Friday, April 29, 2011

An Over-abundance of Pizza

In a new entry in the category of "worst thing that's ever happened"...

For the concert today, I of course washed and ironed my short-sleeved shirt. This is my only shirt of this sort, and it was slated for replacement after the concert.

I then proceeded to drop it in the mud while getting out of the car.

Fortunately, there was a break built in to the proceedings - a chance to relax, get changed, and get something to eat. For me, this was changed to "rush to the shops like a madman, buy a new shirt, iron said shirt, order pizza, quickly eat said pizza, get changed, and rush back."

Well, so far, so good. The shirt is bought and ironed, the pizza is ordered and pending delivery, and now I'm taking a short break. Huzzah!

But it turns out that Dominos are having a special offer this weekend, in honour of the big day (see previous post), whereby one can order one pizza and get one free.

This would be great, except that two pizzas is just too much even for me. And I can't have the leftovers for breakfast, as I've already gotten the sausage and bacon out of the freezer. Nor for lunch, as I have leftover fajitas. Nor indeed for dinner tomorrow, as I'm away at an exciting barbeque.

Truly, it is a trial for the ages. I bet Julius Caesar never had problems like this to wrestle with on his quest for glory...

The Big Day

Tonight, my band host our major fund-raising event of the year, a concert with Skerryvore. If this goes well, it will secure our funding for the rest of the season. If it goes badly, it could cause us some major problems. Our most recent projections suggest that we're on course to make a small loss.

It's a worrying day, not least because there's now nothing that can be done to help matters. The band have a practice later, but the truth is that how well we play with have no bearing on how much money we make.

Oh well. I just hope it's a good night.

Sorry, did you expect this post to be about something else?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Swan Lake on Ice

Lady Chocolat and I have a standing agreement that once per year, round about Christmas, we'll venture out to the ballet. I've determined that I can just about survive the crazy flailing about of the limbs, and other madness, associated with it all. Last year was Cinderella, and the year before was the legendary Squirrel Ballet.

However, it was the Lady's birthday recently, and as luck would have it, Swan Lake on Ice was on at the Theatre Royal. And so, since this allowed me to sort out her birthday present with a minimum of fuss, and since it also allowed me to pretend to be far more sensitive and caring than is usually my wont, off we went.

Turns out, it was awesome.

We had seats in the dress circle, just a few rows back from the front. This proved to have many advantages - slightly more leg room, shorter queues for the bar, and a much better view. This last was key, for obvious reasons. All in all, a vast improvement.

As for the performance... well. There were things that they did that, had they been described to me, I would not have believed they were possible. In fact, I'm still not convinced. Basically, they seemed to spend their time whizzing about, performing all sorts of jumps, and twirls, and spins, and lifts, most of which were completely insane, and all on a rink that was just far too small for what they were doing. And all that was before they set the ice on fire.

No, really.

I think part of what set this apart from the ballet itself was that it was very obvious just how difficult and dangerous it all was. With the ballet, although I can appreciate that a hell of a lot of training has gone into it, the better the performers are, the easier they make it all look.

Anyway, all in all it was a great performance, and a good night.

And now I still have "The Sleeping Beauty" to look forward to in December...

Experimental Cookery 2011 #3: Irresistible Peanut Butter Cookies

Source: Baking Made Easy, by Lorraine Pascale (p.200)
Cook Time: Approx 20 minutes prep, plus 15 minutes cook time (done in two batches)
Difficulty: Easy
Servings: Makes 12 big cookies, as claimed in the book
Equipment used: Big bowl, scales, spoons, fork, frying pan, chopping board, sharp knife, 2 baking trays, baking paper

On Saturday, I'm heading over to a barbeque with cousin A (plus M, S and D). Consequently, I have decided to cook up another batch of the brownies, and also a batch of these peanut butter cookies. Because such things barbeque extremely well, of course!

These proved to be quite easy to make - one step followed on from the last naturally enough, and there was no pressure of time this time, so...

The only slight difficulty came when trying to lay them out on the baking tray - there simply wasn't room to do 12 all at once, and the cookies expanded into the oven to touch one another. Still, no harm done.

The cookies that have come out of the oven are giant! They're much thicker than in the picture, quite a bit bigger, and generally more suited to hungry Steph/vens. Huzzah!

Otherwise, they look pretty great, and so will do good service come the weekend.

Result: Not sure - I'm saving them until Saturday. But, of course, this means they're not exactly "irresistible", by definition!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Quick Thought on the Royal Wedding

I almost certainly won't be watching the royal wedding. With the band having a concert that night, I suspect I'll be too busy. Besides, even if I were free, it's very likely that I could find better things to do with the time.

That said, I have absolutely no objection to the coverage that is being given to this event, the amount of attention paid to it, or even to the cost. As I see it, if we're going to have a monarchy, then it is entirely appropriate to allow it to take centre stage when some significant event occurs - and the wedding of our future king certainly counts as a "significant event".

I say that despite feeling, as a matter of principle, that we probably should not have a monarchy, and that a democratic approach would be better. But I object to half-assed mediocrity a whole lot more than outdated notions of Divine Right.

I do apologise...

The last post was rubbish. The person responsible has been notified that he won't be being paid for his contribution.


Glorious Summer, except for one day...

I've been enjoying the nice weather lately, especially since I'm currently in the midst of a week off, which for once actually gives me a chance to enjoy it.

My best opportunity came on Saturday, when the band were playing in Falkirk High Street - a chance to do some much-needed fund raising, to get some much-needed outdoor practice in, and a chance to take advantage of the good weather (and the better crowds that result).

Naturally, Saturday was the one day that it rained.

Even worse, knowing that we'd play in several slots, with breaks in between, I cunningly packed a book in my pipe box to read while taking a break. My pipe box is mostly waterproof, with the one weakness being the side pocket with the vertical zip... the side pocket where my book was stored. Luckily, it was a trashy novel that I have since finished.

Saturday was not the very best of days.

#11: "Serenity: Big Damn Heroes Handbook", from Margaret Weis Productions
#12: "At the Gates of Darkness", by Raymond E. Feist

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How I'm Going to Vote

In the Elections for the Scottish Parliament

Until a few years ago, it was my intention to vote SNP for everything except the Scottish parliament, because I fundamentally don't agree with independence but do agree with most of their other policies, and because the Scottish parliament is the one venue where I think there is an actual risk they might be able to achieve independence.

So, it had been my intention to vote Lib Dem at the Scottish elections. That will not now be happening.

Despite the terrible confusion of being faced with a political party that actually does deliver (most of) what it promises in its manifesto, a political party that does at least stand for something (even if it's something I don't agree with), and a political party that genuinely does seem to be mostly competent, I'll be voting SNP this time. Granted, any one of the above should really bar them from any sort of serious politics, but...

My prediction: This election is really too close to call. I expect the Tories to stay pretty much constant, the Lib Dems to be all-but annihilated, and the various minor parties and independents to do quite well. But will we see an SNP majority, a Labour majority, another minority government (probably SNP), or something else?

My guess is that we'll see another SNP government, with a very small majority. But I'm really not sure - it depends on where those Lib Dem voters go.

On the AV Referendum

I'm actually a bit annoyed about this one. If we're having a referendum on the voting system, why are the currently-elected politicians the ones to determine the terms of the decision? That is, why do they choose that we can have the Alternative Vote or First Past the Post, but can't decide that we want some other, better system?

Frankly, the ballot here should have at least four options: First Past the Post, the Alternative Vote, the Single Transferrable Vote, or Proportional Representation. (Amusingly, the vote itself should probably be done on an Alternative Vote mechanism.)

As things stand, we'll probably end up with another referendum in five years, either because we gave the 'wrong' answer (no) this time, or because we gave the 'right' answer (yes) and they now want to take the next step.

Plus, the Alternative Vote is a grubby little compromise that really doesn't help much. As far as I can tell, it's main effect will be to strengthen the grip of the 'big three' parties on the House of Commons, and since those 'big three' pretty much represent the worst thing about our current politics, I can't see that being a good thing.

And yet, despite this, I'm going to be voting 'Yes' to the Alternative Vote. Because I believe it does represent a small step towards a better politics, even if we won't get to the end result for a decade or more.

My prediction: It doesn't matter; nothing will change.

If the 'No' campaign have their way and win the day, the coalition government will fall apart. Without the promise of the AV floating around, the Lib Dems will have no reason to stick with their Faustian pact. It may be that Nick Clegg and a tiny faction of Lib Dems will stay with the Tories, and possibly even join the Tories formally, which may just be enough to maintain a majority. But I expect the bulk of the Lib Dems to walk away.

If the 'Yes' campaign wins, things are even more interesting. I would expect the government to delay bringing it to a vote for as long as they possibly can (again, once it's passed, why would the Lib Dems stay in coalition?). When it does come to a vote, there is absolutely no guarantee that it would pass. And, indeed, it may be that a significant number of Tories rebel (possibly even finding allies of convenience within the Labour party!), enough to block the measure. Again, that might well be enough to split the coalition - especially if it was suspected the Tory whips were less than enthusiastic in enforcing the line.

I really can't see this coalition bringing about any significant change to the voting system.

Your Highness

Lady Chocolat and I went to see "Your Highness" on Friday, with several of the guys from my RPG group (plus several of their respective partners, and even some non-gamer friends). It was an enjoyable night.

By my count, there are exactly two ways to make a good fantasy film.

The first is to take the "Lord of the Rings" route, and take the whole thing seriously, filming it as though "this actually happened". That isn't to say there isn't humour in the "Lord of the Rings" films, but it's organic to the characters and the situation, rather than being inherent in the premise itself.

The second approach is to treat the whole thing as absurd, and build a comic fantasy. This is the approach taken in "Your Highness", and it works quite well.

I believe this is why the "Dungeons & Dragons" films failed so abysmally. The people making those films really wanted to treat them seriously, but they lacked the ability to pull it off. Fantasy is expensive - you need a big budget for spells, and monsters, and other-worldly vistas, and so on. The problem is, if you don't have a massive budget, you have to cut corners elsewhere. So, the quality of the script suffers. The quality of the actors suffers (and, if you do somehow manage to get a couple of good actors, they recognise the lack of quality everywhere else, and so just phone it in). The quality of the director suffers (or, worse, the director is a massive fanboi with no actual experience...).

And so it goes. By shooting for seriousness that they just couldn't deliver on the budget, they made a huge mess. They're not even "so bad it's good." They're just bad.

And so we come to "Your Highness". In all honesty, this isn't a great film, but it was a very entertaining one, largely because it embraced the absurdity of the genre as a whole. Plus, they seemed to have channelled every single "bad RPG" moment imaginable, and put them up on the screen - it played out very much like an RPG session might well.

I doubt there will be a sequel. This seems the sort of film that will make decent, but not outstanding money, will do quite well on DVD, will make a loss on paper (all films make a loss on paper), and will not quite earn a sequel. In all honesty, that's probably for the best.

Still, not to worry. I had fun.

#10: "Serenity: Spaceships and Six Shooters", by Lynn Blackson and Jason Durall

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Can't Take the Sky From Me

As you may have noticed, in the last month I've been busily reading a number of "Serenity" books. These are actually supplements for the "Serenity RPG" by Margaret Weis Productions, a short-lived RPG based on the film "Serenity", which was itself based on the short-lived "Firefly" TV series.

At Christmas, I had the opportunity to run a one-off adventure using the "Serenity RPG", and although it was really not a great adventure, it was enjoyed by all present, and there was some interest in kicking off a campaign. And so, I hunted up the books, and got stuck in to the reading.

I've also been doing a far amount of musing about game design, and have been doing a fair amount of reading of late, largely into those blogs that are part of the "Old School Renaissance". A lot of what they have to say is really quite interesting (and a lot is nonsense, of course), but particularly of note is their emphasis on Doing It Yourself, rather than relying on publishers producing adventures, and settings, and other material to bloat out the setting.

In that regard, the fact that both the RPG, and indeed the "Firefly" series itself, was rather short-lived is actually a boon. There's just enough material to inspire campaigns, but not so much as to further constrain the group from making The 'Verse their own.

So, where am I going with this?

Well, firstly I think I'm inclined to actually throw out the rules system in use in the Serenity RPG. It's actually not very good. I'm probably inclined to go for Savage Worlds - it's pretty close, and it's a very good fit, but it also has a bit more robustness to it. (That said, I understand there's now a "Cortex 2.0", which takes the Serenity system and vastly improves it; perhaps that warrants a look?)

Secondly, if the crew are going to have their own ship (which of course they are), then they're going to be fairly mobile. This suggests to me that the best thing to do is a 'sandbox' style game - they can go wherever they want, and adventure will find them there.

This in turn suggests that, thirdly character advancement should be fairly slow, or indeed static. This is fine, since both the Serenity RPG and Savage Worlds use fairly slow advancement schemes anyway. Still, I may even be inclined to just not bother giving out advancements at all - characters are created at Veteran level, and stay there.

Fourth, since there is a fairly small amount of source material available, and a grand total of six published adventures (mostly short), I'll need to do a fair amount of leg work coming up with interesting things for the crew to do. I had hoped that the "Serenity: Adventures" book would be more useful in that regard, but it was not to be. Amusingly, the Star Wars Saga Edition book "Sum & Villainy" may be more use.

Fifth, I really need to watch "Firefly" again!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Oh s***! What are we going to do now?

I thought carefully about the title of this post. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I generally take the view that if you feel the need to use a profanity filter over what you're saying, it's generally a sign that you probably shouldn't be saying it anyway. However, I did consider that I may yet be on one or two blog-rolls, and while I may be happy swearing on my own blog, I'm not so keen on fouling the air over on Welshy's far more civilised blog.


One of my absolute favourite films of all time is, of course, "Transformers: the Movie". (Obviously, this is the animated one of yesteryear, not the Michael Bay abomination starring Foxy Megan and The Beef.) Truth be told, it's not really the best film, but it's a childhood favourite and so inherently great.

Way back when TF was in the cinema, and later on video, the BBFC had mandated some cuts to the film. The UK never got the cut that was shown in the States. With the DVD releases of the film, this was changed, mostly for the better.

However, at one point in the film, one of the characters is heard to utter the line, "Oh shit, what are we going to do now?"

Now, I'm an adult, and frankly don't really care about swearing in films. It just doesn't bother me. But the thing is, my nephew, PJ, is not. And, what's more, he's something of a sponge - he basically takes in absolutely everything he's exposed to. (Fortunately, his memory doesn't extend as far back as his first Christmas, when a supervillain who shall be known only as G commented on the existence of a certain present-bearing housebreaker...)

Anyway, this of course creates a certain problem. PJ loves Transformers (of course), and would love the film. But all the DVD versions include this swear-word. (Which, it should be noted, adds not a single thing to the film.) And that means that I cannot get him a copy, or let him watch my copy, or anything of the sort - his parents may make that decision, but I'm not entitled to do so. It's really frustrating.

So, I have to ask: what were the publishers thinking? And, indeed, what were the BBFC thinking in letting it go ahead in this form? Did they even watch the revised cut?

It just seems so pointless, and annoying.

(Incidentally, if and when I eventually have children, I feel I shall have to take the BBFC certificates as only the loosest of guidelines. Honestly, I don't believe they watch a lot of what they pass - there are some things that get through that really shouldn't (South Park's erect penis), and some things that get cut that shouldn't (Die Hard 4.0). It really seems to make no sense. Indeed, it often seems that they just translate the US rating into its UK certificate equivalent. This would certainly explain why the '12' became a '12A', thus making it exactly the same as the US PG-13...)


I wonder if I can get to 1,000 posts before the end of the year?

I mean, if I do that then it must be time for Part Four!

729 and counting...

Microwave Woes

A couple of months ago, my microwave gave up on my. I felt this was rather poor, as I'd only had it five years. (My parents have had their microwave longer than their youngest son.) Still, it was cheap...

Anyway, after several weeks of managing without, I bought a new and much more expensive model. (Also, more powerful, bigger, and energy efficient.)

Today, my new microwave has given up on me. It lasted all of four weeks. I find this shockingly poor, not least because I've only used it a handful of times. Guess I know what I'm doing on my day off on Friday...

Some Disturbing Developments

Two things in the news today left me really worried...

The Latest Twist in the Old Firm Saga of Hate

It was reported today that, at the last Old Firm match of the season, some of the police involved will infiltrate the crowd, and identify and arrest those singing 'banned' songs, and that those identified will be made subject to banning orders for up to 10 years.

Now, the thing is that if you are serious about freedom, you have to expend a fair amount of concern protecting the freedoms of people you don't particularly like to do things that you don't particularly like.

I really don't like Sectarian songs, but the simple fact is that this should not be a police matter. In fact, it is really, really important that this not be a police matter.

Freedom of speech is probably the single most important freedom that we have. Without freedom of speech, any of our other freedoms can be violated, and we won't be able to do anything about it. The police getting involved because of the singing of songs is wrong.

(Incidentally, we do have a law on the books banning "hate preaching". Now, the first thing to note is that this law should never, in fact, have been passed in the first place. The second is that it was never intended for this purpose - it was intended as an anti-terrorism matter.)

Now, I can quite understand the desire of the government to take action on this. The singing of Sectarian songs shames the clubs, it shames Scottish football, and it shames Scotland as a whole. But the government does not, and must not, have the right to do anything about it.

What should happen? Well, Rangers (and Celtic) need to be the ones taking action. They should have their stewards identify those singing the songs, they should eject them, and they should ban them. This is perfectly acceptable - a business can restrict freedom of speech on its premesis (of course). Indeed, UEFA can similarly require Rangers and Celtic to take some actions.

But the government must not.

What Are We Doing In Libya?

I have been troubled about our actions in Libya for some time. Because we refuse to take direct action to remove Gaddafi (because International Law does not allow us to explicitly do this), all we've been doing is prolonging the conflict - the rebels don't have the wherewithal to succeed without our aid, and we've prevented Gaddafi from wiping them out (probably rightly). The problem, of course, is that all the people in the middle have to suffer, and will continue to suffer indefinitely.

But that's actually less important than what has been reported today, which is that the British government are considering equipping the rebels with British-made body armour.

This must not be done.

Very simply, we don't know anything about these rebels. They are allies of convenience, nothing more. Once the fight is done, we don't know what their stance towards us will be, except that we can be sure that they won't be handing back the equipment.

We should have learned our lesson with Al Qaeda - todays ally may turn out to be tomorrow's enemy. Better that we fight the battle for them, even if that means removing Gaddafi in defiance of International Law, than that we equip a force of dubious intent with weapons that might be turned against us.

Update on Games

Speaking of my D&D groups, time for an update:

The Saturday game seems to have settled into a reasonable pattern. I have brought my Warhammer campaign to a close: the Company of the Black Hand uncovered the corruption at the heart of Walkenburg and rooted it out; in time they were able to depart the town as heroes, albeit ones wounded and deranged by their experiences.

I have taken a step back from running games with this group for the time being; one of my friends is instead running "Dark Heresy" for a while. It's an interesting game; we'll see how it pans out.

The group also seems to have settled into an almost-monthly meeting cycle, which seems to work reasonably well. It's not ideal - I would prefer to meet more often - but it's much better than our previous arrangements, and actually means we may meet more often this year than in each of the last two. So that's good.

The other group is currently in something of an interim period. We don't have any ongoing games running, with a couple of new campaigns about to kick off. Despite this, the group seems to be quite busy: we've had a number of one-off games, we have a cinema night planned for Friday (going to see "Your Highness"), and we're in the process of moving the site from to GroupSpaces, due to the changes made to Meetup.

In the middle of next month, I'm going to be starting up a new campaign, "The Eberron Code", which I've described as "like The Da Vinci Code, but starring Indiana Jones, set in Eberron, and better written". There seems to be quite a bit of enthusiasm about this one, and I'm rather looking forward to it also. I've had a good number of ideas for plotlines and adventures, have a good idea of the campaign metaplot, and am quite keen to run a game again.

So, it's all looking quite good, really.

The Orks Are Coming!

Since the start of the year, I have completed the painting job on the first quarter of my Space Orks. The second batch are now about halfway done. At the current rate, I should be finished the whole force by the end of the year, which would be nice.

In parallel with this, some of the members of my gaming group have expressed an interest in actually playing some of the wargames (for which the minis are intended). Of course, they have naturally indicated a preference for the fantasy game, rather than the sci-fi one, rendering my orks somewhat useless!

(This is especially amusing as the only reason I have the orks in the first place is that when I moved to Yeovil, the group there played the sci-fi game rather than fantasy. I do have two entire armies for the fantasy game, but they're packed away in boxes, and I don't really want to unpack them, as they take up a lot of space.)

A funny thing about the painting: I find the whole process very relaxing, and yet there isn't a single part of the process that I would actually say I enjoy. Preparing the figures for painting is a hassle, the undercoating is a nuisance, the early coats are dull, and the later coats are very frustrating. I don't even particularly like looking at the finished figures - they tend to get shelved as I move on to something else.

But still, there's something about it. It's probably a combination of two factors: the ability to spend an hour here or there focussing on a simple task without worrying about anything else, and also the clear and obvious progress towards a clear goal - with every hour, the minis become visibly more complete.

It's interesting.

Plus, it's quite good fun to dream about the next painting project - do I build up my ork force into a proper army, do I invest in a bunch of character models for use in D&D, do I do something else entirely (maybe a Dwarf army for Warhammer Fantasy?)... or do I do nothing at all and just pack it all up again once these ones are done?

Mango Powder

There won't be an Experimental Cookery post this week. I was intending to do something from one of Gordon Ramsay's books (this being the only cookbook I own that I have not yet used). Unfortunately, the recipe calls for both mango powder and coconut oil, neither of which I have been able to source.

This is actually something that has annoyed me in the past: cook books do tend to require the occasional 'obscure' ingredient, not easily sourced from the supermarket, and they also tend to be quite poor in either identifying a substitute, or at least indicating where they believe you could source the ingredient. It's most vexing, as it can render large parts of the book unusable.

Update on Band

Once again, the competition season is almost upon us. The first competition of the new season, the Dunbar Highland Games, is a month tomorrow. And the band is not ready.

There was some significant enthusiasm and excitement a couple of months ago, when it was finally confirmed that the band were being promoted to Grade 4A. There was then some further discussion about a Development Band, providing a means for younger players to make the step from 'learner' to 'competing'. (Unfortunately, we lost a couple of people due to that; ironically, the very people the Development Band was intended to help.)

But of late, the practices have fallen into a depressing pattern: the attendences are poor (and always the same people), the progress is patchy, and things are just going on. The band is getting better, but slowly.

I suspect the end result will see us going to Dunbar with only a handful of pipers actually being able to play. No doubt, there will be several people who get a rude shock when they are told that they're just not reaching the required standard.

But the truth is, that may be a necessary step. It's really quite clear that some people are putting in the required effort, and some others just aren't. Well, it's simply not fair on those who are doing the work to be dragged back by those who aren't.

Still, it seems very unlikely that we'll come away from Dunbar with anything. It's one of the bigger minors, and it's also an event that lots of bands want to "put down a marker" at, to show their intentions for the year.

We'll see...

#7: "Serenity: Out in the Black", by Tracy and Laura Hickman
#8: "Serenity: Adventures", by James Davenport, Ted Reed, James M. Ward, Alana Abbot and Billy Aguiar
#9: "Pathfinder: The Haunting of Harrowstone", by Michael Kortes

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Experimental Cookery 2011 #2: Cookies & Cream Fudge Brownies

Source: Baking Made Easy, by Lorraine Pascale (p.204)
Cook Time: Approx 30 minutes prep, plus 25 minutes cook time
Difficulty: Moderate - harder than the soup, but not hugely difficult
Servings: The book claims 16, but I got 18 of varying sizes
Equipment used: Loads of stuff! Mixer, saucepan, baking tray, greasing spray, baking paper, chopping board, sharp knife, two bowls, 2 tablespoons, 2 teaspoons

In honour of Mother's Day, and also because I really wanted to try these (they're the reason I bought the book), I made Brownies. These proved to be a bit fiddly to make, but mostly because I made the mistake of working on things in parallel, which meant that I had to wait for an earlier step to complete before I could move on to the next step.

The end result is just great, though. And totally evil, of course!

Result: 9/10 - oh, so very, very nice