Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Why Isn't the BBC Reporting on Catalonia?

There's trouble brewing in Spain. The Catalan government has decided to hold a binding referendum on independence, in defiance of the Spanish government and the constitution. The Spanish government have responded by laying charges against Catalan government officials, by shutting down pro-independence websites, sending armed police to seize referendum materials, ordering newspapers not to publish any information about the referendum... and even by sending in tanks.

And on the BBC... nothing. There's nothing on their news homepage, there's nothing on the European news page, and nothing on the TV news. Basically, as far as the BBC is concerned, it's not happening.

Now, I've written before that I consider the question of Catalan independence to be a matter for the Catalan people, and I consider that the Madrid government is making a bad mistake in their handling of the whole matter. But I'll readily acknowledge that other interpretations are entirely valid - and in particular, the argument that the constitution needs to be respected is a strong one.

But regardless of your views on the specific issue, what surely can't be denied is that Barcelona is a popular travel destination for Brits going abroad (even this late in the season), and it's the focal point of this whole great mess. That being the case, surely the BBC have the duty to report the facts of the situation, so that people can make an informed choice if nothing else?

So, BBC: what the hell are you playing at? Why isn't this being properly reported?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Competition Season 2017 Wash-up

And so, we get to the end of another competition season. A year ago, I didn't expect to be doing another one of these - I thought we would have been moved long ago, and would probably have left the band at that point. But as it happened, the move wasn't until quite late in the season, by which point I'd committed to seeing out the year.

The season was very much a major/minor split - we had very disappointing results at all four of the majors we attended, but actually had quite a lot of success at the minor competitions. That's very much a step forward from last year (barring one very good result at Forres in 2016), but it's still quite hard to take. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be any prospect of the band being moved up for next year, so my hopes of seeing that done before I leave have come to nothing.

There's actually not much more to say than that. We had some poor behaviour at Forres, and some drunkenness at some other events, but nothing like the disasters of previous years. Which is good, but still not really good enough. But I'm filing that under "someone else's problem".

The other big thing, though, is that the season is just too damn long - far too many events in June, and too many events after the World Championships bring an end to the 'real' season. On the other hand, it does make the decision to leave a no-brainer, as I simply cannot commit to being involved in the band (or indeed any competing band) for the whole of the summer.

Moving forward, my next step is to find a non-competing band to join, so that I retain the motivation to keep practicing, and to do their few events. But I'm done with competition, probably forever.

Innerleithen Highland Games 2017

And now, the end is near.

The last competition of the season was at Innerleithen yesterday. It was a good day, mostly, though the competition itself didn't go as well as might be hoped.

Actually, it's worth noting here that there's a classic mistake that the band always makes. We know that if we play too long in the preparation, our drones get wet and start to go wrong. And so every time we say to ourselves that we're not going to play too much before going on. And then, every single time, we play too much before going on, our drones get wet, and that wrecks the sound.

Oh well.

The day itself was pretty good - it looked like rain, and yet we managed to avoid it. We tuned up, we went on, and we played. The performance was... okay. Not great, and the other band that were up for Champion-of-Champions were markedly better, but it was okay. Then, a bit later, we tuned up and played in the grade above, which was also okay. (That said, both times our Pipe Major, who wasn't playing for health reasons, had a real go at the pipers after the competition. Which I thought was both a little unfair and also wasn't terribly helpful. But it's not my problem any longer.)

And then we came to the march past, the prize-giving, and the street parade. And for all of these, in honour of it being my last competition, our Pipe Sergeant asked me to take the lead, which was very nice of him I thought.

In the event, I had to go collect three prizes - we won the Marching & Discipline prize (not sure how, really), came second in Grade 4B (2nd for piping, 5th for drumming, out of 5), and fourth in the Grade 4A (4th for piping, 3rd for drumming, out of 5). We missed out on Champion-of-Champions, which was not unexpected - it went to Davidson Mains & District, who also won the Grade 4B contest. The truth is that the result wasn't particularly close - although we were second to their first, we were a very distinct second to their clear first.

And that was that - a decent day to end a hard season, and a fitting end to my competition career. And now there is just the AGM, and I'm out. Which is quite a thing.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Peebles Highland Games 2017

The penultimate competition of the season was last weekend at Peebles. The most intriguing aspect of the day was that our pipe major was absent for health reasons, meaning that we were led out by our pipe sergeant. As has been standard for the last month or so, I didn't use the bus but instead took the car across, allowing me to play and then leave.

We played twice, in the Grade 4B competition and then again playing up in Grade 4A. Both performances were okay, if not the very best of the season.

In Grade 4B we came 6th out of 13, being 6th in piping and 3rd in drumming. In Grade 4A, we were 4th out of 7, 5th for piping and 2nd for drumming. So a respectable result, but not a stellar one.

The final competition of the season, and my final competition with the band, will be tomorrow at Innerleithen. I'm looking forward to it... and looking forward to it being done, and another long, long season being over.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Day 250: Update on Goals

We've now reached Day 250 of the year, so it's time for another update on goals. Given the completion of the house move, we have a rather bigger update this time!

  • Weight: The scales came out of storage, and didn't make for pleasant reading. Basically, I'm back to where I started. Sigh.
  • Books: By day 250 I should have read 41.1 books. At the time of writing, I have completed 40 books, so I'm slightly behind here. Additionally, I'm behind on one of the sub-lists, that being the "Culture" novels by Iain M. Banks. Still, none of that is too troubling - I expect to be able to recover any loss before too long, and should end the year at or just over the total of 60 books.
  • Super Secret Goal #4: This was completed on the 4th of August. Hurrah!
  • Part Five: The House: Having assessed the house with a more critical eye, I think we've concluded that two rooms need redecorated fairly promptly. (There are one or two others we'll probably change eventually, but on no fixed timescale - basically, next time we decide to refresh the paintwork, etc, we'll probably go for a different colour, but we won't touch them until then.) In addition, there are several bits of furniture to source or replace, appliances to change over, and a few other sundry things. In short, there's a lot to do!
  • Part Five: Church: LC and I have been recommended to a church in the area. We certainly intend to check that and a few others out with a view to restarting regular worship somewhere.
  • Part Five: Band: The competition season concludes this weekend, and then the band have their AGM next week. Additionally, I have identified a local, non-competing band that looks like my best candidate for a new 'home', in order to keep me motivated to actually practice.
  • Part Five: Gaming: This remains on hold. However, I do hope to get a little gaming in some time this year - I kind of have to, since next year is unlikely to allow for much!
  • Super Secret Goal #5: N/A

So that's one huge goal completed, and another that was abandoned. The rest are in reasonably good shape, all apart from the weight goal, which is just a disaster. So, a fairly positive update all told.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Speaking of Which...

I think I've now reached the conclusion that if you're going to support a football team, it should be the (professional) team closest to at least one of the homes you have lived in. So, for me, the choice would be between Clyde, (Yeovil), Falkirk, or Livingston. (I could probably also get away with Airdrie, on the grounds that they were the closest until Clyde moved their stadium. However, given that they liquidated and then came back...)

An exception would, of course, make sense if there was a personal link to some other club - if, for instance, a family member had played for a given club some time in the past. Which doesn't apply in my case.

In the event that Tadpole decides that he or she wants to support a team, then I'll troop along to the games as required. Though the fact that it would have to be to Almondvale to support Livingston might prove a useful disincentive...

The Transfer Window

Money has pretty much destroyed professional football. The big problem is that the reward for success is large amounts of money, and the route to success is to spend large amounts of money. So, almost inevitably, leagues are rapidly becoming divided into the 'haves' and 'have nots' - where the 'haves' are those with regular access to the Champions' (sic) League.

(It's most notably in countries where only one club has such access, of course - it's not Celtic's problem that they are so far ahead of everyone else in Scottish Football, but it's a big problem for our domestic game and is only going to get worse.)

But probably what bemuses me most about the professional football these days are the absurdly inflated transfer fees... not for the top players, who of course will always attract a massive premium, but rather the absurd fees that are now paid for fairly mediocre players.

Anyway...

I would like to suggest three small(-ish) changes that I'd like to see, and that I think would make a fairly significant contribution to improving the game overall:

  1. The Transfer Window should shut at midnight on the night before the first league match of the season, and there should be no second window in January - the squad of players that you have when the season starts should be the squad you have when you end the season (barring players who are out of contract, that is).
  2. There should be a fairly tight limit to the number of players a club can have registered in their squad for the season - I would advocate that a club should be allowed no more than 30 players in their first team squad. Sure, they can sign more players if they want... but they're consigning some of them to spending the entire season on the sidelines before a ball is kicked.
  3. There should likewise be strict limits on the use of loan players: a club can have no more than 2 loan players in their squad for the year, all loans are for a season exactly, you can't loan a player to another club in the same division, and you can't loan out a player two seasons in succession.

The net effect of all of this will be that the market for the very top players (Ronaldo, Neymar, etc) will go crazy (well, crazier), but that the market for everyone in the second tier will suddenly lose a lot of heat - no longer will the biggest clubs seek to just sign up any and all players of quality (and then loan most of them out), but instead they'll fight tooth and claw for the few players right at the apex. And clubs that currently rely on players loaned from those biggest global clubs will now (a) not be able to rely on those loans, but also (b) will be able to actually sign some of those players (since they're of less use to Man City, Real Madrid, and the like, so the 'value' will be less, and the fee will then be manageable.)

Oh, and is also means that smaller clubs won't be descended on in January by richer-but-underperforming clubs and have their top players ripped away.

Or we could just carry on as we are, with transfer fees nudging £200M for the best (how long until that is £1B? 2030?), the game becoming skewed entirely in favour of the biggest clubs, and the whole thing rapidly becoming unaffordable for the fans.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Sort of Things That Vex Me

When shelving our many DVDs, I of course sorted these into alphabetical order. Or, rather, a semi-alphabetical order where some films are grouped together by a series name (the James Bond films are under 'B', for example). Oh, and "The..." and "A..." don't count, of course!

That worked fine, as far as it went, but it left the question of what to do about films where the title either is or starts with a number. What to do about "300"?

My solution was simple enough: I filed such films according to how the film title would appear if written out long-hand: "300" became "Three Hundred", and filed next to "The Three Musketeers".

Alas, my carefully worked out scheme fell into utter ruin when I found myself faced with an irreconcilable dilemma: how to file "27 Dresses" and "28 Days Later"?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Slowdown

Thus far, my reading in 2017 has been fairly metronomic - five books per month almost exactly, with April and July sneaking in a sixth. However, August hit a bit of a snag, with a meagre three books being finished - "The Power" (which I'd actually started in the last few days of July), "The Secret Garden", and now "Measure of the Magic". Which means that I've gone from being two books ahead to being right on target for the year. (It also means that I'll be entering September behind in one of the sub-lists, albeit ahead in another one.)

The reason for this is superficially simple: with the house move being completed, I've been spending a lot of time sorting things out and so not spending a lot of time reading.

But it's actually a little more complex than that, as it's actually not the case that I've been short on time to read. Or, at least, it's not like I couldn't have found time if I'd wanted.

No, the truth is that I got rather bogged down in "The Secret Garden", and then got really bogged down in "The Measure of the Magic" (which, in fairness, just wasn't very good).

And now I turn to the penultimate book in Iain M. Banks' 'Culture' series, "Surface Detail", and I again find myself uninspired to tackle it. The slowdown looks set to continue a little longer.

I think my plan for the next few weeks will be to set aside "Surface Detail", and instead tackle some of the books in the 'Other' sub-list - I have a few of these in stock, and they'll give me a bit of a break from my sequence. Which isn't ideal, since it means storing up two big 'Culture' books for later in the year, but if it kickstarts the reading again then it will have served a good purpose. I guess we'll see.

(Of course, it's worth noting that some of this is just the general malaise that seems to have started to infect me over the last few weeks - now that the big challenge of the house move is done, and the list of things to do is both annoyingly long and filled with annoying tasks, it's hard to stay motivated. Mostly, I need a holiday.)

#40: "Measure of the Magic", by Terry Brooks

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Tyranny of the To-Do List

Since the World Championships the pipe band season has been on another break (which comes to an end this weekend). As a consequence of this, the big theme of August has, of course, been the unpacking of our possessions in the new house. It's been going very well, but there's a lot of it to do!

However, I made a fairly crucial mistake last week: I took the time to expand my list of "people to notify" into a more general to-do list for things for the new house.

The chief reason that this was a mistake should be obvious: having put together a list of things to do, the pressure is now on to actually do them!

Naturally, the items on the list have several intersecting qualities: some of them are quick and easy, some of them are much longer-term and harder to achieve; some of them are actually fairly enjoyable, and some much less so; and some are much higher-priority than others. (Indeed, some of them have fairly fixed deadlines, while others need to be done... whenever.)

As was inevitable, of course, the highest-priority items are of course the longest, hardest to achieve, and least enjoyable!

I've been trying to console myself with the thought that progress is being made and the list is now moving in the right direction. And also with the obvious thought that the list of tasks hasn't actually changed; it's just that it's now written down. Somehow, though, that helps less than you'd think it should!

Monday, August 14, 2017

The World Pipe Band Championships 2017

Well, it was a nice day. A long day, but a reasonably good one, especially once the sun came out. And that's about all that's the positives dealt with.

Our preparation for the competition actually went well, and our performance was excellent... except for one thing: there was one drone didn't strike up right, which meant it sounded off all the way through. And given just how tough it already was to qualify, that was enough to sink us.

Out of 19 bands in our qualifying group, we came 13th. That was 9th and 12th for piping, 11th for drumming, and 11th for ensemble. Though I should note that I don't think that comes close to reflecting our true position, either based on the competition, our performance, or the judge's sheets - which were extremely positive apart from that one thing. (That I think actually happens is that the judges sort their top eight or so quite carefully, and then pretty much just shuffle the rest - beyond the top eight you're not going through anyway, so who really cares?)

So we didn't qualify for the final, as I had expected. Oh well, I guess there's always next year, for the band if not for me.

There are now two minor competitions left in the season, being Peebles on the 2nd and Innerleithen on the 9th of September. Then the band's AGM on the 14th, and then I'm done.

#39: "The Secret Garden", by Frances Hodgson Burnett (a book from The List)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Worst Experience of My Life

Now that the dust is starting to settle on the house move, I thought I'd write up the tale of what is, now, the worst experience of my life. I should note that I've removed all of the names from this - it is my belief that the various people and companies involved did their level best to try to facilitate this, and that any mistakes and problems were genuinely one-offs. So while I'll most likely not do business with any of them again, I wouldn't want to persuade others to do the same.

Anyway, I would recommend settling in, because this is going to be a long one...

We had been planning to move for some time. Our trigger-point for doing this was always going to be when LC found herself a permanent teaching position, thus allowing us to position ourselves somewhere that suited both our commutes (and, indeed, our continuing family connections). Additionally, the existing deal on the mortgage on the flat expired in February of 2016, which made that a good time to move.

So, when LC found her current job, we were ready to move. And, unfortunately, that's when we made our first mistake - I argued that we should delay the move until a few weeks into the new job, to see how the commute was. If it was fine, we'd move within Falkirk, but if the commute was too much then we'd go elsewhere.

The reason this was a mistake is that there was a change to the law on Stamp Duty that came into effect in early 2016. This had the effect of cutting the legs out from under the buy-to-let market. And since the flat was ideal either for a buy-to-letter or a first-time-buyer (and that market was already depressed), we immediately hit problems.

Then the next disaster hit - when we had the flat valued, our estimate of its value was shattered. I had known that the flat lost a lot of value immediately after I purchased it (because of the financial crash), but I hadn't realised just how much, nor that it basically hadn't recovered at all. The estimate we received was fully £15,000 less than I had paid for the flat.

(That sucked really hard, but wasn't unrecoverable - basically, it meant that our target purchase of "about X" became an absolute ceiling of "no more than X". Plus, it helped that virtually all of that £15k was actually money I had received as a redundancy payment many years previously, and so wasn't really money I'd worked for.)

So, the flat went onto the market in April of 2016, and... nothing. There wasn't so much as a nibble for weeks. Then we had someone book in for a viewing... and a no-show.

Meanwhile, LC and I had found a house that we really liked. We'd made a note of interest, but weren't able to proceed with the purchase. About this time, the house was sold, so we'd lost out.

Around the summer of 2016, we went on holiday to Amsterdam. While there, we decided that we'd try a new approach - we'd look into the possibility of buying a new house, getting moved, and renting the flat out rather than selling.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be a non-starter - those same changes to the rules on Stamp Duty meant that we just couldn't swing it. We'd have found ourselves having spent every penny we had on the new place, being mortgaged to the hilt, and basically at our absolute limits. All of which is fine... unless something goes wrong. And, sooner or later, something goes wrong. (At this time, my parents made the offer of lending us some money to make this work. That would become significant later.)

There then followed a second house that we'd liked but weren't able to buy, and a second 'viewing' that turned out to be a no-show. Also, we reduced the price on the flat even further, which hurt.

Early in October 2016, we had a third viewing. This one looked like another no-show until about two hours after the appointed time, and indeed after we'd given up, I'd done the Tesco shop, and was in the process of cooking lunch. But then our eventual buyer appeared.

Things seemed to move really quickly after that - we received an offer, with the proposed date of entry in November. We had a fairly depressing day looking at houses, and then found one we really liked, we put in an offer, it was accepted, and things looked good. There would be a gap of two weeks between the two dates of entry, but we could live with LC's parents for that period. We got the mortgage arranged, and waited.

And then the delays started. First, the date of the sale was pushed back to the first of December, which actually suited us. But then that was delayed again with no fixed deadline - possibly some time in 2016.

At this point we revisited the question of buying before completing the sale. With a fairly short timescale involved, and with the promise of funds from our parents as needed, we figured that would be okay. But it meant checking with our mortgage lender. Time passed, the deadline neared... and then they said "no".

Disaster!

Anyway, our seller was not best pleased by this - they had had movers booked and had to cancel, losing quite a lot of money. (Later, they would also lose the house that they had wanted, but there wasn't anything I could do about that.)

Christmas came and went, with LC and I living amongst the boxes. It's fair to say that it wasn't the best of times. (Indeed, I'm planning to make a rather bigger production of Christmas this year to compensate - we couldn't celebrate properly last year, so let's do it right this time!)

Come the new year, we had a new estimate on when the sale would happen - the end of January. But when the first of February came, so did a new estimate, again for the end of the month. And then March was the same. And then we stopped asking.

(The explanation for this was down to the complicated ownership of our buyer's previous home - there was a co-freeholder who had to sign the release and who then died during the process. This meant that there was then an heir, who lived overseas, who had to sign off on it instead. It was all a big mess. Plus, I don't think our buyer was happy with her solicitor. Oh, we also had two more viewings of the flat, but neither came to anything.)

Anyway, at the start of May our seller decided that enough was enough, and put their house back on the market. I can't say that I blame them at all - I would have long since given up myself.

Then, near the end of May we received news that our buyer had finally completed her sale, and was ready to buy the flat! Huzzah!

But, wait! There was a wrinkle: she wanted to view the place again prior to renewing her offer. Needless to say, LC and I were more than a little concerned by this: what if she now decided against? What if she offered £10,000 less?

In the event, it was fine. The revised offer was a bit less than previously, but wasn't so bad - we grabbed it with both hands. (Truth is that had the buyer pulled out, we would probably have dropped the sale price another £3,000, which was less than the drop, so it was a no-brainer.) Our buyer's new date of entry was proposed for the 23rd of June, though we were able to push that back to the 4th of July.

At this point I made my next mistake. I sent an email to our solicitor asking, hypothetically, if our seller was willing, would it be possible to pick up where we left off? Our solicitor promptly contacted the seller and told them that we had completed our sale and did want to pick up where we left off. (Note the subtle difference there.)

Anyway, our seller got in touch, we talked it through, and they were happy to go ahead. Reading between the lines, I think they'd just received another offer but for a good bit less than our offer. We settled on a revised date of entry of the 28th of July.

There were two problems with this: (1) we actually weren't as far advanced as our seller through, and (2) our mortgage offer was about to expire.

We contacted our lender to ask for an extension, and settled in to wait. Meanwhile, our seller gave us an ultimatum: conclude missives by the end of the week or they would go elsewhere.

So we scrabbled around, desperately trying to get everything in place. And failed. Our lender again said "no" - they were quite happy for us to apply for a new mortgage, but they couldn't extend the existing offer.

We reported all this to our seller, fully expecting them to go elsewhere. But the rollercoaster took another rise as it turned out their other offer had themselves gone elsewhere, leaving us as the only game in town. Our sellers were not remotely pleased with us, and understandably so, but they were willing to go ahead. (Guilt aside, and trying to be objective, I don't think I personally did anything wrong here - I think some messages got scrambled along the way. That is, a miscommunication rather than any sort of deception.)

We applied for a new mortgage, though not with the original lender - they're not getting my business again. And we settled in to wait...

We now turn our attention back to the sale of the flat. With the dates of the moves being as they are, the team of people we would normally have called on for help were largely unavailable due to holidays. Also, since we'd be living with LC's parents for a month everything needed to go into storage. So we arranged to have a team come and move us out, store everything, and then deliver it.

The very evening we arranged all this, our seller got in touch - they'd found a new house they liked, but could we put back our entry a week, to the 4th of August, to give them time to arrange their mortgage and other things. We had no big problem with this, especially given the hassle they'd already faced, so we readily agreed.

The next few weeks were then manic. We waited for our buyer to conclude her missives, which seemed to take forever. Apparently the two sets of solicitors were arguing over some wording in the offer letter, though neither we nor our buyer actually knew what was going on - some legal thing.

Eventually, we concluded on the Thursday before the move. Huzzah!

(Never mind that that was hugely nerve-wracking. The email came through while the movers were in actively packing everything up. I dread to think what would have happened had it not gone through for any reason!)

We completed out move out of Falkirk on Saturday the 1st of July, then returned on the 2nd to give the flat a final, serious clean (which is much easier when there's nothing there). Then, on the 4th of July the sale concluded, and we were done. There was then a week of some unease as our buyer had a chance to find something wrong with it, but nothing came of that. We were done! And so we returned to the waiting for the mortgage to come through...

And wait...

Some weeks later, our seller got in touch again - why hadn't we concluded yet? After all, they'd managed to get their mortgage in two weeks!

So I got in touch with our agent, and finally got news back. Firstly, could we please sent up-to-the-minute bank statements to the lender for further evaluation. Secondly, the lender's estimate put the value of the house some £5,000 less than expected (due to the year between the previous estimate and the current). So we'd have to put in a greater deposit or accept a worse interest rate. (That's actually not a problem - we had the money, now, and borrowing less means paying less back... especially given the joys of compound interest.)

So we sent across the bank statements, and waited. Only to be told that one of the statements was no good - we'd sent it as a .CSV file (that can be opened by any spreadsheet tool, such as the ubiquitous Excel), and they wanted a .PDF. Sigh. So we sent the new file, and waited...

A week later, we got in touch again. Time was running out; what were they playing at?

Well, it turned out that they'd received the file, added it to their records... and forgotten to untick the "waiting for statements" box in the database. So they were waiting for a bank statement that they'd already received. Gah!

After the second call, that all got unlocked, and the verbal offer was made almost immediately. Then, on the other side of the weekend the paperwork came through. And all was fine. Surely now we could conclude?

(Another fun wrinkle: both our solicitor and the agent who applied for the mortgage for us went on holiday while all this was happening. Fortunately, we were left in good hands, though one of those was also about to get interesting...)

About this time, my parents returned from their annual holiday to France. However, my father returned desperately ill. I can't imagine why that detail might be relevant...

As part of the anti-money-laundering regulations, solicitors are required to verify the source of all funds used in purchasing a property. So ten days before the date of entry, we sent statements to our solicitor detailing that. But come the Thursday, there was still no sign of concluding the missives. What was going on?

Well... it turned out that the trainee solicitor who was dealing with our case wasn't authorised to sign off on the bank statements. So she'd left our solicitor an email asking her to do this as soon as she got back, on the Tuesday before the move. Naturally, I pushed back on this - I didn't expect any issues, but if there were any then we really needed to have some time to fix them.

So she had another one of the senior people at the firm look at the accounts, and sure enough there was an issue. Way back in November, in preparation for the buying-before-selling part of the plan, my father had transferred lots of money to my current account. At the start of April, I'd then moved it to my ISA, since it didn't make sense to leave it in a non-interest-paying account when it should be earning interest (and since that was the cut-off for the annual ISA limits).

Now that's fine - all that would be required would be for my father to go to his building society to get a statement showing the money leaving his account, and also to sign a statement indicating that it was a gift not a loan, and that my parents would own no equity in the house.

Oh, except that Dad had just come back from France desperately ill.

And that was the moment where the system broke me. The house move had already long-since reached the point of being my #1 worst experience ever, but that was the point where I concluded that it just wasn't for happening - even if we somehow got this mess sorted out, surely there would be another fuck up that would defeat us. It didn't help that I hadn't slept well in some weeks, had already had one night with no sleep at all that week, and then had another. Indeed, I'd reached the point where I could barely compose a coherent sentence - kept the words up getting jumbled.

Friday 28th July. A day so tough that I actually got sent home from work early out of fear that if I waited any longer I might fall asleep at the wheel and come to a terminal end. I phoned the trainee solicitor first thing, and we went through the details of the transactions - how the money in question wasn't being used, how we probably wouldn't even be using that account, how I could provide statements for my current account trivially, but that getting statements from Dad's accounts would be much more difficult. (Of course, if it had been absolutely necessary, I'm sure Dad would have rallied himself enough to go get the documentation we needed. I can't imagine that would have done him any good, but it would have been done. There are a couple lessons in all of this that haven't been lost on me.)

Well, she thought that would almost certainly be okay. They were really busy that morning, because of that week's moves all concluding, but she'd check with her senior colleague and get back to me, probably that afternoon. Cool.

Having not heard back by 4:45 that afternoon, I gave them another call, only to be reminded that they close early on Fridays. Aaaaargh!

Still, I managed not to worry about it over the weekend. There was just too much, so never mind. I was now past caring - if it didn't happen then it didn't happen.

Eight thirty on Sunday evening, we suddenly received two emails from our solicitor, newly returned from holiday and back on the case. The first of these was the last bit of documentation for us to sign and return (the original only, please - email wouldn't do it). And the second was authorisation to transfer the money, plus the details we needed. Huzzah!

And so, into the last stretch. LC went to her bank and transferred the money, getting the printed and signed receipts that the solicitors needed. Then she hand-delivered all the remaining documentation to their offices, thus removing even the Royal Mail from the chain. And I was able to reply to yet another deservedly-frantic enquiry from our seller with news that we were done on our end, and were expecting to conclude imminently. Four days to go...

Those final four days were very nervy, but they actually worked out okay - we finally concluded the missives with about a day to spare, we finally had word that the money had transferred, and everything finally settled.

Compared to all that, the move itself was a breeze - I got the key at mid-day, the movers arrived at one, and they were done by half two.

And... relax.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Lasagne Principle

One of the big mistakes my parents have made (especially in their old kitchen), and a mistake that LC and I had crept into in the flat, concerned the kitchen: the kitchen is probably the hardest-working room in the house, but we'd managed to fill it up with huge amounts of stuff that basically never got used. In our case, it was a huge number of mugs that we (well, I) don't want to get rid of, but which do nothing but take up a lot of space.

The kitchen in the house is actually smaller than the one in the flat. However, I'm determined that it will have more usable space, largely by adopting what I'm dubbing "The Lasagne Principle".

The principle is fairly straight-forward: anything that doesn't get used pretty frequently must be stored somewhere else. For the moment, I don't care if that's the garage, the utility room, on the dining table, or whatever else - just get it out of my kitchen.

As for "The Lasagne Principle": we have a lasagne dish that gets used somewhat infrequently - basically, every time I make a lasagne al forno, which isn't terribly often (maybe once or twice a year). That will be our cut-off point - if something is used at least as often as the lasagne dish, it can stay; if not, it needs to go.

(All that said, it looks like the Lasagne Principle is about to fail at the first hurdle - the net effect of this is that we'll have huge amounts of kitchen equipment that has been banished and a fairly large amount of unused storage space in the kitchen! So maybe the cut-off point will end up being eased a little... though "The Slow-Cooker Principle" just isn't as catchy...)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

North Berwick and Bridge of Allan Highland Games 2017

In the competition season, there always seem to be a few weekends where we have two competitions in one weekend (and, more commonly, a gala day and a competition). I always hate those weekends - it doesn't feel like you get a weekend at all. So, naturally, this year saw the one and only two-competition weekend falling on the weekend of the house move. (Of course, I didn't think I could just opt out - we have the World Championships on Saturday, so really need to be pushing things hard for the next few days.)

In both cases, I went to the event, played, and then rushed away to do other things. In both cases this was a wise decision, as the march-past was cancelled each time. On the other hand, given the performances (and results), I needn't have bothered.

At North Berwick, our preparations were broken up significantly by us constantly being moved - while mid-way through tuning up we were told we were standing where cars were going to park imminently... and then the stewards kept telling us "you can't play there". Which sucked.

Still, that wasn't the real issue. Once again, we thought we were good to go, only to get to the line and have a bad start. After that it was mostly fine, but that bad start was enough to force us out of the prize list.

Out of 17 bands in Grade 4B, we were 5th overall (5th and 6th for piping, 5th for drumming, and 3rd for ensemble). Given the size of the competition, we were not able to play up at that event.

Bridge of Allan seemed to be a much more pleasant prospect, in that our preparation was uninterrupted. Still, we found a lot of people were having problems with drones due to the moisture, while I found my hands cramped up due to the cold (which was not fun).

Unfortunately, both of these performances were just bad from start to finish. There's no one thing to point at - it was just a bad day of work.

In the Grade 4B contest we were 9th out of 16 bands (8th and 12th for piping, 2nd for drumming, and 8th for ensemble). In the Grade 4A contest we were again 9th, this time out of 12 bands (7th and 7th for piping, 8th for drumming, and 12th for ensemble).

All in all, a poor showing for our work, and perhaps the worst possible preparation for the World Championships on Saturday. And given that we were already going more in hope than expectation, that does not look too good.

Oh well. Three to go - and 32 days until the end of the season.

Friday, August 04, 2017

The Best Line in a Bad Film

The 2011 version of "The Three Musketeers" (the version with the airships) is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination. I found it highly entertaining, but I certainly wouldn't call it 'good'. (That said, the makers of musketeer movies are always up against it - the Reed/York version is definitive.)

Anyway, much as it's not a good film, that version does have a number of good lines. IMO, the best of these is from Cardinal Richelieu as he finds Rochefort practicing his swordsmanship:

"The wonderful thing about fighting an imaginary opponent, Captain Rochefort, is that he is always greatly skilled, yet easily defeated."

I can't think why the latest book I've finished reminds me so strongly of that particular comment...

#38: "The Power", by Naomi Alderman (dear oh dear...)

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Project Tadpole is a Go!

We're still waiting for the house sale to complete, after which I will post at great length about how that all went down (the post is just about written, and it's an epic, but I'm sure there's still time for a couple more twists...)

Anyway, in the meantime there's the other big news in the world of Steph/ven and Lady Chocolat. Which, incidentally, is also why we're currently in Part Four (and a Half) and will remain so for the next few months:

We've known about this for a few weeks, but obviously couldn't share it here until we'd informed family first. Also, we wanted to have the twelve-week scan first. That scan was on Tuesday, and so now we can share the news. It's pretty exciting!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Fast Food and Cheap Food

Today in the Observer, there's an article suggesting that we should rename "fast food" as "cheap food", thus better identifying why it is that people buy it. The comments on the article, predictably, note that fast food is in fact not cheap, and that instead it is cheaper to cook the same meal at home.

The thing is, both of these things are true, indeed are true simultaneously. It is indeed true that fast food is not all that cheap, and that it would be far cheaper to buy all the ingredients and make the meal yourself... if you're starting from a position of knowing how to do all that and having all of the requisite equipment in your kitchen. From a standing start, though, it's much cheaper to spend £5 on a McDonalds, or indeed £20 on a McDonalds for four, than it is to buy everything you need to equip a kitchen to make yourself burgers and chips.

In the long run, of course, it's far better, and cheaper, to make the investment in a reasonable set of kitchen equipment, learn to cook, and then produce most of your own meals cheaply, quickly, and healthily.

Which, of course, brings us back to the Sam Vimes "Boots" Theory of Socio-economic Unfairness - having the time, knowledge, and equipment needed to cook all your own meals at home requires an investment that the rich can make easily while the poor cannot, which means that the rich person gets to eat home-cooked meals most days. Those meals are typically better quality and tastier, meaning that the rich get to enjoy their food more and live longer, healthier lives.

And the poor get to enjoy the privilege of paying more for this lower quality of life (measured over a lifetime).

Perhaps the worst part of all that comes when you ask the reasonable question: "how do we fix this"? Because, sadly, the answer is "we can't". The sad reality is that the rich will always have the ability to make strategic investments that allow them to (a) enjoy a higher quality of life and (b) pay less in the long run.

(In the case of cooking meals, we can at least make a few inroads - we could prioritize the preparation of food as schools, thus ensure everyone leaves at least knowing how to knock up a few cheap and healthy means, and we could insist that all houses that are built and/or properties for rent must have adequate facilities. That would at least reduce the inequality a little... but it does nothing any of the other examples.)

Ultimately, those inequalities are probably just inherent in a capitalist society.

Although... it's always worth bearing in mind that even if all we can do is nibble around the edges of the problem, it's still probably a good thing to do that - the result might not be much, but at least it is something.

The Scottish Pipe Band Championships

According to our former MP, Eric Joyce, Falkirk is the constituency in Scotland that most closely resembles the country as a whole - that is, in terms of demographics and economics, we're proportionately as close to the whole of the country as anywhere. That being the case, it's probably fitting that Camelon & District, being a Falkirk-based band, so closely resemble Scotland as a whole's sporting prowess - typically oscillating between humiliating disaster and the most narrow, painful defeat, with the occasional minor success, just to keep the flame of hope painfully flickering...

Yesterday was the Scottish Pipe Band Championships, and it was another of our narrow, painful defeats. Following the Europeans, we had put in a lot of hard work to adjust our style and to tighten things up. And following our successes last week, we were confident of a success. Of course, it being a major championship there was a need for us to pass a qualifying round, but with 6 bands out of 14 going through, surely that couldn't be a problem, could it?

Well, I think we know the answer to that one!

Actually, I didn't think the performance was particularly bad - it seemed to be at a nice tempo, it seemed to start pretty well, and all in all I thought it was okay. Though many of the other people in the band didn't seem to think so - when we came off the mood was pretty depressed.

In the end, we were 7th out of 14, missing qualification by a single place. We were 9th and 7th in piping, 3rd in drumming, and 8th for ensemble. (That said, although this sounds like a narrow defeat, it's not all that narrow - that gives us 27 points, where the bands that were fifth and sixth scored 21 each. So we would have had to be significantly better to nudge one of them out.)

The one mote of good news in that was that our failure to qualify meant that I was able to head home early, and so avoided a fairly cold and unpleasant afternoon. But that's scant comfort - I would much rather have been there.

Oh well. Five competitions to go to the end of the season, including one major. Alas, there's little chance of us qualifying at the Worlds, given that only four of twenty bands go through. But that's okay - gives us a chance just to enjoy the remaining few weeks.

#37: "Matter", by Iain M. Banks

Monday, July 24, 2017

Stay on Target...

We've moved another step along the road to finally completing the epic of the house move... our mortgage offer finally arrived in the post today. (We'd received verbal notice that it had been approved on Friday, but my position through all of this is now that I won't believe something is well and truly done until I see it...) We need to check it over, just in case of any nasty surprises, and then I think we can conclude the missives, and then transfer the money, and then...

But the timescales are now becoming ever-more concerning. There are now only a few days before we pass a threshold beyond which it's not possible to finish all the paperwork in time. And, of course, there's the ever-present threat that something may yet go wrong...

Needless to say, I'm getting a bit twitchy!

Still, that's another positive step. With a lot of luck, we're now just eleven days from the end of the road. But I'll celebrate then, and not until!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Burntisland Pipe Band Contest 2017T

The pipe band season restarted this weekend with a trip to Burntisland. It was cold, wet, and miserable... but also surprisingly successful.

Our day began early - following the debacle at Forres our Pipe Major decided the thing to do was to travel over early and have a very long preparation. Unfortunately, this did not go to plan as the rain meant that spending a long time tuning up would ruin the pipes (until they then dried out, at least), so we instead hid within our gazebo until the last minute.

Anyway, we played, and it was... okay. But no better than okay. We actually started really well, but the phrasing in the third tune seemed to go (classic mistake, that), and bad blowing crept in as we went on. So, many of the things we'd been being told about all season. Still, it wasn't terrible - just a shame that we know we can do better.

Then we waited for the 4A contest, in which we were first. Again, we had an extremely curtailed preparation, and then on. This was a little better, mostly, although my fingers decided to cramp up half way through the last tune, which wasn't good. Still, it wasn't terrible.

And then there was a lot of waiting. In the event, the organisers decided to scrap their planned parade through the town, and instead have a very short prize-giving at three. I can't say I was sorry about the chance to get home, and get warm, rather sooner than expected... but I did feel bad for the organisers who had clearly put in a lot of effort, and spent a lot of money, only to see it washed out.

Anyway...

Our drum major did exceptionally well, coming 2nd (out of five). Even better, not only was the one person who beat her the current reigning World Champion, but he's also not really in her grade at all - in the minor contests the Juniors and Juveniles are merged together, with our drum major being in the Juniors and the other being in the Juveniles. So that was good.

Then, in Grade 4B (our grade) we came first! Yep, our first outright win in a very, very long time. (And, since LC felt the need to ask, it was out of six bands.) We came 1st (!) and 2nd in piping, 1st (!) in drumming, and 1st (!) for ensemble. Oh, and we also won an award for the best bass section in the contest. Huzzah!

In Grade 4A, we came... first! This time it was out of five bands, two of which were 4B bands playing up, and three were grade 4A bands. So that was quite a result. This time, we were 1st (!) and 2nd for piping, 2nd for drumming, and 1st (!) for ensemble, making this one of very few times that the pipers have helped elevate the band's overall position - usually, it is the drummers carrying the rest of us.

So, yeah, that was a rather decent result!

Next week is the third of our four Majors of the year, being the Scottish Championships at Dumbarton. That's another one where we have to qualify before the final, with six out of sixteen bands in each qualifying group going through. That's a big ask, but if we get a good run this week, and if the band has been lifted by this result (as it should be), then maybe...

Certainly, it's all looking a lot more positive than it was after Forres.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Our Last Bit of Extra Time

It's quite a thing to think that Terry Pratchett has been gone two years. Of course, part of that is that being dead seems to have barely slowed him down - in those two years we've seen the release of the final Discworld novel, two "Long Earth" novels, and two short story collections.

But, alas, today was the end. I finished up the last of eight Pratchetts I've read since 2015, "The Witch's Vacuum Cleaner", a few minutes ago. And there is no more. It was a good book to end on... but it's still sad to think that there is no more to be had.

I did actually consider stopping just short, and perhaps refusing to turn that last page entirely. But I'm a great believer in the notion that it will be all right in the end (and if it's not all right now, that's because it's not yet the end). So I turned the last page, and came to an end. And it was, indeed, all right.

Still, as I wrote once before: Ook!

Thank you Sir Pterry. It's been fun.

#36: "The Witch's Vacuum Cleaner", by Terry Pratchett

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Day 200: Update on Goals

And so we reach Day 200...

  • Weight: Nothing to report here. Our scales are currently packed away in storage, so there will be no news until we get to where we're going!
  • Books: By day 200 I should have read 32.9 books, so I'm in a good position here. As noted in my previous update, I've had to rejig my reading pattern somewhat to reflect the "Pathfinder Tales" line being put on hiatus, but the rest of the sublists are proceeding apace, and I've added more "New Books" to fill out the total. My expectation for this year is to be very close to the 60-book target, rather than well over it as was the case last year.
  • Super Secret Goal #4: We moved out of the flat at the start of July, and are due to move into the new house on the 4th of August (just in time for LC to be out of the country). So, by the time of the next update I expect to be able to report the completion of this goal. I'm very much looking forward to this all, finally, being done.
  • Part Five: The House: This remains on hold, though hopefully not for much longer.
  • Part Five: Church: Likewise, this remains on hold.
  • Part Five: Band: The second half of the competition season is about to start. My decision is now made - I'm going to see out the rest of the season and then leave at the AGM. I'm not inclined to go seek out a new band to join, at least for the foreseeable future - I'm inclined instead to play purely for my own enjoyment for the next little while.
  • Part Five: Gaming: This remains on hold.
  • Super Secret Goal #5: As noted earlier in the year, I decided not to pursue this goal, taking a different direction instead.

So... things are finally moving on the housing front, which is fantastic news and a huge relief. My hope is that for the next update I'll be able to report the completion of that goal, and solid progress on the four linked goals.

On the other goals, things continue to go well with the books goal, but are going badly on the weight goal. So I guess I know what my priority is for the next little while... though I've said that before.

#35: "Pathfinder: Prisoners of the Blight", by Amanda Hamon Kunz

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Well Done BBC (not)

There are few things I dislike more than pre-announcements. If you have something to say to us, please just say it. If not, don't bother telling us that you don't have anything to say.

But one of the few things that I do dislike more than just pre-announcements are vague pre-announcements. Such as, just to give a completely random example, "we're going to announce the new Doctor directly after the Men's final at Wimbledon" - an event that might take anywhere between 2 and 24 hours to complete. So, effectively, you're telling us that you don't have anything to tell us, but that you will have something to tell us at some indeterminate time in the future... and you can't tell us that, either.

Grr.

Anyway, as it happens I don't mind watching the Wimbledon final, or at least the last bit - usually, it's a pretty good match between two superb athletes at the top of their game. Granted, it wasn't so good this year, as poor Marin Cilic was carrying an injury that meant he couldn't perform to his best. A real shame, but nothing can be done about it.

So Federer won, and well done to him - he's perhaps the single greatest tennis player in history, he's still one of the very best, and he's a fine champion.

And that, right there, is about all there really is to say about the match. Because it wasn't a classic for good, albeit sad, reasons, but Federer is a fine champion. Right, on to the announcement, yes?

Alas, no. Because the BBC felt the need to then spend 30 minutes giving us a content-free analysis of the match, of Federer's legacy, and other endless waffle about nothing. And, I'm sorry, but it was waffle about nothing - basically, everything they said about Federer was something they'd already said about Federer last time he won Wimbledon, as has happened plenty of times - he's just that good.

(I particularly enjoyed Tim Henman's analysis of why Cilic went wrong - his argument being that the emotions just got on top of him. Um, okay. The small problem being that that wasn't why Cilic lost. Shockingly, he lost because he was carrying an injury while playing the best player there has ever been.)

The upshot of all of this is that by the time the BBC finally got around to passing on their big news I just didn't care any more. Which I'm assuming wasn't what they were shooting for. (I'm guessing they'll probably put that down to the emotions getting on top of their trailer-making team. Since it was obviously that, and not their endless waffle about nothing, that caused the problem. Or something.)

Oh, as for the announcement itself: I'm sure Jodie Whittaker will do a fine job in the role. I'm not conscious of having actually seen her in anything - I haven't seen "Broadchurch", and although I have seen most of "St Trinians" I'm not sure she stood out (plus, I'm not convinced "St Trinians" will be at the top of anyone's list of top roles). But then, I wasn't really conscious of having seen David Tennant or Matt Smith in anything prior to DW, and they both did exceptionally well.

So, that's that. Fine news rather marred by inept handling. Well done, BBC.

#34: "Bearers of the Black Staff", by Terry Brooks

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Morning Practice

For various reasons, I'm not able to practice at LC's parents' house. And my pipes need to be played every day (or very close to it) or they really start to suffer. Consequently, in a bid to solve that little conundrum, I've been taking my pipes to work and practicing first thing in the morning.

Which mostly works - I'm usually the first to arrive, and so slotting in a ten-minute practice before 8 generally means I'm not affecting anyone. At least, that's the hope.

All of which is just as well, because the noise from the pipes is loud, especially in the warehouse in which I'm practicing - normally, I use a hall with wooden flooring and rafters, or a room filled with furniture, but at the moment I'm using an empty warehouse with metal walls and fittings. There's nothing to absorb the noise, and the echoes are fierce. Indeed, once I stop playing at the end of a set it takes a second or so before the echoes die down. So even through a fairly thick wall into the office proper it must be pretty noisy... not that that matters if I'm the only one here.

This morning, though, was a bit different. One of my colleagues plays the guitar and has been rather obsessed with trying "Mull of Kintyre" for quite some time. And with my being in early to practice, he's been especially keen for the last two weeks. So this morning was, finally, the day.

Naturally, today was also the day that it seemed half the office decided to come in early, only to get subjected to us playing a tune we'd not tried before, that wasn't played terribly well, and that was repeated again, and again... and again.

Which wasn't ideal. Thus far, we've escaped the complaints. I do hope that doesn't change, because while I do have a backup backup practice location, it's even less ideal than the office first thing in the morning...

#33: "Madame Bovary", by Gustave Flaubert (a book from The List)

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Some Stuff About Doctor Who

For the most part, I very much enjoyed this year's series of "Doctor Who", although I did feel that the BBC gave far too much away in their "Next Time..." segments. Overall, this was Peter Capaldi's best series, and Steven Moffat's second best (his best being the first Matt Smith year).

But I didn't like the finale. Or, rather, I didn't like the last few minutes of the finale, and particularly the resolution of Bill's story.

My issue with it is not really what happened (which was indeed foreshadowed, and did make at least a little hand-wavey sense), but rather how it was handled - Moffat pulled back in a very minor, seemingly throwaway character from the first episode, who Bill had a little bit of a crush on, and used her to magic away all the problems?

Yeah, that's not good.

For what it's worth, I think they'd have been better placed to feature Heather more prominently in the series - introduce her in episode one, have her become Bill's on/off girlfriend, and then have her become The Pilot. That gives her a stronger involvement in the story and, more importantly, an actual bond with Bill (beyond a little flirting that really goes nowhere). Plus, conveniently, it mirrors what happens to Bill just a few episodes later...

But most of the rest of the episode was fine. I very much enjoyed the interaction between the Master and Missy, and much as I'll miss the latter it was a fitting end to her story. And I'm really excited to see the First Doctor back, even if just for a little while. (Interestingly, it appears that his appearance is right at the end of his timeline, which suggests that the Christmas episode will feature the First and the Twelth both coming to terms with their impending regenerations. It does occur to me to wonder whether Susan might also make an appearance, given that the First did promise to go back to see her and, as far as I know, never has...)

Anyway, that's that.

In light of Capaldi's tenure coming to its end, I've also given a little thought to his placement in the overall scheme of things. Back in 2014 when I rated the Doctors, I placed him tenth, above only Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Three years on, though, I'm inclined to rate him more highly - Capaldi's acting has undeniably been very strong, and some of the best material he has been given is very, very good. (He's also had some rather weak stuff to deal with, too, such as last year's Christmas special, but that's true of all the Doctors.)

So, I'm inclined to push him up a few notches - just above Christopher Eccleston and after Peter Davidson, making him fifth. (Had Eccleston done more than a single series, it's likely that he'd move up a notch again; it's all a bit wibbly.)

Finally, on the question of Who should be next?

Personally, I'm leaning towards Tamsin Greig as my choice, if she'd take the role. Between "Black Books" and "Green Wing", she's clearly got the comic timing and the ability to do the slightly zany character that is required. Of course, part of my reason was that she'd previously worked well with Michelle Gomez on "Green Wing", which is no longer valid, but never mind.

(Incidentally, on the topic of a female Doctor... while I don't subscribe to the notion that the new Doctor must be female (or black, ginger, etc), or even to the notion that the Doctor must ever be female (...), I equally can see no reason at all why the Doctor should not be. Unlike James Bond, the character really could be anyone, so find the best candidate and offer him or her the role.)

#31: "Pathfinder: Siege of Stone", by Thurston Hillman
#32: "The Long Cosmos", by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Saturday, July 01, 2017

The End of Part Four

By the time you read this, LC and I will have (or will be very close to having) moved out of the flat in Falkirk. I've been there a little over eight years, that being fully a fifth of my life, and LC has likewise lived here just over five years. It's also the first home that we've shared together.

It's a bit of a strange feeling, that we're now finally nearing the end of this journey. And it is a little sad... but only a little. I suspect I'd be more bothered if we'd sold the flat really quickly, rather than having to endure the last eight months or so.

I'm rather more sorry to be leaving Falkirk, which has generally served me well. But, on the other hand, I'm sure Livingston will do just as well. It's not as if I knew all that much about Falkirk before I got here.

And that's about it, really.

Except for one question: if Part Four is at an end, does this mean Part Five begins? Well, not quite. Because we're moving in with LC's parents for a time, this isn't really the start of Part Five. Rather, there's a gap between the two.

So, really, this is the start of Part Four and a Half...

See you on the flip side!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Final 50

Last night I finished my thirtieth book of the year, which takes me to halfway through my planned reading for the year. Perhaps more significantly, the novel that I finished, "She's Come Undone" (good book, by the way), was a book from The List, taking me down to a total of 50 books remaining. (Technically, it's actually 49, as the List contains both "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" and "Hamlet". But let's not dwell on that.)

That means that, at the current rate, I should finish up the list in July of 2021.

As I've mentioned before, The List is actually made up of a merge of two other lists, one British and one American. Of the books that remain, 6 appear on both of these lists, 11 only appear on the British list, while 33 only appear on the American one. (My suspicion is that many of the books that remain earned their place by being recommended by either Oprah or Richard & Judy for their respective book clubs. I'm not sure whether I find that amusing or sad, though in fairness many of the recommendations are pretty decent.)

My inclination for the next couple of years is to fucs quite heavily on the books that appear in the British list, finish that, and then turn my attention to the American version. Whether that actually happens or not will remain to be seen, of course.

In case you are particularly interested, the full listing of the final 50 is below. (Fair warning: If you're not interested, that's the end of the post!)

  1. Anne of Green Gables (LM Montgomery)
  2. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
  3. Complete Works of Shakespeare
  4. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald)
  5. The Stand (Stephen King)
  6. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)
  7. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
  8. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
  9. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
  10. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
  11. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
  12. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)
  13. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
  14. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
  15. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M Auel)
  16. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
  17. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
  18. A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth)
  19. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
  20. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
  21. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
  22. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
  23. Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
  24. On The Road (Jack Kerouac)
  25. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares)
  26. Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie)
  27. Moby Dick (Herman Melville)
  28. Shogun (James Clavell)
  29. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
  30. Ulysses (James Joyce)
  31. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  32. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
  33. Swallows and Amazons (Arthur Ransome)
  34. Germinal (Emile Zola)
  35. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)
  36. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)
  37. Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)
  38. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
  39. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
  40. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)
  41. The Faraway Tree Collection (Enid Blyton)
  42. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)
  43. The Good Earth (Pearl S Buck)
  44. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
  45. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
  46. The Outsiders (SE Hinton)
  47. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
  48. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
  49. Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
  50. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)

#30: "She's Come Undone", by Wally Lamb (a book from The List)

Monday, June 26, 2017

The European Pipe Band Championships 2017

This weekend was the last of a run of four heavy weekends with the band, as the competition season reaches its mid-point, and also reaches the point where it takes a break for a while. It was also the second of four major tournaments of the year.

Following the exhaustion of last year, this year we took the approach of travelling up to Inverness on the Friday, spending the night in a Premier Inn, attending the competition on the Saturday, and then returning on the Sunday. I do think this was the better approach - although it meant taking a day off work, and also spending a considerable more on hotel rooms, food, etc, it was much less tiring than the equivalent last year. (I think the band will be reverting to the previous model of travelling up on the Saturday next year... but that's not my problem.)

The journey up was surprisingly quiet. The bus was only half-full, and seemed even less full than that. I buried myself in a decent book, emerging only during the stop, and then again when we arrived.

The plan had been to take a practice shortly after arriving on the Friday night. Once we got there, the decision was taken not to bother, as we were four pipers down. In hindsight, I suspect this was a mistake, though I wasn't too unhappy about it at the time. Less pleasantly, it was decided that we would be leaving the hotel at 7:45 on the Saturday, which left little time for breakfast.

(The Premier Inn, incidentally, was pretty much like all the others I've been to. It was fine - nice and clean, a comfy bed, and a good breakfast. Though they didn't seem to have the promised grilled tomatoes. But they did give us free Irn Bru, which made up for it somewhat.)

On Satuday, we travelled over to the competition in good spirits, arriving in good time. (I finished my book during this journey, and started straight in on the next one.) We had a short break, put up the dread gazebo, and then gathered together at 9:30 to start our preparations in earnest.

Alas, it was not to be our day - nothing seemed to go right from then on. The drones just refused to settle, possibly due to the wind, or perhaps because most of the band hadn't blown their pipes on Friday (the cane drone reeds we're now using need played every day, and seem to be utterly unforgiving about that). The focus in the practices just didn't seem to be what it had been on Thursday, the playing just wasn't as good. And then a second mistake was made - we moved over to final tuning late, meaning we had only moments at that final staging area. (Though, honestly, I'm not sure that really matters.)

At that last moment, one of our younger players had a problem with a drone, and it was put off. This is always a risk - putting a drone off increases the pressure in the rest of the pipes, and so if you're not careful there's a risk of the chanter coming in when it shouldn't, causing an "early E". But that risk is better than going on knowing a drone is acting up...

The performance was not good. There was an early E (I don't know if it was that same player or not - better not to know, I think), it was all too fast, and it was generally very ragged. As we came off, we knew the pipe major was raging, and he didn't disappoint.

We didn't qualify. In fact, out of 11 in our qualifying group, we were 10th - 10th and 11th for piping, 3rd for drumming, and 11th for ensemble (not surprising - if one half is poor, the ensemble can't be good).

Not surprisingly, our drummers took that particularly hard. After all, they'd done their bit and been let down by the pipers, again. It was even harder to take when we heard the final - not only should we have qualified, if we'd played the way we did on Thursday we could well have won.

There was one piece of good news. Our young drum major was also competing, and she came fourth - winning her first prize in a championship. Obviously, that's a fantastic result.

Alas, worse was to come. As soon as we learned we weren't in the final, much of the band decamped to the pub. Cue the drunken antics of a load of people who really should have known better.

My personal favourite bit of the weekend came in the early evening, when one of our members tried to persuade me that I shouldn't leave the band once I've moved, because Livingston isn't all that far... Unfortunately, he was doing so while thoroughly drunk, and thus serving as a prime example of why I'm not fighting particularly hard to stay.

Once we got back to the hotel, I had a quick dinner and then bed. So much for that day.

On Sunday morning, the bus driver made a complaint about the state of the bus. In addition to the usual low-level mess that you always get from a group of people (which is largely unavoidable, and generally accepted), there had been a whole load of biscuits ground up and thrown around the place - in a manner that simply doesn't happen by accident. So I apologised profusely, and made a note to address the subject at the practice tonight.

The journey home was largely uneventful, due to a combination of hangovers and sleeping. Thank goodness.

But it doesn't end there! Because when we got home the driver complained about the state of the bus again. He'd mopped it out just before we left, so it was almost immaculate at that time, but just a few hours later it was again a state of discarded wrappers, bottles, and other assorted litter. He, at least, was mollified by the efforts of the committee to gather and clean up that mess. I wasn't.

The outcome of all of this is desperately disappointing. It's bad enough that we didn't qualify, and worse that we didn't perform at all well. But everything else that has happened has just sickened me on the whole experience again - I don't put in this sort of effort to the band just to spend my time clearing up other people's garbage.

So...

I'm still going to see out the rest of the season. But I'll definitely be leaving at the AGM in September - any prospect that I might change my mind on that point is now over. What's also over is the hope that I might see the band promoted as I depart - that was already a long-shot after the British Championships, but is now definitively over. I will also be avoiding the buses at the World Championships and at Innerleithen (the last competition of the season) - the other events should be okay, but those two will see a repeat of the same antics as this weekend, and I'm done with that.

#29: "Look to Windward", by Iain M. Banks

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Branch Locator

In banking, the concept of the local branch is a slightly tricky one - for a great many people, it's like a safety net: almost everything is now done online or at an ATM, and you hope not to actually have to go to a branch, but when you do need to go there tends to be no substitute.

Unfortunately, this puts the banks in a tricky spot, because providing local branches is very costly, especially as they are used less and less - you have to pay staff whether they're doing anything or not, so the goal should be to try to minimise that "dead time". And it's not as if there are many efficiency savings to be met; a branch needs a minimum staff presence to be able to securely deal with the monies involved.

The consequence of this is that banks have, quite naturally, encouraged people to move to digital and direct banking as much as possible (because it's much cheaper), and have cut down on the number of branches. (I would presume that the next step will be to cut down on the opening hours for the branches that remain. If they're wise, this will also be matched by a shift to branches being closed during business hours in the week, and open more often in evenings, at weekends, and, ironically, on bank holidays - the times when people are actually able to go. Of course, it won't happen like that.)

Anyway...

A few times a year, I find myself in possession of a cheque or two that need to be deposited into the bank - that being the main source of my having to actually go to a bank. And, naturally, the branch local to the flat is only open during business hours during the week, which means I either have to go late on a Friday or early on a Saturday.

Or, crazy as the notion is, I could always go to another branch. Which seems like a good idea - the website has a useful "branch locator" gadget, and my hours at work are flexible, so...

And so, for my latest scheme I plugged in my postcode at work, and discovered that there's a branch a scant 2 miles from the office. Huzzah!

Alas, my celebration was short-lived, because when I drove over to said branch, I discovered that, far from being open from 9am to 5pm (with an hour closed for lunch), it was in fact shut. Permanently. Indeed, it had been shut for months, boarded up, with all the signage removed (to the extent that I actually drove past it before realising what it was).

I guess it's my own fault really. I should probably have located the secret "find a branch that's actually open" button on the gadget. Silly me, assuming that such a thing should be implied.

(In other news, the competing bank where the band do their banking have also recently closed the branch closest to the office. So it's not like any of them are really that much better.)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Edinburgh Pipe Band Championships 2017

It's been a busy weekend, with all sorts of stuff going on. The band were out both days - on Saturday we attended both the Linlithgow and Grangemouth gala days. (While getting ready, I looked out the window and thought, "well, I might get soaked, but at least I won't need sunblock." I therefore got badly sunburnt, which isn't good.) Then we went to the Edinburgh Pipe Band Championships yesterday, where we played twice.

(I should perhaps note that while this event is called a championship, it is in fact just a 'regular' competition - not one of the five actual championships. Though I daresay Edinburgh city council would be very keen to get their hands on one of the big five.)

Actually, it was a really good day - hot and sunny, with a really good venue and a good feeling about the place. Definitely my favourite competition of the season thus far.

In our grade, we came 2nd overall, out of nine bands. That is 3rd and 3nd for piping, 3rd for drumming, and 2nd for ensemble. So, a really good result, and one that stands us in good stead for the next championship, at Forres next weekend.

In Grade 4A things were rather less rosy - we came last out of seven bands, being 7th and 5th for piping, 4th for drumming, and 7th for ensemble. So, not so good. The only slight mitigation to that is that at least we knew we hadn't done well, and that we knew also we could do a lot better (indeed, we had done, immediately before going on - bottled it again). Also, the Grade 4A contests are all about gaining experience - it's the Grade 4B ones that matter. This year.

So, all in all a decent day. The main thing is that we had a successful run-out prior to Forres next week, which is going to be the big one. And then we get a much-needed break, filled with moving house and other shenanigans.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Tim Farron

Once upon a time, I was actually a Lib Dem voter. As I said shortly after he died, Charles Kennedy was probably as close to my own political stance as any mainstream politician has come in my lifetime.

But they left me a long time ago, pretty much as a direct consequence of ousting CK. I initially thought Ming Campbell might be a good substitute, but he singularly failed to impress, and I never had much time for Nick Clegg even before the coalition. (That said, the coalition would have been forgivable but for two things. Firstly, the delivery of voting reform, not just a referendum on a crap compromise, should have been an absolute red line. Secondly, having signed personal pledges on the issue, the Lib Dem MPs absolutely had to vote against rises to tuition fees - that shouldn't even have been a discussion.)

As for Tim... well. They had to have someone, and there weren't a lot of choices, so I guess he did the job. He always seemed a bit useless, even at the best of times. For the most part, my reaction to his resignation is a resounding "meh".

Except...

From a Lib Dem perspective, my over-riding memory of the election campaign was from the first week, in which Tim Farron found himself caught up in a 'scandal' because of his views on homosexuality. With Tim being openly Christian, and despite his voting record of the topic, he had this perceived weakness, and the media were not quick to exploit it - what exactly were his views on gay sex? And so, just when he most wanted to be talking about Brexit (aka the most important issue in UK politics right now, by at least an order of magnitude) found himself embroiled in a media-confected controversy.

Of course, it's not hard to see why the right-wing media took this approach. It's certainly not as if the Sun and the Daily Mail had suddenly converted to become great champions of gay people! But Tim headed the only major Britain-wide party to stand against Brexit, and so posed at least some threat (no matter how small).

And, unfortunately, those on the left are disastrously fragmented. Seriously, we see it all the time - you either have to completely ideologically pure, or you are the very devil. (Which is made extra tricky since different factions within the left have different stances, some of them mutually exclusive.) Which is why the right almost always wins - "well, I like almost everything they stand for, but I couldn't possibly vote for someone who..."

Poor Tim never really stood a chance.

What was very interesting, though, is that Theresa May is also openly a practicing Christian, and has a far more patchy voting record on LBGTI rights than Tim Farron and yet, somehow, Robert Peston neglected to ask her about the same topic. Despite, incidentally, promising to do exactly that when he appeared on "Have I Got News For You". She did get asked the question, by Andrew Marr, but only a week later, after she'd had plenty of time to be well briefed on how to answer. And she most certainly didn't face the same hounding on the subject.

The reality is that most of the media don't give a damn about Tim Farron's (or Theresa May's) Christian beliefs, or indeed his beliefs as regards LBGTI rights. They're interested in the rest of their politics, and will use anything and everything to discredit their opponents. I suppose all's fair in love and war...

Except that that has a really horrible implication. If that is indeed the case, then that means that the 'ideal' politician is a vacuous amoral psychopath, who will adopt whatever position it takes to win and only those positions required to win, and who will studiously avoid any underlying beliefs or principles because they might be used against them.

If there's a lesson to be learned from Tim Farron it's this: we get the politicians that we deserve.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Strathmore Highland Games 2017

The band are busy every Saturday and every Sunday in June. Last weekend was the Mariner's Day parade in Camelon (our local gala day), and then the Strathmore Highland Games at Glamis Castle on the Sunday. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend Mariner's Day - we had a meeting to set up our new mortgage.

The Strathmore Highland Games can either be really good or really bad, depending on the weather - Glamis Castle makes for a wonderful backdrop, but it really can get boggy. Fortunately, this year was one for nice weather.

We competed twice. Initially, we were entered in Grade 4B, but one arrival we registered to also play up at Grade 4e. Entering late like this means that you have to play first, which is not ideal but does have the advantage that you don't have so much waiting.

The Grade 4B contest went well. I thought we played the tunes about as well as we had ever done. Alas, we didn't replicate this in Grade 4A - we started well, but it very quickly fell apart. And it didn't help that my hands decided to cramp up by the third part of the first tune. Disaster!

Or maybe not, because the results were just weird. In Grade 4B we came fourth, narrowly missing out on a prize (we were 4th in piping and 1st! in drumming), and in Grade 4A we were second (2nd in piping and 1st! in drumming). So, another prize, albeit not in the 'important' competition. But it was strange to see the judges' opinions differ from our own so sharply. Oh well.

The coming weekend is going to be another very hard one - we have both the Linlithgow and Grangemouth gala days on the Saturday (which is extremely hard work, but makes a lot of money for the band all at once), and then the Edinburgh Championship on the Sunday. As this is our last run-out before the European Championships in Forres, there's quite some pressure to make it a good one.

There are now ten events in all remaining in our season (counting the two gala days from Saturday as one), and twelve and a half weeks to go. It's going to be really hard going attending all these events, especially while also moving home. However, since our move-in date is the weekend of the third major (the Scottish Championships), I'm going to try not to miss any - though I think Dumbarton will be a case of driving over, playing the event, and then leaving right away.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Counting the Days

As I mentioned in my most recent update on goals, we've had some significant movement on the house move in the last few weeks. It has been something of a roller-coaster, with things going really well one day only to crash back down the next, but there's now the makings of a timetable in place, so I thought I'd risk an update...

On the sale front, our buyer has now finally completed her sale and has issued a revised offer on the flat. We've had the Home Report refreshed (which was really just a technicality), and things seem to be going okay. We've not yet concluded missives, so nothing is quite certain yet, but the provisional date of entry is the 4th of July. This means we'll be moving out of the flat on the weekend of the 1st of July.

(This is, of course, just when all of our helpers become unavailable for a month. For that and various other reasons, we're planning to get in a removals company to box everything up for us, put it all in storage, and deliver it when needed.)

On the purchase front, things are (for now) likewise quite positive. We've been lucky enough to secure the same house we were looking at originally. We've had to apply for a new mortgage, as our previous offer expired, but I'm hopeful that that will be fine. With a bit of luck, we'll be able to conclude the missives there in the near future, too. Our provisional date of entry, and therefore our move-in date, is the 28th of July.

It of course remains to be seen whether it will actually play out this way, or if it's yet another false dawn. But right now it looks good, and if we're very lucky, this might finally mean that in 45 days the ordeal will be over.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Markinch Highland Games 2017

I've just realised I didn't give an update from last week's competition. Oops.

There's not a lot to say about the day, so I'll just give the results: in Grade 4B (our grade), we came 3rd out of six, being third in piping and third in drumming. A good result. In Grade 4A, we were 7 of 9, being seventh in piping and fourth in drumming.

All in all, not a bad day's work.

#28: "The Gypsy Morph", by Terry Brooks

Friday, June 09, 2017

Covfefe and Mugwumps

Politics, eh? Bloody hell!

I stayed up last night to watch the exit poll, had a good laugh, and then went to bed. Then I got up bright and early, discovered that the exit poll was pretty much spot on, had another good laugh, and came to work.

It really is a mess.

As far as I can tell, what will happen now is that the Tories will activate their traditional alliance with the DUP, and thus form a minority government. It's very likely that Theresa May will be ousted (she's said she has no intention of resigning because the country needs strong and stable leadership... which probably means she'll resign within the hour).

But the big wrinkle in that is English Votes for English Laws - 13 of the Tories' MPs are from Scotland, and the 10 from the DUP are of course from Northern Ireland, and so won't be able to vote on large chunks of the government's programme. So it's even more of a mess than it might already appear. (Of course, they could undo EVEL just as easily as they brought it in - it's just a statuatory instrument rather than a law, so easy to remove.)

Edit: Having checked the result in more detail, the Tories have a fairly large majority in England, so EVEL is less of a wrinkle than I'd originally thought. But I was right about the alliance with the DUP.

My strong suspicion, though, is that we're heading for another election in the short term, because this isn't a workable outcome. Unless Tim Farron can be persuaded to throw his Lib Dems under the bus again... and surely to goodness he's learned the folly of that course?

(As regards Jeremy Corbyn: he did well, and a lot better than expected. He's almost certainly safe from any challenges now. Unfortunately, though, my feeling is that he's probably done as well as it is possible for him to do, and I'm not at all sure that a solid second is really worth anything in a winner-takes-all contest.)

In Scotland, I'm fairly horrified by the result. I'm not shocked, or particularly bothered that the SNP lost a significant number of seats, or that the Labour party or the Lib Dems have come back. But I'm horrified that there are now 13 Tory MPs for Scotland - that means either that a lot of people looked at the rape clause, food banks, a hard Brexit, and the proposed bonfire of human rights and thought to themselves, "I've got to get me some of this!", or is means that they were so determined to get rid of the SNP that they were willing to burn the country down to get it. I'm really not sure which possibility is worse. But what is true is that those 13 Tory MPs are the difference between a Tory minority government and a Labour one, so if it was Unionist tactical voting that's caused it then those otherwise-Labour voters get the great pleasure of having just lost their party the election.

(Also, I suspect this result means a stay of execution for Kezia Dugdale. And while I can't say that the likely successor, Anas Sarwar, fills me with any confidence, neither does Kezia.)

In terms of the independence question, there's now no good way forward. The Scottish Parliament has already passed the legislation asking for a second referendum, so either Nicola Sturgeon has to go ahead with this or she has to go back to parliament to call it off. But I can't now see a push for independence succeeding, while if she calls it off then the media will never let her hear the end of it. Disaster either way.

Finally, I would like to congratulate the big winner from last night. Once the dust settles, it's extremely likely that we'll have a new Prime Minister, someone who a little while ago looked dead in the water, with no hope of getting the big job but who, against all the odds is now the favourite.

I refer, of course, to Boris Johnson. Somehow, it seems fitting that in a contest between the accidental King and the tyrant Queen, the big winner turns out to be the Joker.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

A Cautionary Tale

This is what happens when supposedly-intelligent people don't bother to go out and vote:

For the first time in a long time, it's very clear that they're not all the same. And it does matter - six weeks ago, I really didn't think it would, but things have changed remarkably since then. So please, go and make a decision, whatever that decision might be.

And that's all I have to say about that, until tomorrow. See you on the flip side!

#27: "The Flame Bearer", by Bernard Cornwell

Friday, June 02, 2017

Typical

Just as you're consoling yourself that a Trump presidency isn't the end of the world...

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The End of May

I've been rather enjoying this election campaign - watching the Tories implode under the slightest of pressure, coupled with Theresa May's impression of a broken robot has been great fun. And watching the polls tighten ever further has been great. There's just the tiniest smidgeon of hope...

But not really. Even the most favourable polls have suggested we're heading for a hung parliament with the Tories by far the largest party, and easily able to form a minority government with the help of the Unionists in Northern Ireland (certainly the DUP, and perhaps the UUP)... and if it came to it, the Lib Dems would support them in the interests of allowing the country to have at least some sort of a government.

So I can't see there being anything other than a Tory government after the election.

However, what will be really interesting is that, if there is a hung parliament it will be almost impossible for Theresa May to remain in her position - she'll have been shown to be a liability, and the Tory party is quite ruthless at ditching weak leaders.

The reason that's interesting is that there have been two key threads in the Tory campaign: firstly, the focus on Theresa May asking for a personal mandate to negotiate Brexit (going so far as the Tories campaigning as "Theresa May's team"); and secondly the mantra of it being a "strong and stable" government.

But if the Tories promptly remove Theresa, the most likely candidate to take over is, once again, Boris (yay?). In which case, it's hard to see how they can claim to have any sort of a mandate - they'll no longer be "Theresa May's team", and the notion of such a government being "strong and stable" is laughable.

So does that mean we'll need another election, in order for Boris to get his personal mandate to negotiate Brexit? And what happens if he fails to secure that mandate and has to be replaced.

(And, incidentally, this is why it's a really bad idea to try to turn a parliamentary election into a faux-presidential one. We should be voting for our local candidates, or at the very least for parties, not for individual leaders. Or, if we're going to be forced to vote for leaders, as the nature of television probably requires, maybe we should shift to a formal presidential system, with the Prime Minister being directly elected and then allowed to form the government around them. (In this system we'd still elect MPs. Basically, we'd have two votes - one for a local MP and a separate one for the top job.))

#26: "Pathfinder: Assault on Longshadow", by Benjamin Bruck and Thurston Hillman

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Day 150: Update on Goals

So, day 150 and time for another update. And things are still in a bit of a mess...

  • Weight: There's been no progress since the previous update, largely as a result of Lent ending.
  • Books: By day 150 I should have read 24.7 books, so I'm a little ahead there. I'm also up-to-date on all the sublists, which is good. Unfortunately, it looks like there's an issue with the "Pathfinder Tales" novel line, which means that that sublist is on hiatus - it's not clear when, or indeed if, that will be resumed. Fortunately, I have enough "New Books" picked out to take me to my 60-book target, though, so I'm not too concerned - I'll just rejig my spreadsheet accordingly.
  • Super Secret Goal #4: We've had some significant movement on this lately, although we've not yet moved. I'm avoiding writing too much on this for now, out of superstitious dread, but it's looking good...
  • Part Five: The House: For now, this remains on hold.
  • Part Five: Church: Likewise, this remains on hold for now.
  • Part Five: Band: The competition season has started, and initial signs are positive. The band is now facing an issue with our practice venues, such that it looks like we'll have to find a new venue for all our practices. It is now my intention to see out the rest of the season and then tender my resignation at the AGM in September. Ideally, I would like to see the band gain promotion out of Grade 4B as I leave, but I fear that may be too much to ask.
  • Part Five: Gaming: On hold.
  • Super Secret Goal #5: As noted in the previous update, this goal is no longer applicable.

On the face of it, this is another routine update. But I'm now expecting movement on the house move very soon, so things are a lot happier than they might seem.

The next update, for Day 200, is due on the 19th of July, and I'm hopeful there will something solid to report then...

Monday, May 29, 2017

West Lothian Highland Games 2017

Another week, another competition. This one was another minor, the first of two weeks spent in Bathgate. (We have their Procession next week. Unfortunately, the rule is that you always get one week of good weather and one week where you need an ark. This week was, surprisingly, really good weather. Next week, I'm told there will be floats. Anyway...)

We competed twice, once in our 'native' grade, and once in the grade above.

In the 4B competition, we came 3rd overall, being 3rd for piping and 2nd for drumming. That was out of six bands, so a decent result. In the 4A competition we actually won! We were 1st (!) in piping and 2nd for drumming. That said, it was out of a grand total of two bands, but it's still a win and I'm still going to claim it.

And after that, I headed home for a quick dinner, to watch "Doctor Who", and then to watch the first half of "The Incredibles". But we had to abandon that after an hour - around 10pm I found I just couldn't keep my eyes open any more.

It has been a good week.

(Next week we have the aforementioned Bathgate Procession on Saturday, followed by the Markinch Highland Games on Sunday. So that will be a busy one.)

"Inversions", by Iain M. Banks (the new candidate for book of the year)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Free School Meals

There has been some discussion this week about the Tory plans to abolish universal free lunches for nursery children and instead offer a free breakfast to all primary school children in England and Wales. Amongst other things, they've been accused of getting their sums wrong (again) - apparently, they've budgeted all of 7p per meal, where 25p is realistic (just barely - apparently 85p would be a much more likely target figure).

However, this ties into something that has been on my mind for a fairly long time - tragically, we have rather too many children in the country whose only good meal of the day may turn out to be the free lunch they get at school (which makes the school holidays a disaster for them, but that's a whole other issue). And it's hardly surprising that hungry children don't make for good learners.

So, yeah, a free breakfast for school kids is a good thing. And I also agree with making it universal - amongst other things, it means that those families just on the wrong side of the "free school meals" threshold don't now need to make a decision about whether their kids get the 'luxury' of having breakfast. (There are other reasons why universal benefits are a good thing. But I think that one is probably enough for now.)

However, in light of the recent reporting, I can now provide some numbers...

Apparently, there are 4.16 million kids in state-run primary schools, and the budget for a free school lunch is £2.30 per meal. And by my count there are 196 school days a year (technically, that's Scotland, but I expect the figure down south is reasonably close to this). If we allow 70p per breakfast (partly because 25p just ain't enough, but mostly because it makes for a nice round number), then by my calculation it would cost approximately £2,446,080,000, or just under £2.5 billion, to provide every primary school-age child in England and Wales with a free breakfast and lunch. (Actually, I'd ideally prefer to boost that to £4.5 billion and cover every single day, not just school days. And, actually, I'd also quite like to expand it to secondary schools as well. But all that's rather too far... for now.)

Now, in return for this you get a generation of kids who get to concentrate on learning rather than being hungry. You get to significantly improve overall nutrition (because there are those families in the "just above the threshold" group, and also there are families that are monetarily better off but very time-poor; in both cases they have to put together what meals they can, which are probably not the best - replace that with a free meal, and it's likely the junk food will be abandoned in short order). And it's likely that things like behaviour and attendance improve as well.

Now, it's fair to point out that £2.5 billion is a lot of money, and it's valid to question where the money is coming from, what else is going to be sacrificed to pay for it, etc etc. But what isn't a question is whether the country can afford it - it's a question of priorities - do we want to invest the money in this, or is it better spent somewhere else?