Monday, December 31, 2012

Goals for 2013

I didn't set any goals for 2012, because I knew that this year was going to be something of an oddity, what with the whole "getting married" thing. Now that things seem to have settled down into a new status quo, I think it's time to set some goals again. And so, without any further ado, here are my goals for 2013:

  • Health: There have been various health issues that have dogged me this year, notably my neck. Enough is enough. The #1 priority for 2013 is to get that sorted out, properly.
  • Weight: Related to the health goal, I want to lose some weight (again). Specifically, I'm setting a goal of losing a stone and a half over the course of this year - a pretty modest goal that should be readily accomplished. It's just annoying that it needs set.
  • Work: Things haven't been right at work for some time. In the first part of 2012 I was distracted by other things, and throughout the year I have gone too long without a holiday (and when I did take a break in November, it wasn't the rest I really needed... and, sadly, neither has Christmas). Nonetheless, it's a problem - the quality and focus of my work has suffered. For 2013, I feel I need to refocus my efforts there, and get back to doing a better job.
  • Books: As mentoned in my previous post, the goal for next year is to read some 60 books, including 12 from The List. The standard rules will apply: it's a book if the publishers say it's a book; one set of covers is one book; and when tackling an anthology of which I've already read part, I only need to read the 'new bits' to count the whole.
  • Debt: Unlike a lot of people, we don't carry a lot of non-mortgage debt, and it's certainly a manageable amount. Nonetheless, I feel the weight of it disproportionately. So, there's a three-part goal to get rid of it, with the goal for this year to clear off the payments for our new bathroom - a task that should be done in June, all being well. It's a silly thing, but I'll sleep much easier once I know that's all done with.
  • Games: Finally, there's the gaming. The primary goal for this year is to finish off the current campaign, "The Eberron Code", and to start up the next campaign, "Imperial Fist". In addition, there will be the usual handful of one-shots. However, perhaps the more challenging part will be to avoid cancelling the one-shot events - of late, the record in this regard has been quite poor, with my two most recent games being cancelled. This makes for a degree of uncertainty in scheduling, which actually makes people less likely to commit to games in future (knowing they may be cancelled). So, the goal will be to fix dates for the one-shots suitably well in advance, get the quorum together, and then hold the event whatever happens. (It probably won't be that easy, but that's the intention. We'll see.)

And that's it: six goals for the year. Lady Chocolat also wants me to set a goal of buying her a car this year, but since she has money and I don't, I'm inclined to think she may have to buy it herself!

I probably won't have time to do my big review of the year today, as I have quite a lot else to do. Therefore, I shall sign off for now, wishing you all a Happy New Year.

Books of the Year 2012

It's the last day of the year, and I've just finished my latest book. It seems rather unlikely that I'll make it through another this year. So, that being the case, here are the books I read this year:

  1. "Great Expectations", by Charles Dickens*
  2. "Pathfinder: Bestiary 3", by Paizo Publishing
  3. "Loving Against the Odds", by Rob Parsons
  4. "Pathfinder: GameMastery Guide", from Paizo Publishing
  5. "Millennium Falcon Owner's Workshop Manual", by Ryder Windham, Chris Reiff, and Chris Trevas
  6. "Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Edition", by Steve Kenson
  7. "Pathfinder: Tide of Honour", by Tito Leati
  8. "Return of the Black Company", by Glen Cook
  9. "A Town Like Alice", by Nevil Shute*
  10. "Pathfinder: The Empty Throne", by Neil Spicer
  11. "Towers of Midnight", by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
  12. "A Kingdom Beseiged", by Raymond E. Feist
  13. "Silas Marner", by George Eli
  14. "The Many Deaths of the Black Company", by Glen Cook
  15. "A Dance With Dragons: Dreams and Dust", by George R.R. Martin
  16. "A Dance With Dragons: After the Feast", by George R.R. Martin
  17. "Pathfinder: The Wormwood Mutiny", by Richard Pett
  18. "Pathfinder: Raiders of the Fever Sea", by Greg A. Vaughan
  19. "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Campaign Guide", by Rodney Thompson, Sterling Hershey, John Jackson Miller, and Abel G. Peña
  20. "The Second Book of Lankhmar", by Fritz Leiber
  21. "Death of Kings", by Bernard Cornwell
  22. "Pathfinder: Tempest Rising", by Matthew Goodall
  23. "Snuff", by Terry Pratchett
  24. "Clear and Present Danger", by Tom Clancy
  25. "Pathfinder: The Island of Empty Eyes", by Neil Spicer
  26. "Pathfinder: The Price of Infamy", by Time Hitchcock
  27. "Conqueror", by Conn Iggulden
  28. "Star Wars: Choices of One", by Timothy Zahn
  29. "Pride and Prejudice", by Jane Austen*
  30. "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald*
  31. "Pathfinder: From Hell's Heart", by Jason Nelson
  32. "Pathfinder: Shards of Sin", by Greg A. Vaughan
  33. "Atonement", by Ian McEwan*
  34. "Pyramids", by Terry Pratchett
  35. "Prince of Wolves", by Dave Gross
  36. "Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers", by Grant Naylor
  37. "Master and Commander", by Patrick O'Brian
  38. "Pathfinder: Curse of the Lady's Light", by Mike Shel
  39. "Guards! Guards!", by Terry Pratchett
  40. "Winter Witch", by Elaine Cunningham
  41. "Post Captain", by Patrick O'Brian
  42. "Jane Eyre", by Charlotte Bronte*
  43. "Moving Pictures", by Terry Pratchett
  44. "Pathfinder: The Asylum Stone", by James L. Sutter
  45. "Plague of Shadows", by Howard Andrew Jones
  46. "Eberron Player's Guide", by David Noonan, Ari Marmell, and Robert J. Schwalb
  47. "HMS Surprise", by Patrick O'Brian
  48. "Sense and Sensibility", by Jane Austen*
  49. "Hartsend", by Janice Brown
  50. "Eberron Campaign Guide", by James Wyatt and Keith Baker
  51. "Pathfinder: Beyond the Doomsday Door", by Tito Leati
  52. "The Worldwound Gambit", by Robin D. Laws
  53. "Black Crusade: Hand of Corruption", by Fantasy Flight Games
  54. "The Mauritius Command", by Patrick O'Brian
  55. "Emma", by Jane Austen*

So, there it is - 55 books, 8 books from The List, 19 RPG-related books, and a miscellany of others. I think that's a pretty good showing for the year, especially given the uncertainties of the first few months.

The book of the year is "Atonement", which I found to be much more satisfying than I had expected, and much better than the film (as is almost always the case). The worst book of the year, by a long, long way, was Tom Clancy's "Clear and Present Danger". Oh dear.

I feel that honourable mention must be made of "Hartsend", this being the first adult novel by a young and up-and-coming author of my acquaintance. And which was an extremely compelling read in its own right. Recommended.

For next year, it is my hope to get into something of a sequence, and each month to read one book from each of five 'series'. These include "Books from The List", the Aubrey/Maturin series, the monthly Pathfinder books, the "Pathfinder Tales" novels, and finally those Pratchett books that I have not yet read (most of his non-Discworld novels). In theory, this gives 60 books for the year, which feels about right. That said, a couple of the 'series' don't have a full complement of 12 books to read; however, I plan to "fill the gaps" with those few new novels that I am waiting for - Bernard Cornwell's latest, Feist's latest, etc.


Time for One More...

I'm about to start my reviews of the year, but before I do so, I need to capture one last book read, so that the list formats correctly.

#55: "Emma", by Jane Austen (a book from The List)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Experimental Cookery 2012: Tandoori Chicken Wraps with Cucumber Raita & Mango Salsa

I thought it would be quite nice to try out one of my new cookbooks. However, my initial suggestion met with some resistance. Instead, Lady Chocolat selected a meal from Lorraine Pascale's "Fast, Fresh and Easy Food" for tonight's dinner.

The recipe was quick and easy to prepare. Basically, there was a lot of putting things into bowls and then mixing them together - always a pleasant change from the usual chopping of many things. That said, the lime juice stung more than a little!

I had one significant regret, though - yesterday I threw away our remaning coriander, only to find that I therefore didn't have it for the mango salsa. In effect, this meant that it was, in fact, pretty much just mango. But I guess that's fine.

The other surprise came when I served up. I had put what I thought was quite a lot of chilli powder in the mix, so I expected it to be quite hot. However, it turned out actually to be really quite mild. So, next time we'll need to turn that up a bit.

Otherwise, it was largely enjoyable, but largely unremarkable. We'll almost certainly be having this again, and it has the potential to become a bit of a favourite if I can get the mix right.

I wonder what I'll cook next?

#54: "The Mauritius Command", by Patrick O'Brian

Friday, December 21, 2012

Review of the End of the World

When it comes to apocalypses, the bar is understandably quite high. After all, Hollywood has gone to great lengths to raise expectations - if it doesn't feature incredibly photogenic people running away from dinosaurs or lava (or dinosaurs made of lava) it's inevitably going to seem weak by comparison.

Even so, and despite the hype, I must admit my expectations were high for this one. After all, with 394 years since the last Bak'tun ended, surely the Mayans must have something special for us? Could it be aliens? Zombies? Alien zombies? Who knows, but surely it had to be something appropriately epic - the hype had only ever been higher for the Millennium Bug, and that had proven to be an anti-climax of "Phantom Menace" proportions.

In the event, it seemed all our hopes were to be dashed. It turns out that the end of the world had chosen to emphasise the "traffic jams" part of "2012", rather than the "John Cusack gets chased by lava" part. And even the traffic jams were a little underwhelming, if I'm completely honest.

Seriously, this is the single worst apocalypse since the robots failed to blow us all up on Judgement Day back in 1997.

So, the baton is now passed to the Vikings, and to their long-heralded Ragnarok. Surely they won't fail us too?

(Gosh, I hope the world doesn't end later today. Otherwise, won't this post look silly?)

#53: "Black Crusade: Hand of Corruption", by Fantasy Flight Games

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Experimental Cookery 2012: Fruit Scones

(or... The Feeding of the Fifty)

Back when I did my work-through of Jamie's "Ministry of Food", I never did tackle the desserts chapter, mostly because I tend not to bother with a dessert, but also because I quit once I hit the wall of fish. Thus, I never got to the recipe used here. (It's also worth noting that I have actually made scones many times in the past, but not for a very long time - the last time would have been in my Baking module at high school. And, yes, I actually do hold a qualification in baking.)

Anyway... Lady Chocolat and I are on the rota in the church for arranging and serving tea and coffee after the service. And for the second year in a row, our turn has come up at the last evening service before Christmas, always a very busy shift. In light of this, we were asked this week if we might provide some home baking, and so we did - LC made some cupcakes and Ninjabread Men, while I did a batch of brownies and also the aforementioned scones.

As the service went on, we became increasingly concerned that we had actually under-catered - we had some 50 items to give out, and there were more people than that present. However, we needn't have worried - during the service some kind soul snuck in and left behind many other home baked items. So, everyone went home satisfied, and we collected two biscuit tins of the broken pieces. Or something - I'm sure a story of that sort might be worthy of inclusion in a book somewhere.

Back on topic, the actual creation of the scones was easy enough, and the result pretty much as expected at least on the face of it. We made 10 'regular' scones, plus one giant mutant scone (from all the leftover bits). Said mutant scone was the only one I actually tasted, and it was fine.

The rest were eaten by various other people, who seemed appropriately pleased. Indeed, I was asked how I managed the near-miraculous feat of having them rise (I don't really know; I just followed the recipe, and it never occurred to me that they might not), and they received the seal of approval from Mary, always an important mark.

So that's that. I'm not sure when I'll make these again, although no doubt I will find occasion at some point. They're certainly simple enough, and were well enough liked to warrant being done again.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lord of the Rings: Episode One: An Unexpected Journey

Warning: this post contains spoilers. If you don't want to know, don't read it!

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is composed of excellent bits. Indeed, taken as 90%, it's absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, taken as a piece, as 100%, I'm not actually sure I liked it all that much.

The root of my disatisfaction lies, in large part, in the transformation of these films from an adaptation of "The Hobbit" - that absolutely wonderful children's book - into a prequel to "The Lord of the Rings". Because, amongst other things, prequels suck. But also because in doing so they have significantly transformed the story, its tone and its content, into something that really isn't in the text.

Firstly, the good:

The cast are generally excellent. Gandalf is exactly as we have seen and expect him. Most of the dwarves are spot-on - capturing the slightly bumbling nature of their group while also drawing out their personalities (in a way that the novel generally didn't). Elrond is exactly as he should be, being recognisably the same character as in LotR, without being quite the same stern, forbidding presence as in that trilogy. Likewise, the returning Gollum was just right.

And Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo Baggins.

Likewise, the film does a really good job of setting the scene, of explaining why the dwarves are doing what they are doing, and explaining also why these dwarves are doing what they are doing. And the action set-pieces are mostly well set up and executed.


I wasn't overly impressed with Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. For the most part, he's absolutely fine, and in particular his discussion with Balin about the courage shown by his comrades was excellent. But his dislike to Bilbo really seemed too forced at times. And at times he seemed to be trying too hard to be Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn, where he really isn't. (Indeed, I hope Aragorn barely features in the next two films, because otherwise he's liable to steal the show.)

I was also largely unimpressed with Radagast, although this mostly wasn't the actor's fault. Rather, it was because of a very unfortunate chase sequence featuring Radagast and his chariot and some warg riders - a scene that was both rather confusing and pointless (and seemed designed to show off the special effects trickery), and that also featured some truly bad CGI. (I would say it was made-for-TV bad, but even that would be unfair - I would take the best of "Merlin" to beat that scene quite handily.) But then, maybe that would work better in 3D?

Speaking of showing off the CGI, I also got the impression that much of the segment in the Goblin Village was largely intended to showcase the 3D effects - it featured an awful lot of swinging about, moving camera angles, and falling off of things. In 2D, the impression I got was that they were doing level design for the inevitable "Lego Hobbit: the Video Game", because otherwise it seemed to be mostly superfluous.

Oh, and finally, one nitpick: those "riddles in the dark" seemed awfully well-lit!

But those were my only criticisms of the adaptation of "The Hobbit", and those are mostly pretty nitpicky.

My single biggest issue, though, was the additional material brought in to make this a prequel to the "Lord of the Rings". Now, this is all largely derived from Tolkien's work, being in the appendices to LotR, so it's not entirely invented. However, it suffers from the major problem of all prequels - it's concerning itself with a story that has already been told, and about which very little of any significance can truly be revealed. We don't need to see the White Council, because we already know that Saruman is a bit of an arse. The debate over whether the Witch King has returned, or where that Morgul Blade came from, is pointless - we already know.

And I didn't like the seeming need to shoehorn in so many familiar faces - Frodo, Galadriel, Saruman... This suffers from exactly the same problem as when the Star Wars prequels insisted on including R2-D2, C-3P0, Chewbacca, Yoda... Rather than expanding the canvas on which the story takes place, they actually contract it - it seems that everything of importance in that world happens to the same half-dozen people.

Fundamentally, that story has been told. I would much rather they had instead focussed on telling this story. "The Hobbit" is a great book; it doesn't need to be expanded in this manner.

I wouldn't mind the prequel-isation of the films, though, were it not for their effect on the film. As I mentioned right at the top, "The Hobbit" is a children's book. But the film is 2 hours and 45 minutes in length, and tells only a third of the story. It's too long - indeed, it really felt like I was watching the Extended Edition right there on the screen. But where the LotR Extended Editions are all genuine improvements on the theatrical versions, my distinct impression here was that this film would have been vastly improved had it been half an hour shorter.

The prequel-isation also had an effect on the tone of the film - this was a much more adult story, with a growing sense of impending doom, and a significant amount of violence (in the same vein as in LotR - it's certainly not a gore-fest). But there's barely any violence in the book, and it certainly doesn't get the sort of lingering attention as was the case here. Basically, if your children's book warrants a 12A certificate, something may be wrong.

(Not that I have anything against a more adult film, per se. But it's a question of tone - I no more want to see a kiddified "Hamlet" than I want to see sex, violence, and gore in "The Wind in the Willows". Oh, and I would very much like to see this team get a chance at "Children of Hurin". That could be a truly excellent film.)

I'm actually finding it quite hard to strike the right balance here. See, I did enjoy the film, a great deal. As I said, taken as 90% it was genuinely excellent. It's just that the weaknesses are there, are significant, and I can't really overlook them.

I'll probably be going to see this again at some point (this time in 3D), and I'll no doubt get the eventual blu-ray. So make of that what you will.

In closing, I thought I would note one final, hugely positive aspect of the film. As with the Star Wars prequels, the single best part of this film was the music. Howard Shore has returned to Middle Earth, and like John Williams before him has turned in a magnificent soundtrack - at once distinct from the original and yet clearly of the same species. Good work, and I look forward to using it for gaming purposes.

#52: "The Worldwound Gambit", by Robin Laws

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

About Physics Fiesta

The correct answer to the question "¿Dónde está el bosón de Higgs?" is not "En el acelerador de particulas." It is, in fact, "En todas partes". Because while the existence of the particle was proven using said particle accelerator, it's a sub-atomic particle found in all things.

I suspect the question Sheldon actually meant to ask was "¿Dónde se encuentra el bosón de Higgs?" Although my Spanish is not terribly good, so I might have that wrong.

Yes, it has been bugging me since last week.


I got to work this morning, only to find that I've left my mobile phone at home. Hopefully, I won't get any "important messages" about Payment Protection Insurance while I'm here - that seems to be pretty much all I get on that phone at the moment, and I'd obviously hate to miss them.

#51: "Pathfinder: Beyond the Doomsday Door", by Tito Leati

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Experimental Cookery 2012: Bikers' Lamb Hot Pot

This is another entry from the Hairy Bikers' "Perfect Pies", which is a book I rather enjoy but use only rarely. I've tried hot pot once in the past, but that was made from a sachet, and was rather bland.

The hot pot itself is pretty simple to make up - it's basically just a case of cutting up some veg, pre-cooking things a little, and then sticking them into a bowl and then the oven. And then waiting.

I did have two small concerns going in: I was forced to use lamb leg rather than neck (the neck was recommended because the higher amount of fat should mean more flavour in the end result), and I found that my bowl was rather too small for the job. In hindsight, I should really have used one of the new ones we got as wedding presents. (Actually, in hindsight that's so obvious that now I feel quite stupid for not thinking of it earlier.)

The end result was nice enough, but... It was all a little bland and overwhelming. Lady Chocolat noted that it really "needed something" just to pep it up a bit. I mean, there wasn't anything wrong with it, as such, it was just a bit lacking.

I'm going to try this one again. It's good enough to be worth another attempt, and I do think I can probably do better. So I'll experiment a bit next time - perhaps an insistence on the neck would be better, perhaps a bit more seasoning, perhaps some more thyme and rosemary...

So, a somewhat mixed success there, I think.

Friday, December 07, 2012

I Watch It So You Don't Have To

"Dungeons & Dragons 3: The Book of Vile Darkness" is not the worst film I have ever seen. It is better than both "Catwoman" and "Basic Instinct 2" (and, I'm sure, some films not starring Sharon Stone). Indeed, it is less of a betrayal than "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and at least two of the "Transformers" films. (That said, it's not as good as "Crstal Skull", solely because it at now point shows Shia LaBoeuf getting hit in the nuts with cactii. Otherwise, it would be a dead heat.)

However, BoVD is not a good film. In fact, it fails on every possible level: bad acting, a rotten script, poor direction, bad music, special effects that make the first season of "Merlin" look good by comparison...

Where to begin...

Well, I suppose the best place to start is right at the beginning. In the first scene...

No, actually, before even that we get treated to the now obligatory fantasy backstory montage, in which Voiceover-Man tells us about the creation of the Book of Vile Darkness, the most evil of all books not 'written' by Katie Price. That's actually quite cool, in a rather grimdark kind of a way.

Anyway, blah blah blah, evil empire, blah blah, BoVD, blah, knights... Eventually, to prevent it being captured, the bad guys decide to split the BoVD into components. So far, so good.

The three components are the covers, the pages, and the ink.

Yes, like "Angels and Demons" before it, "D&D3: BoVD" doesn't even get to the start of the story before disappearing into idiocy.

Anyway, on to the first scene, in which the heroic young knight Grayson finds himself being sworn in as a Paladin. Huzzah! So, he takes all the standard oaths - honour, mercy, loyalty, chastity...

The ceremony goes somewhat wrong, and young Grayson is comforted by the knight who conducted the ceremony, who turns out to be his father. He then passes on some wise words from his own father, who was also a Paladin in the same order.

Yes, it's true - Grayson has just taken an oath of chastity just like his father and his father before him. I guess the writer here had seen "Hot Shots! Part Deux", but didn't get the joke.

The rest of the plot is basically "Finding Nemo" in reverse - Grayson's father gets captured, and the young knight must rescue him with the help of a party of evil adventurers. You can tell these adventurers are evil because they all have either tattoos or piercings. Well, except for their leader; she is clearly the most eeevil, because she has both tattoos and piercings.

Oh, yeah, there is one evil guy who doesn't have tattoos or piercings. But that's okay, because he has a badass mask he stole from the Phantom of the Opera, is entirely made of bugs, and is prone to spouting fortune-cookie philosophy. He's totally an evil Yoda.

Probably the second worst single scene takes place when Grayson decides to equip himself for his Quest!. He visits Ye Olde Magicke Shoppe, called "The Adventurer's Vault", where he buys a bunch of items, including a suit of "Knight's Armour". At which point the shopkeepe asks him "Heroic or Paragon".

See, here we see that the writer was at least familiar with D&D terminology, in exactly the same way that the writer of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" was familiar with the Transformers comics and cartoons. But, as with the earlier film, the writer shows a complete lack of skill in actually using that lore. Frankly, I was surprised the shopkeepe didn't ask to see Grayson's character sheet to verify that he was high enough level to buy such lofty items.

Beyond that, the best way to view BoVD is in the style of "Mystery Science Theatre 3000". Basically, sit around 'watching' the film, but actually proceed to mock it mercilessly as it goes. Like the bit where the Masked Man makes Grayson a necklace, and they think about braiding one another's hair, but in a totally manly way. Or the bit where Grayson trips over his own sword.

Still, it's not all bad. The design of the dragon, and in particular the way it moves and fights, is pretty cool. Well, apart from being stolen from "Alice in Wonderland" and the Jabberwocky, that is. Likewise, the evil overlord is quite cool, what with his sown-up mouth and the two girls who must therefore speak for him.

The climax of the film is extremely topical. Grayson has been captured himself (in a plot twist that makes no sense at all - indeed, even less sense than Silva's plan in "Skyfall"). He finds himself strapped to the torture machine from "Princess Bride", which they are using to extract liquid pain which they will use as ink to rewrite the Book of Vile Darkness.

At this point Evil Girl, who has been turned good by... something or other... decides to help her lover by returning to him his holy symbol (a symbol that, as far as she knows, is utterly useless to him). At this point, Grayson somehow calls on the power of Pelor to send a telepathic message to the Evil Overlord, who then repeats it to all his many minions. And then their heads explode.

Now, you may be wondering how this can be considered "topical". Nonsensical, yes. Beyond even the stupidiy of the rest of the film, indeed. But topical? How so?

Well, the key here is the content of the message. What message is there that could truly cause people's heads to explode, and in large numbers? What could it possibly be?

There is, of course, only one possible answer to this. And, lo, we have verily seen the revealed might and power of this message this very week, when the most seismic of shocks spread through our media, causing exactly this sort of widespread head-'sploding.

Yes, it's true. The forces of evil were undone, once and for all, by the forbidden knowledge that KATE MIDDLETON'S PREGNANT!!! O!!! M!!! G!!!!!!!

#50: "Eberron Campaign Guide", by James Wyatt and Keith Baker

Monday, December 03, 2012

Christmas has Changed

This Christmas is turning into an ever-more worrying event. Not just because the world is obviously and most definitely going to end on the 21st, but also because all my Christmas traditions are being overturned one by one.

As you know, it has long been my policy to put up my Christmas decoration on the first Sunday in Advent. Occasionally, this has drifted to the Monday after, or perhaps even dared to occur on the Saturday before. But the key truth is this: the decoration goes on the TV, where it will remain until the end of the month.

But this year, it is not so! For this year it has been decreed that we shall have a Tree. And on this Tree there shall be Lights (in many and varied colours), there shall be Exciting Baubles, and there shall be a Star! Fortunately, the decoration is permitted to remain, although it too shall adorn the Tree, drifting down from the Star! to less lofty heights.

As you also know, I consider the greetings card industry to be my worst nemesis. (Or nemeses, it's not quite clear - it's a single organisation made up of many heinous forces.) Hence my cunning avoidance of sending cards to inform people who I'm going to see anyway that I do indeed wish them a "Merry Christmas".

But, alas, this too has been decreed to be otherwise. For there is a List. Or, rather, there is an aspiration for there to be a List, yet to be compiled, containing the names and addresses of many exciting people. And lo! all these people shall soon be in receipt of a wonderful and magnificently coloured card declaring the Nativity Hobbit. Or something.

(Yes, that was a truly terrible joke. But if I'm going to have to send Christmas Cards, I'm going to make bad jokes. So there.)

And then there is the matter of the Advent Calendar. Now these truly are a work of terror, for unless you are the only person living in the residence there is the constant fear that little fingers might find their way beyond the doors and remove the chocolate that resides within. Indeed, it's not even a question of if the chocolate will be eaten, but rather a question of when. At any time, a quantum reaction could take place leading to the consumption of that delicious chocolatey goodness. Yes, they're Schrödinger's candy.

Here too, I have been overruled. What's worse, I discovered yesterday that the chosen Advent Calendars actually count upwards to that most wonderful of climaxes, the 24th (something not quite right there), at which point you get to gorge yourself on... a Fun Size Mars Bar!!! Yes, it's true - the highlight to which this calendar is pointing is the most disappointing and ill-named of all Mars Bars.

There's a social comment in there somewhere, but I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader.

In truth, I protest too much. When LC moved in, I of course acknowledged that there would be changes. And, indeed, I welcome them. Mostly. Even then that means that I have to spend Christmas being... jolly. Ho, etc.

I'm still drawing the line at cushions, though.

#49: "Hartsend", by Janice Brown

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bad Day. Bad Week.

Grr. I am not enjoying this week. After getting lots of sleep at the weekend, and feeling quite refreshed for the week ahead, I found on Sunday that my neck was hurting again. No sleep for me!

Plus, it seems that this month is just never going to end.

And they've gone and cancelled "Merlin", while "Homeland" gets progressively worse and gets renewed for a third season. Though, truth be told, neither show is particularly good any more.

Still, the worst is over now. With a bit of luck, the rest of the week might not suck so much.

#48: "Sense and Sensibility", by Jane Austen

Friday, November 23, 2012


I hadn't intended to post more that twice today (because doing so drives the new posts down below the point where they actually get read), but I just had to. I found this quite hilarious.

The line that particular amused me was this: "Experts - and ethnic Mayans - agree that the 'end date' does not denote some kind of apocalypse, but instead a new period in the Mayan 'long count' calendar."

Or, to put it another way, "Everybody who knows anything about it says it's a load of tosh."

Naturally, they then proceed with a variety of apocalypse preparation guides. And that's fair enough - one can never be too prepared to deal with a zombie apolcalypse, an outbreak of reality TV, or a Dalek invasion of Earth. It's just a shame that the article only deals with one of these, instead wasting time on the far less likely threats of nuclear war and global warming.

The Process is the Punishment

I was somewhat surprised yesterday when I turned on the radio to hear that Rangers had won their tax case against HMRC. Somehow, that news had slipped past me.

Now, to a certain extent, I just don't care all that much. As I've mentioned before, I'm not exactly a football fan, nor particularly a Rangers fan.

On the other hand, I am rather concerned about justice, and there's a major problem here.

This tax case has gone on for years, with Rangers struggling under massive financial difficulties for all of that time. The massive uncertainty surrounding the club made them an absolutely poisonous prospect for any potential investor. The consequence of this was that they were unable to find a buyer, they gradually fell to ruin, and they were eventually forced to liquidate.

Now, the consequences of liquidation are bad enough for the company involved. But hundreds of people lost their jobs as a result of Rangers going into first administration and then liquidation. Hundreds of other people and small businesses were owed money by Rangers, and when they disappeared so too did any prospect of getting most of that money back. And most of those small businesses could ill afford to be without that money. Not to mention the domino effect of losing Rangers, which looks likely to be a factor in at least one other club disappearing, and probably several others in time. Plus, a great many people have bound up their self-esteem in the fortunes of their club (rather foolishly, I might note, but they do nonetheless) - all of whom were affected when the club disappeared.

And now it turns out that the case failed. Rangers have been vindicated.

Now, I'm not suggesting for a moment that this is a case that shouldn't have been brought. It is absolutely right that HMRC investigate where they think there is wrong-doing, and there most certainly was at least a case to answer.

But natural justice demands that, having answered their case, Rangers should continue as if the case hadn't happened - they shouldn't be punished for not having done anything wrong. And punished they most definitely have been, severely and over many years.

The fundamental problem here is that the system works far too slowly. HMRC brought the case, with a massive potential liability, and then the wheels turned. Very. Very. Slowly. And as long as they turned (and, indeed, continue to turn - there's still a potential appeal, which may go on another three years), Rangers were dead in the water. The process was the punishment - in the event, a punishment no less severe than a loss could have been. That punishment applied regardless of guilt or innocence.

And that is wrong.

The simple fact is that from the moment a person or business is known to be facing charges until the moment that the final verdict is know, the accused is being punished - inevitably and unavoidably. Further, the bureaucracy at the centre of our society is entirely capable of utterly crushing someone if it is not controlled, and being impersonal it is utterly incapable of caring. That being the case, because it is unacceptable for an innocent person to be punished, and since the balance of power lies with the bureaucracy, it is vital that the wheels of justice run quickly.

In fact, this is one where it's probably necessary to legislate - if a case cannot be brought to trial within an appropriate time period of charges being laid (say 6 months), then that case is automatically thrown out. Our courts are quite capable of working quickly when we want them to (see the response to the riots), so they should be made to work quickly in all cases, in the interests of natural justice.

Why an Erotic Retelling of "Jane Eyre" Doesn't Make Sense

A few months ago, I was rather horrified to read in article on the Guardian by a new publisher who was in the process of doing erotica versions of several classics, starting with "Jane Eyre". Their contention was that they were writing that novel that Bronte secretly wanted to read but couldn't due to convention. What they were really doing was defiling classic literature to cash in on the "Fifty Shades" fad. Anyway...

A couple of months ago, and sure enough Tesco had the eagerly-awaited (yeah, right) "Jane Eyre Laid Bare", taking pride of place in amongst the rows of mummy-smut books that now infest their displays. Last month I got around to reading "Jane Eyre" (the original, of course). And yesterday I stumbled across reviews of JELB - reviews that were considerably more entertaining than it seems the reviewers found the book itself.

(I am, of course, shocked that JELB could be anything other than a stellar achievement. After all, if "Jane Eyre" is one of the best novels ever written, and they've written the novel Bronte really wanted to write but couldn't, then surely it must truly be the greatest thing ever? No?)

I haven't, and won't, read JELB. In fact, I was never going to read it, any more than I'll ever read "Fifty Shades" (and how I hope I don't feel compelled to update The List any time soon...). Which makes it rather unfair for me to review the book, so I won't. However, what I can say with certainty is that any erotic retelling of "Jane Eyre" is inherently doomed to failure. It simply does not, and cannot, work.

Problem the First: "Reader, I married him."

Unconventional or not, "Jane Eyre" is written as an autobiography, and intended to be read. But the truth is that people just didn't, and by and large still don't, write the sort of sexual detail into autobiographies. Even people who want to court controversy, or who want to impress with their liberality, will be open and frank about who they've slept with and when, and may shock with some details about where they've done the deed, or mention many-in-a-bed romps. But that's as far as it goes. If "Mamma Mia" has taught us nothing else*, it is that the proper handling of such scenes is with the abbreviation dot dot dot.

* Which would be an unfair characterisation. It also taught us that Pierce Brosnan really can't sing.

In order for JELB to work, that iconic line of literature must, in effect, be changed to "Dear Penthouse..."

(And, likewise, because the book is written from Jane's point of view, and description of Rochester's time with his mistresses are also off-limits. Oddly enough, guys are generally reluctant to talk about their sexual history with women to whom they are attracted, and certainly don't do so in lurid detail.)

Problem the Second: The Core of the Book

The simple reality is this: when doing an erotic retelling of "Jane Eyre", the relationship you're actually interested in is that between Jane and Rochester. I mean, certainly, you can insert various encounters between other characters, but those are entirely extraneous. Indeed, they would mostly have to be invented whole-cloth, and inserted purely for titilation. It would be the equivalent of starting "Dirty Dancing" with a 20-minute scene of the cheerleaders from Baby's school taking a shower - it's a bunch of characters we don't care about, and won't see again. It would be entirely gratuitous.

So, you're basically limited to encounters between Jane and Rochester for your eroticism. The problem here, though, is that the core of the book is the unrealised sexual tension between these two characters. She wants to be with him, he wants to be with her, the readers want them to be together... but they can't be together.

But, as everyone who has watched TV knows, whenever you have unrealised sexual tension between two characters, the very moment the two characters get together, the tension disappears and the story immediately falls flat. Jane and Rochester absolutely must not get together until the very end of the book, or it kills the book.

(Indeed, one of the reviews I read commented that it was a good thing that JELB added a kiss to the "burning bed" scene. The contention there was that that scene desperately needed a kiss. But the reviewer is wrong. It's a strength of the book, and that scene in particular, that it doesn't have that kiss - Bronte has her readers on the edge of frustration, without tipping over into the point where they throw the book across the room in disgust. Adding the kiss doesn't improve the scene - it robs it of its potency.)

So, you can't have encounters between Jane and Rochester. And any other encounters are irrelevancies added for no good reason. There's nothing here to hang an erotic retelling on.

Problem the Third: the Power Dynamic

The copy of "Jane Eyre" that I read included an introduction by a Dr Sally Minogue. As advised by the introduction to the introduction, I read the novel first, and then read the introduction (which, frankly, seemed to render the concept of having that introduction rather questionable - isn't it supposed to introduce the book?). And I found reading the introduction spectacularly annoying.

See, Dr Minogue correctly recognised that the key scene in the book comes just after the failed wedding, in which Rochester attempts to persuade Jane to run off with him - they'll go to a foreign land, he'll introduce her as his wife, and they'll live happily ever after. Dr Minogue also correctly, and rather insightfully, notes that in this scene Jane is actually arguing against her own desires - she wants to go with Rochester, but forces herself to refuse.

At this point, Dr Minogue is rather critical of Bronte for having Jane refuse Rochester. She says that it is unfortunate, that having previously said "conventionality is not morality", Bronte then has her heroine make the conventional choice. This was a rather spectacular facepalm moment.

The problem with Dr Minogue's comment is that she failed to identify something that both Bronte and Jane did recognise. It would have been a spectacular mistake for Jane to go with Rochester at this point. Not because it would defy man's law, nor even because it would defy God's law (which both Bronte and Jane would have considered significant, even if they chose to reject it). It would have been a mistake for Jane even in it's own right.

See, the problem is one of power. If Jane went with Rochester, she would forever be in his power. If he ever turned her out, she would be left with no money, no reputation, no friends, and in a foreign land. She would, in short, become Fantine.

And Rochester could turn her out at any time. Worse still, it isn't actually a matter of whether he would do so, it's a matter of when he would do so. It's made very clear in the novel that Rochester despised his mistresses. In fact, it's worse than that - at that point in the novel, Rochester is an angry misogynist. He despises his mistresses, he hates his wife, he is contemptuous of his ward, he uses Blanche Ingram, and he isn't even particularly nice to Jane. He blames the world for his being 'tricked' into marriage and thus being trapped (when, presumably, it was actually his choice, made in haste and repented at leisure). He is not a nice man, for all that Jane loves him.

If Jane went with Rochester at that point, it wouldn't be to live happily ever after; it would be for six months of bliss followed by poverty, disgrace, and death. Yay!

(I'm not entirely sure how Dr Minogue managed to miss this. Jane lays all this out, in detail, in that very scene.)

Instead, Jane leaves, suffers significantly, and is symbolically reborn. She is empowered by adding to her education. She is empowered by living independently. She is empowered by taking responsibility for running a school. She is empowered with wealth. And she is empowered by her resistance to St John. Conversely, Rochester is brought low at the same time; when we see him again his fortune is greatly diminished, he is maimed, and he is blinded.

At the end, the balance of power of their relationship is changed. Now, it is Jane who holds the whip hand. She marries him because she chooses to, and on her own terms. And even when Rochester's sight is restored, they continue as equals - and that gives them the basis for an actual happily ever after.

And that is the very point of the novel. Throughout, Jane Eyre has been faced with a great many characters, mostly men, who have sought to control her - her cousin, the governor of her school, her employer, Rochester, St John - and over the course she faces this adversity, resists their control, and in the end makes her own choices.

So, what does this have to do with an "erotic retelling"?

Well, the point is exactly the same - in order to have an erotic retelling, Jane Eyre must have sex with Rochester without first being married to him. She has to give in to her desires and go with Rochester (literally or figuratively) without them first becoming equals. She has to place herself in his power - and everything I said above about him eventually abandoning her remains true.

In order to have an "erotic retelling", you have to gut the point of the book. And you have to gut the key thing that makes Jane Eyre a worthwhile character.

Conversely, of course, a retelling of "Jane Eyre" in which she is some sort of crazy vampire slayer... that makes perfect sense!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Disturbing Development

It appears that the first "Hobbit" film will only be shown in Scotland in glorious 3D. So if you want to see it, but want to opt out of that extraneous extra D, you can't.

Which really isn't very good. After all, plenty of people actively prefer the 2D presentation, due to it not being as dark as the 3D equivalent. And, of course, 3D films are unsuitable for children due to their eyes still developing. And then there are people who become travel-sick when watching 3D effects, not to mention those who are blind in one eye, or otherwise unable to view a 3D picture.

(And, for the latter, simply viewing a "left-only" presentation is a less than ideal substitute. It's perhaps better than nothing... but it's less good than watching a film that was intended to be viewed in 2D. Switching from 2D to 3D isn't just a case of adding a second layer; it's a matter of re-organising the material for two layers instead of one.)

Now, I can understand why the cinemas are so keen on 3D presentation. With the rise of big-screen TVs and home cinema equipment, coupled with quick releases on Blu-ray, there's very little incentive for people to venture out to the cinema, pay a lot of money for tickets, and then have the film ruined by muppets on the mobile phones.

But very few people have 3D-capable TVs and 3D-capable blu-ray players, and 3D discs to play. They're coming, but they're coming very gradually (and have significant problems of their own). So, for the moment, the cinemas can offer something that people can't easily duplicate at home. And, indeed, I've more or less taken the view that I'll only go to the cinema for 3D films these days, with a very few notable exceptions. (The recent jump in prices, coupled with the aforementioned "have the film ruined" issue, is to blame. Unless I pretty much know it's going to be a good film, I might as well wait four months for the blu-ray.)

So, yeah, I can understand the motivation for cinemas to show films in 3D. I can understand why they're so incredibly keen to push the medium. But when it comes to showing them only in 3D, that's quite another matter. Frankly, that's quite offensive.

(And another thing: why does it seem to be "The Hobbit" that keeps annoying me? I was always a little annoyed that they'd split it into two films, it being one book and all, and then they split it into three. And now this. It's almost as if they're trying to annoy. Grr.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Words You Never Hear

I was going to title this post "words you only ever see written down"... but how else would you see words?


English has quite a few words. Indeed, English is a bit of a rogue language, lurking in darkened alleys until less hardened languages walk past, at which point it jumps them and steals all their words, engorging its dictionary on them to enhance its prodigious girth. Or something.

However, there are a lot of words that don't get used terribly often. And then there are those words that you encounter in print, indeed may encounter frequently in print, but never actually hear used. Which is always a little odd, especially when you come to a point where, actually, the best word to use is egregious. Or deleterious. Or whatever.

The problem then is this: how do you pronounce the word? I mean, as long as nobody around you knows the correct pronunciation, you're good, but if not then you stand a good chance of getting it wrong, even badly wrong. And it's not like there are any common rules for pronunciation - what with English nicking most of its words from other languages, "sounding it out" falls apart really quite quickly. (Unlike French, or Spanish, or any of the Romance languages, where once you've got the vowels down it becomes trivial. Except for "estadounidense".)

Fortunately, it appears I got 'bier' right. And 'eidolon', 'egregious', and 'deleterious'. However, I got 'facets' wrong the first time I used it, and likewise 'chitin'. So I guess I'll call that a draw.

Back on Target

As you know, I didn't set myself any real goals for this year (though I will for next...). However, after we got back from Honeymoon, I did set myself the informal goal of once again reaching the target of 52 books read in the year*.

However, until recently it looked like that wasn't happening - I consistently ended the month one book short of where I "should" be in order to hit the target. Fortunately, that has changed this month. In addition to completing "Jane Eyre" from last month, I have read five other books. This leaves me five books to read, and six weeks in which to achieve this. Now, all I need do is stay on target.

* My standard rules for what counts as a 'book' apply. Specifically, it's a book if the publisher says it's a book, one set of covers means one book (so "Les Miserables" counted as two, while an anthology of collected stories counts as one), and when reading an anthology of stories I only need to read those bits that I've not read before to count the whole. Oh, and the count is of books finished in the year, so if I abandon one halfway through it doesn't count, but if I carry a book across from one year to the next then it counts in the later year's count.

#46: "Eberron Player's Guide", by David Noonan, Ari Marmell, and Robert J. Schwalb
#47: "HMS Surprise", by Patrick O'Brian

Thursday, November 15, 2012

1,000th Post

Yes, it's true - this is the 1,00th post on this blog. It's slightly overdue, in that I had hoped to get to this milestone before the wedding back in April, but obviously that wasn't to be. Still, that makes 1,000 posts in the 2,625 days since I started the blog, making an average of one post every 2.5 days. I think that's pretty good going.

Previously, and until very recently, whenever I hit a 100-post milestone I blogged some nonsense about a minor celebrity - the Hoff, Paris Hilton, John Collins, Jade, and so on. Given that this is a far greater milestone, I wasn't sure whether I should mark it with an even more minor celebrity, or perhaps a greater one. Is the celebrity-ness proportional to the significance of the milestone, or inversely proportional?

In the end, I decided that I had to mark the milestone properly, and post a reflection on one of, if not the, greatest icons of our time. A hero non-pareil, a great leader and statesman, and one of the key influences on my thinking.

I refer, of course, to Optimus Prime.

For those who have been living in a cave, Optimus is the leader of the heroic Autobots, one of the two factions in the great Cybertronian wars. Marooned on Earth some 6 million years ago, he remained in stasis until woken by the eruption of Mount St. Hilary in 1984. He then led the Autobots in renewed conflict against their great enemies, the Decepticons, seeking to liberate his home planet from their evil dominion.

Unfortunately, he was never to complete this great task. Although the plans for the final invasion were well advanced, Optimus was recalled to Earth in 2005, when Autobot City came under attack. There, he was slain by the maniacal Megatron. Like many a great leader before him, he died with his greatest task yet unfinished; he was allowed to view his promised land, but not to step into it.

Optimus was a paragon of dedication and leadership. His compassion, and his care for those under his command, knew no bounds. "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings" was a sentiment dear to his heart, a sentiment he embodied right to the end.

Optimus, on this day of days, I salute you.


And to you, dear reader, I give my thanks for staying with me for these 1,000 posts. There may be one or two bits of nonsense yet to come. Here's to the next 1,000!


We got a bit of a fright last night. Just after 10, just before we were about to retire for the night, LC called my attention to the bathroom, where she was concerned that the roof might be leaking. This concern was motivated in part by the fact that we share the roof with several neighbours, at least one of whom have had to have their segment repaired recently for precisely this reason.

So, I looked at it, plus the equivalent sections in the kitchen and the bedroom, and I almost convinced myself that this wasn't the case. But I couldn't be 100% sure.

This did not make for a terribly comfortable sleep overnight.

Anyway, it turned out that the roof is, in fact, not leaking. Thank goodness.

What had actually happened was that LC had had a shower earlier that evening, the moisture hadn't been able to escape, and so had condensed on the window and the back wall (because those are the coldest areas). Then, due to a significant build-up, it started to drip. The issue wasn't that water was getting in, it was that it couldn't get out. Which is nice and explicable. Panic over.

What this does do, however, is highlight a repair job that we need to get on and do, ideally at the weekend. (I had intended to do this when I got some time off, but in the excitement of cutting my thumb, and with so much else to do, I forgot.) The paintwork on our bathroom ceiling didn't really take right, for a couple of reasons. So, we really need to get up there, scrape off the bad paint, scrub the ceiling thoroughly, and then (once it's fully dry) repaint it.

So that's this weekend taken care of, then.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Firefly Resurrection

For my birthday I received the "Alien Quadrilogy" boxed set, which I have just found the time to watch, finishing with "Alien Resurrection" last night. I hadn't seen either "Alien 3" or "Alien Resurrection" for more than a decade.

"Alien", of course, is a great film and a classic of the genre (whether that's sci-fi or horror). The blu-ray is a distinct step up in quality from my older DVD copy, and if anything the special edition is actually better than the original - the director removed some 6 minutes of material, resulting in a film that is actually tauter than the original. Good stuff.

"Aliens" is, quite simply, one of the best films ever made. And, again, the blu-ray is excellent quality. Of course, the director's cut of this film is well known, and is a distinct improvement over the theatrical cut - by adding a lot of extra material, the scale of the film is extended and the plot is that bit more coherent.

Which brings us to the films I hadn't see for decades, and never bothered to pick up on DVD...

It turns out that "Alien 3" was much better than I remembered, but it remains fundamentally flawed. It's very easy to see how the opening pissed off the fans of the previous film so much - killing off Hicks and Newt does indeed negate the victories of the previous film. And the last half hour seems to involve a lot of pointless and confusing running that is extremely difficult to follow. Plus, this was the point where they moved from model-work for the monsters to CGI, but the technology really wasn't up to it. So, a lot of the menace is negated because the characters are running away from a very unconvincing cartoon peril.

Plus, the special edition adds some 20 minutes to the running time, making the film overly long. I would need to rewatch the original to see how the two compare in quality.

It's a shame - there's a really good film in there somewhere. But the changes that would be required to bring that really good film out aren't actually possible without remaking the whole thing (which isn't now possible given the time that has passed - the actors have aged a bit in the last 20 years!).

Which brings us to "Alien Resurrection", which is another film that turned out to be not as bad as I remembered. And, again, there's a really good film buried in there somewhere. Unfortunately, it's buried under quite a lot of really bad direction and really bad acting (including from the normally reliable Ron Perlman and Brad Dourif). Again, it's one that would need remade completely to bring out that good film.

(And that's a shame. The scenes where they heroes are swimming through the kitchen and then climbing up through the alien nest are both excellent. But, again, the film really goes to pieces in the last half hour or so.)

But what really got to me in "Alien Resurrection" was the crew of 'Betty', a small cargo vessel that is used to smuggle cargo, and which is crewed by a rag-tag bunch of scoundrels.

Now, I vaguely remembered this aspect of the film, and I was of course away that it was written by Joss Whedon, of "Firefly" fame. What I hadn't realised, but what I realised pretty damn quickly, was that "Alien Resurrection" basically is "Firefly".

In the crew of 'Betty', there are direct parallels of Jayne, Zoe, and Kaylee. And Ripley herself is almost exactly River, right down to several mannerisms being the same. (Heck, at times I half expected her to declare "I can kill you with my mind."!) The characters of Mal and Wash are combined here, into a captain/pilot of uncertain moral code, and who is married to his first officer. There's no direct parallel of Book, but one of the characters was distinctly reminiscent.

There's no real equivalent to either Simon or Inara, and there is a 'new' character (a little person paraplegic mechanic).

Of course, I was hit by that Keanu-like "woah" moment pretty quickly in the film. At which point, "Alien Resurrection" became a lot more fun when watched as an out-and-out "Firefly" movie. (I'm not sure if it's better or worse than the actual "Firefly" movie, though...)

But then, that just made me wish they would remake it, get Joss Whedon to direct, and replace 'Betty' with 'Serenity', and go from there.

(Incidentally, after the film I went online to look for discussions of the similarities, only to discover that "Firefly" and "Alien" actually take place in the same 'Verse - the anti-aircraft gun Mal uses in the first episode is manufactured by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. Which means, in turn, that the "Predator" films are also part of the 'Verse. Might be that gives me some ideas...)

#44: "Pathfinder: The Asylum Stone", by James L. Sutter
#45: "Plague of Shadows", by Howard Andrew Jones

(I should probably note that "Plague of Shadows" was actually a surprisingly good book. Granted, it's game-fiction, so the standard isn't terribly high. Still, I really enjoyed it, and a lot more than I expected. It's not "book of the year" material, but still noteworthy.)

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Decades ago, I saw a bit by a stand-up comedian lamenting shower temperature control. He noted that every shower, it seemed, had a dial on it to control the temperature with (literally) an infinite number of settings... but that the difference between ice water and liquid hot magma was a fraction of a degree.

Somehow, I found myself reminded of that this morning.

What I don't understand is why we're still stuck with this system. It's utter madness, so why do we persist with it?

Surely, it should be possible to construct a shower with better control than that. As far as I can see, what is wanted is a dual display, with the top showing the desired temperature (in degrees), the bottom showing the actual temperature, and a set of buttons allowing you to adjust the desired temperature in increments of 0.1 of a degree (or even less). For extra credit, the shower could even have a number of preset values - that way, if she likes the water at 38.2 degrees and he likes the water at 36.8 degrees, it's trivial to switch between them. And so you don't get another version of the "toilet seat" argument *.

It really shouldn't be beyond the wit of men to develop such a thing - electric showers already take in cold water, heat it to a desired temperature, and then feed it through, and all this adds is an additional sensor and feedback step. And you can already get wirelessly controlled showers (no, really!), meaning that the issue is clearly not with putting electronics close to a water source.

And there's another advantage, beyond mere considerations of comfort and safety. As things stand, every single shower is unique. The temperature dial on each and every shower, even two showers of exactly the same make and model, is slightly different. That near-mythical sweet-spot between freezing to death and your flesh melting is in a slightly different place each time.

But temperature is an objective measurement. Assuming proper calibration, 36.8 degrees on my thermometer is the same as 36.8 degrees on your thermometer. So, if we moved to a standard design where the user could input a specific target temperature, then all they would need to do is remember their preferred value (which isn't all that hard, really), and every time they found themselves staying at a Premier Inn they could just set that value, without having to endure painful experimentation or deeply unsatisfying showers.

* Incidentally, science gives us the correct answer to the "toilet seat" argument. Before flushing, you should put not only the seat but also the lid of the toilet down. And if you haven't been in the practice of doing that, you should also replace your toothbrushes immediately.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

One of Your Five-a-Day

Last week, I found myself shouting at the TV (again). I was watching a show called "Rip-off Food" on iPlayer, which I hadn't initially realised was actually daytime TV. The premise seemed obvious enough - it would be a show about rip-offs in the food genre, presumably highlighting such things as supermarkets charging a higher unit price for larger boxes (rather than the normal lower price for buying in bulk), and suchlike.

Instead, the show (what I watched of it) went on a weird rant about "Five a Day" labelling. (And, yes, it annoyed me enough that I'm posting on it nearly a week later...)

The central point made by the show was this: apparently, there is an official Government-sanctioned "five a day" logo. This was news to me, as I'd never seen it. However, lots of companies were not using that logo, but were instead labelling their products with words (the horror!) like "five a day" and the like.

Now, as we all know, a 'portion' of fruit or veg is reckoned to be 80g, and we're supposed to eat five per day (I'll get back to that). But the key thing is that, in order to get the 'official' logo, it is not enough for a product to include the requisite 80g - it must also not have any added salt or fat. And those products that were not using the logo, but merely saying they counted as one of the five, weren't meeting those additional requirements.

Clearly, this is an outrage! Something must be done forthwith! (Indeed, so important was this that the show's presenter actually met with a representative of the government, presented her with that greatest of evils - a trifle - and challenged her to do something about this iniquity.)

That was the point where I gave up. The stupidity was just overwhelming.

The thing is, the "five a day" stuff is basically a gimmick. At no point did anyone sit down and work out that every adult should eat exaclty 400g of fruit and veg per day. Indeed, they couldn't do that, because the fruit and veg genre is so incredibly diverse that any such simplistic measure is meaningless. "Five a day" came about because the powers-that-be wanted people to eat more fruit and veg... and a figure of "five a day" was an easy and memorable manner to indoctrinate people into doing that.

(Incidentally, it's also telling that they specifically exclude potatoes and nothing else. Not because potatoes are the only lethal vegetable, or any such absurdity... but rather because five-a-day becomes trivial the moment you can count chips. Mmm, chips.)

But the big issue with the show was not that products were saying "five a day" when they didn't include the 80g requirement. The problem is that the 'official' logo has additional requirements, over and above the ones that it should have. Some fool has gotten hold of a logo that might, just possibly, be a good thing, added another requirement that might, just possibly, be a good thing, and by combining the two has muddied the waters, rendering the official logo useless. Large numbers of products that should qualify for it now don't, and so they don't bother trying to use it, and move on.

And, worse, many (but not all) of these products are entirely suitable parts of a healthy diet.

Which brings us, rather neatly, to the silliness of the "no added fat" and "no added salt" requirements. When read as "people should probably eat less salt and fat", they actually represent the germ of a good idea. But when you try to eliminate these things entirely, bad things happen.

See, when you remove fat from a product, and especially when you eliminate it altogether, the flavour is altered, almost invariably for the worse. And so to compensate, the manufacturers need to add something else to replace it. The substitution of choice being the most obvious - sugar. Pump your product full of sugar, remove all the fat, and then you get something that tastes nice (ish), that you get to label as a 'healthy' ('cos, you know, "fat free"!)... and that is ultimately unsatisfying, that is full of empty calories, and that is really bad for people.

It is now believed that a key cause of the obesity crisis is our ongoing obsession with low fat food. Eliminate the fat, bulk up on sugar, and then (to paraphrase Pratchett/Gaiman) you get to a position where people can both become obscenely fat and die of malnutrition. Good one.

The "no added salt" issue is similar, although for a slightly different reason. See, if I cook up a batch of minestrone soup, I can either add salt or not during the cooking. And if I don't, presumably that makes the resulting soup healthier?

But not really. See, what happens is that the resulting soup is indeed healthier... but it also tastes bland and lifeless. This is pretty obvious really, given that the purpose of salt in food is as a flavour enhancer. That being the case, as soon as someone tastes this bland soup, the very next thing they will do is add salt to it. But not all salt is added equal - if I add salt to a cooked meal, I need to add much more for the same effect than if I had added it during the cooking process. A pinch now, or a spoonful later.

We've reached a point where we now have well-meaning 'experts' failing to think through the consequences of various actions, meddling in the foods we eat, and killing us by inches. Good one!

And the absolute worst part of this? Even if their efforts worked as intended, they would be a drop in the ocean. If 60% of the population of the UK are overweight or obese, getting them to eat 400g of fruit a day, and eliminating fat and salt from their diets isn't going to solve the problem. It's a sticking plaster after the guillotine has dropped.

The fundamental, underlying problem is that people are eating way too much, they're eating too much junk, and too much of what they eat is simply empty calories designed to be quick and easy to prepare, to store forever, and to keep them going.

And that's an issue that can't be solved by better food labelling. Food science is too complex. The government's "traffic light" markers are too simplistic to give any meaningful information. But as soon as the data is split out into a form where it does become meaningful, it also becomes too complex to be read. A list of ingredients and a table of nutritional data is meaningless unless you know a lot about the subject or are looking for something specific.

No, if the government seriously wants to do something to improve public health, they need to get people cooking for themselves. Do that, and at a stroke they eliminate almost all artificial additives, preservatives, flavour enhancers. They'll sharply reduce salt content, reduce sugar content (although probably slightly increase fat content, but that's not actually all that bad).

Of course, saying that is easy; doing it is hard. You would need to demonstrate to people that they can quickly, easily, and cheaply produce better food than they could get at anything but a high-end restaurant. That's possible... but even so probably wouldn't be enough. Most likely, convenience would still win out, even over the possibility of adding 20 years of life!

I recommend starting with the schools. Get pupils cooking, get them enjoying creating food and enjoying the food they create, and you might get somewhere. Maybe, just maybe, we might be able to help the next generation a bit. Or some of them, at least.

The Ultimate Question

If Disney were to take "The Phantom Menace" and digitally replace Jar Jar Binks with Mickey Mouse, would that make the film better or worse?

#42: "Jane Eyre", by Charlotte Bronte (a book from The List)
#43: "Moving Pictures", by Terry Pratchett

Thursday, November 01, 2012


Lady Chocolat and I went to see the newest James Bond movie on Friday. Demand was exceptionally high - the cinema kept putting on additional showings, we had to reserve specific seats (which I've never before done at that cinema, even for "Dark Knight Rises"), and it was almost completely sold out.

As is now usual for that cinema, we were treated to 35 minutes of adverts and trailers before the film. Which I find more than a little aggravating, but I've complained about it before. Then, as with "Brave", the lights went up and the audience were treated to an introduction by a member of staff. Honestly, I don't think that's necessary - you don't need to tell us you'll be monitoring to ensure our comfort and enjoyment, just do it!

And then the film started. And I must say, it was worth the wait. "Skyfall" was excellent, being much more in the vein of "Casino Royale" than of "Quantum of Solace". It was also quite old school for a modern Bond film, and included a number of references to the novels, and to earlier films, and these were generally well handled. I was impressed.

There was one major issue I had with the plot, which I'll go into below, but this was a relatively minor flaw - such was the strength of the film that it simply carried me along with it.

The rest of this post will include major spoilers, so you may want to avoid reading it...

Okay, there is a major plot point that makes no sense at all. The middle section of the film revolves around the bad guy allowing himself to be captured, only to escape and so be in a position to launch the next part of his plan. There are two major problems with this. The first is that there is absolutely nothing in his plan that couldn't be achieved equally well simply by buying a plane ticket. He doesn't do anything that requires access to the enemy camp, he doesn't provoke anyone to do anything they otherwise wouldn't have done, he doesn't plant any bombs or sabotage any systems, or... Basically, he takes a completely needless risk for no gain. (And, indeed, before he executes the rest of the plan, he is joined by his minions... who did get into position by virtue of just buying plane tickets!)

The second major problem was one that particularly annoyed me, but I suspect most of the audience just missed. The bag guy escapes because MI6's "computer expert" connects the bad guy's laptop to the MI6 network so that he can analyse it, thus in turn allowing said laptop to hack the MI6 network. In case it's not clear: the bad guy's escape plan relies on an alleged genius computer expert committing an act of monumental and collosal stupidity. I mean, I don't work with any great computer security, and yet we are absolutely forbidden to connect anything to our network that hasn't first been sanitised by IT. Our schools don't allow foreign computers to connect to their networks. And why? Because the risks are just far to great. And yet MI6's computer "expert" quite happily connects a foreign laptop from a known terrorist who is himself a computer expert, to their network.


That epic, gaping hole in the plot aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I really liked that Bond was shown to be suffering the wear and tear of his lifestyle. I liked that he appeared to be held together by alcohol and painkillers. I liked that haunted look that Daniel Craig brought to the role. And Judy Dench's performance as 'M' truly was excellent.

The other thing I really liked was the role of the female agent. She wasn't named right through the film, and I spent the film wondering whether she would turn out to be the new Moneypenny, or if she would instead launch a sudden but inevitable betrayal. And, right up to the end, I was still left wondering. That was awesome.

And I liked the end of the film, also. It now being 50 years since the first Bond film, this film in many ways was a trek back to the roots of Bond. And so, all the pieces of the puzzle were gradually put into play, they were gradually assembled, and by the end we get a very 'classic' Bond set-up - he's the trusted Double-Oh agent, he's relied on and trusted by 'M', there's a 'Q' branch, and Moneypenny, and he's all set for his next adventure.

When the titles rolled, and the statement "James Bond shall return", I was left with a great sense of completeness, and an anticipation for the next film that I hadn't really felt since... well, since "Casino Royale". Hopefully, the next film won't dash those hopes in the same way as QoS.

#41: "Post Captain", by Patrick O'Brian

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Feel a Great Disturbance in the Force

So, Disney have bought Lucasfilm. That's cool. They're planning new "Star Wars" films. That could be cool too.

What I'm rather more concerned about is that they're making direct sequels to the saga. It's complete and entire in itself. (And yes, I know that Lucas claims he "always" intended there to be 9 movies, but he's since changed his tune so that there were "always" going to be six. Bottom line is that it doesn't really matter what he "always" intended - the saga is now clearly the rise and fall of Darth Vader, and that story is done.)

There's plenty of scope in that universe for doing new films. But I'd much rather not see direct sequels. Instead, do films well before the other films (the rise of Yoda, perhaps?), or well after the others, or in other parts of the galaxy. Basically, do exactly the sort of stuff that writers in the Expanded Universe, and gamers in the RPG have been doing for decades now.

Somehow, though, I don't see them doing that.

Homeland - so near, yet so far

Having given up every TV show I watched, I've been on the lookout for something new. And with Channel 4 repeating it, I decided to give the first season of "Homeland" a try. Which I have spent the last several days getting caught up on.

For a while there, it actually looked like it might be the new "24". I mean, sure, Claire Danes is no Keifer Sutherland, but the show was interesting, it was willing to take risks, and it was willing to put the characters through hell. Good stuff. And the plot was coming together really nicely.

It was the last episode of the first season, the tension was ratcheting nicely, everything was going really well... and it completely lost it. (I'll try to describe it without spoilers. So this may be a bit tricky to follow...)

See, all through the season, it had been the case that if something happened it was because one of the characters caused it to happen. Everything was nice and clear, and laid out very nicely. All to the good. The problem came because the writers wrote themselves into a corner - all the pieces were in place, and the next thing to happen... was something that they didn't want to happen.

And so they invoked Deus Ex Machina. There is exactly one instance of simple, raw luck determining things in the first season, and it happens at precisely the wrong time from a storytelling perspective. Unfortunate.

I've continued watching into the second season, just to see if it improves any, but it's not really - the show has just gone flat. And, rather unfortunately, it looks like they'd have a much better show if they actually wrote out both of their two main characters - the secondary characters seem to be doing more interesting things, they're enough to carry the show itself, and it wouldn't require the stretching that they're obliged to do in order to include those two. (Plus, of course, sacrificing the main characters would also mean they wouldn't have needed to chicken out in the first season finale. Which would probably have been good also.)

So we'll see. I'll give it to the end of the season, since there are only 8 more episodes, but I may not make it to a third.

Nine-fingered Steve

I'm currently on holiday, and one of the tasks that I had set myself for this holiday was to restock the freezer - our supplies had run low, and so I was all set to cook up a batch of curry (or other food) each day, thus filling the freezer with all manner of wonders.

Monday's effort was a chicken jalfrezi, which begins of course with cutting up a whole load of vegetables. So, the onion was chopped, the chilli was sliced, the ginger was peeled and sliced, and the time had come for the garlic.

At this point, I reached for the knife, and I must have knocked it because it fell. Unfortunately, at this point reflex kicked in, and I rather foolishly tried to catch it. But our kitchen knives are spectacularly sharp, so all I succeeded in doing was getting a very nasty cut in the back of my thumb.

Which was rather sore, but rather more worrying was that there was a lot of blood. So, it was off to A&E (despite LC's initial reluctance).

At length, I got patched up. Fortunately, I had neither caused any nerve damage, nor had I nicked the artery. (I was simultaneously relieved and concerned to hear that - concerned because I hadn't even considered the possibility.) So, they patched me up with dressings rather than stitches, and sent me on my way.

It's rather unfortunate that the wound is on my right thumb - that's the worst possible finger to injure. Fortunately, although I'm not quite ambidextrous, several years of playing the pipes and working with computers has left me with good left-handed control. So working left-handed isn't too difficult. What's proving difficult is working one-handed. Still, I'm doing my best.

The most awkward thing, though, is that I'm under instruction not to let the dressings get wet for the next 5-7 days. Which is interesting. Still, with careful use of vinyl gloves, I've been managing thus far.

Ultimately, no serious harm has been done. Which is the main thing. Now I just need to let it heal.

Experimental Cookery 2012: Naan Bread

This was Sunday's effort, and was very nearly the last ever experimental cookery. But more on that later. The method came from "Gordon Ramsay's Great Escape", a book that I thought I would use a lot more than I actually have. I made four plain naans and four peshwari naans.

The method for making these was really simple - just a matter of making up a dough, leaving it to rise, then rolling it out, and baking for a few minutes. The results were very impressive, although the plain naans were rather too bland (the peshwaris were very nice, though).

And there's really not much more than that. I'm glad I made them, I will certainly make them again, but I'm definitely going to be experimentaing with fillings, and won't be doing plain naans in future.

Monday, October 15, 2012

How to Write an Introduction

I do quite a lot of writing, be it for my job, for this blog, or for other reasons. When writing, the single toughest part of the task is invariably the introduction, which requires breaking the blank page that previously existed. Fortunately, I have developed a useful process for putting together good, workmanlike introductions to complete this task, and allow the rest of the text to be assembled. Thus, for general reference purposes, here is my guide to writing an introduction.

The primary purpose of an introduction is to set the scene. Whatever the topic is going to be, the writer has to assume that the reader is coming to it 'cold', and so needs to be eased into the subject before he or she is ready for your primary argument. Therefore, your goal with the introduction is two-fold: introduce your subject, and then say what you're going to say in the rest of your document.

Additionally, it is important to note that your introduction is nto the document itself. It has a job to do, it should do it, and then it should step aside to let you get to the 'good stuff'. After all, if you're having so much difficulty with your introduction, why should your reader suffer too? A good introduction, then, should be all of three or four short sentences. It should say what it must, and then stop.

In your first sentence, then, you should introduce the overarching subject under discussion: at work, this generally means saying something about the specific project. Here, the subject is 'writing'. You don't even need to say much, or indeed say anything of substance. Just put the broad subject front and centre in your reader's mind.

In your second sentence, you want to drill down to the specific subject under discussion. So, if you're writing a design specification for some component, say something about the component in question. If you're writing a rebuttal to another piece, refer to that piece. And if you're writing a how-to guide, describe the problem that you're writing about.

And then, in your third and final sentence, give the briefest of synopses of what you're going to say. If it's a design specification, now is the time to say that it's a design specification. If it's an argumentative piece, outline your basic argument (don't bother with evidence, just say what it is). And if it's a how-to guide, say that it's a how-to guide.

(If you look at the first paragraph above, you'll see this same pattern - the first sentence gives the broad topic, 'writing'; the second gives the specific problem, 'introductions'; and the third and fourth sentences indicate that this will be a how-to guide giving a solution.)

And that's it. Once you've written that you have an introduction. Now go and write the rest of your document!

Fix it in the Redraft

One thing that's very important to note is that the process above will give you an introduction, one that will do the job. But I've said absolutely nothing about writing a good introduction.

As I noted above, the primary purpose of the introduction is to set the scene. However, a good introduction has a secondary purpose, which is to grab the reader's attention, to make them want to read the rest of the document. Following a simple formula, as described here, gives no guarantee that this will be achieved.

I don't really have any advice how to turn a functional introduction into a good introduction. But I do have one very firm piece of advice: fix it in the redraft.

The thing is, when you sit down to write your document, it's very likely that you will know most of what you want to say. The things that you won't know are the introduction and the conclusion. That's why introductions are so agonising - they really have to be written first, you know what you want to say... but you just can't find the best words to say it.

So cheat. Write a crappy formula-introduction first (and fast). Then write the rest of yuor document - the bits that you know what you're saying. And then go back and redo the introduction. (This now even has the advantage that you know exactly what your document has said, so your introduction can now speak with authority. When you first write it, your introduction runs the risk that the document may end up somewhere you didn't intend.)

Just don't spend an age worrying about getting the introduction exactly right before you write anything else. That way madness lies!

(Incidentally, here's a secret for public speaking - unless it would be bloody stupid to do so, the very first things you should say are, "Hi, I'm {name}, and I'm here to talk to you about {subject}." Because unless you're spectacularly nervous, you're not going to get your name wrong, and simply getting that first sentence out will help settle your nerves for the second sentence. It's quite astonishing just how well it works.)

And now... tell me all the ways the above is wrong. In 500 words or less. Go!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Called It

So, on Friday we were gather for A's birthday party, when G noted that Scotland were winning 1-0 in Wales. "It won't last," said I. At this point, I was chided for my lack of optimism.

Of course, Scotland duly went on to lose the match 2-1. Called it.

Unfortunately, not only did I call that result, but I also called the outcome of this qualifying campaign some two years ago. While it's not mathematically impossible, we can be reasonably certain that we won't be qualifying for the World Cup. (Of course, that's only half my prediction - there's still Euro 2016 to look forward to missing.)

The problem is as that other noted pessimist, Hugh Keevins, noted prior to the first two matches: anything less than six points was not enough (and we got 2). Scotland need to be winning all our home matches and we need to be winning all our matches against the so-called "lesser" teams (that is, in terms of the group, not relative to us, since they're not). The manager might claim that he doesn't do "must win" matches... but that is what they are.

The thing is, it works like this: in any group there will almost inevitably be one team that you can look at and say with confidence that they will qualify, they will win the group, and they will do it with near-maximum points. Then, there will be another one or two who will be vying for that second spot, and the second qualifying (or even just play-off) place that that brings. And then there's the rest.

(And that means no disrespect to "the rest". Every other nation doing exactly the same calculation will count Scotland amongst "the rest".)

So, in order to qualify, you really need to build it on a platform of winning all your home matches (except perhaps against the 'big' team), and winning all your matches against "the rest". Do that, and you're pretty much there. Fail to do that, and you'll always be behind.

Scotland, by contrast, seem to be pretty good at punching above our weight against bigger teams, but really toil against any team we are 'expected' to beat - wins become draws, draws become losses, and before we know it, we're out of the running.

But that's not a sign of a good team. It's the sign of a bad team who raise their game on occasion. And it's a sign of a team that won't ever get anywhere. See, despite appearances, it's not your results against the bigger teams that matter most towards your qualification or not, it is your consistency against the so-called smaller teams. Those put you in the mix for qualfication, with the bigger results sending you over the top. But without those results putting you in the mix in the first place, you're just nowhere.

In which case, I would submit that the answer is this: every match is a "must win". And when playing one of the so-called smaller teams that's not an excuse to get complacent - in those matches it is vitally important that you put them to the sword. In fact, a ropey 1-0 win isn't enough. If you're serious about qualification, your goal should not be to beat Macedonia, the goal should be to thrash Macedonia.

Of course, that's not going to happen. Because we're just not good enough. As things stand, Macedonia are the only team lower than Scotland in our group, and deservedly so. There are no "smaller" teams, because we're actually almost as small as they come.

Bottom line: I stand by my prediction that we're not going to the World Cup, we won't be going to the Euros... and changing the manager won't help in the slightest. Shame.

#40: "Winter Witch", by Elaine Cunningham

Friday, October 12, 2012

Experimental Cookery 2012: Chorizo Carbonara

This one came from Hugh's "River Cottage Every Day", which I received as a Christmas present a couple of years ago, and which has proven to be an invaluable resource.

I've had carbonara a couple of times, but I've never made it myself, largely because I just wasn't a huge fan - it never seemed quite 'right'. However, when looking for something quick and easy to make for Wednesday's dinner, this one caught my eye, so I gave it a go.

It takes about 15 minutes to make, start to finish. And that includes boiling the kettle. And there's nothing difficult about the process - the hardest part was avoiding over-cooking the chorizo (which I'll deal with next time by just leaving it a bit longer before starting).

The result was surprisingly great. Replacing the traditional bacon with chorizo gave the meal a far stronger flavour, but I felt it was an improvement.

Given how quick and easy this one was, we'll definitely be having it again.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Great British Bake-off

Yes, it's a reality show. Yes, it's also one of those absurd talent competitions. Yes, it's yet another cookery show. And yes, it's pretty much everything that's wrong with British TV at the moment.

But it's also absurdly compelling. I fail to see how a show about cake (honestly - cake!) can be the highlight of my TV week, and yet it is.


#39: "Guards! Guards!", by Terry Pratchett


I was going to post this yesterday, but so profound was a facepalm moment that I needed a day for both my hand and my face to recover. Dear oh dear...

Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Tories in Scotland, addresses the party conference this week, and declared that only 12% of households in Scotland are net contributors to the economy. Her 'logic', if it can be called that, is that anyone on benefits, and anyone employed in the public sector, is not contributing, as they are costing more than they bring in.

Now, the first thing to say about her statement is that it is factually incorrect. In a rare example of coherency, the Guardian's comment site has pointed out numerous instances where the figures used are out of date, and based on flawed estimates, or are otherwise incorrect. Perhaps unfortunately, the article doesn't redo the calculation to get the 'correct' figure. But then, on the other hand...

Perhaps more important that Ms Davidson's mere arithmetic errors is the flawed mindset behind her making the calculation at all.

The problem is this: if you look at, say, a teacher, such a person does indeed make no direct contribution to the economy - he or she draws a wage from the public sector, but generates no wealth.

Of course, what our hypothetical teacher does is equips large numbers of other people with the skills they need to gain employment, whereupon they proceed to go out and find work, pay taxes, and potentially generate all sorts of wealth. Remove the teacher and you remove the skills from those young people, and so you remove their 'contributions'.

But it's worse than that. See, Ms Davidson used a simple criterion for dividing people: if you're employed in the public sector, you're not 'contributing'; if you're employed in the private sector then you are. Fair enough. Except that if you're employed by a private firm that only exists to service public sector contracts then you're counted as 'contributing' when in fact they're still being paid with public money.

So, for example, our binmen are currently counted as "not contributing". However, if we privitised the service, and proceeded to give the contract to a private company employing the same people, using the same equipment, and performing the same service, they would suddenly become "contributing" - and that despite being paid using the same public money, albeit indirectly.

And the third flaw in Ms Davidson's 'logic' lies in the failure to recognise that the overwhelming majority of public sector jobs exist because we need them to be done. We need teachers, and nurses, and binmen, and someone to process passport applications, and a police service, and firefighters, and, and, and...

It's just utterly, spectacularly, and fundamentally wrong. And really quite offensive, to boot.

Can we have Annabel Goldie back, please? I disagreed with much of what she said, but at least I could respect her.

(Oh, and regarding the title of the post - yes, we are currently part of that glorious 12%. The tax I pay vastly outweighs LC's student fees, making us net 'contributors'. Yay, don't I feel special.)

Friday, October 05, 2012

Two New Series

Reading fifty books in a year generates a somewhat unexpected problem - there comes a point where you've read 'everything'. This becomes especially troublesome when you acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of fantasy is unremitting dross, and especially when you take the entirely unreasonable step of discounting any endless series of fantasy novels. (I've noted the problems before, so won't rehash them here.)

There's still "The List", of course, which has 100 books exactly remaining on it (although this includes both "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" and "Hamlet", which is somewhat redundant), and there's also "Appendix N" (the suggested reading from the AD&D 1st Edition DMG). But both of these are somewhat taxing - my ability to just read those books in sequence is rather limited.

The upshot is that I'm always on the lookout for new things to read. And if they come in series, all the better - provided those series are either strictly limited, or if the 'series' is actually made up of standalone stories (as in the Discworld novels).

So, when I had the "Aubrey/Maturin" novels of Patrick O'Brian recommended to me, that proved to be something of a book. These do, indeed, form a single long sequence, but the sequence runs to 21 volumes, and there will be no more (due to the death of the author). And so, I bought "Master and Commander" and gave them a whirl... and then I bought the next three volumes to read in the rest of this year.

Likewise, I saw several recommendations for the "Pathfinder Tales" series. Now, I was obviously wary of these, because game-related fiction is almost universally worthless. On the other hand, I do like Pathfinder, and especially the setting... In the end, I tried out the first volume, and it was quite good (provided you don't mind light-weight easy-reading fantasy dross - this isn't high art, just a well-above-average example of the field). So, I'll be reading those over the next several months as well.

Both of which are rather useful additions. The plan just now is to read one volume from each per month until I run out (in early 2014 for the A/M books, and around August 2013 for the PTs, but with new volumes of the latter being periodically released). I'm also going to spend some time completing my collection of Pratchett novels, and reading (or re-reading) all the 'missing' volumes. And, with the monthly Pathfinder book, and a monthly book from The List, that should stand me in good stead for quite some time.

#37: "Master and Commander", by Patrick O'Brian
#38: "Pathfinder: Curse of the Lady's Light", by Mike Shel

Monday, October 01, 2012

Experimental Cookery 2012: Pizza

It wasn't the best of weekends, for a variety of reasons. Probably the best thing was that I spent some 30 hours asleep (out of the 66 between work ending on Friday and starting again on Monday). And so, on Sunday evening I came to make pizzas, a long-awaited experimental cookery.

The method came out of Hugh's "River Cottage Every Day", although both Lorraine ("Home Cooking Made Easy") and Jamie ("Jamie Oliver's Italy") have extremely similar methods. Basically, you mix flours, salt, warm water, and yeast to make a dough, knead for 10 minutes, and let it rise for an hour. Then divide into 5, squish out until flat, and add toppings. Not the hardest thing in the world!

My original plan had been to make up five complete pizzas, with toppings, freeze three, and cook up the other two for dinner. However, it quickly emerged that we didn't really have enough toppings for this, and so we ended up freezing 2 'complete' pizzas and 1 base, and stretching the toppings for the other two. This was probably a mistake - the pizzas we ate needed considerably more mozzerella than we had available.

The pizzas went into the oven, and were cooked only too quickly. And at this point I knew despair - they really didn't seem right. Oh no!

Still, we cut them up and had dinner, and it turned out that they were okay - the base was nice and light, the toppings weren't over-powering. They were good! (Still, need more cheese next time.)

The biggest downside of this is that creating them made a lot of mess. There was flour everywhere! Still, they were both cheaper and nicer than the Tesco equivalent, and the time taken to make five was hardly excessive. So, I foresee making up batches of these periodically. Will definitely make these again.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Band AGM 2012

The band's AGM was held last Thursday. It was... difficult.

For the most part, the AGM was merely long and tedious. There were the usual set of reports, but nothing particularly controversial, right up until the point where we had to have a vote on the issue of new socks. Which, of course, is a major and important issue: shall the socks be white, or shall they be blue?

Well, it turned out that with 23 voting members present, there were 11 in favour of white socks, 11 in favour of blue socks, and one abstention. Typical.

Of course, at this point it falls to the Chairperson to cast a deciding vote. That Chairperson being me. The only problem was that I knew I was about to tender my resignation, and I really didn't want to commit the band to something that wasn't going to affect me either way... (In the event, I deferred it to the Pipe Major, who had voted for white socks, so white it was. Even that caused some muttering, but there you go. Democracy in action.)

The band then voted on a new constitution, and then came time for the committee to stand down. And at that point, I tendered my resignation, which went down somewhat better than I had feared. So that was okay.

The only problem was that there was nobody to take over as Chairperson. I opened the floor for nominations, and was met with silence. And then, as people realised they needed to pick someone, each time a name was mooted that person flatly refused the job.

The end result of that is that I've agreed to stay in position until January, after which they will hold an EGM to replace me. Which is rather annoying - I had intended to get away clean, but it just wasn't for happening.

The rest of the committee was elected with relative ease, which is a good thing. The band should now be able to move on from what has been a really bad year, onto what will hopefully be a better one.

And that's it. A mostly successful night, albeit not quite the outcome I had hoped for.

#35: "Prince of Wolves", by Dave Gross
#36: "Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers", by Grant Naylor