Bait-and-switch War

“Where were you, and your civilisation, when my friend became depressed? When people began to die 20 years ago, in the war that you supported. Where was your civilisation when women were raped and tortured, when kids were kept from school, when libraries were burned down?”

(Quote from an interesting and powerfully emotive interview with Nelofer Pazira, star of the film Kandahar.)

This is why I call this a “bait-and-switch” war. We sent forces there to hunt down alleged criminals. This was in itself a bad idea. What’s worse, though, is trying to retro-fit this new motivation for being there: that we must “liberate” the Afghani people.

In my more cynical moments, I can’t help wondering if this was the real original reason for attacking Afganistan. Before September 11, President Bush surely must have known about the state of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. He must have known that they were relatively weak. This is information the CIA and allied intelligence agencies collect and collate as a matter of course. However, he had no immediate reason to use this knowledge.

Then, when September 11 happened. Bush needed to do something. He knew that he’d not easily find the masterminds behind the attacks. But suddenly his knowledge of the Taliban’s position is useful. He can move in his forces under the guise of tracking down Osama Bin Laden, but with the hidden purpose of toppling the Taliban. What a glorious media victory that could be! What right-thinking Westerner does not want to see such an oppresive regime being overthrown?

Never mind the fact that the terrorists still haven’t been found. And there is enough righteous anger in America to blind the masses to the bombing of innocents. With this war, President Bush will gain two fantastically useful political goals: he will gain massive public support for acting so “decisively”, and he can choose a more US-friendly government for Afghanistan when he’s done.

And if the rest of the world is unhappy about his actions, why should he care? He hasn’t shown any consideration in the past (Kyoto, Strategic Missile Defense, Bioweapons), and see how well he’s doing now!

This is exactly why the attacks of September 11 happened in the first place.

Planet of the Jellies

Me, B, and a bunch of jellies (at the Monterey Bay Aquarium).Me, B, and a bunch of jellies.

I haven’t been doing any updates to this web log (or Alex’s) during our holiday. We’ve been having a great time, though, and taking lots of pictures! We’ll get the best ones up soon after we get back home.


Packing again. But this time it’s for a proper, long holiday! I’d hoped to get more actual stuffing of clothes into suitcases done this evening, but I’ve been fighting our CD-writer instead.

Our CD-writer (a Mitsumi CR-4802TE) has now gone from being an internal drive, to an external drive (in a USB enclosure), to an internal drive again. And every time I re-mount it, or re-install Windows on my PC, it’s a struggle to get it working again. The key is usually to disable DMA on the device, and that turned out to work this time, too. The problem was finding where Windows 2000 hides this particular setting. In Win95/98 it’s fairly near the surface, but in Win2K you have to go:

My Computer -> Properties -> Hardware tab -> Device Manager -> IDE ATA/ATAPI Controllers -> Secondary IDE Channel -> Properties -> Advanced Settings tab -> Device 1 -> Transfer Mode


At least it’s working now, with Nero 5.5 as the burning software. Although I haven’t been using it for very long, and haven’t sat down to do a thorough side-by-side evaluation of it, it feels a bit nicer than the Adaptec (Roxio) EZ-CD Creator stuff.

The reason I have to get the CD writer up and running now is that we want to take all of our baby photos and movie files across to California with us. And we have taken over 2000 photos since Alex was born. Wow! Because we’ve created mid-sized and thumbnail versions of each photo, this means that we’ve got over 2Gb of data to haul with us–probably spanning 5 CDs. (Yes, we could get it down to fewer disks, but that would mean messing up the simple date-based directory structure we keep the files in. Prefer not to do that.)

All of the photos on Alex’s pages…they’re just the tip of the iceberg! We’ve only got around 175 baby photos up here on the Sunpig web site, so we really are talking about less than 10% of all the pictures we’ve taken since he was born. Wow.

But that does seem about right. The digital camera really encourages you to take lots of photographs. Without the cost of processing, you can just snap away, download, and start again. And the more photos you take, the better chance you have of catching a good one. Just think: we reckon that less than one in ten of our photos are worth showing to the world. That means that on a film camera, we’d only be getting 3, maybe 4 good shots out of a roll of 36 exposures.

The digital camera seemed expensive at the time, but I think it’s probably paid for itself already in saved processing costs.

Oh yeah–I’m going to have to get myself a new hard disk when we get back. I’ve only got 300Mb left to play with. We’ll probably take more photos than that in the first week we’re in California…

Chipperkyle B&B

What do you buy the person who already has everything? My darling Snoogums and I ask ourselves this question every year at Christmas, usually in connection with my parents. Something for the house? (They already own every conceivable kitchen appliance.) Books? CDs? (Tried that–and it turned out they already had them, so we ended up keeping them for ourselves.) Jewellery? Clothes? (Been there, done that.)

What we really wanted to get them was something unique, something unforgettable. And so we eventually our thoughts strayed into holiday territory: a weekend break somewhere. They love eating out, and they love old-fashioned country hotels, so we found them the perfect combination: an overnight stay at the Darroch Learg hotel in Ballater, Deeside, with dinner at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant.

As it turns out, my family had been asking themselves the same question about snoogums and me. (Us? Difficult to buy for? Never!) This produced an amusing scene on Christmas morning, when it was revealed that *they* had clubbed together and got us a weekend away, too. Not at Darroch Learg, though, but at our favourite restaurant, “The Plumed Horse” in Dumfriesshire. Super yum!

The Plumed Horse is another experience I have written about on Dooyoo, so I won’t go into too much detail about it here. (So here’s your “not much detail”: The Plumed Horse has just been awarded their first Michelin star, an accolade reserved for true excellence in cuisine. Their fish soup (a delicate yet intense broth, serving as the base for a tower of monkfish, sea bream, salmon, scallops, cockles, oysters and caviar) is just out of this world. My main course was roast breast of duck, layered high upon a bed of crispy noodles, and topped off with a slice of pan-seared foie gras. For dessert, we shared the grandest assortment of desserts I’ve ever seen on a single plate: their “assiette of Plumed Horse mini desserts” consisted of chocolate tart with white chocolate and orange ice cream, passion fruit brulée, apple bread and butter pudding, coffee and Tia Maria mousse topped with chocolate coffee beans, and three different sorbets (cassis, peach, and pistachio). Every course is a treat not just for the tongue, but for the eye as well. As Will Keane (played by Richard Gere) says in the film “Autumn in New York”: “Food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes.” Words to live and eat by, indeed.)

Anyway, back to Chipperkyle, the original purpose of this review! On our last two visits, we have stayed at the Deeside B&B just across the street from the Plumed Horse. This is a fine little B&B, run by the wonderfully friendly Mrs Cowan. Staying here means that you can enjoy a bottle of wine over dinner, and not have to worry about driving anywhere afterwards. However, Mrs Cowan is currently away on holiday in New Zealand, so we had to find an alternative.

The alternative arose in the form of Chipperkyle, recommended to us by Tony at the Plumed Horse. He said that he hadn’t been there himself, but several diners had stayed there and thought it was excellent. At £36 per person for bed & breakfast, it is a quite bit more expensive than the Deeside B&B, and it’s also about five miles’ drive away. However, it was a recommendation from someone we trust, and we decided to go with it.

We approached Chipperkyle from the direction of Kirkpatrick Durham, a tiny village about ten miles west of Dumfries. The sun was just hovering on the horizon. The snow, which had been alternately circling hawk-like and dive-bombing our car all day, decided to take another run at us. The directions we had been given told us to look out for a small white cottage with yellow window frames, after which the house should be just visible through the trees. What we didn’t know, was that the cottage is a gatehouse standing at the entry to a driveway leading up to a fabulous 18th century country mansion. I had been expecting something far less grand!

In the wounded glare of the setting sun, we approached the house with a genuine sense of awe. The hills beyond were gently dusted with snow, and massive trees formed imposing silhouettes against the rapidly whitening sky. We drew up behind the house. Just as Snoogums was snapping off a couple of photographs, Willie Dickson strode out the back door to greet us and whisk away our bag. We followed him into the house, trying not to look too much like tourists with our mouths agape.

The interior of the house matches the outside perfectly: military prints, watercolour landscapes, and oil portraits line the walls. The floors are covered with soft yet plain beige carpets, overlaid with oriental and middle-eastern rugs that you just *know* predate carpet superstores by at least a generation. The sitting room is a picture of comfortable elegance. Antique sideboards and cabinets stand at a formal parade rest around the perimeter, brandishing fine china, vases of fresh flowers, and family photographs. The large open fireplace is surrounded by sofas that beg you to sink into them with a deep “aaahh” of contentment.

Willie and Catriona Dickson are charming hosts, welcoming and chatty, but without being intrusive. We had had a fairly long drive down from Edinburgh, through blizzard conditions in parts, and all we really wanted to do was crash out on a bed and relax a bit. Better than this, though, was the option Catriona very kindly presented to us: tea and home-made biscuits, still warm from the oven, served in front of a freshly laid log fire.

After a satisfying period of lounging around, reading the papers, and gazing out at the bunnies hip-hopping about in the snow, we moved up to our bedroom to get freshened up for the evening. Chipperkyle only has two guest rooms, both of which are twins with private (but not en-suite) bathrooms, and which are in perfect harmony with the rest of the house: antique dressers and wardrobes, wrought-iron twin beds with dazzlingly white sheets and lusciously thick feather duvets and pillows…heavy drapes hanging like great cloth pendulums in front of the tall windows…perfectly aligned, vertically striped wallpaper, even though the walls themselves are far from plumb…a tiny vase of fresh snowdrops. The thought and planning that must go on to co-ordinate and maintain such a vast and intricate ensemble is astonishing. Yet the Dicksons make it seem completely effortless.

The private bathroom we had was large, with an enormous bath, a separate shower cubicle, and a bidet. (I’ve never quite got the hang of bidets.) The towels were some of the largest I have ever seen: they must have been at least six feet by four, and could easily have doubled up as wrap-around sleeping bags. Stepping into one after a warm shower was like stepping into a fuzzy burrito.

The only regret I have about staying at Chipperkyle came the following morning. Our dinner at the Plumed Horse had left us too full to indulge in a cooked breakfast. Sitting at the enormous dining room table with the Sunday papers spread out beside us, I had a small bowl of muesli, and Snoogums had some cereal. We both had a slice or two of some rich poppyseed bread Catriona had just baked, but really, anything more would have left us feeling bloated and sluggish for our drive home. It’s such a shame because apparently Catriona, in addition to baking fabulous biscuits and bread, also makes her own sausages. Next time, though, there shall be no excuse!

And there will be a next time, I’m certain. Apart from the fact that we need to stay somewhere when we go to the Plumed Horse, the welcome we received at Chipperkyle was fantastic. The house itself looks like something out of a Jane Austen costume drama. If you’ve ever fancied yourself living like a minor noble in a country mansion, looking out of your windows at acres of rolling hills and thriving farmlands, sipping fine earl grey tea, and generally feeling like the very model of elegance, then Chipperkyle is most definitely for you.

Fishers Bistro

I’m clearly a bad parent. Wee baby Alex is only three months old, and already Snoogums and I have left him alone with other people on four separate occasions!

Okay, so they weren’t complete strangers. My parents have some experience of child raising, but their techniques are thirty years out of date. My brother and sister-in-law are both smart and sensible, but until Alex came along they’d never held a baby before. How could I possibly entrust the life and well being of my baby boy to these people, even for a few short hours?

What if something happened to him? What if something happened to the sitters? What if there was a fault with my mobile phone? Maybe they’re trying to call me right now, but can’t get through! Quick, where’s the nearest pay phone? No, no! We should catch that taxi straight home to make sure he’s still breathing!

Pish tosh, I say. (I also say: bear with me for a bit. I’ll get to the restaurant soon.)

Human beings are enormously resilient, even at such an early age. Both Snoogums and I take a very dim view of modern trends in paranoid parenting. We have no intention of swaddling Alex in a protective blanket until he leaves home. We are quite happy to leave him alone on the rug or in his bouncy chair nearby while we go off and surf the net, cook, or do the dishes. Sometimes we even (gasp!) let him cry himself to sleep.

Teaching him how to relate to, and behave around other people is part of this attitude. We firmly believe that if he realizes there are other people who take care of him from time to time–and just as well as mommy and daddy, I might add–he’ll grow up to be a more adaptable child.

“Flow with it,” is the motto Snoogums grew up with. To a child, it is supposed to mean that the world doesn’t always revolve around you. Most of the time, there is stuff going on, like trips to the shops, visits to family, and work around the house. You may not be interested. You may even actively dislike these activities. But they’re going to happen anyway. So you can either paddle upstream, resisting the current and causing everyone grief, or you can Flow With It. The latter course has benefits for all: your parents stay relaxed and chilled out, and you get ice cream. Or chocolate.

FISHERS BISTRO (I told you I’d get there.)

So anyway, last week was our eighth wedding anniversary! (This whole lead-up was really an attempt to explain why we felt it was quite acceptable to leave Alex for the evening, and go out and enjoy ourselves on our own again for a change.) Fishers Bistro was the name; a pleasant evening of good food, wine, and intimate conversation was the game.

Fishers is situated on the Shore in Leith, a mere couple of hundred yards away from the Scottish Office, the new Ocean Terminal shopping centre, the Royal Yacht Britannia, and dozens of trendy pubs, bars and restaurants. It is tucked into the ground floor of a 17th century signal tower, and has a pleasantly close, low-ceilinged atmosphere. Fishing nets strung across the walls lend a certain nautical theme, while Victorian prints of gentlemen fishing add a freshwater touch. The plain wooden tables, simple place settings, and a clear view over a serving counter into the small kitchen give it a relaxed, continental air.

We had booked our table for 19:30, and even though this was a Monday evening, the place was almost full already. Our waitress showed us to a nice little table in the very far corner of the room, from where we could observe everyone else. Throughout the evening we were attended to by at least three different servers, and I think I counted five hovering around in total. This seemed quite a lot for a relatively small place (I reckon the whole restaurant would seat about 35 at a push), but it did mean that there was always someone ready to take your order, or pour more wine. Although a lot of the customers were smartly dressed the staff were all casual, which contributed to the friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

Fishers is a fish and seafood restaurant. For people who have been dragged there against their will and insist on having a chunk of meat with their dinner, there was one non-seafood starter (a warm salad of pigeon breast) and main course (roast lamb chops with coriander and lemon couscous) on the menu. But really–you go to Fishers to eat fish, and they have it in abundance.

The menu changes with the daily catch, and on our night we were told they were all out of queenies. Well, shucks. I suppose I would have felt more disappointed if I’d known what queenies are. Everything else, though, sounded seriously tempting, and I had a hard time deciding what looked best. Would it be the baked fillet of sole, stuffed with cream cheese and spinach? How about the stuffed whole sea bass with chorizo sausage, mozzarella and olives? In the end I settled on a char grilled tuna fillet with a mango, red pepper and basil salsa (£5.75), followed by a fillet of grilled wild arctic char with roast pepper mash and lobster bisque (£12.50). Yum!

The tuna was charred to a deliciously smoky crust on the outside. Like a fillet of beef, a tuna steak doesn’t have to be cooked all the way through on the inside, but I felt that mine was a little underdone. I would have preferred the choice to have it closer to “medium” than “rare”. The quality of the tuna was excellent, though, with a tender, melt-in-the-mouth texture and a clean, almost freshwater taste that contrasted beautifully with the grilled crust.

The mango and pepper salsa was tasty, crisp and fresh. Taken on its own it was marvellous, but after a few bites of tuna and salsa together I started eating them in alternation. The contrast between the warm grilled flavour of the tuna and the cool fruitiness of the salsa was just too much for a single mouthful. It’s a bold combination, but too disconcerting for my palette.

The main course was the first time I had tried arctic char, and I fell in love with it immediately. The arctic char is distantly related to salmon, and like salmon its meat is dense and rich. But there is none of the oiliness you get with salmon, and in taste it is probably closer to trout than anything else. Taken with a generous dollop of creamy mashed potatoes and roast red peppers, and a smear of lobster bisque, it made a heavenly combination. If it wasn’t considered inappropriate in polite company, I would have licked the plate to sup the last of the bisque. Fortunately, though, I had saved some mopping-up bread for just this eventuality, and was saved from social embarrassment.

When it came to choosing dessert, I was torn between honeycomb ice cream in a brandy basket with chocolate sauce, and a warm chocolate and pear tart. I’d seen other diners being brought both, and both looked decadent and tempting. The chocolate and pear tart (£4.95) won, but turned out to be a disappointing choice. The pastry was too dense, the chocolate filling was too dry, and it was loaded with nuts that simply overwhelmed whatever pear flavour might have been there. The single dollop of ice cream that came with it tasted bland and supermarket-bought. What I should have had (and what Snoogums wisely selected) was the baked amaretto peaches, topped with white chocolate cream and syrup. She let me have a large bite, and it was awesome.

Overall, Fishers was a fine place to have our anniversary dinner. The atmosphere was relaxing, and the food was good. But to be honest, we could have been taking a picnic on the moon for all it would have affected our enjoyment of the evening. We’ve had a great eight years together now, and the arrival of wee baby Alex has placed us in a blissful state neither of us could have imagined possible. Our senses are heightened with happiness, and every new experience seems imbued with magic. That evening at Fishers will stay with us forever as a sparkling point of joy in the constellation of our new parenthood.

Pizza Express

I first visited a Pizza Express in 1995. I was on a training course in Marlow, Bucks, and my car had just exploded, so I felt like I deserved a little treat for myself. (Actually, it was only the exhaust that detonated. It blew a hole in our bank balance all the same, though.) Since then, I’ve been to branches in London, Edinburgh and Perth, and every time the experience has been consistently good.

This evening, we were in Perth to pick up my mum’s car (which we’re borrowing while my parents are off on holiday), and we decided to grab a bite to eat while there. The Perth Pizza Express is, like many others, a converted bank branch. Bank branches seem to have the right kind of space that Pizza Express restaurants go for: light, bright and airy, with tall ceilings, and all the acoustic subtlety of a tube station. Wee baby Alex stayed asleep for most of the meal, but when he woke up, his yells echoed through the restaurant like a yodeling constest in the back of a Ford Transit.

The food was good, though. Between the four of us we ordered two portions of garlic bread, and a portion of dough balls with garlic butter. At £1.45, each order is fairly inexpensive, but I’ve always found the portions a little stingy. The garlic bread is a single chunk of golden brown baked pizza dough, glistening with melted garlic butter. Very tasty, but one is rarely enough. On the other hand, massive all-you-can-eat platters don’t really fit in with the restaurant’s stylish modern demeanour. On yet another hand (er…), no-one is going to stop you from ordering more than one portion.

When it comes to choosing pizza, I’m pretty unadventurous. I like pepperonis and chillies, so the American Hot (£6.70) is usually the one I go for. Pizza Express’s pizzas are about nine inches across, and are made in the traditional Italian style: a thin base, topped with a relatively plain, un-herby tomato sauce, with thin slices of mozzarella draped on top and melted in place. This way, the cheese doesn’t end up spread evenly over the surface, so you end up with more varied bites. Personally, I prefer this to American style pizzas, where the base and crust are generally thicker, and each bite tends to be more uniform.

Although the American Hot pizza is loaded with sliced green jalopeno peppers, the flavours of the tomato sauce and the mozzarella cheese still come through clearly. I think this is the main reason I like Pizza Express: the ingredients they use are clearly of a very high quality. The tomato sauce is fresh and tangy, the cheese has just the right stringy texture, and the pepperoni sausage is recognizably meaty instead of greasy and bloated with generic spices. I’m a big fan of pizza, and this one ranks very highly on my list of all time greats.

If you’re not a pizza lover, there are a small number of other items on the menu, like cannelloni, lasagne, and melanzane parmigiana. This is a bit like lasagne, but with the strips of pasta replaced by slices of aubergine. Snoogums and my mother both had this. I tried a bite, and while it wasn’t as dark, rich, greasy and overcooked as it I like it, it was sweet and tasty nevertheless.

On this occasion we didn’t have wine, but from previous visits I remember the house red and white as both being nice and slurpable. Likewise, the desserts are all fun and unobjectionably sweet (the tiramisu is particularly good, though). But the name of the restaurant really spells out what they’re best at: pizza. They have branches all over Britain, and if you fancy something a bit more adventurous and a little less bland than your local Pizza Hut, try Pizza Express instead. You won’t be disappointed.