Thursday, March 24, 2016

Today We don't Celebrate Our Independence Day

Had the vote in September 2014 gone the other way, today was the expected day that Scotland would have become independent. I felt I couldn't let the day pass without at least some marker.

So here it is.

At present, I have no desire to see a repeat of the referendum - the evidence is pretty strong that a second referendum would result in another "No", so there's no point. However, if there were another referendum at this point, I'd still vote "Yes", because none of the reasons I cast that vote have changed. (Things could have been different, but they're not. If anything, things are worse now than they were.)

I do think another referendum, eventually, is inevitable. And, actually, I do think independence itself is also inevitable, unless the EU becomes a genuine state first (with the consequent abolition of France, Germany, and the UK). Though I'm far from certain that that latter will result from the second independence referendum. Indeed, I'm not absolutely certain it will result from a referendum at all.

But in terms of the eventual second referendum, I think there are two possibilities. If the UK votes to leave the EU and Scotland votes to stay, I think that will essentially force the SNP to hold a second referendum. (I couldn't possibly predict the result of that - the polls are almost exactly neck-and-neck now, and it is thought that Brexit would give a ~6% swing towards independence. But there's usually a late swing back towards the status quo, so even that wouldn't normally be enough... except that Brexit would mean the status quo actually wasn't on offer.)

The other possibility, I think, is that the second referendum is likely in 2021, when the UK is 'enjoying' a third term of Tory governance under the glorious leadership of either George or Boris, and Labour are busily engaged in their next round of civil war. And, honestly, that's probably around the right time frame for a second referendum anyway, since it will mean there are a lot of voters who were too young to vote in 2014 but would be old enough by 2021. (And, also, 7 years matches the precedent in the Good Friday agreement in NI.)

(For those in the media who seem confused by the SNP's support for a Remain vote for the EU, given that Brexit would lead to an early referendum, there's a really easy explanation: the SNP leadership don't want to have a second referendum; they want to win one. If they feel that waiting longer and, crucially, picking their moment gives them the better chance of winning, of course they'll favour that!)

And that's pretty much that. Other than to say that in honour of this not-event I'll not be putting up bunting tonight, won't be letting off fireworks, and won't be eating cake.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Women's Tennis (again)

Somehow, the old argument about prize money for women's tennis has cropped up again, with some rather unfortunate comments being made.

My position on this is pretty simple: the winners in women's tennis should absolutely be paid the same as their male equivalents. However, they should also equalise the number of sets played by men and women at the Grand Slams (and the Olympics). I would prefer this to mean that women should play best of five sets, but it works equally well if men play only best of three.

The reason for saying prize money should be equal should be obvious. The reason for equalising the number of sets is that as long as it is unequal, there is a fig leaf of respectability for suggestions women should be paid less - they're doing less 'work'. Best to remove that fig leaf.

Friday, March 18, 2016

About the Sugar Tax

It's fair to say I'm not a fan of Jamie Oliver's Sugar Tax - I don't like the government trying to engineer society in this manner, especially in an area where personal responsibility should apply. That said, I'll concede that this is probably a tax that's come, and also that there is a fairly serious issue with obesity in the country that public health initiatives have simply failed to touch.

So, fair enough, I guess. Paying an extra 8 pence for a can of Irn Bru isn't going to kill me.

That said, I do have a fairly serious concern about the likely response to this, in that I foresee the soft drinks manufacturers reformulating their drinks to lower the sugar content... and doing so by replacing it with artificial sweeteners.

I'll admit that my reasons for this are entirely selfish: I was advised some time ago to avoid artificial sweeteners as they cause problems for my digestion, something I was more than happy to do since I don't like them anyway. (I suspect the GP who thus advised me would probably also advise skipping the soft drinks altogether, but that's not happening...)

Since I was given that advice, Coca Cola have actually done both a good and a bad thing (from my point of view) in their product lines.

The good thing was the introduction of Coca Cola Life (the green bottle) - a drink that claims to taste the same as regular Coca Cola, but which replaces most or all of the sugar with Stevia. Now, I have no idea whether it actually tastes the same, or whether it's at all pleasant or not, since I haven't tried it. It's just one more option for me to ignore, which is a good thing.

The bad thing was the reformulation of Sprite to replace the sugar with Stevia - the same process, but instead of being another option it was a replacement. The consequence of this move is that I can no longer drink Sprite. Not a good thing.

In fact, the list of soft drinks I can have is fairly limited: pretty much everything other than Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up, and Irn Bru is on the barred list. Which is fine - four options is plenty. (I could even drop to three, losing either Coke or Pepsi, except that bars and restaurants never stock both. Meaning that 50% of such places would then be problematic.)

(The awkward thing there, of course, is that the stated purpose of the Sugar Tax is precisely to encourage manufacturers to reformulate to get rid of the sugar. I suspect George's real reason is actually just to get more money, but that's another matter.)

So, I'm not terribly happy about the Sugar Tax, but it's not too terrible and I'm willing to pay it. And if the manufacturers respond by introducing new options for low-sugar versions of their drinks, then that's fine too (good, even). But I really hope they don't do so while removing the four remaining soft drinks that I actually can have.

#17: "William Shakespeare's Star Wars: The Tragedy of the Sith's Revenge", by Ian Doescher

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Big Hero 6

I've been meaning to watch this for some time, and with the 2-for-1 offer currently available on Disney DVDs we took the opportunity to pick up "Big Hero 6" and "Inside Out" at the weekend. And so we watched Disney's follow-up to "Frozen" last night.

I enjoyed it, a great deal. I'm a little torn over whether I prefer this or "Wreck It Ralph" - I think, on balance, I prefer the earlier film, but it's a close one. I mean, really, it's all robots and superheroes; what more could you want?

Of particular note, I especially enjoy the short films that Pixar and now Disney package with their features - "Paperman" with Ralph, "Lava" with "Inside Out", and "Feast" here - they're such a good way for them to try out new tricks and new technologies, to develop their staff, and also to practice their storytelling. Plus, they're good fun in their own right.

So, yeah, good stuff. Disney (and Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm) seem to really be on a roll right now.

#13: "Trigger Warning", by Neil Gaiman
#14: "Brideshead Revisited", by Evelyn Waugh (a book from The List)
#15: "Pathfinder: The Hellfire Compact", by F. Wesley Schneider
#16: "Doctor Who: Time Lord Fairy Tales", by Justin Richards

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Would you rather? Book edition ("Borrowed" from Kezzie)

Being something of a bookworm, I thought it might be worth answering the questions I saw posed on Kezzie's blog for myself. (She in turn "borrowed" it from someone else, who it seems "borrowed" it in turn. Perhaps, one day, an inquisitive soul will track this back to its originator, at which point they will declare that they would have gotten away with it...)

1. Read only trilogies or stand alones?

Standalones. I've read more good books that get everything wrapped up on one volume than I have good trilogies. (And I've ranted about the open-ended fantasy epic before...)

2. Read only male or female authors?

Like Kezzie, I genuinely don't care either way. However, if I absolutely had to choose, I'd choose male authors, but only because there are more men than women working in my favourite genre (fantasy) and Bernard Cornwell, Neil Gaiman, and Conn Iggulden (my three favourite living authors) are all men. But I sure would miss Robert Galbraith's work, or finding out how J.V. Jones finished her series.

3. Shop at a book shop or Amazon?

Amazon. These days I tend to find it hard to find the books I want in a real shop - because so much of what I want is fairly obscure, or is Part N of a long series, or because I'm looking for a very specific title, the odds of it being in stock at any given store at any given time are quite small. Amazon, for all their faults, basically have everything.

4. All books become films or TV shows?

Ick. Neither, really - the book is better. But, again, if I absolutely had to choose then I'd go for TV. Film is good for mediorce novels or good short stories, but is a poor format for translating a good full-length novel.

5. Read five pages a day or five books a week?

Ouch, this is a difficult one! I'd have to go for five pages a day, as I simply don't have time to read five books a week. But five pages a day is nowhere near enough.

6. Be a professional reviewer or author?

Author. Actually, if I were to win the lottery, that's what I'd do with my time. (But I have no illusions that I could actually make a living at it, and I don't have time to try my hand at it in addition to everything else.)

Of course, since I don't actually play the lottery, that's all rather unlikely.

7. Only read your top 20 books or only ever read new books?

I assume that by "new books" it means "new to me"? In any case, since I very very rarely re-read a book (and, indeed, have reread fewer than 20 books ever), I'd have to go for new books, every time. It would be a shame to never again revisit Middle Earth or Discworld, but I would regret never visiting other places even more.

8. Be a librarian or book seller?

To be honest, neither really appeals. But if I had to choose, I guess librarian. Ook!

9. Only read you favourite genre, or read every genre except your favourite?

Every genre except my favourite. Despite fantasy being my favourite genres, almost all the best books I have read have not been fantasies.

10. Only read physical books or only read e-books.

Physical. No contest.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Gherkin Theory

A few months ago, I saw that McDonalds were attempting to spawn a 'viral' marketing campaign - they posed a question and tried to encourage people to tweet back an answer. I expect that this failed abysmally, as I really hope people have better things to do with their time, but it did lead me to put a name to something I'd been pondering for some time.

The question was whether or not people liked having gherkins on the Big Mac.

My theory is that even for people who don't like gherkins having them on the Big Mac improves the experience.

Now, before I go any further, I should note that this applies only in the case where the gherkin is the only thing the person doesn't like about the Big Mac - if you don't like the gherkins and the salad and the sauce, then the Gherkin Theory doesn't apply... and what you want is a different burger. (Oh, and of course, I'm only talking about people who don't like gherkins. A person with an actual intolerance or allergy to them is entirely a different matter!)

Anyway, on to the theory itself...

I learned some time ago that when people make up perfumes, they can't just take a bunch of nice scents and blend them together. If they do that, the resulting perfume is invariably sickly-sweet and will be rejected by the vast majority of people. Therefore, they always include one (and almost always only one) less-than-pleasant scent in amongst the selection. This single "off note" is subtle enough not to be consciously detected by the potential customer, but is just enough to cut through the sweetness of the others, and gives a more mature, more rounded, and more satisfying whole.

(The same applies in cookery, too, of course, where by pairing foods you can improve the whole. In particular, using lemon juice to cut through the sweetness of many fruits is a common trick.)

So, when we come to the Big Mac, we have three rough groups of people (at least, as far as relevance to this discussion is concerned): people who like the gherkin on the Big Mac, people who mildly dislike the gherkin, and people who really hate the gherkin.

Now, for the people who like the gherkin, there is little further discussion required. The likelihood is that the reason they like the gherkin is precisely because of the contrast that it brings to the other components - in effect, they're already applying what I've mentioned above.

For the people who dislike the gherkin, the benefit of them being present is as I've outlined above - by including that single "off note", the other flavours are brought together. Huzzah!

Now, for the people who hate the gherkin, how can I possibly argue that their experience is improved by having the gherkin present? Well, it's in this: by getting the Big Mac with gherkins present, they then get the great joy of removing and discarding those gherkins prior to eating the burger. Which gives them a victory over their hated enemy - they've now taken action that has directly (albeit almost trivially) improved their lives. (And the value of small victories shouldn't be overlooked - some days, those are the only victories you might get, and be all the sweeter for it.)

(Of course, one might argue that having the gherkin on the Big Mac even for a few moments somehow contaminates the rest of the burger. Which sounds like a reasonable argument, but it has two flaws: (1) your palate is almost certainly not sensitive enough to detect such a tiny trace, and (2) if it is, then you surely wouldn't be eating at McDonalds.)

Anyway, that's the gherkin theory. It is, of course, largely nonsense. But it has a name, which makes it better. (But that's "Name Theory". I may come back to that.)

Incidentally, the wider implication of Gherkin Theory (which I was discussing with Captain Ric at the wedding on Saturday, which inspired this post), is actually that being exposed to, and indeed appreciating, the minor imperfections in life is a good thing. Otherwise, you'll spend your life constantly striving for a perfection that is simply unattainable, and so becoming frustrated. But if you're used to, and indeed content with, things that are almost perfect, life is that bit sweeter - you can focus on all the many things that are right, and not focus on the one or two things that are just not quite what you would have wanted.

But that's all rather philosophical for a silly little post about gherkins, isn't it?

(I could, of course, have equally named my theory "Sprout Theory", "Minor Imperfection Theory"... or "Ewok Theory". The latter not to be confused with "Jar Jar Theory", which is what happens when that minor imperfection is over-exaggerated.)