Monday, April 28, 2008

Panic Buying

One of the more interesting things I learned at university was how the logical and sensible thing to do, or even the mathematically-optimal course of action, might not be the best thing to do.

For example, looking at the National Lottery objectively, one can only conclude that you should never play. Given the stake and the odds of winning, and except in double rollover conditions, the reward is not commesurate with the risk. However, this is a purely numerical observation - it fails to consider the risk versus reward in real terms.

There is a band of people in the country who have sufficient income that paying out £1 for a lottery ticket once or twice a week represents virtually no cost. This is especially true since most people tend to have other vices that they could readily cut back on to make the necessary saving. However, for most people, winning a jackpot of several million pounds would make a massive difference to their lives.

Under those circumstances, with virtually no 'real terms' risk, and huge potential reward (even with almost no chance of success), there is a rational case for playing the lottery.

(I'm not going to get into the moral case against the lottery. That whole debate hinges on questions of free will and personal responsibility that I really don't feel like exploring just now. Besides, I'm not actually blogging about the lottery anyway...)

Anyway, this strike at the Grangemouth refinery (about ten minutes drive from home!) has seen the risk of petrol shortages be raised, with predictable results.

Rationally, where there is a projected temporary shortage of fuel, the sane thing to do is to follow your normal routine. When you need to fill up on petrol, go do that. Perhaps you should cut out unnecessary journeys, but that's about all. If everyone does that, then the shortages may well not bite at all, and even if they do, then they hit everyone about the same. Sure, you might end up not being able to get fuel, with the consequences that come from that... but by then lots of other people will also be running out, so we're all in the mess together and will cope somehow.

That's not what happens, of course. Instead, at the first hint that perhaps the fuel supply might be cut off for a day, people panic. Quick: dash to the supermarket and stockpile bread, and milk, and beans, and a shotgun! Fill up the car, and every available empty container will fuel! Fill the bath! Heck, steal your neighbours' cars, and fill those too! Truly, it is a sign of the apocalypse: Mother might have to walk little Timmy to school one morning next week!

Unfortunately, this changes the situation. If you are the only person to keep his head while everyone else prepares for the End Times, then you'll see the availability of fuel plummet, the prices shoot up, and just as you need to fill up your tank on Friday (having exhausted the week's petrol it holds over the course of a week) you'll find you can't get fuel, while everyone else is happily drowning in petrol. And as for getting bread, or milk, or beans... forget it.

At which point, your only option is to try to make it to Ikea somehow, purchase a horned helm (or not, depending on historical accuracy), and go viking.

Since no-one really wants that, one is forced to the conclusion: when everyone else is panicking, the rational thing to do is to panic also.

Wild paries and debauchery

In September, my band are going to Belgium to compete. This is a very fine idea, I think, but it does have the consequence that we have to do various fund-raising events over the next few weeks. And, as the Pipe Sergeant, I am duty-bound to show willing at these events, even when I would much rather be doing almost anything else.

On Saturday, we had a fund-raising disco in one of the local halls in Falkirk. This ran from 8 until 1 in the morning, and was never my idea of a great time, and even less so since I would be expected to attend the whole event, start to finish. It was also to be a rather odd disco, including a pub quiz (?), and the band were to play at it (??), which meant having to attend in full regalia.

Still, never mind, I could handle an evening of watching other people dance for a good cause.

Unfortunately, the DJ was one of those infuriating people who are absurdly chirpy at all times, and who are determined that all present absolutely must have "a good time". So, about an hour into the event, he decided that he would have a dance competition. And, when the response was less enthusiastic the he hoped, he declared that all the members of the band must take part.


Unfortunately, he saw through my hasty disguise, and went so far as to point to me and order me onto the dance floor. At which point, there really was no alternative.

Anyway, I survived this incident, despite not having my "Dance Dance Revolution" mat to hand. The band then went to tune up, which means I missed the pub quiz. We played, and then it was a run down the clock scenario.

Sadly, there was a further complication with my "watching other people dance" plan, which had to do with the ages of the participants. So, instead, I watched the ceiling tiles, and pondered: just how do you solve problems before you see them coming?

Barring a couple of other instances of being dragged up onto the dance floor, that was that. After the disco was done, I was reminded of my gazebo obligations, and then went home.


It turns out that last August, on my first day back from holiday, I posted a blog entry that was astonishingly similar to the previous one. Only more interesting.

At this point, I would post two entries about how I seem to be repeating myself... but I've already done that, too.

Back at work

The first day back at work after a break is always an odd one. I generally find myself going back with great intentions of jumping right back into things, keen to get started, and...

Unfortunately, it never quite works like that. See, before disappearing off on holiday I always make sure to tie up as many loose ends as possible, or to turn over work-in-progress to a colleague who can deal with it in my absence. Either way, this means that when I first arrive, there's nothing for me to do right away. This in turn necessitates a certain amount of waiting until someone is available to fill me in on what has happened in my absence, and give some indication of what I should be getting on with.

Hence this blog entry.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The jobs you don't want to do

I have just mown the lawn (well, technically, I have just eaten the cheese and salad rolls I made for lunch, but before that I did the lawn). This represents the last of the four jobs that I needed to do during my week off. Even the bathroom is spotless, after having been thoroughly cleaned on Wednesday.

The truth is, I finally ran out of time, and so had no choice but to mow the lawn this morning. And on Wednesday I finally ran out of excuses, having done everything else that 'had' to be done. Even so, I had to put on the "Superman Returns" soundtrack in order to feel especially heroic, and so able to tackle it.

There now remain the things that I don't have to do during my week off, but would like to do something towards. Fortunately, these are far more pleasant. I have already made large inroads into refreshing my wardrobe for the new year (new shoes, new trainers, new white shirts, new trousers, new sports kit, and one more new pair of jeans). The big pile o'books to read hasn't gotten any smaller, and has in fact grown, but that's okay really. And there are half a dozen movies I have to watch that I recorded off Sky (expect another set of scathing reviews shortly).

Plus, THE BIG ONE. I've now been in this apartment two years (actually, two years on the 2nd). It's high time I stopped renting and found a place to buy. Naturally, my timing sucks. Perhaps I'll just wait a few months, and see what the market in Scotland does (prices are still going up here, for now, but will that continue?).

Anyway, it's about time I went back to work. I hate having nothing to do.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Two down...

It has been an expensive day.

First, I got my washing machine repaired, which was actually a nice cheap job, as compared with what it could have been.

Second, I got my car repaired, which was a rather more expensive proposition, albeit far less expensive than the potential alternative of being stopped by the police and being told that three of my tyres were illegal (oh, and here's a nice fine, and nine points for your license...), or worse, finding that my brakes weren't entirely working at a vital moment.

So, that was some £300 gone.

En route to getting the car back, I also stopped in the town to pick up a bunch of things. This proved to be unwise when I found myself carrying my shopping the two miles from the underground to the garage, but I didn't really thing about that at the time...

First up was a trip to pick up some new shirts and trousers. White shirts are a constant pain - they last a few months at best before the nice clean white has become a mucky dull grey. And although I've been wearing jeans and t-shirt to work in recent months, I'm now leaning to the view that to be taken more seriously I should look the part, what with the apparel making the man, and all.

So, £50 there.

I also sought to replace my trainers, but nothing came of that. Then there was a trip to pick up some new shoes, replacing the ones I have been wearing for the past six years (although not constantly, it should be noted).

On arrival, I was confronted with a sign stating that if you buy one stickered shoe, you could get the second for only £5. Initially, I thought it was a bit rough charging for each shoe individually, since surely one would always want to buy two together, but it turned out that it was stickered pairs of shoes.

However, this created something of a dilemma. See, women are entitled to own as many shoes as they can, and to regale whoever will listen with endless anecdotes about strappy sandals, sparkly shoes, ruby slippers, and what-not. However, Man Law clearly states that Men are limited in the number of shoes they can wear, with footwear divided by function. So, it is permissible to own a set of trainers for general use, a second set for sports, dress shoes, hiking boots, ghillie brogues (for ceilidh use), and so forth, but purchasing two sets of formal shoes at one time...

On the other hand, it was a money-saving scheme. Tricky.

Anyway, £35 later saw me the owner to two pairs of new shoes, one a nice matt black (for work use), and the second a nice glossy black (for formal occasions). Thus far, no-one has come to take away my Man Card, so I guess I'm still allowed to open jars and stuff.

I had to pick up a present for Paul. Not much to report here, except that I have now done so.

Then, with some time to kill, I decided to just pop in to Waterstones to have a browse. Only to find that book 5 of "Legacy of the Force" is now in paperback, so I bought that, and books 6 and 7 (both of which were always paperbacks - don't ask; I don't understand it either). But book 5 had a "buy 2 get 1 free" sticker, where neither 6 nor 7 did, so I had to add to that two other books, those being compilations of Lankhmar and Elric stories, by Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock, respectively.

So, another £30 there.

On the way home, while still reeling from all this expense, I stopped at Asda and picked up some mushrooms. They weren't terribly expensive, but do mean I will be able to cook that lasagne tomorrow.

Anyway, that's two of the four things I had to do during my week off finished. Maybe tomorrow I'll mow the lawn, or even dare cleaning the bathroom...

Monday, April 21, 2008

For enticing princesses

Of course, it's also possible that all of this happened as a consequence of my wearing my playful "T-shirt with frogs on" yesterday. It's green, textured to feel a bit like frogs, and decidedly odd. I tend not to wear it very often, on account of this oddness, but it is truly mighty.

An Unexpected Party

Yes, last night my home was invaded by a dozen dwarves and a strange old wizard, who dragged me off on grand adventure. With added trolls.

Alternately, last night proved to be rather more exciting than expected. Since my car has had to go into the garage this morning (possible brake pad problems), and since I couldn't be sure of getting it back today, last night I had to visit Tesco on my way home from church to get a handful of things to see me through the week.

Shockingly, I found that the key road through Cumbernauld was closed for no apparent reason, and moreover that Tesco itself was closed, giving the lie to their claims of 24 hour opening. So, I went to Asda instead. This was not the most exciting part of the evening, however.

Asda proved to be rather a disappointment. For some reason, although Cumbernauld has two very large supermarkets within half a mile of each other, they each manage to have a smaller range of stock than the (much smaller) Tesco in Falkirk. In real terms, this meant that I wasn't able to acquire mushrooms, a key ingredient in the lasagne I'm planning on cooking this week, and I had to go for the "family size" jars of lasagne sauces, rather than the more sensible 'regular' sized jars. This, however, was not the most exciting part of the evening, although I was tempted to blog about it when I got home, complaining that the universe is out to get me.

So anyway, the plan was to head home, watch "The Bionic Woman" (which remains dire), and then gradually mosey off to bed. But things rapidly took a strange turn when I arrived home to find a posse of girls outside my neighbours' flat having a smoke. (This in itself is not hugely uncommon - I don't think they're allowed to smoke in the flat either, but unlike myself they actually do smoke.)

So, I nodded 'hello', and made to head indoors, but was surprised to be addressed by one of the group. She explained that they were having a party to celebrate the Christening of the baby, and they apologised in advance for any noise. Okay then, said I, at which point she said "and you're more than welcome to come in for a drink if you want..."

So I did. After all, given the choice between listening to bad karaoke while trying to watch bad TV or partaking of the same bad karaoke in the company of half a dozen drunk girls (and one guy), I choose to sing. Specifically, "Mack the Knife".

It felt a bit strange inserting myself into a party filled with people I don't know. And it definately felt a bit strange only now being properly introduced to my neighbours, some two years after moving in. But, a surprisingly successful evening, all told.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cool, and not so cool

Firstly, Heroes is back on TV on Thursday! This is excellent news, especially since the Terminator series wrapped up last Thursday, opening a slot.

Additionally, I have been rather enjoying "Pushing Daisies" on ITV, although I do feel compelled to watch "300" after every episode since it's a bit girly. (Actually, it's completely girly, with absolutely no part of it whatsoever that is not entirely girly. With extra girliness, and chocolate sprinkles on top.) There's just something charming about it that I quite like. It might be the narrator - I think I'm going to have to get one of those.

However, and this is the not-cool part: ITV cunningly decided to just completely miss out the second episode! The reason for this is that there are 9 episodes in the series, and there are only room for 8 shows before Euro 2008 starts, so rather than cunningly running a double-bill, or putting it on ITV 3.5, or even (gasp) starting their football coverage a little late, they decided to just cut a bit out and hope that no-one would notice.

(And, really, it's not as if anyone will be watching Euro 2008 on ITV anyway. Not only are England not in the tournament, but the BBC do a far better job of things anyway.)

"Stephen clicked "Publish Post", then powered off his PC and went to watch some TV. He couldn't help but feel that having his very own narrator was terribly open to the possibility of disaster..."


Earlier this week I received a (pointless, wasteful) leaflet from my local MSP and MEP about how well the new SNP government is doing in bringing a better standard of living to the people of Scotland. Now, to be fair, I should point out that they actually do seem to be doing a good job so far, although I am more than a little concerned that they'll have to put up taxes quite heavily to pay for all of this. Whether this actually happens or not remains to be seen, of course.

However, the leaflet did remind me of something I have been pondering at some length recently, and something I meant to blog about a couple of weeks ago.

I think it is extremely unlikely that Labour will win the next General Election. Gordon Brown simply cannot win the battle of personalities with David Cameron. They cannot win on policy differences, because there is now so little difference between the parties that they feel comfortable simply stealing policies whole-cloth from one another. And whereas he could have recently have stood on his economic record, the sub-prime mortgage disaster has nullified that advantage. (Labour supporters at this point might be inclined to tell me I'm being unfair; the economic problems aren't really his fault. To which I reply: when did fairness enter into the ability to win elections?)

So, anyway, I expect to see massive Tory gains, mostly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats (who, by the simple expedient of stabbing Charles Kennedy in the back went from being the principled opposition, who were steadily gaining ground, back to being a nothing party. Good work, there). And so it is likely that the next Prime Minister will be David Cameron.

In Scotland, the Tories will be lucky to get more than two or three seats. Scotland simply have not forgiven the Tories for Thatcher's shutting down so much of our industry, or for testing out the Poll Tax here, or various other things. It seems doubtful that we ever will.

The biggest consequence of this will be to draw a clear line between the socialist SNP Scottish Executive and the more right-wing Tory government in Westminster. It then seems likely to me that the SNP will leverage this, and also the "Scotland did not elect the Tories" thing, into a very strong platform for the next Scottish elections, and make big gains of their own, this time at the expense of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. And, having gained a mandate from the people that they currently lack, we head towards a referendum on independence, a likely victory, and a constitutional crisis...

Sadly, I don't think independence is the right move for Scotland. Firstly, I think there are a whole lot of hidden costs that haven't been considered (we would need to set up a civil service and armed forces of our own, amongst other things, and these aren't cheap). Secondly, I'm not at all convinced that Scotland's economy is really self-sustaining. Of course, the truth of this depends entirely on who you ask: the SNP claim that all that money from the North Sea oil will sustain us completely and in perpetuity; in England, meanwhile, they will tell you that they subsidise the higher quality of life in Scotland to the tune of some absurd number of billions per year. (Whether the quality of life is actually higher in Scotland seems doubtful, of course.)

But really, my biggest concern is for business. It strikes me as likely that an independent Scotland would elect a much more left-wing government than the rest of the UK would, and certainly more left-wing than we have now. It also seems likely to me that such a government would raise taxes somewhat, and in an attempt to avoid raising the base rate of income tax too much, they might well go for business taxes. Which seems fine, until you realise that the response of big business to this is to go elsewhere. While the company I work for are unlikely to make that move, I suspect many others might. And a single company, or even a fairly small number of fairly small companies do not an industry make.

The upshot of all of that is that I might have to move back to England for work. And while the notion of moving back to England isn't particularly troublesome, I would much rather choose to go than be forced to go.

Of course, any or all of this could well be wrong...

A clever Latin title was to go here

My apartment, and most especially the bathroom thereof, desperately needs cleaned. I don't want to do this, and so have spent the last twenty four hours busily finding other tasks that 'need' done right away.

After lunch, I decided that the thing to do would be to go through the pile of accumulated mail, and decide what amongst it I really needed to keep (bank statements), what I was going to keep for sentimental reasons (old love letters, real or imagined), and what I could throw out. The folly of this course of action quickly became apparent, but I stuck it out for a good couple of hours before finally abandoning it.

You would not believe the amount of junk I threw out. Or, unfortunately, you probably would, since I suspect everyone in the country, and perhaps the Western world, similarly accumulates rubbish, much of which you can't throw out immediately, for various reasons, but that you then forget to throw away once their usefulness has expired.

Personally, I am glad that so much paper is just casually wasted like that. After all, it's not like there are issues with using paper for frivolous matters, or that we're all supposed to be doing a part in helping with the environment. (Oh, right...) And it's not like they make it difficult to at least recycle this junk paper by putting personal information on it (again, oh, right...), or inserting staples that have to be removed before recycling (again...).

Perhaps the thing that most annoys me is the seeming need of every single organisation to provide an "exclusive member's magazine" to their customers. I get one from my old university, my bank, the AA, at least two pension providers, a company I happen to have shares in (and that only because I couldn't be bothered actually selling them when the share price was high, and am now holding on to until it becomes high again), Sky, and probably a few others that I have forgotten about. Each time one arrives, I feel obliged to at least scan through it for anything interesting, almost invariably draw a complete blank, and then get to throw them away.

(I would argue at this point that perhaps they should stop sending me this junk mail, and take the money saved from my costs. However, it doesn't work like that. Most of these magazines are full of targeted adverts, sold on the premise that people who drive are more likely to be interested in things to make driving more pleasant than are people who don't drive. These adverts subsidise the cost of the magazines, and may even subsidise the cost of the products in question. So, perhaps I should ask that they simply cut out the middle-man and just recycle the magazines straight away.)

Still, at least Falkirk Council genuinely do a decent job with their recycling (despite the inability to recycle appliances that I blogged about before). For most things, the only thing that needs to be done is to drop them into the Blue Bin, and are then sorted at the collections end. Frankly, this is the model that all councils need to adopt - if recycling is made hard for the end-user, people just won't bother.

For things that they don't accept in the Blue Bin, notably glass, they have made the provision of a great many recycling points throughout the council, such that a point is located within about five minutes walk. Can't really say fairer than that.

However, they still don't provide a facility for recycling carrier bags, and neither do the local supermarkets. This is something that should be looked into - too many of these bags are just being thrown away, too few are reused, and this is just too big a waste.

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that I have stepped up my recycling efforts, and now recycle more than half of what I throw away. This I consider to be progress.

Oh, in case you're curious: the original title of this post was going to be "Sic Viresco", which was the motto of my old school. According to the former headmaster of the school, it translated as "and thus we become green". However, I figured I better check the translation before I used it, only to find that it better translates as "thus I flourish". As mottoes go, this makes much more sense than the previous translation. However, it doesn't really help in titling a blog post about recycling. Oh well.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Tick, tick, tick

It has been an eventful weekend.

On Saturday, Captain Ric was married to Leigh (finally!). I would normally be inclined to say more about the event, but I suspect that none of the readers of this blog actually have any interest in weddings or the associated shenanigans, so I'll spare you the details.

I will note, however, that this ticks off another of my non-Resolutions for the year. I was moderately pleased with my piping at the weekend - I have played better before, but on only one occasion. And, critically, the 'important bits' were perfect (those being the Processional, the Recessional, and the piping in at the reception).

Fortunately, the weather was nice and sunny before the wedding, so I didn't mind a jot when Leigh was somewhat delayed - it is of course the bride's prerogative to be late on her wedding day, but it is rather more pleasant for the piper when she's late on a sunny day than when she's late on a December evening when freezing cold rain is pouring down from the skies (oh yes, I know that one well). Saturday's snow waited until after the service, when the wedding party emerged from the church.

So, that's three sisters I have piped down the aisle (technically, one sister and two sisters-in-law, a distinction that's only important in that Andrew and Richard are my actual brothers), which leaves one to go.

The second thing that I was able to knock off the list was an awkward conversation. To a certain extent, this was covered two months ago, but I wasn't entirely happy with the resolution there. Well, it's now done, finished, and complete. I'm still not going to tell you any more than that.

However, I will say some more about the third item to be removed from my list on Saturday. As one of the best men, I was considered a member of the wedding party, which in turn meant that at the tail end of the first dance, when the MC called on the rest of the wedding party to join the happy couple, I had the not unpleasant duty of taking the floor with my pre-assigned bridesmaid. (Leigh had made sure to assign a specific partner for each of the bridesmaids. There was a good reason for this, which I'm not going to share with you. Although, given the nature of the people involved and the nature of the day, I suspect it was always an unnecessary precaution.)

Now, at school, I learned all the ceilidh dances, so I'm pretty confident with these. However, at school they did not teach a slow dance, on the grounds that obviously everyone knows how to do that, right? And, at a dance in late December, I found myself dancing such a dance, and deeply unhappy that it really didn't work out as intended. Hence, "There's a gap in my skill-set that needs to be closed up before it is shown up." (And, before you note that no-one would really care about anyone other than Ric & Leigh at this point, I would point out that there was 100% camera coverage of the dance-floor. So, any mistake was liable to find its way onto YouTube for my eternal mockery.)

Of course, the nice, easy way to solve this conundrum would have been to ask either of my pre-existing sisters for a quick tutorial. Amongst their many other talents, they are qualified teachers of dance. I decided on using an entirely different solution, though - I just ignored the problem and assumed it would go away.

It turns out that there isn't a damn thing wrong with my dancing. In December, my partner for the dance was an eighteen-year-old girl I really didn't know, whereas on Saturday I was dancing with Kirsty, a girl who I do know at least a little, and who is slightly older than eighteen, and therefore rather more confident in her skin than my previous victim. The upshot of all of this was that the whole thing worked rather better. However, the other key difference was that in December I was also attempting to balance a penny on my forehead, something that wasn't a necessity on Saturday. Apparently, that matters.

So, I'm removing that from my 'to-do' list. Taking a dance class might not be a terrible idea anyway, but the motivation for doing so wouldn't have anything to do with actually learning to dance. Which leaves just two items on the list: moving house and visiting a new country.