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Last year Alex and I went to Malta for a few days for our tenth wedding anniversary, and yesterday I booked a Eurocamp holiday for the four of us for this August.

Before that, I hadn't booked a "proper" paid holiday since before Bethany was born (we're fortunate to have both sets of parents living near the seaside and willing to have us to stay, so we've been doing that in the meantime). And I was surprised and disappointed by how little progress there has been in holiday booking websites in that time, given how far other similar technologies have progressed.

Pretty much every holiday booking website (package deals, accommodation, or flights) starts by asking you when and where you want to go. (If you're lucky it'll allow you to say that you're flexible with the date by a few days.) But that isn't my use case. I care about what and how much. Timing is "summer" or "school holidays", and location is "uh, France maybe?" or "within about 3 hours' flight". I would like, instead, to enter some must-haves, should-haves and nice-to-haves, and getting back a list of the cheapest holidays that satisfy those criteria, regardless of when and where they are.

The worst example is when you're querying a website, and you put in some random dates and locations just to get some results back, and it says "Sorry, there were no results matching your search criteria." So you try some different random parameters, and get the same result. They're not "my search criteria"! They're some random search criteria you forced me to pick. How about you tell me what you do have available, rather than me asking "Do you have this? No? How about this? Or this?" (If I wanted to do that I'd play Penultima. But even then you can ask categories of question.) It might even be that their holidays run from Tuesday to Tuesday, but you don't know that, so you're trying various dates that are Fridays or Sundays and getting no results.

Going back to the specific example I just booked: We wanted a holiday camp, Eurocamp or similar, and we wanted to fly, because Zoe never has and she's looking forward to it. Ideally we wanted it near a sandy beach; and we had a slight preference for France because it's our strongest foreign language and the girls know a handful of words. Beyond that: shrug. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of similar camps, even if you just restrict it to Eurocamp ones. They are all different prices on different days and weeks in a very unpredictable pattern. They are also different distances from different airports, flights to which also vary wildly and unpredictably in cost. What I was trying to do manually, and what I would like a website to do for me, is find a handful of such holidays with the cheapest total overall prices, and output them in a table along with things like whether they're near a sandy beach.

It's a big optimisation problem over a big search space, but it seems very similar to the one Google Maps solves when it gives you a variety of driving route options, or a variety of bus + train + walking options.

I spent several evenings working on solving it, and I really don't think I got anywhere near an optimal result. I managed to book a chalet in a holiday park for £540 for the week, which seems to be one of the best deals you can get inside the school holidays (most of them are over £1000); but then the flights ended up totalling more than the accommodation. The campsite is in Perpignan, and the flights there on the relevant day are £20pp, but the flights back are £140pp (Ryanair, go figure). I thought I found a good option in flying to and from Carcassonne, an hour away, where the flights were about £20pp each way; but I didn't finish the booking process one evening and they literally changed the price of the return flights overnight to £86pp. Even with the campsite held constant, we were still looking into loads of options: flights into Perpignan, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Béziers, Montpellier? Flights back from same, or another of the set if that's cheaper overall? If not flying to and from Perpignan, hire a car all week, or hire for the arrival day and again for the departure day (noting that extras like child seats are priced per hire), or get a train (multiplied by 4 passengers), or a taxi?

I just feel like this should be a solved problem by now.


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We eventually got to see the new live-action Beauty and the Beast last night! It was fantastic. I loved the original cartoon very much, but this was even better.

Much more depth was given to the secondary characters. Lumière and Plumette have a serious romance that's been sadly interrupted, rather than just him being a lech and her being a coquette. There is more at stake for the staff (if the terms of the curse are not met, they will turn into inanimate furniture), and their characters and situations are developed more, so you care about their fates as well as the main characters. And, oh, LeFou. He is so torn between his conscience and his loyalty to the man he admires so much, and gets to make hard, character-defining decisions at a couple of points.

They made Maurice dignified! In the cartoon he's a comic buffoon making a crazy invention, but here he's an intelligent and only mildly eccentric artist making a beautiful moving sculpture that commemorates his beloved dead wife. I really liked him. He reminded me a bit of Alex and Alex's dad.

The Beast, rather than being just generically bad-tempered, perfectly captures a specific sort of jaded upper-class unhappiness. He could almost be in an Oscar Wilde play. I love that his character development from a roaring and physically threatening monster to a good guy goes via snarkily criticising Belle's taste in literature.

The Beast was beastly for longer than in the cartoon: it was Lumière and the staff, not him, who moved Belle from the tower prison cell to a bedroom, and he was angry with them for it; and it was their idea to invite her to dinner. Conversely, Gaston was less nasty in the early part of the film. He was still a huge narcissist, but he didn't snatch Belle's book and throw it in the mud, and he didn't lead the crowd in mocking Maurice's story of the Beast; he reproved the mockers, and tried to help Maurice look for the castle (presumably to ingratiate himself with the father of the girl he fancied). But when they couldn't find the castle, he got impatient and showed his true colours.

They gave the Beast a brief sympathetic backstory, and slightly played up the similarity between him and Belle having both lost their mothers young.

They added racial diversity. In the cartoon everyone's white, and I didn't really notice and took it for granted. But presumably there were black people in France around that time (like Alexandre Dumas), although I've no idea how many or what their social status was like. In this film, there are several black extras at the prince's party pre-curse, and Plumette and the opera-singing wardrobe are black (and both have larger roles than in the cartoon), and so is Père Robert, the villager Belle borrows books from. He has been changed from a librarian to a priest who lends Belle books from his personal collection, which makes a lot of sense, because the villagers are too few and too illiterate to have a village library. His role has also been expanded a bit: he tries to stop the mob from throwing Maurice into the asylum.

The one criticism I would make of the adaptation is that the terms of Belle's imprisonment are not very clear. In the cartoon, she buys her father's freedom by promising the Beast that she'll remain his prisoner. In the new film she makes no such promise to the Beast, but instead promises Maurice that she'll escape. We then see her making a sheet rope to try and get out of the window, but we don't see what comes of that (was it too short and she gave up?) Then she has dinner (fair enough, she's hungry), and then she goes exploring the west wing (why? is her curiosity really greater than her desire to escape and fulfil her promise to Maurice?), the Beast catches her and shouts at her, and she runs off out of the front door. So the door wasn't locked, she wasn't physically trapped, and she could have left by the door any time before or after dinner. Then, after the wolf fight, she repeats her line from the cartoon: "If you hadn't frightened me, I wouldn't have run away", which is nonsense here (see: promise to Maurice; sheet rope).

But despite that one small niggle, a truly excellent and beautiful film. Highly recommended.

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Yay, I made a gluten-free banana cake which was really nice. Alex couldn't tell the difference from a normal one.
I used half ground almonds, and half GF flour improved with xanthan gum.

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  • "in very close proximity" - it wants to blindly follow a rule changing "close proximity" to "proximity", which in this case would result in "in very proximity".

  • "as discussed earlier in Addition polymers." - it wants to blindly follow a rule changing "in addition" to "also".

  • "Which efficiency ratio would improve if a business did X?" - highlights "efficiency ratio would" as "incorrect word order", and suggests reordering to "would efficiency ratio".

  • "Surveys, focus groups and interviews are all primary research methods" - warns about comma between subject and verb, presumably parsing "surveys focus groups" like "lenses focus light-rays".

  • It wants to change "less than 12 months" to "fewer than 12 months", presumably because it's spotted the numeral in "less than 12" and not read any further. ("Less than 12 months" means a block of time shorter than 12 months, which could be 11.5 months or 1 week; it doesn't mean a whole number of months which is fewer than 12.) But, to be fair, this is one where a lot of humans would jump to the same conclusion, so it's not in the category of most of the absurd Grammarly fails I blog about.

  • Centralisation and decentralisation: wants centralisation with a Z (and will complain about it with an S), but decentralisation with an S (and will complain about it with a Z). Also wants centralised with an S, for bonus inconsistency. There are lots of examples like that, where it wants one form of the same -ise root word with an S and another with a Z.

  • "Although English is accepted as the language of many multinational companies, most people in countries like Japan and China are not fluent in English and this can cause misunderstandings." - wants comma after "although English". Very meta.

  • "Water treatment plants screen for and remove substances that cause immediate harmful effects to humans" - it wants to insert "to" after "plants", and change "remove" to "removes". I appreciate this sentence is hard to parse, with "plants" and "screen" both able to be either nouns or verbs; but I can't understand what it's aiming for with "Water treatment plants to screen for and removes substances that cause immediate harmful effects to humans", which just makes no sense.

  • It's quite good at noticing when a pair of adjacent words could be joined to make a new word (and therefore the space between them could be an error), but it's terrible at figuring out whether the separate or combined word would fit better in the context. For example, it keeps wanting to change "a steroid" to "asteroid".

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Dietician appointment today went much better than I expected. I was afraid that either (1) she wouldn't have heard of non-celiac gluten sensitivity or would be sceptical that it was a real thing, or (2) she would tell me off for starting a GF diet without official medical advice (I know that people who suspect they're celiac should carry on eating gluten until they can get tested, otherwise the test will be falsely negative; my test for actual celiac was negative anyway, and I took things into my own hands and experimentally started a GF diet because the GP wouldn't take me seriously that it wasn't psychological and wouldn't refer me to a dietician, but the dietician might not have realised or understood that and might have applied the general "don't go GF until we tell you to" advice to me.)

But she seemed very nice and sensible, and she said that if I'd been eating GF since Feb and it's noticeably helping then she's happy to say I have NCGS. (It would be nice if I could have some kind of objective test, but AFAIK they're still at the stage of experimental studies and haven't been rolled out to ordinary front-line doctors yet.) She talked through aspects of how to manage a GF diet, and mostly supported what I've been doing, and gave me a few tips I hadn't thought of. She pointed out that I need to be careful with cross-contamination from things like toasters (I rarely bother with GF bread anyway because it's not very nice, but when I do, I have been toasting it in the same toaster that's covered in normal breadcrumbs).

[ETA this paragraph] The other useful thing she said was that 6 weeks is a typical time frame between eliminating gluten and completely recovering.

She started by saying she'd read my referral letter, and it said I've been suffering from fatigue for years but tested egative for the celiac blood test, so "they reckon" I might have NCGS. I bristled slightly at "they reckon", because it was me that reckoned that, while "they" reckoned it was probably depression; but I didn't say anything, because obviously it's far more important that the correct conclusion is reached than who gets credit for it, and actually I was quite impressed that my GP had written such a coherent and accurate referral letter. (Current GP is actually pretty good, compared with previous ones.)

The dietician seemed quite keen that I join Celiac UK, which costs £24/year and they send you lots of advice and news and their directory of what foods are safe. I can't see the point: you can get advice and news online for free, and food labels are very good and make the directory unnecessary. (I wonder if she gets paid to sign people up?) Also I asked whether they take NCGS people, and she said yes, but we looked at the application form and it had a tickybox for celiac disease and another for some other thing I wasn't familiar with, and none for NCGS. She said I should phone them and ask if I can join anyway, but I don't think I will.

In other news, this seems to be a really good time to have started a GF diet. Shops and restaurants are catering for it much better than they did even a year ago. Until very recently I think Domino's were the only pizza place that did GF (which was a problem because they are rubbish and not fit to run a business), but Pizza Hut have recently started dong GF too, and I had a nice pizza from them last night, and the dietician said Pizza Express and Frankie & Benny's do too.

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Domino's Pizza
I think the North Cambridge branch must have changed hands in the last year, because it used to be good.

I ordered a gluten-free pizza for me and a large normal pizza for the other three, paying online. They phoned later in the evening to say they had no gluten-free dough and couldn't make my pizza. I asked if they could get their other store to fulfil the order, since I know they do that, because they did that last time we ordered because apparently they had a power cut in their branch (although they didn't let us know until I phoned to ask why our order was so late; the online tracker was saying it was on schedule). But they said they couldn't do this, and I could have a normal pizza instead or a refund. I asked for a refund, and asked if I could have any compensation for the inconvenience of having to make new dinner plans at the last minute. They said they'd add a voucher for a free large pizza to my account. I asked what the voucher code was. They said they don't do codes, I just have to phone up and it'll be in their notes on my account. I'd have rather had a code, because I was sceptical that they'd honour such a verbal agreement.

A week later, still no refund. I phoned up to chase it, and they denied all knowledge of the order I placed the previous week (presumably they'd deleted it from their system because they cancelled it?) So I was without pizza or the money I already paid for pizza. The guy said they look up accounts by phone number, and therefore I must have placed the order from a different phone number, since he couldn't find it on the account for this number. I kept trying to explain that that wasn't possible because he had phoned me on this number to tell me they had no dough to fulfil the order in question, but he didn't understand. He just kept saying I needed to tell him the number I'd ordered it from or he couldn't help.

Thankfully I eventually got him to contact head office and somehow they authorised the refund, but I was pretty shocked that a large corporation in the 21st century can almost get away with keeping both goods and payment like that. (I mean, apart from muppets like phone companies, who sometimes take your payment but don't get around to activating the service for ages afterwards; I mean a straightforward uncontroversial tangible good like a pizza.)

Then this week I decided to try giving them a chance to redeem themselves, and phoned up to spend the voucher they'd said was on my account, but of course they had no record of it, and not only that but they said they don't do vouchers attached to people's accounts like that, they only do codes, which was the exact opposite of what they said before.

I'm pretty sure it was the same guy I spoke to all three times, because his voice sounded the same, but I foolishly didn't take his name.

Incompetent dishonest crook.

Royal Mail
I did some freelance proofreading and posted it back to the client, and it arrived 10 days late with a surcharge for the client to pay, apparently because I underpaid postage. But it was well within the weight and dimensions for the postage I put on it. This has happened twice with the same client, which makes me look bad.
I think it's logically impossible for Royal Mail to be in the right here, because they applied the £1.50 surcharge for an underpaid Large Letter (which is a different amount from those for other sizes of underpaid mail), and it had a Large Letter stamp on it (and I have photographic evidence that it still had the LL stamp on it, and had not been distorted out of shape, when it arrived). Assuming "underpaid Large Letter" means "something fitting the dimension limits of a Large Letter, but without Large Letter payment" (as opposed to "any item with a LL stamp but that doesn't fit LL dimensions", because then you could mail an elephant for £1.50 by putting a LL stamp on it).
I wrote to them to complain, and I got back an extremely patronising letter explaining that they have to apply charges to underpaid mail because otherwise it's not fair on the paying customers.
I wrote again explaining again that it wasn't underpaid and they had made a mistake, and they sent back a letter that was almost as patronising but did admit fault and gave me 6 stamps as compensation. Better than nothing, but I could have lost hundreds or even thousands of pounds' worth of work due to them making me look bad to this client.

There's a bug where it keeps losing my custom dictionary. It used to happen every few months, but now it seems to be happening every couple of days, which is unusable. I have the paid version.
I've registered on their forum to post about it (and am waiting for them to approve me so I can post), but there are already threads with people complaining about the same bug several years ago and no one responding.

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* Make or buy gluten-free and gluten-containing versions of a food which are very difficult to distinguish. (Something made with a digestive biscuit base, like Nanaimo bars, is an option.)
* Put them in identical containers, labelling the containers GF and GC on the bottom and covering the labels up with stickers.
* Get Alex and/or Bethany to shuffle the two containers while I'm not looking.
* Prominently label the containers 1 and 2.
* Eat the contents of container 1 for one week, and then container 2 for another week.
* Record levels of tiredness each day.
* At the end of the 2 weeks, make a prediction, with a confidence level, about which container was which.
* Take the stickers off and check against the prediction.

I think the main weakness of this is that I still seem to be accidentally eating gluten sometimes, and if I do that during the week when I'm eating the food from the GF container it will mess up the results. Maybe I should try to keep the rest of my diet the same across the two weeks (e.g. salmon and veg both Mondays, GF pasta and sauce both Tuesdays, etc). That will work as long as the accidental gluten is coming from my actual diet and not from things like spilt bits of other people's cereal and making sandwiches for the kids.

I would expect to either end up saying "Week N was the gluten, I'm sure of it, I felt so much worse that week" or "Ehh, I'm not quite sure, I had good and bad patches both weeks, could be either way round".

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General pattern seems to be: mostly feeling OK, with some brief crashes (usually after exertion, maybe because I'm still very unfit) and occasional longer periods of feeling rubbish that last a couple of days. The latter might coincide with accidentally eating wheat - in most cases I can point to a suspect. On Wednesday night I went to the pub with a friend and ate spicy peanuts, and the seasoning might have contained flour, and I've been pretty tired today and yesterday. (These similar ones from Tesco contain wheat flour.)

My friend had ordered the nuts before I arrived for us to share, and they weren't in a packet. If things are in a packet you can just read the ingredients, and if, say, a waitress brings you some complimentary spicy nuts, you can go "excuse me, do you know if these have wheat flour in the seasoning?" But if a friend has bought them, then not only does it seem a bit rude and ungrateful to ask her, but she probably wouldn't know. And if I went up to the bar to ask them, it's possible that neither they nor she would remember which ones she had ordered (although at least if none - or all - of their varieties of nuts contained wheat they could tell me that.) I guess I could have gone for the option of just not eating them.

But overall things are so much better :)

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Katy - Jacqueline Wilson
Modern retelling of What Katy Did, recommended by livredor.
I really liked What Katy Did, and didn't feel it needed "fixing", so wasn't sure if I was going to like this book; but I did. It felt like a faithful adaptation of the characters. It was fun spotting some of the parallels.
Izzie has been made into Katy's stepmother, rather than her live-in maiden aunt, which, as livredor pointed out, feels more realistic nowadays. Elsie is Izzie's child from her previous marriage (and the youngest three are Katy's half-siblings). This emphasises the dynamic where Katy and Clover are close and Elsie is left out.
The book is darker and more mature than the original. I first read the original at 8, but I'd probably save this until a kid was about 11 or 12. It's more in-your-face about the physical and emotional impact of Katy's disabling accident.
One of my favourite moments was the bit where Katy is sent to her primary-school headmistress for playing a prank on a pretty and mean girl in her class, and she and the teacher share a brief moment of empathy about this girl and her beauty: something like "for a moment they were not headmistress and naughty pupil, but a plain gawky girl and a plain dumpy woman."
I was really glad that it kept the moral dimension of the original. That would have been really easy to lose in a modern adaptation. But the book is very much about Katy's struggles, both before and after the accident, to be a better person, and particularly a better sister to Elsie, which she finds difficult.

Only Daughter - Anna Snoekstra
This is about a young woman on the run, who discovers she resembles a teenager who went missing a few years ago. Rather than go to jail, she decides to pretend to be this girl. The police reunite her with the girl's family, and she tries to build a life with them and isn't quite sure whether they believe her. It's compelling and quite twisty.

Three Wishes - Liane Moriarty
Moriarty writes at the intersection of chick-lit and psych thrillers, but this is more towards the chick-lit end. So I quite enjoyed it, but wouldn't say it was anything special. It's about three sisters, who are triplets, and the events of one year in their lives.
The structure is similar to one of her other books, Big Little Lies. That one tells the story of the year leading up to a murder. Interspersed with the story of that year, you get flash-forward snippets from shocked witnesses to the murder and so on, so you know some details, but you don't know who the murderer or the victim were, so it's quite suspenseful.
Three Wishes follows a very similar format, but instead of a murder, it's an argument in a restaurant, culminating in a fork being thrown. Which is... less thrilling. But for most of the book you don't know which triplet threw the fork, and which of her sisters she threw it at, and why. One of the flash-forward snippets reveals that the fork was thrown at "the pregnant one", but for most of the year that could turn out to be any of them (which is reminiscent of the bit in Coupling where the three women take pregnancy tests at the same time and accidentally muddle up the three sticks, and one of them is positive, and they spend the rest of the episode wondering which of them it is.)
The triplet angle is quite interesting - I haven't known any triplets in real life or read a book starring them before. And their three personalities are quite different. I found myself identifying at times with sensible Lyn and at times with snarky Cat, and not so much with ditzy Gemma.

Trust in Me - Sophie McKenzie
Livy comes to visit her best friend Julia and finds her dead. Everyone thinks it was suicide, but Livy is sure it couldn't have been, and is determined to investigate and find the truth, and then begins to find herself in danger.
This is very well-executed as a mystery, with suspicion falling on one character and then another in turn.
SpoilersCollapse )
It was still very tense and compelling, and quite scary near the end.

Blink - K L Slater
This is a very interesting and twisty thriller about a woman in a coma. She's fully conscious and can hear people talking about her, and they think she's brain-dead and are talking about switching her off, which is not only scary for her, but a threat to the vital information she knows which could save little missing Evie. There are also interspersed chapters telling the story leading up to Evie going missing.
This was very gripping, keeping me up much later than I intended, and the twists were genuinely surprising.

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Tiredness update: This week is going better than last. The pattern seems to be that I have enough energy the majority of the time, but I still have some horrible crashes. The crashes are rarer than before I stopped eating gluten, and the good days are generally better than before; but I would ideally like to identify the cause of, and eliminate, the remaining crashes.

I've been continuing to explore GF food. I bought some Mrs Crimble's coconut macaroons and country slices. They were quite nice, but still have the dry powdery texture I associate with GF flour. I'm not sure why they put any kind of flour in the macaroons, because you can make macaroons with just coconut, sugar and egg white. I guess I should make my own.

Anyway: The award for best GF cooking of the week goes to these flourless chocolate brookies: a cross between brownies and cookies, spliced with a bit of meringue. In my previous experience, "flourless" means "with ground nuts instead", but these are just literally flourless, which means more of the dry ingredients have to be icing sugar and cocoa - shucks. With no flour, nuts, or dairy, they're great if you have to cater for a combination of dietary restrictions - but seriously, make them even if you have no restrictions at all, because they're amazing. They're really gooey and fudgy in the middle. They're quite rich, because there's no milk or butter to lighten the cocoa, so it tastes like dark chocolate. And be warned, the mixture is incredibly stiff, so much so that I was unable to spread it out in the baking tray and just dolloped it in the middle, but it still worked and spread out while cooking.

And the award for the worst goes to: GF toad-in-the-hole, with GF sausages, and batter made from GF flour. I didn't think the sausages would be very different, but they're kind of spongy, or chewy in a bouncy way, kind of like tapioca or something, I guess because of the rice flour? And after the great success with pancakes, which were indistinguishable from normal ones, I thought toad-in-the-hole batter would work too, but it really didn't - which adds to my theory that things which are supposed to rise don't work. It ended up a bit like scrambled egg, and a bit like the chewy floury lumps you get in badly-mixed white sauce.

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