Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Cash flow... not a problem

It's always nice to find you have more money than you previously thought.

This week, Scottish Gas finally sent out my bill, which wasn't entirely nice. However, it was less than half of what they had previously attempted to charge, and was about a hundred pounds less than I had expected and set aside for that purpose.


Then, today, I received my pay slip for this month, and found that the bonuses had been paid out. Given that I hadn't realised until recently that I might be getting a bonus, this represented a few hundred pounds that I didn't know I had.

Very nice.

Now, obviously, the sensible thing to do with this money is to take it and place it in my ISA, and keep it nice and safe, and collect lots of interest. So, I'm not going to do that.

But, on what shall I spend this windfall? A big party? A myriad of silly hats? Or perhaps a part share in that Death Star I always wanted...

(Actually, I'm going to buy a laptop, but that's probably less fun than any of the other three options.)

Monday, April 23, 2007

One year ago today...

Well, technically, it was only 52 weeks ago today, but philosophically it was a year... I started my current job. It has been an interesting year, not least because the last time I had 12 months of continuous employment was in 2002. I've also had my first pay rise in six years (as opposed to getting more money for switching job).

Things at work are actually good now. I'm really busy, and really stressed, but I'm also doing some good work, making a real difference to the team, and quite enjoying things.

Now, if only the rest of my life could be as settled...

Friday, April 20, 2007

The day they slew The Dragon

Those of my readers who know me will be aware that my #1 hobby is role-playing games, and specifically the Dungeons & Dragons game. (Yes, I am a geek; that's pretty much a matter of public record.) The major reason I haven't mentioned it here before is that I in fact had another blog entirely dedicated to the subject, the now-defunct ruleslawyers.

(There is a certain controversy surrounding the game, which has been blamed for causing suicides, and even been accused of being Satanic. Obviously, if there was a shred of truth to these accusations, I wouldn't be playing.)

I first started playing in 1988, courtesy of a club run in the school. And, of course, I got into the game in a big way. The following summer I discovered Dragon magazine, one of the two official magazines supporting the game. Since then, I have read the magazine on and off (mostly on), and between the issues I own and a CD archive they did of the rest, I now own all but a handful of issues. I even read the magazine in those spells when I wasn't actually gaming, as has happened a couple of times. So, that's almost eighteen years, and more than half my life.

Yesterday, the publishers announced the cancellation of the magazine, and also the sister-publication Dungeon.

I'm just stunned by this. The magazines were actually in a golden age, and the sales figures were doing really well. And despite this, cancellation. And to think that, come September, they'll just be gone...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Some questions answered

It being Wednesday, I thought I would take this opportunity to answer a few questions I haven't been asked lately. It may be informative, or perhaps not.

So, where are the frogs?

Currently, under my bed.


Nope, I'm not going to explain that further at this time.

Oh, okay. What is it you do for a living, exactly?

I work in a secret government complex, where we are breeding a mutant strain of ambulatory cactii, which we then intend to train in desert warfare. I am, of course, not permitted to talk about the nature of my work. For that reason, of course, every statement in this paragraph is a lie.

Ah! Isn't that a paradox?

Actually, no. It's just a lie.

That doesn't make any sense.

I know. But that's not a question.

Fair enough. What's with the cactii?

Well, I actually do have a cactus, now called Jeremy, that really does sit on one of my shelves between Optimus Prime and Darth Tater. Other than that, there's nothing much about cactii. Chine Mieville featured a race of cactus-men in his Bas-Lag novels, and they were pretty cool, but that's about it.

And what's with the frogs?

Well, that's a long and odd story. When I was about ten, my parents decided it would be a good idea to start calling me 'Frog'. Quite why they did this is a mystery - my parents are entirely crazy. As a monument to this new and exciting form of cruelty they had elected to inflict on me, my mother and grandmother then proceeded to buy me about a dozen frogs of various sizes, shapes and constructions for each and every birthday, Christmas, and other occasion in the meantime. (Huh. Turns out I did explain the 'under my bed' comment. Oh, well.)

I did buy one item of frog-themed memorabilia, which is a green t-shirt with lots of brightly coloured frogs on it, which I wear when I really want to freak people out. I got it in Arkansas (but not from a strip club), and knew when I saw it that if I didn't buy it I would forever regret the decision. The second most interesting thing about this t-shirt is that it is 'Large', which is the same size as all my other t-shirts, yet comparing it with the others, and especially with the 'Large' t-shirt I got from the Asterix Park in France shows a quite remarkable difference in size.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Feeling especially heroic

This week, I have stridden across my world like a conquering titan. At work, I have fixed a whole raft of problems, finally got back to my 'real' task, and generally impressed (me). At band, I found myself once more in a position of significance as again the pipe major and second instructor were absent (and, curiously, the quality of the band as a whole rose...). Having cleared out my 'to-do' list last week, I've not had any niggling worries to deal with. And I started looking towards booking my holiday for next month - I'm probably off to Prague for a few days.

Yes, life is good.

Of course, this almost certainly means I'm being set up for a major fall. I fully predict that by a week on Wednesday I'll be depressed again. We'll see.

"You're looking well..."

This is something I've had said to me on more than one occasion (curiously, always by somewhat older women while in church). I'm pretty sure it's code for "you're looking fat." Oddly, people have also often been surprised when I've commented that I'm feeling under the weather, because they generally think I'm 'absurdly healthy'. Weird.

Anyway, the reason for this apparent health is largely due to my diet, which genuinely is pretty good. (Those same older women have generally added to their remarks that I'm "obviously eating right". As I said, it's a secret code.) In fact, my colleagues (and a number of other churchwomen of my acquaintance) are frequently surprised by this, because their assumption is that, as a single bloke living alone, I must eat pizza every night. The reality is that I do eat pizza about once a week, but then, I do like it a lot, and after all, why not?

But the rest of the time, I cook for myself. And, as I hate pre-packaged foods (as noted in one of the first posts in "Part Two", as it then was), that means putting in some effort. And, as with everything one does often enough, I've become pretty good at it. (Actually, I was pretty good when I started. Spectacular would be a more appropriate word now.)

But, for all that I've cooked for myself for nearly two years now, and despite the wide range of things I have turned my hand to (with mixed results - my beef stroganof was a particular failure), I have until now been denied one of my favourite foods.

But no longer! As part of my feeling especially heroic this week, and in celebration of being presented with an exciting new dish by CJ, tonight I cooked up my first lasagne.


And it was good, although I did note a couple of things I should do better next time.

There is, however, one significant problem with living with such genius. As I noted in a post in January, I could probably do with losing a bit of weight. (Plus, there's the code, of course...) But, how is this to be done when the food is so good?

Who to vote for?

In a couple of weeks, Scotland goes to the polls for the third set of elections for the Scottish parliament, and while I have become extremely disillusioned with the whole concept of devolution it remains my intention to vote. Not because I hold the view that it is somehow my democratic duty (I hold the contrary view that if you can't explain why you're voting a particular way, you have no business voting at all), but rather because for the first time I'm in the novel position of having a vote that actually matters a damn (one of the dubious benefits of living in a Labour stronghold until now is that it never actually mattered before).

But, who to vote for?

This election appears to be a two-horse race between the centre-right Labour party and the left-wing Scottish National Party. We also have a centre-right Tory candidate, of course, and the Lib-Dems are in there, set to continue their roles as kingmakers in Scotland. Plus, there are a bunch of minor parties to consider.

The election around here has been particularly vicious, with the Labour people writing to me to deplore the socialist actions of the SNP-run local council, the SNP writing to me to curry my support for independence, and both teams employing crack teams of ninja to take down the other side's posters, and put up posters of their own. It's all very exciting.

My voting history is also relevant, so here it is: In 1997, I voted Labour, and regretted it. The promised new dawn didn't really materialise. I then voted in favour of Devolution, and for the Scottish Parliament to have tax-raising powers, and have come to regret that also. In the first elections to the Scottish parliament, I voted for an ex-Labour Independent, and Lib Dem for proportional representation. Since then, I have always voted Lib-Dem in every election. (As noted, I lived in a Labour stronghold, so this had the advantage of not actually mattering a damn.)

But, what of this time?

Well, let's look at the minor parties first. Probably the most relevant to me is this new Christian Party that has cropped up. But I discard them right away, because it is actually my strongest-held political belief that a government has to govern for all the people, not merely those people who believe as I do, and so I don't feel there is actually a place for a Christian party any more than there is for a Muslim party, an Atheist party, or anything else. (Plus, of course, there is the key question: are they really a Christian party, or are they just claiming to be? I don't actually care to find out, for the reason given above.)

Then there are the raft of socialist parties. Once upon a time, we had the Scottish Socialist Party, who actually had the distinction of properly believing in the principles they claimed. Then, they set about a nasty bout of in-fighting, shattered into lots of smaller parties, and ended any dream of socialism without independence in Scotland.

Which is irrelevant, since I was never going to vote for them anyway, for two reasons. The first is that the second most recognisable in the then SSP engaged in a childish publicity stunt when taking her oath of alleigance after the previous set of elections. Frankly, she should have been barred from the chamber after that until such time as she was willing to take the oath seriously. I have no respect for that sort of thing, and so they won't get my vote.

But the second is that I don't actually think socialism really works. Its great in principle, but it suffers in practice because too many people are simply lazy, and too many people are simply corrupt. It only takes a fairly small number of people to play on the system, and it falls apart.

Then there's the Green Party. They're a 'maybe'. The problem with their agenda is that I don't believe a single thing we've been told about climate change (on any side of the debate), which leads me to believe it's either being used as a cyncical vote-winner by the big parties or, more likely, we don't really know what's going on and are taking our 'best guess'... which is a really bad thing to base policy on. The other major problem with green policy is the same problem faced by socialist policy, but on a global scale - the things we would need to do to actually combat Global Warming are fairly radical, and unless the big powers in the world (the US, China and India being the most important) anything we do is a drop in the bucket. Worse still, unless every country implements the rescue package together and equally, those who do implement the policy will be at a crippling disadvantage compared to those who don't.

In short: the planet is doomed.

Which brings us to the main players: the Tories, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP.

I'm going to discard the Tories from consideration. Ironically, when one looks at their stated principles, the Tory party is probably the closest to my own views. Unfortunately for them, I disagree with every single one of their actual policies, and don't trust a single one of the individuals involved. So, they're out.

I also have to discard the SNP. I like a lot of what they've said they're going to do. Smaller class sizes is long overdue, and the NHS badly needs more money. And I'm not fundamentally against a moderate tax-rise to pay for it... except they've claimed they're actually going to cut taxes, which leads me to the conclusion that they've got their sums badly wrong. In 1998, Gordon Brown claimed that there were huge efficiency savings that could allow more money to go into services in schools, hositals and the like without raising taxes, simply by cutting red tape, but that failed. The reason it failed was that the very people who would need to do the work cutting that red tape were the same people whose jobs existed because of that red tape. Only an idiot or an idealist will work himself out of a job.

The other SNP policy that bugs me is their idea of a local income tax to replace Council Tax. As a relatively high earner, I'm in the group of people who would actually pay more under that system. As a single man with no children, I'm also in the group who gain least from council services - I get garbage pickup and water supplies.

But, the principle is that those who earn more, and so are most able to pay, probably should pay more. And it's a principle I actually do agree with - it just sucks being in precisely the wrong group.

So, the SNP's economic policy must be wrong. But, actually, I might vote for them despite that, except for one inescapable point where my position fundamentally differs from theirs: independence.

If the SNP gain power, it is their intention to hold a referendum on independence. It is my expectation that they would win such a referendum. It is also my contention that that would be an absolute disaster for Scotland. Our economy, even if we get all of the North Sea Oil, just isn't self-sustaining. We have a tourism industry, and we export quality graduates.

But it's not even that issue that leads me to oppose independence. There's also the matter that an independent Scotland in Europe really won't amount to anything. As part of the UK, we actually have some presence on the world stage, especially with so many Scots in important roles in the current government. (I do think the UK should be a lot more involved in European matters, rather than generally standing on the sides and frequently complaining, but that's another topic for another day.)

But that's still not the reason why I oppose independence. In fact, it's a combination of two things: in terms of identity, I'm a Scotsman, but I'm also a Briton, and I don't want that to change. Plus, there's the bond of family, which is extremely important. (And which would have gone without saying, and hence would have remained unsaid, except that several members of my family read this, and would have been rightly offended at its omission.)

(I'd best note at this point that I'm also not going to vote a particular way to prevent a particular party gaining power. I really hate that approach. I'll vote for someone I do want, or I'll not vote at all. I won't be scared into voting Labour because otherwise the SNP might win.)

Which leaves Labour and the Lib-Dems. But I don't like current Labour policy at all, and I especially don't like the fact that they get so many votes from people who have always voted Labour and will always vote Labour, despite that Labour now does not stand for the things it stood for when I was at school. (I also noted, on my way back from the opticians this morning, that Labour have now stooped to bald-faced lies in their campaigning. They have a poster on the way into Falkirk that claims that the SNP will cost the average family an extra £5,000 per year. The average household income is £28k, so this represents a tax increase of 17.8%, which is utterly absurd. Even if the SNP sums are wrong, and even if the Labour calculation for the SNP promises is what they claim, the SNP wouldn't impose such a burden - they'd back off on their other policies first, not being totally insane.

And that brings me back to the Lib-Dems. Where, tragically, I run into a major problem. It is likely that this election will again lead to no party having an outright majority, which means we'll get another coalition. And, since Labour and the SNP will never form a coalition, and neither will ally themselves with the Tories, this means we'll get either a Lib-Lab coalition again or an SNP-Liberal coalition.

This would be ideal, especially the latter, and especially if the Lib-Dems were able to persuade the SNP that they should have at least a full term in office before moving to the referendum on devolution. That would be ideal. Sadly, the SNP have stated they're not interested in a coalition under those terms (and, to a certain extent, I say good on them for sticking with their principles). And the Lib-Dems have stated they won't enter a coalition unless the referendum is binned.

And that means the only coalition is a Lib-Lab one, and it means that any vote for the Lib Dems is effectively a vote for Labour.

And that brings me back to where I started? Who do I vote for? Or do I not vote at all?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What I did at the weekend

It is quite strange being at work on the Tuesday after Easter. Last year, my final day at work for my previous employer was the Thursday before Good Friday. I spent the Easter weekend driving north, and had a week of house-hunting before starting my new job. The year before that, my contract with my then-employer officially expired on Good Friday (although I had that day off). The year before that, I was unemployed, and the year before that I was working on my MSc. So, it's not since 2002 that I've had to work on 'this day'.

I had half expected to have to work on Saturday, and indeed yesterday, but the powers-that-be here were doing extensive work on the phone systems, and I therefore couldn't come in in case there was a dinosaur attack (which happens more often than you might expect in these parts). Clearly, you can't be dealing with roving velociraptors while the phones are also not working. We don't even use UNIX.

Anyway, confusing Jurassic Park references aside, Mr Hammond and I found ourselves at home. I cannot speak as to his choice of activities, but I took the opportunity to burn through my entire 'to-do' list. So, I cleaned the kitchen. I cleaned the bathroom (horrors!). I wrote a reply to the people who are handling my pension from last year's employer about what I want done with the funds. I did my weekly shop. I cooked four days' worth of food. I saw a man about getting my bagpipes fixed. I even wrote to the NHS (finally), asking them to allocate a doctor and/or dentist for me.

The rest of the weekend was spent watching TV and various films I had recorded from Sky. "Derailed" is a bad film. I knew it was a bad film when fifteen minutes into it I saw the 'big twist' coming clear as day. That it took fifteen minutes to get to the point where the two main characters are even actually talking was a bad sign, especially since the whole thing was less than two hours.

"Casanova" is also a bad film, although not as bad as "Derailed". As a hint to the film-makers: when dealing with a man who according to legend had 10,000 lovers, it might not be the best idea to shoot for a '12A' certificate. Additionally, it is probably not a good idea to hinge the plot on the question "will he get the girl?". But then, when the plot was as incredibly stupid as that one, I suppose it doesn't matter. The redeeming feature of the whole thing was that at least it was reasonably amusing in places.

Then there was "Blade: the Series", "Doctor Who", "24", "Lost", and Harry Hill, none of which disappointed.

All in all, it was quite a successful weekend.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Nedmobiles on Parade!

On my way home from band tonight, I found my way barred by a most unlikely sight. It seems the local youth had decided tonight was the night to engage in their pasttime of cruising around town in their tricked-out rides, hoping to impress the ladeez. So, there they were, a convoy of cars, replete with the fancy wheel trims, the spoilers, and the loud exhausts. Very impressive.

Sadly, they had miscalculated in two ways:

Firstly, they had neglected to realise that putting a loud exhaust, a spoiler, and alloys on a car is all well and good, but it really counts for nothing if you can't actually afford a decent car to put them on. Otherwise, it just shouts "look at me! I'm a wannabe!"

Secondly, they hadn't realised that, from a driving around perspective, Falkirk is really badly designed. So, when you have a convoy of six cars cruising around town, the mere presence of so many cars on the road causes the whole thing to grind to a halt. And, no matter how fine your ride, it tends to look rather pathetic when stopping and starting its way through the streets.

Me, I have my eye on one of those new BMW 3-Series hardtop convertibles. It's not a car I would ever actually drive, but it's fun to think "what if"?

(Why is it not a car I would drive? Well, it's about four times too expensive. I'm inclined to do much the same for my next car as I did for my current one - buy something two or three years old, and then run it until the wheels fall off. That said, I'm hoping to get three more years out of my current car before I have to make that decision.)

Monday, April 02, 2007

Sagas that Never End...

I've just phoned the optician, and I'm going to have to take the glasses in to have the measurements checked. Which is fine, except that Saturday is the earliest I can go, and then there will be however long it takes them to fix the problem, and so on. The mystery of why the sunglasses are fine has been resolved, though: the main pair were ordered in while the sunglasses were done in-house. So, it seems likely that the order was placed incorrectly. Which wouldn't surprise me in the least.

But, I did say sagas, didn't I?

Remember my incorrect gas bill? Well, the end result was that I got a letter from Scottish Gas promising that they would rectify the problem, calculate a fresh bill, and send it out to me no later than the 9th of March. When I get home, I intend to phone them to ask why I still haven't received said bill. I mean, if they don't want my money then that's fine with me, but I would quite like to know that.