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.