internet wasn't working, although does leave the key question: why was I not informed?

The most annoying thing in all this, though, is not the delay itself, but rather the missed opportunity. I got broadband from Virgin initially because I was looking for a deal with no annual contract. Once there, though, I found the service to be faultless. Therefore, despite their being much cheaper options out there (notably Sky), I decided to stick with them. And now they have utterly messed up the service part.

So, on hanging up, I reflected that I should really have gone with Sky. Except...

The rest of Friday night passed without incident. Of any sort. Thrilling, it was. I did complete the washing, but other than that, nothing. Still, I went to bed secure in the knowledge that the Sky Guy was coming on Saturday to hook up the system. And now that I had loft access, it should all be completed as planned.

Oh, such foolish optimism!

Saturday morning rolled around, and the Sky Guy duly arrived. And he wandered around, weighed things up, and declared that he didn't think he could do it, as his ladders were too short. At this point I asked if he didn't want to at least look at the loft access, which had after all been the excuse last time. So, up he went.

And when he came down there was good news and bad news. The good news was that he could see exactly how the job should be done, and that it would be pretty easy. The bad news: the job required a dry roof, and was simply not something they would even attempt in the wet.

The worse news: Sky don't do flexible appointments. So, I can't request an appointment for "the first dry day", but rather have to fix an appointment, and if it's not dry then I have to rebook another fixed appointment. With an average delay of 9 days between each such appointment. (Fortunately, it hardly ever rains in Scotland, so I'm sure it'll all get done next time.)

I phoned to complain about this, of course. And was met with an automated switchboard that very neatly lacks any sort of 'customer complaints' option.

(Later, I did wonder at the "our ladders are too short" comment, and wondered if they had sent out the wrong team for the job. So, I called today to confirm that it was the required Special Heights Team that would be coming next time. But, yes, it turns out that that was and is the case. Which raises the next question: what is the point of a Special Heights Team if they are equipped with ladders that are insufficient for them to actually do any work at special heights?)

Anyway, I swallowed my lingering annoyance with Virgin at this point, and investigated their digital TV offering. Perhaps that would be a better option? Sadly, this was not the case, as although they have dozens of channels, they are mostly notable for lacking all the movies and sports channels. Effectively, it would mean dropping about half of the channels that I actually watch. That being the case, if Sky prove to be unable to install the system at the next time of asking, I think I'll just drop all the way back to Freeview.

Anyway, the very best thing about all this was that, in order to be in to meet the Sky Guy, I had of course had to cancel all my plans for Saturday. And so, by lunchtime I found myself at a loose end, and without either broadband or TV to assist in the wasting of time.

So, I headed over to my parents' to use their broadband to investigate Virgin's digital TV, independent satellite dish installers, and dining furniture stockists, and also to update my antivirus software (not strictly necessary, but I like to be up-to-date). In the event, I found myself watching "Mighty Mouse" with my nephew. It hasn't much changed since young Captain Ric was that same age.

There's more, but I'm not going to blog about that. Suffice to say, I found Sunday evening particularly wearing as well. Suffice to say, I was really glad when Monday morning finally arrived.

#11: "Starships of the Galaxy" by Gary Astleford, Owen K.C. Stephens and Rodney Thompson
#12: "Pathfinder: Descent into Midnight" by Brian Cortijo

Friday, March 06, 2009


It turns out that I have one extra day of holiday allowance than I thought I did. This means that I not only have one extra day to take between now and the end of April, but I'll also have one extra day to take next year, and each subsequent year going forwards.

This is quite nice.

Don't get me wrong - I do enjoy my job. However, more holidays is always nice, and so I'm not going to complain.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Steph/ven Ventures into the Lost Realm

After moving into the new apartment, I put together two lists of things to get. The first of these, the "must have" list, was extremely short, consisting as it did of several pieces of bedding, and a replacement light switch. The second list was rather longer, being "nice to have" items such as more bookshelves, a dining table and chairs, and so forth. (The dining table is a "nice to have" because I have a perfectly functional couch in front of the TV at which I can eat, or I could just eat over the sink.)

And so it was that, list in hand, I ventured to the Lost Realm of Ikea, intent on purchasing certain items. Little did I know that I would only narrowly escape with my life and my sanity intact.

Even finding the Lost Realm was to prove a challenge, for I could not make use of Mr Gore's remarkable invention to guide me. Instead, I had to rely on the guidance of a reclusive holy man. This guidance was to take me to Braehead, but once there I would be forced to hope for a sign. And, indeed, a sign there was - three in fact. One read "Braehead West", one "Braehead Centre", and the third "Braehead East". Useful.

There then followed an adventure in consulting an ancient and unreliable map, a journey down some uncharted paths, another mystical sign, and finally the blue walls of the Lost Realm came into sight behind a wall of thick vegetation. I had arrived!

Having parked the car, I proceeded inside the store. I took with me a map and compass, my trusty fedora, and bullwhip. (Note: I may or may not have been carrying some or any of these.) And, on gaining the entrance, I stood enraptured at the wonders that lay therein. Truly, it was a wonder to behold.

My initial explorations were promising. I quickly made the aquaintance of Chris' friends: Billy, Benno and, er, Malm. And the floors were marked with deep channels, carved by the footsteps of thousands of people in ancient times, showing which way one should proceed through the Lost Realm.

But others had clearly not been so fortunate. At one point, I dared to leave the path, in order to examine the range of dining tables, and as the noise of the crowd faded, it was replaced by a feeling of encroaching dread. So deep was the labyrinth that I wondered how a man could not get lost, and I began to see the simple tools and other signs of the primitive people who once made this place their home.

And then I heard the voices. Softly at first, and then with greater volume, they spoke in whispers of purest malice. "Big chap... big chap..." I froze, hoping that like a T-Rex in a bad film they would hunt with vision dependent on movement, and for a moment it seemed I was safe. The chants drifted off, and the sounds of the jungle gradually resumed.

And then, in the gloom, I made out shuffling movement, and a creature emerged.

It might have been a man, once, but by his shuffling gait I gathered this was no son of civilisation. He was clad in a garment of brightest blue, emblazoned with the marks of his tribe, proudest amongst them a declaration of advertising for a well-known drinks firm. And in his fist he clutched a bottle containing a foul and stinking potion. And, as he shuffled along, his eyes chanced to meet mine, and lit with a foul intelligence.

"Big chap!" he exclaimed.

I fled.

I don't know how I survived this encounter, but I soon found myself back on the path, shaken but intact. Passersby shook their heads with a knowing sadness as they saw me, and some helpful souls gestured towards a sign that hung proud, "Don't Leave the Path!"

As for the creature, I can only surmise to its origin. Perhaps, in days of yore, a family had become lost in the Lost Realm. There, somehow, the parents perhaps became separated from their young, who were left to fend for themselves. And so, as the years past, the Lost Realm came to be populated with NEDlings. But how many of them could there be? And are they only one homogenous tribe, or is there perhaps another, locked in a brutal and unending conflict with the first? I hope never to find out.


Okay, so that never actually happened. However, I actually did find my travels through Ikea to be oddly unsettling. I'm not sure if it was the omnipresent "new furniture" smell, or perhaps paralysis by options. Alternately, it might be that the place was filled with people, all looking to buy exactly the same stuff for their 'personalised' homes. Because although Ikea has a lot of stuff, it must also cover a lot of ground, and so only has a few options in each area - a fact brought home to me quite firmly when I narrowed my search for bookshelves down to a single item, and "antique effect" set of shelves that was in every way identical to an item owned by the A&A team.

Or perhaps it was the pictures. See, I have considered that my new apartment could do with some nice pictures to break up the plainness of the walls. And, to that end, I have been pointed to some websites that might help. (Or, perhaps, I shall replace my policy of bring a mug home from each of my many travels with one of bringing home a nice picture. That might work quite well.)

What I didn't expect, although perhaps I should have, is that Ikea sell pictures of various sizes. And, indeed, they sell one that I saw in one of the other apartments I viewed. It is a nice picture, but it just somehow seems wrong to be one of several thousand people in the country to personalise my home with an identical picture purchased from Ikea.

In the end, I didn't buy anything from the Lost Realm. The range of dining tables was fairly limited, and none of the options really fit. Unfortunately, as this is pretty much the last piece in the jigsaw, I'm going to have to make sure I get just the right item to match everything else, which is likely to take a while.

As for bookshelves, I discovered that the Laminated Book of Dreams had not discontinued the shelves I already had, and so was able to invest in a new, identical unit to the one that I had. Or so I thought, because it turns out that the extra-deep Beech effect shelves they now stock are a slightly different colour and a slightly different (and worse) design from the ones they stocked four years ago. Still, I have a cunning plan...

And so, there it is, my adventure in the Lost Realm of Ikea.

The Clown Rule

At the last competition of last season, my band kilt was rather on the tight side. Six months and -40 pounds later, it's rather on the loose side.

At times like this, it has been pointed out that the 'clown rule' applies: that it is liberating the first time your trousers fall down. However, I suspect this may not be true of a Scotsman in a kilt. I have a certain mystique to maintain, after all.

(Fortunately, my own kilt fits rather better. It was tailored specifically to me, and although it is now looser than it was, it can still be tightened.)

#10: "The Lords of the North" by Bernard Cornwell

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #22: Super-Quick Salmon Stir-fry

On Sunday, we found ourselves discussing Experimental Cookery Tuesday, and in particular the madness that is my cooking a salmon stir-fry when I hate fish. My thinking on this is really quite simple: in the absolute worst-case, whatever I find myself cooking will be at least edible, if rather unpleasant. And, in the best case, I might find something I actually really like. So, there's not really much of a risk for a decent gain.

Besides, I find it extremely easy to fall into patterns and routines. Indeed, Experimental Cookery Tuesday itself stands as a testament to this very trait. That being the case, it would be easy for me to identify six foods that I really like, and to simply cook them in turn each week. It also sounds a bit dull. However, since my life is not really where I want it to be (probably a good thing, that), there is a need to constantly challenge, to push against boundaries, and to try new things. And so, just as I didn't shrink from abseiling despite a now-vanquished fear of heights, so too shall I risk the fish.

I'm not really sure what it is about this meal that makes it 'super-quick'. As far as I could tell, it took about as long to prepare and to cook as did the prawns or the beef last week. Still, it was pretty easy to put together.

And, yes, it was another winner. I'm not yet ready to remove salmon from the list of food nemeses, but this was pretty good.

And so, the "Tasty Stir-Fries" chapter comes to an end, and Jamie has won this bout 5-0. The highlight of the chapter is the sweet & sour pork, but just barely. Both the chicken chow mein and the beef were also excellent. The weakest entry was the prawn stir-fry.

Next week, I will start in on the "Easy Curries" chapter, which begins with a chicken korma.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #21: Sizzling Beef with Spring Onions and Black Bean Sauce

The penultimate stir-fry in the chapter was another quick and easy one to cook, and again turned out extremely well. In fact, prepared by my experiences the previous day with the prawns, I took the step of reading the whole recipe before applying heat, and so was able to avoid ending up with a charred mess.

Long story short, this one was a big winner. I was particularly impressed with the fried rice, which managed to incorporate the dread egg without issue.

That would be 4-0, then, with one to go. Could he win this chapter with a whitewash?

Next up is "Super Quick Salmon Stir-Fry" (or something to that effect - I don't have the book to hand).

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #20: Hardly-any-prep Prawn Stir-Fry

After some consideration, I have decided to remove prawns from the list of food nemeses. They're okay, I suppose.

Anyway, this meal was very quick and easy to prepare, but it didn't quite work out as intended. The problem was mine, rather than being inherent to either the book or to the recipe itself, though. The food cooks incredibly quickly, and even moreso now that I'm cooking on gas once again, and I hadn't memorised the steps before I began. As a consequence of this, the food came out burnt - in the time it took me to consult on the next step, the damage was already done.

Despite that setback, it still somehow came out tasting okay. Consequently, we'll have to call that 3-0 on stir-fries. With only two more to go, this puts young Jamie in an unassailable position on that chapter.

Next up is a beef and spring onion stir fry with black bean sauce.

Monday, March 02, 2009

500th post

It is something of a shock to think that in a mere three and a half years I have amassed a total of 500 posts, but here we are. That's a little under one post every other day.

Anyway, in the past, on reaching a multiple of 100 posts I have blogged about some celebrity nonsense or other. And so, with the 500th post coming up, I pondered what I should write about.

Initially, I considered blogging about the silliness that is Jessica Simpson planning to do a range of clothes for 'the larger lady', when her sole qualification for this role is that she no longer has visible ribs. However, that was weeks ago, and I hadn't reached the landmark.

Then I considered commenting on the media circus that is surrounding the last days of Jade, engineered by her 'friend' and publicist. However, I decided that I don't really have anything appropriate to say to that situation, so instead I'll appropriately say nothing.

Which leaves me instead blogging about how I'm not going to blog about things. Which puts this post neatly in line with the rest of this blog, no?

Oh, also, forgot last time:

#9 "Star Wars Roleplaying Game Saga Edition Core Rulebook" by Bill Slavicsek, Andy Collins and JD Wiker