Thursday, 9 July 2020

TV review: The Expanse, season 1, Syfy (2015)

I watched almost seven episodes of this science fiction drama before giving up. I really tried to like it, and terminally failed during what was meant to be a sensual clinch involving two actors, a man and a woman.

The hardboiled noirish production values this movie exploits in order to keep the viewer engaged leads to wooden dialogue and mundane plotting. Stephen Strait as freighter crewmember Jim Holden and Thomas Jane as policeman Joe Miller are not good enough though Dominique Tipper as ship’s engineer Naomi Nagata and especially Jared Harris as asteroid belt independence fighter Anderson Dawes (he works for the Outer Planets Alliance, an informal body representing the people of the asteroid belt and the moons of some of the planets in the solar system) do good work. Harris acted in season 1 of ‘The Crown’, which I also watched. The biopic for Elizabeth II, where Harris played her father, George VI, rocks big time compared to this disappointing show, which I saw on Amazon Prime.

As usual with science fiction shows its reliance on technobabble to fill in the gaps between tonic events is irritating. A bit of esoteric geek-speak can work but too much and I switch off. In any case, at root this series is a police procedural with solar system geopolitics thrown in for colour.

The story hinges on longstanding friction between Earth and Mars, with the OPA caught in the middle. Some representatives of the major powers consider the OPA to be a terrorist organisation but many people who live in that liminal position in the solar system crave the right to self-determination, and the struggle for agency is a reliable story element in contemporary fiction in all formats, including TV.

You can see how this sort of thing could work but unfortunately, as with a good deal of science fiction, the writers thought that noir is, by definition, cool. William Gibson’s novel ‘Neuromancer’ (which I reviewed in 2018) suffers from the same malaise. So in ‘The Expanse’ you get some terrible characterisation as well as unnecessary violence masquerading as dramatic high points.

The first three seasons were made by a company called Syfy, which is owned by NBC and which operates a cable TV channel. A fourth season was commissioned by Amazon Prime (which is where I saw season 1) and a fifth season is planned. I don’t plan to watch any more of this show than I already have done.

Monday, 6 July 2020

New car report: RAV4 Cruiser hybrid AWD

Having had second thoughts about the Camry on which, the previous year, I had paid a $1000 deposit, I drove down to the Toyota dealership and had a look at an SUV called a “RAV4”, which can come with a hybrid petrol-electric powertrain.

I told the young salesman I wanted a car that would let me carry large things as my daughter and her boyfriend would be coming to Sydney in the middle of the year (though plans changed due to rona); for them I’d need to transport furniture and other things. A “steel blonde” Camry had already been allocated a slot in the Nagoya factory and was due to be manufactured in mid-February, so Ryan drifted off and phoned his manager to tell him about my idea, coming back to me a few minutes later to say there would be no problem making the switch to a different model. Using his computer Ryan changed my order details on the company’s database and I left after choosing a colour.

Navy blue, to match the restored, mounted and framed ensign that’s hanging on one of my living room’s walls. The thing had been among dad’s personal effects – actually in a sail bag – along with other things from our old life. A bunch of such stuff made its way to me after, 20 years ago, I returned from Japan, and I had preservation work done on the flag when I lived in Queensland.

On 6 January – the day I changed my choice of car from a sedan to an SUV – when I got back to my apartment I looked at reviews for the RAV4 Cruiser hybrid AWD, the model I was going to get, and then went to the maker’s website. All of this activity made me decide in favour of roof racks, so I called Ryan and added this option to the list, which included weather shields for the windows, as well as floor mats.

When I asked Ryan on 20 March about delivery I was told the car would be made in May with delivery in June, but on 18 May I was told manufacture might happen in June. On 18 June someone at the dealership phoned to say that the car would arrive in Sydney probably in the first week of July. She also wanted to confirm the options included in the order, and we straightened that out. I phoned back a bit later and left a message, intending to talk with someone about the payment method, and later spoke on the phone with Ryan about this important issue. Then on 20 June I sent $10 online to ascertain the accuracy of the account details I‘d been handed back in December. On the Monday morning I phoned Toyota and they confirmed the money went through.

So I started sending the remainder of the amount due. It would take several days to complete, but bit by bit I finished the task before the end of the month. Meanwhile, I phoned my insurance company to notify them of the pending purchase. I’d been told the car would probably be available to pick up on the 9th of July but, on the last Saturday in June, Ryan phoned me and told me it’d be ready to pick up on the 5th, the Sunday of the following week.

In Japanese “five” is “go”, a lucky number, so the date would be auspicious. I was surprised when Ryan SMS’d me the registration number on the 4th (I immediately SMS’d it to my insurer) because it also seemed lucky, having in it the number “5”. Using SMS, I made a date with Ryan to pick the car up at 10am, when the dealership opens, and in the evening I ordered a new tag for road tolls I would incur while driving it.

Yesterday morning I had breakfast and walked to Glebe through Wentworth Park, arriving at the dealership at two minutes past the hour. Ryan was busy in a meeting so I sat down in the reception area. When he joined me he was surprised by the coincidence regarding the number plate and expressed himself in a positive manner while he showed me all the car’s (seemingly innumerable) features, including the ability to answer and make calls on the iPhone without touching the device. Controls for phone calls are on the centre display and also on the steering wheel, a part of the car that is so loaded with functions that it felt, as Ryan walked me through them, as though I had suddenly been transported – via a TV screen with Netflix connected – to a parallel universe. “I feel like I have just swallowed a whale,” I quipped to Ryan as we were finalising the paperwork at his desk next to the showroom. Again, he laughed obligingly at my meagre humour.

It looks as though I’ll now have to upgrade my phone, as the RAV4’s automatic charging station – where you put your phone down in a bay under the A/C controls – only works on newer phones and mine was bought a few years ago.

Ryan showed me how to link it to the car using Bluetooth. Wi-Fi connection is also possible if you want to watch movies on the centre console; I told him I’d think about it for possible use at a later date. He also showed me how to set up the Toyota app on my phone. This lets you generate QR codes to use at service stations when buying petrol; discounts apply for select retailers and you can accrue points on your account. So far, he told, me, only Caltex has signed up.

As often happens, I silently thanked Steve Jobs. An appropriate reaction, as driving home I sort of felt like I was in a helicopter. The thing sits up off the road relative to the height of the Aurion, but I had no problem manoeuvring it into the parking garage under my building even with roof racks on (I’d checked the height earlier via SMS) and driving was intuitive. This was reassuring at first blush, although the overall feel is plush. Having, since September 2007, driven an Aurion AT-X (see photo below for the two cars lined up in my car spaces), there’s a bit to get used to now.

As Ryan explained on the day I picked up this Saturn blue RAV4, regeneration of the traction battery happens when the petrol engine starts up, and also when the driver brakes. By pressing a physical button on the console there’s a dedicated display showing the car’s drive mechanism which, in the model I bought (an all-wheel drive), includes representations in graphic form of the two electric engines (one on the front wheels and one on the rear wheels) as well as the battery. This display lets you see at a glance how much charge the battery has at any given time. The car has a special energy efficient setting you reach by pressing a button on the console that sits between the front seats, and three other power settings as well, including a “sport” setting which is less fuel efficient. 

Ryan told me you can easily get over 900km out of one tank of fuel, and his employer filled the tank for me. The car had six kilometres on the odometer when I picked it up. As he was showing me the ropes in the showroom Ryan told me, when I asked about the hum that could suddenly be heard, that the engine had started. 

You don’t press a button on a remote control to open the door – the correct remote’s proximity to the car, and a hand on the door handle (which contains two sensors), are enough to give you access to the cabin – but the last thing Ryan told me before I drove off in the traffic was not to leave the remote in the car. He also mentioned that to replace the device is very expensive but I got a spare with my purchase. 

A quick spin in the traffic through Leichhardt in the late afternoon revealed that the car is tightly sprung and heavier than the Aurion, but rides surprisingly smoothly. On the road you feel secure but I had, on getting back home, a dose of the heebie-jeebies, so watched Landline, then the news. It’d been a busy couple of weeks.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-four

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

13 April

Dreamt Australia was being invaded and New Zealand was coming to our aid. A giant aeroplane like a Imperial cruiser (from ‘Star Wars’) was flying over the coast at South Head, white stars set in a row on a black background that was painted across the hull. The giant airship was accompanied by a range of smaller airborne vessels.

Then I was down by the harbour (where I grew up in real life). I was a captain or some kind of middling-ranked officer in the army and I was with two people, one of whom, a woman, was younger than me. We were patrolling the coast of the harbour to gauge how far the enemy forces had advanced on the country’s borders. At one stage – it was dark – we were in a car driving down a very steep hill, at the bottom of which was a sharp left turn. The woman was at the wheel – the man, who was older than me, in the back seat – and as we approached the turn I said something about how acute the angle was that the road made. She acknowledged my remark, saying something like, “I’ve got this.”

The traffic on the street we ended up in was heavy so, to keep moving, the three of us ditched the car, going off on foot to reconnoitre. I was sluggish in my movements and the two others, who I could see as a dark outline up ahead on a steep hill I was climbing that contained a road and a footpath, disappeared. I kept going however, and eventually the others rejoined me. The woman darted off and the older man stayed with me, helping me to negotiate the obstacles in our path.

At one stage we came across a gorge with, beside it and slightly to the right, a ridge made of brick and concrete, which flanked the footpath of the road that was laid out even further to the right. The three of us were heading down a hill. The gorge in our path troubled me, and though it might seem strange that I was in the armed forces even though I have a fear of heights, but I didn’t dwell for a moment on the incongruity. The older man leapt onto the ridge and hastened apace down the hill, while I dithered, scared of the yawning depths of the cavern in front of me. In the end I, too, jumped onto the ridge and got onto the road.

Later, I was climbing a rock, musing to myself that, if this had been Australia (in the dream I had suddenly materialised in New Zealand, where I have never been apart from a flight layover in Auckland) there would be spiders to contend with, and I felt lucky that there were none. I saw that the climb was taking longer than expected, and then a mesh ladder caught my eye, on which a black cat was climbing. I swung to my right and grabbed hold of the mesh, which had some sort of sticks set in it as rudimentary rungs, and started to use that to get up to the top of the rock, so that I could rejoin my team. I woke up as I was struggling to make headway up this odd contrivance I had invented in my unconscious mind. As I slowly progressed the cat fell off!

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Grocery shopping list for June 2020

This post is the eighteenth in a series and the fourth with rona.

1 June

Drove to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) Edam cheese, apples, blueberries, a sultana butter cake, coleslaw, potato salad with Dijon mustard, tea, soap, milk, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

3 June

Drove to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) sliced pastrami, sliced ham, lentil soup, lamb soup, cauliflower soup, canola oil, bread, instant oats, bhuja, Tim Tams, mouthwash, garbage bags, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

4 June

Went in the car to the shopping centre to buy something for my wardrobe and while there I popped into Harris Farm Markets and bought (see receipt below) veal New York steaks, eye fillet steak, sauerkraut, sliced beetroot, tabbouleh, artichoke hearts, olives, and hot English mustard.

5 June

A wide-ranging email from the Woolworths CEO arrived at my inbox at 3.36pm. In it, Brad Banducci talked about the company’s use of more environment-friendly packaging, as well as reusable and recyclable tote bags. The email mentioned how the company had lifted restrictions – due to the virus – on goods with the exception of “antibacterial wipes, hand wash and frozen fruit” – no surprise, I guess, for the first two items, but … frozen fruit?! (Can’t go without my smoothies, Brad.) Staff would once again, Banducci went on, be seen packing patrons’ purchases at checkouts, including for those bags customers themselves would bring to the supermarket, but safeguards would remain: “Keeping our customers and teams safe is our top priority, so hygiene and social distancing measures remain in place.”

6 June

Went in the car to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) sliced ham, lentil salad, coleslaw, apples, blueberries, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). Since my last visit, managers had turned into scales the trays on the store’s checkout machines, and mine produced three or four errors, to fix each of which the clerk had to walk to the terminal to operate it – an eventuality at odds with words contained in the email. I exchanged some civil words with the staffer about the measure the store had taken, and she said they’d lost “quite a lot” of stock in the past, adding that she’d pass my remarks onto management.

Later the same day I visited the Woolworths website – and reset my password; I hadn’t used the website for several months and had cancelled my subscription – putting in an order (see screenshot below) for fillet steak, lamb chops, barramundi fillets, ling fillets, bean salad, basmati rice, olive oil spread, taramosalata, flavoured mineral water (no-sugar), and a plain, unlined notebook. Delivery due on the 9th of the month. 

Later, I went out on foot and bought, at the bottle shop, two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

8 June

Drove to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) eggs, bread, milk, tomatoes, an oakleaf lettuce, mushrooms, two types of biscuits (white chocolate and cranberry, and white chocolate and macadamia nuts), a sultana butter cake, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

Later, I went to the Campos website and ordered coffee (see screenshot below).

In the evening an SMS arrived from Woolworths reminding me of the next day’s delivery.

9 June

An email from Woolworths was in my inbox, timestamped 5.06am, referencing my order, and telling me that the variable weight items I had chosen meant that a refund of $15.43 was due to me.

At 7.05am an SMS from the company informed me that the delivery would arrive between 8.37am and 9.37am, and at 9.18am the intercom buzzed and I let the deliveryman into the lobby via the street door. I grabbed my keys and some bags intending to go downstairs but when the lift arrived – he was in it! He stalled on the threshold, and it was clear that he didn’t want to approach so I led him to my unit. I asked him if it was possible to ask for no bags on the website when ordering but he said that, due to the virus, bags were always being used now. Sensible.

I packed the protein in sandwich bags preparatory to putting it in the freezer, and deposited the rest of my purchases in the fridge and on the floor in the hallway, finishing up around 9.35am. They hadn’t sent barramundi with skin on but, rather, the flat fillets with no skin. The lamb chops – which cost $16.15 (see tax invoice below) – would do for four meals, and I cut the steak into smaller pieces so that it, too, would do for four meals. The steaks they sent were enormous, as was the A4-sized notebook with its 120 pages.

I had to go out to the pharmacy to pick up some things, including scalp cleanser, so while in the arcade I went to Coles and bought some no-sugar mineral water. Later, at 5.45pm, an SMS arrived from Shippit about the coffee delivery, which was scheduled for Friday the 12th. At 5.49pm an email from Australia Post arrived at my inbox (though I only saw it the next day) telling me that the parcel would arrive on Thursday the 11th.

10 June

Went out and popped in at Woolworths where I bought blueberries, some containers of soup (one pea-and-ham, one tomato, one lamb, and one lentil), “spiced roasted cauliflower and winter veges,” a block of Bega cheese, hummus and harissa spread, buhja, and Tim Tams.

12 June

Received an SMS from Shippit at 9am, plus an email from Australia Post timestamped 7.06am, about the coffee delivery. The email said the box would arrive on this day.

On this day just before 10am my doctor’s surgery phone me and told me that my test results showed normal levels; on Wednesday I had had some blood samples taken. Tests included ones for cholesterol and blood sugar. A relief, indicating that my diet – more salads and fewer carbohydrates – was working as anticipated. 

At 10.06am the intercom buzzed and I answered the call, then was asked to open the street door so the man could leave the coffee in the lobby. I went down and fetched it right away. The box came with a note inside it:

An email arrived from Australia Post at 10.14am:

13 June

I was out at Waverly dropping off unwanted books at a charity shop and while in that suburb (found a parking spot on the main street; unexpectedly, as the traffic was heavy) I stopped at a grocery store and bought (see receipt below) blueberries, apples, blackberries, taramosalata, and turmeric sauerkraut. 

In the following photo you can see the store’s sign over the pavement outside.

14 June

Drove to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) sliced ham, pastrami, marinaded goat’s cheese, chillies, lentil salad, three containers of soup (lentil, lamb, and cauliflower), strawberries, a sultana butter cake, white chocolate and cranberry biscuits, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). This month I saw, after reviewing my receipts, that the price of Schweppes infused mineral water varied from $2.02 per bottle, to $1.80, and (on this day) $1.25. It makes you wonder why they change the price, and what prompts them to do so. The price ($6.50) of the lamb soup and the lentil soup were the same as 10 days earlier, but this time the cauliflower soup ($4.50) was a dollar more.

In the afternoon I drove to Lakemba and bought a banana cake, eggplant pickles, okra pickles, a melon, grapes, mandarins, kiwi fruit, and Turkish delight. Sunday is a good day to go there as more parking spaces are available on the main street, and the loading zones don’t apply. 

In the evening I went to the convenience store and bought milk.

15 June

Went in the car to Woolies and bought sliced pastrami, bread, harissa hummus, bean salad, eggs, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). The over-sensitive checkout machine gave two errors (instead of the usual one) and the carpark toll system (again) required me to back the car up to get the boom gate to open. 

No matter that I drove slowly approaching the mechanism, which has a device in it that reads the car’s numberplate and that – if the time that you’ve spent inside the space is not more than 90 minutes – lets you go for free. Like the checkout machines, which have scales built into them, the carpark fee-processing system is finicky, leading to errors.

16 June

Had to go to the pharmacy and while in the arcade I dropped in at Coles and bought (see receipt below) Scotch fillet steak, coleslaw, couscous with pumpkin, quinoa and tabbouleh salad, blue cheese, and Tim Tams (which on the 18th would trend on Twitter after the British PM used them in a press conference). If you read the receipt you’ll see that the labels for each kind of biscuit are not uniform. Where one flavour of Tim Tam is labelled “Arnotts Tim Tam 160gram”, another is labelled “Arnotts chocolate bi 175gram”. The person putting in the text for the labels either wasn’t consistent, or else the text for each kind of biscuit was entered into the store’s computer system at different times by different people.

19 June

Drove to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) lentil salad, “spiced roasted cauliflower and winter veg,” lamb soup, cauliflower soup, sundried tomatoes, chillies, an avocado, instant oats, bhuja, milk, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). Again, multiple errors on the checkout machine, and the carpark toll system required me to back up from the boom gate so that it would open.

20 June

Went to Coles on the way home from the city and bought a snapper fillet, a barramundi fillet, prawns, sliced roast chicken, flat bread, a capsicum, mushrooms, an eggplant, green beans, ginger, garlic, a green oak lettuce, a jar of parsley, dill and tarragon seafood sauce, toothpaste, and liquid soap. The checkout machine gave three separate errors, each of which had to be cleared by a member of staff.

Later I went out to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

21 June

Stopped at Coles on my walk back from Barangaroo and bought chicken thighs, cucumbers, broccoli, and smoked cod fillets, and later drove to Bunnings and bought drain cleaner.

22 June

Drove to Woolworths and bought some Schweppes no-sugar flavoured drink, and no-sugar flavoured mineral water. The bottles were expensive at $2 each. On the way out of the parking garage I stopped the car while the ticketing machine processed my license plate number, which took about 10 seconds, and so entailed waiting.

23 June

Walked to Coles and bought (see receipt below) meatballs, scallops, asparagus, blueberries, hummus with jalapeno, pine nuts, chicken noodle soup, and flavoured mineral water.

24 June

Went to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

25 June

Went to the Fish Market and at the delicatessen bought (see receipt below) sliced smoked wagyu beef, duck and cherry pâté, d’Affinois cheese, queso Iberico, and Portuguese tarts. While there I also bought shallots, ginger, garlic, an onion, tomatoes, and cos lettuce.

Later, went to the convenience store and bought Jatz crackers and some chips.

26 June

Drove to Woolworths and bought salmon steaks, basmati rice, instant oats, Greek mix (olives and sundried tomatoes), “spiced roast cauliflower and winter veg”, lentil salad, blueberries, bread, milk, dishwashing liquid, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

29 June

Drove to Woolies and parked. I forgot to bring change with me and asked the cashier at the front of the store if she could give me some gold coins (what $1 and $2 coins are called in Australia). She said she would but also offered me a token in a keyring fob bracket (see photo below), that cost me 35 cents. I attached the holder to my keyring and used the token to release a trolley, then went and got sliced pastrami, sliced ham, a butter cake, a banana cake, “spiced cauliflower and winter veg”, a container of bean salad, milk, basmati rice, blueberries, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

The person who had used the trolley before me had left a $1 coin, which I pocketed, counting two lucky stars.

30 June

Went to the pharmacy and while in the arcade dropped in at Coles and bought barramundi, duck legs, tomatoes, a capsicum, an onion, apples, blueberries, kiwi fruit, and a melon. On the way home dropped in at the convenience store and bought honey and pork dumplings.