Sunday, June 29, 2014

The European Pipe Band Championships 2014

Brace yourself for a new tale of "The Worst Thing That Has Ever Happened..."

Yesterday was the European Championships, the third of five majors for the year, but the second attended by the pipe band. As with last year, and as will be the case next year, the event took place in Forres, waaay up North.

So, I got up at 4am (!) to get ready for the event. This very early start was necessitated largely by my concern that I'd spend the morning in zombie-state and so need some time to get my brane in gear - as proved to be the case. Still, I made ready and then left the flat, walking through the early-morning sunlight to the bus. Huzzah!

We went to our second pick-up, where there was some concern that out Tenor drummers weren't there. One of these had said she was working and, although she would try, she wasn't sure she could move her shift. The other had been at all previous events, but had missed the practice on Thursday, so there was some concern - did she know the pick-up time? A text was sent; no reply was received, and so we left after a further 15 minutes waiting.

Turned out, she was the lucky one...

The first two hours of the drive up there were uneventful. I read the end of my Pathfinder, having failed to finish it on Friday, I concluded that next year I would definitely go up there on the Friday, event if the band did not (while the Pipe Major was likewise concluding that the band would definitely have to do the same!), and then I started on my next book. (I haven't finished it yet, but will post about it when the time comes. It's not a good one.)

After two hours, we stopped for the driver to get a rest, while the rest of us got some breakfast (second, or third, or something) from a cafe. This was a roal and sausage that was adequate, and some hot brown water that claimed to be coffee (but really wasn't). And then we were on the road again.

About an hour later, some 50 minutes from Forres, suddenly the noise of the engine changed. The bus driver exclaimed, "It's just cut out!" And then there were two miles of gradual slowing down, coupled with some attempts to restart the master engine. But no joy.

We came to a halt in a more-or-less safe bit of road, where there was a third lane in the middle of the road that would allow other traffic to pass. Then, several people disappeared and went crawling under and around the bus (the driver, a guy who drives tankers for a living, and a guy who knows a bit about engines). They fiddled for a bit and thought they'd fixed it (spoiler: they hadn't), and so made their way back on board.

Unfortunately, at this point the driver noticed that the hazard lights weren't working any longer. The battery had gone flat almost immediately. Needless to say, this meant that the bus wouldn't start - a flat battery means no starter motor. So, a call was made to Volvo for someone to come and help.

At this point, it was almost but not quite certain we wouldn't get there in time. So, the pipe major spent some time getting all the chanters ready to play, just in case, and a few people had to get changed on the bus. (Fortunately, I was not among them.) Also, we looked into possibilities of calling ahead to say we'd be late, though it wasn't expected this would help - there have been cases of unscrupulous bands saying they've broken down in order to get to go on last (no, seriously!), so the RSPBA takes a dim view of such things. In any case, it turned out that we couldn't get through, so that was that.

At length, the guy from Volvo came, he fixed the bus at least temporarily, he jump-started the engine, and we were on our way. Apparently the choke switch had triggered by mistake, both cutting off the engine and discharging the battery. Removing the switch removed the problem, though wasn't a 'good' solution as the choke switch is a safety feature. (Though not an absolutely-essential one, more like the airbags in a car - you'd rather have them working than not, but can manage without.)

Unfortunately, by that point it was obvious we couldn't get there in time.

There was then a discussioin about what to do. The truth is that there was no appetite for just turning round and heading straight back (another three hours driving). So we went and saw some of the other bands, left at 4 instead of waiting for the march-past, and got back about 8:45 instead of midnight.

All in all, it was a complete waste of a day, and a fairly uncomfortable one since I was stuck in my uniform all day. Still, it could have been worse, I suppose - it could have been cold and/or raining, or we could have been in real contention for the season and so lost out on our final placing. "Fortunately", we're not, and instead were hoping for a sneaky sixth place just to get something for the year - so not the biggest loss.

But next year, we'll definitely be heading up there the night before!

#28: "Angela's Ashes", by Frank McCourt (A book from The List)
#29: "Pathfinder: Secrets of the Sphinx", by Amber E. Scott

Monday, June 23, 2014

Helensburgh Highland Games 2014

This weekend has been spent almost entirely on band stuff, which isn't ideal - I would really prefer not to have "double headers" of this sort. Still, I believe this is the last one for this year, so that's good.

Saturday was spent at the Grangemouth Gala Day, which was fine - a long parade followed by lunch and then a short massed bands performance. It was hot and sunny, so actually a fairly pleasant day all things considered. (Although I really don't like wearing sunblock, which seems to cause me all sorts of problems. Still, better than the alternative.)

Sunday was then spent at the Helensburgh Highland Games, where we resumed our competition season after a week off (and, since I missed the last competition, I resumed after two weeks off).

The day did not have an auspicious start - the bus took about 90 minutes to get there, but the driver took what seemed an especially winding route there, which meant I spent a lot of that time actually feeling quite sick. Still, we made it through.

The day was, again, hot and sunny. This is always nice, despite the sunblock issue. Additionally, we were fairly relaxed in our preparations, went on, played, and felt pretty good about it - probably our best performance of the year to date.

The rest of the day was okay, albeit boring. I spent most of it reading "Angela's Ashes", which I didn't quite manage to finish. There was an incident, which I'll come back to, but otherwise things were okay.

We came fourth out of five, which was a slightly disappointing result. That said, with so few competitors it's hard to know how we start in relation to other bands - we might have come fourth out of ten, or ninth. So it was at least fairly positive.

And then the journey home was okay. This time, our route took us through Glasgow and on the motorway, which made for a much more pleasant journey. I got home about 8 - a long day, but not the worst.

Alas, it wasn't long after that before my phone started to ring. As I said, there was an incident, part of which I saw but thought nothing of, but the rest of which I'd missed. But there's been a complaint about bullying made, which means of course that we have to take action. Not good.

(Plus, we found out on Friday that our free 'let' of the school we use for practices is going to cease to be free as of August, and since we don't have the money required to pay, we will simply have to find a new practice venue. Also not good. Sometimes it seems that everyone is really keen to have a local pipe band, but very few people actually want to help that band out. Oh well.)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Dear FA...

So, England are effectively out of the World Cup. Granted, it's still mathematically possible for them to go through (if Italy win both their matches, and England beat Costa Rica, and the goal difference goes for them), but take it from a Scotsman - hoping for the "mathematically possible" is folly.

Anyway, in light of last night's defeat, the media have gone into immediate post-mortem mode, trying to find someone to blame and some way forward. And it would appear that the expectation is that Roy Hodgson will be identified as the scapegoat and either resign or be sacked.

This would be a mistake.

There are two things that really should be borne in mind here:

Firstly, the draw for this World Cup has thrown up some groups that are dominated by a single big team (for example, it looks likely that both France and Argentina will easily win their groups, and in fact will just glide into the quarter finals without issue), and some groups that are hugely difficult. England are in one of the latter sort. And if you're in a really tough group, it's not hugely surprising if you don't get through it - someone has to lose.

Secondly, it was always known that Roy Hodgson had a significant rebuilding job to do. With the gradual retirement of the so-called (and over-rated) "Golden Generation" there was always going to be a need to bring through lots of new players, establish a new defence and attack, and generally bring the team forward. That process has begun, but it's not done yet, and not by a long way.

For the two reasons above, most of the informed analysts were suggesting that England would face a difficult time and would likely fail to progress from their group. That being the case, given that England have faced a difficult time and likely failed to progress, why the surprise? Why the outrage? "Meets expectations" isn't good enough, but it's no reason to panic.

And it's not as if England were roundly thrashed or played particularly badly. (Well, at least against Italy - against Uruguay they did get caught out at the back at least once when they really couldn't afford it, and they never really looked like equalising a second time.) There are some good players there, the performances were (mostly) disciplined, and there's reason for hope.

The thing to do at this point is simply: Keep Calm and Carry On. Don't change the manager, don't try to overhaul the playing staff radically... just wait. Two years from now, the 'kids' who are just breaking into the side will be markedly better. The team will be more used to playing together. They'll just naturally do that bit better - not well enough to win, right enough, but then there's probably no manager and no possible England team that could be fielded that would win.

Longer term, achieving that win would require the production of a large number of new, top-quality players. It's not a matter of finding 11 world-beaters, or even 25 to make up a squad; it's a matter of getting together 50 with a mix of youth and experience. You don't get that in 2 years. It's a decade-long project at best. And, for reasons I've posted before, it's probably never going to happen. Sorry.

But for now, it's really just a matter of beating Costa Rica (not to qualify, but to salvage some pride), and then looking forward to the next one. Panicking is the wrong response, and really won't help.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Don't Say It Too Loud...

... but I'm rather hoping for an England win tonight. Despite the defeat, I felt they played very well against Italy, and the truth is that the World Cup will just be much more interesting with England than it will be once they're out. So, provided they play well again, a deserved win would be a nice result.

I can't see them progressing beyond the next round, though.

On a mostly-unrelated note, I'm really enjoying this World Cup. The timings of the matches are pretty much ideal (what with kick off of the first match coming just as I finish work), and the matches themselves have mostly been fun, with some really good ones out there. Thus far, it has of course been Holland and Germany who have most impressed me, though I sense both Brazil and Argentina are still to show us what they can really do.

And the demise of Spain was most interesting. It seems teams now have the beating of them; it felt a bit like the end of an era, like when Federer suddenly ceased to be invincible.

#27: "Raising Steam", by Terry Pratchett (great book, as always, though not quite a contender for Book of the Year.)

Friday, June 13, 2014

How to Fix Westminster

Warning: this is a tedious 'politics' post. Feel free to skip it! (Also, I promise not to do another one until the World Cup is over - I'll talk about football instead.)

I've mentioned before that my reason for voting "Yes" in September is largely due to my belief that politics in the UK is unfixably broken. That raises an obvious question: what would a fix look like?

(After all, "unfixably broken" really isn't a helpful definition. By defining what I would consider a fix, though, that should give some scope of the issue, and explain why I don't think it's realistic to expect change.)

So, what would a fix look like? Well, the first thing is that I believe we need approximately 650 new MPs. Assuming the front benches on the government and opposition sides represent the cream of the crop, I feel confident in declaring that they're just not fit for purpose.

However, my issues are more to do with how MPs are selected and how they operate, rather than the specifics of the people we currently have there. I therefore have a further eight general points, and then one further point specific to the Labour party. So, in time-honoured 'list' format...

  1. MPs should be required to maintain their primary residence in their constituency, and to have lived there for 5 years prior to seeking selection. This one is quite straightforward - an MP should be there to represent his/her constituency in Westminster, not to represent Westminster to his/her constituency. Some random bod dropped in from Oxbridge because it's a safe Labour seat really can't do that.
  2. MPs should be selected by the local party without interference from central office. Again, that's a simple one - local people should be the ones to choose who they want to represent them. I understand what Harriet Harman is trying to do with all-women short-lists, but she's wrong - it's anti-democratic. (And, yes, that does mean that if the local party is racist, sexist, or homophobic then they might select a horror as candidate. That's where you hope the electorate are smart enough to vote otherwise and/or the other parties are at least remotely competent in highlighting the fact.)
  3. Remove party alliegance from the ballot paper. Firstly, because we (at least in theory) elect a person to represent us, not a party. But it's also because this forces the parties to get the name of the candidate out there in order to win votes; they have to campaign in all constituencies, not just the thirty or so 'swing' constituencies in the South East of England. (Despite being reasonably politically-aware, I know next to nothing about Eric Joyce, my MP, and I knew literally nothing about the SNP guy I voted for last time - not even his name. That's really not healthy.)
  4. We need a proper right of recall. The current government have introduced something, which is to the good, but it doesn't go far enough. I suggest the following: 10% of the electorate in the event of any conviction, any meaningful breach of their code, if they are stripped or the party whip, or if they choose to leave their party. Or if 40% of the turnout demand a recall, they should be able to do so unconditionally once in the term of the parliament. (For example, Falkirk has approx 82,000 voters, of whom 62% voted at the last election. Under my proposal, Eric Joyce would have faced recall when he was stripped of the Labour whip provided 8,200 voters demanded it (10%), or unconditionally if 20,336 voters demanded it (40% of the 62% turn out). That's still a very high threshold, but it does at least provide the option.) Oh, and we should have an (at least theoretical) ability to demand the dissolution of parliament entirely, and thus force a General Election.
  5. We need minimum attendance requirements for MPs, both in the House and in their constituencies.
  6. Manifesto commitments need to be made legally binding. Otherwise, how are we supposed to know what we're voting for? (Plus, that eliminates one of my biggest outrages - first Labour campaigned that they wouldn't introduce top-up fees, and then did exactly that; then the Lib Dems made personal pledges to work to eliminate fees, and then voted to increase them to £9k a year. The Tories are the only party I can trust on the topic of tuition fees, which is horrible.)
  7. MPs' pattern of work needs radically changed. This involves both dramatically reducing the number of holidays they have per year and dramatically reducing the hours they work when they are there. At the moment, MPs seem to be bone-idle half the time and half-dead with exhaustion the other. Neither is conducive to good governance.
  8. Likewise, MP pay should be significantly increased, but their access to expenses vastly curtailed. I don't have a problem with MPs being well paid for what they do. If parliament works, they're actually worth it. But expanses are still a problem. Basically, we've built a system which encourages corruption, and that's really not healthy.

So, those are my 'general' suggestions. As I said, I have one further point which applies specifically to the Labour party:

I don't know what you stand for any more. See, with the Tories it's pretty clear - I don't like what they believe in, but at least I can understand it enough to reject it. But the Labour party talks about being the party of the working class, of being the ones to stand up for the little guy against the bosses, and all that stuff. But, in practice, it's just not so. The current Labour party is further to the right than the Tories were pre-Thatcher. Hell, in some ways the Labour party are further to the right than Thatcher. You're not the party you claim to be; at best, you're marginally better than the Tories. And yes, if my choices are to be punched or to be stabbed, then I'll take the punch. But, frankly, I'd much rather opt-out entirely.

So go back to your founding principles. That way, we at least get a choice. And I don't mind losing an election where I have a real choice but the other guys got more votes.

But if the only real difference between the parties is the one lot wear red rosettes and the other wear blue rosettes, that does me no good whatsoever. Red Dwarf did that joke in 1988 - the hats are supposed to be green.

So there it is.

I'm not actually sure that would be enough - I haven't even touched on things like equal constituency sizes, the House of Lords, or the ability to force referenda on key constitutional issues (the voting system, the monarchy, independence for Scotland/Wales/NI, or EU membership). But it would be a start at least. And I think those are all (except maybe #3) required changes.

So, how many of them do you think are even on the agenda, never mind things that might potentially be addressed before September? Hence "unfixably broken".

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Experimental Cookery 2014: Sausages and Rich Onion Gravy

It has been a while since I've done one of these, though they may be a few more coming up fairly soon. LC has finally grown bored with the previous cycle of the various curries, chilli, spaghetti bolognese, and similar that had been the staple for the past couple of years, so now we're searching for another set of favourites. (Ideally, this would include some "freezer foods" that we can cook in batches and freeze and also some "quick cooks" for weeknights.)

This one was taken from the second "Hairy Dieters" book, and was nice and simple to prepare - as they indicated it was about 10 minutes prep followed by 20 minutes of cooking, none of it terribly difficult. So, an ideal "quick cook", at least in theory.

I felt that it was nice, but it hadn't quite worked - the gravy was over-thickened, and the mash had picked up little shavings of non-stickiness from the pan (will need to get some 'stick' saucepans for occasional use, I guess). But I liked the sausages, and felt that the gravy tasted fine.

LC, alas, found she didn't enjoy it. Apparently, she doesn't care for 'posh' sausages. (I was using up the remnants we had in the freezer, so we had 2 Tesco Finest sausages with bramley apple and 3 with herbs.) Which was a shame.

Would I try this again? I'm going to go for a cautious 'yes', I think - one more try with the appropriate lessons applied. In the meantime, I need to come up with some more ideas.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Where It All Went Wrong

Colin Baker is generally regarded as the weakest of the Doctors (Paul McGann usually being exempt from the comparison by virtue of his role as "the longest and the shortest"). Personally, I would place him marginally ahead of Sylvester McCoy, but in both cases I would apply the caveat that I don't think it was the actor's fault in any sense (and that's true of McGann as well) - they did what was asked of them; it's not their fault that the material wasn't all that might be hoped.

With the Colin Baker era, I think there were four problems, none of which were Baker's fault:

  1. By that point, the show was just tired. Ironically, for a show that could literally go anywhere and do anything, it had become very formulaic and repetitive. Most stories followed a pattern that varied only slightly, and the show had become very self-referential. Much as I hate to admit it, it really was time for a rest. (It will also be interesting to see what happens to New Who in a few years, as any show that lasts as long as it has runs the same risk.)
  2. The costume. Oh dear, the costume. I guess they were going for something truly unique, in a bid to capture the Tom Baker 'scarf'. But they failed rather spectacularly, an in going so they really messed up the tone of this Doctor's adventures. That said, I think they could perhaps have recovered from this, except that...
  3. The decision to make this Doctor loud, and arrogant, and overbearing, and, really, not very nice, was an interesting one, and it might just have worked were it not for the other problems. After all, it was something genuinely new. But a big problem with that was that this new, darker, Doctor was quite at odds with the comical costume choice. So, the tone of the whole thing was badly off. Either go for the 'darker' Doctor with a darker outfit (see the Ninth Doctor for a good example), or go for a louder, comic Doctor with the clown-suit. Either could have worked (maybe). But there was one other problem that they just couldn't recover from...
  4. In the Sixth Doctor's first episode ("The Twin Dilemma", part one), and in fact in his second or third scene, immediately after picking out the clown-suit, we have an extremely troubling scene where the new Doctor has a "funny turn" during which he is really, genuinely nasty to poor Peri and then tries to kill her. That scene, by itself, consigns the new Doctor to the scrapheap. There's no coming back from that.

It's all such a missed opportunity. Creatively, the notion of having the Doctor's regeneration being unstable and him being a bit 'off' for a while is a very interesting one. And it does indeed fit given the circumstances of that regeneration. But there's a huge gap between "a bit off" and him being nasty, and especially with him attacking his companion. Combine that with him being not-very-friendly, even after that story, and with the clown-suit, and you've got a disaster.

Likewise, having the new Doctor be rather abrasive, arrogant, and generally not-very-nice is also an interesting choice and could have worked well. But not with that costume, and not when you're also dealing with the "unstable regeneration" angle. (And, probably, not immediately after the Davison era, when that Doctor was generally pleasant.)

And none of it is Colin Baker's fault, even though the powers-that-be blamed him for it.

(It should also perhaps be noted that Colin Baker's era does feature some great material. "Revelation of the Daleks" is one of the great stories, close to the level of "Genesis of the Daleks" in quality, while the "Trial of a Time Lord" season is also very very strong. So there's good stuff there, despite the problems.)


June being the month of the Sixth Doctor, I found myself reading the short story "Something Borrowed" by Richelle Mead and the novel "Players" by Terrance Dicks. Both featured the Sixth Doctor and Peri.

Alas, "Something Borrowed" isn't terribly good. Remember how I said that many of the stories by the Sixth Doctor's tenure had become very formulaic? Well, the same is true here, probably as a consequence of the very limited page count. The story features the son of a friend of the Doctor being married to a mysterious woman of a different species. Surprise! It turns out she's up to no good. Surprise! It turns out Peri gets captured. Surprise! There's a rescue. Surprise! The Doctor turns the tables on his foe.

It's something of a shame, because the underlying premise is actually quite good; adapted for the TV show this could actually make for a good episode. And although this is a recurring villain, she's not one who has been as over-used as certain others I could mention.

By contrast, "Players" is fantastic. I suspect this has something to do with the author's huge familiarity with the show - Terrance Dicks was, of course, the guy who wrote a huge number of the novelisations, so he knows his stuff. Plus, he's taken an interesting premise, an interesting segment of history, and some interesting figures from that segment of history and woven together a fun tale. This is, by some ways, the best of the six novels to date.

Next month is, of course, the month of the Seventh Doctor, who seems to have been the Doctor that the BBC deliberately sabotaged - I missed half of one season and all of the other simply because the BBC never bothered to let us know it was on, and then it was dropped due to lack of viewers. (Though, as I said above, the show was getting really tired by that point, so maybe it was for the best, heretical as that sounds.) Unfortunately, next month's novel is merely the adaptation of "Remembrance of the Daleks", which was an okay story, but I would have preferred something else. Still, I suppose we had to have Daleks in there somewhere!

#26: "Players", by Terrance Dicks

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The British Pipe Band Championships 2014

Yesterday was the first major of the new season, and also a gloriously sunny day. This combination made for an interesting day...

Starting last year, the RSPBA rearranged the calendar of events. This happens every so often, as the licenses to host the Championships come up for renewal and sometimes go to different venues. So, instead of the Scottish Championships being the first Major, instead the first is now the British Championships, and those are held in Bathgate. This is particularly nice because they're just a short hour in the bus.

As a consequence of this, I got the extreme luxury of a lie in until 8 (8!) on Saturday morning. Then a short walk to the bus, a short ride to the park, a short tune-up, and we played. It was probably our best performance of the year so far, which is nice.

I then spent most of the rest of the day sitting on the bus reading the latest Pathfinder, which is not the best use for a day, but isn't too bad. I found myself growing increasingly tired, and also feeling increasingly unwell due to a really bad headache - this is a consequence of IBS and there was really nothing I could do to shake it.

(At one point, I did make time to see some of the Novice Juvenile bands play - if we set up the Development Band next year then these are going to be our competition. Which is a bit worrying - the standard I saw was very high. Still, since the goal would be just to get our learners some experience, I'm not going to worry about that. Much.)

The march-past was pretty late, but reasonably enjoyable, what with it being a nice day. The chieftain was Susan Boyle, which provided three surprises: firstly, she kept her "response" down to a mere four sentences (which is much appreciated after a long day); secondly, she proved to be a much better chieftain than Sylvester McCoy; and thirdly, she got not one, but two genuine cheers from the assembled bandsmen - normally, it's just some fairly muted polite applause.

We came 10th out of 15 bands - 14th and 10th for piping, 9th for drumming, and 10th for ensemble. Not great, but much better than the previous two outings. We also beat three of the bands who beat us at Dunbar, as that's promising. That said, there's still a long way to go. (It's also worth noting that we're going to miss the UK Championships, so whatever happens there is little chance we'd be up for promotion, so it's largely academic.)

And that was that. I eventually got home at 8:30, which made it a very long day. But probably the best of the three competitions this year.

#23: "The Lovely Bones", by Alice Sebold (A book from The List, and also the new candidate for Book of the Year.)
#24: "Pathfinder: Shifting Sands", by Richard Pett