The Spare Man

I haven’t talked about any books on here for a while, but The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal really does deserve to be read by more people.

Tesla Crane, a brilliant inventor and an heiress, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between the Moon and Mars. She’s travelling incognito and is reveling in her anonymity. Then someone is murdered and the festering chowderheads who run security have the audacity to arrest her spouse.

Armed with banter, martinis and her small service dog, Tesla is determined to solve the crime so that the newlyweds can get back to canoodling and keep the real killer from striking again.

The Spare Man is a very light-hearted murder mystery, set in space. And it’s great.

The liner itself is superbly realised, as is the technology in general. This all fits well with the shape of the story so that the limitations and opportunities faced by the characters all feel remarkably plausible. Indeed, there is a note at the end of the book discussing the science, and some of it is remarkably close to being realised.

The final reveal does come out of nowhere somewhat, but this is more than made up by the characters, all of whom are consistently superb. This is especially true of Tesla Crane, the heroine of the store and a wonderfully well-rounded character. Like any real person, she is a mass of contradictions all of which coalesce into a believable whole. And she remains wonderfully witty throughout.

While the book harks back to the cosy murder mysteries of the early 20th Century, it does reflect more modern sensibilities and the characters are a lot more self-aware. This is especially true in the case of Tesla Crane who is uncomfortably conscious of the advantages afforded to her by her wealth and fame, but not so much that she isn’t willing to use every option available when her husband is arrested.

I really enjoyed The Spare Man. It has a smart plot and a very snappy sense of humour, along with a genuinely adorable dog. This is the first novel by Mary Robinette Kowal that I’ve read. It won’t be the last.

One final note. Every chapter starts with a cocktail recipe. These recipes include both alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails and many of them look rather tasty. I need to start stocking up.

Pairi Daiza

Macsen turned 16 last month and we wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. What we came up with was a two-day trip to Pairi Daiza, a zoo and botanical garden located in Wallonia. For the first day, we signed Macsen up for the Keeper for a day experience, which allowed him to get a lot closer to the animals than the rest of us.

That said, the park is huge, so there were plenty of animals for the rest of us to see. Pairi Daiza is home to 7,000 animals, spread across 65 hectares of, often stunning, landscape. It’s big, and I’m glad we were all equipped with decent walking shoes.

The park itself is located on the grounds of the former Cistercian Cambron Abbey, and is divided into several Worlds, each emphasising a different environment. What makes the overnight stay so special is that the accommodation is in these worlds. In our case, we booked a room in The Land of the Cold, overlooking the Siberian Tigers, the biggest cat on earth.

As with many modern zoos, Pairi Daiza also serves environmental and educational functions, seeing to preserve threatened habitats, protect endangered species and introduce them into the wild if possible. It also seeks to educate visitors about the wider culture of the lands the animals originate from, and why this matters.

With the experience and the accommodation, it’s not cheap. But it did provide a fantastic couple of days, and I was surprised at just how difficulty it was, on the second day, to bring ourselves to leave. I would certainly recommend it and would very happily go again.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I’ve been playing tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) since I was a teenager and, over the past couple of years, the boys have become increasingly interested in Dungeons & Dragons. We have already played several adventures already, both home-brewed and bought, and everyone having had a chance to be DM. With this in mind, it is probably not surprising that we were all very keen to see Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

The film does not disappoint.

The film opens with Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez) in prison for “grand larceny and skulduggery.” Of course they escape and set about retrieving Edgin’s daughter from the care of Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant). In doing so, they discover that things were not as they once seemed and that the task much larger than they had originally believed.

So Edgin (a bard) and Holga (a barbarian) find their former companion, Simon Aumar (Justice Smith), a sorcerer and recruit a tefling druid named Doric (Sophia Lillis) to join the party. Then the four of them set out to save the world. As you do.

Obviously, we were all coming to Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves with some knowledge of both the game and the setting, and it was fun to see some of the locations that our own characters have encountered visualised on the big screen. But the film is clearly intended for a much larger audience than D&D nerds. At heart, it’s a heist comedy set in a fantasy world with plenty of action thrown in to keep things moving.

The casting for this film is superb and, for the four main characters, this really is an ensemble piece. All four characters bring something to the party, and all four of them have an arc that is satisfyingly resolved by the end of the film. And Hugh Grant is a revelation — all of the charm that he has brought to previous films is twisted, ever so slightly, that is both borderline sleazy and entertainingly distasteful.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a very funny fantasy adventure that embraces the silliness that you often find at the heart of any D&D adventure. This makes for a film that is a lot of fun and one that really can be enjoyed by anyone.

The potential for a D&D film franchise huge. I do hope we can spend more time with these characters before too long.

Pakawi Park

I have mentioned the Olmense Zoo a couple of times in the past but in the years since we last visited, the ownership, the name and the purpose have all changed. It’s still at the same location, though.

Back in 2017, the zoo was found to be in violation of several animal welfare rules. They were unable to sufficiently rectify these and the zoo lost it’s licence in 2017. In 2019 it reopened as Pakawi Park, now specialising on big cats and with more of a focus on conservation and education. Reflecting that specialisation is the fact that the park is named after Paka and Awi, a pair of Siberian tigers.

We visited the Park shortly after it reopened in 2019 and, last week, we went for another look. The improvements are still ongoing and looking impressive. The enclosures have been reorganised to provide more space for the animals and further renovations are clearly in progress, most notably is that a new monkey house is on the way. Overall, the transition from a traditional zoo to a more modern experience does appear to be working well.

This being Belgium, the weather wasn’t great, but we did have an enjoyable day out and will certainly be back. If only to see if the persistent peacock finally managed to get into the restaurant.

A peacock trying to find his way into the restaurant at Pakawi Park


During the pandemic, I developed the habit of going for an hour’s walk every day. Once I was done for the day, I would shut down my laptop, pull on my boots and take myself out to the Totterpad.

Doing this kept me from becoming too unfit while also enjoying some rather nice natural scenery. It also had the additional advantage, while I was working from home, of providing a clear end to the working day.

Unfortunately, I started to fall out of the habit in the middle of 2021 and by the end of last year I’d become so sedentary that I wasn’t even making excuses for myself anymore. This had to change and it will.

On the days that I work from home, I have been dragging myself out of the house (almost) as soon as my working day is done and rediscovering some of my old walking routes. It’s good to get moving again and I have even managed to drag one or more of the kids along with me a couple of times.

I find that I am very much a creature of habit so once I have formed the habit of regularly walking keeping it up will be (relatively) easy. I just need to push myself a bit to form the habit in the first place.

And if I do keep it up, there will almost certainly be photos to follow.

Transport issues and dealing with failure

I was intending to post a lengthy rant about the state of the Belgian trains today. There is a bit of track that keeps on having problems: over the last few weeks, we have had signalling problems, a broken down train, and a failure at a level crossing. Inevitably enough, these types of issues always to train cancellations and delays.

When this happens on the way to work this isn’t that big of a deal. I am able to work from home and will do so if there is any problem at all with getting to the office.

It’s more of an issue when I have finished work for the day and walk into the station to find a stream of delays and cancellations being announced. Alternative routes need to be sought and I have to start rethinking at what time I will be home.

It was at this point that I was going to start complaining but, if I’m honest, it isn’t that bad.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and problems will always arise. What really matters is how effectively these problems are dealt with, and in this respect the Belgian train operator, NMBS, does a pretty good job.

While at the station, there are plenty of announcements and electronic displays to tell me which train I need to be catching and, once on the train, there are further announcements telling me not only at which station I need to change, but also which platform I need to be heading towards. Furthermore, the NMBS app provides a good overview of the state of the route, expected and actual
delays, and estimated arrival times.

All of this means that it remains very easy to know what is going on, where I need to be and how much of a delay I can expect. And the final delay was only half an hour, which really didn’t make much difference to anyone.

Failures happen. How an organisation deals with these is important. It’s nice to see this being taken seriously.


Sagrada is a board game that we have had for quite some time and, while it’s not one that we play obsessively, it does get pulled out surprisingly frequently.

As a skilled artisan, you will use cleverness and careful planning to craft a stained glass window masterpiece in the Sagrada Familia.

Players will take turns drafting glass pieces, represented by dice; carefully choosing where to place each one in their window. Windows have unique color and shade requirements, and similar dice may never be adjacent so placing each die is more challenging than the last. Fortunately, you’ll have just the right tools to help you through. Gain prestige by adapting to the preferences of your fickle admirers, and of course, by adding your own artistic flair while completing your glass masterpiece in

The game involves drawing dice from a limited pool of dice and placing these on their window, obeying the colour and value restrictions on their window card. After ten rounds the game is over and players add up points based on their public and private objectives. The player with the most points is the winner.

This is the sort of deceptively simple game that I really enjoy. The rules really are as simple as the above paragraph suggests, but deciding where to place your dice becomes increasingly challenging as the game progresses. The more dice you have on your window, the more difficult it is to find a place to put the next die that still conforms to the placement rules. So you have to start thinking ahead if you want to avoid leaving gaps.

The game includes rules for playing on your own. I haven’t tried this but I can see the appeal as the game really is a puzzle to be solved.

There isn’t a huge amount of depth to Sagrada, but it is quick to set up, fun to play and surprisingly satisfying. The game moves quickly and still manages to confront the players with interesting decisions and the simplicity of the rules means that anyone can very easily join in.

Repairable by design

This is good:

HMD Global, which took over the Nokia brand for phones, has launched a smartphone designed to be fixed by the owner, with repair site iFixit providing guides and replacement parts.

The Nokia G22 is one of three handsets launched by HMD at this week’s MWC in Barcelona. It is claimed to be the first Nokia smartphone to come with repairability at its core, enabling owners to replace a damaged display, bent charging port or dead battery.

HMD’s link up with iFixit means that some online guides are already available to help with repairing parts of the G22, while replacement parts for the same are also available from the site, with the G22 getting a dedicated Repair Hub area on

The current cycle of constantly replacing devices that has come to define the mobile phone market, as well as many others, is expensive, wasteful and environmentally disastrous. As such, it is great to see a major manufacturer embracing repairability. This is especially positive because, as the article makes clear, HMD sees repairability as a selling point and not something with with they are forced to grudgingly comply.

Many years ago, I treated myself to a first edition Fairphone and was delighted to discover just how easy a well-designed phone makes it to replace parts (mainly screens in my case). Obviously, a bigger organisation such as HMD is better able to demand a consistent supply of spare parts, and this is something we should all support.

Repairability should be the norm. Not just for phones, but for everything, and we should support initiatives that move towards making it so.

Two-Factor Authentication and Aegis Authenticator

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a common, effective and easy to implement method to improve online security. It involves adding an additional factor to the authentication process so that, even if someone manages to get hold of your user ID and password, they still can’t get into your account.

In Belgium, we have the well-established itsme which provides an additional layer of security for online banking, government services and a whole range of online activities. There is also the much newer, and largely ignored, myID, for which I have yet to find a use.

There are also a variety of authentication apps that can be installed on your mobile phone. Once set up, these will continually generate a (usually) 6 digit passcode that you need to enter when logging in to the protected website.

When I started using 2FA (outside of itsme) I went with the first authenticator app that I found, which was Google Authenticator inevitably enough. It is certainly very easy to use and does make it very easy to get started. There are a couple of things about which I have become increasingly unhappy.

The first of these is that it’s a Google product, and because I don’t like being overly dependent on a small number of very large companies, I tend to seek alternatives when I can. More seriously, Google Authenticator appears to lack any sort of backup option, which is problematic.

So, after looking around for a bit, I have settled on Aegis Authenticator, which is a much more security focussed authentication app.

For a start, it does support backups. Not only am I able to back up my vault to my own server, but the app also supports Native Android backups, so I could just switch it on and forget about it. I also like the fact that you actually need to sign in to the app, either with a fingerprint or other biometric option, or with a password.

And the app manages to remain remarkably straightforward to use. I think I will be sticking with this one.

Of course, 2FA is not a panacea, but it is a big improvement on relying on just a password and if you can use it, you really should.

And on that note, I should point out that WordPress supports Two-Step Authentication, and you can set it up from the Security Tab on your Profile settings.

Circling the drain

I have posted on political topics quite frequently in the past, but over the past couple of years I find myself increasingly disinclined to do so. I think there are a number of reasons for this, particularly in the case of the UK.

The first of these, obviously, is Brexit. Six years after the referendum and three years after Britain left the EU, people are still going on about it. Interestingly, this is only the case in the UK. Everyone else has moved on and adjusted to the changed reality, but in Britain people are still trying to argue the pros and cons of this increasingly self-evident failure.

Even here, it isn’t as if there is any actual conversation going on. People are still going around in circles, making the same claims and counter-claims, still fighting the same battles over and over again. It’s tiring, it’s boring, and it goes nowhere.

Related to this (I think) is that politics has become a lot more performative. There has always been an element of left-wing thinking that values ideological purity over achieving solutions, but the Conservative party appears to have leapt into a full-on embrace of identity politics. The media doesn’t help and we end up with proposals and policies that can’t work, won’t work, will never be implemented and serve only to send signals to one group of supporters or the other.

And I have better things to do with my time than watch various gangs of trolls attempting to score juvenile points at each other’s expense.

Britain is in a mess and things are not going to improve until those at the top start addressing issues rather than pandering to increasingly paranoid fantasies. But there is hope, as noted by Gerhard Schnyder in his Brexit Impact Tracker earlier this week.

Together with the increasingly deep internal divisions that Chris Grey wrote about last week, there is hope that “Brexit is slowly killing the Conservative Party,” possibly making room for a less nasty, less corrupt, more modern centre-right party. That is something the UK desperately needs.

I have thought for a while now that this needs to happen. The UK Conservative party needs to collapse completely in order to leave the way open for a more moderate party to fill the gaping void in British politics that is doing so much damage to the country.