2018 Weeknote 7

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A slightly different pattern to the week, with Megan off for half term. It meant for slightly longer lie-ins and some spontaneous activities.

The first of which was a trip to the cinema after work on Monday. We went to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri* and we really enjoyed it. Neither of us had expected the level of violence, having only seen quite a glib, chucklesome cut in the trailer.

We enjoyed picking a few holes in the plot and some of the characters afterwards, but overall it was a romping experience with some laugh-out-loud moments, and some hide-your-face-in-your-hands violence, and some right-in-the-feels sentimentality.

Personally, I was on board from the moment I saw the shot which directly lined up the window of the Ebbing Advertising office and the police station across the road.

* I agonised over the capitalisation of ‘outside’ here – the web generally does so, but I distinctly remember that the film’s own title card kept it lower case. The posters generally seem to be all-caps.

Spontaneous trips to the cinema are usually a great idea, particularly when I’ve had a gift card burning a hole in my wallet since last May. That being said, spontaneous trips to Vue on a Monday are an especially good idea, as it’s only £4.99 a ticket rather, than £14.99.

If you ask me, a fiver is too cheap and fifteen quid is too much. Can we strike a deal and call it £7.49 whenever I fancy seeing a film? Joking apart, the other pleasant surprise was the quality of Vue’s premises: clean, modern, comfortable, and terrific audio and visual systems.

Tuesday was World Radio Day, apparently. I don’t much go in for ‘World X Days’ as it is – particularly when, what can I say, every day is World Radio Day for me. That said, this week I finally received the pocket DAB receiver which had been the cause of some angst the previous week due to terrible communications from the seller. So it was nice – and a novelty – to walk to work listening to a mixture of BBC 6 Music, Radio X, Resonance FM  and BBC Radio 4, and with plenty more at my fingertips. Naturally, my smartphone gives me oodles more choice, but there’s just something so beguiling about it all coming over the air.

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The radio – a Majority (what?) Romsey (what?!)* – is a decent little unit, although its design is a bit uninspiring, and it feels very light in the hand. Not the worst criticism for a pocket device, but it’s light and boxy to the point of feeling weirdly hollow. It has a roughly 10-hour internal battery, but the ’emptiness’ of the case means it feels like it could take a much larger capacity one.

* The state of the DAB radio market in the UK today is a weird one. I expect I’ll spend a thousand words elsewhere on the subject, but suffice it to say that some of the market-leading radios besides Roberts and Pure are the VQ Blighty and the various models made by a brand called Majority, including the Romsey, the Petersfield, and the Madingley Hall. Apparently, radios are now named after Tudorbethan semis with the St George flag fluttering in the driveway.

Naming conventions aside, the Romsey has very decent sensitivity, and it has performed well in the short time I’ve been using it. I have noticed that the menu/interface can be a bit buggy. It’s best not to disturb it for the few seconds while it’s locking on to a new station, for instance. I’ll continue to test it out in various scenarios, but I’m content with what I’ve seen (and heard) so far, for the price.

Workwise, I had a few estate inspections to make, and a nice meeting with one of our allotment folks. It also brings to mind that I’m leading a walking tour in the summer on the subject of our open spaces, so I’m starting to think about how to frame that, and where to go.

I took Wednesday off, which broke up the week nicely, and Megan and I went to Oxford for the day. I’d only been once, ten years ago, and I took few pictures, got rather lost, and I was hot and bothered, it being a sunny, busy day.

This time it was grey, damp, and relatively quiet, and we had a good old look around. We followed a decent walking tour which took in some of the central sights. And we had a quick look around the Ashmolean Museum, following their own guide to their top ten exhibits. This worked a treat as we managed to see some great stuff, get a feel for the layout, and now I can’t wait to go back and spend a little more time exploring. I even came away from the gift shop with an apron with a Minoan octopus design on it.

The walking tour was nice and compact, too. We’d been considering a much longer route which got out of the centre a bit more, but this one combined with some stops for cake and beer was the perfect length. We made it up the Carfax Tower for a view of Oxford’s many spires, university buildings and, currently, rainbow flags. And we took in a number of fine doorways, arches, passageways and edifices, many in that gorgeous hue of local stone.

As well as gawping at some of the truly magnificent architecture, we also made it to three pubs and two cafes, which isn’t bad going.

Of the latter, the Vaults & Garden Cafe in Radcliffe Square was a lovely place to stop for tea and scones, and the Nosebag on St Michael’s Street was a wonderfully homely source of many different cakes. Both also do a certain amount of savoury dishes too, if you need a quick lunch.

Pub-wise, I had been told, emphatically, by no less than three friends all at once, to visit the Turf Tavern, and I’m glad we did. Its layout has an olde-worlde feel and reminds me a little of Ye Olde Mitre in Hatton Garden. It also does decent student-pub style grub, and we stopped for burgers.

Before that, we’d popped into the Eagle and Child on St Giles’ street for a quick pint and a recce, admiring some of the literary adornments scattered about the place. Its associations with the Inklings writers’ group are worn proudly on its sleeve.

And in between our long wander and the train home, we spent a pleasant hour or so at the Bear Inn, on Alfred Street. This traditional pub would be lovely enough even without its own quirks plastered all over the walls: framed off-cuts of ties, each given to the landlord in exchange for half a pint. They each have a small tag identifying the previous owner and the ties allegiance, and it makes for a fascinating display which seems to cover almost every wall and ceiling. The tradition has apparently stopped, but the dates of the many thousands of ties on show seem to cover a period around the 1960s and 1970s.

I finished Robin Sloan’s Sourdough on the way to Oxford. It was a breezy read, never taking itself too seriously, but taking what could have been quite a pedestrian plot and turning it quite unexpectedly. I enjoy Sloan’s love of secret societies, and gently skewering Silicon Valley culture.

And reader, speaking of culture, I’m not ashamed to admit that over the course of me reading Sourdough, I attempted for the first time to make not just one but two starters. Neither succeeded. Unbowed, I will continue the experiments. (Probably without the music of the Mazg, but golly this article on the book’s ‘soundtrack’ is a fun read.)

This weekend I did some cooking and some baking (including a loaf, some sushi, and another attempt at a double down burger, sorrynotsorry). I also played about six hours of Banished, which is very much in my wheelhouse and I’m itching to continue to learn its complexities, and I watched the 1989 film The Wizard.

Probably the least strange thing about this film is the presence of a sassy 13-year-old Jenny Lewis. Elsewhere, we have a surprisingly solid cast, an escapist fantasy child-led road trip across the US, weirdly accurate references and product placements for 1980s videogames icons, and it all culminates in a videogame competition which also purports to be the unveiling of Super Mario Bros. 3 in the west. If that wasn’t enough movie for your money, the film’s ultimate conclusion – handled with a surprising level of sensitivity – also sews up a subplot concerning a dead sibling.

Also in videogames, M and I continue to make good progress in Portal 2, which remains some of the most fun I’ve had with the medium. The puzzles are relatively simple, but the level of style with which they’re packaged makes it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. And there are so many levels included in what could so easily have been a throwaway local multiplayer afterthought. We’re about two-thirds of the way through and I’m damned if I know what we’re going to play together once we finish this.

We capped the week off with a Sunday night jog round the neighbourhood. We saw an urban fox, some pretty houses, and the distant BAFTA searchlights tracing the clouds high above our heads.

Here are a few snaps from Oxford:

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Learning to cook

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Some recent creations

I’m still learning to cook. I’ve been learning to cook for about ten years. In truth, I don’t think anyone ever stops learning to cook – only those who possibly never started to in the first place.

I can pretty much pinpoint the start of my learning process as looking at the instructions on a jar of Dolmio, then trying to reverse engineer my own pasta sauce. This, and trying to buy cheap ingredients with my student loan, sent me down a path and I’ve not looked back since.

This process slowed somewhat for two years when I was living in a small studio flat. It did, fortunately, have a full kitchen setup – just not a particularly large one. In that sense, I got quite good at working within the limitations imposed on me. Only two hobs. Only one workspace. A small fridge with an ice box. Etc.

Thank goodness I also had a proper oven.

M kindly referred to this studio flat existence as like living on a boat. I liked this metaphor. With her suggestions and assistance, I grew to quite enjoy cooking in my little kitchen. I even managed to create a fair number of nice, sit-down, multi-course meals.

Now though, we have a larger kitchen at our disposal. We also have much more storage space, access to M’s cookbooks, and – crucially – M’s knowledge of cookery, and her passion for trying new meals and techniques. It’s also much more enjoyable and efficient creating meals for two than just for one.

So I’m now happily using cookbooks to cook most meals. A handful of dishes have become staples. But I still like to have the recipe somewhere nearby, because I’m a forgetful soul, and I’m likely to mess up the order, or forget a crucial ingredient. I’m not yet cooking intuitively; I’m following a set of instructions to the letter. If the instructions are unclear, I’m not very good at improvising.

M and I joke that I’m a little autistic in this sense: I need absolutely every instruction, timing and ingredient written down in a clear, ordered list. Any deviation from the list will cause me some anxiety and possibly cause me to mess up the meal. A photograph of the end result is always useful. What the hell is this thing meant to look like?

Thankfully, an ingredients list, a clear method, and photograph(s) are the basic components of any good cookbook, so I am in my comfort zone here.

As I progress, I am beginning to learn shortcuts, and identifying opportunities for daisy-chaining two meals – tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch – which share preparation methods. And although I can chuck together a few familiar ingredients to make something from scratch, I’m actively enjoying the process of cooking according to a growing range of recipes.

My hope is that this will continue until – much like learning a new language – more and more components of each recipe will come to me naturally, and I will gain more and more independence.

With all this in mind, I was very interested to read Matthew Culnane’s latest post entitled Atomic cookery. It’s a great piece, and well worth your time. In it, he talks about dismantling cookery books and recipes, and how this process can inform the chef and actually free them from the rigidity of recipes.

It’s sort of a conceptual ‘teach them how to catch fish’ kind of deal, where knowing how and why to do something is so much more useful than just doing it because the book says so.

Mr Culnane also makes some interesting parallels with tech – and with web design in particular, which has a set of components and a certain order of things.

My own experience of learning web design – a frantic few months in 2002* of copying and pasting code from pages I liked, to see which bits did what – is quite similar to using elements of recipes to achieve another, quite separate, result.

It’s this modular approach that Matthew talks about which seems so relevant. But he warns against painting oneself into a corner by enforcing unnecessarily restrictive metaphors to different processes.


* Any web design learning I’ve done since then has simply tacked itself onto that initial blooming of understanding – CSS still seems like a relatively new and interesting innovation to me.