Monday, December 30, 2013

Goals for 2014

The final year-end post is to set a new bunch of goals for the coming year. For 2014, that will actually be quite easy, since most of them are just follow-ons from last year. That said, there are a few specific things that are tied to specific dates that I think I shall add to the list:

  • Weight: This goal completely failed in 2013, and so in 2014 shall simply be restated: by the end of next year, I hope to have lost a stone and a half. More would be nice, but I think the goal as it is is at least reasonable. (Annual goal)
  • Work: For 2014, I mostly just want to continue in the same vein as in 2013. That said, there may be some opportunities to do even better, which I think I'll look out for. (Annual goal)
  • Books: The goal for next year is the same as for this: 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. (Annual goal)
  • Games: Complete the "Star Wars: Imperial Fist" campaign, run three one-shot games, and play in three game sessions. (Annual goal)
  • Maintenance: There are a small handful of jobs that need done and have needed done for some time. Amongst them: the bathroom ceiling needs stripped and re-plastered, and the hall and living room carpets need a thorough cleaning. Time to get these done. (Should complete by end of March)
  • Computer: We bought LC a new computer yesterday, and now it's my turn. The intention, although this is subject to change, is to replace the laptop I am currently writing on with a fairly high-end desktop machine. (Should complete by end of June)
  • Money: As I mentioned last year, this is a three part goal. Part one is now done. Part two is underway, and is to repay Dad the money he leant me for my car (several years ago!). The third part is to sort out our finances properly - they're pretty good, actually, but there are a few areas of fat to trim, and I want to start rebuilding my savings again, as they've been reduced to an uncomfortable level. (Should complete by end of September)

And that's it: four goals for the year as a whole, plus one goal for each of the first three quarters. I may set one more goal when we get to the fourth quarter of the year, or I might take the view that I have enough to do in finishing off the annual goals.

Perhaps of note, I haven't set a goal for the band for this year. I considered it, but I've concluded that my real goal is just to enjoy my year playing with the band, and that's actually best achieved by not setting a performance target.

My Year in 2013

One of the advantages of writing according to formulae is that these end-of-year posts get a bit easier each time - all I need to do is copy last year's format, replace the text with the appropriate stuff for this year, and it's done.

It was actually very interesting reading last year's review, as I had perhaps whitewashed 2012 in my memory somewhat, when the reality was that it was actually very challenging. Also, the review started "2013 has sucked so far." That's not an entirely fair summary of the year as a whole, but it is fair to say that it was very mixed, and on balance was less good than 2012.

My Year in... Work

Firstly, though, the big success of the year. The first six months of 2013 were largely uneventful, in a good way. My performance review was much better than in 2012, which was a huge relief and put things back on track for the year.

Then, around the end of July, things seemed to click into high gear, and I had probably my best three months at work, ever. This was focussed around my trip to the US, from which I returned with a rave review, and then into the near-completion of the project.

The final three months of the year weren't quite of the same calibre as the previous three, but were still largely successful. In particular, I finished the year with a clean slate - I completed my last outstanding task just before ending work on my last day, then went to our Christmas Lunch, and was done. Which is pretty much the best possible way to end the year.

So, I'm actually rather hopeful for 2014 - if it continues in the same vein then it should be a good one.

My Year in... Health

The start of 2013 was a bit of an ordeal, with me going back and forth to the doctor several times with regard to my digestive issues. The outcome is that we think we've pinned the problem down, which is good, but there's very little to be done. I've got some medication which helps a little, but mostly I have to control it through my diet. And, to make things more complex, there don't seem to be any clear rules to follow - sometimes I can eat all the 'right' things and feel terrible, while other times I can eat all the 'wrong' things and feel great.

The one thing that does make a big difference, indeed far more than any medication, is to have Shredded Wheat for breakfast. Which doesn't really make sense, since it's on the 'wrong' list I was given, but since it works...

The most worrying bit of all this is that when things are bad, I have had spells when I have literally thought I was about to die. There seem to be lots of displaced pains involved, and when those pains like to displace to your left arm and upper chest, that's not good. (But, before you worry - yes, I've had that all checked out; and no, there's nothing to worry about.)

The key thing for 2014 is to lose weight again. Quite a lot of weight, actually - my feeling, which might well be wrong, is that this will help with the digestive issue. If nothing else, it should help with my general health.

My Year in... Gaming

2013 was mixed year for gaming as well. I finished off "The Eberron Code", which went as well as I could have imagined. Indeed, following the end of the campaign the group decided to get together for a meal, at which the players surprised me by giving me a gift - the "Star Wars: X-Wing" miniatures game. Which was totally unexpected, and very cool.

After some months, I then started my new campaign: "Star Wars: Imperial Fist". This has a few issues, which I'll be covering on the Imaginarium at some point soon - I think it may need redirected for better effect.

I also ran three one-shot games. "Firefly: Furiously Fast" was the rescheduled Christmas Game from last year, which went very well. "Star Wars: Imperial Fist" was effectively a pilot episode for the current campaign, and was excellent. Finally, I ran "Serenity: Bound by Law" on Saturday, that being this year's Christmas Game, and which also went very well.

Two other one-shot games were cancelled, though. The "Vampire: Victorian Age" game "Prometheus" was cancelled quite early due to going down with the group like a lead balloon. Conversely, "Black Crusade: A Lament for Lustivan" had to be cancelled late due to illness on my part. I've rescheduled this for early next year, that being the third and final attempt to get that game going.

Finally, I was able to beat 2012's tally of games played, but only just - we played two sessions of "Numenera", which was fun (moreso the second time).

For 2014, the goals are pretty simple: more of the same. I hope to bring "Star Wars: Imperial Fist" to a satisfactory conclusion and have scheduled three one-shot sessions: "Black Crusade: A Lament for Lustivan", "Ultraviolet: 2XS", and "Firefly: Inglorious". I would also like to manage at least three sessions as a player, thus beating the score for 2013!

My Year in... Band

Ah, band...

As anticipated, I rejoined the band in August, and have suddenly found myself tutoring two learners, which is fun. I remain the chairperson of the committee, and am gearing up for the new season.

2013 also saw the band celebrate its centenary, which saw me featuring in the local paper, which was pretty cool.

The goal for 2014, I think, is pretty simple: just to enjoy the band. I don't want to set a target for our competition performance (although I daresay others might), and I'm not sure I really care all that much. I just want to show up, do my bit, and enjoy the day. I'm also not going to make the same commitment to the competition season as in years past - where before I attended as many competitions as I could, I think the band this year will be very much a secondary concern. I'll aim to attend all the majors, but probably not all the minors.

My Year in... Resolutions

I've posted separately about my goals for 2013, and will post again with goals for 2014. In short, this has been a very mixed year, with some success, especially in important areas, but also some failure.

My Year in... Travel

2013 was quite a busy year for trips. So, here goes...

The first major trip was down to Alnwick with Lady Chocolat, where we celebrated our anniversary. This was a good time, despite some rain, especially our anniversary dinner at the Treehouse.

Then there were three trips in very quick succession: to Sardinia, to the US, and then down to the wedding of K & B. These were all excellent, although for very different reasons. Understandably, though, it was also an extremely tiring run - I pretty much needed a holiday to get over all of that!

The final trip was to Dunkeld in October, which was fine, but too too short. We did at least get good weather on our one full day up there, which was nice.

I think the timing of the trips was perhaps a little unfortunate, in that the rest of Sardinia was immediately wiped out by the hard slog of the trip to the US, followed by the long journey to the wedding. Both those latter two were great, and I wouldn't have missed them, but they were tiring. Then, there was a long run to October, a micro-break, and then a longer run to Christmas. By the end, I was dragging myself through the motions!

2014 is shaping up to be another busy year. Once again, LC and I are hoping to get away for our anniversary, although haven't booked anything yet, while I've promised myself a 'real' holiday in Summer - what with the wedding and then the kitchen, money has been a bit tight for a couple of years, but we should now be over that, so the plan is to splash out for something a bit special in the summer as something of a reward. At least, that's the plan.

Oh, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to be called on to go back out to the US at some point.

My Year in... Faith

2013, like 2012, was a rather boring year in terms of faith. We just did a bunch of stuff, and then it ended.

One of my plans for 2014 is to start working through Carson's guide to Robert Murray M'Cheyne's reading plan, and thus in turn start working through the Bible again. I'm not necessarily sure this will help, though I suspect the discipline it imposes will have benefits, but I'm pretty certain it can't hurt.

My Year in... Love

2013 was pretty terrible, though not, I hasten to add, for the reason you may think. No, the reason it was difficult is easily summed up: something is rotten in the state of education.

The first few months of the year were made very tough by teacher training. Then, suddenly, LC was finished and had almost nothing to do for three months. And then she was teaching, and once again absurdly busy (only moreso). And there have been some difficulties...

Now, it's not my place to go into the details (and, indeed, it would be wrong for me to discuss LC's work when one of my rules here is that I don't discuss my own). However, when there are things that are manifestly and clearly wrong, and when they are actually unjust amd, worst of all, when there is nothing whatsoever I can do to help...

There has been at least one occasion this year when I've considered hoisting the black flag and going pirate on the entire system.

Other than that, things have been mostly good. I've annoyed LC with my many foibles, she's annoyed me with her habit of not quite doing things fully, we both have our own ways that things must be done that aren't quite the same... but that's all just good fun.

So, for 2014 I think the key thing is just to continue to support LC through the rest of this year. And then, hopefully, she can get on with her 'real' career.

My Year... Overall

2013 was a very mixed year, and, on balance, a worse one that 2012. I really won't be sorry to see it go. On the other hand, it has had some successes, and it has actually ended rather well.

The hope, of course, is that 2014 will be better, with more emphasis on the good, less on the bad, and with the one really big issue being resolved successfully.

I hope 2014 proves to be a good New Year for you also.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

End of Year Update on Goals

The end of the year beckons, and I'm unlikely to make any more progress on any of my goals, so here's the year-end update:

  • Health: This was a bit of a mixed bag. I did at least get some explanation of the big issue, but unfortunately it doesn't appear that there's a cure as such. I have some medication that helps a bit, but the single biggest help (much more effective than any of the medication) is to watch my diet - and in particular to have Shredded Wheat for breakfast. The other thing that would be a big help would be:
  • Weight: This one was a disaster - no progress made at all. That will have to change in 2014.
  • Work: This has been a bit of a triumph, really. The first few months of the year were an improvement on 2012, but then I hit a real vein of form, and racked up possibly my best three months ever. This peaked with my trip to the US, from which I returned with a glowing report. The challenge for 2014, then, is to continue in the good vein and to build on it. Huzzah!
  • Books: Mostly done. See my other post on that topic.
  • Debt: Done. The bathroom is paid off, and I've made a start on paying off the second part of the goal.
  • Games: Mostly done. "The Eberron Code" completed on schedule, and was a massive success. "Imperial Fist" started on schedule, but suffered a cancelled session almost immediately. Additionally, it is a matter of some concern, which I may address over on the Imaginarium. I also ran three one-shots this year: "Firefly: Furiously Fast" was very good, "Star Wars: Imperial Fist" (the 'pilot' for the campaign) was brilliant, and this year's Christmas Game, "Serenity: Bound by Law" was very good. Unfortunately, we never quite managed to schedule one of the one-shots, while "Black Crusade: A Lament for Lustivan" had to be cancelled, so there's still some work to be done there.

So, that's one abject failure, one triumph, three done but with caveats, and one done; a bit of a mixed bag, really. For 2014, I'll be looking to continue the good work in some areas, and redouble efforts in one other. I'll also be adding one goal back on to the list. However, I won't post the new goals for the year until after I've done my full review of 2013 - the point at which I'll consider myself 'done' with this year.

The Books of 2013

Once again, I'm going to post the list of books read in 2013 a little early - I finished book 63 this morning and it's highly unlikely that there will be a 64th. Indeed, I rather hope not, as that will knock my plans for 2014 out of alignment. So, here's the list for 2013:

  1. "A Blink of the Screen", by Terry Pratchett
  2. "Master of Devils", by Dave Gross
  3. "Pathfinder: Into the Nightmare Rift", by Richard Pett
  4. "Desolation Island", by Patrick O'Brian
  5. "Pathfinder: The Dead Heart of Xin", by Brandon Hodge
  6. "Strata", by Terry Pratchett
  7. "Tess of the d'Urbervilles", by Thomas Hardy *
  8. "Death's Heretic", by James L. Sutter
  9. "The Fortune of War" by Patrick O'Brian
  10. "Pathfinder: The Snows of Summer", by Neil Spicer
  11. "Song of the Serpent", by Hugh Matthews
  12. "The Bromeliad", by Terry Pratchett
  13. "Pathfinder: the Shackled Hut", by Jim Groves
  14. "A Crown Imperiled", by Raymond E. Feist
  15. "City of the Fallen Sky", by Tim Pratt
  16. "Last of the Gadarene", by Mark Gatiss
  17. "The Surgeon's Mate", by Patrick O'Brien
  18. "Pathfinder: Maiden, Mother, and Crone", by Tim Hitchcock
  19. "Nightglass", by Liane Merciel
  20. "The Ionian Mission", by Patrick O'Brian
  21. "Treason's Harbour", by Patrick O'Brian
  22. "Pathfinder: The Frozen Stars", by Matthew Goodall
  23. "Blood of the City", by Robin D. Laws
  24. "The Long Earth", by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
  25. "The Far Side of the World", by Patrick O'Brian
  26. "1356", by Bernard Cornwell
  27. "Pathfinder: Rasputin Must Die!", by Brandon Hodge
  28. "The Reverse of the Medal", by Patrick O'Brian
  29. "The Folklore of Discworld", by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson
  30. "Queen of Thorns", by Dave Gross
  31. "Persuasion", by Jane Austen *
  32. "The Hunger Games", by Suzanne Collins
  33. "The Letter of Marque", by Patrick O'Brian
  34. "The White Company", by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  35. "Pathfinder: The Witch Queen's Revenge", by Greg A. Vaughan
  36. "Called to Darkness", by Richard Lee Byers
  37. "Pathfinder: The Dragon's Demand", by Mike Shel
  38. "Heart of Darkness and Other Stories", by Joseph Conrad *
  39. "Catching Fire", by Suzanne Collins
  40. "Pathfinder: The Worldwound Incursion", by Amber E. Scott
  41. "The Wasp Factory", by Iain Banks *
  42. "Liar's Blade" by Tim Pratt
  43. "The Thirteen-Gun Salute", by Patrick O'Brian
  44. "Only You Can Save Mankind", by Terry Pratchett
  45. "Johnny and the Dead", by Terry Pratchett
  46. "Johnny and the Bomb", by Terry Pratchett
  47. "Mockingjay", by Suzanne Collins
  48. "Pathfinder: Sword of Valor", by Neil Spicer
  49. "The Nutmeg of Consolation", by Patrick O'Brian
  50. "The Blood of Gods", by Conn Iggulden
  51. "Pirate's Honor", by Chris A. Jackson
  52. "The Carpet People", by Terry Pratchett
  53. "Clarissa Oakes", by Patrick O'Brian
  54. "The Wizard's Mask", by Ed Greenwood
  55. "Pathfinder: Demon's Heresy", by Jim Groves
  56. "X-Wing: Mercy Kill", by Aaron Allston
  57. "Dodger", by Terry Pratchett
  58. "The Wine-Dark Sea", by Patrick O'Brian
  59. "King of Chaos", by Dave Gross
  60. "Red Dwarf: Better Than Life", by Grant Naylor
  61. "Pathfinder: The Midnight Isles", by James Jacobs and Greg A. Vaughan
  62. "Pathfinder: Bestiary 4", by Paizo Publishing
  63. "The Bridget Jones Omnibus: The Singleton Years",by Helen Fielding *

So, a grand total of 63, 5% over my goal at the start of the year. However, the break down of these into my five 'series' is rather patchy - there are twelve Patrick O'Brian novels, fourteen Pathfinders, and twelve Pathfinder Tales, and the Pratchett series is likewise complete (as it turned out there weren't twelve unread books). However, there are only five books from The List, which is rather poor. Still, it's not too bad.

The book of the year is "Dodger". For a long time, it looked like the very first book, "A Blink of the Screen" was going to be the best, with a couple of noble efforts falling at the last hurdle. However, "Dodger" managed to sneak it at the last. Of course, that means that Terry Pratchett managed to write both the top two picks of the year. The worst book of the year was "The Wizard's Mask", which I've blogged about before.

Honourable mention really must go to two particular series. The first of these is "The Hunger Games" trilogy, which really was excellent. Young adult fiction tends to be dismissed by literary types, generally those who can't see beyond "Harry Potter" and "Twilight", but "The Hunger Games" can probably stand up there with "Nineteen Eighty-Four" or "The Handmaid's Tale" as a strong exemplar of a rather unrealistic, but still compelling, dystopia.

The other excellent series is the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. These were universally excellent, although no individual novel quite made it to book of the year. Still, for a series of sixteen (so far) novels to be so consistently so good is incredibly impressive. I both look forward to reading the remaining volumes and am somewhat disappointed that I'm coming to the end.

Next year I'm planning to continue in much the same vein, except that some of my series are at, or close to, the end. Thus, I have six 'series' that I'll be following: the Aubrey/Maturin novels (5 volumes remaining, plus one other by PO'B), Pathfinders (12), Pathfinder Tales (7 or 8 volumes next year), the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary novels (10 plus a short story collection), new books (9), plus books from The List (12). That probably leaves me a little short of the target of 60, but I'm sure I can find a couple of others to fill in any gaps.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Huge Christmas Dilemma

While I was making dinner tonight (lamb rogan josh - it was fab), I found myself musing on all the things I would tell my seventeen-year-old self. Because the connection is obvious. Or something.

Anyway, then found myself wondering: do I say, "under no circumstances move to Yeovil," or not? On the one hand, that was probably the single biggest mistake I've ever made... and yet everything since pretty much depends on it. And what's happened since has been pretty excellent.

So, bearing in mind that much of what has happened may have happened anyway, is it worth body-swerving that one big mistake and risking losing out on everything since, or is it better to accept the pain of that time, and the memories that go with it, to guarantee present happiness?

I didn't have an answer. It's one of those great inponderables that I sometimes think about.

#60: "Red Dwarf: Better Than Life", by Grant Naylor

Oh, and also: Merry Christmas to all!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The End of Work

Today is my last day of work this year. Huzzah!

Also, for the second year in a row, our Christmas lunch has fallen on the last day I've been working. This has meant that the last thing I do for 'work' for the year has actually been to go and have a slap-up feed. Huzzah two!

And, even better, this year has seen me doing some key and useful tasks on my last day, finding a solution to a problem, and then coming to a natural stop just before we have to go off to the meal. Thus, I get to end the year with that warm and contented glow of a job well done, with no niggly little things left over that it would have been really nice to finish up. And again: Huzzah!

I'll probably not be blogging much for the next week or so, though there will be the usual end-of-year reports. So, have a good Christmas and New Year. See you on the flip side.

#59: "King of Chaos", by Dave Gross

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

We went to see this on Saturday, in company with two friends of ours. The screening we attended was in 2D, in the standard frame rate, and at the VUE cinema in Stirling. I must note that I was impressed with the cinema, which was markedly better than the Cineworld we have next door, and the seats were much more comfortable than in the Grosvenor where we saw the first part of this trilogy.

The rest of this post will be hugely spoilerific, so I recommend not reading it until after you've seen the film. My short-form, non-spoiler review: this is very much the "Attack of the Clones" of this series - it has some absolutely stunning visuals, but is deeply flawed in a number of other ways. Oh, and like AotC those flaws include a cringe-inducing romantic subplot, only without even the justification that the subplot was necessary (as in AotC).

So, on with the spoilers.

You have been warned.

No, really. Go watch the film first. Honestly, it's better that way...

The film opens well enough - we have a quick flashback scene to remind us how we got where we are, then the dwarves on the run, then the dwarves meet Beorn, then on to Mirkwood, and then Galdalf runs off on a mysterious errand. All so good, so far.

Just one thing, though: it's all a bit of a rush. Like with "Hunger Games: Catching Fire", the film seems to be rushing through the plot - hit the plot point, move on, repeat. Only where HG:CF had an awful lot of plot to fit into a fairly small running time, "The Hobbit" has three movies, each longer than HG:CF. There's just no need to rush.

Then we have the spiders, and this is really good. Bilbo again shows his resourcefulness, the Ring shows the ability to translate the spiders' 'voices', Bilbo rescues the dwarves, they start to fight back, the tide turns...

And then, suddenly, the whole thing goes utterly, horribly wrong.

The music swells triumphantly, and in comes Legolas! in a wondrous display of Elf Awesomeness. He surfs in on a spider, bow going, then switches to his blades, hacking, slaying... and totally stealing the thunder of the stars of our films.

Now, I understand that Tolkien's elves were basically angels, were clearly superhuman, and were in every way superior to the lesser folks. So, while it rankled more than a bit, it was not unreasonable when Legolas! totally overshadowed Gimli in each and every regard. After all, they were but two of nine companions, were very much in the second rank of characters in Lord of the Rings, and so... fair enough, I guess.

But "The Hobbit" is about (well, Bilbo, yes, but also...) the dwarves and their quest to reclaim Erebor. This was their film, their chance to shine. And, behold, Jackson just has to bring in his favourite Legolas! to steal the show. Yay.

So, we get stage directions courtesy of "The Complete Book of Elves", and we have the introduction of the pet NPC to save our heroes. Suddenly, I understand how every "Forgotten Realms" player who has ever complained about Drizzt knows.

But worse was to come, because here comes Tauriel - the female elf.

Now, it is a fair criticism of "The Hobbit" that is has no female characters to speak of. However, believe it or not, that doesn't actually imply that you should add some - it's not unreasonable to instead just accept that it is what it is, and move on. After all "Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World" somehow managed not to bother, and it was okay. (Ironically, the Patrick O'Brian books actually do include some very significant women, but that's another rant.)

But, okay, fair enough - Jackson felt it was necessary to add a female character, and she was to be an elf called Tauriel. I don't actually have a problem with doing that - in principle.

But in practice...

In films, female characters in action movies must be strong. That's the key characteristic - if you're a woman in an action movie, you must, above all, be strong (or fiesty, or independent, or whatever - they're all the same thing). So, Tauriel is an elven ranger, a peer of Legolas!, a powerful and brave warrior. So...

The scene is contrived so Legolas! suddenly finds himself in trouble. The music swells triumphantly, and in comes Tauriel, hacking and slashing, and battering spiders left and right with her bow, and casually saving Legolas!, and generally be AWESOME.


And so, we have Tauriel upstaging Legolas!, who has just upstaged the heroes of our piece, Bilbo and the dwarves. Great.

So, it's off to the elven kingdom, and now comes then next big mistake with Tauriel.

See, it's important in films that while the female character must be strong, her other major purpose is to be the love interest of one or more of the heroes. She can't actually be independent; she necessarily must be the prize for one of our heroes - if she's very, very lucky, she gets to choose, but most often not.

So, we are treated to Tauriel and Kili flirting. And then to Legolas! smugly declaring his rival to be "no less ugly" than any other dwarf. And then to Tauriel and Thranduil commenting on how the king wouldn't let his son marry a commoner. (Now, if Tauriel were really independent, I think she might say something like, "who said anything about marriage..." but that's an aside.)

Basically, that whole section just sucks.

(I find it hard to express just how annoyed I am at Tauriel. See, there actually are other female characters in these films - the elf maids in Rivendell, the women in Laketown, and there was opportunity to include some in Bree or in the Shire. But to qualify for a voice, it seems, she has to be 'strong'. Effectively, she has to just be one of the lads. Except that she has to also look like Evangeline Lilly and do double duty as the love interest for a Man. Now, I'm not 100% sure of my definitions, but I think that while that might look a bit like feminism, I don't think it actually qualifies.)

(Oh, and it's important to note: absolutely none of this is Evengeline Lilly's fault. Actually, the whole cast does a very good job with the material that they are given. It's just that that material is... lacking.)

Then we have Bilbo once again rescuing the dwarves, followed by the barrel ride. This is one of the iconic scenes in the book, and something it's pretty hard to get wrong - it's just some dwarves, some barrels, and some very dangerous waters. How could that go wrong?


Apparently, George Lucas' directing technique was to say that everything should be "faster, more intense". It would appear that Peter Jackson has been taking lessons from this school.

Rather than just sticking with the book, Jackson decided that what we really need is the introduction an orc attack, then a rather confusing intervention by Legolas! and the elves (whose motivations are far from clear... weren't they supposed to be recapturing the dwarves? Why then help them escape?). Add in some really ill-considered humour, involving Bombur as bolwing ball, or dwarves as literal stepping stones to greatness for Legolas!, and then run the whole thing for way too long. Awesome!

And so, it's on to Laketown, for a much-needed holiday in something vaguely resembling the book.

Meanwhile, Gandalf is investigating signs of an ancient evil returned. Behold, for he has found nine empty tombs that once housed ancient evils. Behold, he has found a powerful concealment magic over Dol Guldur. Behold, he knows "it's most certainly a trap".

So, what does Gandalf, the ancient and wise wizard do, when faced with a trap, when faced with powerful magic, when not knowing what might await him, but when he does know it probably include the Witch King of Angmar (who he cannot defeat), and suspects it might include Sauron himself?

Why, he sends away his only ally, and then walks into the trap.


There are certain Hollywood-isms that you just get used to. One is the "villain gets captured in order to cunningly escape" as seen in "Skyfall", "The Avengers", "The Dark Knight", and others. Another is the "it's a trap! Next step? Spring the trap!"

Yeah, it's lovely. I do actually like to see such things... if done well.

But there's a huge problem here: it isn't done well. Tell me: what does Gandalf hope to achieve in Dol Guldur? What could possibly entice him to go in there and risk his life, rather than just posting a good watch, assembling a great and mighty host, and laying waste to the enemy. I mean, I know that's a crazy thought, but I didn't think he was a complete idiot. Maybe Saruman is right - perhaps his love of the halfling leaf truly has addled his wits.

Anyway, Gandalf goes in, and we have what is actually a really well done scene as he faces some orcs, and then the necromancer, and then realises who he truly is (hint: Gandalf was right all along), and then he gets himself captured.

And here's the next problem: why exactly did he get captured? Shouldn't he just be killed outright? Or has Scott Evil taught us nothing?

Right, back to Laketown. We get a whole bunch of padding here, but eventually some of the dwarves are off to the Lonely Mountain. Cool. They get there, they get in (thanks to Bilbo), and all seems well with the world.

So, Bilbo goes into Erebor in search of the Arkenstone, and accidentally wakes the dragon, and then they trade barbs for a bit, and then Bilbo runs for it.

And all this is fantastic. Really, really well done.

And then here come the dwarves to ruin it.

See, in the book the dwarves stay outside the place while Bilbo goes in, and then when the dragon is woken they take refuge inside, and since the dragon can't get them he goes off to destroy Laketown.

The reason the dwarves do this? Because Smaug is a bloody great dragon! He's absolutely, unbearably terrifying. If they go in, and they get detected, they die. It is, really, that simple - the last time they faced Smaug, he took down their kingdom, effortlessly.

Here, the dwarves go in, and we get about 40 minutes of them running around in Erebor, hiding from the dragon, and generally trying desperately not to die.

Well, that's just as good, isn't it? After all, the dwarves cowering in utter terror isn't very cinematic, but dwarves running for their lives is essentially the same thing, so why not have that?

The answer is much as above, though: that's fine, as long as it's done well. What happens instead is that the dragon has plenty of opportunities to kill some or all of the dwarves, but fails to take them... and does so for no good reason. Effectively, what we have is a Great Wyrm Red Dragon (CR 26), a bunch of low-level PCs (that is, no more than 5th level or so), and a DM who absolutely, steadfastly, refuses to kill a PC. And so he'll fudge every dice roll to achieve this, and when that still isn't enough he'll have his super-genius monster suddenly turn stupid.

Finally, the dwarves turn the tables on the dragon. They think they have it beaten... but no. And so Smaug... flies off the Laketown. The end.

No, really. This film doesn't so much have an ending as it... just stops. Which wasn't unexpected, but it does suck mightily. (And, it's an inherent flaw of splitting one book into more than one film. Beginning - middle - end doesn't really lend itself to beginning - middle - end - beginning - middle - end. Not that I'd expect professional storytellers to understand that... no, wait...)

So, this really is the "Attack of the Clones" of the series. It has some spectacular visuals. It has some good bits, even some really good bits. And the music is excellent. But, as a whole, it was terribly, crushingly disappointing. And, unlike every other one of Jackson's "Middle Earth" films, I can't imagine going to see this again in the cinema, nor indeed buying the 'regular' blu-ray when it comes out. I will probably get the extended edition... but mostly for completeness of the appendices than for any great desire to see the film itself again.

My final impression was pretty strong: wouldn't it be great if someone were to make a film of "The Hobbit"? Because this certainly wasn't it.

A Lucky Escape

So, on Friday LC discovered that her car had a flat tyre, which sucks. And so, early Friday afternoon, I drove out to the school to change the tyre.

This actually proved to be beyond me - although the process itself is both familiar and easy, when the time came to remove the wheel from the car I found that it was stuck fast, and there was just no shifting it. And so, rather embarrasingly, the call was made to the AA.

It turned out that the wheel had been on there a very long time, and the join had actually oxidised shut. So, short of hitting it with a mallet, there wasn't really any way I was getting it free. So, the Man Card remains intact for another day.

And so on Saturday morning I took the car to Kwik Fit, and asked the guy there to "take a look at it"... with the implied hope that they could repair, rather than replace, the tyre.

Haha. Some chance...

It turned out that that tyre had been on the car since it was manufactured, eight years previously. As, in fact, had all the other tyres as well, and all four of them were worn to the point of being dangerous, and borderline-illegal as well.

So, four new tyres, then. Gah!

On the other hand...

One of my few unbreakable rules is that there are two things you never mess about with on cars: the tyres and the brakes. If something isn't right with them, fix it - immediately. There are various other things that will need sorted with differing degrees of urgency, but those two, because of their critical bearing on safety, should never be neglected.

So, had we known the tyres were in that state, we would have had them replaced. (We should, of course, have known - an oversight on my part.) Given that those tyres were indeed dangerous, and especially heading into what might be a pretty rough winter, it's actually possible that that flat tyre actually did us a major favour - it's entirely possible that it saved LC's life.

(Funnily enough, everyone I've since told that anecdote to has pointed out that the police are also doing spot checks on vehicle tyres, and so we've also likely been saved a big fine and many points on a license. Funnily enough, that's a somewhat lesser consideration in my thinking.)

#56: "X-Wing: Mercy Kill", by Aaron Allston
#57: "Dodger", by Terry Pratchett (the new Book of the Year)
#58: "The Wine-Dark Sea", by Patrick O'Brian

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Experimental Cookery 2013: Zesty Chilli and Garlic Tiger Prawns

It's been a busy week on the food front, what with the two curries, and now a stir fry. This one came from "Chinese Food Made Easy", by Ching-He Huang. This one requires all of about six ingredients, has a two-step cooking method, and takes about ten minutes start to finish. Which is pretty cool, really.

I did hit a problem early on, when I discovered that we had no rice wine in stock. I guess we must have finished it at some point. The consequence of this was that I had to replace this with a tablespoon of really poor whisky. Which worked out just fine, both from the taste point of view, but also in getting rid of some said whisky, which has been sitting around far too long.

Other that that, it all went very quickly. As usual with these stir fries, it is incredibly important to prepare all the ingredients before the first on hits the wok, as the moment that happens you haven't got a moment to spare. But having learned that lesson, I made sure I was ready.

I served the dish with noodles. It would have worked with rice equally well, I suspect. The recipe doesn't say to use either, but I think it would have been a bit lacking without something. And it tasted fine; certainly, this was the most successful of the three meals this week.

Tonight, I'm cooking meatballs and spahgetti in a tomato sauce from a jar. So it's a rather less challenging night!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Experimental Cookery 2013: Lamb Kofta Curry

Yesterday's effort was another one from the Hariy Bikers' "Great Curries". It was significantly better than the previous one, but...

Yesterday was not a good day. There have been a few of those this week, but what made yesterday bad was that there was a traffic jam on the way to work, which meant I was late, which meant I had to work late. And, since everyone else was late, too, the traffic on the way home was also bad, so I got in very late. The last thing I wanted to do was to spend any time cooking, but there wasn't any choice.

The first step of this curry was easy - I had to make up the koftas, which as basically just meatballs. So, a bunch of stuff went into the food processor, the mince was added, and then it was put in a bowl and covered to chill. That was on Sunday. Because of this, the meat had to be used yesterday, or it would have had to be thrown out.

Still, I didn't think that should be too bad - I just had to whip up a sauce, cook the meatballs in the sauce, and that would be that. How bad could it be?

Unfortunately, what I hadn't reckoned with was that the sauce required a 20-minute simmer step. Then, that done, the koftas needed cooked in the sauce... also requiring a 30-minute simmer step. It wasn't difficult, at all, but it was time-consuming... and it was the last thing I wanted to do after a hard day.

The resulting meal was very nice, and I'm sure we'll have it again (if only because we have half the koftas left over). But I won't be doing this on a week-night in future. The closest I'll come might be to make up the sauce in advance and freeze it for later use, thus reducing the hour and a half I spent down to half an hour or so.

So, this one was a victory, but rather a Phyrric one. Hopefully, tonight's prawns won't entail the same level of trouble...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reviewing the Artist

A couple of years ago, I somehow chanced to see Britney's (first?) performance on the X-Factor. There had been some weeks of build-up to this event, it being a bit of a coup for Simon Cowell's monument to self. And so, we had this much-hyped event, and she performed.

The performance was pretty awful, even by her standards - it wasn't clear exactly what went wrong, but something just wasn't right, either because she wasn't really ready, or because there was too much pressure, or she just didn't care, or whatever. But whatever the reason, it was a bad performance.

After which, the four judges led a standing ovation, and queued up to fawn over the global megastar and her 'wonderful' performance - a performance that they would have slated had any of the contestants given it. But because it was Britney...

A few posts ago, I talked about Ed Greenwood's novel "The Wizard's Mask", which is the worst novel I have read this year by a long, long way. And the reviews mostly reflect that. But every so often you come across a five-star review praising it for "non-stop action", or something similar... but mostly praising it because it's by Ed Greenwood, and he's a legend in gaming circles.

Over on the Imaginarium, I've made some comment about the adventure "The Devil's Spine", by Monte Cook. Again, the reviews of this are rather mixed, but most note that it is deeply flawed. Every so often, though, you find one that assigns it five stars... because Monte Cook wrote it, and he's a star in the field of game design.

It's probably best at this point not to mention the initial reviews of "The Phantom Menace", or "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull", or "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", or the fifth book in "A Song of Ice and Fire", or...

(And, for an example of the same thing in reverse, consider "The Cuckoo's Calling". When it was written by Robert Galbraith, it received decent reviews, but very few sales. As soon as it was written by J.K. Rowling, though, suddenly it was a best-selling work of genius.)

I suppose it's natural for reviewers to do this. To get Britney on the show, ITV no doubt had to promise the most gentle of treatment. An artist who is slated in a review of one product is unlikely to give interviews when the next is released. And, of course, the internet has made many fan-bases utterly psychotic, so a bad review may very well incur death threats.

The problem is, it's really not helpful if the review is of anything other than the product at hand. I already like Bernard Cornwell's novels, so if your review is really about those, and not about his current novel, you're not helping me at all. But if his current novel is a stinker and you tell me that, then you're actually being useful. I may well ignore you and get it anyway (in fact, I almost certainly will), but at least then I'll know to trust you when you want me off!

(It works both ways, of course - if you hate BC's novels, then that probably invalidates your review just as much as if you're a mindless fanboi, at least from where I'm sitting. But the ideal is if you usually like them, but are prepared to say if one sucks.)

(Oh, and for the record, there's no particular reason I chose Bernard Cornwell for that last example.)

Unfortunately, the upshot of this is that I now completely ignore pretty much any review that talks about anything other than objective tangibles. As soon as you move into the area of storytelling, or quality of art, or pretty much anything intangible, and especially once you get on to the next item in an ongoing sequence, it becomes really hard to trust whether the person is talking about this thing, or if they're being influenced by past performance.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Experimental Cookery 2013: Quick Chicken Madras

This one came from the Hairy Biker's "Great Curries". I had been looking forward to it since finding the curry on Friday (when LC proceeded to veto it, but no matter), and found time to cook it on Sunday.

Sadly, the curry did not live up to expectations. It was certainly quick, which was a plus, but it turned out to be lacking the heat that had been promised (nay, threatened!), despite my not deseeding any of the included chillis. In addition, the sauce was considerably more watery than I'd hoped, which meant that the whole thing just seemed rather bland. All in all, it was rather disappointing.

We will be having this again, once, if only because the recipe made up four servings and there are two of us. Sadly, I can't see us then making up another batch. A shame, really.

On the other hand, on Sunday I also made up the mixture for some lamb koftas, which we'll be having for dinner tomorrow. Hopefully, those will make up for yesterday's disappointment...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Alleged "story problem" in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

Fair warning: there are heavy spoilers for both last night's "Big Bang Theory" and also "Raiders of the Lost Ark" throughout. So, under no circumstances should you read this post.

Last night's episode of "The Big Bang Theory" centred around a story problem in "Raiders of the Lost Ark", specifically that Indiana Jones is actually entirely superfluous to the story - without Indy, the Nazis still find the Ark, still open the Ark, and still all die. Basically, he contributes nothing.

"Aha!" I immediately said, "but that's not right - the Nazis were digging in the wrong place!"

At this point, Lady Chocolat, who is wearily used to my heckling BBT, noted that they were only digging in the wrong place because they didn't have the medallion, but without Indy they would have gotten it first time out, and so would have been digging in the right place. Oh.

So, you can imagine my mirth and amusement when that exact conversation took place later in the show. In fact, the dialogue in the show was almost a word-for-word match of both what I said and LC's response.


The "story problem" only actually manifests if you posit that the film is about what happens to the Ark. But it's not. In fact, not only is it not, but the very title of the film makes that clear: it's not "The Lost Ark", it's "Raiders of the Lost Ark". The story is about Indiana Jones, and Marion, and Belloc, and the Nazis, and what happens to them - of which the face-melting covers only half of it.

As for the second half:

In the absence of Indiana Jones in the story, Marion's arc is rather different. As in the film, she is in her bar, and is approached by the Nazis about the medallion. As in the film, she refuses to give it to them. At which point, the Nazis torture her, kill her, and take the medallion.

Conversely, with Indiana Jones in the film, things play out as we see: Marion leaves her bar, deals with her alcohol problem, and is last seen happy and smiling. Realistic or not, that's the impact Indy has on her arc - she's alive and happy at the end of the film.

Likewise, Indy is changed by the film. At the start of the film, he's a hard-bitten scientist (as he says in "Last Crusade", archaelogy is the study of fact), but the climax of the film requires taking a leap of faith. And, like Marion, he has tackled at least some of his demons in the course of his adventure, not least the issue of his broken relationships with Prof. Ravenwood and Marion herself. (Not that that's really a good thing - the relationship between Indy and Marion is not entirely... appropriate, to put it mildly.)

Of course, without Indy in the film, none of that happens either.

(For what it's worth, the same is true in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", too. Again, he fails to get the treasure, but that's incidental to the real story, which is about the broken relationship between him and his dad.)

#55: "Pathfinder: Demon's Heresy", by Jim Groves

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Roast Experiment

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was considering the possibility of doing a big roast at the weekend and then harvesting lots of leftovers for the following week. Since then, we have attempted this experiment twice, once with a roast leg of lamb and the second time with a roast chicken. So, the results...

The Lamb

The basis of this meal was a "boneless leg of lamb", bought from Tesco for £14 (if I recall correctly). This was cooked quite simply - just rubbed with oil and then seasoned, and then placed in the over for a couple of hours. Naturally, it was accompanied with some roast potatoes, and we had roast carrots as well. I added a few peas to this. Finally, there was mint sauce and a lamb gravy - sadly, not made from the meat juices themselves but rather from a packet.

It was very nice, but due to a miscalculation while carving, we both had way too much. That's not a big problem, but it did cut down on the leftovers.

The remains of the lamb would go on to provide a total of five lunches. Two of these took the form of "leftover lamb and mint couscous", taken from "River Cottage Everyday" by Hugh. This was an interesting one, being a variant on a chicken-based lunch I've blogged about before (in the dim and distant past). It was quite different from the chicken version, and I liked the use of apricots, but I did find it a little lacking compared with the chicken version - perhaps adding (quite a lot) more pepper would help?

On the Tuesday and the Wednesday, then, we had the rest of the lamb, this time in pitta bread-based 'sandwiches', with the addition of some yoghurt and cucumber. Again, this was okay, but a little bland. Here, I think the addition of some mint (which, sadly, had run out), and also some salt and pepper, would have helped.

Still, I was pretty happy with that, all told. The Sunday roast was excellent, and the lunches made for a nice alternative from our more usual fare.

The Chicken

I was on somewhat firmer ground with this one, as I've roasted chickens on several occasions (I've only done lamb twice, or perhaps thrice). This was a large chicken, again from Tesco (£6, I think), rubbed with oil and seasoned, with a mix of rosemary and thyme stuffed in the cavity, and a lemon. Easy peasy.

Again, this was complemented with some roast potatoes (which came out exceptionally well this time), and this time some "baked in a bag" carrots per "Jamie's Ministry of Food", and a little gravy (Bisto). Curiously, there wasn't a parsnip in sight.

This time, I was a bit more cunning when harvesting the meat - I stripped the bird completely, then divided it into six portions, one each for myself and LC, and then four to keep. This proved an almost ideal amount of food for the night, though there were still too many potatoes and carrots. Given that the total cost of those was in the region of 50p, though, I'm not too worried about throwing a few odds and ends away.

Unfortunately, it was in the use of the leftovers that inspiration failed. I had some great sandwiches on Tuesday and Wednesday, made simply by mixing some chicken with a tablespoon of BBQ sauce and a tablespoon of hot chilli sauce (they would have been better with some lettuce and tomate as well, but we didn't have any), and LC had some sandwiches with just the chicken. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a nice sandwich... but they just didn't feel inspired.

(And, given that I feel like a bit of a brag... last night's dinner was a second go-around of Lorraine's Tandoori Chicken Wraps with Cucumber Raita and Mango Salsa. This fed two of us, and left over enough stuff for lunch today, which was delicious. Now that's more like what I mean by "inspired"!)

I can't say I'm disappointed by the results of the chicken, either. In fact, in terms of value-for-money, it worked out rather better than the lamb. Still, I think next time I might have a go at Jamie's chicken stew that he makes with leftover chicken (if I can persuade LC to go for it).


All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the way this has gone. I think a bit more planning is probably called for, specifically in the use of the leftovers once they've been harvested, but the basic idea seems solid.

Of course, the impetus for this came largely from "Jamie's Money Saving Meals". The roast chicken quite clearly did save a bit of money, while the lamb was much less certain (especially since I over-catered on that first night). Still, in all honesty that was really a fairly minor issue for us.

Next up is probably roast pork. Though, frankly, I have no idea what I might do with those leftovers.

The Worst Book of the Year

Ed Greenwood is something of a living legend in RPG circles. Indeed, now that Gary and Dave have passed on, he's probably the biggest name we have left. Primarily, he's famous for creating the Forgotten Realms, the most expansive and most detailed RPG setting in existence. He's also the author of a great many novels, mostly set in those same Forgotten Realms.

I've read two of EG's novels, now. The first of these, "Spellfire", I read back when I was in my mid-teens, and it was the first time I realised something that has since been borne out too, too often: game-related fiction sucks. It's not a universal law, but exceptions are few and far between. (And, in fact, it applies to most licensed fiction - whether it's a TV series or movie, a computer game or RPG, or even something ghost-written with a celebrity's name on the cover, it almost certainly stinks. There are, of course, good reasons for that, but I digress.)

Over the past year or so, I've been reading through the "Pathfinder Tales", a series of, yes, game-related fiction. These have the key advantages that they're pretty undemanding reads, they're mostly pretty decent (within the confines of game-related fiction), and that they're a series of self-contained novels - this isn't the standard, never-ending fantasy epic. I'm not going to claim them as high art, of course, but they were entertaining enough.

Some months ago, I discovered that the "Pathfinder Tale" I was scheduled to read in November was "The Wizard's Mask", written by one Ed Greenwood. This did not fill me with confidence. Still, it's a series, and I wasn't going to read them all but one. Besides, maybe he'd improved in the quarter-century since "Spellfire"...

Or not.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the book did not start terribly well. We're introduced to the first of our two main characters, a sometime-thief who now wears a cursed mask that is gradually stealing his face away. That's pretty cool. And then the other, a halfling former-slave who is now hiding out in a turnip wagon.

Our halfling promptly finds herself on the run from the guards in the new town the wagon has arrived in because... well, for no real reason, actually. So, she runs, and runs, and runs. The chase scene goes on far too long, then ends in an absurdly unsatisfactory manner, and that's chapter one done.

The chase scene then picks up in chapter two, and carries on for the next hundred pages. Somewhere along the way, she encounters our masked friend, and hires him to protect her (because obviously the person to trust is some random guy you met on a rooftop while on the run, and obviously he'll agree to act as bodyguard for a paltry sum). Also, they pick up a nemesis, who is introduced almost literally as a deus ex machina, saves our protagonists for no apparent reason, and then tries at length to kill them, also for no good reason.

And then, after a hundred pages of chasing, we get to The Plot. Huzzah! Our heroes, and their nemesis, must travel to a dungeon and recover a treasure, just because. So, off they go. There then follow some wanderings, during which the nemesis suffers from a clear case of split personality: half the time, he wants to kill our heroes for no good reason; the other half he wants to recruit them to serve his nation, again for no good reason.

Meanwhile, there's a metronomic (but, of course, completely unexpected) set of ambushes. Seriously, the book almost literally has five pages of tedious 'characterisation', three pages of banter, and then ten pages of our heroes running away from arrows sent by either of two ill-defined armies. Huzzah!

Worse is yet to come, because when our heroes reach the dungeon, they are set upon by purple, magic-eating cats. No, really.

Now, that would be fine, if it were just a few pages in an otherwise-excellent book. However, it turns out that those cats are a critical plot device that will form a major part of the scenery for the final hundred pages of the book. Yay!

So, our heroes go through the dungeon, demonstrating just how badly traps are handled in most D&D adventures (seriously, you can practically hear the dice rolling, first for Perception and then for Disable Device). And then one of the characters loses a hand.

But not to worry, because for the rest of the novel, she suffers from a Schrodinger's limb. It would appear that the hand-loss was a late addition to the plot, because in the very next chapter she is said to throw something with both hands, while at another point she catches something with her spare hand.

And then the exciting climax of the novel, wherein our heroes run away from cats, while throwing the treasure from one to the other. Oh, and avoiding ambushes that occur exactly once a chapter.

This isn't a bad book. This is a book that makes "The Da Vinci Code" look inspired.

And, actually, that's something that's worth contemplating for a moment. Back when I read Dan Brown's great work, I came away convinced that a novel didn't need to be good, or even make sense, provided the whole thing was paced at a high enough speed. Keep people reading so fast they can't contemplate the nonsense of the plot, and you should be fine.

But "The Wizard's Mask" puts the lie to that, because it is paced very very fast, and that doesn't save it. It's just awful.

So, that's the worst book of the year. I would say "so far", but I really hope nothing else comes close...

#54: "The Wizard's Mask", by Ed Greenwood

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Mixed Curse

So, I'm ill.

It all started on Wednesday, just as I was about to leave the office. I'd packed up, and was about to grab my jacket, when I was in turn grabbed for one of those Very Important Conversations that occasionally happen at work. Anyway, during the course of said conversation, I could feel my throat tightening. "Oh, here we go," I thought, "the twice-annual cough..."

Thursday wasn't much fun, and Friday was worse. And then, at the band's centenary celebration, I was first asked to help call out the raffle winners (yay!) and then the band played. The net result of this was that I aggravated my throat. Not good.

So, on Saturday I had virtually no voice. On Sunday, likewise, I spent the day huddled in front of the TV. And even today I'm off work and feeling pretty miserable.

And, of course, everything else had to be cancelled to make room. The one-shot RPG session on Saturday, which was itself a rescheduled event, had to go, since I had no voice with which to run the game. And the game tomorrow is also gone, largely as a precaution. I'll not be going to band tonight, and had to skip out of a wedding that the band were playing yesterday - though, fortunately, that wasn't a solo event so they had enough people without me.

Being ill sucks.

However, it does have a couple of up-sides. Being stuck in front of the TV all day meant that I've managed to finish off both "Crusade" and the last two "Babylon 5" spin-off movies, which is good - neither of these was very good, to be honest, so it's nice to have them off the to-do list. Likewise, I've caught up on both "Atlantis" and "Homeland", both of which remain on my "not quite bad enough to drop" threshold. (In both cases, there are bits that are excellent, and bits that are pretty awful - and in both cases, they could be vastly improved by dropping at least one of the main characters.)

And, finally, I've managed to make great strides through the worst book of the year, which I'll be very glad to see go. I think that will warrant a post all of its own, but the short version is this: the first chapter is mostly filled with a chase scene that is okay, but goes on way too long. That chase scene then picks up again in chapter two, three, four, five...

#51: "Pirate's Honor", by Chris A. Jackson
#52: "The Carpet People", by Terry Pratchett
#53: "Clarissa Oakes", by Patrick O'Brian

(Note: none of these is the book to which I refer...)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Experimental Cookery 2013: Three For One

In honour of "Jamie's Money Saving Meals", I thought I'd do a triple post with the results of my cookery exploits last week. It's nothing to do with my not being bothered to write three individual posts, no, not at all...

Naan Bread

I've previously tackled naan breads twice before, both times from "Gordon Ramsey's Great Escape". But while they were okay, they were never better than that, and a lot of work as well. So, at the recommendation of Captain Ric, I tried the version from the Hairy Bikers' "Great Curries".

Well, it's fair to say that these were much more successful - a whole lot less work, a whole lot less time, and better results. Next time, I need to make sure I use finer salt, and I also need to make sure they're rolled thinner, but otherwise they were a resounding success. And they were also considerably bigger than the other version, which is a plus.

Seeded White Loaf

This one came from the "Women's Institute Big Book of Baking", which LC was given for Christmas but which I have shamelessly baked from. Shocking, isn't it?

Other than the baguettes I cooked a few weeks ago, I've never really tackled bread. And the truth is that I see little point in cooking 'basic' breads, by which I mean the standard white or brown loaves one could buy from the supermarket. After all, you can't beat them on cost or on time, and unless you're pretty good you're unlikely to beat them on taste. And they go stale far more quickly. The one advantage is that you get to control what goes into the bread, which means you get to skip all those nasty additives... but, for me, that's just not enough to justify the effort.

(Perhaps if we had a bread maker, that would be different. But we don't use enough bread to justify that expense, and the unit could never come close to paying for itself. Besides, the fun of making these things by hand lies largely in, well, making them by hand, which the bread maker removes.)

But that's okay. There's way more to bread than just the basic white or brown loaves, and so I found myself tackling this seeded white. And it was easy to do - mix, knead, prove, knock back, shape, prove, bake. And the result was great - a nice, tasty loaf ideal for dipping in soup. It lasted two days, but probably wouldn't have gone beyond that... but that was okay, because it only lasted two days anyway.

The lack of pictures in the WI book was slightly unfortunate - it would be nice to know what I'm making. Other than that, the book is very good, and certainly much better than Paul Hollywood's "Bread", which I'm afraid I would have to recommend against.

Roast Chicken with Lemon & Rosemary Roast Potatoes

This one was a real experiment, not because I've not tackled roast chicken before, but rather because I was cooking in Lord Chocolat's kitchen (we were staying there at the weekend). The recipe itself came from "Jamie's Dinners", which I was using as it was the most familiar of the options available in said kitchen.

The process of this one was pretty simple, albeit time-consuming. Unfortunately, I misjudged the time involved, such that the meal was 'ready' far too early, but that's not a huge problem. I also have to question Jamie's quantity of potatoes, which was way too many for four people. (Should have stuck with the "four people... four potatoes" formula, or close to it.)

However, the worst problem was that when the food was 'ready' and we came to cut the chicken, we found that it was undercooked. I fear I must have misread the oven setting, or something like that. So the chicken, which was now open, had to go back in. When it came out again, it was now cooked, but it was also browned in places it should not have been. A shame, really.

Taste wise, the meal was pretty good. The potatoes, in particular, went extremely well. The chicken tasted good, too, though it was rather dry due to the mistake in the cooking. I served with some simply-done peas and carrots, though these were nothing to write home about, and some gravy that was more... gloopy than I would have preferred.

None of which was Jamie's fault of course - just a problem inherent in cooking in someone else's kitchen. Still, I'd defintely be willing to try this recipe again.

(In fact, for the past while I've been considering doing a BIG roast every weekend, in order to harvest lots of leftovers for lunches and the like. But I'm not quite there yet...)

The Dawn of the Third Age of Mankind

Amongst other things, last night I watched "Sleeping in Light", the last episode of the main "Babylon 5" show. I still have a couple of TV-movies to watch, and then "Crusade", and then a couple more TV-movies, but for the most part, basically, I'm done.

Watching that last series of "Babylon 5" is always an odd experience, because the main arc of the show was finished at the end of the previous series, and what follows is both less interesting and rather stretched. In particular, the three episodes prior to SiL always feel particularly weak, being little more than "this character leaves, then this character leaves, then..." That said, the last two episodes do always have a couple of moments that creep up on me every time - in "Objects at Rest", when Sheridan brings the White Star around for "one last look at the place", and we see the new generation standing in the place of the old; and in "Sleeping in Light", when he raises the toast to "absent friends, in memory still bright".

What was odd, though, was that this time the bit that really got me was the final parting between Sheridan and Delenn. I guess time changes, and people change.

I found myself wondering, though... will I ever watch this show again? The thing is, "Babylon 5" genuinely is one of my top-three sci-fi series of all time, but the truth is that both the first and the last series are a bit of a slog, and it's also true that the DVDs are really not of good quality (and there will probably never be a blu-ray or digital release, sadly - the digital models required to upgrade the CGI to HD have been lost). Plus, I know the story, and I'm constantly finding myself with more to do and less time to do it in - will I have the time to dedicate to watching it again? And if and when I do, will I still have the means to do so?

I also found myself pondering just where B5 sits within that "top three"? The other two series are "Star Trek" and "Doctor Who", of course, but which is best? Both those series probably have more really good stuff than B5, but equally, the both have huge amounts of dross, and a lot that's better in concept than execution - "Voyager", "Enterprise", and a big chunk of old-Who. And "Deep Space Nine" owes a fairly significant debt to B5 for changing the nature of series TV, as does much of new-Who.

And then... "Babylon 5" is the only one I have on DVD, and the only one I'd really make time to watch. But, I wouldn't sit down to watch B5 if it were on TV, where I might for either of the other two (since with B5, it's the whole series, or nothing; DW and ST (apart from DS9) don't have that weakness).

I guess there's only one way to find out... Fight!

Two Things About the Bake-off

Firstly, and briefly, I was rather amused by a certain irony last night.

For several weeks, one of the finalists has been consistently criticised for style over substance. It has been a constant refrain: style and substance. Substance. Substance.

Last night, the final bake, the one that the competition inevitably comes down to, the show-stopper challenge, was a wedding cake. That is, one of those creations where style is of critical importance. In fact, one of those creations where the style of the thing is vastly more important than the substance - the function of the cake is to be the centre-piece for the room, to look good in the resulting photos... and then, as an afterthought, to taste good in that tiny slice that each guest gets to taste.

So... amusing.

But the second thing is this: for some time, indeed since the end of the last series, that has been the feeling that the show will inevitably be being moved to BBC1 next year, presumably so it can attract a larger audience.

Which is, frankly, bizarre. Are we supposed to believe that there are large numbers out there who have TVs that only get BBC1 and ITV? Or is it that their remote controls don't have a number '2' on them?

Honestly, it's ridiculous. People who want to see the show can get it. People who don't want to see the show can watch something else. But that's true whether the show is on BBC2 and the "something else" on BBC1, or the reverse. They're just numbers... and it's not even as if they're channels that are in competition with one another. (Of course, equally, there's no reason not to move the show. For exactly the same reason - they're just numbers.)

(In fact, franky, the concept of different 'channels' is fast becoming obselete. As recording becomes ever more popular and convenient, and as TV streaming services like iPlayer and 4oD become ever more prevalent, it becomes increasingly irrelevant whether a show is on BBC1, 2, 3, 4, BBC Hats, or whatever other channel there is. The provider matters, since one might have access to BBC but not Sky, and of course it matters whether you have to suffer adverts or not. But the distinction between BBC channels, and especially between the channels that everyone gets? Not a jot.)

#48: "Pathfinder: Sword of Valor", by Neil Spicer
#49: "The Nutmeg of Consolation", by Patrick O'Brian
#50: "The Blood of Gods", by Conn Iggulden

Monday, October 07, 2013

Wait... Why Is That Legal?

When preparing for my driving test, one of the things I was told was that if you drove at 30mph in a 40 zone, you would be marked down. Do that consistently, and you would be failed for it. Because one of the requirements of being a competent driver was that you had to keep the traffic moving, which meant moving at a speed suitable to the road conditions.

Which, really, is as it should be.

As I was driving to work, I noted a number of vehicles with various stickers on the back, indicating that the vehicle was somehow limited in speed. You've no doubt seen them - they are becoming more and more prevalent on our roads.

Now, in many cases, these stickers merely note the (theoretical) limits applied to the vehicle by law - on particular roads, large vehicles have a lower speed limit that they must follow, and that's that. (I say theoretical, because it's a rule, not a true limitation - if the driver chose to break the law, the vehicle would indeed go faster. Not that I'm at all suggesting that they do, or would...)

However, I also noticed a few vehicles that weren't bound by law to follow any special speed limit, and yet had such a sticker. And, indeed, at least one of these was marked by a sticker indicating that the vehicle was limited to 68mph. This was on the M9, a road that has a 70mph limit along most of its length (although we were in a lower, variable, limit zone when I saw the van in question).

Now, I know that there's no legal requirement that you must drive at the speed limit, nor indeed is there a (relevant) minimum speed limit on the motorways. However, it is a condition of the driving test that you drive at an appropriate speed, and that you don't unduly slow the flow of traffic.

On a motorway with a speed limit of 70mph, very often the appropriate speed to drive is indeed 70mph. And a vehicle driving at less than that speed, especially one driving just under that speed, does indeed impede the flow of traffic - due to their presence, anyone who wants to go faster (most road-users) now have to move across into the single, faster, lane, slowly pass this one vehicle, and then proceed. The effect of this, especially a peak times, can be very significant.

In which case, I have to ask: why is it legal for vehicles to be limited in this way, when it is known that such limits will have a deleterious effect on the flow of traffic for everyone else?

#47: "Mockingjay", by Suzanne Collins (Not a comfortable read, even after the grimness of the first two. Still, an outstanding trilogy.)

Tuesday, October 01, 2013


For the past week or so, I kept seeing adverts for this show, and kept meaning to set the digibox to record it. I think promptly forgot to do so on Saturday. Still, thanks to the magic of iPlayer, that wasn't really an issue.

To a certain extent, I pity any new fantasy TV series. They inevitably get compared to "Game of Thrones", and the comparison is inevitably "not as good as". This despite the fact that they're very different shows doing very different things... and also that "Game of Thrones" really isn't quite the work of genius that it's made out to be.

As for "Atlantis", I enjoyed it... mostly. It's certainly better than "Robin Hood", though not yet as good as "Merlin" was at its best. (In particular, "Merlin" really benefitted from Anthony Head and Richard Wilson giving it some much-needed gravitas, in the same way that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan elevated the "X-Men" movies above standard comic-book fare.)

It is true that they've really mangled Greek myth, to the extent that the show is less authentic than "Hercules: the Legendary Journeys". It's also true that, some few trappings aside, the characters have a far too modern sensibility. And there's too much of the "manly men save the day" about it - though it's just possible that that might change a bit down the way.

But I liked their take on Hercules (despite mis-spelling his name again). It actually makes sense that, if his strength comes from being the son of a god, he doesn't need to be the ripped titan we usually see. And I liked most of the chemisty between the cast - the three leads in particular go well together.

All that said, there's one thing that really bothers me about the show. In fact, one single word... Pythagoras.

There are three reasons I object to his inclusion, two of which would have been trivially fixed. In most respects, the answer to "what's in a name?" really is "the difference between an enjoyable show and a hugely annoying one."

My first objection to them using this character is that, unlike Minos, Hercules, and the rest, Pythagoras actually was a real person. And so, where you can basically do whatever you want with the other characters, settings, and events (such as giving Jason Theseus' job of killing the Minotaur, moving the whole thing to Atlantis, or mis-spelling Heracles). But, with Pythagoras, you don't get to do that. If you're going to use real people, you've got to get them right. (And, incidentally, the reason it's different when Doctor Who uses Churchill or other figures is this: such characters are always guest stars appearing in the occasional episode; here, it's a major character due to appear in every episode.)

My second objection is that it's evident that the writers know roughly one thing about Pythagoras: he's "the triangle guy". After all, that's literally the first thing Jason says on learning his name, and it's something that they gets repeated several times in the episode.

But Pythagoras was no more "the triangle guy" than Archimedes was "that bath guy" or Newton was "that apple guy". In each case, that's the thing they're most famous for... but in each case it was a comparitively tiny aspect of a lifetime's work. Constantly repeating it as some sort of joke was really irritating.

(And it was all so unnecessary. Just change the name, drop the triangle 'jokes' and you've got a much better show, and actually lose nothing in the process.)

My third objection, though, was something that couldn't be fixed just by changing the name. As noted, that "triangle guy" thing was repeated several times. At least one of these took the form of Hercules suggesting that Pythagoras bore the minotaur to death by telling it about triangles. And similarly, when Jason takes Pythagoras' place in the labyrinth, his justification is that Pythagoras great legacy is that millions of school-children will be bored learning his theory. It's a joke, see?

Well, ha. Bloody. Ha.

Yes, I get it. Maths is hard. Chuckle. Maths is boring. LOL. Oh, it's so funny. Indeed, I fear my sides have split.

So, what we have here is a show where manly men go off and have adventures, where women exist (it would seem) to look good, to be rescued, and if they're very lucky, to give the hero some magic token that preserves his life. Sort of. A bit. Oh, and where we once again get to play "let's laugh at the geek!"

Dear BBC, thank you so very much for that new and interesting bit of banter. I've never seen that done before! (And never mind that "Pythagoras' legacy" includes the computer on which this script was written, the building in which it was written, and any and all food that the writer consumed when doing so. See, that's the thing about foundations of mathematics - they affect everything that comes after. And even that's ignoring the significant impact that Pythagorean philosophy had on Plato, and consequently on Western thought as a whole.)

As I said, it's mostly a reasonably entertaining bit of fluff entertainment, the very thing to hold down the "Doctor Who" slot until DW is back. Except for that one blemish that just ruins it. It's such a shame.

#45: "Johnny and the Dead", by Terry Pratchett
#46: "Johnny and the Bomb", by Terry Pratchett

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Experimental Cookery 2013: Quick Chicken Pilau

This was the first meal I cooked from the Hairy Bikers' "Great Curries", a book I got some time ago but never quite got around to using. As the name implies, it was a quick dish made with chicken and rice.

There wasn't really anything to making the dish, with the most difficult bit being sourcing the required curry paste (where most of the local supermarkets had every other paste in the range except for the one that was needed). Beyond that, there was a small amount of chopping, and then a series of steps consisting pretty much of "add this to the pan now". Half an hour later, and it was done.

And very nice it was, too. In hindsight, I think the quantities are over-generous - the recipe says it will serve four, but I'm inclined to think that the meal I did would have served five easily. Indeed, had I used the full amount of chicken listed, six would not have been a difficult stretch. But the meal was easy to make, it was full of flavour... basically, it was a winner all around.

We'll definitely be having this again, and not just to use up the remaining two servings. A success!

Incidentally, I've decided not to bother doing "Experimental Cookery..." posts about any more soups, unless there happens to be something of particular note. They'd reached a point where they came to "we made this; it was easy; it was okay", and that's pretty dull. The cookbook I've been using is a good one, although I doubt I'd ever use more than 10% of the recipes, but it's not worth posting, or reading, about every little thing.

#42: "Liar's Blade" by Tim Pratt
#43: "The Thirteen-Gun Salute", by Patrick O'Brian

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

And Two Other Updates

  1. I didn't get to be Doctor Who. Obviously, I'm gutted at this - I was sure I'd argued my case to perfection.
  2. As you know, my mobile phone died on me. At the time, I was undecided whether to go for a cheap-and-nasty phone as a stop-gap, or to take the plunge and buy a smartphone. In the end, I concluded that I really needed a phone now, so went for the cheap option. Mobile phone #3 then lasted for all of 4 weeks, before it was discovered that it wouldn't work in the US, and I really needed a phone to take. And so, mobile phone #4 was bought - also a cheaper option, although this one actually has a camera and other functions. Actually, it's much like mobile phone #2, so I expect to be using this one for some time.

Update on Goals

It's not been too long since the last update, but since we're now two-thirds of the way through the year, I figured it that now would be as good a time as any.

  • Health: This is a very mixed one. There's some good news, some not so good news, and the likelihood of a way forward. I'm not so keen on sharing all the details here. Sorry.
  • Weight: No movement. Actually, that's not true. When I was in the US, I put on somewhere between 4 and 6 pounds. Those have since come off, leaving me back where I started the year. This is going to need some work.
  • Work: The last couple of months have been some of the best ever. So, that's good. Actually, part of the reason I'm posting now is that things have reached something of a lull (in a good way). But that won't last long... and that's good too.
  • Books: I've read 41 books, and hopeful of getting to 45 by the end of this month, putting me back on track. I'm also up to date on three of the five series, and only one behind on a fourth. There's now no chance that I'll read twelve books from The List in the remainder of this year, but I'm not too dismayed about that.
  • Debt: Paying off the bathroom took slightly longer than anticipated, due solely to that great evil: compound interest. But it's done now, and that was an amazingly great weight from my shoulders. Next!
  • Games: "The Ebrrron Code" came to its planned end, and that end went as well as I could have hoped. That campaign really justifies its place in my "Big Four" great campaigns. The next campaign, "Imperial Fist", is due to start on the 1st of next month. I'm looking forward to it, although I really need to get some prep-work done. Since the last update, I haven't managed to fit in another one-shot, so remain at 2 out of the hoped-for 5. It seems likely that that count will end the year at 4. That said, I'm hopefully going to be playing in a one-shot in a couple of weeks, so think I might count that. All in all, that's pretty good. However, there are two small flies in the ointment. The first is that I've basically let the Imaginarium slide into inactivity, much as happened to this blog; I'm hoping to restart that one fairly soon. The second is that I concluded I have basically no interest whatsoever in 5th Edition of D&D - and indeed won't be too unhappy if I don't run or play any version of D&D for quite some time.

And that's that.

Experimental Cookery 2013: My Dad’s Really Very Good Lasagne

Well, not my Dad's, of course... This one comes from Lorraine Pascale's "Home Cooking Made Easy", so it's presumably her Dad's lasagne.

Anyway, I do like lasagne. But thus far, making lasagne has meant getting two jars of Dolmio sauces from Tesco, and then browning some mince and vegetables. Which is fine, of course, though it does now mean working from memory - so extreme is LC's rage against the mushroom that she threw out my lasagne recipe! I did try Jamie's lasagne recipe, from his "Ministry of Food", and while it was okay, it wasn't better enough than the Dolmio jars to justify the much greater effort involved. So, could Lorraine do any better?

Well, the short answer is "yes". The slightly longer answer is, "yes, but not enough to completely supplant the Dolmio version."

The lasagne that resulted from following Lorraine's Dad's recipe was very nice, no question about that. And, like Jamie's before it, it was indeed better than the Dolmio version. However, it also takes more than twice as long, and so while it's the best to date, it probably isn't the version I'm going to use regularly. I'll probably keep it for special occasions.

(It's much like pizza in this regard - the homemade ones are better than Tesco's alternative, but they're not better enough to justify the much greater effort involved in making them. So, that's three things: pizza, lasagne, and fajitas.)

One last thing. Lorraine's recipe was time-consuming, but it wasn't particularly difficult to follow. However, there was one thing worth noting: the book doesn't include the over temperature to use, which is a fairly crucial omission. Fortunately, I was able to track this down using the wonders of Google, finding a blog by someone who noted that she'd asked LP herself and received a response... and then didn't include said response on her site! (The answer is 180 degrees.) It's been a long time since I wrote in a book. It still feels wrong somehow.

Anyway, that's that.

#40: "Pathfinder: The Worldwound Incursion", by Amber E. Scott
#41: "The Wasp Factory", by Iain Banks (a book from The List)

Friday, September 06, 2013

Experimental Cookery Disaster!

Lady Chocolat and I are having some friends over for dinner tonight, so in honour of the occasion I thought it would be a good idea to bake some bread... and also a good opportunity to get some use from my latest cookbook, "Bread" by Paul Hollywood (sadly, not a great book).

So, the plan was to cook up some garlic bread, and the method started off easily enough - stick the ingredients in the mixer, start mixing slowly, add the liquids, and then mix at a higher speed for 10 minutes. Easy!

At this point, I set an alarm and went away to let the mixer do its thing.

A few short minutes later, there was a loud crash from the kitchen, and then the noise of the mixer trying, but struggling, to run its motor.

I rushed back into the kitchen, only to discover that the mixer had, lemming-like, hurled itself off of the counter, and smashed itself into pieces on the floor. The dough was splattered across said floor, and whole thing was a mess.


So, no garlic bread for tonight, although we may buy some from Tesco. I spent the next twenty minutes cleaning up the mess, getting the kitchen back into some semblance of order. Fortunately, it looks like the mixer actually wasn't damaged - the various bits are designed to come apart, and although quite a lot of dough got into the motors I was able to brush it out.

Still, a definite disaster to add to my tally. At least I didn't end up wounded this time!

#37: "Pathfinder: The Dragon's Demand", by Mike Shel
#38: "Heart of Darkness and Other Stories", by Joseph Conrad
#39: "Catching Fire", by Suzanne Collins

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Dear American TV...

Just some thoughts:

  1. It's quite annoying when our channels break films up with adverts. Still, at least we have a good half-hour of film for 5 minutes of adverts. Showing ten minutes of film and then ten minutes of adverts is annoying in the extreme. Please stop it.
  2. At 11pm at night, it is probably okay to show the occasional bared breast, and/or not to censor expletives. If it really, truly, is not, perhaps you should consider not showing "Deuce Bigelo: European Gigolo"?
  3. Speaking of censorship, you should perhaps be consistent. In "The Ugly Truth", there's a scene where KH complains that men "prefer women in slutty clothes who suck lots of ****". This is then followed by a five minute exchange in which KH and GB repeatedly declare "cock". "Cock, cock, cock." Can you perhaps see the absurdity of censoring the first of these, but not the rest? And yet, that's exactly what happened. (And yes, I watched a bunch of crap when I was in the US. Unfortunately, the choice of channels was extremely limited, and I had no DVDs with me. Plus, with the amount of work I was doing, by the time the TV went on, I wanted something suitably mind-numbing.)
  4. Anything on the Fox Network that isn't explicitly marked as fiction really should be removed from TV. Seriously, I get annoyed enough at Question Time, but this was a whole new level of nonsense. I particularly enjoyed the comments by the rich white guy who declared that fast food employees shouldn't assume that their work gave them the right to expect to have somewhere to live. No, he really said that. (It was particularly annoying because they often had discussion topics that actually sounded like interesting subjects. But then they actually got started.)

The Adventures of Steph/ven: #3: The Wedding of Katie and Bex

Okay, right at the outset I'm going to say this: I'm aware that there are potentially discussions to have about the question of gay marriage. One day, I might actually post on that topic. But the time for that was not last weekend, and it's not really now either. This was, and is, about my cousin's day, so I'm going to respect it as such. To that end, while I'm not realy a fan of censorship, I've disabled comments on this post. Sorry.

So, I got back to the UK on Friday morning, at about 10:30. On Sunday, at about 2:30, I was parted from LC once again, got into a car with my parents, and travelled down to the wedding. We were the only three members of the Scottish branch of the family to attend; unfortunately, the schools up here go back earlier than down South, which impacted on most other people. (Indeed, I missed LC's first day of work as a result, which wasn't ideal, but there it is.)

The journey down was... interesting. According to Google Maps, it was a journey of 4 hours and 38 minutes. We got there about 8:30. Still, it was okay, I suppose. We did stop to eat along the way, then abandoned our first choice of services, stopped again later, regretted that we hadn't stayed at the first place, and reluctantly dined at Burger King. It wasn't the best - especially when we reached the hotel, Dad saw the menu, and commented that he felt the hotel restaurant would have been a good choice, looking both good quality and not bad price. (Yes, I know. I was shocked too.)

We stayed in the Premier Inn at Harmer Hill, which I think was once a family hotel that has since been bought over/converted to become a PI. Which was fine - it was pretty much as expected from the chain, complete with the Good Night's Sleep guarantee. I had no complaints, and even my parents were duly impressed. (Yes, I know. I was shocked too.)

During the journey down, it occurred to me that I didn't recall putting my cufflinks in my bag. I knew I'd put them beside the bag to go in, but didn't recall them actually being packed. LC then confirmed that they had been left behind, and so alternate arrangements had to be made (which reminds me - must send the borrowed ones back to M). However, this proved to be the less embarrassing wardrobe issue, as a certain person had to rush off to buy a new suit due to a trouser shortfall...

So, Dad returned to the hotel, dressed in about five minutes, and then we piled into the car. He then set off at high speed - so fast, in fact, that I didn't have the time to get the directions aligned and we missed the vital turn. Oops. Fortunately, I had somehow remembered my book of maps, and was thus able to navigate us to the appropriate place. Which was lucky, really.

The weeding took place at Rowton Castle:

It was a lovely, sunny day, so there was a gathering of the family in the grounds outside, and then again just within the castle. And then came the time for the ceremony.

At this point I wasn't sure what to expect. This was, after all, the first civil partnership I had attended, so what was it to be? What would they wear? What was the terminology? I mean, I didn't want to ask, but I was understandably curious.

Well, it turned out that, regardless of the technicalities, it was basically a wedding. So, there were several bridesmaids, each of the couple had two "best persons" (Katie had two best women, while Bex had a best woman and best man), and so forth. Also, the couple were referred to, almost exclusively, as "Katie and Bex" (or "Katie and Rebecca" where appropriate), which was a good choice.

For their part, Bex wore a fairly traditional dress, being a bluish silver and strapless, while Katie wore a pantsuit with a huge velvet jacket festooned with buttons in a nautical style. It suited her entirely, conveying exactly the whimsy that we've come to expect from Katie:

(Sorry, not the best photo, just the best that I took. I was using my phone, and hadn't quite got to grips with how best to use it.)

The ceremony was short and sweet, and then it was outside for mingling, for photos, and for the single greatest idea in the history if ice creams:

Yes, it's true - the ice creams were both larger than the entire wedding party, and they had the ability to turn you into a giant so that they were smaller than your thumb! Isn't that amazing?

The rest of the day was more or less as would be expected - there was some mingling, then the meal (chicken, or maybe turkey, and potato salad to start, roast beef for main, and then a brownie and cream for dessert), and then the first dance and disco.

During the afternoon, I was asked if I would pipe the couple in to the top table. I was, of course, delighted to do so, although I was initially a little concerned - I didn't want to force myself into their day, but my Dad had mentioned to Katie's Dad, and then Katie asked me. But I checked, and they were absolutely delighted that I play, so... huzzah!

Amusingly, while I was tuning up, it was noted that the cows in the field stopped what they were doing and appeared intrigued. Actully, while I was in the car park, I noticed this was the case, and had been a bit concerned lest they suddenly stampede. But all was well. In fact, I'm sure I noticed a few cows with cameras, so I can only conclude that I've now been tagged on photos on the cow social network, Facemoo. (Actually, that would be my second appearance on Facemoo, as I'm also the genius behind that famed mini-game "Is the Grass Always Greener?")

(For the record, LC laughed at both those jokes, so I'm taking that as authorisation to use them.)

And that was more or less it. We left the hotel about 11:30, after Grandma turned in for the night. And we travelled home the next day, just in time to attend young nephew P's birthday party. Because, of course, the adventure never really ends.

The Adventures of Steph/ven: #2: Minneapolis

The day before I departed on my holiday to Sardinia, there was raised the question of a team going out to see our customer, to help them with the next phase of our project. (I can say no more than that - see my "no work talk" rule.) I was adjudged to be the most likely candidate, probably to go out with one other person. So, I left my details behind, and went off on holiday.

I was therefore back in the country for less than four and a half days before I was jetting off once more, this time to Iceland and then to Minneapolis.

The journey out was not terribly pleasant. The flights both ways were absolutely packed, so there really wasn't enough room. Plus, there was only a single drinks service, and absolutely nothing complimentary. I guess that's the price of travelling economy class. Still, that's also worse than I've enjoyed on any previous trans-Atlantic flights.

Incidentally, I saw neither my Mum nor LC's while in Iceland. Nor Kerry Katona for that matter.

While over there, I was staying in the Hilton. But I should probably clarify that - this wasn't one of their top-end signature hotels, but rather one of their more modest budget locations. Really, it was more like a Premier Inn. Still I had a comparitively huge room (they were packed when I arrived, so I ended up with a handicap-access room, hence the larger proportions; I didn't complain), and it was everything it really needed to be.

Most of the rest of the trip consisted of work. I was there for fifteen days, and I worked fourteen of those. I did take the second Saturday off, mostly because there's a limit to how much you can do. But that was fine - as I see it, I was there for a particular purpose, and if I can better achieve that purpose by working very long hours for a short period, then so be it. It wasn't like I was over-endowed with options - if the choice is 'work' or 'sit round the hotel room', it's not a difficult choice.

(I actually did quite a lot of my work while sitting around my hotel room, and actually that was often more convenient than working from the office, but that was purely incidental.)

On my day off, I raced around various place. In the morning, I went to see the cathedral in St Paul (named for a different St Paul). Here's a couple of pictures:

I also went to see Fort Snelling, which was constructed at the joining of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in 1820, and which was at that time the furthest outpost of 'civilisation' in the US. While there, I saw demonstrations of musket- and cannon-fire, which were extremely interesting. I actually had never seen a 'real' gun fired before.

Actually, that was probably the high point of my day. I'm just a little annoyed at myself that I never took any pictures. Oh well.

After that, my host and I had lunch, and then I made sure to go and purchase LC a nice present, to make up for being absent for so long.

Speaking of LC, we were quite fortunate that we were able to communicate using Skype while I was out there. I made sure to set this up before I left, and it made a huge difference - especially on those days when I was working out of the hotel, when we could use the video function.

And that's mostly that. One evening I went to see "The Wolverine", which was okay, though I missed the first five minutes due to going to the wrong cinema. And it was hot and humid out there, though I'm told it was unseasonably cool, and that things are about to head into winter quite fast.

Oh yes, and there's the ice cream. On my day off, my host took me to an ice cream parlour, where I had a huge chocolate-dipped cone filled with two nice flavours (one of which was banana and chocolate; I think the other was strawberry, but I forget). Anyway, that was nice, right up until I tried to bite into the cone itself. At this point, the non-chocolate-y bit twisted and collapsed in my hand. Thereafter, the whole adventure was something of a scramble - could I finish the ice cream before it melted all over my hand? (The answer, unsurprisingly, was "no".)

Actually, my diet there was pretty terrible. Meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, lots of soda, coffee, and huge amounts of beer. Very little fruit or veg... and yet, somehow, it seemed to do me a huge amount of good. I really don't understand these things sometimes. Oh well. (Plus, no Irn Bru! The sacrifices I make sometimes...)

The flight back was much better than going out. Because I'd needed a flexible return date, I'd been booked into Economy Comfort class, which had the same seats as Saga (First) Class, albeit without the fancy meal and the champagne before takeoff (seriously). So, I had loads of room, loads of comfort... and was too tired to really appreciate it. I spent my time watching crap sitcoms, while lamenting that the light wasn't good enough to read by. Of course, I was too tired to read anyway, but it's the principle of the thing.

(I still didn't see any relevant Mums in Iceland on the way back, but I was only there for about 45 minutes - just long enough to buy a wonderful mug with Vikings on, and to visit the toilet. Still, I fear the adverts may have been lying.)

And that was my second adventure.