Saturday, December 19, 2009

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #67: Parmesan Chicken Breasts with Crispy Posh Ham

This was an odd one. The original plan was for me to cook them last Friday. However, due to a combination of not being bothered and also suffering a PC meltdown, I instead had pizza. Therefore, the plan was revised to have them on Saturday. This was then scuppered by PC World.

The revised revised plan saw me cook up the chicken on Saturday (to prevent it from going off), but not eating it until Monday. This worked fine, mostly.

The food came out of the pan looking good enough to eat. However, by Monday it had cooled, and really didn't look appetising. However, I duly heated it in the microwave, and gave it a try. And it was okay - not great, but okay. I suspect it would have been better had I eaten it right away, but even then I doubt it would have been as good as some of the other options in this chapted.

Still, I think that's enough to take this chapter to 6-0, despite this being the weakest entry so far.

Next up is "Griddled Lamb Chops with Chunky Salsa", and then Moroccan Lamb with Couscous". I hope to tackle one of these before Christmas and the other in the week after. Once I've done that, I'm going to leave this book behind due to the remaining meals all being fish.

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #65: Crunchy Garlic Chicken, and #66: Best New Potatoes

I did these a couple of weeks ago.

The chicken was fine - it was easy to make, and tasted good. The only oddity was that they came out green instead of the brown colour in the book. I think this was due to my adding too much parsley, although I only did what the book said.

Anyway, that takes that chapter to 5-0.

The new potatoes were also something of a success, although they could probably have done with a minute or two more cooking. So that would be 3-1 on "Delish Veg".

The Strange Liberation of Loss

After a long, hard week I got home last Friday expecting to have a couple of nice restful days. My game had been cancelled, so I had two full days 'off', during which I was all set to do some light preparation for my Eberron campaign, do a bit of reading, watch some TV, and generally laze around.

Immediately on arriving home, I switched on my PC, then went to make a cup of coffee while it started up. My PC is getting old - it takes several minutes to warm up. I'm sure it didn't used to be so slow.

Anyway, when I came back, I was faced with the horror of a "Windows Failed to Start" message, followed by a cryptic error number.

There then followed a couple of days of messing around, the full horror of which I won't go into. Eventually, I found that the solution was an easy fix - just a bios setting to change. Unfortunately, the setting in question was in a hidden menu that I simply could not access. And so came the ultimate indignity: I had to take it back to PC World for repair!

I eventually got the PC back on Monday, having had the hard disk blanked and the system restored to factory settings. A nice clean slate to work with from here. Since then, I have been busily re-installing software, rebuilding my data, and generally wasting lots of time getting the system working again.

For the past year or so, I kept saying to myself, "I really must get one of those big external drives, and set up automatic backups. It sure would suck if my PC died and I lost all the data I've spent years building up." I kept saying that, and saying that...

About three months ago, I finally bought one of those big external drives, and set up automatic backups. This proved exceptionally fortuitous, as I was thus able to restore all my documents and files after getting the PC back. Huzzah! (And also: bloody hell, that was lucky!)

There's just one minor problem: it seems the the automated backup system does not include email. So, all the emails I have stored since forever (back to my first PC in 1994!) and all of my email contact details, and all of that stuff, is all gone!

I expected to by much more dismayed about this that I actually am. The thing is, while it sucks to lose data, and especially to lose it when I thought it was safely backed up, it's also true that I hadn't looked at most of those emails in years. Indeed, I had folders entitled "From 2007", "From 2008" and "Older" into which I just threw the appropriate emails and forgot about them. So, in many ways, it's a relief to be free of that junk. I wasn't using it, so I haven't really lost anything.

The one thing I did lose was the license key to a particular piece of software I have used only occasionally (but, like much occasional-use software, when I wanted to use it, I really wanted to use it). Even here, though, there's no great problem - they have been able to regenerate and resend the key.

Plus: now my PC is more up-to-date even than it was before the problem hit, and doesn't have quite so much lingering "junk software" lying around. So, really, it might not be the worst thing that has ever happened. Maybe.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Not quite dead

I have fallen behind on maintaining the blog, primarily due to a recent bout of PC problems. Normal service will be restored shortly.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Goals 2009 Wash-up

Last night was the final meeting of my Spanish course. It has been good!

Amongst other things, this completes the last of my goals for the year. So, as promised, here is the wash up, followed by some thoughts.


  • Super Secret Goal #1. Complete.
  • Super Secret Goal #2. Abandoned in April.
  • Books. Complete.
  • Weight loss. Complete.
  • New skill.The Spanish course finished last night. However, a new course starts in January, which will pick up where this one left off.
  • Car fund. Complete.
  • General finances. Complete.
  • Band. Complete.
  • The house move. Complete.
  • TV. Complete.
  • RPGs. Complete. We have actually managed to get together for three whole sessions of the Warhammer campaign (including two in a row!), and should be getting together for another on Saturday (three in a row!). Additionally, I have started up a second campaign in Falkirk, meeting on almost alternate Tuesdays.

And so, there it is. Ten complete, and one abandoned. Frankly, I consider that a rather spectacular result for the year. Some thoughts:

  • The tyranny of goals: For about six weeks there, I was juggling about six different goals concurrently, and so found that my every waking moment, and almost every waking thought, was dedicated to one or another of these goals. This was not a terribly pleasant experience. Next year, I'll either not be setting so many goals, or I will time-limit them so that there is a limit to how many are running at once.
  • That one abandoned goal. Circumstances required that that goal be put on the back-burner indefinately. However, that goal is still important, and is therefore something that is going to have to be one of my main focuses for next year.
  • Once a goal is finished. I have barely read anything since completing that goal. Since coming off the diet, I haven't been anywhere near as rigourous about what I eat, and have regained more weight than I really would have liked (though not a disasterous amount). The amount of TV I watch has gone up and down over the course of the year. In all cases, I have taken the view that once a goal is done, it is done. However, there may be an argument for some goals being considered ongoing matters, and not to be neglected once the (usually arbitrary) target is reached.

Goals for next year?

Well, I will have some. I even have a couple in mind. However, I don't as yet have anything concrete. And, frankly, given how busy I am and am going to be, I'm not sure I will really be able to juggle goals on top of that.

Monday, November 30, 2009

First Sunday in Advent

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent, and so I promptly went all Christmas-y. To that end, and having completed a rather nasty cleaning job on the apartment, I proceeded to put up my decoration.

I have also donned my Christmassical Trevor t-shirt once more, and have started work on my festive beard, making an heroic return after its year in the wilderness. I felt there was a need to return to the traditional fripperies of the season.

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #64: Pork Kebabs

I did indeed do the Experimental Cookery Tuesday last week, but just never got around to updating the blog with the results. I've been absurdly busy.

The short version is that the kebabs were quick and easy to make, and they tasted much as I would have expected, which was quite nice. Also, I managed to avoid poisoning myself, which is always a plus.

That's really all there is to say about that. Next up is "Crunchy Garlic Chicken", which I'll actually be tackling on Friday as I won't have time tomorrow.

Uh-oh

Apparently, Swine Flu has reached my place of work. This is not a good sign.

One advantage we do have is that the office is not air conditioned, which should hamper the spread of the virus. Also, the person involved caught the symptoms early, and has promptly isolated himself. Still, it doesn't bode well.

That said, I suppose if I have to catch it, it would be better to catch it before Christmas, rather than over the break. That would suck.

But not tomorrow. I refuse to get sick before tomorrow.

Gaming Revisited

A couple of months ago, I blogged about the cancellation of the regular Saturday game, and how I suddenly found I was no longer "a gamer", so much as "someone who games occasionally". I also said at that time that I found this entirely unsatisfactory.

So, not being one to just accept when things aren't right, I set about fixing the problem.

To that end, and after some investigation, I set up a Meetup group dedicated to D&D in the Falkirk area. This has proven to be a success, meeting and (perhaps) exceeding my expectations. The second meeting is tomorrow night, during which we will probably kick off a new D&D campaign set in Eberron.

There's just one problem: in amongst all the chaos, I've been so busy that I haven't had time to do more than jot down a few very basic notes for the outline of the campaign. I didn't really want to have to run the first session without proper preparation, but it does look like this may well have to happen.

At the same time, my Saturday game seems to have found itself a new lease of life. After a couple of false starts, we finally managed to get together for a game two weeks ago, and then again on Saturday. It's starting to look like the interest may be starting to come back there, and we may be able to pick up the pace again.

Of course, that means I now have two full campaigns to juggle, two sets of players to manage, two sets of characters to challenge, and two sets of adventures to prepare. And that on top of band practices twice a week (and probably bag packing most weekends), my Spanish course, and then a trip to the Squirrel Ballet. Plus, somewhere in there I am supposed to do some Christmas shopping.

Life is quite hectic at times.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Christmas Lights and the Environment

In pretty much every town centre up and down the country, you will now find they have put up their Christmas lights, which are lit for several hours every night. They're quite pretty, and generally rather nice (despite it not being December yet).

They are also, fundamentally, a waste of large amounts of energy.

So, here's the thing: if the powers-that-be are really, truly as worried about climate change as they keep telling us, why is this waste of energy acceptable? Sure, it wouldn't be much fun to ban the lights... but it would be rather less fun (I imagine) to find the world becomes uninhabitable.

(I expect the likely response to this is that they'll claim the lights are used in a "carbon neutral" manner - they've offset the cost to the environment by planting some trees, or paying for China to build a cleaner coal power plant, or something equally silly. The problem with this argument is that carbon offsets are a big con, a way for people to salve their guilt without actually having to give anything up. If they're really, truly as worried about climate change as they claim, they should be paying the carbon offsets and not putting up the lights either. In fact, they should then be using the money saved on all that power they're now not wasting to pay for more carbon offsets. A Christmas present for the whole world, if you will.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Experimental Cookery Breakfasts 12: Fresh Fruit Platter

I finally got around to finishing off the breakfasts chapter of Jamie's book.

To be honest, I think it was a bit of a cheat to have a 'recipe' that was essentially, "Get some fruit. Put it on a plate. Add yoghurt. Eat."

Still, never mind. It was nice enough.

That concludes the chapter at 7-5 in favour. (Yes, I had to go back and find that number.) The result would have been much better, except for all the many eggs. I think my favourite was the smoothies, while the loser was clearly one of the eggs. But which one? We hates them all... I think the omelette, purely because it was more hassle than the others.

I have now moved my secondary bookmark to the start of the soups chapter, and will probably work through that chapter gradually. Between now and Christmas, I also intend to tackle the remaining half-dozen 'meats' in "Quick-Cooking Meat and Fish", and then I think I'll retire this book and move on to something else.

(Incidentally, I've noticed that this is beginning to turn into "Steph/ven's Food Blog". That's not really my intention. However, at the moment my internet connection is down, so I'm trying to do the minimum online I can get away with without letting tasks just pile up.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #63: Spanish Style Griddled Steak

So, another Tuesday means another Experimental Cookery. This one almost didn't happen - I was late in due to traffic, and had to go out again fairly quickly (more on that later). Still, I checked the book, and it claimed to be a 5-8 minute cook-time (6 minutes in practice), so I decided to go ahead.

I'm glad I did. The preparation for this one was a breeze, and it cooked very quickly indeed. The results were also rather impressive. I particularly enjoyed the peppers, although was a bit less impressed with the chillis, which were extremely hot.

Anyway, that makes for another success, taking this chapter to 3-0. It also confirms my opinion of the buttered spinach - I was going to try that again, but didn't have time. As a result, I had a handful of spinach raw, and it was rather better than the results of cooking it.

Next week is pork kebabs, which could be interesting...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #61: Perfect Roast Lamb, and #61: Baked Carrots in a Bag

I tackled the fourth and final roast dinner last night. It proved to be a rather stressful experience, especially when I dumped the entire contents of the salt shaker on to the meat. Still, it all turned out okay in the end.

The lamb turned out to be okay. As with pork, I find that that largely comes down to the choice of joint used; beef and chicken appear to be much more consistent. Plus, it all seemed to be rather a hassle.

However, the baked carrots were far more successful. Indeed, these worked extremely well. This was good, as I had been somewhat unhappy with the results of roasting them - they seemed to come out burnt more often than not.

Anyway, that's the "Family Roasts" chapter finished, with a 5-0 success rate. There are now only a few weeks left before I'm going to have to face up to the army of fish dishes that are at the end of the book. (Or, I might abandon it at that point. I really don't fancy ten consecutive weeks of fish - that's the very thing I wanted to avoid by working through the book sequentially!)

Edit: I forgot to note - that's us up to 2-1 on the "Delish Veg".

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #59: "Grilled Beef with Hourseradish Sauce" and #60 "Buttered Spinach"

So this week we have a two-for-one: the second of the "Quick Cooking Meat and Fish", being "Griddled Beef Fillet with Horseradish Sauce", and the second of the "Delish Veg", "Buttered Spinach". It made for quite an exciting cooking experience, let me tell you.

This was all very quick and easy to prepare. The spinach took about four minutes to cook, the beef about fifteen (start to finish). However, when it came to the actual eating, it was something of a mixed bag. It seems that the cook times for the beef were a little off, or perhaps the book had assumed thicker steaks than I was using. Either way, instead of coming out medium to well done, the steaks came out as being very well done. Mostly, this was fine, but it was something of a surprise.

Unfortunately, the spinach was nowhere near as successful as the beef. Simply put, it had far too much salt, far too much pepper, and far too much garlic, which totally overpowered the taste of the spinach itself (which, let's face it, wasn't that nice anyway). So, that was something of a disappointment.

The end result of that is that we'll count the beef as a 'win', but the spinach as a 'loss', bringing the "Quick Cooking Meat and Fish" to a total of 2-0, and the "Delish Veg" to 1-1. Next up should be "Perfect Roast Lamb" on Sunday.

#54: "Pathfinder: The Sixfold Trial", by Richard Pett

Monday, November 09, 2009

What Steph/ven Read Next...

It's a funny thing: as long as I had so many goals running, I found myself constantly looking forward to getting them finished and off my radar, and thus having an opportunity to relax more. As soon as I finished off most of my goals, and got the opportunity to relax more, I found myself drifting aimlessly and being unsatisfied at not getting anything done.

Since reaching my target of 52 books, I have eased back on the reading quite a lot. I didn't ever actually stop, but due to the nature of the books I have been reading, I haven't actually managed to finish anything, and so haven't updated the blog to that effect.

I have decided that, between now and the end of the year, I really want to "clear the decks" as far as accumulated reading material is concerned. I have had a number of books sitting on my "to read" pile for some months, or even years, and it is time to clear this out. The books are as follows:

  • "Lankhmar" by Fritz Leiber. This is a compilation of the first four Lankhmar stories (and is identical to another compilation, "The First Book of Lankhmar"), which I got a couple of years ago as part of a "classics of fantasy" kick I was on at the time. I never really got around to reading it, largely because I couldn't be bothered.
  • "Elric" by Michael Moorcock. This is another compilation, but does at least appear to include all the Elric stories. I got this at the same time and for the same reason as the previous book, and similarly never quite got around to reading it.
  • "Forest Mage" by Robin Hobb. This is part two of a trilogy, the first part of which was okay but not spectacular (good enough for me to try another book by the same author, obviously). And, again, I just haven't ever mustered the enthusiasm to read this one.
  • The "Conqueror" series by Conn Iggulden. I picked up this trilogy because I saw it on offer in Asda, so got it cheap. As this is one of my current favourite authors, I actually want to spread these out - I don't know when he'll be writing another novel.
  • The "Pathfinder Core Rulebook" from Paizo Publishing. This is a massive book that I'm working through rather slowly.
  • "Pathfinder: The Bastards of Erebus" and "Pathfinder: The Sixfold Trial", both from Paizo Publishing. I get a book in this series delivered every month, and have built up a slight backlog. These are the first two designed for use with the new Pathfinder game, hence the delay in reading through them.
  • The "Pathfinder Bestiary" from Paizo Publishing. Finally, the monster book for the Pathfinder game, which I picked up on Saturday.

My revised 'reading goal' for the rest of the year is to clear off all the books from this list, with the exceptions of the Conqueror series and the Pathfinder Bestiary. This will allow me to proceed into 2010 without carrying the baggage of a large number of books to read. To that end, I'm currently reading "Lankhmar", the "Pathfinder Core Rulebook" and "Pathfinder: The Sixfold Trial". After "Lankhmar" is finished, I'll move on to "Forest Mage", and then finish out the year with "Elric", all being well.

I haven't yet settled on a reading goal for next year. I'm not sure whether to go for "another 52 books", or to tie it to a list of books, or perhaps a list of authors, or even perhaps to just not have a reading goal at all. I'm also leaning towards setting a writing goal for next year, but I'm not sure about that either.

#53: "Pathfinder: The Bastards of Erebus", by Sean K. Reynolds

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #58: Pan Fried Glazed Pork Chops

It's been a couple of weeks since I've done one of these - it's not that I've abandoned the experiment, but rather that I just haven't had a chance to do the roast lamb that is, by rights, the next thing on the list. Plus, I didn't really fancy skipping on to the next chapter, "Delish Veg".

At length, I decided to skip ahead to the "Quick Cooking Meat and Fish" chapter. The first item in this rather long chapter being the aforementioned pork chops.

Well, they certainly were quick-cooking. And the results were fairly agreeable - I have no complaints. The only thing is that I'm really not a big fan of pork, and while this was nice pork it wasn't really enough to change my mind.

Still, this one does enough to score 1-0 in favour in the chapter.

Incidentally, there are a total of seven unfinished chapters left in the book. The roasts chapter and the breakfasts chapter each have one outstanding entry, and then there are "Simple Soups", "Delish Veg", "Quick Cooking Meat and Fish", "Classic Fish", and a chapter on sweets. I have decided to omit the "Delish Veg" and sweets chapters from the experiment - I'll try these when opportunity arises, but won't work through them entry by entry. I do intend to complete the rest, though. (Unfortunately, the "Quick Cooking Meat and Fish" chapter ends with several fish dishes in a row, and is then immediately followed by "Classic Fish". This means that the book ends with exactly what I had wanted to avoid - a couple of months of nothing but fish. I foresee a certain amount of badness coming up.)

Monday, November 02, 2009

Hidden Costs

I've ranted about this before, but how on Earth can low-cost airlines possibly justify their pricing structure?

I am in the process of booking up my holiday next year. This involves flying from either Glasgow or Edinburgh (or, I suppose, Prestwick) to La Rochelle, probably via Southampton. So, off I go to FlyBe (or EasyJet, or RyanAir, or wherever - they're all much the same), and put in the details, and lo and behold, they offer a flight from Edinburgh to Southampton for £1.56.

That's not a typo.

Fantastic, I think, I'll get and book that. And so I do.

Only, as soon as I select the flight, the total cost in my Basket increases from £0, not to £1.56 as you might expect, or even to something reasonably close to this. With "fees and taxes", it jumps to £51.56.

That's also not a typo.

And, in fact, since I'm booking four flights for two people, and each person has to check a bag for each leg of the journey, the total cost comes not to the £80 I had estimated (one leg advertises at £26. The others were all about £2.), but rather to just under £600.

I wouldn't mind so much if these were, realistically speaking, avoidable fees. But they're not - you have to pay tax, and although you can strictly-speaking avoid the "booking online" fee, you can only do this by incurring a higher "booking by phone" fee.

Basically, it's a lie, and not even a small lie - £520ish isn't exactly pocket change. (And, of course, I didn't even get to the "credit card" fee that you also can't realistically avoid, or the "use the toilet" fee, or the "check-in online" fee, or the higher "check-in in person" fee, or the "silly hat" fee, or any of the others. It all drives me crazy - tell me up front how much it will really cost, so I can make an informed choice!)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Day 300: Update on Goals

This is the penultimate update on goals. The final update will occur either at the end of the year or when I complete the last goal, whichever comes first.

  • Super Secret Goal #1. Complete.
  • Super Secret Goal #2. Abandoned in April; included here for completeness only.
  • Books. Complete. As noted previously, the final book was "Devil May Care", which I finished earlier this month.
  • Weight loss. Complete. I hit my target weight on Saturday.
  • New skill. I'm now three weeks into the course, and thus far it's going well. It's fairly intense, though, so I'm not sure quite how much I'm actually retaining.
  • Car fund. Complete.
  • General finances. Complete. Everything seems to be in order, and nicely ticking along. As with many of the other goals, this will require ongoing maintenance, but the goal itself can be labelled done.
  • Band. Complete.
  • The house move. Complete. I finally bought a dining table, thus completing the steps that make up the goal. There is some scope for adding some pictures to the walls, and it may be a good idea to rearrange a couple of the rooms at some point, but for now the job is done.
  • TV. Complete.
  • RPGs. The Star Wars Saga Edition campaign came to its close, and the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign is prepared and ready to go. We just haven't managed to actually get together to start the campaign.

The net result of all of this is that I have completed eight goals and abandoned one, leaving two to work on. I'm hopeful of getting started on the Warhammer campaign early next month, leaving only the Spanish course to bring to its conclusion in December. All in all, therefore, things seem to be nicely in hand.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #57: Perfect Roast Pork

Yesterday, I tackled the third of the four roasts from the book. This worked out quite well, apart from a slight disaster with an excess of pepper on some potatoes, but the truth is that roast pork just isn't as nice as roast beef or chicken, and so this was the weakest of the three to date.

Still counts as a win, though, taking the tally to 5-0 for "Family Roasts".

Next up is "Perfect Roast Lamb", which completes the roasts chapter. I'm not sure quite when I'll get to that - it might be a couple of weeks. I'm toying with making an early start of the "Delish Veg" chapter in the meantime.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

That's it! I did it!

Following the extensive dancing at the concert last night, at today's weigh in I got the pleasant surprise that I have finally hit my target weight.

As a consequence of this, I won't have to be quite so obsessive about the diet in future. Although I do want to avoid regaining lots of weight - I don't really want to go through another fourteen months of dieting.

Still, I think I shall have some Irn Bru, and maybe even some chips, to celebrate.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The BNP and the BBC

(Before I start, and in case there's any doubt: I am in no way a supporter of the BNP. In fact, in almost every regard I am directly opposite to them in political outlook. However, I strongly believe in various freedoms, and part of that requires arguing that those freedoms be afforded to people who I really dislike.)

Back during the European elections, there was a lot of concern about the possibility of the BNP willing a seat or two. In the end, they won two. At the time, there was some discussion on how to make sure this never happened again.

When discussing this, I made the comment (elsewhere) that this was a matter of going about things the wrong way. The fact that the BNP were able to stand on a, frankly, hateful platform, and that people were allowed to vote for them, even if this gave a result that 'we' didn't want was actually a sign that our system was working as intended. Further, rather than trying to change the rules to drive out the BNP, what should be done is that they should be engaged in argument, shown as exactly what they are, and thus defeated. (Also, the 'mainstream' parties should also take a good look at why they have so disillusioned voters so that they decided not to bother voting en masse - a low turn out favours the extremists.)

(And, while I'm on the topic, I'm more than a little disturbed by the recent judgement that the BNP must allow people of all races to join. I'm inclined to think that there are certain organisations that are inherently racist, sexist or sectarian, and that some exception must therefore be made. One wouldn't suggest that the church should be required to appoint ministers without regard to their religious beliefs, for example, and neither would one expect that the Girl Guides should be forced to accept boys*. So, I'm inclined to think the BNP should be allowed to continue to be inherently racist - and we should trumpet this fact loud and long, expose them to the light, and thus destroy them. That said, I am amused by the possibility of black and asian people joining the BNP en masse, and wiping them out that way.

* Although, it should be noted that efforts have been made to do exactly this. Both the Girl Guides and the Boys' Brigade have had to manage without government funding in recent years because they won't allow boys/girls to join. While I understand the principle behind this, and broadly agree with it, I'm sure that in this case it is a mistake.)

And so we get to the BBC, and in particular "Question Time". Now, the BBC take the view that this show is supposed to represent the entire political spectrum. Therefore, as the BNP have some elected MEPs, the rules suggest that they should be invited to take part, as happened last night.

Cue the inevitable storm of protest. In particular, one Labour MP started talking about a 'legal challenge' because, as noted above, the BNP constitution has been ruled to be unlawful. The suggestion, again, was that because 'we' don't like the way things have turned out, 'we' should change the rules to silence the voices we don't like to hear.

I'm very glad that the BBC didn't cave in to this pressure. I'm also very glad that all of our mainstream parties sent representatives to take part in the debate. (In the end, I watched very little of the show; it was always going to be about the BNP, and there's very little that they have to say that I have any interest in hearing.)

What I saw of it bore out what I was sure would happen: hand the BNP the rope, don't let them duck the questions, and they'll promptly hang themselves.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Game Over

My game for this weekend has been cancelled, again. And, just like that, I no longer consider myself "a gamer", but rather "a person who games occasionally". I find this entirely unacceptable.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Bond vs Real Bond

As the last post indicated, I have completed my 52 books for the year. Of greater relevance, to this post at least, is that the penultimate book was the final original James Bond novel, while the last was the new Bond novel by Sebastian Faulks.

So, how did it stack up?

Well, for about two-thirds of the novel, it actually holds up very well. The plot feels like something Fleming would have used, Bond feels about right, and all the requisite elements are in place. Although it never felt quite right - in the first chapters, he seemed to be trying just a bit too hard to mark this as a 'Bond' novel, and throughout the novel didn't have quite the same feel - I guess the difference between the Martini being shaken, and it being stirred. There was a certain world-weary bitterness about the Fleming Bonds that wasn't really in evidence here. Oh, and he didn't manage to capture the casual sexism of Fleming's work. (Normally, that would be a good thing, of course. However, when trying to emulate a style, it's a liability.)

However, where it was good, it was very good. Fleming was an outstanding travel writer, and Faulks managed to emulate that very well. He seemed to go on just a little long, but it was a good effort. And, as I said, up until about two-thirds of the way through the novel it felt about right.

Then it all came crashing down. You know the plot: Bond gets captured, the villain explains his insane scheme for world domination, Bond somehow foils him, the end.

Except, that's the plot of the many Bond movies. Most of the novels are more inventive than that. (And, annoyingly, it seems that there's a trend there when people seek to emulate the old-school - they emulate everything about it, except where the old-school was actually being cutting-edge and inventive.)

So, "Devil May Care" suddenly becomes "Bond by numbers", making it extremely predictable. It also breaks several stylist elements of the Fleming novels (notably, those novels almost never move away from Bond as the focus character; certainly never to other 'heroic' characters). Then there are the continuity errors, which are barely noticeable... unless you've just finished reading the other novels.

Oh, and then there's the denouement. It seems Faulks didn't quite know how to end his novel, so he stole a bit from here, a bit from there, put it all together, and it almost works. But the big problem is not the plot here, although that's annoyingly routine, but rather the style. One of the best things about the Bond novels is that they generally start quite fast, then they really get going, Bond saves the day... and then they end. They don't linger on for three more chapters, as this one does.

It's a pity. As I said, the first two-thirds of the novel is really good, and very close to the intended feel. It just falls apart rather spectacularly.

(Funnily enough, two days ago, I was about to write a post much like this one, but decided to hold off until I was finally done. That draft ended with the request: more of this please. Now, I'm less keen; I think perhaps it's best to leave the Bond novels to stand alone.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sorry?

Ah, MP's Expenses. Such fun. I am glad we're represented by such honest and upstanding folk.

Or something. Actually, I don't much care any more. I've more or less reached the point of apathy, it being my defense against despair.

However, something that seems rather odd about today's events: Jacqui Smith was ordered to apologise to parliament for some £160,000 claimed in mortgage payments, but she was not required to pay that money back.

Surely, if she hasn't done anything wrong, then she has nothing to apologise for?

Conversely, surely, if she claimed inappropriately, but it was an honest mistake, then she should indeed apologise, but she should also be paying back the money, or at least the bulk of it?

And, finally, if she claimed inappropriately, and deliberately did so knowing she should not, then surely she shouldn't be apologising, but rather should be paying back the money, and then spending some time at Her Majesty's pleasure?

I don't see any other options, so I really don't see the logic that brings us to this point.

(There is, of course, the argument that she couldn't afford to pay back the £160,000. After all, who has that sort of money available? The problem with that line of reasoning is that that money was spent on a very large and luxurious property. If that is, indeed, our money that was claimed inappropriately, then it may well be that she would have to sell that property to return the money. It seems harsh, but there it is.)

However, despite all this, I can't help the feeling that, actually, Jacqui Smith has been nominated as the official scapegoat, the MP who will be thrown to the wolves in order to take the flak for the rest of them. I'm half expecting to see her spectacularly and 'shockingly' lose her seat at the next election (while most of the rest of Labour's 'big guns' scrape by), in the same way that Portillo did in '97.

Oh, and also: apparently, the list of MPs who have to pay money back, and also the amounts and what the claims were for, is not going to be published. I am extremely angry about this. We have a General Election coming up in under a year, and it would be really good to know if the incumbent is actually an upright and honest man, or if he's been cheating the system. In my case, that's especially important: Eric Joyce is the most expensive MP in the country, but that by itself doesn't mean anything; it's just possible that all those claims were justified. Oddly, that's something I would like to know.

#52: "Devil May Care", by Sebastian Faulks (writing as Ian Fleming)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #55: Perfect Roast Beef; #56: Yorkshire Puddings

There are certain meals that could be considered 'event meals' - the meals you put that bit more effort into for the benefit of company. Roast beef is a good example. It's not something I would ever make for myself; it's just too much effort. But it's not hard work, and the results can be very impressive.

This evening I cooked roast beef, complete with the roast potatoes, carrots and parsnips, and Yorkshire puddings for myself, Dad, Lady Chocolat, and brother G. It took the better part of the afternoon. And, perhaps worse, once I got started on the cooking, I was basically engaged doing that until it was finished - unlike the curries there isn't a 'simmer step' that would allow me to leave it running and do something else.

When the meal was complete, carved and served, we sat down and began the meal itself. Shortly thereafter, the casual banter stopped, and there came a certain quiet, much as there had been for the chicken over Christmas; I have come to see this as a good thing.

The meal was very good. The beef was good, the vegetables were good, the Yorkshires were good. It was all good. So, that would be a winner. This brings us to an unchallenged 4-0 in "Family Roasts" (the previous 2 come from the chicken and the vegetables from over Christmas).

Next week, all being well, I'm going to tackle "Perfect Roast Pork".

The Day of Free Coffee

Yesterday I had another appointment at the bank, which was set for 11am. I wrote this down, and even set up a reminder in my Outlook calendar - that's how organised I was. When the bank sent me a reminder letter, complete with a huge list of documents I really really had to take with me, I filed this away for later reference, but basically forgot about it.

Until Friday, when I started gathering the documents together, at which point I noticed that the time was different on the letter: it said 10am. This surprised me, but I assumed that I must have made a mistake. Surely the letter was computer generated (it certainly looked like a 'form' letter), so it must have the right time.

So, I moved my alarm back an hour, and went to the bank, arriving just before 10. Where, of course, I was told that the appointment was at 11, and that the letter was wrong. There were profuse apologies, but I basically had to go away and kill and hour.

So, Mr Bond and I went to Starbucks, where I spent a reasonably enjoyable 45 minutes reading. (I always take a book with me to these appointments, preferably a good book. This one is a good book.) There are worse ways to spend an hour.

However, while I was there, I was approached by one of their people, who was wondering if I could fill in a survey for them. Naturally, being at a loose end, and in keeping with my debonair 'secret agent' persona, I would be delighted.

So, I filled in the survey. The line of questioning was... interesting. Anyway, as a reward for spending so much of my precious time on this, I was given a voucher for a any free drink from Starbucks.

So, the net effect: one free cup of coffee.

I went to my appointment, which went well. Although it did seem that I actually knew most of the answers already - seems I'm better informed than I think.

After the appointment, the advisor said that the bank would reimburse me for the coffee I had bought. I demurred, of course, but she was insistent. And so, I was given money for coffee. Only, rather than take a note of the exact amount (as I would have expected), I was just given a likely amount, that actually proved to be more than double the actual cost of the coffee.

So, the net effect: two more free cups of coffee. Or, a total of three free cups of (very expensive) coffee.

Huzzah!

(After going to the bank, I then went over to Ikea, where I actually found the table and chairs I wanted, and promptly spent the better part of £400 on furniture. So, it still turned out to be a very expensive day. But that's not really important to my story.)

#51: "Octopussy and the Living Daylights", by Ian Fleming

Thursday, October 08, 2009

You must be joking!

While I'm on the topic of council antics that have annoyed me, here's one from Falkirk:

Now, to be fair, the Falkirk council have generally been pretty good. They've got a really solid recycling programme (without yet succumbing to the idiocy that is slop buckets), they somehow manage to keep the town reasonably neat and tidy, and Council Tax rates are not excessively painful.

Still...

When I got home yesterday, I found a letter from the council waiting for me. Said letter was posted on Tuesday and received on Wednesday, and declared that, due to some health and safety regulation, the council needed to urgently inspect large portions of the block in which I live.

Fair enough, right?

Well, not quite. See, in order to do this, they would require me to be available to let them in some time between the hours of 10 and 4, essentially taking up a full day for this.

But that's not the worst part. They wanted, nay needed, to do this today.

So, I was somehow expected to make myself available for an inspection at some random time today, with twelve hours of notice?

Well, sorry mister council-man, but that's not going to happen. Perhaps surprisingly, I have to work. And I'm having a hard time getting a day off work for my own use at the moment; I'm certainly not going to burn one of my few days just for you. Not to mention that it's flat impossible to do it with less than a week's notice; to achieve what they want I would have to call in sick, when I am not.

How Rude!

So, my Spanish course started yesterday. I was going to post something about how I was looking forward to it starting, but also somewhat reluctant, feeling a bit overwhelmed by everything, and so on.

I'm rather glad I didn't. I have a much better post to make today.

One of the advantages of the course is that there is a gap between work and the course, but not enough to allow me to head home to get dinner and get changed. That means that most weeks, I'll be able to work a bit later on Wednesday, then head into Edinburgh for the course. (Yes, this is an advantage, especially at the moment.) However, last night I didn't work more than a few minutes late, choosing instead to allocate loads of time for the journey. And so, directions in hand, off I went.

It all went quite well, until I inevitably took a wrong turn. This wouldn't have been too bad, since I was heading for Edinburgh town centre (and how hard can it be to find that?). Or so you would think.

However, this fails to take into account the fact that Edinburgh hates cars. And, frankly, with good reason - it's not a place to take a car unless you have really good reason. Anyway, part of this hatred of cars manifests itself in a cunning manner: there are no road signs, or at least no road signs pointing anywhere you might want to go. The town centre? Nope. The railway station? Nope. Perhaps even Glasgow and the West, for when I have abandoned all hope and decided just to head home instead? Nope, not even that.

Multimap claimed the journey should take about twenty minutes. I left a full hour for the journey. One hour and five minutes later, when I was five minutes late, and getting increasingly angry at not even being able to get out of the city on the wrong side (so I could at least then make my way around and then home), I finally chanced upon a sign for the city centre. So, back I went, back through some streets, back through the park I somehow ended up driving through (that mime seemed to have recovered), and then, suddenly, back to a street I actually knew!

I finally got to the course twenty minutes late, which was fairly horrifying. Especially since my efforts to slip in quietly were stymied by a very heavy door with very loose hinges. BANG!

The course itself was pretty good, if a bit full-on. In two hours, we got a whole lot of information thrown at us very fast. Hopefully, it'll all start to make more sense over the next few weeks.

So, all in all, it worked out as a reasonably good evening. Still, I'm more than a little annoyed at the signage in Edinburgh. It seems its designed so that you can only ever find where you are going if you already know. Plus, I really hate being late for things, and especially being badly late.

#48: "Career Compendium" (for "Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay"), by Fantasy Flight Games
#49: "Azincourt", by Bernard Cornwell
#50: "The Man with the Golden Gun", by Ian Fleming

As things stand, I expect to finish the 52 books next week. And there I was thinking it would be a tough challenge!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The MOBOs and racism

For anyone who doesn't know, MOBO stands for "Music of Black Origin". The MOBOs are a fairly standard music business awards ceremony, where the various people basically take it in turns to pat each other on the back and celebrate making lots of money for the music companies, with one key difference: all the music must be of "Black Origin" - it must be performed, or composed, or produced, or otherwise constructed by black people. In essence, then, it's a form of positive discrimination.

Now, as I've mentioned before, I'm deeply uneasy about positive discrimination, on two grounds. Firstly, positive discrimination towards one group inherently means discrimination against all other groups. Secondly, by engaging in positive discrimination, you're actually sending the message "this group is not good enough to compete on a level playing field, so we're cheating to give them a chance" - hardly a good advert for the group in question.

That said, I can just about get behind short-term positive discrimination in two special circumstances: if we're dealing with a traditionally -ist group (racist, sexist, whatever-ist) and we're in the process of breaking down that barrier, or if there is a lack of, and pressing need for, proper representation across groups (for example, male teachers, especially at primary level, and perhaps female Muslim doctors).

However, that doesn't apply to the music industry, where many of the top acts are black, many of the up-and-coming acts are black, and where there don't appear to be any actual barriers to black people breaking in to the scene. (Arguably, there is an imbalance at the business level - but that's the one area the MOBOs don't touch.)

So, it's fair to say I don't like the concept of the MOBOs. It would be unacceptable to have awards for "Music of White Origin", so why is the other acceptable?

Experimental Cookery (Monday &) Tuesday #54: Lamb & Red Wine Stew, Kinda Hotpot

The fourth and final stew worked about as well as the pork & cider, which was a relief. It also tasted fine, which was also good. And, what's more, the chopped potato topping actually improved the stew, rather than being rather a waste of time as had been the case with the previous toppings.

So, that's 3-1 for the stews. This concludes the stew chapter; I now move on to family roasts, starting with roast beef. My favourite was the chicken & white wine, with the beef & ale stew being the worst, of course.

(Yes, quite a short review this week - I didn't have too much to say, mostly because the stews are minor variations on a theme.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Some Random Thoughts

Now in list form:

  • I think that, once I finish Jamie's current book, I shall endeavour to continue with my "Experimental Cookery Tuesday" project. However, rather than religiously working through one book after another, I think I will instead seek out something I've never cooked before and try that. Also, it may not be a Tuesday each week.
  • I need to restock my freezer with pre-cooked foods; over the past several weeks I have reduced my stores down to almost nothing. Basically, there are some eight batches of food I need to put together for later use: four different curries, lasagne, chilli, burgers and bolognese sauce.
  • After four months with almost nothing worth watching on TV, Sky now about to start showing no fewer than five shows I want to keep up with in the next few weeks. I am less than delighted about this - could they not have spread them out a bit better?
  • The fifth and final season of "Stargate: Atlantis" is okay, but less good than the previous seasons. Sadly, it really hasn't been worth the wait for Sky to repeat it. Hopefully, "Stargate: Universe" will be better.
  • I'm currently finding that every minute of my day is scheduled before I even get out of bed in the morning. I call this "The Tyranny of the To-Do List". It's not fun, especially since I'm currently 'taking it easy' while band is taking a break, getting some rest before both the tough new band year starts, and the beginning of my Spanish course.
  • Buying a dining table and chairs is deceptively difficult.
  • Why is it that as soon as I decided to bring my SWSE campaign to a halt because I don't have enough material prepared, I immediately thought up half a dozen great ideas for what should happen next? Also, why is it that as soon as I started preparing my next campaign, I immediately thought of half a dozen other campaigns that I would like to run (but probably won't ever have the time)?
  • I wish I hadn't read "Nineteen Eighty-Four". It has made me even more cynical and depressed than I already was.
  • I've been brainstorming goals for next year, and have come up blank. This either means that I've achieved everything I want, I believe everything I haven't achieved is now forever out of reach, or I just haven't had any good ideas yet.
  • The ideal number of items on a list is nine.


#47: "You Only Live Twice", by Ian Fleming (only 5 more to go!)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday (& Wednesday) #53: Pork and Cider Stew / Sort-of Cottage Pie

The third of the stews was just another variation on the same theme. Fortunately, like the chicken stew, and unlike the beef, this one didn't dry out completely during the cook process, and was therefore actually edible. More than that, it was actually nice.

As with the pastry lid for the chicken stew, I felt that the potato topping that made this sort of a cottage pie was rather a waste of time and effort. It was nice enough, but didn't really add to the whole. It didn't really help that the boil-time given wasn't really long enough, and I rather foolishly didn't check that the potatoes were soft enough to mash before I reached the point of having to mash them. Oops.

Next up is a lamb and red wine stew, which I have to make into a sort-of hot-pot. That's next week. That will also conclude the stews, after which I move on to the roasts. In the meantime, the stews now stand at 2-1 in favour.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why can't all deliveries be like this?

My game was cancelled again this week, so I set out to look into the possibility of getting either a dining table or a tumble drier delivered. In the event, I got a nice new tumble drier.

Some months ago, I had searched out the dining table I wanted, but due to financial pressures I never actually got around to ordering it. Unfortunately, it has now increased in price, but that wasn't the barrier. What was the barrier this time is the conditions of the delivery: they'll arrange a delivery date some time in the next four weeks, on a weekday, and the slot they'll offer is "some time between 8 and 6". In other words, I would have to take a day of work (which I currently can't) just to wait in for a delivery. Yay!

(And, of course, there isn't the option to go to the store to get the table, or even to have the table delivered to the store and collect it from there at a time that suits me. Oh, no. It must be delivered to my apartment, and I must take a day off to get it. It looks very much like I'll be getting another table entirely.)

By contrast, there was the drier. This I got from Comet, which was one of the more expensive options, and I had to pay extra for the delivery, which was also more expensive. But it did work so very well...

They offered a bunch of options. For orders placed before 2, I could have next-day delivery, or I could instead opt to wait longer and get free delivery. I was permitted to choose my delivery date at the time of ordering (and have the delivery made on any day of the week, including both weekend days). If I wanted, I could also choose either a morning or an afternoon delivery (although this did cost more).

Having made my selection, they then arrived when they said they would, on the day they would, phoned to say "it will be in the next half-hour", and delivered the drier with a minimum of fuss.

Basically, it was the way all deliveries should be done.

#46: "The Princess Bride", by William Goldman

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #52: Chicken & White Wine Stew with a Puff Pastry Lid

This proved to be vastly more successful than its predecessor. The key difference was that the cook time was much shorter, which meant that it didn't dry out. Also of note was that the wine was poured first from the bottle to the measuring jug, and then to the dish, rather than from a can direct to the dish - this may have affected how much evaporated immediately on impact.

The puff pastry lid was, frankly, rather a waste of effort. It was nice enough, but I don't think I'll bother in future. However, I certainly expect to revisit the stew itself in the future.

So, that will be 1-1 on stews. Next week I'm doing a pork & cider stew, which will be made into a "sort-of cottage pie".

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The AGM, and the Season Wash-up

After a long and tough season, we finally reached the end yesterday, with our AGM. This will, therefore, be my last post about band for a while.

The AGM went well, but was rather dull. These things often are. I was elected to the position of Chairman (actually Chairperson, but I do so hate being PC...) for a second year. Indeed, the core of the committee remains the same, of the previous committee only one member stepped down and was replaced; we have added several new people to bring the total back up to strength.

So, what about the year just finished?

The Good

  • We qualified for the final at three of the four Majors we attended, at the Scottish and European Championships and at the Cowal Gathering. We also recorded our best result at a Major since I joined the band, coming ninth at Cowal.
  • We won at Callendar, and also collected a fourth place.
  • We ran a highly successful trip to France that vastly exceeded the expectations of everyone who attended.
  • We ran a trip to Ireland that was likewise enjoyable, although the result didn't suit us.
  • The band grew in strength and confidence over the year, such that it's almost an entirely different band, despite being made up of all the same people.
  • We ended the year with a small net loss, leaving us well in the black. This was despite a massive increase in expenditure and the recession. It is also a vast improvement over last year, where our net loss was five times as great.


The Bad

  • We failed to qualify in Ireland. This made for a very long and tiring trip that was ultimately disappointing.
  • We lost our secretary in a manner that generated a certain amount of animosity.
  • There was an issue with money surrounding the trip to France, that proved to be a costly mistake. It also generated yet more animosity.
  • There was the issue with us not doing the parade at Cowal, which angered a lot of the parents and other supporters, caused a problem with the bus driver, and threatened to tear the band apart.
  • We were very, very busy. For me, we were too busy this year; I can't do that again.


Lessons Learned

  • This year, we intend to go back to Ireland, and to do better. However, we can't guarantee that we will. However, it is our intention to spend a second night, after the competition, in Ireland. That way, we will at least not have the disappointment of failure immediately followed by a long and tiring journey home.
  • Everything that happens with regards to money needs to be clearly and explicitly spelled out. Everything. Sure, we might think that a "gentlemen's agreement" will hold us, but it turns out that it really won't.
  • Should we do the trip to France again, I believe we'll work under the assumption that we're not getting any grants, and so that the people who are going will have to pay the full amount. We'll still apply for whatever grants we can, and if we do get them then at that point we can reduce the cost.
  • Now that we know the format of the week in France, we can and should do some research in advance as to possible trips while we're out there. If we can build in two day trips, I think this will go a long way towards making the trip better for all.
  • (For me personally...) Don't go trying to set a cerfew while in France. It was just a bad idea. What were you thinking?
  • Communication is very, very important. In fact, despite us doing a reasonably good job, it remains our biggest area for improvement.


So, next year...

  • We will be competing in all five Major competitions this year, adding the World Championships to our schedule. (The rules for qualifying have been changed next year, so that it's likely we'll only have to qualify at the World Championships and at Cowal. Needless to say, we want to qualify at both of these.) Our goal for next year is to start getting in and amongst the prizes at the Majors.
  • We'll only be doing five Minor competitions next year, as opposed to the twelve of this year. We'll be aiming to place highly at all of them.
  • We'll be running the weekend trip to Ireland again, in July this time, in order to attend the competition there. The intent is to stay there for a second night after the event.
  • We've been invited to return to France. The Festival next year starts just after the World Championships, so we won't need to make a choice about which to attend (as we did this year). We certainly intend to return.
  • We've got a lot of new members intending to join, which will require the purchase of a lot of new uniforms. We also have a lot of existing uniforms that require refreshed. As a result of these two factors, we will need to a similar amount of fundraising to this year in order to break even. Although the net loss for this year was small, we cannot continue making small losses year on year.


And that, I think, is that. I am optimistic about the future of the band, but am also quite glad to be getting a two week break from it now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Competition Season Ends: Peebles Highland Games

It was the final competition of our season, and Lady Chocolat came with us. It was a nice sunny day. The band came eighth out of seventeen, which was a respectable but not stellar result. We also managed to get through the day without any big fights, which is always a bonus.

All in all, it was a reasonably pleasant way to end the season.

A Paperless Life

I find myself intrigued by the notion of a paperless life. There are three reasons for this: it's easier to be organised if I only have to track a handful of items, rather than endless bits of paper; it's tidier to generate less stuff that must either be stored or thrown away; it's better for the environment. (Even if we recycle every sheet of paper that comes our way, it's not 100% reuse - some is always lost in the process, and anyway the process itself requires energy. Better simply not to generate the paper in the first place.)

Of course, it is not possible to achieve a truly paperless life. Some of the steps required rely on other people, while some require the use of technologies that don't even exist yet. Plus, of course, electronic book readers are a poor substitute for the real thing.

Still, there are some things that can be done. And, to that end, there are two things to consider:

Where something can be done in a paperless manner, should it be done in a paperless manner? Is paperless billing the way to go? Can I track appointments and contact details on my phone and my PC, without having to handle cards to those effects at all?

Where something can't be done in a paperless manner, should it even be done at all? Can I avoid getting those annoying spam* letters, that I have to open, check, shred, and then recycle? Can I opt out of the SkyMag that I never read? And so on.

At this stage, this is very much a thought experiment. I'm still at an early stage of even accepting the use of a mobile phone (I know, I'm some sort of crazy Luddite), never mind using it to run my life. And paperless billing worries me, especially for important things like bank statements.

Still, it is definitely something to consider for the future.

* Actually, I've ranted about these before. Why exactly have they not been banned? I mean, this is one very obvious measure that would make a real difference to the amount of waste we collectively generate, would cause very little pain (and actually improve life for a lot of people, albeit slightly), and yet it doesn't get done.

#45: "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", by Ian Fleming

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Preparing the Campaign 3: Other Secrets and Adventure Outline

Other Secrets

The Journal

Early in the campaign, the PCs will come into possession of the journal outlining a detailed plot to kill a noblewoman. Who wrote it, who is the target, is the plan still going ahead, and what do they do with that information?

The Seeds of Chaos

Thomas Black would appear to have inherited the touch of Chaos from his father, and he is not the only one. It appears someone or something Chaos-touched dwells in the Tunnels, and the asylum is filled the the mad and the touched. What is causing this blight, and can it be stopped? Or is the Black Hand destined to fall to the same madness that is about to consume the town?

The Witch Hunter

Seven years ago, Walkenberg was host to a Witch Hunter who found some twenty cultists and mutants, and burned them all. He left, but word is he's due to return very soon, with more names and more evidence. But how did he come by this evidence, who are his names, and just what are his credentials anyway?

Adventure Outline

As noted in part one, the plan is for the campaign to be built of five adventures, each made up of four sessions. The initial plan for the campaign arc is as follows:

Adventure One

The PCs arrive in the town, and are immediately involved in the search for the graverobbers. Once those graverobbers have been identified, the PCs must return the loot to its rightful owners. It is now that they will come by the journal.

The adventure continues when Thomas goes missing, as do a handful of other locals. The trail leads to the elves of the nearby woods, but what are they doing and should they be stopped? The townspeople think they certainly should - and in fact that the Black Hand should deal with the elves permanently. But just what are the consequences of disturbing the elves?

The adventure concludes with the investigations into the Tunnels. How many Skaven are down there, and why have they been killing townsfolk in greater numbers recently?

The purpose of this adventure is to lay out some seeds for later campaign use, and also to place the PCs into a position of relative trust in the town.

Adventure Two

Now it gets dark. The nearby town of Denberg is beseiged by Orcs and calls for help. Lady Aum dispatches the Black Hand with instructions to destroy the Orcs and break the seige. But her orders are also clear: when the mercenaries liberate the town, they are not to be restrained in their 'celebrations'. At best, this means the looting of the town. At worst...

This has consequences, beyond the obvious ruination of Denberg. The Black Hand becomes harder for the Captain to control, even aside from his own guilty conscience. Walkenberg starts to pay the price, despite the efforts of the Lieutenant, Joffrey Lamb and (hopefully) the PCs to keep a lid on things.

At the same time, Neidart and his thugs step up their actions against The Welcome Embrace. This begins while the Black Hand is away, but when they return the PCs will be forced to act almost at once. Quite what they do will determine some of the direction of the campaign as a whole.

Beyond Adventure Two

I haven't yet planned this far ahead. Part of the issue is not knowing just how the players will direct the action. Part of the problem is that it isn't clear what the best course of action to take is. What I do know is that the demands of the Lady will become more and more terrible as things go, the Captin will slowly go insane, the Black Hand will become a menace on the town, and only the PCs will be able to stop it. Maybe.

Key features:

  • The Witch Hunter will return, probably in adventure three.
  • One faction of the Larstein family will move against the other. I'm not sure who will be on each side, though.
  • The Captain will go insane, the Lieutenant will take over and prove to be a tyrant, and Joffrey Lamb will become obsessed.
  • If the PCs remove Neidart, they will find others quick to take his place. Essentially the only way to stop it is for them to take the place themselves.
  • Somehow, all of this will turn out to be the fault of the PCs, though I'm not sure how yet. Perhaps the elves were actually keeping something in check, and the PCs stopped them? Perhaps they unearthed some artifact best left buried?

Preparing the Campaign 2: Cast of Characters

The second part of preparing the campaign is the development of the main characters who will be present. Now, in a TV series, we typically have a number of main characters and then a larger number of peripheral figures. In Star Trek, for example, the three main characters are Kirk, Spock and McCoy, while we have a second tier of characters in Sulu, Scotty, Uhura and, later, Chekov. Then there is a third tier of recurring characters such as Sarek, Chapel and Rand. (There is also a fourth tier and even a fifth. The fourth tier are those characters who appear once only, but are rather important for their one episode. A good example is Khan. Fifth tier characters aren't even important in their brief appearances - they're the "red shirts" whose primary job is die horribly on some alien planet.)

In a role-playing campaign, the first tier main characters are always the PCs (or, at least, those should always be the stars). The second and third tier characters are Non-Player Characters (NPCs), and can be detailed here. (Fourth and fifth tier characters don't get write-ups until the adventure they appear in, if even then.)

The Second Tier

There are eight characters in the second tier. Actually, this is rather too many to be ideal, but it's also the minimum set I think I can get away with. The second tier characters are as follows:

Berthold "Nooseman" Agers (Protagonist)

Representing the 'everyman' within the Company of the Black Hand, Nooseman was a common thug for hire in Bilbali, who made the mistake of being on the wrong end of a gang war. When the dust settled, he found himself in the hands of the bailiffs, and scheduled for a short walk followed by a sharp drop. However, it seemed that Death didn't want him, because the hanging didn't take, leaving the powers-that-be unsure of what to do with a man they couldn't hang again (pesky legal technicalities) but couldn't set free. Enter the then-Captain of the Black Hand, and a solution. Nooseman has been a mercenary ever since.

Nooseman is a permanently dirty, louse infested commoner with a foul mouth and equally foul breath. He's also a first-class drunk, a terrible gambler, and a really good man to have around in a tight spot. He is of medium height, with dirty locks of black hair, an uneven beard, and the clear mark of a botched hanging around his neck.

Nooseman is intended as a friend for the PCs, someone to show them the pulse of the Black Hand, and also something of comic relief - every time the Black Hand goes into combat, Nooseman is going to find himself on the receiving end of a rather nasty injury.

Secret: At the start of the campaign, there is no great mystery about Nooseman. This is slated to change...

Klaus Cooper (Innkeeper, former Burgher)

Owner and proprietor of The Welcome Embrace tavern and house of ill-repute, Klaus is a giant of a man with a ready laugh and a booming voice. He's also the rather unfortunate victim of a terrible curse: he feels the need to help those less fortunate than himself. As a result, his tavern is doing poorly, he is constantly running into trouble with the powers-that-be, and yet he keeps on digging himself in worse.

Klaus is intended to serve as a grounding point for the campaign. Every campaign really needs a 'home base', and The Welcome Embrace is it. Klaus is not immune to the horrors that are to come, but he will also be one of the few NPCs who seem to remain upbeat despite what is about to happen.

Secret: In fact, The Welcome Embrace doesn't make enough money to break even, but rather is being funded by Lady Aum. Why?

Ulliana (Servant)

The Welcome Embrace has a staff of about twelve, all told, be they serving wench, stable boy, cook, barman, prostitute, or some combination of the above. However, only the owner Klaus and the serving girl Ulliana are of particular interest.

Ulliana had the singularly bad fortune to grow up with a dead mother and a drunk father. As she grew up, she first hated the nights that her father would stagger home drunk (for this left them with no coin), and then come to love them, because those were the nights he wouldn't beat her. Eventually, though, there came a day when her father found himself unable to cover his bill, and so he sold the only thing he had of any value - Ulliana. She was to be the bride of the ugliest man in Walkenberg.

But worse was to come, for no sooner had she married the man than the Witch Hunters came to town. Their inquisition found Chaos Cultists and mutants in the town, and her husband was both. He was burned at the stake, and she was disgraced, disowned by her father, but free. She was doubly disgraced a few months later, when her son was born.

Ulliana managed to avoid a life of prostitution, but only barely, and only through the good graces of Klaus. Unfortunately for her, she is now forced to accept whatever torments the patrons and employees of The Welcome Embrace decide to inflict on her, for she has a son to feed and nowhere else to go.

Ulliana is a girl in her early twenties. She is neither pretty nor ugly, but decidedly plain. She wears old but servicable clothes, and is rather too thin, choosing to feed her son rather than herself. She is seldom in good health.

Ulliana's campaign role is somewhat undetermined. It is usually wise to leave open the option of a 'love interest' in the campaign, although sure an avenue is rarely pursued by PCs. She also is the perpetual 'matron in distress'.

Secret: Ulliana's son, Thomas, is something of a few child. Could be have inherited the taint of Chaos from his father?

The Lieutenant (Duellist, former Sergeant, former Soldier)

If ever there was a man born to be a quartermaster, it is the Lieutenant of the Black Hand. Unfortunately, the very skills that make him an expert at tracking and scheduling the movements of equipment and people en masse also make him a terrible choice for any people-facing role, such as being the immediate superior of the PCs.

The Lieutenant was born and raised in a minor Estalian town, the son of a soldier, and destined for a life of soldiery. However, a mother who insisted he learn to read and count as well as fight put him on the fast track for promotion, and this gave him a taste of ambition. He quickly signed on with the Black Hand, and rose through the ranks.

The Lieutentant is a fussily neat and organised person, who always knows exaclty where everything and everyone should be. He always has the answers, and is decisive to make choices where they must be made. He also, unfortunately, views people as entirely interchangeable. Thus, he never bothers to learn the names of the men under his command, only their skills, and is never satisfied with results. He's also an ambitious man, who believes he should be the Captain of the company, and who chafes at the promotion of the now-Captain instead of him. Not that he would ever show it.

The Lieutenant is intended as a foil for the PCs early in the campaign, and is destined to become a real menace later.

Secret: He has a name, surely?

Neidart (Racketeer, former Thug)

The self-styled crime lord of Walkenberg is actually but one of several gang bosses in the town, but the one who will feature most in the campaign, at least until the PCs take action. A small man with small ideas, small ambitions and small desires, he would be tolerable if it weren't for his need to ensure that nobody else does better than he.

Neidart was a childhood bully who grew up to be a thug, who then became the leader of other thugs when he turned his boss over to the Witch Hunters as a cultist (he wasn't, of course). Neidart grew up around Ulliana, and was galled to find he didn't have anything to offer her father when he was in need of a sale. Still, that problem was soon fixed, and now Neidart has his sights set.

Neidart's current plan of action is to drive The Welcome Embrace out of business. He has a three-fold plan. Firstly, he runs his own prostitutes, undercutting the prices that Klaus requires his girls to charge (so they can eat, you know). Secondly, he plays up Ulliana's bad reputation to try to drive away more business and/or stir up trouble. And thirdly, he's on the lookout for any opportunity to turn Ulliana's protectors in to the law. He'll find a way...

Neidart's campaign role is to force the PCs to act, one way or another. They might join him, rival him, ruin him, or kill him, but they probably can't ignore him for long.

Secret: None, really. Neidart is a straight-up villain, someone to be opposed, or rivalled, or eliminated.

Joffrey Lamb (Watchman, former Jailer)

And on the other side of the equation, we have Joffrey Lamb, the law in these parts. A (mostly) fair-minded man, Joffrey resents the use of mercenaries in the town. As such, he has a promise from the Lady Aum that should the Black Hand cause trouble he is permitted free reign to control them. As such, he has made it his mission to be there should toruble arise.

Joffrey Lamb is a tall man with a beard that refuses to be tamed. He wears the uniform of the town with great pride, and carries a cudgel not a sword. He also knows the law only too well.

Joffrey's campaign role is initially to be another foil for the PCs, and to restrict their actions against Neidart (despite his own hatred for the worm). However, as time goes on, he will become something worse, as his obsession with the Black Hand grows, and he becomes determined to ruin them.

Joffrey and Klaus treat each other with cool reserve, or avoid one another entirely. Why?

Captain Reinholt Aurus (Captain, former Knight, former Squire)

The third captain of the Black Hand in as many years, Reinholt is convinced he won't be in the role long. In truth, his tenure has been something of a disaster, as his morals required him to turn down several commissions in the summer. Now, desperate, he has been forced to sign his men into the service of the Lady, knowing full well that her motives are dubious at best.

Reinholt is a good man, in a world of bad men. He's also a man trapped by his duty to his own men, knowing that the Lady's commission is all that will see them not starve over the winter. He's a son of the Empire, born and trained in Altdorf itself. He was once a knight, but saw a chance to better the morals of a mercenary company, a move he now sees as a mistake.

Reinholt's campaign role is a tragic one. The events of the campaign will not be happy ones, and he will be forced to give some terrible orders fairly soon. That will prey on him terribly, and lead to disillusionment, disgrace, and insanity.

Secret: The Black Hand has a secret purpose beyond simply being a mercenary company, and the Captain is the keeper of that purpose. That is why he took the command, and it is why he has led the men here. But, what is that purpose?

Lady Felicia Aum (Noble)

The matriarch of the Aum family, the guardian of the heir of Larstein, and the undisputed power in Walkenberg, Lady Felicia Aum is a cruel and terrible woman. A whip-thin lady in her mid-sixties, she has fiercely grey hair, grey eyes, and black clothing. Her fingers seem abnormally long.

Felicia Aum watches over Walkenberg with a steely eye, and she has divined that she will be in need to mercenary forces in the days to come. She doesn't quite know why, only that they will be needed. And so, she has summoned the Company of the Black Hand, and how puts them to use for her benefit, and for the betterment of her town.

Felicia Aum has no morals at all. She is quite happy to order the deaths of hundreds, and of men, women and children alike, if doing so will fit her agenda. She is even aware that there may come a day when she has to kill her own grandson and those two cousins, in order to preserve her rule. If necessary, she'll do it herself.

Lady Aum's campaign role is as patron and villain. She will be the one ordering the Black Hand to act, and will take a particular interest in the PCs (but of course). She may seem quite the benefactor, but she most certainly is not.

Secret: Just why does Lady Aum visit the Asylum so often? And why does she help out The Welcome Embrace? And what is her ultimate purpose for the Black Hand?

The Third Tier

The third tier are less important characters who will nonetheless recur throughout the campaign. These characters get a name and a brief description, but not a full assignment of careers, nor a secret. Those characters are as follows:

Claudette Larstein: Larstein cousin, noblewoman, noted beauty
Felix Harvester: Farmer's son. Thinks he's a big, tough guy
Gallina Wheat: Pickpocket and guide
Gustav Harvester: Felix's cousin. Also thinks he's important. Good singer
Humphrey Larstein: Larstein cousin, fancies himself a deadly duellist, pompous ninny
Imhol Pimcher: Drunk of The Welcome Embrace
Nan: Halfling master-chef, friend of Klaus
Thomas Black: Son of Ulliana, waif and stray of Walkenberg
Treaker: Soldier of the Black Hand

And those are the characters, at least as far as they have to be defined at this time.

More to come...

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #51: Beef & Guinness Stew with Dumplings

This is what should have been a very nice meal, utterly destroyed by faulty instructions. I followed the book to the letter, and when the stew went into the over it looked fantastic. Half an hour before it was supposed to be finished, though, I found it had completely dried out, welded itself to the pan, and was almost entierely unrecoverable.

Fundamentally, the problem is that there just wasn't enough liquid for the cook time and temperature. This one either needs some water added, or double the tomatoes and Guinness, or to cook for less time. As it is, it cannot be used.

So, that's a rather emphatic 1-0 against in the Stews chapter. Next week, I'm doing a chicken & white wine stew with a pastry lid. Worryingly, the method is exactly the same. That said, the cook time is only half of today's effort, so that might make all the difference.

Epic Fail.

Preparing the Campaign 1: Preliminaries and Setting

Okay, two warnings: if you have no interest in role-playing games, you'll probably have no interest in this post. Also, this is probably going to be quite a long one. I say probably because I'll be doing quite a lot of the work as I go, so even I don't know yet just what's going to be here...

Right, for anyone who's left who isn't familiar with the concept, a role-playing game is essentially a structured form of improvised storytelling. You have a bunch of players and a single Game Master (GM). The GM will devise situations and challenges and explain them to the players. Each player controls a single character (PC) in the scenario as laid out, and will describe what their character attempts to do. Dice are used to resolve conflicts and provide uncertainty.

In general, a group doesn't sit down for a role-playing game, play for an hour or so, and that's the end. Rather, the game tends to be played in a longer format, of longer sessions (generally 4-6 hours in my case), with any number of sessions being run in sequence to build up an ongoing story, or campaign. A good analogy here is of a TV show - you have a weekly episode (session), with an ongoing storyline that runs across several episodes in a season (campaign).

Preparing an RPG campaign, then, is a process of laying out the framework for the situations and stories that are going to be played out in the campaign. In some ways, it is similar to writing a novel or TV series. However, because of the input of the players, it isn't possible to fix most events, and so only a general framework can be assembled at the outset.

Another analogy: consider the creation of a new soap opera. You probably have a series creator, or perhaps a small team. This person will decide on a setting (Ramsay Street), the characters (Grant and Phil Mitchell) and some of the macro events that will occur (a plane hits the village). However, the creator then turns the series over to a stable of individual script-writers, who will fill in the details of exactly who says what, when and to whom. Even the creator cannot fill these details in at the outset. (But, again, the analogy breaks down somewhat. Imagine if, instead of a scriptwriter doing all the characters for an episode, each scriptwriter has complete control over a single character in every episode. Yes, it would be a mess, which is why they don't do TV like that, but it works rather well for the game.)

So, that rather lengthy introduction done, let us proceed to the preparation of a new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) campaign.

The Basics

WFRP is a roleplaying game set in a fantasy world very similar to Europe around a thousand years ago. The setting is dominated by The Empire (much like the Holy Roman Empire of history), which is threatened on all sides by menaces such as Orcs, Skaven (ratmen), heretical Chaos cultists, Undead, and so forth. It is a grim, dark game which on the face of it looks like a cheerful D&D clone of heroic heroes searching for fortune and glory, but is actually the playground of dark antiheroes on a path to insanity and death.

Two things have been said about WFRP: "It's the game where you start of thinking you're playing D&D, but find you're actually playing Call of Cthulhu", and "if your character ends the adventure better off than he started, you're doing something wrong."

So, why play if your character is likely to be maimed, driven insane, and eventually killed? The answer to that is the same reason people watch slasher films: it's fun to see how these things happen.

Some Practicalities

This campaign is intended to run through the winter, starting at the start of October and running to the end of April. It would be nice to say we would gather every week, but that's extremely unlikely. Instead, I'm going to estimate the campaign will run for 20 sessions. (This may well be wishful thinking.) Each session will be split into two parts, each of roughly two and a half hours.

My plan, therefore, is to split the campaign into five adventure 'blocks', each of eight 2.5 hour units of time. Each adventure needs to be scheduled such that it can drop at least one session and still work (mostly).

Ideally, I also want characters to just finish their third career by the end of the campaign. (This is to do with character advancement.) To that end, characters should probably finish their first career after the first adventure, their second after the third adventure, and thus be just finishing up their third career as the campaign ends.

(Unlike the Star Wars game, I have no intention of revisiting this campaign once it is done. It should therefore be mostly self-contained.)

It is also my intent to run this campaign by-the-book with no House Rules. This includes things like the encumberance, scarcity and subsistence rules, which go a long way to aiding play balance in this game. They also go some way to enforcing the 'low fantasy' feel of WFRP, making it distinctly different from D&D.

Theme and Concept

The concept of the campaign is that all of the PCs are members of a down-on-their-luck mercenary company, the Company of the Black Hand, who after a long lean summer have been invited to winter in Walkenberg at the behest of the ruling lady. Unfortunately, large numbers of desperate mercenaries descending on an unprepared town leads to trouble...

The theme of this particular campaign is going to be "abuses of power". The PCs will spend a lot of their time dealing with various people in power - the local Lady, their mercenary captain, the watch captain, and various crime bosses. Along the way, they'll see most of these figures abuse the powers that they have, gradually dragging everyone and everything in the campaign down into horror and Chaos. At least, that is if they aren't stopped.

Mood

The intended mood is one of growing horror. The campaign will start off reasonably cheery, with the party arriving in Walkenberg, settling in and meeting the locals, and perhaps even improving the town somewhat. But things will start to go wrong, as a madness starts to inflict everyone in the band. Gradually, order will break down, and the PCs will find themselves the only sane people in a world gone mad. Or, perhaps, the only insane people in a world that isn't.

On Secrets

When preparing an RPG campaign, it is a good idea to fill the setting with secrets for the PCs to discover and influence. Ideally, every major campaign element (character, location, piece of history...) should have at least one associated secret. Some of these are laid out here, although the resolutions are not present (just in case...).

Setting

The specific setting of this campaign will be the town of Walkenberg, in the Eastern provice of Stirland within the Empire. It is a town of some 1,200 souls, rather too close to the borders of the Empire for comfort. It exists within three days travel of the World's Edge Mountains and the Orc hordes who make their homes there, and a mere day from the province of Sylvania, domain of the Vampire Counts.

Walkenberg is also a day's travel from the next town over, it's great trading rival of Denberg. This will probably become important later in the campaign.

The major areas of Walkenberg are as follows:

The Outlying Regions

Stirland is the breadbasket of the Empire, and Walkenberg is a town therefore built on farming produce. For miles around the town, there are extensive fields of crops. The population of the town swells during market times, and also during the periodic attacks by Orcish hordes. By the same token, the defense of the outlying regions is taken extremely seriously in Walkenberg, which depends on the harvest for its very life.

A mile to the south-east of Walkenberg lies a thick and tangled woodland. This is home to a vicious and secretive band of Wood Elves who turn away any who venture near, and are not afraid to enforce this edict with their bows. The townsfolk hate the elves (truly), but are too scared to do anything about them.

Secret: What are the Elves hiding, and why?
Note: no PCs, even Elf PCs should be from this band of Elves.

The Walls

Despite this, Walkenberg is entirely encircled by a thick curtain wall, sufficient to repel a light horde. In times of crisis, every man of the town is required to take up arms for the defense of his home. In peacetime, however, the walls are generally manned by only a few men - generally those whose injuries prevent them working a farm, but whose eyesight and valour is undiminished.

Secret: If Walkenberg has sufficient defense in the form of the militia and the levy, why has Lady Felicia brought the Band of the Black Hand here?

The Manors

Walkenberg is officially ruled by a diumverate of two noble houses, two great rivals for power, the Larsteins and the Aums. Each of these two families maintains a great manor house in the centre of the town, simultanously looking down over the rest of the townsfolk and glaring angrily at the other.

At present, the Larstein house is almost empty, playing host to the infant heir of that family and also two distant cousins. Due to an arrange marriage and then a set of deaths of varying levels of mystery (one from old age, one in childbirth, and then several in a fire), Lady Felicia Aum is the legal ward of her grandson, the infant Timeon Larstein. This renders the Larstein family entirely impotent, much to the ire of Timeon's cousins.

Secret: Were all those deaths really innocent?

Temples

Walkenberg has two temples of any size. The town has a small but grand cathedral to Sigmar, patron deity of the Empire, run by an old, fat and querulous priest. Other than the need to show willing, there will probably be little need for the PCs to visit the cathedral.

Additionally, the town has a dark, and usually ignored, temple to Morr, god of the dead. This temple is run by two priests who dress only in black, never show their faces, and speak only when they must. Their primary job is in the interment of the dead, and the maintainance of the graveyards. However, they do also know of one really skilled surgeon in the town...

Secret: Why do the priests of Morr never show their faces?

The Graveyard

Large and overcrowded, the graveyard is also regularly patrolled to deter grave-robbers. That said, it seems that the guards have recently been caught drinking on the job, and someone has been looting tombs.

Secret: The question of who is the tomb raider will form the basis of that first adventure.

The Tunnels

What sets Walkenberg apart from most Imperial towns, and every other town in Stirland, is the presence of a number of tunnels under the town. These are a combination of natural and man-made caverns, which have been used by the populace in the past as a refuge against rampaging Orcs. Nobody knows just how extensive these tunnels are, or how deep they go, and nobody really ventures down there except when they must.

Secret: Someone has been killing townsfolk, and dragging them into the tunnels. There is no sign of them ever coming out, alive or dead. Could this be the dread Skaven at work?

Galvan's House for the Dangerously Insane

Finally, Walkenberg plays host to an ayslum for the mad. Here, the children of Dr Galvan, Rudiger and Rangar, treat some dozen patients of various forms of dementia. Of course, few who are committed ever come out, and they are seldom quite the same.

Secret: Rumour has it that there is a lost Larstein heir committed in the asylum. Is this true?

More to come...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

'Nearly' just isn't good enough

Last night, Scotland once again failed to qualify for the finals of a major footballing tournament. This wasn't exactly a surprise, as we've had a rather poor qualifying campaign. Somewhat more galling, this marks a major step back from two years ago, when we narrowly failed to qualify for Euro 2008 from a group containing Italy and France (the two teams who had just played out the previous World Cup final).

So, where do we go from here? Well, let's apply my universal five-step process for dealing with failure.

#1: Stop assigning blame

Yes, if George Burley hadn't alienated Boyd, he might have made a difference. Yes, if Chris Iwelumo hadn't missed that shot against Norway, we'd now be in second place and in the play-offs. Yes, Barry Ferguson and Alan MacGregor disgraced themselves.
But none of this actually helps. The Scotland team is not one, two or five individuals. There were maybe thirty (maybe more, maybe less) people directly involved in the qualifying campaign, and this is a collective failure. Singling out one person to shoulder the blame doesn't actually help the rest. Trying to identify one person may simply lead the team to disintegrate as everyone blames everyone else.

#2: Stop making excuses

This goes hand-in-hand with #1. Saying, "oh, we would have been fine except for this person being injured", or "the ref had it in for us, we never get a break" doesn't help. All it does is disguise the weaknesses of the team. Work needs to be done; let's not shy away from that fact.
A corrolory to this is that it is not acceptable to say, "this isn't so bad - we came within one game, within one goal even, of qualification." Two years ago, we narrowly failed to qualify from a group containing France and Italy. This year, we failed to qualify from a group that did not, and we can't even claim it was particularly narrow - even had we won the match we were still trusting to results in other groups to help us.

#3: Identify the problems

Once step #1 is out of the way, and we've committed to #2, the time comes to calmly analyse just what went wrong. Why was it we failed to qualify.

As I see it, there are three core problems.

  1. Certain of the players, and perhaps the majority, don't respect or trust the manager. This shows itself in Boyd's decision to walk away, and most particularly in the antics of Ferguson and MacGregor. This, actually, has been a problem in the past, where Paul Le Guen was forced out of Rangers by Ferguson's inability to work with him. There may be a pattern there...
  2. A corollary to the above: certain poor decisions on the part of the manager. The selection of Iwelumo over Boyd to play Norway is the best example of this, but not the only one. Burley simply seemed never to have the measure of our opponents the way Walter Smith or Alex McLeish did. And of course, if the manager doesn't project both confidence and competence, it's awfully hard to respect him.
  3. We're weak up-front. Once Boyd ruled himself out, MacFadden got injured, and Iwelumo was ruled out of the running (by a combination of that miss and injuries) there really wasn't anyone for the goals to come from. It shouldn't be like that - in theory we have a number of goalscorers - but it just never seemed to happen.


#4: Work out how to solve the problems

Now, that's the real trick, isn't it? Once you're confident that you have correctly identified the problems, you can start work on fixing them, but that's always easier said than done.

Here's what I think they need to do:

  1. George Burley has to go. He's going to be made the scapegoat anyway, where a lot of the blame lies with others, so that's unfortunate. Nonetheless, he simply never projected the confidence that was needed, he did make some really bad mistakes, and he didn't get the results. So, time to go. What is less clear is who should replace him. (I have heard Gordon Strachan touted as a possible successor. I suspect this would be a mistake - despite his successes at Celtic, he is another manager who never seemed to project the kind of confidence we need. We probably need someone older, someone more experience, and someone widely respected. He also needs to be familiar with the Scottish game, although I don't think he necessarily has to himself be Scottish.) This is probably the most important piece of the whole picture - look at the difference Fabio Capello has made to England, using all the same players.
  2. A clean slate for everyone. This is important because it draws a line under what has gone before. Though, frankly, it's likely Barry Ferguson will never play for Scotland again anyway - he's just not the player he once was.
  3. We need more strikers, or better strikers, or better support for our strikers. I have no idea how to develop that, though - development of players really comes from the clubs, and they aren't bringing through Scottish strikers for whatever reason.
  4. No more friendlies you're going to lose. From now on, every match is a must-win match. Winning and losing are both habits, and we're in the wrong one. (Yes, this is at odds with my "friendlies don't count" mantra. Circumstances have changed.)


#5: Do it

Once you have the list of problems, and you have the plan of action in place, the time has come to act. Start with the manager - get the right man in, then have him announce the clean slate, and set up the new set of friendlies. And make sure to win them. Meanwhile, have the manager look at every single striker who is eligible to play for the country (we can't afford to be too proud about heritage), and make sure everything that can be done is being done.

#44: "Pathfinder: The Final Wish", by Rob McCreary