Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Coffee Rant

Kenco and Nescafe each produce a fairly wide range of different coffees, each with different characteristics. This is entirely sensible, since different people like different things - by providing a range, they enable people to find the one they enjoy and buy that, and then everyone's happy.

But there's a problem with one part of that process - the bit where people find the one that the enjoy.

The thing is, there's a wide range of different coffees, some of which I rather enjoy and some of which are truly manky. (And, indeed, some that are just plain wrong, but that's enough about decaf.) But the names on the jar don't really help me decide what I want - "Blend 37" is essentially meaningless, and "Rich" and "Smooth" aren't actually much better. "Columbian" is somewhat more meaningful, except that Kenco's Columbian coffee is actually very different from Nescafe's equivalent.

Which means that in order to find the coffee I most enjoy (or, better still, my favourite two so that I have a backup for when Tesco are out of stock and/or I fancy a change), I actually have to try the various types.

Of course, that's not a huge hardship - have a couple of mugs of each type of coffee, see how they go, and all's well. Or so you would think.

But that's not actually an option. Instead, you have to buy a full jar of their coffee, containing forty (ish) mugs' worth. And so you're forced into a crazy game of coffee roulette - buy the wrong one and you're stuck with two weeks of lousy coffee at work (as has happened again this week).

The thing is, it's actually not a hard problem to fix. They already produce individual sachets of at least some of their coffees for use in hotels and other venues. So surely it wouldn't be hard for them to produce a "sample box" containing two of each type of coffee in their range (including decaf, if they must). Sell such a box in Tesco, and people could then quickly sample all the options, pick their favourite (and backup), and stick with those thereafter.

So Kenco and Nescafe: make it so!

#36: "The Vicompte de Bragelone", by Alexandre Dumas

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Scottish Pipe Band Championships 2015

This was a strange competition - due to the need to travel down to Grandad's birthday party on Sunday I had to go to the competition, play, and leave right away. This meant not taking the bus, and meant missing most of the day.

Once again, the Scottish Pipe Band Championships were held in Dumbarton, which seems to have become a near-permanent home for this event. This was the fourth of five majors for the year, but was only our second (we missed both the European and United Kindgom Championships).

The day started bright and sunny. It became considerably worse later, but I'd left by then. I got up, got ready, and got in the car. An hour later, I was there. Half an hour after that, so was the rest of the band.

We made ready, and then it was time for us to play. We were the first band on in our grade, which is a mixed blessing - it allowed us to lay down a marker for others to follow, but also meant that we had no idea of what we needed to beat.

The performance went well, mostly. We suffered a little because of a little drone noise at the start (before they should have come in), and some more right at the end. But the performance between those two was pretty good. And our drummers acquitted themselves well, too, given that our lead drummer was on holiday and so they had to manage without. All in all, though, we were quite happy - including, perhaps surprisingly, the pipe major.

At that point I left, so didn't hear the result at the time. But the eventual result was that we came 11th of 13 (11th and 7th for piping, 13th for drumming, and 12th for ensemble). So, not a great result, but a distinct improvement over the British Championships. And, crucially, without the same sort of meltdown that we experienced at that event. Still, we'll need to play much better if we hope to qualify for the final at the World Championships next month (which, frankly, is unlikely).

We're now nearing the end of the season, and I'm surprised to find that I've actually (mostly) enjoyed it. Things have just generally gone much better than last year, the events at Bathgate notwithstanding. It will be interesting to see how things play out over the winter.

That said, it's been a very long, and busy, season. So I'll be glad once that's done and I can get my weekends back.

Next week is the Bridge of Allan Highland Games, and then there are three more competitions. We finish on the 22nd of August, and then I can have some much-needed rest.

Indyref 2

Over the weekend, we've had another airing of argument over when, or if, there should be a second referendum on Scottish independence. Alex Salmond believes it is inevitable, a view shared by many if not most Scots (including those opposed). Yesterday, David Cameron popped up to rule it out. But in both cases it's largely irrelevant - it's not happening right now, so I'm curious exactly what story the media are trying to distract us from.


My view on this is actually that both AS and DC are right and both are wrong. That is, I'm reasonably sure that there will fairly soon be a referendum, but I'm equally sure that that referendum won't result in Scottish independence regardless of the result.

Here's how I see this playing out: Given the current state of the Labour party, I really can't see them winning any election in the foreseeable future (in Scotland or the UK as a whole). That means we'll have an SNP government in Scotland (and Tory in the UK) for quite some time to come. At some point, Nicola Sturgeon (or one of her successors) will decide the time has come, she'll put the commitment to a second referendum into the SNP manifesto, and they'll win (probably). So far, so good.

At this point, the Scottish government will ask the UK government for permission to hold the referendum, and the UK government will say "NO".

Now, this is the point where people assume things will get interesting - there will be a constitutional crisis, there will probably be a big legal challenge, and it will be determined whether under Scots law it really is the people who are sovereign or not.

Personally, I don't think it will come to that. Rather, I expect there to be a whole lot of bluster, followed by Westminster simply saying that Holyrood can indeed hold a consultative referendum that that they will have nothing to do with it. In particular, there will be no official No campaign, and they will simply refuse to consider the result binding. (At which point, taking their lead from Westminster, the mainstream media will proceed to ignore the referendum almost entirely.)

The referendum will therefore proceed, but it will lose an awful lot of significance. And, as a consequence, Yes will win a thumping majority... but on a very small turnout (say 70% for Yes, but 30% turnout).

At which point... nothing happens. That turnout will be such as to render the result meaningless - it won't be possible to call it the settled will of the people in any sense. By rights, the next stage would be to have a proper, binding, referendum, but of course Westminster won't agree to that (for the same reason they ignored this one), and Holyrood won't be in a position to force the issue. "What are you going to do about it?" will be the key question, and as far as I can see the answer will be "nothing". (This, incidentally, seems to be exactly how things have played out in Catalunya in the last few months.)

There is one exception to this, which is if the result and the turnout come together such that Yes somehow achieve an absolute majority of the electorate (not just those who actually vote). But that's a sufficiently unlikely outcome that I feel safe not addressing it further.

The issue of Scottish independence remains a live one in Scottish politics, and probably will for the foreseeable future. But there's a difference between it being an issue and it actually happening, and I just can't see the latter. We're just too useful as a stick for the Tories to use to beat Labour with for them to consider letting us go.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Back to Work

Bleurgh. Not the best day, on any front. Did summer ever really get started in this country?

This Week's Mug: Okay, this really is the last mug anecdote. LC actually found another two mugs during the redecoration, but I'm not counting these as there's a reason they were hidden away - they're 'display' mugs rather than 'use' mugs.

So, the final mug is a red Starbucks mug that I was given as a Christmas present a couple of years ago by the A team. It was originally half of a set, but the white mug in the set developed a leak and so was thrown away. As a mug, this one is absolutely fine, if not my favourite. However, it does lose some points for being a representative of a company I now avoid where a reasonable alternative exists - something to do with taxes.

And that's the end of that series. Huzzah!

#30: "The Silkworm", by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
#31: "Pathfinder: Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen", by Jim Groves
#32: "Through Every Human Heart", by Janice Brown
#33: "Lord of Runes", by Dave Gross
#34: "Love in the Time of Cholera", by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (a book from The List)
#35: "Firefly: Smuggler's Guide to the Rim", by Margaret Weis Productions

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Update on Goals

Ah, the 200th day of the year, and so another update on goals. Once again, I'm actually away for the crucial day in question, so this is actually being written well in advance. If there's any significant change I'll update when I return.

  • Weight: Not good. A month of being far too busy, getting far too little sleep, and eating far too much junk (and especially drinking too much Coke and Irn Bru) has done me no good at all.
  • Books: By day 200, I should be 32.9 books through my reading for the year. This is the one that's hard to judge in advance - I'm well short of that point at the time of writing, but very likely to have read several books in the interim. My best guess is that I'm probably at or close to the target.
  • Games: Having skipped June and July, I'm still at five sessions done here, two behind of where I 'should' be. My hope is that this will pick up again in August and thus end on target. So I'm not overly concerned here.
  • Work: The last few weeks have been brutal. I can say no more than that, alas.
  • Band: Done.
  • Super Secret Goal #4: In the first two weeks of her holiday, LC has proceeded to redecorate the flat, which is excellent. Obviously, I'm not claiming any credit for that, but it does mean that this goal is right on target.

It's been a rough few weeks, such that at the time of writing I am suddenly behind on three goals, and struggling with a fourth. The likelihood is that most of these will come back together, especially once the competition season ends, but right now it makes for some disappointing reading. Still, I'm hopeful that the next update in September has some better results.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015


LC and I went to see this last night. I'm not going to bother with a full review: the trailers do a good job of letting you know the tone of the film, so if you enjoyed them you'll probably enjoy the film.

I enjoyed it. Though I suspect there will likely be a sequel, and that that will be a sequel too far. But maybe I'm wrong.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Experimental Cookery 2015 #27: Penne al Forno

On Sunday, while we were discussing dinner, LC said she fancied a pasta bake. We therefore chose this recipe, which comes from the Food Network site, and all seemed well. Then LC went out for a huge lunch and decided she didn't want dinner after all.

The penne al forno was therefore delayed until last night. It proved to be an easy meal to make, but the recipe lies blatantly - the headline says 15 mins prep and 15 mins bake, but if you read the detail there's a 20 minute simmer stage and a 30 minute bake in there, and that's not the complete story.

So, the meal was prepared fairly quickly and easily, but I did then have to eat it very quickly in order to get to band in time. Which wasn't ideal. The meal also had too much sauce for not enough pasta, though this was my fault.

It tasted fine, but I doubt we'll have this again. The meal was pretty much just some bolognese sauce with penne pasta, baked in the oven. But we already have a better method for bolognese sauce, so I'm inclined just to do that. Still, not the worst meal in the world, and it certainly looked very nice.

Monday, July 06, 2015

The Riding of the Marches 2015

Tough day this one. For the past month I've been running flat out, with yesterday being my first day with nothing to do for four weeks. So going into Saturday I was already exhausted, and the timing for the competition was such that I had to get up at 4:45, which isn't even a real time.

The early morning was therefore fairly horrible, with my staggering around the place zombie-like. I finally got out, and made my way through the rain to the bus pick-up. Then a long journey south through heavy rain, thunder, lightning... and then finally some better weather.

We then got ourselves ready to play, and everything was sounding really good. Until we actually started, at which point things went horribly wrong - one slide on one piper's drone slipped at the key moment, which meant it was double-toning throughout the performance. And then, at the end, the pipe major simply forgot to stop. Both of which qualify as "just one of those things", but they did mean we might as well not have bothered.

Shortly thereafter we had the parade, as Annan have wisely combined their competition with their gala day (or "Riding of the Marches" as they call it). The parade was fine, especially as the weather had improved.

And then we rushed to play again, this time in the next grade up. The second performance was a vast improvement over the first, being our best of the season, or so we thought.

About five o'clock, an hour or so before the march past, we decided we couldn't wait. The bus driver was allowed only a 15-hour shift, and having started so early he needed to be back by 9pm, which was already tight. And so, we left.

I checked the results yesterday, and they were not good. Out of 7 bands in the Grade 4 contest, we came seventh. Out of 9 bands in the Grade 3 contest, we came ninth. And we were last in every category across the board.

As far as I can tell, there are two possible explanations: either we genuinely the worst of the worst, in which case we might as well just give up now; or we were disqualified because we left before the march past. Which would be better, except that it hardly seems reasonable - it's not as if we didn't have a really good reason for leaving when we did.

Anyway, never mind. It was a rather better day than some we've had, and we were somewhat happy with at least one performance. There are now five competitions to go, the next of which is the Scottish Championships in Dumbarton on the 25th. I guess we'll see how that goes.

This week's mug: This week I'm using the mug I received while in Ireland. It's a blue "hurling" mug, in that it's marked with the name of a county (Tipperary) and comes with a small ceramic replica of a hurling stick. Alas, while on the way to work today the mug rolled over and the stick broke, so I'll have to fix it with a dab of superglue. (But, fortunately, it was entirely symbolic, so no real harm done.)

It turns out that even this is not the last of the mugs, so there will be at least one more mug anecdote. Huzzah!

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Mr Holmes

LC and I went to see this last night. It turned out to be very much not what I'd expected: I had expected this to be very much an "elderly Holmes takes on one last case", when in fact it turned out to be much more "old man deals with the problems of senility". In fact, it being Sherlock Holmes was largely incidental to the whole story

That said, it was a good film, albeit a fairly uncomfortable one to watch. Ian McKellan is great, which is hardly a surprise, and the cast around him do a very good job as well. And it was because the cast were so good that it was uncomfortable to watch - the whole thing just hit a little too close to home.

So, I'll recommend the film, but cautiously. And it may well be one to wait for on DVD/TV/whatever, as there isn't really anything to be gained from the big screen and high-end sound system of the cinema; it will work just as well from the comfort of the sofa.

Next: Minions!

The Birthday Party

Once again, the Earth has made it around the Sun without being hit by a giant asteroid, without the computers taking over, and without reality TV bringing about the end of civilisation, and as a consequence of that I decided to celebrate.

Traditionally, birthdays in the family have been marked by a gathering at the parental home for takeaway. Unfortunately, the last several times this has happened I have found my IBS acting up afterwards, so thought perhaps that a change might be nice. At about the same time I was musing on this, LC and I happened to visit Beecraigs Country Park (just outside Linlithgow), where I found that they have BBQ pits that can be hired for a reasonable fee. And so an idea was born, possibly the greatest idea since...

I therefore told my family that it wasn't for them, at which point the mayor declared that we're twice as smart as the people from Shelbyville, and that I should tell them my idea so that they could vote for it. And so the monorail was born.

Returning briefly from our excursion into "The Simpsons"...

Having settled on this grand plan, I then visited Beecraigs again about a month ago - mostly to pick up some venison mince, but also to book the BBQ. I do like efficiency.

In the days leading up to the event I had some concern about the weather - according to the long-range forecast it was supposed to be nice up until about 6, and then rain. And since we were planning to gather from 6, this was a bit of a weakness. But, undeterred, we got the stuff together, and hoped. Luck was on our side, for the forecast shifted over the weekend, and the night itself was fine.

The BBQ itself went about as well as could be hoped. We had a frisson of concern initially, as the matches failed to light the bags of charcoal, but once that was done we never looked back. And all was well, except perhaps for the dire midges.

(As an added bonus, this provided us with an opportunity to finally try the local butcher, as we'd been intending to do for about a year. Which proved to be another success.)

Not the Last Mug Anecdote!

Last weekend, LC and I were away at a church weekend in Durrow, in the Republic of Ireland. The way this came about is that one of our church's mission partners are in Nenagh, and their church was organising this weekend. However, having not done such a thing before, they were looking for some experienced help running the weekend, and so a team from Scotland went over.

(There is of course an oddity in us having mission partners in Ireland. That's another topic for another day... and probably not one I'll ever get to.)

Unfortunately, we had been slow in arranging travel, which meant that getting reasonable flights was difficult, and indeed that and work commitments meant that our team was split - five members travelled out on the Thursday to Belfast and then drove down, while LC and I flew out late on Friday and then drove from Dublin. Additionally, our flights were hand-luggage only, which was somewhat limiting. (And also, oddly, somewhat liberating - saved me from taking anything I didn't really need.)

The journey out was fairly uneventful, but very tiring. We went to the airport in plenty of time, and therefore (of course) got through security very quickly. We then had some food, waited a while, and went to the gate. The process of actually boarding the plane was painfully slow, but was the only weakness in the journey. Then a short flight, a quick car pick-up, and a drive to the centre, with only one fairly minor wrong turn. All in all, we arrived at 12:40am, which wasn't too bad.

Well, until the next morning, when we had a pre-breakfast meeting at 8am, which meant getting up at 7. Perhaps fortunately, the pre-breakfast meeting turned out to be a post-breakfast meeting, at which we were given a heads-up on what we were doing for the day. Then there were the morning sessions, free time in the afternoon, and then the evening sessions.

I did actually find the various sessions quite difficult. The biggest part of the problem was that all the people in our team of seven had obvious roles - be it ministry, kitchen duties, or crafts. But my special skills are software engineering and playing the pipes, both of which were somewhat hampered (by not having a PC or bagpipes, respectively). So that was a little odd.

One important outcome of the weekend, though, was that I was complemented on all three cool t-shirts I wore. So never again can people pour scorn on my claim that people like my t-shirts. Huzzah!

Saturday night ended quite early, as the events of the month finally took their toll. And then on to Sunday, which had some morning worship, then lunch, and then packing up.

It was odd, but it seemed that no sooner had we arrived than we were already leaving. There was then a three-hour drive to Belfast, and then flights back to Edinburgh. The return flight was the less pleasant of the two, partly because Belfast International Airport is less pleasant than Edinburgh, and partly because Easyjet took us through security quite soon but then had us waiting for ages to actually board the plane. Not good.

It was a good weekend, all told. The folks from Nenagh were all very welcoming, and certainly in fine form. And we found ourselves working with a good bunch of kids, which is always nice. Since they say a change is good as a rest... which is nonsense, of course - so... tired...

The final outcome of the weekend was that we each received a parting gift which, yes, turned out to be a mug! So there shall be one more mug anecdote. Huzzah again!

This week's mug: Despite receiving a new mug, this week I am still making use of my older one, largely because I just didn't have time to pre-wash the new one between getting home on Sunday night (actually Monday morning) and then going to work on Monday.

This week's mug, therefore, is my favourite in all the world. It's a simple black mug bearing the flag of Bretagne on both sides and another symbol of the region opposite the handle. I got this mug at the Festival de la Saint Loup in Guingamp, when the band went there some years ago. I'm not sure why it's my favourite mug, though it does have many fine features (notably, it's just the right size, and the handle is especially comfortable).

#29: "Middlemarch", by George Eliot (a book from The List) Alas, "Middlemarch" took much longer to read than I expected, which means that in June I've moved from being a book ahead of schedule to being behind again. Fortunately, we're still in competition season and I still have some flights coming up, so I should hopefully catch up again this month.