A positive sadness

I hadn’t intended to write another Doctor-Who-related post so soon after the last one, but I came across a lovely quote in the book that I finished yesterday, which was too good to pass by.

The book was Full Circle by Andrew Smith, who also wrote the original TV story.   Any Doctor Who aficionado worthy of the name will recognise this as the first story of the classic E-Space trilogy and the one in which Adric (the companion that most fans evidently love to hate, although I always quite liked him) was introduced.

The quote appears on the first page of Chapter 1 (which isn’t the start of the book as this one has a prologue) and reads:

The [Doctor's] face was at once immensely cheerful and yet tinged with the sadness of one who has known too many people for too short a time.

I’m nowhere near 750 years old (the Doctor’s approximate age at the time of this story), however much I may sometimes feel like it, and I’ve obviously not met anything like as many people as he had.  However, I’ve been living in or near a university town for the best part of the last 20 years (and, in case you know me and think I’ve miscounted, I’m referring to two separate universities), and these are notable for the transitory nature of large chunks of the population.  Therefore, whether or not it’s reflected in my face, I can certainly relate to the sadness of knowing many (though perhaps not too many) people for all too short a time.

It doesn’t help that my track record for keeping in touch with people when they (or I, though mostly I’m the one staying put) leave is generally pretty poor.  Of course, staying in touch is a two-way business so it would be unfair to apportion all or even most of the blame in one direction or the other.  Suffice it to say that my contact with some people I’ve known (and in some cases known very well and got on with excellently) is limited while for others it is non-existent.

Long ago, I came to the conclusion that (at least in the cases where you get on well with each other, which for me seems to be most of the time) it’s better to be able to enjoy the pleasure of someone’s company for a short while than never to have met them at all.

And if you are someone I used to know and have dropped out of touch with, please (a) accept my apologies, especially if you made attempts to stay in touch which weren’t reciprocated, and (b) feel free to drop me a line. [And if you're one of my former English teachers, please accept my further apologies for starting two consecutive sentences with the word "and" :-)]

(Re)discovered Noodlespruces

Tonight’s dinner, which I finished eating a few minutes ago, was noodles.  As usual, I subjected them to a bit of noodlesprucing, which improved them immeasurably.

The noodles on this occasion were chicken ones.  Rather, the noodles were plain old instant noodles and the supplied flavour sachet was chicken-flavoured (though whether any of the contents had ever been in sight of a real live chicken is another question).  Most of the treatment I gave them was my pretty standard basic noodlespruce, which basically consists of lightly frying a chopped spring onion and (this time) some garlic in olive oil in the saucepan before adding boiling water, the aforementioned flavour sachet and a few extra spices (on this occasion, a fairly liberal pinch of lemongrass and a dash of Maggi sauce), then simmering for somewhat longer than specified on the packet (around 10 minutes, instead of about 3).

However, in addition to this, I did two other things.  One was entirely new, as far as I can remember, to my preparation of noodles (though similar to a technique I’ve used countless times in cooking stews).  The other was one that I’m fairly sure I’ve tried in the distant past (long before noodlesprucing was so named) but not for quite a while.

The new idea was to throw in a handful (metaphorically speaking – it was actually somewhat less, probably nearer a tablespoon’s worth, though I didn’t measure it accurately) of pearl barley.  This relied on the extra cooking time to ensure that the barley was reasonably soft by the time the noodles were ready to eat. It was – just about – although possibly pre-soaking the grains in boiling water for a few minutes may be a good idea in future.  This helped to make the dish a bit more substantial, and provided a nice additional flavour and texture.

The revived idea was to garnish the finished noodle dish with a generous dollop of mayonnaise, which was allowed to percolate its own way through the noodles rather than stirring it in too much.  This provided a delicious, rich creaminess.  As I ate my way through the noodles, I added a bit more mayonnaise a couple of times.  By the end of the bowl, it had fairly well mixed with the noodle juice (or soup or call-it-what-you-will) and made it a pleasure to drink down to the last drop.

I’m not sure either of those spruces are going to be ones I use too often in the preparation of noodles, but they are certainly welcome additions to the repertoire.

Synchronicity!

Last night, I was planning to watch a DVD of Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

As it happens, I didn’t get round to doing so (I’m hoping to watch it tonight instead) but while I was still intending to watch it yesterday I happened to be searching through some little used cupboards and drawers in my house, looking for something or other.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, but instead I turned up a programme for Lucia di Lammermoor that I picked up when I went to see it at the Bielefeld Opera House during a visit to Germany about 12 years ago.

This was particularly surprising since, although I remember that trip to the opera quite well, I’d entirely forgotten that I had picked up a programme there, let alone kept it.

Of course, the programme is completely in German, which makes it a little difficult to read since my knowledge of that fine language was limited at the best of times and is now quite rusty to boot.  Still, I can remember enough to get the gist of what the programme says.

Interestingly, while it has a synopsis of the plot and quite a bit about the history of the opera, it doesn’t seem to contain anything about the specific performance, such as a list of the cast (as far as I’m aware it was essentially the regular Bielefeld Opera House artists, without any internationally famous guests or anything).  It may be that they had different casts for different performances (assuming it was being shown several times over the season) and there was an insert (either long-lost or never picked up with my copy of the programme) giving details, or that the information is actually there and I just missed it on my fairly brief perusal.

I haven’t yet tried to read the programme in any detail but it’s nice to find a physical link between my current mostly-home-media-based opera enjoyment and my previous visits to the Opera House.

Minty Fresh

I’m not a great fan, in general, of herbal teas.  I don’t mind drinking them but I would generally choose other things in preference to them.

However, a few years ago I had the pleasure of being served some Iraqi mint tea (at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, of all places) and enjoying it greatly.

Subsequently I read up a bit on mint tea and, although I couldn’t find any specific references to Iraqi tea in my extensive researches (i.e. Wikipedia) I did manage to find references to North African mint tea, which seems to be known variously as Morrocan mint tea, Maghrebi mint tea or Touareg tea.  The latter is my favourite name, due to its alliterative appeal.

Unlike the more standard British versions of herbal teas, which are generally just infusions of the herbs themselves (e.g. mint) and therefore not technically tea at all (i.e. containing leaves of Camellia sinensis), this is actually green tea (most often, apparently, Chinese green gunpowder) infused together with mint leaves.

The authentic preparation of Touareg tea seems to be fairly complicated, involving boiling up the tea and mint leaves together in water with quite a lot of sugar.  I’ve not (yet) tried that but a few weeks ago it occurred to me, while drinking a cup of gunpowder tea, that a reasonable substitute (or at least, a nice refreshing and tasty drink with no pretension to being authentic North African mint tea) might be obtained simply by bunging a few mint leaves in with the tea when brewing it in the usual way.

I lost little time in trying that idea out (though I did have to wait a few days to get to a supermarket and buy myself a mint plant, as my last one had died a year or two back).  So far, I’ve made my mint tea probably about half a dozen times, chopping (or cutting up with scissors) one or two mint leaves to go with a liberal teaspoonful of gunpowder tea in my basket infuser to make a single cup of tea.  I’ve been very happy with the results.

That’s pretty much all I want to say about mint tea for now but I’ll finish with a couple of notes about the brewing of green tea in general.  These are things that I’ve learned through reading followed by experimentation.

I’ve been drinking green tea for quite a long time (in fact, on and off, for most of my life) but until a few years ago tended to find it came out a bit bitter for my tastes when I brewed it for myself.  I then discovered that green tea should be brewed with slightly cooler water than black tea (for which the water should be pretty much boiling).  I can’t remember the exact recommended temperature (which probably varies in any case between different types of green tea and personal tastes) but as a rough rule of thumb I usually aim to turn off the kettle just as the big bubbles start to form and then leave it for a few seconds before pouring.  The result of using cooler water is that the tea brews without releasing various compounds that cause the bitterness, so you end up with a much nicer tasting cup of tea.  (Black tea, by contrast, benefits from hotter water to release its full flavour.)  That’s almost certainly the single most important bit of advice I’ve come across for brewing green tea.

More recently, I found that green tea leaves can be successfully infused several times and still give good results.  In fact, by reusing the leaves two or three (or possibly even four or five) times you get subtle changes in the flavour which add to the tea drinking experience.  Indeed, for some types of green tea, such as gunpowder, the first infusion is considered to give a less pleasant taste than subsequent infusions, so it is quite common practice to discard the first batch and start drinking from the second.   I’m not sure whether that practice is officially called “washing the tea leaves” but that’s how I tend to think of it.  (Again, this is different for black tea, where most of the flavour seems to come in the first infusion; oolong tea, although superficially more black than green, seems to stand multiple infusions very well, although washing the leaves is neither necessary nor desirable.)

I’ve taken to doing just that, with the slight modification that I usually only use half a cup of water for the first infusion (if I’m using my single-cup basket infuser, which is my usual method for tea making these days) and that, rather than waste it, I’ll leave it to go cold and then feed it to one of my houseplants.  I’m fairly sure that the tea doesn’t do any harm to the plant, and may do some good, and I still get to enjoy two or three very pleasant cups of green tea (with or without mint; often I’ll do the first brew (not counting the washing) without and then add mint for subsequent cups).

 

Double Vision

I’ve now reached the end of Season 17 in my (classic) Doctor Who read-through, which brings me to what is possibly the greatest tragedy of televised Doctor Who (greater even than the cancellation of the series in the late 80s as it’s arguable that it was losing its way slightly by that time and that the enforced break was actually a very good thing), namely the story-that-never-was: Shada.

It’s not the story that’s a tragedy, but the fact that it was never completed or broadcast.  This is particularly sad since it was not only (I think) the final Doctor Who script penned by Douglas Adams and the final story of his tenure as script editor but would also have certainly been one of the two best stories of what was a decidedly patchy season (indeed, some would say they were the only good stories – I probably wouldn’t go quite that far but I am judging most of the season solely on the books and I suspect some of them may have gone a long way towards remedying deficiencies in the original TV version) and quite possibly one of the best Doctor Who stories ever.

Incidentally, the other more-or-less universally agreed highlight of the season was the story City of Death, which was also written, or at least co-written, by Douglas Adams (under the pseudonym of David Agnew, along with Graham Williams and David Fisher; you can read the details in the Wikipedia article if you really want to know).

Of course, there have been many Doctor Who story ideas that have never got any further than the script stage, if even that far.  As far as I’m aware, though, Shada is the only one that got fairly well through production (with all the location shooting and a fair chunk of the studio work done) before it was cancelled.  The reason that it got thus far and no further was a strike at the BBC as a result of some industrial dispute.  No other story was made in its place – instead, season 17 only contained 5 stories instead of the then-usual 6.

All was not lost, as they were able to use some footage from Shada a few years later in The Five Doctors (the 20th Anniversary Special story) so that the fourth doctor could appear even though Tom Baker refused to reprise his role (a decision, I gather, that he later came to regret).  The BBC also released a video in the early 1990s with the extant footage held together by linking audio material supplied by Tom Baker (who by then was more willing to participate).  A friend of mine, who was a keen collector of Doctor Who material in the VHS era, had (and quite possibly still has) a copy, which I watched many years ago.  As I recall, it was pretty good, which only served to emphasise what a pity it was that it was never completed and shown in its proper time.

There has subsequently been an audio version produced, which I think transposes it to a story for the 8th Doctor (Paul McGann).  I’ve not heard that one and I’m in no particular rush to do so, though if the opportunity arises I wouldn’t mind checking it out.

Interestingly, although most people who know and care about such things, reckon Shada to be a fine story, Douglas Adams himself was by all accounts less than happy with it and, in contrast to the rest of the cast and crew, quite relieved when production was halted.  Due to some dispute or other with the BBC (which may partly have been due to feelings of discontent with Shada), he refused to sign the documents that would allow his Doctor Who stories (i.e. Shada and City of Death, as well as The Pirate Planet from the previous season) to be novelised and hence they are among the small group of classic series Doctor Who serials never to appear in the official Target books novelisation series, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

As I also mentioned in that post (along with the relevant link), the gaps in the official series were filled in by a series of fan novelisations from the New Zealand Doctor Fan Club which are (as I write, at least) freely available online.  The one for Shada is written by Paul Scoones.

In the case of Shada, however, there is now a (presumably) officially approved novelisation that was written by Gareth Roberts (based on Adams’ scripts) and published by BBC Books a couple of years ago.

I have just finished reading both versions and the comparison is interesting.  The Scoones one is by far the shorter of the two, at roughly the same length and level of detail as one of the target novelisations, while the Roberts one is a bit of a door-stopper as a 400-page hardback (though its now available in paperbook and e-book formats too).  The latter, therefore, has much more liberty of space to go into details of the backstory and characterisations and, I think, does a very good job of fleshing the story out.  The other one, to be fair, is also a pretty good read and probably actually fits better into the flow of the series of novelisations (to say nothing of the bargain price), being – as far as I can tell – a fairly faithful adaptation of the story as it would have been televised.  Both authors manage to remain fairly true to the spirit of Douglas Adams and it’s not too difficult to imagine either book as having been written by him.

In fact, Adams did more-or-less write a novelisation of Shada, as he recycled quite a large amount of the plot (including the name of Professor Chronotis, one of the main protagonists, and St Cedd’s, his (fictional) Cambridge college) for his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which was published in 1987.  Obviously, all references to the Whoniverse are excised, and it ends up as quite a different beast but if you’ve read either one you can’t read the other without a strong sense of deja vu.

On Rogeting

Amongst the (currently 40 or so) blogs that I keep an eye on is the Guardian news blog. Generally I just skim the headlines and only occasionally stop to read the full article if it particularly leaps out at me.

One such article turned up today, with the intriguing title Rogeting: why ‘sinister buttocks’ are creeping into students’ essays.

If you are familiar with Roget’s Thesaurus you may be able to guess, or at least be unsurprised to learn, that the term refers to using a thesaurus to more-or-less randomly replace words with supposed (and often inexact) synonyms.

The word was apparently coined fairly recently by a business studies lecturer called Chris Sadler (the article didn’t mention where he is based) and is specifically used to refer to the situation when students do this as a way of trying to disguise plagiarism by altering the words of the online text that they’ve nicked but (they hope, usually vainly) retaining the meaning.

Unfortunately for those who resort to such nefarious tricks, it isn’t as simple as that since, as mentioned, synonymns are often not exact.  Any given word will have a semantic range, i.e. a bunch of things that it can mean, and words will be considered synonymous if there is an overlap, or even just a fairly close approach, in their semantic ranges.  So, indiscriminate substitution of one word for another (either by flicking through a thesaurus yourself or by using a computer program/app to do it for you) can quickly lead to semantic drift and often humorously inappropriate results.  The situation is compounded as soon as you start to get several words together or if you make substitutions at the level of subwords in a compound word (one which springs to mind without having to resort to actually looking in a thesaurus is that you could turn “manhole” into “person orifice”!). [NB I've just spotted an unintentional pun there with the use of the word "compounded", but I don't think I'll rewrite the sentence.]

As an example of gratuitous rogeting, let’s take the sentence “The cat sat on the mat”.

It seems reasonable to leave the articles (“the”) alone, but we can pick nice sounding synonymns for the nouns (“cat”, “mat”) and verb (“sat”) and probably also the preposition (“on”).  In order to emulate a careless student (of the kind who would plagiarise somebody else’s article in the first place), I’ll go for the first synonym offered by my thesaurus for each of these words, without regard for how close I’m sticking to the meaning of the original word.  I will, however, try to make sure I at least get the right part of speech (e.g. not getting a verb for “mat”).

The nouns are nice and easy: “cat” -> “feline” (probably just as well that came before “pussy” on the list!) and “mat” -> “floor-cover”.

The verb is a bit more work, since we have to convert “sat” to the dictionary form (“sit”) and then convert the result back to past tense.  The first result given for “sit” is “place oneself”, so that will give us “placed itself” as the verb (+ pronoun, in this case) of the sentence.

It appears that my thesaurus doesn’t cover prepositions.  However, it does give several translations for “on” as other parts of speech.  Assuming the role of a slightly confused student, I’ll pick the first adverb that comes to hand (since the adverb is generally a good, handy catch-all category for any grammatical stuff you’re not sure about).  In this case, that is “concerning”.

The net result of our rogeting is:

The feline placed itself concerning the floor-cover.

And, since the object of that exercise (apart from having a bit of fun) was to show why rogeting is a bad idea, it only remains to say “QED” (or draw a little box, which for a mathematician means the same thing).

While the article (and evidently the originator of the word) concentrates on rogeting as a way of trying to evade detection of plagiarism this isn’t the only possible use of the practice, so I don’t see why the term can’t be applied to any indiscriminate use of a thesaurus to alter a text.

The most obvious other situation in which rogeting may be performed is by somebody trying to make themself sound cleverer by using bigger words. There was a lad in my GCSE English class who used to do just that on his own essays. The really sad thing is that the first draft of each essay, before he re-wrote it, was generally excellent (at least the bits I read) – well-argued and written in plain, no-nonsense English (and, I’m fairly sure, all his own work – this was certainly before the days of easy access to online sources and we used to write all our essays by hand). By the time he’d finished with the thesaurus (essentially following the procedure outlined above, except that he’d generally pick the fanciest sounding synonym rather than the first-listed) it was generally little more than pretentious sounding gibberish. He was basically shooting himself in the foot (or, to use a rogeted version of that phrase, photographing himself in the extremity).

If you set out, as I did earlier, deliberately to produce wacky results, rogeting can actually be quite fun so I suppose it could also be used a game for a rainy afternoon. I don’t envisage it particularly catching on though.

Of course, although it can be abused (and rogeting is, pretty much by definition, thesaurus abuse), a thesaurus can, if wisely used, be a very handy tool. As with a bilingual dictionary when translating between different languages, it can be excellent for finding an elusive word, but it’s necessary to cross-check and make sure that the word you’ve found makes sense in context.

Fixing it before it brakes

There is an old adage which says “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  Apart from being a great way to wind up prescriptive grammar pedants, there is a lot of wisdom in that remark.

However, there is also an adage which says “A stitch in time saves nine” (i.e. if you fix a problem before it gets too big you can save yourself a lot of work later on).

When it comes to bike maintenance, it’s probably a good idea to find a balance between the two – to avoid unnecessary and potentially counter-productive futzing with stuff that’s working fine but to pick up on developing problems before they get too big, especially when it comes to important systems such as the brakes (arguably the single most important bit of a bike).

Flicking back through my last few cycling-related posts, I notice that the last time I mentioned which bike I was using (just over a year ago) it was my mountain bike.  At the time, my road bike was down for maintenance as I was unable to find a suitable freewheel tool to enable me to take the freewheel off the back wheel in order to replace a broken spoke.  Fairly shortly after that post, I gave up on looking for a freewheel tool, bought a cheap but reasonably effective pair of new wheels (so they would be a matched pair) and a freewheel with a standard modern fitting, and got the bike back on the road.  That was just as well, since a few months ago my mountain bike developed a problem with the bottom bracket (essentially, the thread on the shell seems to have stripped itself) which will probably be quite expensive to fix (if it’s actually possible) and I’m currently operating with just one bike again.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed my brakes were getting a bit sluggish (and they don’t have the greatest stopping power at the best of times, as they are only caliper brakes with fairly small pads, not nearly as good as the V-brakes on my mountain bike).  A couple of days ago I decided it would be a good idea to adjust them while I was still able to stop the bike (and I had a couple of other minor maintenance tasks to do at the same time).

As well as rotating the brake pads to achieve more uniform wear (there’s still plenty of rubber left on all of them but the front ones were wearing quite a bit faster than the back ones) and adjusting the spacing between the pads and the wheels, I decided it would be a good idea to change the rear brake cable since the old one was beginning to look a bit worn out.  I had bought a couple of replacement brake cables shortly after I last changed them (sometime last year, I think) as I usually like to keep spares of that kind of thing.

I’ve replaced quite a few cables on my bikes over the years and it’s a fairly easy job.  This time, however, I learned an important lesson about how not to do it.

Having slotted the appropriate end of the (inner) cable into the lever and fed it through the outer cable (which I wasn’t replacing), I connected it up to the brake caliper, adjusted it to give a decent gap between the brake and the wheel rim and then trimmed off the excess cable, leaving a couple of spare inches for adjustment.  I then went to test the brake and discovered that the cable had popped out of the lever while the tension was relaxed.  In order to get it back in, I had to undo it at the caliper end and pull it back through a bit.  Unfortunately it was a tiny bit too short to fasten safely in at that end once I’d got the other end reseated in the lever.

Rather than trying to attach it anyway and hope for the best, I decided the sensible course of action would be to chalk it up to experience and try again using my second spare cable.  This time, I made sure everything was attached at both ends and thoroughly tested before I cut off the excess cable!

The first cable wasn’t wasted either, as I decided to use that to replace the (much shorter) front brake cable which, although not as decayed as the back one, was beginning to show some signs of distress.  Hopefully both the new cables will last a reasonable while (at least until next Spring), and I’ve already ordered a couple more spares.