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