Mixed media, 23 March 2014

This week, I have been mostly listening to Capital Cities’ In A Tidal Wave of Mystery and watching Arrow on Netflix. I said that I might have to listen to Capital Cities a bit more before getting to grips with the album, but now it is fully embedded in my head. Can’t stop listening to it, can’t stop my brain from replaying it internally when I’m not listening to it. My favourite album of 2014 so far.

I’m at episode 13 of Arrow now, and I’m particularly enjoying the way the relationships between the characters are genuinely changing, and how the plot is unfolding at the same time as Oliver Queen’s back story on the island is being revealed. It hasn’t (yet?) got stuck in a bad-guy-of-the-week rhythm, or forced Oliver and Laurel to replay a tormented “I love you but I can’t be with you” chorus whenever they’re in the same room. (That repetitiveness was one of the reasons I stopped scarfing down episodes of Chuck somewhere in the middle of its second season. That, and the disturbing levels of non-ironic sexism.)

I’ve started on Ken MacLeod’s Descent but haven’t made it very far yet.

The painter is almost finished with the house. The scaffolding is down, and the outside is all finished apart from a few final touch-ups on Monday. We got him to do the downstairs woordwork as well, and that’s looking lovely now too.

This afternoon Abi and I spent an hour and a half pruning back the pear tree, which had got out of control. Last year it threw off more pears than we could handle, even after we finally (6 years in this house) discovered that the right way to deal with otherwise inedible cooking pears is to cook them. So the pear tree is much smaller now.

pear tree
Pear tree in the back garden after pruning. I should have taken a “before” picture.

Mixed media, 10-15 March 2014

The weather was gorgeous last weekend. With the prospect of the sunny and warm spell lasting for a while, our house painter contacted us to see about starting work on the exterior woodwork on Tuesday. Our twee-onder-één-kap neighbours had theirs done at the back end of 2012, and our house has been looking shabby in comparison ever since. The movable scaffolding woke us up early on Tuesday morning, and the painter got most of the front done by this week. Even in the dark when I got back home on Friday evening, I could see how shiny and smooth it all looked. The front door is especially gorgeous now, and it makes me realize just in what a terrible state it had been.

I flew over to Edinburgh again on Tuesday evening. It was the first time I’ve been able to play with my new EasyJet Plus toys: free seat allocation, and Speedy Boarding. I normally take a window seat at the back of the plane, which works fine in Amsterdam, where EasyJet flies from the H gates and you can board and disembark from the front and rear of the plane; but in Edinburgh it’s often a crowded struggle. This time I took a window seat in an exit row over the wing. On a short flight the extra legroom doesn’t make much of a difference, but it is just a little bit nicer. Likewise, Speedy Boarding doesn’t get the plane off the ground any sooner, but it does mean that I get the pick of overhead compartments for stashing my bag instead of having to hunt around. It makes the boarding process feel relaxed and less frantic. Given the amount of time I spend on EasyJet flights, the little touches of comfort make the cost of the EasyJet Plus membership worthwhile for me.

I started watching Danny Boyle’s Sunshine on the journey, and started reading Robert Charles Wilson’s Burning Paradise during take-off and landing. (Looking forward to the time when I don’t have to switch off all electronics; should be soon.)

Sunshine is a compelling mess. It’s visually impressive, and it plumbs human tensions for psychological thrills instead of relying on creepy unseen alien horror. But my willing suspension of disbelief kept flickering on and off like a broken fluorescent tube throughout, and the final scenes were just running around in corridors. Three stars.

Burning Paradise presents an alternate 2014 where the world has seen a mostly peaceful twentieth century since the 1914 Armistice, but with a small group of people (the Correspondence Society) realizing that this has come about as a result of subtle manipulation by an alien hive mind they call the Hypercolony, that can modify global radio transmissions. The story is a pursuit thriller, following two groups of characters on the run from simulacra, human bodies created by the Hypercolony as its agents on the ground. Three and a half stars.

At Edinburgh airport I was standing in the queue for passport control when I noticed that the border control officers were wearing what I thought was a new uniform. I asked the woman officer who checked my passport about it, and she said that yes, in fact they had just got them last week. Her colleague next to her looked over with a grin and said “Most people don’t notice!” I did a hand-wavey thing that was intended to suggest spend a lot of time at border crossings, but my officer beat me to it. “Frequent travellers do,” she said, looking down at her screen, which made me wonder how much data they see when they scan my passport. (Maybe I’ll ask about that next time.)

I had to bite my tongue to stop myself saying something bland and pleasant like, “Oh, it looks very nice,” because it doesn’t. The uniform is a black (or super dark blue?) shirt, black tie, and a big white “Border Force” logo badge on the breast pocket. It looks stark and authoritarian and anything but “nice.” I wonder how they’d respond if I asked to take a selfie with my arm around around one of them buddy-style?

Yeah, maybe not.

I was staying at the Britannia Hotel on Belford Terrace, just around the corner ftom the Modern Art Galleries (no time to visit), and backing onto the Water of Leith. The window didn’t close properly, and the room was cold, and had a built-in white noise generator in the form of the water rushing down a weir in the river. The wifi was tolerable for web browsing, but not for streaming video. Nice location, though, so long as the weather is good enough for walking into town, which it was on Wednesday.

Edinburgh Castle from Bread Street
Edinburgh Castle from Bread Street

Pulp Fiction had a £2 sale on to clear some stock. I stopped in there on Wednesday evening on my walk back, and picked up a few more Jonathan Kellermans, Wicked, and the Cthulhu Now sourcebook from 1987, on the off chance that I’ll run the kids through modern a Cthulhu campaign at some point. Back at the hotel, I watched This Means War which is uninspired, charmless, and dull (one and a half stars).

On Thursday evening I met up with AlanW and AlanR at Mamma’s for pizza, followed by a drink at the Bow Bar before heading to the Voodoo Rooms to see Dar Williams. I hadn’t heard of Dar Williams before last weekend, when AlanW suggested that we go and see her. I grabbed her latest album In The Time of Gods on Monday, and loved it immediately. (Travel Tuesdays always get me quite stressed, and listening to “I Have Been Around The World” on Tuesday evening as I was packing almost made me cry. I played it for Abi and we had a nice cuddle. Aww.)

This was the first time I’d been to a gig at the Voodoo Rooms. I figured there wasn’t going to be much space up there, but I was still surprised by quite how tiny it is. There were about 100 chairs packed between the small stage and the sound desk at the back. The walls are lined with black curtains freckled with slow-blinking white christmas lights like stars against the night sky. It’s cozy and intimate.

Stevie and Joe of Northern Irish band Malojian played a lovely, gentle opening set on guitar and double bass, with as its highlight a song called “Bathtime Blues” that Stevie had written for his young daughter. When you know it’s a genuine bathtime song, it becomes hilarious, and I’m amazed that Stevie and Joe were able to keep whistling their parts even as they were suppressing grins on stage, and the audience were snickering away. Not my normal style of music, but I bought their CD afterwards anyway. (Dar Williams didn’t have any merch on sale, and I can’t walk away from a gig with no merch!)

Dar herself was magical. Her voice swept gracefully from breathy to strong, and brought a wide range of emotion to the stories she told in the songs she played: forceful on “I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything” and “Buzzer”, whimsical and childlike on “The Babysitter’s Here”, tender on “The One Who Knows” and “When I Was a Boy” (warning to parents: you will cry). Between songs she presented a humorous, slightly distracted persona, who loves playing her music. Her exit after the main set and return fifteen seconds later for a single-song encore felt perfunctory in such a small setting. The audience, a comfortable mix of old and new fans, was warmly appreciative. I had a great time.

  1. Mercy of the Fallen
  2. The Beauty of the Rain
  3. I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything
  4. I Have Been Around the World
  5. Buzzer
  6. The Babysitter’s Here
  7. The Ocean
  8. The One Who Knows
  9. Mark Rothko Song
  10. Storm King
  11. (with Malojian) Everybody’s Talkin (Harry Nilssen)
  12. (with Malojian) Iowa
  13. When I Was a Boy
  14. (Encore) February
Dar Williams with Malojian at the Voodoo Rooms
Dar Williams with Malojian at the Voodoo Rooms

Alex had his first ever violin recital on Friday evening, which unfortunately I missed. Abi recorded it, though, and he did really well. I love the way he’s so serious, yet sways lightly from side to side as he bows the instrument.

Yesterday morning we were up early because the painter was back to move the scaffolding into the back garden, but also to assist with a public tree planting on the grassy strip between the road and the canal behind our house. One of our neighbours had presented a petition for more trees to the town council back in 2012. The council said they would plant some in 2013, but we didn’t see any real action until we got a flyer through the door a week ago inviting us to the ceremonial planting on Saturday morning. A few days late for the Dutch national Arbor Day (Boomfeestdag), but better timing for the grown-ups who had requested these particular trees. Abi has written more about it on Noise2Signal and Making Light.

Abi hard at work
Abi hard at work
Abi with local politicians
Abi with local politicians

While I was away this week, my Sansaire sous-vide circulator arrived! I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. Last year I experimented a bit with doing sous-vide steaks in a picnic cooler. Although the results were promising, they weren’t actually good. Perhaps because the water wasn’t at the right temperature; the first time I had it at about 59°C, which resulted in well-done steaks. The second time I tried it I went for about 55-56°C, which resulted in merely mostly well-done steaks. Whatever the case, I was confident that the real issue was the lack of a proper kitchen gadget, so I was super excited to try it out yesterday at dinner time.

I went to the butcher in the afternoon and bought a couple of 2.5cm thick sirloin (entrecôte) steaks, seasoned them, and popped them into a pan with the Sansaire set to 52.0°C. (My CDN probe thermometer read the water consistently at 51.0°C; I figure they’re close enough.) An hour and a half later, with the salad and bread ready and waiting on the table, I removed the steaks, patted them dry with some kitchen towel, and gave each side (and the edges) a 30 second sear in a scorchingly hot pan of olive oil.

The result? The best steak I have ever cooked. The 30-second sear was enough to give the edges a little bit of a crust, while leaving the interior still pink and incredibly tender. The fat had softened to the point of juiciness, and had a rich buttery flavour. It was amazing. Not perfect yet. I think I used a bit too much salt for the seasoning, and if the steaks had been a little bit thicker, I could have given them a slightly darker sear in the pan. (I was afraid of un-doing all the Sansaire’s good work.) When I get our outdoor grill ready for the season, getting a criss-cross sear pattern on the steaks might add a cool visual effect. But overall: wow. Such meat. Very satisfaction.

Farrah Fawcett Hair

A moment of synchronicity last week. The first track in the New Music Monday playlist was “Farrah Fawcett Hair” by Capital Cities, which is summery, quirky and fun. I’ve listened to the whole album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, a couple of times since then. There are some fantastic bouncy synthy tracks in the first half. The opening track “Safe and Sound” is particularly splendid. The second half feels uninspired, but maybe I just need to give it some more time. If you like Chromeo, you’ll dig Capital Cities.

Then, after having read Jonathan Kellerman’s Deception last week, I had downloaded When the Bough Breaks (1985), Kellerman’s first Alex Delaware novel, for the trip home. Monday evening in bed I was on chapter 4, when I read the line “The girl on the other side was a sweet young thing with Farrah Fawcett hair and a face almost as pretty as that of her role model.” I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’m enjoying it so far. I’m occasionally jarred by its casually sexist descriptions of women, but they way it illustrates Milo Sturgis’s struggle for acceptance as a gay man on the LA police force is contrastingly progressive. The 1980s was a very different time.

Fiona’s laser tag birthday party

The timing didn’t work out for having her party closer to her actual birthday, but yesterday was the day. Fiona had invited six friends, but only four could make it. We rented a 9-seater minibus for the day and drove to the Coronel adventure centre in Huizen for three rounds of laser tag and DIY pizza (they provide the dough and pizza toppings, everyone puts on a disposable apron and gloves, and prepares their own) afterwards. Alex got a little tense, but we all had a great time. Lots of running around with big grins, and 10-year-old-serious team strategy sessions between games.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and about 14°, and when we got back all the kids went out into the back garden to poke things (rotten pears still lying around from autumn) with sticks (blown down from the huge dead tree that I need to get taken down). Abi and I, exhausted, went for a bit of a lie down. Amazingly, Fiona and two of her friends still had enough energy to go along to their dance class half an hour later.