Thursday, April 30, 2015

The End?

As I've mentioned a few times, we've had an issue with our roof, which sprung a leak on the 8th of August. Since then, I've been fighting against the council bureaucracy to try to get it fixed.

The major issue is that while almost everyone I've spoken to has tried to be helpful, I've never actually been speaking to the person who is actually responsible, but always through gatekeepers who have had to pass on messages. That, and the fact that I've seldom spoken to the same person twice has made it an exercise in frustration. (Ideally, in a case like this you'd be given a single point of contact who would follow the issue through from start to finish. That way, they would know the state of play, and you wouldn't need to recap the whole damn story every time you called!)

Anyway, over the past few days I've been speaking to someone new, and usefully the same "someone new" each time. A period that has been marked with two changes: not only did she actually call back when she said she'd call back, and indeed make sure that was done (which, sadly, has not been the norm), but she also seemed to take responsibility for pushing this issue forward. (And, indeed, in our penultimate call she listened to the concern I raised that perhaps what I was being told wasn't entirely correct, and agreed to recheck it with next guy along the chain.)

The net result of all of this is that as of today, the 30th of April, a mere eight months and twenty-two days after the roof sprang a leak, I am assured that the work to replace it has indeed been completed. Including, in particular, not just the work above our neighbour's appartment, but also over our own.


Although when I said to LC that this was the case, she did say she was going to remain pessimistic. That may well be wise. (Then again, it only ever came through when the rain was really bad, the sheeting is still up there to prevent it happening again anyway, and they say they've fixed it properly. So, how many sets of belt'n'braces do you really need?)

All in all, I think I'll count that as a win.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (no spoilers, surprisingly!)

LC and I went to see the new Avengers film on Saturday, and it's great. In my opinion, it's better than both Thor 2 and Captain America 2, but not quite as good as the first Avengers film. In particular, it's much darker and more serious in tone and much less amusing. That's a deliberate choice, and one it carries off well, but it does mean I find the former film more enjoyable.

One thing I did find very interesting about the film, and actually one of the film's strengths, is that despite this being a big action film there's a surprising amount of character development stuff in there. And, actually, it seemed to be those characters who don't have their own films (yet) who get the most spotlight time here - Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Bruce Banner.

Overall, I was extremely satisifed with the film. I doubt I'll go see it again in the cinema, but I will be picking up the blu-ray when it comes out. Also, now I really want to see a Hulk/Black Widow film (either one, the other, or both together, with that last being my preference). Which is somewhat surprising - I really didn't expect to want another Hulk film after the failures of the first two.

Experimental Cookery 2015 #16: Crispy Chicken

I'm still, just barely, one entry behind on the "Experimental Cookery" series - yesterday was the last day in the 17th full week of 2015. Anyway, this week's entry comes from "Chinese Food Made Easy", by Ching He-Huang.

This was a nice, easy meal to cook, and actually not as time-consuming as I'd thought. However, it's also fair to say that it's not even remotely healthy. Basically, the chicken was marinaded overnight, then battered in cornflour, and then deep fried. Yeah, it was lovely. Yeah, it wasn't one to have very often!

Would I have this again? Well, maybe. I think in future I'd go for chicken breast instead of thigh, I'd probably cook it for less time, and I think I'd use our deep fryer rather than the wok (as this gives better control of the temperature). But since using the fryer means the cleaning process is vastly more annoying, that further limits my willingness to bother.

Still, I'm calling it a success, even if it was a one-off.

This Week's Mug: I'm using the TARDIS mug that I used most of last year. This is a white mug with a wraparound design - one side shows the TARDIS doors while the other spells out the acronym. LC and I received two of these mugs for Christmas in 2013 from LC's parents. I picked this mug for this week because I've started to lose track of which ones I've now used and which I haven't, but I knew this wasn't one of the ones I've used this year. Next week, things should get back to normal. Or 'normal', I guess.

#19: "Pathfinder: The Hill Giant's Pledge", by Larry Wilhelm

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


The new Avengers movie comes out tomorrow. The cinema near us has a showing at five past midnight tonight, and I really want to see it. Especially since my next earliest opportunity isn't until Saturday, which might as well be an eternity.

On the other hand, not getting to bed until 3am and then getting up for work at 6:45 would probably kill me. Some might say that's a small price to pay.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Against England's Wishes

A quick thing about the election: there are 650 MPs elected in the UK. Of these, 533 are elected by England, 18 by Northern Ireland, 59 by Scotland, and 40 by Wales. What that means is that in a General Election, it is generally England that decides what government we have: in fact, if the people of England give 325 seats to a single party, that party will have a majority regardless of the vote in NI, S, or W.

In the upcoming election, it looks very much like the people of England won't do this - that the seats in England will be divided such that neither big party (nor indeed a combination of either Tories or Labour plus the Lib Dems) will get to that 'magic' number. Indeed, it looks like the Tories will get slightly more than Labour, but will be short of the needed 325. At which point, so the theory goes, the 50 SNP MPs that Scotland might elect (emphasis on the 'might') could then push the Labour 'block' over the line.

This is, of course, being widely reported in the media as being a matter of Scotland's votes imposing a Labour government "against the wishes of the English electorate".

This is abject nonsense, of course, for two reasons. Firstly, it's worth noting that if those 50 MPs were instead from the Labour party, the issue would magically not exist - somehow, it's acceptable for Scotland to affect the result if we happen to vote for one of the approved options, but not if we instead choose 'wrong'.

But, secondly, the entire premise is flawed. As I noted above, the English electorate have the power to determine the government for the UK as a whole by themselves, by voting for 325 members from a single party. If they don't do so, or, more specifically, if they don't give the Tories those 325 members, then it is not "against their wishes" to see the Tories defeated - after all, they've just shown that they didn't wish to give them enough votes to win!

And all of that is simply a feature of living in the Union - five years ago, Scotland (and Wales) voted strongly for a Labour government and got a Tory-led one instead because of English votes; this time, it looks like England will be split pretty evenly and so Scotland will cast the deciding vote. Both times, that's the way the system works.

Unless, of course, we want the system to be changed. But we had a chance to do that in September, and that same media that is now up in arms then fought tooth-and-nail to keep things as-is.

(For the rest of it: yeah, I'm still pretty bored by this election. My vote was determined ages ago, so there's little interest there; the media coverage of it remains incredibly awful, as the UK media seem to have no ability to understand what's going on in Scotland; and it's really hard to see how things will fall out, and limited value in speculation. I still find it hard to believe that the SNP might really win 50+ seats, despite the polls suggesting that, and yet with the Lib Dem vote collapsing, with Scottish Labour being a disaster area, and with "the 45" still being a thing, it might yet happen. Or not. Guess we'll see in 17 days.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

How To Get Things Done

Last week (actually, Tuesday), I started with a list of some 18 things that I wanted to get done. I then proceeded to gradually complete these things, and thus to cross them off the list, until yesterday I crossed off the last two. Which was rather efficient, really. (It's worth noting that four of those 'things' were episodes of "24: Live Another Day" that I wanted to watch, so they weren't exactly ordeals!)

Given that I follow a distinct pattern in allocating my time, I figured it would be worth laying out just how I go about getting things done. It's worth noting, of course, that this is what works for me, and may well not work for anyone else.

Step One: Compose the List

I started the week by assembling the list of things I wanted to get done:

  • The aforementioned 4 episodes of "24: Live Another Day"
  • 2 books to finish off
  • 5 rooms to dust and hoover
  • 4 bits of cooking (2 freezer meals to restock and 2 experimental cookeries)
  • Season my bagpipes ready for competition
  • Re-hang the living room door
  • One other thing that I've now forgotten

There are three important considerations here:

Firstly, although it may seem odd to include 'reading' and 'watching 24' on the list given that these are leisure activities and therefore enjoyable, the reality is that by setting the list I'm blocking off time, and if I don't block off time for something it therefore means it won't get done. I wanted to get those done, so I made sure to include them.

Next up, it's important to keep the list fairly varied. If it's a never-ending stream of awful things, or even worse the same awful things, it will quickly fall by the wayside.

Finally, it's important to be realistic about how much can be achieved in the available time, and also how much effort you're actually willing to put into in a block. If you schedule too much in too little time, you'll just get overwhelmed and not achieve anything. And if you have a week and are willing to invest 20 minutes a day in studying, there's no point in blocking off 3 hours of study-time - you'll just waste much of it in goofing around. (This was important with the 'reading' entries actually, since most of the reading in one of the books was pretty tedious, such that I could only face 20 pages per day. Since I had 110 pages in that book to read, it was doable, but only just.)

Step Two: Divide Up the Tasks

Having established a list of 18 items for 6 days, I then divided up the tasks so that I was set to complete 3 a day.

Again, there are some rules to apply:

If there's a big task that must be completed in stages (such as fixing the door or reading those books), it is the completion that should be scheduled. Be sure to set that far enough away that all the sub-steps can be done in the interim!

The tasks for each day need to themselves be varied. It would have been really easy to watch three episodes of "24" on the first day, tick that off the list, and just mess around for the rest of that day, but it would have made the other days that much harder. Better to allocate these to one a day.

Perhaps most difficult of all, though: assign the "big rocks" first. This can either mean allocating the most difficult or time-consuming tasks to their days before anything else, or it could mean allocating those things that must be done before anything else. (That doesn't mean that they need to be done before anything else, just that they need to be placed before anything else.)

Step Three: Assign Sub-tasks

Three of my entries had distinct sub-tasks that needed to be done before the task as a whole could be completed. Specifically, one of the books was divided into 20-page segments for reading, the other was divided into 106-page segments; and the door hanging task required first that the door be removed, then the wood around the hinge repaired and holes re-drilled, and then the door needed to be put back.

(You could argue that "clean 5 rooms" is a single task with 5 sub-tasks, rather than 5 individual tasks. It doesn't actually matter all that much.)

Once any big tasks are sub-divided, the sub-tasks should also be allocated to the days as required. Obviously, sub-tasks need to be completed before the overall tasks can be considered 'done', and there may of course be some constraints on when things can be tackled.

Step Four: Actually Do It

Once the plan is assembled (or even when it's partially assembled), the key step is to actually carry it through. What I did here was to ensure that I did all the required sub-tasks on the days allocated, and then ensured that I completed at least the three tasks allocated for that day. As it happened, on both Thursday and Friday I completed four tasks, thus significantly freeing up time for the weekend.

If You Fall Behind

There are two important things to do if and when you should fall behind on the schedule you've set yourself:

Firstly, don't beat yourself up about it. There's no value in that. Besides, falling behind probably means that you were either over-ambitious in setting a schedule or you hit on something that was more important or more enjoyable. Either way, it happens - the key is to adapt accordingly.

That said, as soon as you fall behind, it's important to accept that you're unlikely to catch up again. After all, there's a reason you're behind, and that reason probably hasn't changed.

So, at this point you should immediately drop some things from the goal list. In particular, anything that doesn't have to be done should be dropped in favour of those tasks, and especially sub-tasks, that must be done. (Of course, if any tasks have now become outright impossible then those should be easy sacrifices. If you have one day and need to wait two days before applying a second coat of paint, then you can't apply that second coat in time.)

So, What the Week Looked Like

By way of an example, here's how I split up the eighteen tasks for last week. The asterisks indicate the completion of one of the tasks rather than a sub-task.

  • Tuesday: "24" episode 1*, Cook lamb rogan josh*, the "forgotten" task*, Read 106 pages of book 1, Read 20 pages of book 2, Remove living room door
  • Wednesday: "24" episode 2*, Cook bolognese sauce*, Season bagpipes*, Dust first room*, Read 106 pages of book 1, Read 20 pages of book 2
  • Thursday: "24" episode 3*, Cook duck with pancakes*, Dust second* and third* rooms, Read 106 pages of book 1, Read 20 pages of book 2
  • Friday: "24" episode 4*, Re-hang living room door*, Dust fourth* and fifth* rooms, Read 106 pages of book 1, Read 20 pages of book 2
  • Saturday:Cook mojito genoese*, Read 106 pages of book 1, Read 20 pages of book 2
  • Sunday: Finish books 1* and 2*

So, a rather long and tedious post, but hopefully it might prove useful!

This Week's Mug: This week's mug is a simply white one, marked with a quote from Shakespeare: "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit" (Twelth Night). It's a rather nice mug that LC got for me on one of her trips Down South. I like it!

#17: "D&D: Player's Handbook", by Wizards of the Coast
#18: "Magician's End", by Raymond E. Feist

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Experimental Cookery 2015 #15: Mojito Genoise

It's Lady Chocolat's birthday tomorrow, and as a consequence I have baked her a cake!

The recipe for this one comes from Lorraine Pascale's "Baking Made Easy". It turns out, in the case of this cake anyway, the name is a bit of a lie!

The cake started well enough - I made up the Mojito syrup quickly and easily, and then started on the cake sponge. This required lots of whisking, first over a pan of hot water and then not, and went fine.

Then I had to fold in the melted butter and flour, and this was where it all went wrong. The problem I had was that the egg mixture filled my mixing bowl to the very brim, so folding anything in was very difficult - the whole thing went over the sides. Still, I did my best... sadly, this turned out not to be terribly good.

The cake then went into the tin, and at this point I discovered the poor mixing. I did my best to recombine it, but that knocked some air out of the mix, which wasn't ideal. Still, into the oven...

When it came out, I strongly considered binning it. It really didn't look good, and the thought of spending another hour on it was not appealing. It was a dark time.

But it turned out that although it didn't look too appealing, it actually did taste rather nice. So I did a bit of a trim, cooled it off, and decorated it. It wouldn't get anywhere on the Bake-off (other than a laugh or two), but it's a cake. And it's the thought that counts, right?

Anyway, here's the cake:

We'll try it tomorrow, but I'm hopeful that it tastes better than it looks. At least, I hope it does!

And, no, I'm not planning on doing this one again!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Experimental Cookery 2015 #14: Shredded Duck Wraps with Hoisin Sauce and Chinese Pancakes

Today's entry is a two-for-one: the Shredded Duck comes from "The Hairy Dieters: Eat For Life", while the Chinese Pancakes came from this recipe (largely because I wasn't able to buy the pancakes and so had to make them). Lady Chocolat didn't let me count those as a separate "Experimental Cookery", so I'm still one behind.

The process for the shredded duck could have been easier, but not by much. It was mostly just a matter of poaching the duck for a full hour in a broth made with soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and a new ingredient - star anise! Obviously, the use of the new ingredient was very exciting, especially since I've had it sitting in the cupboard forever, just waiting for this day.

Beyond that, it was a matter of slicing some spring onions and some cucumber, and spooning some hoisin sauce into a serving bowl. Nothing to it, really.

The pancakes were a little more fiddly, especially as they kept sticking to the board when I tried to roll them out. Plus, we don't have a proper steamer, so I had to make do with a collander and a tea-towel. Which was mostly fine.

The end result was very good - much like the store-bought kits we've had in the past, but rather better by virtue of being home cooked rather than reheated (the latter draining moisture from it). So, a success.

In future, though, I think I'm going to try (again) to source some Asian pancakes from somewhere, as making these was a bit more hassle than it was really worth.

This Week's Mug: Still on holiday, so once again no mug anecdote. Normal service will resume on Monday.

#16: "A Prayer for Owen Meany", by John Irving (a book from The List)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Update on Goals

Today is the 100th day of the year, and so time for another almost-accurate update on goals. I say "almost accurate" because I'm actually writing this in advance to be posted on the 10th as Friday is a busy day for me and so I won't have opportunity to do it live. And so there may be a few small inaccuracies.

Anyway, the update:

  • Weight: Surprisingly minimal progress here in the last 50 days, which is disapponting, not least since I've again made it to the gym on every Friday bar two (now three) since the last update: the Friday when we were travelling down to the wedding was missed, I went last Thursday instead of last Friday, and I'll be missing this week.
  • Books: Apparently, I should be 16.5 books into my target by this point in the year. I have, in fact, completed 15 books, and am halfway through two others. So, I'm a little behind but not much. I expect to get caught up on "The List" sometime this month, but at the same time I'll probably fall behind in both the Pathfinder and Pathfinder Tales sub-goals. The reason for this is simple, and not really my fault: the shipment for March was delayed due to a shutdown in the ports in the US, which means the books for this month will probably not arrive until May.
  • Games: I'm still right on target here: three sessions done, with the next scheduled for later this month.
  • Work: This has been good for the last couple of months, with me more or less finishing one piece of work, doing some work on another, and getting a good annual review. All in all, so far so good.
  • Band: Our plans for the year are firming up, and it now looks like we will be competing, though not terribly often. So this one is still on track.
  • Super Secret Goal #4: Some more work done, but yet more hassle on getting the roof fixed. You'd think it would be easy enough, but apparently not.

I remain reasonably happy with the progress on most fronts. Clearly, there's a need to do some more towards the weight goal, and I'll be looking to get caught up on books in the next little while. But otherwise, it's looking good, and it remains possible that I might manage a clean sweep, which is nice.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Nominated Nine

So a couple of weeks ago I learned that, apparently, most people, and even most people who cook and who like to cook, have a repertoire of nine meals that they then do on rotation. (I think that's actually seven 'mains' plus a further two 'lunches' for the weekend.) Which came as something of a shock, actually - while I'm aware of the notion of Sunday being roast beef, Monday roast chicken, Tuesday pizza or salad, and so on, I hadn't grasped that it was the usual state of affairs.

Anyway, as a result of this, I found myself wondering: if I had to choose nine meals, and only nine meals, to be the only foods for the rest of time, what would those nine be? It's certainly a toughie!

(Technically, I suppose you can have other foods when eating out/getting takeaway. Equally, technically, it should probably be the seven/two split I mentioned above. But I'm ignoring that!)

Anyway, in no particular order, here's my nine. For this afternoon, at least!


Okay, I said "in no particular order", but the truth is that this is #1 on the list. This was actually one of the first things I learned to cook, and is actually also one of the few things I couldn't put together while living in Yeovil, which merely added to the allure.

My original recipe was based around Dolmio's red and white lasagne sauces, and added onion, tomato and mushroom to the filling. I rather enjoyed it, but due to Lady Chocolat's anti-mushroom agenda it was first modified and then abandoned. I've since tried Jamie's version from his "Ministry of Food", which was good but wasn't better enough to justify the effort. My current version is Lorraine Pascale's from her "Home Cooking Made Easy". And, coincidentally, that's tonight's dinner.


To be honest, I could probably eat pizza every day, as it's almost a genre to itself rather than just a single meal. However, the version I cook has the dough courtesy of Paul Hollywood's "Bread", the sauce from the "Great British Bake-off Winter Collection", and a topping of pepperoni (the knig of pizza toppings), onion, green pepper, goat's cheese, and mozzerella. Which is probably slightly excessive, but I like it.

Chorizo Carbonara

Scots are, of course, well known for our fusion food (chips and curry sauce being one of the earliest examples of the field), and so this combination of an Italian pasta dish with a Spanish spicy sausage is perfect for us.

Or something. It actually comes from "River Cottage Every Day", and has the two great advantages of being both dead quick and easy, and also very tasty. Which is a good combination to have!

Lamb Rogan Josh

Moving away from Italy entirely, we have my favourite curry. At present, I'm still using the curry paste from Pataks, though this may change at some point. Anyway, it's an easy meal to make, if not a quick one, and doesn't seem ever to go wrong, though it would, of course, depend on the quality of the meat.

One of the advantages of being on holiday is that I get to restock the freezer, and yesterday I started by cooking this for dinner. Yum!

Roast Chicken

No list of favourites would be complete without a roast, and if I've only got room for one then this is the one I choose. I typically roast the chicken with thyme and a lemon inserted into the cavity, and serve it with roast potatoes and roast carrots (though sometimes I do the carrots with orange juice, baked in a bag). It always makes those Sundays when I make it feel that bit better, though I then feel sorry for the rest of the days which don't get to have food of the same calibre.

Beef Burgers

Likewise, I couldn't not have a burger on the list, and while I've had some very nice lamb burgers and even some venison burgers, my favourite is the classic beef burger. I make these with ground Jacob's Cream Crackers (odd, I know, but it works), onion, parsley, garlic, and Worcestershire Sauce, bound together with egg. That said, I think I'm about to experiment with these, probably dropping the egg and crackers and trying a more classic "all beef" burger - apparently, burger technology has advanced in the past few years, and so one must keep up with the times!

Steak and Chips

Another classic, I usually do a sirloin (though ribeyes are also nice) seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika, cooked to a medium level, and then serve with red pepper, red chilli, and creme fraiche. Oh, and a slice of lemon for squeezing - Jamie does like his lemon!

The chips are done in my deep fryer, cooked skins-on, and parboiled first. After a dozen attempts, I'm finally more or less happy I've cracked it!

Chicken Fajitas

Another quick and easy meal, but one that never fails to satisfy, the recipe for these was originally from Lorraine Pascale's "Fast, Fresh, and Easy Food", but has gradually migrated. I actually still use her condiments unchanged: soured cream with chives, cherry tomato salsa, and guacamole. But the spice mix varies each time, based on what I think of adding at the time.

And Finally... Chilli Con Carne

Shockingly, this almost didn't make it into the list: my first draft of this post had a different last entry. It wasn't until I realised I didn't have anything from the Hairy Bikers that I remembered that this should definitely be here. (I guess that's the problem with a list of just nine entries: there's always that horrible risk of forgetting something vital - you lose the path not taken.)

The recipe I use for this these days comes from the "Hairy Dieters: How to Love Food and Lose Weight", though I replace the kidney beans with cannellini beans. This means that, in addition to being the best recipe I've found for chilli, it's also the healthiest. Another win-win!

And that's the list.

Well, for this afternoon, at least. Though it does mean missing out on prawns with spaghetti, on chicken fried rice, on meatballs, meatloaf, on Christmas dinner, haggis, all the wonders of Belgian cuisine...

No, it's too painful. I'll need to start over.

Anyway, that's my list. Anyone care to offer yours?

Since TARDIS Tuesday is apparently a thing...

Here's my contribution:

This is, indeed, one of the TARDIS socks I was lamenting just last week - it seems that the Sock Conspiracy has relented and returned their hostages. Huzzah!

Anyway, I hope you like it.

Experimental Coolery 2015 #13 (ish): Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream

On Sunday, I had a marvellous idea. And so I said, "I've had a marvellous idea!" This prompted a great deal of excitement, which was in no way diminished when I explained my idea: to make ice cream. Indeed, there was then some discussion of which type of ice cream I should make. My eldest neice asked if I was going to make mint ice cream. Alas, while I did not know exactly what type of ice cream I was going to make, I knew it would not be mint, despite this being LC's favourite.

When I got home that night, I looked out the recipes that came with the ice cream maker, only to discover I've already done the three good ones (the remaining ones are low-calorie (please), frozen yoghurt (yeah, right), and lemon sorbet (which is fine, but isn't really ice cream)).

Still, undaunted I checked the internet and discovered that it does indeed have one or two recipes there, including some for ice cream. Huzzah! And so, this week's experimental cookery, or rather coolery, comes from here.

It was very simple to make, as is generally the case with ice cream - mix some ingredients, then churn in the ice cream maker for longer than you really think is needed, then transfer to a likely tub, and place in the freezer to set. Which it is doing now.

But I did take a sneaky preview of the ice cream before it went in, and it's excellent. So, huzzah!

(And, as an added bonus, this recipe has left me with some unused egg whites, so for my next trick I'll be doing meringues. It's a sacrifice, but one I suppose will have to be made.)

This Week's Mug: I'm on holiday this week (and indeed next week), so there is no mug anecdote. Sorry - I know you're alway eager for the weekly tales of high adventure!

#15: "The Pagan Lord", by Bernard Cornwell (the new candidate for book of the year)