by Catriona Mills

Witch-Finger Biscuits Are Not For The Faint-Hearted

Posted 2545 days ago in by Catriona

While the brilliant Heather was carving pumpkins, the equally brilliant Michelle (also of the live-blogging peanut gallery) was making witch-finger biscuits (which—hee!—I warn you are not for the faint hearted):

The biscuits themselves are shortbread, or something very like it, which makes them just about my favourite type of biscuit in the world.

But delicious shortbread or not, I definitely had to close my eyes before biting off the bit with the fingernail on it.

Pumpkin Carving

Posted 2546 days ago in by Catriona

Last night was our Hallowe’en Party—well, actually a combination Hallowe’en, Oktoberfest, up-coming anniversary, and friend’s birthday party, which really just meant quite a lot of alcohol with a fringe of cake.

But since it was Hallowe’en adjacent, the brilliant Heather (well known on the blog as one of the live-blogging peanut gallery) carved us some pumpkins:

Now the scary jack o’lantern is brilliant. Nothing like triangle eyes here:

But this was most definitely the pièce de résistance:

Eric Northman pumpkin. Isn’t he marvellous? All night, people were saying, “That pumpkin’s a bit sexy. How can a pumpkin be sexy?”

Magnolia With Attendant Bees

Posted 2549 days ago in by Catriona

Phases of the Moon

Posted 2552 days ago in by Catriona

Strange Conversations: Part Three Hundred and Twenty-Seven

Posted 2552 days ago in by Catriona

ME: Oh, look—someone’s folded my doona over so it only takes up about a foot of bed space while yours is sprawled everywhere.
NICK: It’s all part of my cunning plan to annex Bedtopia.
ME: … Bedtopia? Otherwise known as “the bed”?
NICK: Not really.
ME: What’s the difference between “the bed” and “Bedtopia”?
NICK: It’s like the difference between a country and a nation.
ME: So Bedtopia is …?
NICK: More of a geo-political construct.
ME: A geo-political construct that you can annex with your doona?
NICK: Obviously, there’ll be treaties.

HipstaJacaranda

Posted 2557 days ago in by Catriona

Strange Conversations: Part Three Hundred and Twenty-Six

Posted 2559 days ago in by Catriona

NICK: Heh. Zachary Levi from Chuck is voicing one of the major NPCs in Fallout: New Vegas.
ME: I am deeply excited by this news.
NICK: Also, you get shot in the face by Matthew Perry at the start of the game.
ME: You are weird and a bit wrong.
NICK: True. But I do intend to shoot giant geckoes with plasma rifles soon.
ME: Yes. That’s more of an “and” than a “but,” though, isn’t it?
NICK: … Yes.

Strange Conversations: Part Three Hundred and Twenty-Five

Posted 2564 days ago in by Catriona

In which I knock over a wine bottle.

ME: That was a bit stupid. I’m not normally stupid.
NICK: No, you’re as clever as a monkey.
ME: Monkeys aren’t clever. They throw their own poo around.
NICK: It’s a natural response to the horror of existence.
ME: I will break up with you.
NICK: No you won’t.
ME: If you start throwing your poo around, I definitely will.
NICK: For monkeys, I said! Not for people!
ME: You didn’t specify that in your original statement. And if you start throwing your poo around as a natural expression of the horror of existence, I will break up with you.
NICK: When you put it like that, it seems quite reasonable.

Lessons I Have Learned from Playing Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 (DS)

Posted 2569 days ago in by Catriona

1. The purchase of Traveller’s Tales by Warner Brothers was not actually for the best.

I’ve been a devotee of the Lego games from the time I played the complete Star Wars game, and this one . . . well, it’s just not doing it for me. I know it’s designed for 10+ players, and I do feel a bit silly complaining about a game for child players. But the other Lego games had a richness to them, without being so insanely difficult that they were only possible for advanced players. And this one? There’s no richness here. No hidden rooms. No complexity or variety to the game play (and, yes, I’m thinking particularly of the Lego Batman here). It seemed to devolve into nothing but opening locked chests for an entire level. Even a ten-year-old would find that boring.

Some levels do hint at a potential for complexity: the Knockturn Alley adventure, the secret passageway to Hogsmead in book three, the Hogsmead level itself. But it’s not enough to make up for level after level where you’re just opening locked chests.

And it’s not only the redundancy of the game play. It’s also the way the game is stuck in its own narrative, so that even though you might have chosen to play as Hermione or Dobby, the NPCs will still call you “Harry.”

And speaking of restrictive narrative . . .

2. It doesn’t matter how fond of Harry Potter you are or how fond of Lego games you are, it’s still boring being forced to repeat the same tutorial levels over and over again.

Look, I honestly do think that the classroom situation is a good way to seed the tutorials levels through the game and to add complexity to the game-playing experience by spacing out the spells you need to complete all the tasks. I don’t even object to only being taught Alohomara to open locked chests in fourth year, even though, as an NPC pointed out in-game, it’s actually a spell from first year.

But there really is no reason why I should have to do these tutorial levels twice. In Story Mode? Fine. Story Mode is restrictive and linear. But in Free Play? No. Definitely no. Free Play has been, in the Lego games, a chance to roam freely around the level and just blow up whatever I want. Why on earth am I trapped in the classroom again, learning spells that you know full well I’ve already learned, or I would never have been able to unlock Free Play in the first place?

I suspect it’s lazy game design, but it reminds me horribly of those anxiety dreams you get where you’re back in high school and they won’t let you leave even though you tell them you’ve actually got a Ph.D. now and then they make you play some sort of team sport and you just know you’re going to score another own goal . . .

Everyone gets those, right?

3. You can still be the most popular boy in school despite spending much of your spare time blowing up all the armchairs in the Gryffindor common room.

(I don’t need to blow up the armchairs. It’s just fun.)

4. There’s something a bit embarrassing about an all-but 34-year-old woman hissing into her Nintendo DS in order to simulate speaking Parseltongue.

(I make Nick leave the room when I get to a Parseltongue doorway.)

5. I never thought that being a practitioner of the Dark Arts was one of my lifelong ambitions. Turns out, I was wrong.

This is back to a comparison with Lego Batman, but, really, they missed a trick here. In both Batman and Lego Star Wars, you had the chance to play villains. In fact, in Batman, it was compulsory: half the levels were villains levels. And they were awesome. In Lego Star Wars, it was more of a moral choice: I suppose you didn’t have to open the Sith doorways if you didn’t want to.

(It wasn’t much of a moral choice. I mean, the Emperor could shoot Force lightning at people. And Darth Vader could Force choke people, so that they split into dozens of constituent parts. What? Why are you looking at me like that?)

But Lego Harry Potter doesn’t give you that choice. No moral complexity in this game, even though you can purchase and play Voldemort (in three forms) and Snape, not to mention various Death Eaters. No, here you don’t have any areas that are only accessible to Voldemort’s supporters, nothing that even hints at any kind of clash of opposed ideologies.

But you do have a great deal of money . . .

6. Cumulative score counters are, surprisingly, not much fun. Perhaps I should have simply not bought all of the x2, x4, x6 etc. score counters, but they haven’t been cumulative in other Lego games (except Lego Indiana Jones, and even then it was only, I think, for the Wii version, not the DS version). So I was a bit surprised when I ended up with 4.2 billion Lego studs. Even this wouldn’t be a big problem, except that the most expensive purchases in the in-game store (such as a playable Voldemort) only cost two million studs: I don’t even notice that, out of my vast riches. I almost miss the days when I had to farm levels in Lego Star Wars in order to afford the Emperor or the Force ghost of Ben Kenobi.

7. Giant spiders suck. Levels where you fight giant spiders non-stop also suck. Giant-spider levels that crash right on the last action and do this every single time you play them? They suck the most.

8. You know what else sucks? Ghosts. Ghosts totally suck. All they can do is slip through bars. And this makes no sense to me. Why can’t ghosts cross water? All right: there are superstitions about the undead and running water. But why, when ghosts accidentally fall off high places, do they hit the ground with an audible thump and moan, only to pop up and start floating off the ground again? That will never, ever make sense to me.

9. Apparently, there aren’t enough villains in the books. Or at least not enough villains to make a Lego game a bit challenging. Luckily, this can be easily remedied with anthropomorphic (and psychotic!) mushrooms and some weird blokes in red hats who bury themselves deep in the ground, waiting to kill anyone who stands on them.

Gits.

10. Okay, it was pretty funny when Cedric Diggory died at the end of Goblet of Fire, and Dumbledore clapped his father sympathetically on the shoulder before handing him a Lego instruction sheet. I’ll give you that.

This Spring's Lizard

Posted 2569 days ago in by Catriona

This spring’s lizard is digging on the totally unusable BBQ at the end of the garden. All day, every day, the lizard is pressed as flat as he can get on what must be lovely hot bricks, too relaxed even to worry about his little dangling limbs or about the odd woman taking his picture.

Our lizards live the life of Riley, bless their little scaly feet.

Strange Conversations: Part Three Hundred and Twenty-Four

Posted 2571 days ago in by Catriona

In which we discuss my ambitious plans to pin-tuck a taffeta skirt by hand:

NICK: You’re doing well so far.
ME: I haven’t even started!
(Pause)
NICK: I am Nick from the future. I have caused a causality inversion by coming here. I must leave now.
ME: That’s one possibility. Or you’re just not listening to me.
NICK: I don’t really listen to anyone! My head is too full of stuff! It’s like a cacophony.
ME: Your head is full of nothing. It’s like an echo chamber.
NICK: That’s a bit harsh!
ME: So is not listening to me.
NICK: It’s not that I don’t want to . . .

A Strange Obsession With Dogs and Lamps

Posted 2571 days ago in by Catriona

I found, while pulling down this afternoon’s photos of the lizard, that I’d not pulled any of the Sydney photos off my main camera. If the photographs on this camera were my only legacy, then I would go down to posterity as the woman with a strange obsession with dogs and lamps.

But that’s no reason why I shouldn’t put them on the blog, is it?

Strange Conversations: Part Three Hundred and Twenty-Three

Posted 2572 days ago in by Catriona

ME: It’s oranges and apples, hon.
NICK: Oranges and apples are not the only fruit.
ME: No. If they were, you wouldn’t be able to sex the cherry.
NICK: Well played.
ME: I thought so.

In Defence of Phone Photography

Posted 2572 days ago in by Catriona

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about photography and my phone. Most of the truly extraordinary phone photography is—like non-phone photography—done by people who know what they’re doing.

Does that mean the rest of us are simply pretenders, jumping on apps that do the work for us, to achieve results that used to be far more arduous?

I think not, myself. I think that’s a little like saying you can’t be a mathematician if you don’t know how to use an abacus—especially if you never wanted to be a mathematician in the first place.

The increasingly sophisticated cameras on smart phones and the increasingly funky camera apps just mean that we can have a little fun and maybe record events and meetings that we would otherwise have let slip by. You still need an eye for the composition and a sense of how the technology is working for you to take something that isn’t, well, just a camera-phone snap.

I myself am not much of a photographer. I enjoy it, I learnt the basics in high school (including dark-room development), and I very much enjoy it. But I’m just an enthusiastic amateur and not even the best of those. I don’t pretend to anything else.

But I do think that what phones are allowing us to do with photographs these days is rather amazing.

I’ll give you an example, in this picture of a bauhinia I took while walking home from work one day:

(I stopped so long waiting for Hipstamatic to load for this one that a student stopped behind me to ask if I was okay, which I thought nice of her. Mind, she gave me a very odd look when I said I was just waiting for my camera to warm up so I could photograph a bauhinia.)

Now, I happen to think this isn’t a bad picture: it was bright, midday sunshine when I took it, and I’m enough of an amateur to think “crisp” = “good.” But that’s not the point right now. The point is what I can do with this photo before it even leaves my phone.

Example One:

Through the app Retro Camera: a retro coloured film (unfortunately, the app doesn’t name or describe its films, but this one had kind of a ’70s vibe, lots of bright blues and reds) and then a maroon-coloured filter over the top. This is hands down the least successful, because overlaying the maroon filter destroyed the crispness of the original photo. But I still like the colour effects.

Example Two:

Through the app Tilt Shift Gen, which you’d normally use (as with other tilt shift processes) to make photographs of real places look like little models of themselves. But what I love about Tilt Shift Gen is the blur function, which I’ve used here on its narrowest setting.

Example Three:

Through a free and extremely cut-down Photoshop app: Sharpen and then a “Warm Retro” filter.

Example Four:

Through Swankolab: I wish I could remember which of the pre-mixed developing formulas I used to get this effect, but I can’t. I believe it might have been the one with “Beige” in the title, which would explain this lovely washed-out effect.

Is any of this great art? Oh, certainly not. But I do think it’s extraordinary that we can do this to a photograph (which wasn’t a bad photograph itself, to begin with) without it ever leaving the phone.

Experts and highly skilled artists will keep pushing the boundaries of new technologies. Amateurs? We’re just having fun, and that neither harms nor helps.

Strange Conversations: Part Three Hundred and Twenty-Two

Posted 2573 days ago in by Catriona

At the shopping centre, early Sunday morning. (Well, earylish. 9:30am counts as early on a Sunday.)

ME: It’s really weird here. Why are there only three other cars here? Where’s everybody else?
NICK: Dunno.
ME: Oh no!
NICK: What?!
ME: Zombie apocalypse.
NICK: It’s possible.
(Long pause, in which we examine all the convenient hiding places nearby.)
ME: Look, that man’s going in!
NICK: Well, we’ll watch and see if he gets eaten.
(We watch. He makes it through the automatic doors safely.)
ME: Maybe they don’t attack until you’re well inside?
NICK: We’ll keep watching, just in case.
ME: He’s looking at us! Try and look as though we’re not waiting for him to get eaten by a zombie!

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