Thursday, August 30, 2007


Of late, it seems that the baby living in the flat downstairs has found his voice. Looked at objectively, this is a good thing, as it indicates healthy lungs. However, it has a rather obvious down side. For the past couple of weeks, I have been woken up every night at some point between three and half past four by a crying baby, and then again just after six. This is, obviously, not good.

However, last night was the worst. I switched off the light at eleven, that being the hour at which I retire during the week, and as if on cue the child started wailing. He proceeded to cry for the next hour, pausing only to take a breath. Meanwhile, his helpless neighbour wondered if he would ever get any sleep.

The thing is, I actually quite like children, and don't even particularly mind crying babies in most circumstances. But this all seems rather unfair - I seem to have skipped a bunch of steps somewhere along the way.

Boring post about life

I haven't posted anything for a while. The reason for this has primarily been that for the last few weeks my life has settled into a kind of bland okayness that hasn't been particularly inspiring to live through or write about (or, I suspect, to read about either). So, I haven't had any monstrously humerous tales of woe to share, nor have I had any great triumphs to tell of. It's all just been... okay.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Into the Lion's Den...

It being Graeme's birthday soon, I found myself heading into Toys'r'Us to select him something age-appropriate and fun to play with. (What?)

However, on walking into the store, I found myself confronted with an endless row of Transformers toys. Thousands of them, all there tempting me. Aaargh! How to resist?

But even worse, Toys'r'Us have the exclusive rights to stock the reissues of the original Generation 1 toys, the very same ones I had twenty years ago. Including, worst of all, the reissued Soundwave, one of the most popular toys that I didn't own, and really wanted. I had it in my hand, and came within a heartbeat of shelling out the £25 for it (and potentially the £20 for Skywarp, and the £15 for Prowl, and...).

I was saved by an illusion of age, thankfully. The toy seemed so much smaller than it did back in the day. Was this really an identical reissue, or was it a new toy designed to be roughly the same? (According to the internet - 'cos I've since checked - it's identical. But I'm not going back... today.)

This could get expensive...

Friday, August 17, 2007

The man, the myth, the legend...

I haven't posted a rant about my experiences with the band recently, largely because it hasn't been necessary. A couple of months ago, we won our first prize in the modern era, and suddenly things have started to come together. The people who were constantly ranting about how the band was "seriously shite" have gradually stood down from that position, people are no longer pulling in different directions, and things are generally good.

Which is nice.

My own role within the band has changed, as well. Somewhere along the line, it was recognised by all concerned that (a) I actually can play a bit, and (b) I'm a generally useful person to have around.

As a result of this, there have been a number of practices where the pipe major couldn't make it, and I was asked to run the practice. There have also been a couple of times when the pipe major was there, but was busy with other things, and so asked me to take charge of the band while he was otherwise engaged. And, recently, the secondary instructor guy (who is going on holiday shortly) has asked me to take over the teaching of his students while he's away, with a view to bringing them on the play with the band.

All in all, things are looking up. The only concern I have now is that if the pipe major decides to step down, I think I've just nominated myself as the likely successor - the secondary instructor doesn't want the role, which means I'm it. Fortunately, I don't think the pipe major is going to step down... but then, I didn't expect it last year either.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Off on a bit of a tangent

You may not have heard of the little-known horror classic "Evil Trigonometry", largely cos I've just made it up. It is the story of a maths teacher so boring that his classes finally inspire a number of his students to literally eat their own branes, and thus become zombies. Naturally, this infestation is beaten back by a healthy infusion of shotgun blasts to the head.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is that I've just heard they're making a sequel: "Evil Trigonometry 2: Original Sin".

Monday, August 13, 2007

Back to work...

The first day back at work is, of course, the ideal time to start afresh, to clear out all the dross and bad habits that have dogged work for the weeks before the holiday, and to generally ensure that things begin again on the right footing.

And so it was that yesterday I ironed a 'work' shirt for the first time since Christmas, set my alarm clock in the full intention of actually heeding it, and generally made ready. Then, this morning, when the alarm went off (two minutes late - I will have to adjust that) I leapt up and began my day. (Yes, I am a morning person. Sorry if that offends you.)

Anyway, I went through the morning routine with all appropriate haste, leapt in the car, and drove to the office, keen to resume work and do many exciting things. Huzzah for enthusiasm!

Unfortunately, there is no indication of work that I need to be doing, my boss is working from home today, and the person he has said will tell me what I need to do is the very antithesis of a morning person, so hasn't arrived in the office yet. And, in fact, there's hardly anyone here to be impressed by my full-of-beans-ness, or whom I can regale with my adventures in Barcelona and/or mowing the lawn. Huzzah?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Prostitute

After having eaten dinner in my hotel on Wednesday night, I headed back out into Barcelona to see Las Ramblas at night. It was about 9:15 at this time. My plan, broadly speaking, was to walk up the street, then gradually wander down until I saw a nice-looking pub where I could sit outdoors and watch the people go past. I thought that sounded like quite a good idea.

Anyway, I got on the Metro, and sat down in the baking heat (the Metro was the only part of Barcelona that was truly too hot, although much of the rest of it was very hot, even just shortly after the rain). Moments later, the train reached its first stop, and the hottest woman I have ever seen in person got on. I was simply stunned. Long black hair, perfect hourglass figure, tight clothing. She jiggled her way onto the train and sat down.

Indeed, it was obvious from the way she moved that she was fully aware of how hot she was, which counts as a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, it speaks of a confidence that immediately confers an additional hotness. On the other, it very often presages an arrogance that is unappealing (an attitude of "who are you, and what gives you the right to speak to me?"). On balance, though, it's better to be confident than not - the girl who has just been shifted out of the "top 5" had terrible self-esteem issues, which led to her dating a whole string of guys who just weren't good enough for her, several of whom treated her quite badly indeed.

I would like to claim at this point that I proceeded to chat her up, but that would be a lie, of course. Actually, for the remainder of the Metro ride, she was actually talking to someone on her mobile phone. Naturally, the part of me that is a wireless comms expert was truly impressed by this feat; I wonder how it was achieved?

Anyway, my station was reached, and I departed the train, and proceeded to walk up Las Ramblas, marvelling at the street-life, especially the 'living statues'. In every art-form, there are a key group of innovators. In living statuism, those innovators work in Barcelona, where they have determined that the public is no longer amused by simply immobile living statues, but rather would prefer their statues to somehow express something of their intent through silent motion. This whole new artform is truly spectacular, such that I feel it needs a whole new name. That said, I can't help but wonder how long it will be before these 'moving living statues' will innovate again, and perhaps incorporate sounds, or perhaps even words, into their acts. Truly, these are wondrous days we live in.

As I walk, I'm all the while reeling from the need to suddenly re-calibrate my hotness-meter, and at the same time trying to work out just how to embellish this story for best presentation on the blog. Little did I know that an entirely different story was looming.

I reached the top of the street, and started retracing my steps. However, before I got far, I determined that I actually needed to make a stop before proceeding. So, a quick visit to Starbucks ensued, an enquiry about door access codes, and...

So, I returned to the street, and resumed my saunter. Moments later, I noted a fairly attractive girl dressed all in white moving to cross my path. So, I subtly slowed my walk and adjusted my path to allow her to pass without walking into me. However, she adjusted her path to match, then moved again when I adjusted to walk past her - I wasn't keen on the distraction, not least since my guidebook had stated that there was a high rate of petty crime in Barcelona, and one should always be careful, especially when one thinks one might be being distracted.

"Hello," she said, "I've decided to talk to you."

"Okay, that's nice," say I. I shrug my shoulders slightly, so my wallet slides into the gap between arm and side.

"Where are you from?"


"Oh, that's nice. And do you have a name?"

"Stephen," I say, still scanning the crowd with my peripheral vision. I'm quite glad I chose to wear my contact lenses at this point.

"I'm Sharon," she says, although the name may have only sounded a bit like Sharon. "Let's go back to your hotel room."

O-kay, that's a bit odd. At this point, I revise my thinking from theory #1 (pickpocket/distraction) to theory #2. It is with some sorrow that I must confess that I never considered that this could be genuine. Such things just don't happen to me. However, it would be nice, I think, to not be so jaded that I simply discard the possibility out of hand. The fact that I was actually right is scant consolation.

"I don't think so. Thanks anyway," I say, and move away. Only to find this girl pursuing me.

Well, I can put on quite some speed while remaining at a walk (I avoid running in public; it's generally undignified), and especially when moving through a crowd. However, she continued to follow. Shortly, therefore, I stopped and faced the issue.

"So, where's your hotel?" she asked. (Actually, that's skipping a bit - first there was the instance where she accused me of "walking funny", and suggested I should relax.)

"I'm not taking you back to my hotel," I say.

"Oh okay," she says, taking my arm. "In that case, we'll go back to my hotel. It's this way."


"Come on, please?" (What the hell, I'm thinking.) "50 euros?"

Ding! Theory 2 has it. I'm going to guess, based on the way she said it, the €50 is considered a good price. I wouldn't know. Still, doesn't really make a difference.

"No. Sorry."

"Why not?" she asks.

Now, there's no answer to that question. I tried to think of one, but all the truths can't be said. "I don't trust that you won't have a bunch of guys beat me up," doesn't sound like something to say (especially if there is a bunch of guys, and she's ready to signal them). "I don't trust that you're clean," must surely be considered highly offensive (even if it's an obvious worry - and, statistically, things don't look good for 'Sharon'). Then there's the harder truth: "If I start paying for it, then that's an admission that I have to." But that's frankly not something I'm going to get into with a random person on a street in Barcelona. Or perhaps, "I already have a hard enough time maintaining any sort of empathy with people - the last thing I need is another reason to think of people as commodities."

I did consider an easy lie, and pretending to be gay. And later, on the train ride back to the hotel, I also considered briefly whether a harder lie, of pretending to be a terrible racist, would have solved the problem. The truth is, though, I wouldn't have been comfortable with either of these.

"Just no," I said. "Please leave me alone."

But she would not. She continued following me down the street, gradually deciding she would latch onto my arm (this had the advantage that at least I knew she wasn't picking my pocket). Then, she decided it would be a good idea to start tweaking my nipple.

By this point, I have given up trying to shake her off. She's not going to go. And this is the bit I really don't get at all. I'd said "no". I'd been busily trying to get away. There had been no indication that I was changing my mind. So why the hell did she persist? Surely there must have been easier marks out there? It's just crazy.

Anyway, I make all due haste back to the Metro station, where she finally gives up. I can only assume that either the extensive camera system in the Metro is unfriendly to 'professionals', or perhaps that the system is worked by other girls. Either way, she finally went away, and I went back to the hotel.

As I said before, Barcelona was definately a mixed bag.

Guess I'm okay, then

I speak neither Spanish nor Catalan, although I did find that I can read these with reasonable accuracy (as I did with Italian in Rome). This led to me feeling somewhat less that good about myself as I went about my holiday, for not even attempting the language of the day. But, what can one do?

Anyway, I was musing on how terrible this was in McDonalds, having just ordered but not yet received my meal, when my mind was suddenly put at ease. An English family arrived at my side, and started discussing what they were going to order. The father's voice was indistinguishable from that of Richard Sharpe, so I was forced to check that it was not, in fact, Sean Bean (and despite this, I still fully expected him to exclaim "bloody 'ell, Pat" and whip off some cunning disguise, but no).

And then they came to order, "I want three chips," said the father, waving three fingers under the nose of the assistant (who spoke perfect English, I should note), "and three beers."

Suddenly, I didn't feel so bad about not trying the language; at least I hadn't been too offensive.

Of course, I was also reminded of a time, long ago (June 1992), when some friends and I were refused service of beer in McDonalds in Austria, because their corporate policy was that they didn't serve alcohol to unaccompanied persons under the age of 21, despite the legal age for drinking in Austria being 16. That was the day before my sixteenth birthday, so I didn't feel too aggrieved, especially since we just went somewhere else.

But, ah, we were so young back then. So young, and so foolish. Not least because we thought McDonalds was a place to buy beer, as opposed to any pub in the whole town. I guess we hadn't quite realised that on the continent they don't worry about such things, taking a rather more sensible view of the consumption of alcohol. But I guess that's another rant.

Everyone wants to be Paxman...

On the Wednesday, I wanted to reach into my Tv and beat some sense into one of the interviewers on BBC World. He was interviewing the UK ambassador to the UN about the recent resolution on Darfur. Which was fine, and said ambassador was providing some interesting information... when the interviewer let him.

Of course, that wasn't terribly often. Our interviewer had clearly been watching Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, and so knew just how an interview should be conducted. So, he opened with, "Aren't you disappointed at how this resolution has had to be watered down to placate the Chinese?" which struck me as being overly confrontational.

Still, the ambassador took it with good faith, and was actually answering, providing real information, when the interviewer decided to cut him off, and asked another confrontational question. Then another, and another.

I am vexed by this, because it does seem to be a rising trend in interviews. And the thing is, although Paxman has been known to interrupt an answer with another question, he generally only does this when confronted by evasive politicians who are carefully not answering. When the interviewee actually is answering, he's generally allowed to do so. And that's as it should be.

(On the other hand, I did have to cheer another BBC World interviewer yesterday, who was interviewing some American sports 'doctor', who had been convicted of doping, served time, and was now claiming some huge credit for working with the authorities at 'clean up' sport, probably as part of his settlement/plea bargain. Anyway, said 'doctor' was claiming huge credit for this noble gesture, while at the same time being utterly unrepentant and smug about his past actions, which he considered entirely fair since the testing schemes were "laughably weak". The question that earned a cheer was when our interviewer asked, "so, you don't feel at all bad about your time as a cheating drug dealer?" Huzzah!)

What I did on my holidays

Barcelona was very much a mixed bag. On the one hand, there was a great deal that was generally awesome... but it also seemed that almost everything was tainted by some circumstance that seemed designed to annoy.

The first thing of note was that I booked before purchasing my guidebook to the city. On reading said guidebook, I found a note to the effect that the worst possible time to visit Barcelona is in fact August, as a lot of places shut down and the heat can be overpowering. Oops.

Well, never mind. The flight out was rather tedious, as all such things are, but bearable. I had a whole row to myself, which compensated for their only be sufficient leg room for very tiny people. The airline then decided to wait just long enough before returning our bags to really worry us. And then, it was off to the hotel.

I was staying in the "Princessa Sofia Gran Hotel", which I had selected because it was second on the "Expedia recommends" list, and because they had a "3 nights for the price of 2" deal going on. As a result of this, it worked out at something like £60 per night, which for any hotel in any major city is a pretty good deal. It proved to be even better when the hotel came into view, and I discovered that it was in fact a ***** establishment.

So, the hotel proved to be astonishingly good. Indeed, it counts as the second best hotel I've ever stayed in (the best being the "Jung Frau Victoria" which I stayed in in December, which is regarded as one of the very best hotels anywhere in the world... and which my company were paying for. This is rather a difficult combination to beat, I think).

Anyway, the only slight downside of the hotel was that I didn't have opportunity to make full use of the facilities, as I hadn't actually gone to Barcelona for that purpose. Oh, and the restaurant was okay, but rather overpriced for the quality of it, especially given the availability of good food in the city at large.

Having checked in and dropped my bags, I went out for a wander, to see what I could see. And, en route back to the hotel I stopped at a restaurant and ate a meal. And, in the field of surreal events, I present this entry: during the course of the meal my waiter, who was Indian, engaged me in polite conversation, initially thinking I was from England. Undeterred by my saying I was from Scotland, he proceeded to ask me whether Scotland have a cricket team. To which I said that we do, but that they're not very good. And so, we had a Scotsman and an Indian discussing cricket in a Spanish restaurant.

Wednesday dawned, and looking out the window I found that it was raining. Raining!

Outraged by the lies of "My Fair Lady", I discarded my initial plan of riding the sightseeing tour bus, and instead took the metro to Las Ramblas, which is apparently the street to see in Barcelona. Being Scottish has the advantage, of course, that rain doesn't bother me overly, although it was a little unsettling that it was warm. Such things are not meant to be.

So, I saw the sights, and the rain eventually stopped. So, I decided to have an early lunch, then ride the sightseeing bus. Of course, seeking an early lunch meant that most places were closed, and so it was off to McDonalds. Nothing like eating local cuisine to get a feel for the place, no?

Having eaten, I left McDonalds and found that it was raining. Raining!

So, I once again abandoned the bus idea, and wandered lonely as a cloud once again. Of course, the actual clouds didn't seem lonely, but who can speak as to their innermost thoughts?

At length, I decided I'd seen enough, and I would return to the hotel to wait out the rain. So, back on the Metro.

When I emerged from the station close to the hotel, the rain had stopped, and did not return. At which point I cast my eyes skywards, and complained, "Oh, come on!" Nonetheless, I decided not to press the issue by riding that bus, but instead went back to the hotel and changed into some dry clothes. Then, I planned my next steps using my guidebook.

So, I dashed off to La Sagrada Familia, one of the 'must see' buildings in Barcelona. Which was very impressive - a fine example of Gaudi's work. So, I paid the entry fee and went inside... only to find it is a building site in there, and that actually there's nothing in there to see. Yippee! Still, there was the gift shop, where one can presumably purchase a commemorative piece of scaffolding.

For the remainder of that afternoon, I went to the Musea Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. The Romanesque and Gothic art was quite impressive, especially as it was laid out in a fairly chronological manner, so it was possible to see the development of different styles and techniques. The audio-guide was useless, though, as although it did explain the art, it did so at great length in a tedious monotone. Even worse, at times the droning voice would talk about features in the art that I'm sure weren't there, as though it was talking about something else entirely. It was just annoying, so I abandoned that in short order.

But that was no loss. What marred this activity was that when I tried to pay using my credit card, the guy had me input my PIN, then handed back the card... then apologised that the machine hadn't read it properly, so took back my card, had me enter my PIN again, returned my card again... then apologised that the machine hadn't read it properly...

At this point I paid in cash, but was then left with a significant worry - what had gone wrong? Three possibilities occurred: one, there was some sort of con going on (surely not in an art gallery?), two, the guy was just incompetent, or three, something had gone wrong with my card. It was that latter possibility that really worried me, since that card represented some 90% of the funds I had available with which to pay for things.

(Anyway, it turned out that my card was fine, although there are now two charges of €8.50 that I'm going to have to have removed from it. I'm still hoping theory #2 was right, but suppose I'll never know.)

After the museum, I returned to the hotel and ate at the hotel restaurant. Then I went out again, to see Las Ramblas at night. The events of the next few hours require their own post to detail.

Thursday dawned bright and hot. So, I got dressed and went to the beach, which was nice but very busy. So, I walked the length of the beach, enjoying the horizon, then walked along the beach the other way. I took the chance to observe the 'finest seafood restaurants in Barcelona'. I suspect this might have been more impressive if I didn't hate seafood, but nevermind.

The afternoon I spent seeing more buildings, parks and sights. The cathedral turned out to be another fine example of Gaudi's work... or would have, had it not been shrouded in scaffolding and green mesh. As it was, it was a fine example of scaffolding and green mesh. Which is something, at least.

Finally, I went to see the Arc del Triomf, which is different from the similarly-named landmark in Paris in that it is made out of brick, and not quite so ornate (it also doesn't sit at the top of a hill, so it is difficult to get a sense of the relative sizes of the two), and the Parc de la Ciutadella, which was a very fine park.

That done, I headed back towards the Metro, and chanced to be passing a fine-looking restaurant just as it opened, and so there I ate. Unfortunately, my credit card was once again rejected (this time the machine just didn't recognise it at all, so there was no potential problem lurking), so I had to pay with the last of my cash, which was more than a little annoying.

Then back to the hotel, where I had to get some more cash to pay for my taxi back to the airport, and then I gave up for the night. I had considered heading out to one of the clubs nearby, but given the unexpected outlay of cash, given that it didn't open until midnight, and given that I had an early flight, I elected for bed instead.

Friday I had to wake at 5, then pack and leave, and get a taxi to the airport. I now have a new least-favourite airport in Barcelona, which was truly annoying, being hot, stuffy, full of people, and staffed by the living dead. Still, I escaped alive. Then I endured a packed flight in which I was wedged in another row with insufficient leg room, and packed with a rather large couple filling all the remaining space in the row. And then I was home.

I should probably say at this point that although each event seemed to have something that went wrong with it, I did actually have a good time in Barcelona. My major objective had been to get away, get a break, and get some rest, and I actually did achieve that. And there was a whole lot in that city that was pretty awesome. It's just that sometimes it seemed things were designed to be annoying.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Formally invited

Oh, yes...

I have had it pointed out to me, by a usually reliable source, that one of the differences between men and women is that men tend to act as though anything that is not explicitly forbidden is allowed, while women tend more towards the view that anything that is not explicitly allowed is forbidden.

Well, just so there's no confusion: if you feel like commenting, go ahead. And feel free even if you disagree with what I have to say (especially if, in fact. Indeed, if your argument is sufficiently persuasive, then you may well change my mind on the topic at hand. Which would be nice).

In general, it is not my intention to censor comments. However, just in case, I will reserve the right to do so, especially in the case of spammers.

Well, that's it

It's dinner time on Friday, which means it is officially the weekend. Since I return to work on Monday, I guess that means my holiday is finally over.

Over the next few days, I'll tell you about Barcelona, and a few of the things I've been thinking on since flying out there. I'm sure you can't wait.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


That last post didn't quite end up how I thought it would be. I wonder what I was trying to say?

Luck, Talent, and Skill

The band were competing again on Sunday. We came second. However, as there was a shortage of bands for the competitions at the next grades up, we (along with most of the garde 4 bands) also stepped up to compete in the Grade 3 competition, where we competed against at least three 'true' Grade 3 bands.

We came second. This constitutes a good result.

However, just before we went on for our Grade 3 performance, I had a brief conversation with two of our pipers about luck, talent and skill.

One of our players, A, noted that it should go well, "if we're lucky."

To this, of course, I was forced to reiterate my belief that there's no such thing as luck. (This is actually an exaggeration, of course, since there is clearly randomness and Uncertainty in the universe, and the net effect of such things can certainly be labelled 'luck'. However, in general, I find that the influence of luck is far less than it's given credit.)

Anyway, at this point, another piper, S, stated that it was all "raw, natural talent."

Oh, boy...

Here's the thing: talent has almost nothing to do with how well a band does at a competition. Success is basically down to a couple of factors: how much acquired skill the weakest members of the band have, and how the players respond under pressure. The first is largely down to practice, both individually and as a band, while the latter is a matter of psychology: under pressure, some people focus and others fold. The latter will never perform well at competition, no matter how much talent they have, or even how skillful they might be.

Of course, handling pressure is largely down to confidence, so there are ways to fake it... The key there is to know the tunes, yes, but to know them well enough that you know that you know them. Once you've got that, playing under pressure is easier, because you don't feel the pressure so much. (The other key is to get a good start, which is always tricky in piping. However, it's good advice generally. Next time you have to give a presentation to strangers, try this: insert a title slide with just the title of your presentation and your name on it. This is information that you're not going to mess up, and by taking the time to tell the audience these things, you achieve that good start that makes everything else easier.)

All According to Plan

On Monday, I finished off the work I was doing on the garden. It's still a mess, but I'm happy with it as it stands - I think the main thing it needs now is some good showers so it can recover.

Yesterday, I cleaned the appartment from top to bottom, including cleaning the oven. In hindsight, I should probably have cooked dinner before I cleaned the oven, so I wouldn't have to order in, but never mind.

Today I washed the car. Additionally, I finished reading "Promise of the Witch King", and am about to finish "Expedition to the Demonweb Pits".

This brings me to the end of my to-do list for the holiday... well, except for one thing. If I can just work up the motivation required, I will proceed to book a trip away for next week. I'm thinking Barcelona.