Activity central chez Sutherland

Activity central chez Sutherland

30 July 2000

Wow, it’s been such a busy couple of weeks that it’s hard to know where to start. I think I’ll lead with the thing that’s most prominent in my mind (and body) right now: pain. Vast amounts of it. Muscular pain, from my neck, through my back and thighs, all the way down into my feet. I don’t think I’ve ever had muscle pains in my feet before. And it’s all SARAH HENRY’s fault.

See, back when I was still working for the Royal Bank, she convinced me to take part in a friendly mixed netball competition that took place yesterday at the Pleasance sports centre of Edinburgh University. We had two evening practice sessions, one two weeks ago (Tuesday 18th) and the other Thursday past (27th). I thought I knew pain after the first of those sessions, but that was nothing compared to the sheer agony that comes from five tough 20-minute games in a single afternoon. Anyone who says that netball is a girly sport, I can now with some degree of confidence brand a clueless nutter. It’s very fast, requires heaps of tactics and technique, and enormous amounts of physical fitness (qualities which I don’t possess, but I tried to make for with raw enthusiasm.).

We did actually manage to win the competition, though! This was probably because Sarah Henry and Lynsey Malcolm both play for Scotland, and our other guest star James (whose surname I’ve forgotten) plays for the England men’s team. Having such star quality on board might have helped us along. Greg McAllister, all 6’2″ of him, played some great attack and defence as well, and I just ran up and down the court like a crazed ferret, trying to get my hands on any ball that came near me. Because we only had five players, we had to borrow two extras from some of the other teams. Because Sarah knows everyone, she was able to poach the best and the brightest from elsewhere to come and play for us. Seems to have worked!

Exam Fever

About two years ago I convinced the Royal Bank to pay for a set of Microsoft exams that would qualify me as a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD). I passed three of the four necessary exams (two core Windows exams, and one on Visual Basic 4), but failed by one measly percent on the MS Access exam. I always intended to re-take the last one, but I was too busy with work at the time to be thinking about even more work things extracurricularly.

Now, though, I’m working for Cedalion, which is a Microsoft Solution Provider (MSP). To maintain this status, they must have a certain percentage of their developer employees qualified at MCSD or MCSE (MS Certified Systems Engineer) level. Part of my job duties now include making sure that I attain this qualification as quickly as possible, and maintain (or improve on) it. To this end, I sat exam 70-152, “Designing and Implementing Web Solutions with Microsoft Visual Interdev” last Monday (24th July). This was right after our anniversary weekend (more on this later), and although I didn’t have much time to study, I still managed to fly through it with a score of 84%. (The pass mark was 71%.)

Next ones up are Visual Basic Desktop and Visual Basic Distributed, which I’ve got lined up for Monday August 28th. I’d taken the Interdev exam first, because this is what I’ve been working with most over the last couple of years, and I knew it was going to be my strongest subject. I’ll definitely need to put in more work for the VB exams, though!

The continuing story of a car

Not too much to report on the car front right now. Toyota UK have sent us a brochure on the Picnic, and we’ve sent back our colour selection. We’ve been advised that the 7-seater model in Pacific Blue (600 x 290, 36K) is in plentiful stock, so we’ve gone for that. This means that we’ll probably get the car a little bit faster, but of the available choices, it was the nicest one, too. Toyota should get back to us soon with a delivery date, and after that it’s just a matter of waiting… More details as soon as we have them.

Yet another romantic weekend

Last weekend was our 7 year wedding anniversary! I can now definitely say that the first seven years of a marriage are the hardest ones. To celebrate, we hired a car for the weekend, and drove down to our favourite restaurant, The Plumed Horse. Saturday 22nd July was a glorously hot and sunny summer days. We set off late, and meandered through the Borders, stopping off for a picnic and a mid-afternoon nap at St. Mary’s Loch, before zipping the rest of the way to Crossmichael.

When we got there, we checked into the Deeside B&B, and got cleaned up before hiking all the way across the street to the restaurant. As usual, the food was fantastic. For starters, I had a medallion of goose and duck foie gras embedded in a muscat and calves foot jelly, and Abi has a warm goats cheese salad. Main course was lamb for Abi and sea bass for me, and for dessert Abi chose the chocolate tart, while I went for the banana brulée. (See my full review of the experience on DooYoo.) We had another bottle of the splendid 1988 Tokaji with the dessert, and because by that time the restaurant had emptied out (it was a very quiet evening–apparently July has been a quiet month for them overall, but they seem to be booked up for most of August already) we asked Charles and Tony (the owners) if they wanted to share a glass to the Tokaji with us. Charles smiled and declined politely, but such tempting bait did manage to lure Tony out of the kitchen. We then spent the best part of an hour just chatting away, and having a splendid time. We wandered back across to the B&B feeling full and happy.

The next morning, being gluttons for culinary punishment, we had a full cooked breakfast before setting off for Hadrian’s Wall, which runs roughly from Carlisle to Newcastle. Neither of us had visited this part of Britain before, and we were amazed by the unspoiled rural beauty of the countryside. Rolling hills with crags and little lakes, small villages with country pubs and people sitting on the steps up to their front doors in the summer sunshine. It looked like a marvellous place to spend a walking holiday, or a weekend break, and I’m sure that we’ll be back at some point in the future.

Music Fest

And if all this activity wasn’t enough, on Thursday evening this week (just after netball practice) we went out to the Port O’ Leith pub to see my drum teacher (Craig Hunter) playing with his band Monkey House. They were playing mostly rock and blues covers, and sounded great even in the tiny space they had to fit into. (The Port O’ Leith is a small pub–if you just stick your head into it, you’d be surprised they’ve got space for the bar, let along a band.)

Then yesterday evening we were out seeing Courtney Pine as part of the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. He had a truly awesome band on stage with him, and they gave up their all on a fantastic set of funked-up jazz that had even me (who doesn’t dance) swinging away during their encore. Courtney Pine is a man who loves his music, and loves playing live. When he really gets into his solos he looks like he’s throttling every last note out of his sax, and placing every ounce of his heart into the effort. One of the highlights of the gig, though, was Mary Pierce on vocals giving a truly stunning performance on Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times.” Sent shivers up my spine.

And no, that’s not all. Tonight we’re going out to see Dr. John at the same venue (Queens Hall), also as part of the Jazz & Blues Festival. Yes, folks, the Edinburgh Festival season is fully upon us. As always, we intend to make the most of it, but as always, we’ll just have to wait and see if we have the get up and go to actually get ourselves to more than just a couple of events.

Until such time as I have more to report, it’s over & out from me.


The Plumed Horse

**UPDATE (23 February 2001)**
Just last month the Plumed Horse was awarded their first Michelin star! Although the AA hasn’t upgraded their two-rosette rating (yet), the nod from Michelin acknowledges the Plumed Horse not just as one of the top restaurants in Scotland, but also as one of best in Britain.

Gomez – Liquid Skin

I’d been aware of Gomez since the won a Mercury Music Prize for album of the year in 1998 (with their debut, Bring It On). I’d never listened to them a lot, but every now and then I’d catch them on late-night radio, MTV-2, or playing live on “Later” with Jools Holland. Then, a couple of weeks ago, as we were tidying up our office, one of my colleagues put on this album: Liquid Skin

Right from the very first track “Hangover”, I was hooked. With its jangly guitar work and up-beat blues rhythm, it feels like it has stepped straight off the streets of New Orleans. The second song, “Revolutionary Kind” follows in similar footsteps, but at a more relaxed tempo. The third track, though (“Bring It On”), is completely different, and made me go out the next day and buy the album. It still sends shivers up my spine every time I hear it–especially with the volume cranked up as far as common sense and neighbourly courtesy allows.

Gomez has three main vocalists, Tom Gray, Ian Ball, and Ben Ottewell. On “Bring it On” they all join in, alternating and interleaving the lines of the first two verses, before giving way to Ottewell’s gravely roar for the choruses. And just when you think the song is going to carry on at a full rolling boil, they bring it back to a simmer and play it out loud but calm. It’s a masterpiece of tightly controlled raw energy.

The rest of the album is all about contained energy, too. Even at their most laid back, on tracks like “Blue Moon Rising” and “Rosalita”, you always feel like there could be a ripping guitar solo just around the next musical corner. Although they’re young guys from England, they maintain a very mature American sound throughout, partly Southern blues, partly Californian rock. But really, their style is uniquely their own. (The best comparison I’ve been able to come up with so far is Aerosmith crossed with the Neville Brothers. They trick you into thinking that they’re playing much harder rock than they actually are.)

My other personal favourites on the album are “We Haven’t Turned Around”, a hauntingly melancholy song that makes for great late night listening, and the last track, “Devil Will Ride.” Just as the album starts with three attention-grabbers, so they leave you with a wild ride through burning guitars, mixed-up vocal effects, ending up marching through the streets of New Orleans, with horns and clapping and everything. Majestic and absolutely marvellous.

(Now I’m going to have to go out and get their first album, too!)

End Of Days

If there’s a single image from this film that will stick with me, it’s Kevin Pollak’s expression whenever he’s on screen. If he’d turned to camera, shaken his head in despair, and said “what am I doing in this movie?” it would have seemed almost entirely in character.

Now, I have nothing whatsoever against Arnold Schwartzenegger, but he’s not really an actor: he’s a Movie Star. Put him in a film that plays to his strengths, like True Lies, The Terminator or the much-maligned Kindergarten Cop, and he shines. Put him in a role that asks him to display a certain depth and range of emotion, like that of Jericho Cane, the tortured anti-hero of End Of Days, and he is little better than a plank. He can pull a suicidal grimace in the morning twilight of a shabby apartment, but as soon as he opens his mouth you just have to wince. His lines sound like he’s chewed them at least twice before choking, and regurgitating them–with difficulty.

Arnie himself is the first, and biggest mistake this film makes. Kevin Pollak, who plays Chicago, Arnie’s sidekick, knows it, and you can read it on his face in every scene they share. Almost any current male lead you can think of could have injected more realism into Jericho’s character. Christine York, played by Robin Tunney (whom you may remember as the not-evil one from The Craft) is the only character who seems to be able to take him seriously.

The second great flaw of the film is its script. Written by Andrew W. Marlowe, who did a fairly decent job on “Air Force One” a few years ago, it takes absolutely ages to go anywhere. The first forty-five minutes lazily set the scene: in the last days of 1999, the Devil takes the form of a man so that he can impregnate the chosen one (Christine), and thus bring about the “End Of Days.” Just how the end of the world will come about is never explained. Is a simple bout of demonic nookie enough to open the gates of Hell, or will we have to wait for the resulting offspring to wreak Damien-like havoc on us all? Who knows? Who cares?

After this has been set up, the rest of the film consists mostly of a lot of running around with all parties concerned trying to find and snatch Christine from each other. All the parties are:

(1) Jericho and Chicago, who work for a private security firm. They were on duty trying to protect a Wall Street Banker (whose body had been taken over by the Devil), when a rogue priest tried to assassinate him. Rather than just taking their danger bonus and letting the police handle things from there, they take it upon themselves to figure out what’s going on.
(2) The Devil, played by Gabriel Byrne with about as much menace as a pop tart.
(3) The Bad clergy, who want to kill Christine before she can have it off with the Devil.
(4) The Good clergy, led by Father Kovac (Rod Steiger), who want to take Christine in and protect her until the whole thing blows over.

Any story involving supernatural beings has to be careful in plausibly restricting the powers that these beings have access to. End of Days falls woefully short in this regard: the Devil can apparently possess any body at will, but he chooses one with no straightforward access to Christine. He can raise bodies from the dead, but he can’t force or torture Jericho into revealing Christine’s location. The Devil only gets this opportunity to destroy the world once every thousand years, so why didn’t he plan the whole thing out more carefully? Oh, well, better luck in 2999.

Believable, no. Exciting, not really. Tense, only occasionally. Humorous, yes, but unintentionally so. There are some decent special effects (the sex scene is eerily impressive), but with the bulk of the film shot in almost pitch darkness, it’s hard to pick them out. It’s got high production values, but that’s just not enough to save a film.

Director Peter Hyams can do, and has done, a lot better than this (Outland, Capricorn One and Running Scared are a couple of excellent examples), but on the other hand, his career is littered with some amazing turkeys (Stay Tuned and Sudden Death immediately spring to mind). Unfortunately, End Of Days belongs in the latter category.

Slow news week

Slow news week

13 July 2000

…So I’ll just keep this one brief and to the point. The most interesting
event over the past week was, of course, Abi getting a tattoo. You can read
all about it on her section of the sunpig
, but that doesn’t stop me from mentioning it, too. Even though we
had to get up ridiculously early on Saturday morning to get an appointment
for that same day, it was still worth it. It looks great.

My favourite line now: “Hey, there’s something on your arm.”

If I didn’t have a severe needle phobia, I’d be tempted to get one
myself. (Not that I have any idea what I would like embossed on my skin for
the rest of my life, though, so it’s probably more a mild envy of Abi’s than a
genuine desire.) Abi has suggested that the next time I’m under general
anaesthesia, she’ll hire a tattoo artist to come and do one for me, so I won’t
have to suffer through the whole pain and fear thing.

Latest car update

Unfortunately, it’s nothing too exciting. I called up my good friend at
Fuji on Tuesday, and asked him if there was any progress. He said that he’d
been in touch with Toyota, and that they were now getting ready to take things
over from him. Then, on Wednesday morning I got a call from Toyota UK, first
of all congratulating me on winning the car, and then explaining what was going
to happen next.

They’re sending us out a brochure on the Picnic, and a colour chart, so we
can choose what kind of paint job and interior trim we want. Then, we send our
selection back to them, and they arrange for this vehicle to be delivered to a
local Toyota dealer. Unfortunately, because they don’t have huge numbers of
Picnics in stock, this will probably take somewhere between 4 and 6 weeks.
So we won’t be able to drive it down to Dumfries and the
Plumed Horse for our anniversary
next week. Oh well…

If we we’re not going to have our own brand new car, we’re going to have to
rent a car for the weekend. Because it’s a special anniversary weekend, I had
a sudden wonderful idea of maybe hiring a little sports car, rather than the
normal tiny hatchback we go for. I went by our usual rental place
(Enterprise, in Leith)
at lunchtime yesterday. They greeted me with their usual enthusiasm, but the
only thing they had that came kind of close was a BMW 3-series. That was just
a bit too big, though. I’d really had my mind on a Mazda MX-5, or an MG.

The ever-friendly staff at Enterprise mentioned that Budget might have
something more along these lines, so I gave them a try, but they weren’t taking
any bookings until August. (Can I also say that the very fact that Enterprise
were willing to refer me elsewhere is a typical indicator of their very high
levels of customer service. These people are great, and really do their best
to make car hire an easy and enjoyable experience.) Lunch over, I scouted
around on the web for a bit and came up with
Avis Prestige
, which hires out luxury and sporty cars. A brief look at their
prices, however, told me that this was not going to fly, though. (£320 for a BMW Z3
for the weekend? Hmmm…probably not.)

So, a little disappointed, I ended up back at Enterprise, where they were only
too happy to supply us with a Renault Laguna-class vehicle for next weekend. It
should have a CD player, and they assure me that it’s a really nice drive. I’m
looking forward to it.

Books, movies, and music

(Though not necessarily in that order)

We saw two films last week,
Chicken Run
Mission Impossible 2
Chicken Run was very funny, and a great family film, and MI-2 was a
pretty good action movie. (Towards the end, though, the stunts did cross the fine
line between breathtaking and ridiculous, though.) But between the two of them,
probably the neatest thing was the “CR-1” Chicken Run/MI-2 crossover trailer that
was shown just before MI-2. Almost worth going in to the cinema to it on its own!

Music-wise, I bought three CDs on Saturday, Liquid Skin by Gomez,
Dizzy Up The Girl by the Goo Goo Dolls, and I Like to Score by
Moby. Although since the weekend, the only thing I’ve had running on my MP3
player is Byzantium by Deep Blue Something. (Remember the song “Breakfast
at Tiffany’s”? That’s them.) See my
review of the album

And finally, I’ve just finished reading John Sandford’s Night Prey.
If you’re looking for an excellent police/serial killer thriller, pick up one of
Sandford’s Prey series. I’ll have to do a proper review on DooYoo, or
somewhere else at some point. (I’ve just found out about
ThemeStream, which seems to bill itself
as more of an on-line magazine and review digest than other reputation managers.
I’ll check it out and write some more about it, too.)

And that’s all for now!


Deep Blue Something – Byzantium

Remember the song "Breakfast at Tiffany’s"? I can hardly believe it was released back in 1995. Even now, you only have to hum a bar or two of its chorus, and pretty soon everyone around you will be humming or whistling, or singing along under their breath. But, as my lovely wife pointed out, it’s one of those songs where no-one can remember anything but the chorus.

The band was Deep Blue Something, and the album it came from was called Home. The one I want to review, though, is their follow-up, Byzantium. (I was just warming you up with some background…) Having loved Home, I got Byzantium as soon as I saw it in January 1998. At first I found it disappointing, because it was very different from the earlier album. They seemed to have lost some of the high-energy pop sound, and the tunes weren’t as immediately catchy.

After listening to it for a while, though, I started to appreciate the wide variety of styles and musical influences represented on the tracks. The first song, “Daybreak and a Candle End” starts off with a two-and-a-half minute intro reminiscent of latter-day Rush. “Tonight” has a chanty chorus that could have come from Chumbawamba, and “Cherry Lime Rickey” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Manic Street Preachers’ Generation Terrorists LP.

With 15 tracks on it, Byzantium has something for almost any mood, from the totally chilled out “Enough To Get By,” through the dance-like, driving grooves of “Dr. Crippen” and “Parkbench,” to the all-out rocking anthems “Light the Fuse” and “Becoming Light”. I think I found it hard to like the album initially precisely because it’s so varied. It doesn’t have a unified feel to it, and it isn’t “easy listening” music by any stretch of the imagination. The best classification I can come up with is “Indie Rock”, but that is still too narrow a description by far.

Although Deep Blue Something are from Texas, they have a distinctly British feel to them, and would fit well in a line-up next to groups like Dodgy, Toploader, or the Manics. They’re mostly a guitar band, but Byzantium uses some very nice horn and string arrangements as well. Lyrically, it’s is not hugely involving, but I find that the complexity and intricacy of the music itself more than makes up for this. Overall, it’s one of the most interesting albums in my collection, and one that I come back to time and again.