Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #6: Goan Prawn Curry

This was another meal taken from my "Let's Cook with the nation's favourite chefs" book, which is rapidly becoming a favourite resource. This one comes from Madhur Jaffrey, and it's another winner - very quick and easy to put together, and very tasty as well. All in all, a great find. The only down-side is that I don't have much to say about it!

But that's no bad thing. We'll definitely be having this again.

#15: "Straken", by Terry Brooks

A quick note about this book: having now finished this latest Shannara trilogy, I have decided to stick with the series for the rest of the year. This solves one of the issues with my goals for the year, giving me a nice five sub-goals for the reading list.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Distance Between Greatness and Mediocrity

This post has almost nothing to do with James Bond.

The reason I mention him, though, is that over the weekend I was reminded of something he said, that was going to form the introduction to this post until I decided to remove it for being a sentiment I didn't want to endorse. Also, I don't like the cosmetics industry. Anyway...

Over the weekend, I watched three films that caused me to consider just how small the difference between a great film and a mediocre, or even bad, film actually is.

First up was Disney's live-action "Beauty and the Beast", which is well made but which really isn't a particularly good film. It's more enjoyable than "Logan", to be fair, but then it was "Logan's" very strength that meant it wasn't particularly enjoyable. The basic problem with "Beauty and the Beast", though, was that everything that was good about it had already been done better in animated form some decades ago, while everything that was new just wasn't as good.

And so we have the original, which truly is a great film, and a near-remake that just didn't live up to it. The differences were small, but they made all the difference.

(Oh, and incidentally, this also ties into my theory about remakes: while it's tempting to remake something great, you probably shouldn't - you'll fall short in the inevitable comparison. What you should look to remake are things that had a good idea, had lots of potential, but which for whatever reason fell short of that potential.)

The other two films were "X-2" and "X-Men: The Last Stand", the second and third X-Men films. Here, again, we have a great film - X-Men 2 was the film that finally toppled "Superman 2" as my all-time favourite superhero film, and although it no longer has the top spot, that's largely because it has been eclipsed by "The Dark Knight", "Captain America: the Winter Soldier", and "The Avengers", and not because it has not aged well.

But then we have the third X-Men film, and oh dear does it fall short! And yet, it should work - it has the same cast, it has the same strong dynamic between Xavier and Magneto that makes that whole series work, it has what should be a very strong story, and there's a lot of good stuff in there. (My personal favourite is Logan's line, "I'm not your father, I'm your friend" - it's a small scene, but Rogue's subplot is one of the things that stops it just being a blackhat/whitehat slugfest.)

But, ultimately, X-Men 3 just doesn't work. Whether it's because it's trying to do too many things in too little space, or because it was rushed out by the studio because they were desperate to beat "Superman Returns" to the theatre (oh boy, did we all lose out from Bryan Singer's decision to do that one!), or perhaps because they spend too long on their big set-piece action finale without enough good build-up to support it, the film just falls short.

(On the other hand, it's not as bad as "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", which I get to tackle next. I'm really not looking forward to that one!)

There are other examples of this, of course. As I said at the outset, this post has very little to do with James Bond, but "Skyfall" and "SPECTRE" make up one of the best examples of the phenomenon at work - you've got the same lead actor (who has the role down to a fine art by now), much the same core cast, the same director, and a time-honoured formula... and yet one is great and the other just doesn't work.

Anyway, that's my big thought on films for today, and also my review of the new "Beauty and the Beast". For what it's worth, LC enjoyed it considerably more than I did.

#14: "State of the Art", by Iain M. Banks

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Modest Proposal

As we know, last year's EU referendum had a clear result: the UK should Leave the EU.

However, that referendum very clearly did not say anything about how we should go about leaving, nor about what we should do thereafter. That's all up for grabs.

So, my proposal:

We agree with our EU neighbours that on midnight on the 1st of January 2018 the UK formally leaves the EU... for 24 hours. Then we go back to business as normal, and forget all about the last nine months.

That way, Farage gets his "independence day", we have a huge party (and for £350M you can buy a lot of fireworks), everyone's all excited... and then there's a bit of a hangover but we all move on. Oh, and since just about everything shuts down for that day anyway, the damage is minimised.

No, this isn't a serious suggestion... though I'm hard pressed to think of any better outcome.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Once More With Feeling - but let that be the end of it

Less than two days in, and I'm already sick of Indyref 2. Mostly thanks to the constant rolling coverage, and especially the crazy explosion of nonsense, lies, and fantasy that this has all thrown up.

Unfortunately, I'm in agreement with the basic argument that there does need to be another vote: it's absolutely right that in light of Brexit many people (on both sides) may well have changed their minds, and it's also absolutely right that a vote to Remain cannot be taken as any sort of endorsement for Independence itself. So, since the people of Scotland have expressed a preference for two mutually-exclusive things, we need a new vote to sort out the mess. Fair enough.

And I'm also in agreement with the timing of the vote. In some ways, the economic case for independence is hurt by Brexit (because an iScotland and rUK both within the EU would obviously have a significantly easier trading relationship than if iScotland is in and rUK is out). However, once the UK as a whole is outside of the EU, and the longer the UK as a whole is outside the EU, the harder that case becomes - the longer we're out, the further we'll diverge from the requirements for EU membership. Whether we stay in or have to reapply, getting iScotland into the EU will be much easier now than it will be in five years time.

So the vote should be held, and it should be held in about two years - once the shape of Brexit is known in some detail but before it's too late.

(I'm not sure any of that matters. It looks like the Labour, Tory, and Lib Dem parties will resist any referendum on any timescale... and will be outvoted; and while Westminster technically has a veto I don't think they'd be mad enough to use it - I can think of few better ways to drive floating voters towards a pro-independence stance than a widely-hated Tory government telling Scotland we don't get a say in our own future. Doing that would delay the vote, but would probably also guarantee that it is lost when it does happen.)

All that said, we can't keep doing this. Every referendum is necessarily divisive and is a distraction from other issues. Sometimes, those distractions are necessary, but we can't keep going through the pain.

So this vote should be permitted, because circumstances demand it. But in addition, it is long since past time that Westminster formally devolve the right to hold independence referendums to Holyrood, but with an appropriate cool-down period between them. They should have done this in the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012 but didn't, and then they should have done it in the Scotland Act in 2016 but didn't.

As for the cool-down period, I would advocate 7 years. Ideally, I'd prefer longer (10 years, maybe), but there's a precendent in the Good Friday Agreement that should be followed. Though even better would be for there to be a periodic window in which such things can happen - that is, if Indyref 2 happens in spring 2019, then another vote could happen in 2026, but if not then the next opportunity would be 2033. (That said, if it is a window, the duration really should be 5 years, making it a "once in a parliament" deal, or some multiple thereof.)

One more thing, being a little no-doubt unwanted advice to the pro-union camp: please step back from this mad flood of Project Fear stuff. It was a lousy campaign in 2014, that turned a comfortable 70/30 lead into a nail-biting 55/45 end result. It was a lousy campaign in 2016 that lost for Remain. And in 2017 it's still a lousy campaign... and you don't have a massive lead to squander - the polls seem to be sitting at 53/47ish in your favour, so if Project Fear works as well as last time you'd looking at a 38/62ish loss. Find a positive case for the union, and campaign on that.

And if you can't find a positive case for the union... well, maybe you should reflect on that.

Region One: The Cull Begins

Back in October, I noted that I'd decided to call time on Region One. To that end, while packing up our DVDs prior to the house move (that still hasn't happened... but that's another rant), I took the opportunity to separate out the R1 DVDs from the rest, and also to make a list of them. (I also took the opportunity to test a few of the discs, finding that one or two are actually region-free, which is nice.)

I've since divided that list up into three, being discs to replace, discs to discard, and discs that I would like to replace but can't.

The good news on that latter front is that as anticipated, that list does indeed contain only two entries: "Reboot" and "Babylon 5". And, even then, the B5 discs could be replaced, albeit only by replacing the entire series. (There are also two discs, that I'm aware of, that are in the 'discard' pile but which couldn't be replaced anyway. One of these went on that list with some small reluctance; the other not so much. So that's not too bad.)

The one down-side I have since encountered is that when I priced up replacements for that one list, I discovered that this is a more costly exercise than I'd expected. Especially since the truth is that most of these are films we haven't watched for years, and don't necessarily have any burning desire to watch again. (Which is a big factor in us having so much clutter in the first place: I'm generally loathe to throw perfectly good things away, and in many cases we have these things not so much because I want them as because I don't want to be without them.)

Still, there have been some no-brainers: a "Die Hard" boxed set was cheap, replaced three movies in a big box with five in a much smaller box, and was ideal motivation for a re-watch (with only the original to go; I left the best until last). Likewise, an "X-Men" boxed set filled in lots of gaps in that series, freed up some space, and again has motivated a re-watch. I expect the "Terminator" films to be much the same, once I get past my distaste for that set.

I expect that that's how it's going to go now: over the next year or so, I'll gradually replace the discs a few at a time, re-watching them as I go and ordering the next batch as I get to the end of the last. And, of course, if there are any I'm not bothered with re-watching, then they're in the wrong list.

(The down-side of that plan is that I'd kind of hoped to get it all over and done with in one fell swoop, whereas this will take considerably more time. On balance, though, this is probably the better approach.)

Additionally, I think I'm going to take the plunge on that "Babylon 5" set - once we've completed the move (if that ever happens), I'll invest in a new set of the whole series to replace the old discs. (Best do that fairly soon - I don't know how long it will remain available.) Which just leaves the question of "Reboot" unanswered, but gives me at least a year to ponder that one.

It's worth noting, though, that I'm yet to start on the other phase of the project - I'm yet to actually discard any of the discs on that list!

#13: "The Remains of the Day", by Kazuo Ishiguro (a book from The List)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #5: Spiced Chicken, Orange & Watercress Salad

This was another meal taken from my "Let's Cook with the nation's favourite chefs" book, courtesy of Ainsley Harriott. And it has the virtue of being nothing like anything I've made before - chicken strips stir-fried in an orange-based sauce, paired with a refreshing salad.

I enjoyed it very much, although I did feel that the watercress was a bit much. In future, I think I might replace that with rocket, spinach, or both, and only a much smaller handful. LC, I think, was a bit less impressed, although again I think that was the salad rather than the chicken.

Anyway, I'm pretty certain I'll be doing this again, and I'll no doubt be taking some more inspiration from that book - it's a good one!

#12: "Through the Gate in the Sea", by Howard Andrew Jones

Monday, March 06, 2017


LC and I went to see the third and final Wolverine movie on Friday.

It's very well made indeed, but...

Basically, the film does everything it sets out to do, and does it just right. This is probably the way Wolverine should have been handled in all his solo films, in terms of the language, the violence, and the seriousness of it all. And the performances are great - Hugh Jackman has the role down to a fine art by now, and Patrick Stewart is excellent as always.


I'm not sure it's really accurate to say we enjoyed the film. Admired it, certainly, and appreciated the way it was made, and the performances, and so forth. But it's really depressing, with a deeply ambivalent ending, and is generally pretty grim. So, yeah, it's a good film, but it's not one I enjoyed at all.

It's also worth noting that, like "Mr Holmes" a couple of years ago, the very strength of one of the performances was actually an issue. As with Ian McKellen in "Mr Holmes", Patrick Stewart here is portraying the ravages of age, and in particular a struggle with dementia. And he's very good.

But in being so good, he strikes rather too close to the bone for comfort. It's a great performance, but quite upsetting to watch.

(Actually, see also Maggie Smith in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" - another great performance, but because the character is, initially, a fairly unpleasant racist, it's not comfortable viewing.)

So, I find myself somewhat ambivalent about the film. On the one hand, I strongly recommend it; on the other hand, it does need a trigger warning - it's not for the faint of heart, so brace yourself before going.

(Oh, and incidentally, it also hits pretty much exactly on something I've been looking for for quite some time - an answer to the question of what actually constitutes "mature themes". Up to now, the answer has seems to have been a rather puerile "boobs&blood" formula. But this film addresses questions of age and mortality, and also regret, redemption and just living with the guilt. Strong stuff, and something I hope we see more of now that Hollywood seems to have rediscovered the 'R' rating. Which is nice - much as I enjoy the four-colour heroics of the Avengers, I do also enjoy seeing something rather more substantial!)

And that, I think, is all I want to say about that - I'd rather stay clear of any deeper spoilers for this one.


Oh, no, one more thing: oddly, the film left me somewhat conflicted on it being Jackman and Stewart's last performances in these roles. Because, on the one hand, the film left me very much wanting more (albeit perhaps not more of exactly this), but on the other hand it was such a perfect way to bow out. In the end, I think stopping now is probably best - they're unlikely ever to do better. And so, although the rumoured cameo of Wolverine in "Deadpool 2" might be quite nice, I think I'd rather they didn't. In this film series, unlike in this blog post, it seems best to end once you've said all you have to say.

Friday, March 03, 2017

There Has to be a Better Way Than This

We've had another delay in the house move - at the start of February our estimate was by the end of the month, and our new estimate is... by the end of the month. I fully expect the start of April to come with a revised estimate that is surprisingly the same. I suppose I really should have started unpacking.

Thus far, our seller has been extremely patient, and their seller in turn. But I fear that there will come a point where this is no longer the case, and we'll miss out on the house because of stupid bureaucracy. Which sucks.

What I don't understand, though, is how the system has become so utterly terrible - surely there must be a better way to do things than this?

In particular, the problem seems to be the formation of chains: because so much money is tied up in the property that you own, it's effectively necessary to buy and sell at the same time. But the people you're both buying and selling from are themselves trying to coordinate a similar transaction, each buying and selling at the same time, and nobody able to move until they're all able to move.

And that, of course, means that everything necessarily takes a huge amount of time, is hugely stressful, and is also worryingly fragile - a problem at any point in the chain means the whole thing breaks up, and everyone suffers.

What seems to be needed, essentially, is an Arnold Clark for houses - rather than seeking out a buyer for the existing house and also seeking out a new house to buy, one would instead go to a "used house dealer", pick from the houses they have on their books, and arrange a trade-in of your current property.

(To a certain extent, such a thing already exists, in the form of various quick sale merchants. The big problem there being that they're notoriously chancers out to rip people off. Ideally, we need proper government regulation here to ensure that this ceases to be the case. Also, of course, it's the same as the part-exchange option frequently offered with new builds.)

The key point being, of course, that then we wouldn't be trying to conduct two huge transactions at once, but rather just one.

At least, that's my initial proposal for a fix. No doubt, it would also have its own set of problems and pitfalls. But when compared with a system that is manifestly not working as it should, it certainly has a certain appeal.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Lent Begins

With Easter falling relatively late this year, the start of Lent was likewise delayed until this week. Nonetheless, it seems to have snuck up on me, possibly because I just have other things on my mind. (Either that, or it's a consequence of being stuck in limbo and so not really paying attention to time - one day is much like another at the moment.)

For Lent this year, the only thing I'm actually giving up entirely is my usual fizzy drinks (which mostly means Irn Bru, but includes everything in that "sugar water" genre).

However, I'll be cutting back on a great many other things - as I noted in my Day 50 update, my plan during Lent is to really try to focus on getting this weight goal moving. So while I haven't given up things like cakes, alcohol, or chocolate, I'm going to be leaning strongly towards not having them much if at all.

Plus, the other side of that is that I'll need to start taking rather more exercise (which means going from "almost none" to "doing some", which isn't too bad).

But the other thing that is on my mind is the purpose of Lent. On the one hand, it's actually mostly about the seasons - like the Advent fast followed by Christmas feast, Pancake day is largely about using up whatever remains in the store-cupboard, followed by an imposed fast brought on by the stores being empty, followed by a feast as the new seasonal crops start becoming available (all of which is largely hollowed out by supermarkets having everything all the time).

On the other hand, though, Easter remains a Christian holiday, and Lent retains at least some Christian trappings. And on that front, it's a time for some reflection.

See, our plan since October has been to move house and then find a new church. To that end, we've largely said our goodbyes and have mostly disentangled ourselves in Chryston. But it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to maintain any sort of an active faith when not attending regularly - and doubly so since the New Year, when I completed my most recent read through of the Bible, and so stopped regular reading.

That's something that has been on my mind for some weeks now, and given that we still don't have any solid date for moving I'm starting to think it's not something that will continue to wait. So, rather than giving things up for Lent, my intent is rather to pick something back up.

And that's where we are, for now at least.

#10: "Use of Weapons", by Iain M. Banks
#11: "Pathfinder: Black Stars Beckon", by Jim Groves