Friday, August 28, 2015

Experimental Cookery 2015 #31: Sizzling Beef Steak with Hoi Sin Prawn and Noodle Bowls

I am never making this one again!

This was another entry from "Jamie's Fifteen Minute Meals", which I'm generally enjoying. However, unlike previous entries in the series, I'm pretty sure I could never get this one down to less than half an hour, even if you don't count the preparation work (which is considerable). The issue is that at one point the method calls for leaving a screaming hot wok unattended while getting something else ready, which I wasn't happy doing tonight and won't be happy doing in future. Plue there were at least two occasions I thought I was about to set myself on fire. It just wasn't a pleasant cooking experience at all.

That said, having survived the ordeal the resulting meal was very nice indeed. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just not enough to do it again.

#42: "D&D: Princes of the Apocalypse", by Wizards of the Coast

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Experimental Cookery 2015 #30: Lamb Meatballs with Chop Salad and Harissa Yoghurt

The third meal taken from the fifteen minute meals was also the quickest so far, clocking in at just under 20 minutes from start to finish. But it meant working very quickly, which wasn't the nicest of experiences.

The meal basically had four parts: the lamb meatballs, which were very nice; a tomato and chickpea sauce, which was also very nice but could have done with a little more chilli; a chopped salad that was okay; and harissa swirled with yoghurt. These items were then combined in a tortilla wrap and eaten like particularly messy fajitas.

It was all very nice, so no complaints there. And I certainly expect to try these again, though perhaps in a slightly more relaxed manner next time!

I'm hoping to fit a second "Experimental Cookery" in this week, though whether that actually happens or not remains to be seen.

#41: "A Slip of the Keyboard", by Terry Pratchett

Monday, August 24, 2015

Competition Season 2015 Wash-up

Oddly, I found that I actually enjoyed most of the competition season this year. It was a lot of hard work, but it was fairly enjoyable. Part of this was simply due to the weather being rather better than we really deserved - despite this summer being rubbish I still made it through without ever getting soaked too badly.

Sadly, the results really didn't go our way. We played eleven events - three Majors and eight Minors. Ignoring the Grade 3 contests we played (where we never had any real chance), we gave fifteen performances (six in Grade 4 and nine in Grade 4A). Out of these, we were in the top half of the contest three times, we were dead centre twice, and we were last four times. In the three Majors we were last once, and third-from-last the other twice. At the Worlds, which was the only competition where we had to qualify, we failed to qualify. And, indeed we weren't even close.

All that said, it's worth noting that this year we had to put together an essentially all-new drum corps - only two of our snare drummers and one tenor drummer were with us last year (and the tenor drummer was out sick pretty much all of last year - good to see her back). We've also had a few changes to the pipe corps, though not as many.

I fully expect us to be downgraded for next year, which probably isn't the worst thing in the world. The timing is somewhat unfortunate, though, as we have a number of learners who are right on the cusp of joining the competing band, and so we're moving down just as they're moving up to join us. Oh well - can't be helped.

So, all in all I'm reasonably happy with our season. But by the same token, I'm glad it's over and I can get my weekends back!

The Edinburgh Pipe Band Championships 2015

For the second year in a row, our final competition of the season was the Edinburgh Pipe Band Championships. This remains a small competition, which is a shame - I still think the venue is ideal for a large event, but it's not good for a small one.

Due to G's birthday, I had to take the car to this event, which had the nice side-effect that I didn't need to get up until 8:15am, which is positively luxurious. It makes such a difference actually getting enough sleep for a change! I did find the final step of the journey quite annoying, though - the signage to the parking was really very poor.

The morning was fairly relaxed, as we're now past the point where the results or even performances actually mattered. This was probably just as well, as neither of our performances were particularly good - as with the World Championships, there was one chanter that was dropping in and out of the performance.

After our second performance I stuck around for a few hours, in order to support our Drum Major in training, who was competing in the afternoon. Though that perhaps was rather pointless - there were only two people in her competition, and the other not only had eight years or experience to her four months, but he was also declared world champion last week. So she came second.

As soon as she was done, I left. I therefore got home just before 4pm, which was rather nice. And the season is over.

In the Grade 4 competition we came 4th overall (out of 9), being 3rd in Piping and 8th in Drumming. In the Grade 4A competition we also came fourth overall (out of 5), being 4th in Piping and 3rd in Drumming. I think we're happy enough with that.

#40: "The Empty Throne", by Bernard Cornwell

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Experimental Cookery 2015 #29: Pork Steaks, Hungarian Pepper Sauce, and Rice

The second meal taken from "Jamie's 15 Minute Meals" was again a success, but again took considerably longer than 15 minutes (more like 30), and again left me wanting to vent my frustrations.

The meal was easy enough, and had the excitement that I finally got to use the slicer attachment on my food processor for the first time ever. Unfortunately, it turned out that this slicer was extremely sharp, and so in the process of getting it out of the cupboard I sliced my finger. Which did very little for my mood.

The second annoyance came with Jamie's "foolproof" method for the rice, featuring a one-part rice to two-parts water ratio which was then cooked gently to absorption. Or to being welded to the pan, actually. AND it resulted in less good rice. Grr.

Finally, I found myself a little concerned about the pork. I'm really not convinced it was cooked enough, and I cooked it for well over the time indicated. Still, neither LC nor I have become sick as a result, so I guess it was okay.

All that said, the meal was still quick and easy to put together. Sure, it took closer to half an hour than the 15 minutes, but part of that was because our kitchen had become horribly cluttered. Anyway, thirty minutes is hardly excessive.

And it tasted very nice, all told. The sauce, in particular, was very nice. So I expect to be making this again.

(Oh, an additional excitement: another new ingredient! This was the first time I've had occasion to add fennel to a meal. It was nice.)

So that's that. I am, of course, now well behind on the Experimental Cookery for the year - by this point I should have done 33. I guess I'll have to try to catch up over the next few weeks.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The World Pipe Band Championships 2015

The penultimate competition of the season was also our biggest challenge: could we do well enough to qualify for the final? It was a big ask, but we'd made significant improvements over the past month so perhaps there was hope...

Annoyingly, the organisers of the Worlds have a policy that all bands have to arrive in the car park by 7:30, regardless of when the band is playing. And so I had to get up at 4:45am in order to get ready on time. Not pleasant. Still, it was immediately obvious that it was a better day than last year.

We got to the park, went to get some coffee, wandered around for a while and then, when the time was right, we got ready to play. Our performance was at 9:50 (ish), so there wasn't actually too long to wait.

The performance itself went very well. Indeed, when we came off we were actually confident - we'd had our best performance of the season, and surely had to be there or thereabouts?

And then I went for lunch, which I had at McDonalds at about 11am. That's the worst part of getting up so early - it totally messes up your mealtimes.

We didn't find out the result until 2:50, shortly before the final was due to start. We hadn't qualified... but that could have meant 7th or 15th. So some of us went to the pub while waiting for the march-past.

The march-past was fine, if a bit tedious. It takes about 2 hours to get all the bands onto the field, during the course of which it became apparent that the decision not to wear jackets was a mistake - it was nice and warm at 6pm; not so warm at 8, and that was only the start of the results.

At the start of the ceremony we were asked not to leave after our grade was announced but instead to wait until the end. This was fair enough, we thought. Until, that is, they later announced that there would be an interview with the pipe major of the winning band. At which point there was a mass rebellion and quitting of the field. It would appear that that was one thing too much to ask.

It was only then that we learned the result: we were 13th overall, out of 15. (13th and 11th for piping, 15th for drumming, 6th for ensemble.) So we weren't even close to qualifying. Indeed, that result, coupled with that performance, begs the question, "why are we even bothering?"

And so it was a very depressing end to what had been a good day.

Anyway, there is now one more competition left, being in Edinburgh this weekend. That was a good day last year, and will hopefully be quite enjoyable this year, too - a nice relaxing day to end the season. At least, that's the hope.

#39: "Captain Corelli's Mandolin", by Louis de Bernières (a book from The List, and also this year's front-runner for Book of the Year)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn

It has been interesting watching the Labour party and the media collectively losing their heads over this whole JC thing. The notion that we might actually get a political party that doesn't sign up to the Blairite consensus is interesting, to say the least.

On the one hand, of course, it doesn't matter to me in the slightest. Firstly, simply because I don't have a vote. But secondly because I live in Scotland, and Labour in Scotland are so horrifically awful that I couldn't consider voting for them even if the other JC was their leader. (And neither of the current leadership contenders are even of the calibre of Jim Murphy, so things won't be getting better any time soon.)

On the other hand, though, it really matters who is Labour leader - realistically, the Labour party are the only hope for getting rid of the Tories (on a UK level; Scotland could, in theory, become independent). The SNP (and other nationalists) can't get the numbers, the Greens are effectively nowhere, and the Lib Dems haven't yet realised that they're dead. A new party could, in theory, do the job, but they'd need the Labour party to be removed from the field to have any realistic prospect, or else they're just one more split in the opposition.

Now, there are two possible ways to win an election. One option (the Yvette/Liz/Andy approach) is to try to win back enough of the people who voted at the last election - if they can be persuaded to vote Labour instead of Tory, the government changes. Huzzah! The other option (the Jeremy approach) is to persuade enough people who didn't vote last time that they should, and that they should vote Labour.

Now, in all fairness to him, Jeremy Corbyn does seem to have done quite a good job of engaging a previously-apathetic electorate. And if he does win, that should further engage people - in the same way that the SNP managed to engage people with the independence debate and have grown in support since.

But... will it be enough? The thing is, the Blairite consensus has had politics largely sewn up since 1997, they have massive media support, and they're not going to let that go. (I should note: "Blairite" doesn't mean "Labour" or even "New Labour". It is David Cameron who is the heir to Blair, and both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband were punished in the media for deviating from that consensus. Just as the Tories would be if they went mad and selected IDS as their next leader again.) If Jeremy Corbyn wins, he'll be subject to a media onslaught that will make Miliband's travails seem trivial by comparison.

If the public are being constantly told by the media, led by the Sun, Daily Mail, and BBC, that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable and would be an utter disaster if he was, will they turn out in the numbers needed to do it? Or will they vote again for a Tory party that merely has to offer more of the same?

Then again, I can't imagine any of the other three contenders even remotely troubling the Tories either. I'm sure they'll put up a fight, but they'll be offering some reheated flavour of Blairism, up against Cameron's Tories doing the same better, then come to an election against (probably) the inexplicably-popular Boris Johnson, all against a hostile media backdrop. So they'll come a close second in a winner-takes-all two-horse race.

So is it better to go for a safe option that leads to another narrow, but inevitable, defeat? Or is it better to take the big risk and take the option that almost certainly leads to a crushing defeat but might, just possibly, lead to a victory? I genuinely don't know.

Monday, August 10, 2015

North Berwick Highland Games 2015

The antepenultimate competition of the season was the one that I missed last year due to the leaky roof. So, I went into it not knowing quite what to expect. In the event, it was a pretty good day, albeit a very long and tiring one. The bus pick-up was at 6:45am, which meant waking up at 5:15 to get ready. That tiredness would cause me to make a crucial mistake...

It was a bright and sunny day, in many ways ideal for a pipe band competition. We went, we tuned up, and we played. The first performance was good. Then, about an hour later, we tuned up again (being much more relaxed this week), and played again. Alas, the second performance was not good, but at least we were aware of that fact.

Then there was significant waiting - not only because we'd finished by 11 but also because this was a particularly long competition. With the World Championships being next weekend, many more bands are attending these smaller events and so they take more time.

At 2pm we did take a break from the exciting waiting to go support our drum major in her competition - this being a new development, as this was only her second time competing. She did well, but was hampered somewhat by being an 8-year-old with four months' experience competing against three 15/16-year-olds with 7-8 years of experience.

The march-past eventually arrived, and took a very long time. It really didn't help that the PA system wasn't working right, so we couldn't actually hear the results. In any event, we didn't win anything, though our DM did get a prize for coming fourth.

The final results were somewhat mixed - in the Grade 4 competition we came 8th out of 17 (7th and 11th for piping, 8th for drumming, and 6th for ensemble), while in the Grade 4MSR we came 12th and last (9th and 12th for piping, 10th for drumming, and 11th for ensemble). Which doesn't bode too well for our chances of qualifying at the Worlds next week, but doesn't make it impossible. (We're in a group of 15, out of which 6 go through.)

After the march-past we went back to the bus, then home... and then straight out again to play a charity gig for a group of bikers. That was a good event, and we got a really good reception, but it did make for a very long day. I eventually got home around 10pm.

Oh, yes, my key mistake: I forgot to put sunblock on. So, having made it thus far through the season without either getting sunburnt or rained on (much), I've managed to turn bright red. Not my best move, obviously. (Although, that said, it wouldn't actually have made much difference, as some of the worst of the sunburn is right on the top of my head, where there's just enough hair left to prevent me applying sunblock while simultaneously not being enough to afford any real protection from the sun. I'm going to have to invest in a hat.)

Anyway, two weeks to go and then the season will be over. And, much to my surprise, it has been a good one.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015


A few years ago, I posted a fairly negative review of the Mayan Apocalypse, noting my disappointment in their efforts in the field of world-ending. Basically, I felt they had too many traffic jams and not enough lava. I also suggested that the baton for world-ending had now passed to the Vikings and their great end-of-the-world blow-out, Ragnarok.

At the time, I was joking, but I was reading on the subject this morning and was reminded that one of the early warning signs was that three years would pass with no sign of summer.

So that's one down, two to go, then.

#38: "Pathfinder: Shadow of the Storm Tyrant" by Tito Leati

Monday, August 03, 2015

Bridge of Allan Highland Games 2015

This was a bit of an odd one. Once again, I had something on in the evening, so I had to go to the event, play, and then come home, which makes for a weird event - it seems that no sooner do I get there than I'm heading home again. Still, it's a bit closer to home than Dumbarton, so it seemed less wasteful than to drive for an hour each way for the sake of 5 minutes playing.

It was a decent day, and we had a good-sized band for the event: twelve pipers, several snare drummers (depending on the contest), two tenors, and a bass. We played twice, once in the Grade 4 contest, and then again in the Grade 4MSR (4A).

What was odd about this one, though, was that the organisers had elected to start the Grade 4 contest in Ring 2 at 10am (we were scheduled to play 6th) and the Grade 4MSR in Ring 1 at 10:30 (we were scheduled to play 7th). This meant that the timings were always going to be tight, since many of the same bands were playing the two contests and so there wasn't much time between them.

But odder still was to come while we were tuned up and ready to go on for our first performance. One of the organisers came up and asked if we were about ready to go on. We indicated that we were, at which point he indicated that there was a band currently on, the next band had dropped out, and so we would be next... except that he gestured towards Ring 1, the Grade 4MSR, rather than to the ring we were expecting to go on to.

(The reason for this was that the Grade 4 contest was running behind. They'd had some late entries, and the rule is that if you enter on the day then you have to play first. Conversely, the Grade 4MSR was running fast, because they'd had some bands drop out.)

In the event, this meant that we went and played out Grade 4 tunes, then we came off and retuned the drones, and then we immediately went on and played Grade 4MSR. Which had a good side, in that we didn't have any hanging about, but a bad side in that we got no chance to practice the MSR tunes before going on. But it did mean I got finished by 11:10, and got home before 12, which was nice.

I didn't find out the full results until this morning. In the Grade 4 contest we came 17th on a piping preference - if there's a tie between two bands, the one with the better piping score gets the nod. More specifically, we came 15th in piping and 20th in drumming, out of 22 bands. Which wasn't ideal, but wasn't too terrible. In the Grade 4MSR contest we came 4th out of 5 bands, scoring 4th in piping and 5th in drumming. An okay result, and another 'place', but not what might have been hoped.

We now have three competitions remaining in the season: North Berwick next week, the Worlds the week after, and Edinburgh on the 22nd. And then we're done. Huzzah!

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Experimental Cookery 2015 #28: Chicken Pasta with a 6 Vegetable Herby Ragu

For my birthday I received a copy of "Jamie's Fifteen Minute Meals", and it's likely that there will be several experiments from this book over the next little while.

This was a quick meal to produce, if somewhat frustrating at times. It took me closer to 25 minutes to put together, even discounting the gathering, washing, and other preparation steps that Jamie doesn't include in his total. Still, that's pretty good going, really, especially if I'd been doing this on a week-night, and especially a band night.

Unfortunately, this didn't go terribly well - by the time the chicken was cooked and starting to burn, the pasta wasn't yet ready, and the nature of the beast was that it really wouldn't wait. In future, I'll need to get the pasta on the hob earlier than the book calls for.

The net result of that problem was that the meal was somewhat burnt when it hit the table. It actually tasted considerably better than I'd expected, and if it hadn't gone wrong I expect it would have tasted much better still. I'm pretty certain we'll be having this again, or at least the pasta sauce which I thought was particularly good.

So I'll give him the win, I think. Though I'm now going to find a video of him on YouTube so that I can vent my frustrations!

Thanks to the month of July, I'm now two entries behind in this series. Hopefully I'll get caught up reasonably soon - certainly I would like to be back on track by the end of this month.

#37: "Pathfinder: Anvil of Fire", by Sean K. Reynolds