Sunday, February 26, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #4: Ragu Bolognese

The second of this week's experimental cookeries came from Tesco's "Let's Cook with the nation's favourite chefs" book that they did for charity late last year. That book is a veritable gold-mine, though somehow this was the first time we really had occasion to use it.

The meal was a Ragu Bolognese, which we had with spahgetti (despite that being non-traditional).

This meal actually was good, quick and easy. Although 'quick' is perhaps relative - there were fifteen minutes of prep, followed by a two-hour simmer step. Still, if all you have to do is stir something every fifteen minutes for two hours, that's not exactly a tough one!

The result was really nice, and is now immediately our go-to recipe for a Bolognese sauce, which is a good find. It just blows the previous two out of the water on all counts. (The only tiny thing I'd note is that the recipe indicates it makes four servings, but that's probably an under-estimate - I'd expect to get at least five and maybe six from a pot that size in future. Which is obviously terribly - oh no, I'm getting more meals for the time and money!)

So, yeah, that one's a winner.

Experimental Cookery 2017 #3: Greek Lamb Pasta Melt

This one came out of the Tesco Magazine for February. It looked good, quick, and easy, so I figured I'd give it a go. Plus, it had the added advantage of featuring a new (to me) ingredient - I hadn't used dill before. So that was good.

Unfortunately, only two of my three adjectives were accurate: the meal was indeed quick and easy... but we didn't like it. I'm not sure quite what went wrong with it, but neither LC nor I were particularly impressed. There was just something in the combination of flavours...

Oh well, maybe next time...

#9: "Tanequil", by Terry Brooks

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Ten a Day?

I see the guidelines on fruit and veg are to be changed again - gone are the days when people could be healthy eating a meagre five 80g portions of fruit and veg, and instead the new requirement is for ten 80g portions per day. Presumably, as soon as the new guideline comes in, everyone who was previously healthy will immediately drop dead. Or something.

Seriously, though, this is a bad change, and will probably be counter-productive.

The thing is, as I've mentioned before, five-a-day was always a largely arbitrary target, chosen because it was easy to remember. The underlying message was really "you should probably eat more fruit and veg." And, in that vein, five-a-day was a really good guideline - as well as being easy to remember, it had the advantage of feeling easily achievable. After all, three-a-day is pretty trivial (fruit juice with breakfast, a banana with lunch, and some sort of veg with dinner), so moving to five doesn't feel like much of a stretch. And that meant that most people could at least aspire to getting there most of the time, and if they fell short it probably wasn't by too much.

But getting to ten-a-day is a much tougher target, which means that people who were just about getting to five will find themselves falling well short of ten. And when faced with a target that is not just tough but well out of reach, a lot of people are likely to just give up entirely. (If the target is five and I manage four, maybe I'll try harder. If the target is ten and I manage four, why bother?)

The other thing to consider, though - and this applies to most of the health advice/warnings that we are given - is that the potential benefits and risks are invariably very small. Sure, moving from five-a-day to ten-a-day might reduce your risk of heart disease and some cancers... but only by a very very small amount. To the extent that there's almost certainly something that will make a much bigger impact:

  1. If you're a smoker, you should really stop.
  2. If you're a heavy drinker, you should cut down.
  3. If you're part of the 50%+ who are either overweight or obese, you should seek to lose some of that excess weight. (Which, usefully, will almost certainly entail improving your diet and exercising more, giving a triple benefit.)
  4. Once you've tackled those three, the next biggest issue is probably air pollution - so look to moving out of the city and/or reducing your commute. (Unfortunately, those two goals are probably at odds!)

That's neither a perfect list nor is it an exhaustive one. But I'd wager that an awful lot of people have something on that list that they could stand to improve - and improving that will make much more difference than getting to ten-a-day (or, actually, even five).

Until the big things are sorted, the sorts of micro-benefits and -risks that are now being talked about can be ignored. And if you're in a position where you have sorted out all the big stuff, you're in a sufficiently good position that the stress from worrying about these micro-risks is probably more dangerous than the micro-risks themselves.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Day 50: Update on Goals

Rather depressingly, we're already 50 days into 2017, which means it's time for an update on goals. I say "rather depressingly", because there's very little to report - almost everything is on hold until one of the road-blocks is cleared, and there's been almost no movement on that...

  • Weight: There's been a very small adjustment on this one, in which I've dropped all of 2 pounds since the New Year. My plan is to focus on this one very heavily over Lent, so I'm hoping there will be real progress by the next update.
  • Books: By this point in the year I should have read 8.2 books, and I've actually read very slightly more than that (more than 8 books but less than 9). So that's in good shape. I'm also up-to-date on all the sublists, but am coming to a point where I'll need to make a decision on Shannara.
  • Super Secret Goal #4: The latest update is that the paperwork down South is going through but moving very slowly. The suggestion is that this might finally come to an end some time in March, which would be good. Though it wouldn't be the worst thing if our move happened to fall into the Easter holiday at the start of April. (That said, the worst outcome, other than it falling through entirely, would be for us to still be uncertain come the start of April, and so unable either to move or to plan some much-needed time away.) I really hope to have a positive update in time for the 100-day marker!
  • Part Five: The House: Obviously, this is on hold, with nothing to report.
  • Part Five: Church: Obviously, this is on hold, with nothing to report.
  • Part Five: Band: For the most part, this is on hold. However, we're rapidly heading towards the point where I need to make a solid decision on the upcoming season - there comes a point where I will need to commit to seeing out the competition season with the band, even if doing so is inconvenient, as it's just not fair to them to drop out at the last minute. I've already had to pay a deposit towards a hotel room for the trip to Forres for the European Championships (only £20, so I can write that off if need be). By the time of the 100-day update I'll have a solid answer on that question.
  • Part Five: Gaming: This is likewise on hold. As I'm getting sick of life amongst the boxes, though, I may attempt to fit some gaming in prior to the move. That said, the times that I'm available don't seem to dovetail with the rest of the group terribly well, so that's looking doubtful, especially as I can't host games just now.
  • Super Secret Goal #5: As I said when setting this one, I'm not sure it will be a goal at all, and won't know until April or May. So this one is obviously on hold, though not for the same reasons as the others!

And that's where things stand. As I'm sure can be seen, it's been a very frustrating time and we're just not as far forward as I'd hoped by this time. Right now, the focus is very much on the house move, except that there's nothing I can do about that right now.

The next update will be at 100 days, early in April. With luck, we'll have moved by then, or at least have a very solid timeframe for that, and so everything else will be able to advance. Until then, I guess I shall just keep the 'reading' and 'weight' goals ticking over.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Oh, For Goodness Sake!

For the benefit of the BBC and the Guardian: there is indeed a place for reporting on stupid Twitter fueds and JK Rowling's inevitable "perfect response" to whoever her opponent du jour is. It's called Buzzfeed.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Why They Shouldn't Reboot Firefly

Apparently, Fox are open to getting the crew back together and doing some more episodes of "Firefly", on the condition that Joss Whedon comes back to run the show.

They shouldn't.

Here's the thing: "Firefly" is a great show, and one of the most painful cancellations ever (with only "Police Squad" coming close). But it was very much a case of catching magic in a bottle - they had just the right cast, they had the right show-runner at just the right spot in his career, and everything just... worked. Even the film "Serenity" didn't manage to quite capture that same vibe.

Ten years on, and none of the people involved are the same people they were then. (And that's even assuming they'd be willing and available to come back. Morena Baccarin, in particular, seems to be very busy with various projects. Not to mention the issues with Wash and Book being dead in the movie - the ensemble doesn't work without them, and yet the canon doesn't work if they're there. Not to mention the small matter of Ron Glass being dead (thanks 2016!).)

Basically, it's a bad idea. Better to just leave it as this perfect show that might have been, and do something else.

The other option, of course, is a full-blown reboot - either recast all the parts, or indeed do the story of another Firefly ship in the 'Verse. That might just work, with the latter option being the better. But, honestly, if you're doing a whole new show, wouldn't it be better instead to just... do a whole new show?

#8: "Jude the Obscure", by Thomas Hardy (a book from The List)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Rangers Management Woes

It's not easy, but I'm inclined to think that Rangers fans should actually be grateful to Mark Warburton and the rest of the outgoing management team.

The reason for this is financial: if Rangers financial position been better, I suspect they would have sacked the manager some time ago - certainly after the recent defeat to Hearts, but probably after the previous defeat to Hearts. As it is, with the club existing on soft loans, I suspect they were resigned to keeping him in-post until the end of the season, as they simply couldn't afford the compensation they'd have to pay out. But that's not a case of wanting him as manager; that's rather a recognition that they couldn't not have him as manager.

As it is, by resigning in the manner he has, Mark Warburton has allowed Rangers to get a new manager in, and saved them that compensation that they couldn't afford. (Of course, the way that it has been done has been a shambles, but that's just par for the course for Rangers right now.)

Of course, the question is: what now?

Personally, I'm inclined to think Rangers should seek out the cheapest possible option for an interim manager to take them to the end of the season. The reality is that this season is a write-off, and has been for some months. They were never really in a title race, and they're not going to win the Scottish Cup (Celtic are basically unstoppable this year). All that matters now is getting into Europe - Rangers need to come at least third in the league, and even fourth might do it. Beyond that, it's just a matter of pride, but there are bigger issues.

Once they get to the end of the season, Rangers should take stock of where they are. There are two possibilities: either they have significant additional investment in the next few months, or they have to carry on much as they are. (And since they don't have that "significant investment" now, they can't really make the appropriate determinations now.)

If they have significant investment in place, Rangers can think of trying to close the gap to Celtic, in which case they want a top-quality manager, they want to back him with big funds, and go for it. (And by "big funds", I mean enough to bring in, effectively, a whole new team.)

But if, as seems more likely, they don't have any significant investment in place, then Rangers (and especially their fans) probably need to accept the hard truth that they can't stop Celtic getting ten, fifteen, or indeed however many in a row as they want - Rangers will effectively never catch Celtic unless and until Celtic implode. And to attempt to do so would be to make unwise spending that would probably kill the club - Rangers have just about come back from liquidation, but they won't do it again.

And in that case, the question is not "how do we close this gap?", it's rather "how do we get this club back onto a solid footing?" That is, sort out the finances first, so that surviving the season ceases to be a matter of soft loans, and the threats to the business are rather less existential.

And that means putting in a team that are going to build over a long time, with very solid scouting and development teams so they can, hopefully, replicate one of Celtic's great successes in recent year - their ability to find and develop young talent, get them cheap, sell them dear, and reap the rewards.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Oh No, Not the Euro!

I see the Guardian is back to peddling the old nonsense that an independent Scotland would have to use the Euro.

Here's the thing: all EU members (except the UK and Denmark, who have formal opt-outs) have to commit to using the Euro... at some point. But there is no fixed timescale for adopting it. Moreover, there are economic requirements for adopting the Euro, so all EU countries have a de facto opt-out - just arrange your economy such that you never quite meet those requirements and the job is done. (Also, see: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Sweden.)

(It's worth noting that the EU have bent their rules in the past to allow countries in that didn't comply. They won't be doing that again, since the highest-profile country in that position is Greece.)

The upshot of that is that not only would an independent Scotland not have to use the Euro, an independent Scotland would not be allowed to use the Euro.

And that's all easily established simply by checking the appropriate documentation. Anyone peddling that line either doesn't know what they're talking about, or they're deliberately lying. Either way, they can be safely ignored. (But, yeah, fake news is obviously the province of social media and other unreliable sources; a reputable newspaper such as The Guardian would never stoop so low - I'm sure they rigorously fact check everything they publish.)

But the funniest thing about that is probably that the whole attack line is entirely backwards. Because the Euro, despite its problems, is a well-established and more or less stable currency. Indeed, given the shocks Sterling has taken in the past year, it's hard to argue that it's less stable than the currency we already use.

Meanwhile, an independent Scotland within the EU* almost certainly couldn't, and wouldn't want to, continue to use Sterling - it was one thing to propose a currency union in 2014 when both iScotland and rUK would be running similar economies and both in the EU. But when iScotland is in the EU*, rUK is out, and the economies are significantly divergent it just doesn't make sense.

So, really, iScotland switching to use the Euro* would probably have been the next best option, if it was possible. But since that's not an option, and if Sterling also doesn't make sense, that's something of an issue - indeed, probably the single biggest issue that any independence campaign is going to have to face: they're going to have to sell people on the notion of establishing a whole new currency, with all that that entails.

"You'll have to use the Euro!" is frankly a rather bizarre threat.

* All of this assumes that iScotland would be in the EU, which is of course by no means guaranteed. But that's another topic for another day... one I'll probably not bother with.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Dear Jeremy Corbyn...

Are you aware just how hard it is to complain about media bias against you, when even a fair assessment concludes that you're utterly and completely useless?

Seriously, by announcing a three-line whip on the Brexit bill even if all amendments were voted down, you gave the government carte blanche to reject any and all amendments, and to proceed with a Brexit negotiated by, and for, Tories. You had some actual leverage with which to extract concessions (since the government wanted cross-party support to lend their bill greater legitimacy), and you threw it away.

What is the point of an opposition if, on the rare occasion it actually matters, you utterly fail to oppose?

(And please note that that's not a call to frustrate the process of Brexit. But MPs could and should have insisted on proper scrutiny of the process to ensure we get the best deal for all of us, and not one that just happens to favour those people who vote Tory. Not that I don't have absolute trust in the motives of Boris, Liam, and David, of course...)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Speaking of DVDs/Blu-rays...

This should probably be a fourth mini-rant to the previous post, but since they annoy me almost every time I insert a disc, I figured I'd give it a post of its own.

  1. Language Selection: Why is it that so many discs open to a menu page asking me what language I want to use? Why can the disc not just read my language settings from the player? After all, I had to set those up when I first added the player, so I'm obviously at least comfortable with whatever that setting is. So just pick up those settings from the player, and then give me a menu to change them if I want. (And, for extra credit, the player could contain my preferred language and sound mix preferences as well, so I automatically get the DTS soundtrack if available, or whatever.) Still, I suppose it's early days - DVD's only been around for, oh, twenty years.
  2. Copyright Notices: Yeah, I've ranted about this before, but it's still annoying. I've bought your disc, so please stop telling me not to engage in piracy - that just encourages me to do exactly that and save myself the hassle. (And if you absolutely must inflict this on us, at least have the decency to show one copyright notice in the chosen language. It's inexcusable to lock up my player for 10 minutes while you show an unskippable sequence of 20 notices that are identical but for the language used.)
  3. Starting the Film: When I insert a disc, there are two acceptable things that can happen. Either I should be taken immediately to the disc's root menu or I should be given a choice whether to resume playback from the last position or go to the root menu. And that's it. Adverts before that root menu are bloody annoying, especially six months after the disc came out and I already own any I care about. Simply assuming that I want to start/resume playback is likewise a pain - I'm quite capable of pushing the button, thanks. And those discs that show the main menu but then automatically start the film for me are the worst - if I was ready to start the film, I would have started the film.
  4. Hidden menus and Easter Eggs: Yeah, yeah, it's all very clever that if you go to this menu and enter that code then you get some special feature that nobody else knows about, 'cos it's hidden and stuff. Or, no, what's that other thing? Oh, yeah, it's bloody annoying. There is exactly one valid use for Easter Eggs on DVDs: if your time machine has been stolen by Weeping Angels and you need to leave a message for Sally Sparrow to come find you.

But, other than that, DVDs are great!

Three Mini Rants

None of these is really worthy of a full blog post, but since they annoy me disproportionately I thought I'd group them up and post them together...

PC World

The headband on my PC headphones broke yesterday, and so I found myself in PC World at the end of the day looking to buy a new set. This wasn't ideal, since when buying under time pressure you're unlikely to get a good deal, but since I didn't really want to endure another music-free day it wasn't too bad. Not that it mattered...

Yes, PC World's customer service still sucks.

They still have their products stuck to the shelves with stupid anti-theft devices, and there still aren't any assistants available to unlock the damn things. Unacceptable.

Hire Cars

When providing a hire car or courtesy car, there are two acceptable policies:

  • Provide the car with a full tank of petrol with the expectation that it be returned with the same, or...
  • Provide the car with whatever level of petrol, and don't care how much it is returned with.

It is not acceptable to say to people "it has about this much petrol; return it with the same", since people cannot possibly know how much a tank holds, what the fuel economy figures are like, or anything like that.

Blu-ray Rip-offs

As you know, I've been looking to phase out my Region One DVDs, which has meant looking to replace at least some of them with blu-rays. And, quite often, that has meant picking up a boxed set containing not just one specific film but an entire series - rather than getting just "Terminator 2", I might think of getting a 4-film set (already have "Genysis", for my sins... and besides, they haven't bothered with a 5-film set in the UK). Likewise, I might have been tempted to pick up the full series of 'classic' "Star Trek" films in order to upgrade the four 'good' ones to blu-ray.

Bear in mind that these are years- or even decades-old films by this point - they've long since reached the point where almost everyone who wants them probably owns them already, quite possibly in multiple formats, and they're therefore at the point where there's very little residual value in them.

What I've found, however, is that there's a "Terminator Quadrilogy" boxed set, and also a separate "Skynet Edition" of "Terminator 2". Where said "Skynet Edition" has many more special features, including a third alternate cut of the film, than the one in the 4-film set. (That 4-film set is also currently the only way to get "Terminator: Salvation" on blu-ray. Not that T4 is really worth having, except as a special feature to T1 and T2, but still...) Meaning that they clearly want and expect fans to buy both the 4-film set and the "Skynet Edition" of T2 - a clear rip-off of their fans.

(And, it's worth noting, that "Skynet Edition" isn't a new version - it's basically a reissue of the very same DVD that I'm looking to replace. Which was at the time billed as the "Ultimate Edition".)

Likewise, that "Star Trek" set doesn't include the director's cut of "Star Trek: the Motion Picture" - if you want that, you have to buy it separately. Which is a fairly big deal, since that director's cut practically makes it a whole new film, and is almost the difference between 'watchable' and 'not'. (It also omits the director's cut of "The Wrath of Khan", but that's not a rip-off - that director's cut didn't exist when the 10-film set was assembled. It's not unreasonable for them to produce new editions of things!)

And the third example is perhaps my favourite Pixar film: "The Incredibles", where again I have a fairly deluxe DVD version (which wasn't a special edition in any way - they just did a really good job packaging that film up for DVD release). But the blu-ray? That sucks - basically the film and nothing else. There is a 3-disc special edition available, but not in the UK.

What's probably most annoying about this, other than the apparent view that it's okay to rip off fans, is that it's so completely unnecessary. In each case, the missing materials are things that already exist and are easily available, and which have no value on their own - nobody is going to buy a blu-ray containing "The Making of The Incredibles"! So there's no good reason not to include these things - it's either apathy, laziness, or greed, none of which should be acceptable.

Progress shouldn't mean going backwards.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

LC and I went to see an advance screening of this movie yesterday, having thoroughly enjoyed "The Lego Movie". I had been looking forward to it for some time, an anticipation that had only grown with each trailer that was released. But it's always risky, looking forward to things; so often, they fall short of what was hoped.

Fortunately, that was not the case here. The Lego Batman movieis great fun, being a worthy follow up to the excellent Lego movie, and also Batman's best cinematic showing since "The Dark Knight" (and I enjoyed "The Dark Knight Rises").

Basically, if you've seen "The Lego Movie" and also the trailers, you know what to expect from this film. If you enjoyed TLM, you'll almost certainly enjoy this one; if you didn't enjoy "The Lego Movie", you probably won't enjoy this one (unless it was only the presence of Will Ferrell that put you off TLM).

And that's pretty much all I have to say about that. Except perhaps one thing: I'd certainly be happy to see more Lego movies, whether a direct sequel to this or TLM or something new. However, I hope they don't rush such a film out, but instead take their time carefully building their animation brand - quality rather than quantity, please!

#7: "Pathfinder: What Grows Within", by John Compton

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Why Can't They Make Good Fantasy Films?

I watched "The Last Witchhunter" on Tuesday. It's not a terrible film... it's just a tediously mediocre one - there's absolutely nothing to recommend this film over just about any other.

And that pretty much sums up fantasy films in general. With just a few shining exceptions ("The Lord of the Rings", about three of the "Harry Potter" films, "Stardust", "The Princess Bride", "Willow", and the original "Conan"), fantasy films have been a whole load of mediocre tosh.

But why? Surely making a fantasy film isn't any harder than making any other type of film, and there's no shortage of good films in other genres, so why does the 'fantasy' label really mean "don't bother"?

I'm going to suggest two things:

Firstly, so many fantasy films, unless they set out to be a parody, are basically utterly devoid of humour - often deliberately so. "The Last Witchhunter" doesn't even try, which is probably a good call.

Secondly, fantasy films invariably reach for the hackneyed "end of the world" plot. Our heroes must rise up against impossible odds, or their whole world is going to come crashing down around them!

The net effect of these is that the whole thing becomes a po-faced worthy tale of plucky heroes doing their thing, just like every other fantasy film ever, with plot-by-numbers and heavy special effects. Lovely.

It's a crazy thought, I know, but maybe they should try... not doing that?

In his introduction to the short story collection "Rogues", George R.R. Martin actually hit on something quite important - most of the more satisfying stories out there feature a protagonist who is, at least in some sense, an outsider: the private investigator instead of the cop, or the kind of cop who gets the job done never mind "by the book" ("Dirty Harry"), or the woman in a man's world ("Agent Carter"), or the crook with a heart of gold ("Ocean's Eleven"), or the Federation starship out on their own where help can't reach them ("Star Trek" - and note that while Picard is the better captain, Kirk makes for better stories), or... (Oh, and it also explains why Batman films will always be better than Superman ones, which I find... disappointing, as I prefer the latter.)

(This introduction has also had a fairly significant impact on my philosophy of DMing, but most of that is still to actually play out, since I've run virtually no games since reading that anthology. But that's a topic for another place...)

The upshot of this that I'd suggest fantasy films should aim to take much more influence from the "Lankhmar" stories than from "Lord of the Rings" - a couple of ne'er-do-wells on their individual adventures, rather than the paragons of the realm trying to save their world. Or "The Three Musketeers" (the novel, or the York/Reed films, not the other film versions), or "Ocean's Eleven", or even the more recent "Fast & Furious" movies.

On the other hand, "The Last Witchhunter" did well enough for them to be making a sequel, so what do I know?

#6: "Ravenspur", by Conn Iggulden