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

Monday, September 17, 2012

Experimental Cookery 2012: Lamb, Chickpea, and Pear Tagine

This one came from Lorraine Pascale's "Home Cooking Made Easy". It was the combination of the lamb and the pears that persuaded me to give it a try - that's an intriguing combination, is it not?

(Incidentally, it's technically not a "tagine". According to my sauces (my advisers in all culinary matters), a tagine is named for a special pot in which the dish is cooked. This meal was cooked in the same large pot I use for everything else, making it... something else. But not a tagine.)

The meal was easy to prepare - chop everything, coat the lamb, brown the lamb, add the rest, cook for 5, simmer, add the pears, and simmer again. See, easy! It was also quite quick to prepare, although the two simmer steps were an hour, and then fifteen minutes, in duration. The result was enough food for six meals. Oh, and it was served with couscous.

So, how was it?

Well, sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment. The meal had plenty of flavour, but I'm not entirely convinced it was a flavour I particularly liked. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, it was just... meh.

I'm now going to have to take a little break from the Experimental Cookery for a while - our freezer is now full to overflowing with food, and we'll need to spend some time eating down our stocks before I can do anything more. Hopefully, I'll be able to get back to it before the end of the year. (Or world, whichever comes first.)

#34: "Pyramids", by Terry Pratchett

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Fourth Greatest Sci-fi Show Ever...

I finished re-watching "Battlestar Galactica" last weekend. And I was very glad to see it come to an end - although the show had some good material throughout, it was outstanding for the first season and a half and then suffered a massive drop in quality, to the extent that the final two seasons have always felt disappointing in comparison.

For my next effort, I'm rewatching "Space: Above and Beyond", a short-lived sci-fi show that is very similar in many respects. Except that it's really not very good. That will probably take me through until about February, after which I'm strongly considering rewatching "Babylon 5" - it's been far too long.

Oh, and for what it's worth, the three shows I rate more highly than BSG are "Doctor Who", "Star Trek", and "Babylon 5". "Firefly" would also certainly be on that list, but unfortunately it was cancelled far too soon (to be on the list, or just in general).

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Automated Messages

I've ranted about this before, probably several times, but it still annoys me. And, indeed, the annoyance has justed reached a new level, so I'm going to rant about it again.

Telesales calls are an annoyance. Somewhat more annoying is the fact that BT recently put us on their Privacy Guard service, which claimed to cut out 90% of such calls, and it's made absolutely no difference. Even more annoying are those telesales calls that are an automated message, generally offering to chase up your payment protection claim. (And, seriously, why do they feel the need to call us with the same automated message every single day, and often multiple times in the day?) It has become a daily routine, on getting home, to check the messages on the answering machine and, almost invariably, to immediately delete them all within a second of hearing that automated message.

Actually, it has reached the point where I have strongly considered just getting rid of our home phone entirely. We'd still have the phone line, for internet purposes, but no actual phone unit attached to it (legally, we'd need to keep one for emergency use, but it doesn't need to be kept attached - and even that's purely a technicality these days). We'd then inform anyone and everyone we care to hear from of our mobile phone numbers, and advise them not to call the landline...

But it's never quite got to that point, mostly because there genuinely are cases where people might want/need to call us at home. Besides, the truth is that I don't quite find telesales calls annoying enough to take this step... and anyway, as a matter of principle, I refuse to be bullied into getting rid of my phone.

Not that it would help anyway. (And here's the bit where the annoyance grows...) Because like everyone else, I now get periodic telesales text messages from various companies. Generally, this includes a "text STOP to..." rider to end the messages, but that's a lie too - you've just confirmed your number, so they proceed to move you from their 'fishing' database to their 'real' databases, which are just mobile enough to dodge around the laws about nuisance calls/texts. Basically, you just have to grit your teeth, delete the messages, and bear it.

But this morning, for the first time, I received an automated telesales call to my mobile phone. Bastards!

(Actually, I think the thing that pisses me off most about this is not quite the companies that make the calls, the automated calls themselves, or anything like that. It's that some other company, presumably one that I have done business with in the past, have taken my details, including my phone number, and proceeded to sell these on to the telesales companies. In return for my giving them my business, they have proceeded to enable others to make my life that little bit worse - permanently.)

In fact, this is the point at which I think such calls should simply be made illegal, on a wholesale manner. Not better regulated, not placed on a strict opt-out basis (as opposed to today's crap not-quite-opt-out option), and not reduced. They need to simply be made illegal.

Why? It's the combination of it being a call, and being to mobile phones.

See, email spam is a nuisance, but it comes in, the computer goes "bing", the reminder icon appears... and that's it. It then sits there until you're ready to deal with it, whereupon you delete it. Yes, it's annoying, but it's an annoyance you deal with in your own time.

Text spam is likewise a nuisance, but again it comes in, the phone plays its alert and starts to flash, but again you can deal with it in your own time.

But a ringing phone isn't like that. A ringing phone must be answered. It's not something for you to deal with in your own time, it interrupts whatever you're doing and forces you to operate on their schedule. (And, of course, most companies deliberately choose to call when it's least convenient for you, because that gives the best chance that you'll actually be in.)

Even so, offensive as that it it didn't drive me to that position, although for purely selfish reasons - I don't receive these calls in large volume, and most often deal with them on the answering machine... where the same considerations as for emails and texts apply.

But once they graduate to mobile telephones, that no longer applies. Now, they can call me anytime, anywhere. And, unlike with the landline, I take my mobile phone everywhere with me - I basically never leave it behind. Indeed, the only times it is switched off is when I'm in church, the cinema, at the doctor/dentist, or on a plane.

Leaving the mobile behind isn't really a viable solution. Not answering it is likewise generally not a viable solution, because as noted above, a ringing phone demands to be answered. And although hanging up on an automated message is a matter of seconds, breaking my concentration and breaking my train of thought isn't a simply matter of picking up where I left off - a few seconds of telephone call can mean as much as 15 minutes lost as I get back "in the zone". (And that's not hyperbole, or even exaggeration.)

So that's it. Once I'm appointed ruler of the universe next week, my second* act will be to outlaw these telesales calls, first to mobile phones, then automated messages, and then altogether. With the strongest of penalties for those companies who use such tactics, those companies who subcontract with extra-national companies for this purpose (thus dodging around UK law on the matter), and those companies who sell on customers' details for this purpose (and especially to any extra-national body).

* My first act will be to eliminate the position of ruler of the universe. That's too much power for any one person to have.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Best Thing Ever...

Did I ever mention that we finally cancelled the Sky subscription? I know I'd been talking about it for years, since "24" and "Lost" finished in fact (yikes!), but we finally got around to cancelling it back in June, and reached the end of the cancellation period in July.

We lasted less than 24 hours before missing it. The reason for this was quite simple: we were still using the Sky box to view TV (as it had more channels than Freeview), and the TV Guide continued to show all the channels, giving an overwhelming impression of "here's what you could have won!" Plus, we no longer had the ability to record TV, which was a pain.

So, after some deliberation, we purchased a Freeset HD recorder. We went for Freesat for two reasons: more HD channels, and we already had the dish set up from the Sky subscription. So, it was just a case of removing one box and replacing it with the other.

Which is great. We can once again record TV, we now have "Doctor Who" in HD (although, frankly, I can't tell the difference), and all is well.

But what the Freesat box also gives us is iPlayer through the TV.

Now, I've mentioned iPlayer before, in the context of watching "Birdsong" on my laptop, which I found rather unimpressive - the screen was too small, the headphones were annoying, and the buffering was a... pain.

(Yes, it is the same joke. I like it a lot.)

But on the TV the first two of these are eliminated, while the issue with the buffering is also dealt with - apparently that was at least partly due to the wireless network speed, and the Freesat box uses a wired link, so it's faster. Granted, the picture quality isn't great on such a large screen, but it's okay.

And suddenly iPlayer has gone from being something I almost never use to being the Best. Thing. Ever.

Experimental Cookery 2012: Spiced Beef Stir-fry topped with Spring Onoin and Coriander

Way back in Part One, in the last week of my time at my first job, the office canteen served piri-piri chicken. I think it may well have been my second-last day there. Anyway, the chicken was, in theory, extremely nice. I could tell that it was very close to being excellent, and could readily detect the potential in the meal.

Unfortunately, it was almost inedible, rendered that way by a single miscalculation. The meal had been made with way too much chilli, and so it was incredibly hot, that heat drowing out every other flavour in the food. It was a crying shame, really, as it could have been great.

The reason I bring this up is that last night's Experimental Cookery attempt suffered from exactly the same issue (though I'm not sure it was the chilli that was the problem). It was constructed of great ingredients, it was nice and simple to make, and it was possible to tell that it should have been good.

But it wasn't really spiced beef stir-fry - a better name would have been NUCLEAR beef stir-fry. It was actually painful to eat.

The recipe came from "Chinese Food Made Easy" by Ching-He Huang, a book that I don't use often, but with which I've had some considerably success in the past. I followed the recipe exactly, so I'm more than a little surprised at the outcome. (Indeed, I was actually worried that there might not be enough spice mix for all the beef. In the event, I needn't have worried!)

But the absolute worst thing about this was that the recipe called for fillet steak, which I got but only at great expense. So, not only did the recipe go wrong, but it was already a horribly expensive meal to produce. (However, I am determined to try to rescue some of the leftovers for lunch tomorrow. I reckon that once they're dry they should be somewhat less hot, and if I pair them with a suitably bland cous-cous, I may be okay. Maybe. Hopefully.)

I won't be doing this one again (obviously). In addition, with future beef stir-fries, I think I'll be keeping away from the expensive beef fillet steaks. The meal was of outstanding quality, but standard frying steak must, surely, be good enough?

Anyway, never mind. I was probably due for another culinary disaster.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Book is Better

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a book in possession of a film adaptation must be in want of a better film adaptation.

Or something like that, anyway. Although, in actual fact, it's incorrect to say that the book will always be better. Instead, where there are multiple formats, the first will always be better - a film adaptation of a book will generally suck, but so too will "the book of the film". And don't get me started on films adapted from computer games or, worse still, computer games derived from films.

The reason for this, in large part, is that different media have different requirements. What works in prose doesn't necessarily work on the screen, while converting the primarily visual (and often quite visceral) film experience to the page tends to fall flat. And, of course, most novels are too long, too complex, and have too many characters to fit well in a 2-hour film - most films are much closer to short stories in scope.

And so, changes are necessary. Characters must be collapsed, plot lines removed entirely, the story simplified. That's not "dumbing down" necessarily - it's just a requirement for the film to be less than 5 hours long. (And, conversely, writing the book of the film requires adding a whole lot of padding that's just not in the film. The problem being that that padding can't add anything substantive to the plot, and so is just wasted space.)

But changing things for the adaptation can never make them better. Because what I get out of the book is probably not exactly what Peter Jackson gets out of the book, and his changes therefore leave Faramir not ringing true (at least in "Two Towers"). Or you have my friend Roger considering the presence of Elves at Helm's Deep to be an unforgivable error, because it utterly changes the dynamic (of Man standing alone and isolated for the first time). Or whatever.

The consequence of this is that you're stuck with all the weaknesses of the original, you're stuck with the weaknesses inherent in the change of format, and anything that you do to try to mitigate these is also a weakness. The best you can hope for, the very best that can be achieved, is a companion piece that is as good as the original.

(I should note that that assumes you start with a good book, or film, or whatever. Theoretically, if you start with a book that had potential but was executed badly, you could make a superior "cover version". But who's going to fund a film adaptation for a bad book?)

Now, it is worth noting that some adaptations are more worthwhile than others. "The Time Traveller's Wife" is an example of a poor adaptation - the film almost requires you to have read the book to make sense, but if you've read the book then there's no value in the film. (And, further, the film compresses the emotional heart of the novel almost out of existence. Not the best move, really.)

The three "Lord of the Rings" films, despite their changes, are examples of good adaptations, capturing at least the heart of the books. Although it's noticable that the weakest parts of the films tend to be those invented for the films - the bridges in Khazad-Dum, Aragorn's fall and rebirth in "The Two Towers", and so on. (Which doesn't bode too well for "The Hobbit", but that's another rant.)

Then there are the occasional adaptations that actually bring something new to the table. I watched the film of "Atonement" a couple of years ago, and it was no better than okay. But over the weekend, as I finished the book, I found that some of what I remembered from the film gave a better appreciation of what the author was getting at in the novel, which was interesting.

And then there's the 'definitive' adaptation - the version that sets the standard for all that follow, and indeed adjust the way you imagine the book as you go on. I refer, of course, to "Pride and Prejudice", in which Darcy now looks like Colin Firth.

(This last was a little amusing, as the copy I read actually had a picture of Keira Knightley on the cover, from a different film adaptation. And, actually, "Atonement" also had Keira Knightley on the cover... I wonder if she'll also be on the cover of "Anna Karenina" if and when I read that?)

#33: "Atonement", by Ian McEwan (A book from The List. And, somewhat surprisingly, the new best book of the year - a thoroughly satisfying read.)

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Inspiration Strikes!

Everyone knows the story of Archimedes' "Eureka!" moment. And likewise, everyone knows about Newton and the apple. Because they're cool and interesting stories, even if they are about physics.

Unfortunately, they also give two badly false impressions. The first is that that's the full extent of the story - Newton saw an apple fall, and the notion of gravity (and all that goes with it) popped into his head. That is, science is a matter of inspiration.

The second false impression is that science is, or should be, fundamentally easy - breakthroughs are just a matter of getting into the bath. And so, if you find it hard, you must therefore be terribly stupid, or doing it wrong, or whatever.

But here's the reality: Archimedes and Newton were amongst the finest scientific minds in the world at the time. They had spend days, weeks, years thinking about the specific problem that they solved, on top of further days, weeks, years, decades of dealing with similar or contributory problems.

And the problems they were solving are now things we teach to school-children.

That's the nature of the beast. Science is hard, and requires a great deal of thought and effort. What's more, it's not a matter of inspiration - you don't suddenly have a flash of insight as a lightbulb appears over your head (fortunately, since both Archimedes and Newton predated Edison). Instead, it's a matter of absorbing obscene amounts of knowledge, training your mind to think in particular patterns and particular paths, and then if you're very lucky you get the moment of insight as everything fits together. (More commonly, you spend years finding hundreds of ways not to build a lightbulb before hitting on the right way. And then some assistant drops it.)

I bring this up because twice in the last two days I've startled LC when I've had moments of insight as I solved work-related problems while doing other things. Which I daresay was rather unsettling for her, but in both cases it was a matter of some huge relief to me as the pieces suddenly lined up neatly.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Not Really the Best of Both Worlds

One of the more surprising facets of married life is that the bread now seems to go off with distressing regularity. This is most annoying when I get to work and find little green dots on my sandwiches. Grr.

Now, it's important to note that this disaster is not, as might first be supposed, due to witchcraft. And, frankly, I'm disappointed in you all for thinking that.

No, the bread issue is caused by two factors:

  1. LC has insisted on us storing the bread in a rather lovely bread bin we got as a wedding gift (thanks!), rather than in the fridge where it belongs.
  2. We had (until now) switched to Hovis' "Best of Both" bread, which promised the taste of white bread combined with the goodness of brown.

Unfortunately, as with all things, there are trade-offs. In this case, in return for all these wonders, it definitely appears that the "Best of Both" goes off at a rate somewhat higher than either standard brown or white bread. And given that we typically get through a little over a loaf in a week, that's a fairly key issue.

So, we'll not be getting that again. Instead, future loaves will be one or the other, probably depending on whether LC comes with me when I do the shopping.

Truth be told, I'm not to unhappy to see the "Best of Both" go. I never really believed their claim that it gave all the goodness of brown bread. And, frankly, I found that it didn't really taste of anything at all. Granted, I generally find that that's true of all white bread, but there it is. In fact, I generally thought the "Best of Both" was at its best right before it went off. Which is probably not for the best, really.

(Of course, I have a secret ambition of just stopping buying bread altogether, and baking it myself. But I think the odds are rather against that! It's somewhere on the list down below homemade pizza bases.)

#31: "Pathfinder: From Hell's Heart", by Jason Nelson
#32: "Pathfinder: Shards of Sin", by Greg A. Vaughan