Friday, August 29, 2014

Not Actually About Cakes

I feel sorry for Diana.

There was an issue in the Bake-off tent. One of the bakers found his work had been destroyed through no fault of his own, and with no opportunity to recover from the problem. He reacted badly, and was subsequently eliminated.

The producers of the show proceeded to cut the footage for maximum drama - the teaser for the show had MB noting it was "sort of unacceptable" with an immediate cut to Diana; lots of shots of our arch-villain looking eeevil; the rising tension music immediately before the problem; her comment that "he has his own freezer to use"...

And so there was a reaction. That's hardly surprising - the show was clearly structured to get a reaction, and they got one. Big shock there.

As far as I can see, there was an injustice, and it was at the hands of the judges. There's a precedent for what happens when a contestant is unable to finish a challenge through no fault of his own - two years ago, John cut his finger and was unable to continue; they suspended the elimination and carried on. Well, that's the case here, too - Iain's ice cream was removed from the freezer (probably by mistake), rendering him unable to complete the challenge. He didn't have anything to present to the judges, and it wasn't his fault. (And Paul's assertion that he could have presented his sponge and meringue is wrong - firstly because they were with the melted ice cream, but secondly... does anyone believe he would not have been eliminated had he presented just two of three parts of the challenge?)

(Incidentally, the reason this is not the same as the custard incident from last year is that the problem with the custard didn't prevent those involved from completing the task; the mistake this time did make it impossible to complete - you can't complete a baked alaska without ice cream.)

So, yeah, there's an injustice here. Actually, there are two: Iain's undeserved elimination, but also the villification of Diana for the purposes of good TV. And, frankly, I don't think I care to watch this show any more.

One more thing: Sue Perkins tweeted about the controversy, noting the over-reaction and noting also that it's a show about CAKES. There's just one thing wrong with that, though.

It's not a show about cakes, and it never has been. It's a show about people, specifically the dozen or so contestants in the tent.

How To Prevent Change

A few years ago, we had a referendum on changing the voting system (the so-called Alternate Vote). This returned a "no" vote, putting the idea of changing the voting system to bed for a generation.

A few years before that, the north of England had a referendum on a form of devolution for the region. This returned a "no" vote, putting the idea of devolution for the north of England to bed for a generation.

In both cases the people were asked, they said "no", the end. Any further discussions on the topic inevitably meet with the response that we had a referendum, it wasn't wanted, so why are we still having this discussion?

Here's the thing: the Alternate Vote was a terrible compromise. Indeed, it was sufficiently bad that even people who passionately wanted change to the voting system felt forced to vote against it because, while it was change, it manifestly wasn't change for the better.

Likewise, the form of devolution offered to the north of England wasn't the same as that enjoyed in Scotland, or even in Wales (where the Assembly has far less power and influence than up here). It was an offer, certainly, but it was a bad offer.

So that's how it's done: if you want to be seen to be responsive to people's calls for change, but don't want to actually change, engineer matters so they do get a choice - do they want the status quo, or do they want this horrible compromise alternative that you've fought hard to win for them?

(Incidentally, this post comes about following a guy from the Campaign for an English Parliament appearing on Good Morning Scotland this morning. He was, alas, talking about something else, and was therefore talking mince, but his core point is a good one - there almost certainly should be some measure of devolution for the English regions, especially if Scotland votes No, and double-especially if the UK government then really does grant significant extra powers to the Scottish government. Though it does need to be the English regions - the needs of the north are significantly different from those of the south-east, so simply having a single body for the whole wouldn't really help much.)

Of course, there's also a corollary to this: if you want change, then you should probably vote for the change that is offered, even if it's a bad one. Because once you've achieved some change then it's easier to get good change, while rejecting the change you can get will make it that much harder to get the change that you want.

#44: "Pathfinder: Fires of Creation", by Neil Spicer
#45: "The Ocean at the End of the Lane", by Neil Gaiman

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Competition Season 2014 Wash-up

Where to begin?

This season has largely mirrored the last two I was involved in - we started with some significant optimism after a productive winter, suffered some early setbacks, and never really recovered. The results just haven't gone our way, with us only twice getting into the top half of the score-sheet (4th out of 9 in the Grade 4 at Dunbar; 2nd out of 4 in the Grade 4MSR at Bridge of Allan). Once again we achieved nothing whatsoever at the majors, with the likely consequence that we'll be downgraded for next year. That might be the best thing for it - although we'd struggle a great deal to get back up, we just don't seem to be getting any traction in Grade 4A.

I haven't been enjoying competing at all. My pipes seem to be tuned on a knife-edge - a fraction this way and they're flat, a fraction that way and they're overblown, a fraction up here and the chanter sounds early, a fraction down there and the drones don't sound. I just can't seem to resolve that, and am getting increasingly pissed off at being told I can't get anything right. Or maybe it's just me, and I really can't get anything right.

(That said, the last competition was actually quite enjoyable. If we could just get that every week, instead of the other, that would be grand.)

The bureaucratic side of running the band is similarly frustrating - we've lost the use of our practice venue due to council cutbacks, we need to find an additional £4,000 of funding per year from somewhere, and we've just burned too much money this year (on instruments, uniforms, and the like - all good stuff, and abnormal expenses, but still...)

The one shining light of this season is our learners, where we have the makings of an entire new band coming through the ranks. And this is the best group of learners that I have ever seen, both in terms of their ability and of their willingness to learn. So, if we can just keep that group together, we might be able to do something interesting next year.

And that's that - all pretty depressing stuff, I'm afraid. But you'll probably be glad to hear that that's it done. As of Saturday, I get my weekends back. Looking forward to it!

The Edinburgh Pipe Band Championships 2014

The final competition of the season took place in Edinburgh, at the Highland Centre. This is a relatively new competition - this was only the fourth year it has taken place - but it's one that Edinburgh City Council are very keen to build up. And rightly so - it's a venue that is ideal for hosting a large event, but rather poor for a small one.

The pick-up time this week was a fairly civilised 9am, which meant a lie in until 7:30! This made for a relatively pleasant morning, with me getting ready and heading out after the dawn. Then we were off to our second pick-up, and then to the contest, a mere half-hour away.

The day was fairly relaxed, with us now past the point where the contests had any serious meaning (the majors being over and done with), and so we got ready and then performed, and then got ready and performed again. The performances were okay, but not spectacular - earlier in the season this would have been the occasion for a rant, but none was forthcoming.

After the competitions were done, there were a few hours to kill, so I retreated to the bus to read. The site had virtually nothing to do - as I said, it is poorly suited to a small event, as those few local traders were shut up for the weekend, while it wasn't big enough to attract even the usual Highland Games traders.

The final competition finished just before four, and so shortly thereafter we had the march-past and prize-givings. We came fifth out of six in the Grade 4 contest (5th for piping and 4th for drumming), and third out of four in the Grade 4MSR (3rd and 3rd), narrowly missing out on a prize in both cases.

And then there was a fairly quiet, and pleasantly short, bus journey home, and that was the season done.

It was actually a nice day on which to end the competition season, with the lack of pressure, the reasonably okay weather, and a halfways decent performance. Plus, as soon as we had played our last I felt an enormous release of stress, as the burden of the season is now gone.

#43: "The Grapes of Wrath", by John Steinbeck (A book from The List, and also the new candidate for Book of the Year.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Nightmare Scenario

As I'm sure I've mentioned once or twice, I'm intending to vote Yes next month. However, it's worth noting that I wouldn't be too horrified if the result came back No - after all, we've kinda muddled along thus far, so I'm sure we'd kinda muddle on going forward. (Plus, it's worth noting that my reasons for voting Yes are largely driven by a rejection of part of the status quo, rather than a philosophical leaning towards change - not the stuff fanatics are made of.)

But, in the event of a No vote, there was one scenario that really worried me - the one where Westminster chooses to 'punish' Scotland for our having the temerity to ask the question. Such punishments might take the form of a stripping of powers from Holyrood, but would more likely take the form of serious cuts to the Scottish budget - primarily cloaked in a "reorganisation" of the Barnett Formula that determines that budget.

However, I wasn't too concerned about that. I did fully expect some sort of revised constitutional settlement to be put in place, granting a few more minor powers to Holyrood (there really isn't much more that it is practical to devolve), but specifically removing the right to conduct further referenda, thus removing any chance of a repeat. But as for the massive cuts suggested... no, I wasn't overly worried on that front. I had heard a couple of voices raise such possibilities, but they were generally out on the lunatic fringe of the debate.

Until today.

(The key bit, especially in the Telegraph piece, is about the desire to see cuts to Scottish public spending. The desire to not share the pound is another matter, and is both understandable and quite reasonable.)

It is unfortunately the case that the status quo isn't on offer in this referendum, and hasn't been for some time. Probably since the SNP won their majority at Holyrood, in fact. Now, though, it's looking much more like our choices are between the risks of independence and the certainty of punishment.

Monday, August 18, 2014


I've just noticed that my listing of books of the year is missing two entries. Fortunately, I do know where they should go, so I'll add them here with the correct numbers:

#17: "Scoundrels", by Timothy Zahn
#25: "The Golden Ocean", by Patrick O'Brian

The World Pipe Band Championships 2014

The World Championships is actually one of the competitions I tend to enjoy the most. This is partly because it's so late in the season, and partly because it's in the centre of Glasgow, which affords the opportunity to leave the grounds and go and do something else, rather than just sit around waiting endlessly. In the worst case, it's even possible to just get a train home, although I'd promised myself not to do that again as I didn't want to be absent for the march-past.

My hopes were not high for this year's competition though. In order to qualify for the final, we would need to be in the top six out of sixteen in our qualifying heat - something we had never achieved all season. Still, with a good performance it might be possible...

Unfortunately, the Worlds requires a very early start. Although we weren't playing until 11:20, the bus needed to be in the park by some early hour, and so the pick-up was at 6, in turn necessitating a 4:30 wake-up. Nice.

And so we staggered out, got to the bus, got into town, and then waited. Eventually, we found a Cafe Nero that had opened, got something to eat (though it wasn't all that might have been hoped), and started feeling a little more hopeful.

The final prep for the competition did not go well. The rain wasn't bad, but it was bad enough to play havoc with the pipes, and the pipe major was getting increasingly frustrated - to the point where at one stage he had a go at me for overblowing my pipes and underblowing them at the same time. Thank goodness there's only one more competition this season.

Anyway, we went on, and did out bit. Mostly, the performance was fine, with one exception. Once again, the band had a bad start to our performance, which meant we might as well not have bothered. (On the plus side, it wasn't my fault - in fact, my performance was actually fine throughout. So I'm not taking the blame for this one.)

At this point, LC and I went back to hear some of the rest of the bands, and got thoroughly cold and wet doing so. There were about 10 bands after us; I only think I saw one that was less good than we were.

We didn't qualify.

At this point, LC and I went into town to kill some time, I failed to buy a copy of the new "Player's Handbook", we did get some ideas for nephew #1's birthday present, we got some lunch, and it was generally okay. Then we went back to the bus to read for a bit.

It was only some hours later that we heard that we actually weren't doing the march-past after all. Which was a bit frustrating - had I known, we would have packed up, taken the train home, and saved the rest of the day.

The journey home was not the best, due to a combination of tiredness and alcohol. But we eventually got in, ordered pizza, and gradually unwound.

The last competition of the season is the Edinburgh Highland Games on Saturday. I will be very glad once it's done.

(And, yes, it's fair to say I don't enjoy competing at all. The problem is that I enjoy almost everything else about being in a pipe band, and especially the teaching, but I just don't know how to separate out the two.)

#42: "Pathfinder: Ultimate Campaign", by Paizo Publishing

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Deeply Mixed Weekend

Things have been pretty tough for the past few days. It all began on Friday...

I had an appointment with the hairdresser on Friday, which meant I had to leave work fairly sharp. This was good, although I left the office just as we were being battered by extremely heavy rain - even by the time I reached the car I was soaked. I was also delayed just enough than LC had to run me round to the hairdresser, as there wasn't quite time to walk.

On arriving back home afterwards, I was met with news from LC: she has a job! Huzzah! Rather shockingly, though, she had been called at five to five on the Friday, and asked to start on the Monday (pupils return Tuesday). So no pressure, then.

Things were therefore looking good. And then, sadly, they went downhill.

About eight, another monster shower passed overhead. Now, I've been paranoid about the roof every time it rained for the past eighteen months, and this time my fears were justified - the ceiling in the bedroom sprung a leak. Fortunately, it missed everything but the carpet, so it's perhaps the least-worst leak possible, but still a hassle.

The ordeal with the roof is still ongoing, and is still causing a lot of stress. But for Friday, it meant calling several people, only to be told they couldn't help me (for one reason or another). Not the best.

The other consequence of this was that I had to call off attending the competition at North Berwick. The band did okay but not great in my absence - it certainly wasn't as if my being there would have made any difference.

But that meant that on Saturday, instead of a 4am start time to catch the bus, I instead woke up at 9am to make some calls, and didn't get up 'properly' until nearly 11. So I got an extra 7 hours of much-needed sleep.

The rest of Saturday was therefore very restful. Suddenly, I had some unexpected free time. So I got caught up on some stuff, got ahead on some other stuff, and generally had a good day.

Alas, Sunday wasn't the same success. LC was extremely stressed by this point, on account of needing to prepare something (but not sure exactly what) for the week ahead. And, stupid me, I picked that moment to bring up student loans. This of course added another stress to her load. Not my best moment.

That afternoon we headed over to my parents' in order to celebrate Dad's official birthday. Which was nice but very chaotic and loud. And then home, exhausted, and back to bed.

On balance, I think it was a better weekend than not. I'm even trying to persuade myself that the leak was a good thing, as it enforces that a repair be made now, rather than going horribly wrong in Autumn/Winter. But I'll certainly feel much better once it's done. And although LC was stressed, that stress was a side-effect of some really good news.

But at the moment I'm just worn out, and feel that I'm just barely holding together against all the stress. Things really need to start calming down around here...

Experimental Cookery 2014: Enchiladas

Another one from the "Hairy Dieters: Eat For Life". I should note, however, that I made some substitutions - LC doesn't like kidney beans, so I used a tin of Heinz "Fajita Beans" instead; I used the large flour torillas that they said not to use, and I used the full amount of liquids, beans, etc; but only half the mince, torillas, and cheese (because I was making for two instead of four).

These were highly successful, but... I accidentally put in rather too many chilli flakes, which meant that the heat of the dish was out of proportion. And the sauce could maybe have done with another few minutes to thicken a bit more. Also, I think I prefer the chicken enchiladas I've sometimes made, rather than these beef ones.

That said, these tasted good, and not at all like diet food. Plus, they were very filling - I barely managed to eat two, while LC managed only one. Which is pretty awesome.

I would definitely have these again, though I think they're perhaps better done as a full batch, probably with company.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Experimental Cookery 2014: All-in-One Spicy Pork and Rice

This one comes from the "Hairy Dieters Eat For Life", which is a generally useful book. It's also another really easy, one pot recipe - there's a small amount of preparation and then it just cooks together. And it was really, really nice. Another winner.

Experimental Cookery 2014: Flatbreads

I do like a tasty burger, and for that reason LC and I have had Hugh's spicy lamb burgers on several occasions. However, we've always had them with pitta breads, which were fine but somewhat limited in what they could hold. So this time I decided to follow Hugh's recommendation and cook up some of his flatbreads. These are from Hugh's "River Cottage Every Day" book, which is definitely one of my favourites.

There's not actually much to say here. They were really quick and easy, they tasted really good, and they carried much more of the onion, yoghurt, and salad that went with the burgers. All in all these were a massive hit. So, job done.

The Man Inbetween

And so we come to the third of the three 'lesser' Doctors. And of all the Doctors, it is Paul McGann who most suffered from the quality of the material - although both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy had some poor material to work from, they also got some really good stories ("Trial of a Time Lord" and "Revelation of the Daleks" for the one; "Remembrance of the Daleks" for the other). McGann, though, got one crack of the whip, and was stuck with a dud. Indeed, I was particularly glad to see his appearance in "Night of the Doctor", if only to help redress that balance.

However, where the Eighth Doctor suffers on the screen, he potentially gains in other media. Whereas the spin-off novels, radio plays, and other materials for other Doctors need to fit in the gaps left by the TV series, the Eighth is a blank slate, and so they can do more or less what they like. And, having heard good things about most of these items, I was rather looking forward to this month.

This month's short story is "Spore", by Alex Scarrow. It has a fairly interesting concept: an intelligent virus comes to Earth to determine if we're 'worthy' of continued existence; the Doctor has to try to oppose it.

There's nothing wrong with the story, but there's not really much to recommend it either, I'm afraid. In particular, there's nothing I could see that makes this an Eighth Doctor story; it would work just as well with any other Doctor, at any time he was travelling alone.

This month's novel was "Earthworld", by Jacqueline Rayner.

Unfortunately, this one runs into trouble for the very thing I praised above - because the Eighth Doctor stories didn't need to "fit into the gaps", the powers-that-be decided to build a single, series-long storyline for this incarnation of the Doctor; essentially, they wrote the novelisations for a TV series that might have been. Which is fine, and probably the best way to present that series.

But it suffers a terrible weakness when you pull just one episode out of that series - taken by itself the novel doesn't really work. It's full of fairly specific references to things that happened before, which is good for those who have read the books. For me, it would have been better titled "Confusing Sequel to a Book You Haven't Read".

And so we had a Doctor suffering amnesia not, as I first guessed, because that had been a character trait in the TV movie, but rather due to things that happened in the series to-date. We had a companion constantly referencing those events, while also dealing with an existential crises brought on by things I knew nothing about. And another companion mourning the death of a character we never met.

In context, I'm sure all this was fine. Without the context, it's a big negative mark. They should have chosen something else.

I also found the writing style very jarring - it seemed... lacking somehow. Actually, it reminded me of "Confessions of a Shopaholic" but, alas, not in a good way. The characters' internal monologues seemed to be a froth of irrelevancies and nonsense, more fitted to someone who would shop without ever counting the cost, only to be bailed out at the last moment by a Knight in Shining Armour. Though the novel had those, and they weren't entirely benevolent...

So, I'm afraid I wasn't a fan. Maybe if I'd read the series from the start, and I'd read the series when it first came out, things would be different. As it was, I have to rate this as the weakest Doctor Who novel so far. (The Sixth Doctor has the best novel, followed by the Third. Two, Four, and Five all have pretty good entires, One and Seven are okay, and then Eight.)

For my next trick, I'm going to tackle the Ninth Doctor, the herald of the regenerated show. I'm looking forward to it.

#41: "Earthworld", by Jacqueline Rayner

Monday, August 04, 2014

Bridge of Allan Highland Games 2014

Sunday was not a good day.

It started brightly enough - I woke up feeling pretty good about things, went to Tesco to get the milk I had forgotten we needed, and then LC and I made ready and headed over to Bridge of Allan.

Shortly after arriving, I had an errand to run - the band were donating a prize at these games in memory of our Honorary President, who had died just before our wedding two years ago (in fact, I received the text informing me of it while at the wedding rehearsal). So, I headed over and delivered that.

Meanwhile, we were being entered into the Grade 4 competition. Due to a mix-up with the entry forms, we had only been entered in the Grade 4MSR, which is a slightly different competition, and would prefer to do both. So, that arranged we had a race to get ready.

And then things went horribly wrong. For some reason, we've been having issues with chanter reeds this year, where they seem to have a really short life in the spot between "too hard" and "too easy". In particular, my reed was causing problems with a flat F. So, the Pipe Major adjusted it, making it a little easier. This shifted the problem, so there was now a flat G. So, another adjustment, and again a little easier.

And then, horribly, it hit that "too easy" point, where whenever I started up the drones, the chanter sounded. And this about a minute before we were to go on.

At this point, I expected simply to drop out of that competition - better for the band to do well without me than for me to play and mess it up for everyone else. I wasn't happy at that outcome, for obvious reasons, it's just one of those things.

What actually happened was that the pipe major switched the reed for another one, adjusted it a bit, and we went on. Which was, I must admit, something of a surprise, but a pleasant one. And the performance was... okay. Not great, but about as good as could be hoped I think.

There was then about an hour for our second performance, during which the pipe major tried to get the new reed properly adjusted. Only it just wouldn't quite some in. So it got switched again, and the new reed again wouldn't quite work. More adjustment, and another reed. And another. (I really don't know what's going on there, because it really shouldn't be this hard.)

Anyway, he finally got it sorted (ish). And then the rain started.

(I should perhaps note at this point that we did have our waterproof capes with us. Alas, they were in the car, and we didn't have time to go get them. Yes, we got wet.)

We played again, and the performance was... okay. Though by this point I just wanted to go back to bed and not come out again for a week or two. (And I'm really not looking forward to the World Championships in two weeks.)

The rest of the day was the now-traditional waiting for the march-past. This was made somewhat easier by LC being there, for the first time this season; shame she couldn't have had a better day, but there it is.

The march-past was likewise okay. They're pretty standard by this point, and at least by then we'd got our capes on. Additionally, we had been joined by four of our five learner pipers (and one of our learner drummers), which was nice - good to see the hard work on the teaching front start to bear fruit.

I don't actually have the full results at the moment - they haven't been posted at the time of writing. I do know we weren't in the top four for the Grade 4 contest. For the Grade 4 MSR, we came second overall, which was a stunning result. So stunning, in fact, that we didn't even muster a cheer, it was so unexpected. (It also, coincidentally, meant we won back the cup that we had ourselves donated that morning. Hugh would have been very proud of that.)

(Update: We came last out of 11 in the Grade 4 competition - 11th for piping and 7th for drumming. We came second out of 4 in the Grade 4MSR - 2nd for piping and 2nd for drumming.)

And that was that. The journey home was blessedly quick - the advantage of taking cars rather than a coach. And then an evening of eating pizza, watching part of "Spider-Man 2" and the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games.

There are now three competitions to go this season. I think that, next year, I'll forgo these weekly reports - they're getting too depressing. But then, I don't think that's the reports necessarily.

#39: "Pathfinder: The Slave Trenches of Hakotep", by Michael Kortes
#40: "Pathfinder: Pyramid of the Sky Pharaoh", by Mike Shel