Monthly Archives: September 2014

Level One: Counter-Strike: Source & Tetris

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 62/100Title: Counter Strike: Source
Developer: Valve
Platform: PC
Year: 2004
Position: #56

You have to hand it to people at Valve for pushing a concept that could cause enough controversy that could give them trouble from high levels. In Counter Strike: Source (a very well executed update of the original Counter Strike game) you can either take on the role of soldiers or terrorists in a good old-fashioned game of first-person shooter cat and mouse. As a terrorist you mission criteria usually involves blowing shit up, as a soldier it is up to you to prevent that from happening.

The way that this plays out is a series of short (well, it depends how good you are) team-based missions on one of a good number of maps. At this moment it sounds a lot like (the very much amazing) Team Fortress but it’s got a very different spirit  since there is no cartoonish humour and, most importantly, once you die you stay dead until the round is over. You also have the ability to buy realistic weapons for your team based on how well you did in the previous rounds, something which really causes things to ramp up.

Much like Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead and Timesplitters it is a game that is best enjoyed with multiplayer being used to the fullest… but it is still a lot of fun solo.

TetrisLogo_4cProcess_RTitle: Tetris
Developer: Alexej Pajitnov
Platform: Pretty much everything by now
Year: 1985
Position: #25

Tetris aka one of the most addictive games is something that is so engrained in our gaming culture that pretty much everyone with a passing knowledge of technology will have played this at some point. What else is there to say apart from that I wouldn’t mind some of the hours back that this game stole from me.

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Music Monday: Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 30/250Title: Led Zeppelin
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Year: 1969
Position: #116

I’m sticking around in 1969 for a while since it is, apparently, the year that holds the most albums within the Top 250. In face the time between 1967-1971 holds just over 27% of the entries on this list so I will eventually become very well acquainted with this era.

The choice of doing Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album actually comes from the fact I found on Dusty Springfield playing a large role on the band getting a record deal with Atlantic Records. It also helps that I have never really listened to any Led Zeppelin because of their association with metal and hard rock. Still, with four albums on this list it made sense to get the first one over and done with now.

I say over and done with since I didn’t expect that I would enjoy it, surprisingly I did. The reason being that despite this album being an important landmark when it comes to heavy metal… it is as much metal as The White Stripes were. Yes, there are a number of guitar solos (I mean the album opener ‘Good Times Bad Times’ has some epic guitar playing, so they really did start as they meant to carry on) and it was a lot louder and more in your face than other albums that were popular at the time. In this way whilst it is a precursor to heavy metal it is far closer to blues rock, something that I tend to like anyway.

As with other albums of this era there is a change in the music upon the disc flip. For this album I have to say that it was the second half that really struck me more immediately. It opens with ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ which is heavy on the Hammond organ and features a very upbeat chorus for a song hoping for the downfall of an unfaithful girlfriend. This then leads into a very faux-Indian sounding track (The Beatles would be happy) which, again, is not what I expected to hear. This pattern of defying my expectations just kept on repeating throughout the album.

I guess why Led Zeppelin was able to surprise me was that it was light on the guitar solos that I know they are famous for. Whilst many are able to appreciate these I can not help but see them as showboating and not much else. We’ll see how I feel when I get to their later albums.

Good Eatin’: Embracing My Anglo-German Heritage

 List Item: Try 500 of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die

I am about a quarter-German and the rest of me as pretty much pure English as far back as the family tree appears to go. However, growing up with my mum and my German grandmother I might as well be half-and-half. In sports I tend to support Germany (and also Croatia and Slovenia for reasons I explained before). When I first went to Germany and had proper German food… it felt like a lot was explained.

Food Items: Weisswurst and Red Cabbage

Most people, when I ask them about German food, they tend to mention currywurst and their distaste of it. I don’t have the heart to tell them about weisswurst, my favourite of all the German sausages. Do I like it because of the mixture of spices like parsley, mace and cardamon? Do I like it because of the delicate flavour you get from the mixture of veal and bacon? Do I like it because the best way to eat it is to dip it in sweet mustard and suck it out of the skin? Yes, yes and YES!

To go with this I made some red cabbage by boiling it with some cider vinegar, lemon juice, sultana, nutmeg and quite a bit of brown sugar. Next time I would use less vinegar but on the whole it turned out really well.

Food Items: Damson Jam and Cornish Clotted Cream

There is nothing quite like that change in texture between the more solid crust at the top of the container of Cornish clotted cream and the gloopy insides. It means that on two halves of the same scone you are able to have a very different experience. With an average fat content of 64% this isn’t something I am going to have too often…unlike the damson jam. With a rich and dark sweetness this damson jam (complete with full plum skins) probably makes for a better cream tea than strawberry jam. Mainly because of the depth of flavour and the greater contrast in colour.

Food Items: Marshmallow

I also managed to polish off a packet of marshmallows today… because why the hell not.

Progress: 142/500

Good Eatin’: It’s Time For Cheese

List Item: Try 500 of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die

I really love cheese, but it tends to be something I don’t each much of because of the typically high fat content that you find in it… then again it doesn’t mean that I have to stay away from cheese… and thank God for that. I made two very different sandwiches with these cheeses.

Food Items: Caerphilly and Comice Pear

So here I mixed the Comice pear (was buttery and juicy with a strong pear taste) with the Caerphilly cheese (mild, soft and tangy) to make a toasted bagel. These flavours were a perfect match with the Caerphilly acting as a truly amazing melter cheese. I later had the remaining cheese with a Wagyu beef burger (from Asda, who knew?) and, again, it formed a great partner since it was mild enough not to overpower the delicate and delicious flavour of the beef.

Food Items: Cheshire, Tortilla and Pickled Gherkin

Okay now this was a slightly weird quesadilla I made. Cheshire cheese, chopped gherkins, roasted red pepper and garlic mayonnaise. What can I say? It was lush. It feels a bit weird to have tortilla as a food list item (especially this late) but I guess it would be more exotic if you were living in Britain twenty years ago.

My love of gherkins comes from my nan who used to include them in her potato salad, and I have been known to eat most of a jar and then feel very sick afterwards because of all the vinegar. I also enjoyed the crumbly and creamy Cheshire cheese which, like the Caerphilly, was a good melter. This one had a stronger flavour though which meant it was able to hold its own against the big flavours in my quesadilla.

Progress: 137/500

Let’s Get Literal: The Great Gatsby

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 15/100Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Year: 1925
Country: USA

It took me about 2 and a half months to wade my through Dante’s The Divine Comedyand only four days of commuting to finish off The Great Gatsby. After the tome of a book that was my previous read I was looking for a shorter read that was a bit more in my ballpark. After talking with someone at work I figured that The Great Gatsby would make for a good next read.

Going into this I have never seen any adaptation of this story, so I had no idea about what was going to happen. In fact the only real clue I had to this was a comment from my mum about the character of Daisy being incredibly shallow; to be fair that is something that could be said about pretty much every character in this book.

According to A List of Books this is the most acclaimed book of all time. While I really enjoyed reading this and became so engrossed in it I have one thing that’s really stuck with me… the ending feels rather rushed. In the penultimate chapter everything comes to a head spectacularly with Fitzgerald knotting every single plot thread and distantly-related character together. It’s a brilliant chapter that warrants an immediate re-read. The final chapter, however, feels a little bit rushed and half-baked; maybe that’s the point since, like the characters of Tom and Daisy, it’s fairly superficial and it pretty much abandons the story the moment it gets heavy.

Unlike a lot of people I really liked the characters I was reading. Yes, they are all shallow and frivolous (minus the narrator). Yes, it is fairly sickening how they are able to throw money at problems to make them go away. However, none of them are particularly happy. In fact, it could be argued that the only show of true happiness is by Mr Wilson fairly early in the book. The fact that is incredibly short-lived speaks to his connections to these awful people.

In a way The Great Gatsby was fascinating to me in the way that the documentary film The Queen of Versailles was. The descriptions are beautiful and colourful but, in the end, it is hard to be jealous of a group of unhappy rich people whose lives are falling apart. The fact that the narrator is able to escape that life in the end is a relief since you do become rather attached to his ever waning optimism. I hope that in the world of fiction he was able to find some happiness.

Ebert’s Greats: Leaving Las Vegas & 49 Up

List Item: Watch Roger Ebert’s “The Great Movies”
Progress: 176/409 Title: Leaving Las Vegas
Director: Mike Figgis
Year: 1995
Country: USA

Leaving Las Vegas is one of those movies that many people seem to hold up on internet forums when they are trying to defend Nicolas Cage as an actor. Until now the only films where I saw him in a proper role were Adaptation. and Moonstruck (I have seen Raising Arizona but I really don’t rate it too highly). Having watched Leaving Las Vegas I can add this to the list since he is able to bring a lot of sympathy to his character of Ben; a self-destructive alcoholic seeking to drink himself to death in Sin City.

Alongside Cage’s character of Ben is the love-interest of the film; Sera, a prostitute whose career is not exactly going well (then again there are not many films which feature a happy and successful prostitute). Sera is another character which, like Ben, is pretty much a stock-fictional character, but her sensitive portrayal by Elisabeth Shue makes her a truly engaging character.

In terms of plot there is not much to this film and it stands as an interesting character study of a doomed romance between characters so damaged and unable to change that heartbreak is inevitable. Yet, somehow when things reach their inevitable conclusion there is a strange beauty to the thing. I am left wondering, however, about her fate after the film’s conclusion.

49up3Title: 49 Up
Director: Michael Apted
Year: 2005
Country: UK

I had made it a bit of a mission about two years ago to start watching the Up series of movies since I would like to see the next edition (63 Up!) when it comes out with all the previous editions locked in my memory banks (not that you’d need it seeing how about 15% of the movie is composed of recaps and looking over the older footage).

For the uninitiated, the Up series are films that come out every seven years where they check  in on the life of the same group of people, the first edition taking place all the way back in 1964.

What’s interesting about 49 Up versus 42 Up is how most of the subjects have now become self-aware of how they are being perceived and how the editing might be altering the truth. It’s just fascinating how these films have altered from a political leaning, to a personal leaning to a far more meta aspect. The great joy of these films is just watching how they have been changing over the years.

Music Monday: Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 29/250DustyInMemphisTitle: Dusty in Memphis
Artist: Dusty Springfield
Year: 1969
Position: #101

If it was not for the re-ranking of the acclaimed albums list Dusty in Memphis would count as the second album that I looked at with the ‘Memphis sound’ (the first being From Elvis in Memphis). However, that album has now dropped off of the list making Dusty’s Memphis output all the more special.

Like many of the great albums there are many stories behind the making of Dusty in Memphis. Somewhat unique amongst  well known female singers back in the 1960s, Dusty Springfield was also a producer (a fact that was not widespread at the time). Therefore when she stepped into the American Sound Studios in Memphis (in an attempt to undergo an image transformation to keep up with the trends) she suddenly found herself without a lot of the control she was used to. This resulted in many heated arguments, accusations of unrealistic perfectionism and the re-recording of most of the tracks in New York after the initially booked studio time.

When you listen to Dusty Springfield’s earlier work (such as her impressive debut A Girl Called Dusty) you realise how much of an amazing talent she was. In fact, she was one of very few internationally successful white solo female singers. She gained notice with songs like ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ and  ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’ which were, in early-to-mid 60s pop music. The fact is that Dusty never sounded better than she does rich the rich backings found on Dusty in Memphis (although her duet with the Pet Shop Boys comes mighty close).

The jewel in this album is, undoubtedly, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’. Whether you first heard it on the radio or in Pulp Fiction it is arguably the best song ever recorded with the Memphis sound. The fact that this was initially turned down by Aretha Franklin and then, having heard Dusty’s version, found it’s way onto an Aretha Franklin album only a year later speaks to the power of this recording. Whilst there are many other great songs on here such as ‘Breakfast in Bed’, ‘Just A Little Lovin” and ‘No Easy Way Down’ it is ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ that stands tall above them all.

As such Dusty in Memphis remains a landmark in music, not just because of the album itself but because it also marked the signing of Led Zepplin to their first major record deal on the recommendation of Dusty Springfield herself. Music really is a small world.

Good Eatin’: Dried Fruit and Blackcurrants

List Item: Try 500 of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die

Food Items: Prune D’Agen and Smyrna Fig

Two items here that I came across by chance in the Little Waitrose nearby (it really helps that I have an up-to-date version of the food list on my phone). I am as guilty as others when it comes to labelling prunes and figs as fruit eaten to… stay regular. Then again I had never has agen prunes before, aka the juiciest and most delicious prunes I have ever had. I ended up cutting up some and having them with my Special K before work.

The smyrna figs too were delicious, but in a more honeyed way. The oddity here was the inclusion of the many small seeds within the fig. When I ate my first fig it was a bit of an unpleasant surprise but upon eating the second fig I knew what was coming and could better appreciate them as a nutty accompaniment to the gooey sweetness of the fig.

  Food Item: Blackcurrant

Okay, so when I bought these blackcurrants I did not quite realise that you can’t just eat them out of hand. They are just way too tart to do so. I mean I guess I was expecting a berry to explode with the taste of Ribena… which in retrospect was a little bit dumb. Still, these are like gooseberries in that they are cooking berries. So instead of just warming them up with sugar and water I thought of something better.

IMG_0930

I made a tea loaf instead following this recipe. Sadly I didn’t have any muscovado sugar, meaning that list item will have to wait for another day, and therefore used regular light brown sugar. I also didn’t have pure orange juice.. and so used orange, peach and passion fruit juice (I therefore thought better than to add mint). It turned out well and allowed me to better appreciate the sudden burst of flavour that blackcurrants are.

Progress: 132/500

Good Eatin’: A Pinch of Pintxos

List Item: Try 500 of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die

In my work colleague Ben I have found a true enabler when it comes to food and random jokes about Chuck Norris. After a particularly stressful week (where I was also a tad sleep deprived) it was time for another emergency lunch, but this time at a place a little further afield than our visit to Kimchee the week before.

Food Item: Maldon Sea Salt

The restaurant in question was Bilbao Berria, a pintxos bar a few minutes walk from Piccadilly Circus. To be honest, I had no clue what to order so I left it to Ben to order what he wanted since I am, basically, a human trash can when it comes to menus. We ordered a lot of food (a lot a lot) and it was all very delicious and some of it was even list food!

In the picture above you may be able to see flecks of the Maldon sea salt on the Padron Peppers. Those flakes were crunchy and seemed to be more intensely salty than regular salt. It was probably thanks to them that I was able to eat those peppers as if they were bon-bons. The patatas bravas was similarly morish because of a rather delicious and creamy aioli (this is how you do it La Tasca, take notes!)

Food Item: Cantabrian Boquerone

Okay, this was was a fluke and a very happy fluke at that. Much like ceviche, the anchovies in the Cantabrian Boquerone are raw and have been ‘cooked’ by the aceitc acid of the vinegar that they are marinated in. This was then served with a lot of minced garlic and some olive oil (as well as a red leafed thing I am not sure about). This left a dish that was smooth with a melt-in-the-mouthfeel and a strongly pronounced salty taste with the whisper of a fishy taste.

Food Item: Salt Cod

A salt cod and green pepper tortilla. I could not for the life of me make out the pepper but that was probably because I was taking iPhone notes on the fish inside. The texture of the salt cod was delightfully moist, flaky and ever-so-slightly chewy. It infused the whole tortilla with a salty quality (which probably negated the use of any additional salt) and left it a fluffy piece of Spanish omelette.

Food Items: Quince and Marcona Almonds

Okay so getting the specific type of almonds from the food list was unexpected (less so after I read the description which mentioned about them being Spanish in origin). These were served with the manchego cheese and the quince paste which made for an excellent combination. The flavour of the almonds was subtle and boosted by the very sweet nature of the quince paste. When this was put together with the buttery manchego, well, you have something special there.

I will need to return to Bilbao Berria. Both because the food was delicious but also because other list foods lie in wait on their menu. Thanks be to Ben for introducing me to pinxtos.

Progress: 129/500

Let’s Get Literal: The Divine Comedy

List Item: Read Dante’s Divine Comedy
Progress: Completed

I am not going to lie, I had a lot of trouble with this book. When I was studying T.S. Eliot for my AS Level English Literature I decided that I would read Dante’s Inferno since it helped a lot with The Waste Land and after reading A Clockwork Orange I thought that I would want to continue on with reading something a bit darker. I really enjoyed reading this and some of the guides around it and when I was making this bucket list I thought it would be an opportunity to finish this seminal work off.

Now, flash forward to 9 years later. I felt the same way about reading Inferno and I also enjoyed Purgatorio but the third section? Could not get on with it to such an extent that I ended up falling asleep on the train and dropping my Kindle whilst reading it. So… why such a different reaction?

For the uninitiated, The Divine Comedy is an epic poem depicting a man being guided through hell, via purgatory, towards the highest heights of heaven. Inferno is by far the most well known of the three since it depicts Dante’s vision of hell. When compared with the other two sections of The Divine Comedy it is by far the best part because of the complete sense of irony that permeates the punishments for the deadly sins e.g. gluttons are forced to lay face down in a disgusting slurry and false prophets have had their heads twisted so that they are forced to forever walk backwards. There’s also a punishment involving people being sealed in their own tombs and being on fire… but I can’t remember what that was the punishment for.

Gustave_Dore_Inferno34

Having descended into the depths of hell and down the fur of Satan himself we enter the second book; Purgatorio. This does not have have the same depth of irony as Inferno but is still an enjoyable read… and then it ends with a proper ending. This is one of the reasons why Paradiso fell so flat for me, we had a decent ending and then the book picks up again having lost Virgil (the book’s most interesting character) since he was not allowed to see heaven due to not being a Christian. Instead we get the strict Beatrice as a companion which does not work as well. To put it into a context many would understand, it’s like when the David Tennant’s Doctor transformed into Matt Smith; loss of charisma and overall interest ensued.

Reading this taught me a couple of things. Firstly, when a book is this old and makes so many reference to contemporary figures, it would pay to either do this as part of a book group, in a classroom setting or with a really good guide book. Then there is just how much a book can depend on a good translation, a book like this is hard enough to get through without the translation being sub-par. Finally, it taught me that in many ways books are like movies, just because it is seen as important critically doesn’t mean I am going to be able to finish it.