Monday, March 31, 2014

"No" Show

Okay, now I'm getting scared.

Some time during last weekend, I realised that I'd stopped thinking about what would happen if Scotland became independent, and instead was thinking about what would happen when Scotland becomes independent.

This was something of a surprise. Previously, I'd made the calculation that there was no chance of "Yes" winning, because there were some really big uncertainties, some of them that are completely unanswerable, and without these being answered it was impossible for "Yes" to make a winning case. (The big unanswerables being over the currency and also over the EU. The latter being something that nobody is able to definitively answer - there's no precedent and no clear process either way.)

But something happened a couple of months back, and it appears the wheels have just fallen off the "No" bus.

It started when George Osborne popped up to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that there absolutely, positively, would not be a currency union. And, of course, he was backed in this by Ed Balls and Danny Alexander. So, that's pretty definitive then, since all three parties were unanimous.

Then Mr Barroso popped up to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that Scotland would be out of the EU and would find it "very difficult" to get back in. Then David Cameron got involved, Gordon Brown, Ming Campbell...

And with every statement, support for "Yes" grew, and quite sharply. Suddenly, a 70/30 split is looking more like a 55/45 split. If the polls continue to narrow at the same rate, they will, of course, cross over.

In August.

What was really bizarre, though, was watching this unfold. I have never seen professional politicians act so spectacularly against their own stated interests. Someone should have advised George Osborne that anything he said would have the opposite effect to that intended - in his case, it's not the message that's the problem, it's the messenger.

And, actually, that's a big problem for the "No" campaign - there's nobody who can present the message. The Tories have very effectively (albeit very unfairly) pushed all the blame for the economy only to Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, meaning anything else they say is automatically suspect. Meanwhile, the Tories are themselves hated up here (and the Lib Dems worse), so they're out. Which means that the strongest remaining figure on the "No" side is Johann Lamont.

But worse was to come, because on Friday the Guardian (who cannot, by any stretch, be described as pro-independence) published a government minister saying that a currency union was indeed still an option. (That this was the case wasn't a surprise, since a union is "eminently sensible" according to one A. Darling. What was a shock was that someone would be silly enough to say it, at least this side of the referendum.) Apparently, George Osborne had been doing to stick with his, rather more sensible, line that it was very unlikely, but was advised (by one A. Darling) to rule it out in a bid to kill off the independence debate permanently.


It is, frankly, hard to see how they could have screwed this up any worse. And now they're left with an utter shambles to try to clear up, a lot of blamestorming to do... and a campaign that suddenly looks like it's going to snatch defeat from, well, not even "the jaws of victory" - they seem intent on losing from an unassailable position.

Which brings us to Saturday.

The band were out fund-raising on Saturday in Falkirk town centre (which went well, but that's not the point right now). Prior to us going out, one of my concerns is that Saturday was intended to be one of the "big push" weekends for both the "Yes" and "No" campaigns - and this was a concern because our band is constitutionally politically neutral. Regardless of any views I, our pipe major, or anyone else might have, we don't get involved.

Of course, a pipe band in a town centre in the midst of a campaign about an independent Scotland (or not) is a mobile photo-op. And I really didn't want to have to measure out an equi-distant location between the two camps.

It turns out that I didn't need to worry, at least not about that - the "No" camp didn't show up.

What really bothers me about all this, though, is that there is no case for the Union being made. "Better Together" is a shambles, Scottish Labour are an embarrassment, and there's no grass-roots campaign in evidence. On one hand we have a bright, optimistic, vibrant "Yes" campaign; on the other, we have... nothing.

I kinda feel I should be happier about this than I am. I decided to vote "Yes" quite some time ago. (And, again, it's nothing to do with England; unfortunately, the government in Westminster is not fit for purpose and I see no way to fix it.) So, shouldn't I be happy that it suddenly looks like we might win?

But the reason I'm not so happy is this: this is the single most important political decision the people in Scotland will ever have to make. Yes or No, it is a question of vital importance that will affect the rest of our lives, the lives of our children, and the lives of generations to come. It will probably never come again.

So the case needs to be made. Actually, both cases need to be made. The "Yes" campaign are doing that. The "No" campaign are utterly failing; they're failing not just to win the argument; they're failing even to make the argument.

The great philosopher of our times, Homer J. Simpson, once said that "de fault" are the two sweetest words in the English language. On this topic, at least, he's wrong. I do genuinely feel Scotland would be better off away from Westminster, but the last thing I want is for Scotland to choose that because nobody spoke for the alternative. That's seeming like a real possibility now, and that's what scares me.

#12: "Pathfinder: the Half-dead City", by Jim Groves

(I'm still about halfway through the last volume of the "Wheel of Time", so it may be a while before I list another book.)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

File this one under "I watch it so you don't have to." I've seen worse films, but I'm really not sure when; it even gives "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" a run for its money. (Though, actually, now I think about it - "A Good Day to Die Hard" is worse.)

(One thing that does amuse me, though, is the title. It's called "Rise of an Empire", presumably referring to the Persian Empire... but that's an empire that is defeated in the film, and also an empire that has already passed its peak before the start of the film. Definitely a carefully chosen title there!)

(On the arithmetic front, we're now down to one outstanding item - I got LC's car back this morning, so all that remains is to get the carpets cleaned. Which I'll be leaving until my holiday next month, I think.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Delicious Crisis

As I said, I made bread again this weekend, which apart from one small problem was absolutely great. In particular, I've had it as the basis for my sandwiches the last two days. This led to the realisation that this bread was so much nicer than the stuff we buy from Tesco that it really doesn't bear comparison. I mean, the stuff we get is okay, but it's a bit insipid. Especially since we're now back on the white bread, which is even less characterful than the brown.

Still, I consoled myself with the notion that store-bought bread is cheaper than homemade. After all, it's £1 (ish) for a loaf of halfway-decent bread, whereas you need to buy flour (£1.50 for 3 loaves), and yeast (£1 for 6 loaves), and salt and oil (negligible), and a bag of mixed seeds (not sure how much, but they're optional anyway)... which all works out at...

Oh dear.

(In fairness, the homemade loaves are a bit smaller than store-bought, and we also don't currently have a good was to slice them thinly, so it would probably work out about the same.)

Problem is that I really don't have time to make bread three times a week, or once a week, or even more than once in a while.

So now I am sad.

Still, on the other hand, it makes for a good reason to bake bread more often, and that in turn justifies experimenting a bit more.

Monday, March 17, 2014


It was a weekend of bread and bread products.

On Friday, I cooked up a rather nice lamp Rogan Josh (which I'm sure wasn't at all authentic, but was good all the same). And, to go with it, I did nann bread for the third time. Which, again, was rather nice. Sadly, I burned my finger, but not too badly. Success!

Then on Sunday morning I made another brown loaf, that having been my most successful bread to-date, and because I now have a brand new loaf tin that I wanted to try out.

The result of this one was also very good, with one caveat. As one of my cunning plans, I did the trick with the baking paper to help lifting the loaf out of the tin. This worked great, right up until I found the paper had stuck to the bottom of the loaf. Oops. Still, it was a really nice loaf, be it dipped in soup, eaten as toast, and indeed as my sandwich for lunch today. And, best of all, I think there's probably enough left for tomorrow's sandwich also. Huzzah!

And then, yesterday afternoon, I made up a batch of calzone. These are a bit of a hassle, taking several hours start-to-finish (but part of that is just the proving steps, when you can do other things, of course). And, given that we were going out to my parents' house for dinner, time did not really permit. So, I took the calzone as far as the second proving step and then left them until we got back.

Sadly, this turned out to be a mistake - the fillling (which is great) soaked through the dough, and the whole mess was over-proved. The net effect is that the calzone are more like a pie with a pizza-base topping. Which I'm sure will be very nice, but wasn't quite what I'd intended. Honestly, I expected Paul Hollywood to pop in at any moment to harrangue me for over-proving the dough.

Still, I can't really complain. The calzone may not be perfect, but they'll still provide LC and I the better part of six meals each, which is a significant win.

And that was basically my weekend. I think I'm happy to call that a success.

(Two. The kitchen light took me about half an hour to replace, and is now considerably better than it ever was before. LC's car is going for its service and MOT tomorrow, and then there will just be the carpets to get done. I don't think I'll bother with any further updates unless and until something significant changes.)

(Also, it may be a while before I add another book to my reading list - the current one is the last volume of the "Wheel of Time", which is taking a while.)

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Musketeers vs Feminism

"The Musketeers" is a pretty terrible show, what with its desecration of classic literature, its attempt to be all 'adult' and 'racy' (and, worse, it's abject failure to do so), and its evident desire to be something else. I sometimes wonder if they knew while filming it that they were producing a terrible show, or if they really thought they were making something good and it has just gone horribly wrong?

This week's episode was a case in point. On the face of it, it may have seemed a good idea - it had all the elements needed: a seeming attack on the King, the Musketeers investigating a politically-dangerous woman, intrigue, and assassination attempt, Athos falling in love... There was even an opportunity to make a social point about the education of women, ticking the BBC's political correctness card. Huzzah!

But it sucked, because the needs of the political correctness card meant that it had to play out a certain way: the "politically-dangerous woman" had to be idealistic but, ultimately, innocent of any wrong-doing. Yet, despite being a "strong, powerful woman", she had to run into trouble and need the noble Hero (Athos) to rescue her.

And that point about "education of women" ultimately had no impact, because all that could be done is for the makers to preach at us: in the UK, it's not a question whether women should be educated or not. Indeed, merely considering it makes me feel dumb: of course women should be educated. I get that that's not a universally-accepted conclusion around the world, and that's really unfortunate (and needs changed), but a light-entertainment programme from the UK (especially a bad one) isn't going to change that.

Now, if they'd really wanted to do something edgy on the topic, how about a single, simple change: instead of our feminist educator being an innocent unjustly accused of witchcraft, how about making her a true radical - her agenda is not merely the education of women (again, a Good Thing), but to go beyond that: the abolition of the monarchy, and the removal of the patriarchal church from power in the land. (And before you say 'anachronism', let me just note that "The Musketeers" doesn't have even the faintest claim to historical accuracy, or indeed accuracy of any sort.)

That way, you have a much more ambiguous story. In "The Musketeers", the King, despite being an ill-tempered teenager, actually isn't a terribly bad sort. The Queen, certainly, doesn't deserve the sort of treatment that a revolution would bring. And even Richelieu is a rather ambiguous figure in many respects - sure, he's the bad guy, but he's also clearly shown to be Good For France. Making that change would also mess with our Heroes' abilities to pick a side, since they are sworn agents of the very power structure she then opposes, and Aramis is (nominally at least) still destined for the church, while Athos and Porthos could go either way. That's actually got some interest built in.

But, alas, no. Instead, we get this oh-so-terrible bogeywoman thrown up (Oh, horrors! Women might become educated!!!), then some running around, and then (surprise!) it turns out that the feminist is right all along. Well, yes, she is. I didn't need you to take an hour to tell me that, though.

Anyway, I believe there are three episodes to go: this week's D'Artagnan-centric episode, then presumably one about Porthos, and then the series finale in which, and I'm just guessing here, D'Artagnan gets to become a Musketeer after all in a surprising but inevitable plot twist. Huzzah!

(Also, on the subject of subtraction, we're now down to 3. The flat electrics are done, and I'm hoping to get the kitchen light done this weekend. Watch this space.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Kingdom of the Self-Service Checkout

Unlike a lot of people, I'm actually a fan of self-service checkouts. They're faster, more efficient, and they therefore cut down on queues. Provided, that is:

  1. You don't have anything that doesn't have a barcode
  2. You don't have anything that needs weighed
  3. You don't have anything that needs authorisation or other assistance (DVDs, wine, scissors, medicines...)
  4. You only have a very few items in total.

If any of those conditions don't apply, they're much harder to use, and the whole process slows right down. So while having self-service checkouts in addition to the regular ones is a good thing, we really can't switch to them as the sole means of checkout.

As we know, Monday is Tesco night, just after band practice. Unfortunately, what wasn't quite so well known is that the shift change in Tesco occurs at 10pm, at which point all regular checkouts close for ten minutes or so until the new shift can take over.

As it happened, items #1 and #'2 from my list were still true. Item #3 should have been true, but unfortunately the system fails when item #4 doesn't hold - the bagging area wasn't big enough for all the bags I needed, which meant things kept needing moved around, that kept triggering the "please seek assistance" prompt.

Now, I do understand that they need that prompt, because the self-service checkouts have to work according to the weight of items. Fair enough. And I also get that supermarkets really don't want to pay for checkout staff to do nothing. That's also fair enough.

But as a practical matter the weekly shop cannot be sensibly put through on a self-service checkout. It just doesn't work - too much hassle, too much need for intervention from the staff, and too much annoyance. It would have been better, for all concerned, for them to open up a checkout, run through that shop, and then close the checkout again.


(On another topic, and for those keeping track of my arithmetic woes: 4 - 1 = still 4. My car is now fixed, and LC's car is booked in to be fixed. And, if I'm really lucky, the flat electrics are in the process of being fixed now. However, one of the bulbs in the kitchen light has blown, and it appears that the fitting has been damaged such that the bulb can't be replaced - I'll need to replace the entire light. Sometimes, this all feels like the trials of Sisyphus.)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ooh, Culture!

When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions. - Hamlet

(Okay, that's the culture bit. The rest is just me moaning.)

It has been a tough weekend. Remember how last weekend I did a post about how 3 - 2 = 5? Well, it turns out that 5 - 2 = 4...

We got our hot water fixed last week. This wasn't too bad - there was a part replaced, there was a note that the boiler is now End of Life (which will limit the availability of parts in future), but it could have been much worse. And on Saturday I spent some more time on the bathroom ceiling, stripping again and repainting, and it's now much better. So, that's good.

But on Saturday morning there was The Smell. A rather disturbing stench coming from somewhere in the appartment, the smell of something unpleasant burning. To be fair, I'd noticed this before, but had convinced myself it was LC's hairdryer or straighteners, or somesuch. But on Saturday that excuse didn't exist - The Smell was there and neither of these things had been used.

Well, after some investigations we identified that it's coming from our main "fuse box" (I'm not sure what the correct term is, since instead of fuses it actually houses several circuit breakers), the smell was definitely of burning plastic, and the box became warm to the touch when certain appliances were on.

Now, for obvious reasons there was very little to be done thereafter. I was able to identify that the problems seem associated with one particular breaker (because it was worst when the shower and/or the tumble drier were on, and they share a breaker), but of course I didn't open the box to see what was wrong. My gut feeling is that that breaker has worn out, a short circuit has probably developed, and that that's the problem, but of course I might be wrong.

So, I contacted the guy who does the regular safety inspections on the box. Or, rather, I tried to - it turns out he doesn't work weekends (and fair enough). The last few days have been a bit stressful. Obviously, that's something I want fixed Right Now, but time doesn't always work like that.

In addition to this, LC hit problems with our computers this weekend... but I won't go into that. Except to note that it's seldom that one thing that causes the problem - it's that one thing on top of all the other things. Oh well.

The upshot of all of this is that this week, which was already going to be awfully busy and horrendously expensive, is now going to be even more busy and expensive. I just hope that, if we can endure, this will be the end of the problems.

Anyway... after finally getting through the weekend, we retired to bed. Only to find that neither of us slept at all well - I think we each managed about four hours in fits and starts through the night. Not good. (A combination of worry, not feeling terribly well, and there being a clear barrier between discrete zones of "too hot" and "too cold".)

I dropped my car off to be looked at this morning. That, at least, went okay. And then, on my way to work, I hit a huge traffic jam and lost another hour or so. Gah!

But then I phoned up and paid for the repair to our boiler and then phoned someone else and arranged to have the "fuse box" looked at. It would be nice to think that the worst is now behind us.


#11: "Pathfinder: City of Locusts", by Richard Pett

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

March of the Third Doctor

The Third Doctor novel was "Last of the Gadarene", which I read last year. It was a fine novel - not the book of the year, but satisfying enough for all that. That meant that this month I had only a very little reading to do, specifically the short story "Spear of Destiny", starring the Third Doctor. It was okay, but remarkable mostly for introducing me to the trivia that the Vikings had a dedicated bath-day. Well, that, and another plot from The Master, who in his original incarnation was always a favourite of mine. (I'm not so keen on his appearances since the TV movie, although Derek Jacobi was good of course.)

With the Third Doctor, though, we're really getting to the point where I'm familiar with the character. Although I never saw any of his episodes live, I was familiar with the Third Doctor from "The Five Doctors", in which he is most definitely one of the star turns. I also once saw him in the Doctor Who stage play, many many years ago (he was later replaced in that by Colin Baker). And, like Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor, the Third Doctor had an incredibly recognisable voice. This makes reading his stories very easy, since you get a clear mental image whenever he speaks.

So... "Spear of Destiny" really wasn't great, much like the other two short stories thus far. "Last of the Gadarene", though, was a very solid read, probably just pipping "Dreams of Empire" as my favourite to date.

Next month we have the Fourth Doctor, at which point I've just about caught up with where I came in. Though it's not until May, and the Fifth, that we really hit 'my' Doctor.

#10: "The Hundred Days", by Patrick O'Brian (book of the year so far)

Monday, March 03, 2014

For Once, Good Timing

About six months ago, in the run up to our Centenary, the band were contacted by the granddaughter of our first pipe major. She and her mum visited the band, and at that time they also presented us with some music written by our first pipe major, two out of three tunes that he had written for his three daughters. However, due to an injury sustained in the Great War, he had never been able to play the tunes. Consequently our guest, the final surviving daughter, had never heard the tunes her father wrote for her and her sisters. They asked if someone from the band could learn the tunes so that they could come back and hear them played - and that task fell to me.

The return visit was planned for last Thursday, but unfortunately it had to be cancelled due to ill health. This was unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected given the age of the lady in question.

So far, so ordinary.

But it occurred to me on Friday that perhaps waiting to reschedule the visit wasn't the best possible option. After all, you never know...

Besides, it had always been my intention to record the tunes and present our guests with a CD, memory stick, or similar device with the audio file. Indeed, I had such a recording already, although the quality wasn't great - my pipes had had a new chanter and new drone reeds in the last week, and the recording was with the older, less good, set.

So I rerecorded the tunes last night, put the file somewhere public, and sent a link along. No big deal, or so I thought.

It turns out that the lady in question turns 86 this Friday, and so hearing the tunes for the first time will make for a fine present for her.

It turns out that, just sometimes, my timing isn't entirely awful. Huzzah!

#9: "The Wind in the Willows", by Kenneth Grahame (A book from The List)