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