Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Branch Locator

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

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

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

Anyway...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Edinburgh Pipe Band Championships 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Tim Farron

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

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

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

Except...

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

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

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

Poor Tim never really stood a chance.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Strathmore Highland Games 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Counting the Days

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

Markinch Highland Games 2017

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 09, 2017

Covfefe and Mugwumps

Politics, eh? Bloody hell!

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

It really is a mess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 08, 2017

A Cautionary Tale

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 02, 2017

Typical

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

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The End of May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Day 150: Update on Goals

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

West Lothian Highland Games 2017

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

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

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

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

It has been a good week.

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

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Free School Meals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Teeth

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I was having trouble with my teeth. When I got to the dentist, his advice was that it was probably one particular tooth, and it was probably in need of root canal treatment. He then put a dressing on it and had me make a future appointment to have that done.

The last few weeks, therefore, have been a bit odd - sometimes my teeth have been fine, sometimes they've been a bit aggravated... but there was only one instance when they flared up as badly as they had done previously. When I went this morning, then, there was some doubt as to whether this was really the right thing to do. In the end, we went ahead.

It turns out that was the right decision - the reason it had seemed to improve was not a real improvement, as might have been hoped, but rather due to the nerve dying. Of course, this is pretty classic for the symptoms I was having, and root canal treatment was exactly the right thing. So that's a relief.

Of course, now I'm in the recovery phase, which isn't too much fun - the anesthetic has started to wear off, and the whole thing's rather unsettled. Still, hopefully this now marks us coming to the end of that little adventure!

Monday, May 22, 2017

The British Pipe Band Championships 2017

Saturday saw us competing in our first championship of the year. It was a decent day, but...

We managed to qualify for the final, and ended up coming 9th. If you'd offered me that on Friday, I would have readily accepted it. As it was, we came away sorely disappointed.

The day started well - we got to the competition bright and early, our preparation went extremely well, and we went on did well in the qualifier. We came away sure that we'd made it with some ease... which is a little risky, as we've found to our cost in the past. Still, we made it.

Then, for the final our preparation also went well, apart from being rushed by two different stewards at two different times (which hardly seems fair, but what can you do?). Anyway, we went on, we played, and we came away sure that we'd actually done better the second time out - we thought we must surely be in with a good shout of a prize.

But it wasn't to be.

In fact, it turned out we'd come 6th in the qualifier (8th and 12th for piping, 2nd for drumming, and 6th for ensemble). In fact, we were only 1 point ahead of the 7th placed band, though we did have a better ensemble score, meaning that we actually made it by only the smallest of margins.

In the final, we came 9th (11th and 7th for piping, 5th for drumming, and 11th for ensemble). So a slightly better performance overall, but only just.

The journey home was therefore extremely muted. I think we were all just happy to have it done and over with.

Unfortunately, this basically ends my hopes of seeing the band getting promoted before I stand down in September - to do it, we'd basically need to win a prize at each of the three remaining Championships. That's already a tall order, but once you factor in that it includes the Worlds, where it's hugely difficult just to qualify (only 4 bands go through from each of three qualifying groups, rather than the more usual 6 each from two groups), we're really up against it.

Oh well.

Next week is the West Lothian competition in Bathgate, which should be okay. And then we're into June, which is the toughest month of the year - we have something on every Saturday and every Sunday through the month.

#24: "The Elves of Cintra", by Terry Brooks

Friday, May 19, 2017

Falkirk in the Playoffs

Somewhat to my surprise, Falkirk managed to come second in the Championship. They now find themselves going into the second leg of the playoff semi-final with a very slight advantage over Dundee United. Win that, and they'll then face either Inverness or (likely) Hamilton in the final.

Falkirk have it in them to win those matches, regardless of who the opposition in the final turned out to be. That's not to say that they would, of course - merely to note that they could. (I'd be a lot less confident if it had turned out to be Motherwell or Kilmarnock, to name two.)

But, here's a question: should they want to?

On the one hand, winning promotion back to the Premiership would be a fine thing, and obviously playing in a bigger league means they get a bit more money per ticket and the like.

On the other hand, though, moving up means shifting from a position where they're at the top of the division and winning most weeks to being at or near the bottom of another division and losing most weeks. And that's got to affect morale, and is likely to lead to reduced crowds.

So maybe it's actually better not to win promotion. Indeed, maybe the optimum result would actually be to lose tonight and then see Dundee United win the final - the effect would then be a (slight) net reduction in the quality in the rest of the Championship, improving their "win most weeks" ratio.

Well, perhaps. Alternately, maybe it should just be a case that you always seek to be as close to the top as you possibly can, and that the goal therefore should be to win promotion this year, to make it to at least 10th next year (thus avoiding dropping back down), and thereafter thinking of making a challenge for higher levels in the years ahead. After all, it's not like anything stays the same in football - it wasn't so long since Inverness were coming in the top six, and now they'll be lucky to avoid automatic relegation. Who's to say that Falkirk would win most weeks in the Championship next year?

Anyway: COYB!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Pathfinder Tales

For the past several years, one of my sub-lists for my Books goal has been a series called "Pathfinder Tales", a loosely-connected series of books associated with the Pathfinder RPG. Being game-related fiction, my expectations of the series have not been high, although they have tended towards the better end of that spectrum - with one exception they have at least been entertaining.

The most recent book in the series, "Gears of Faith" was the novel I read at my competition on Saturday. It was, again, rather entertaining, it was a nice easy read, and it was just the right length for me to finish off in the day.

Unfortunately, it was also the last to be published in agreement with TOR Associates, which effectively means that the series is now on hiatus - there's no word on when the next book might appear. (There have been assurances that the series has not been cancelled. But that only counts for so much - just because it hasn't been cancelled today doesn't mean it won't be cancelled tomorrow, especially if a new partner can be found. And the longer that situation goes on, and the more books are 'missed', the harder it becomes to bring back. So, we'll see.)

In the immediate term, this doesn't affect my reading goal much, as I have enough extra entries in the "New Books" series to make up the difference. In the slightly longer term, if the "Pathfinder Tales" line doesn't resume then I'll need another sublist for next year (which is already a bit light, as I'll be more or less up-to-date on the Shannara novels and will have finished all the Culture ones). But I do hope it doesn't come to that - I would miss the Tales if they don't resume.

An Update on the House Move

It's been a while, so I thought I'd maybe post a wee update on where we are with the house move.

The short answer is: still where we were.

The longer answer is that movement on selling the flat remains imminent, just as it has been for the last several months. I do have reason to believe movement really is about to happen... but I've also said that before.

Unfortunately, things have moved in the wrong direction on the purchase side - at the start of the month our sellers finally lost patience and re-marketed their house. I can't say I blame them, though obviously it's disappointing.

So, right now we're still in a waiting stage - until there is actual movement on the sale front, we're not doing anything on the purchase side. As soon as that does happen, we'll again seek to make a purchase, this time at least with the assurance that there's no longer a chain to worry about.

It's worth noting that we're rapidly heading towards the school summer holidays. On the one hand, this isn't terrible - it means LC at least will be free to pack/unpack without having to work around school. One the other hand, that does mean I'll have to trust her not to quietly dispose of all of my favourite things...

But the last thought is this: there are quite a few people who had indicated a willingness to help us with the move, time permitting, which is excellent. Unfortunately, many of those same people have holidays booked for large parts of July. So I'm becoming increasingly convinced that that is exactly when we'll have to move...

Another Mug Anecdote

Over the past six weeks, my parents have had the unenviable task of going through my grandma's belongings, deciding what should be kept, what should be thrown out, and what should go to charity. In amongst this, each of the five branches of the family (that is, my four siblings and I, plus our respective partners and children) have had opportunity to see if there's anything we want to claim before it goes to charity.

That has been an odd proposition: my grandma had a lot of stuff, quite a lot of it quite nice, and yet... the truth is that we tend to want very little of it. In many cases, this is largely because while it's nice, we have equivalent items of our own which are generally better - and little storage space for things that might "come in handy". Better that they go to charity and from there to good homes. Let them do what good they can.

But there are some exceptions: items of sentimental value. These tend to be quite few - my attachment was always to the person and not to specific belongings, and there aren't many things that will help me remember her better. Some photographs, of course, and one or two other items, but not much else.

Still, I do sometimes think I should want more of it than I do. As I said, an odd proposition.

All that said, there were three items that I've claimed for reasons of sentiment, two of which I expected and made sure to lay claim to, and one that came as a surprise.

The first of these was a squirrel. My grandparents had a great many of these, collected over many many years. It was their thing. But one, in particular, had some importance - it was made by a very young Steph/ven some decades ago and had spent those decades in pride of place on their mantlepiece, to the extent that the paint is faded on one side.

The second is a plaque they had mounted in their hallway that discussed the origin of their surname. I'm not sure why I liked that in particular, but there it is.

But the third one came as a surprise. It is a mug, and of course it has an anecdote attached - it's a simple blue mug with a yellow flower on it, nothing much to look at. But when visiting this was the mug that I always used. In effect, it was my mug. (CJ and A had their own mugs, too. I don't know about R or G - I would presume they must, but can't be sure.) I hadn't seen that in a good many years, since as Grandma's mobility declined and the weight of stuff became overbearing, I had adopted the policy of just using whatever cup was available to hand. But she still had it, still kept it safe.

And, unexpectedly, it is now mine. Again.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Dunbar Highland Games 2017

Yesterday marked the start of the competition season for 2017, with our traditional first venture to Dunbar. Fortunately, there was no repeat of the shenanigans of last year; in fact the bus was shockingly quiet throughout - possibly a consequence of it being half-empty.

Anyway, there's not much to say - it was a decent day, a good but not stellar performance, and then a lot of waiting.

In our grade, we came 4th out of 12th (1st! and 6th for piping, 2nd for drumming, 7th for ensemble). In Grade 4A, we came 6th out of 7 (6th, 7th, 5th, and 6th) - but we're not overly concerned about that since that was mostly about gaining experience for next year. So, a very good result, and a good base from which to build - especially since we knew we could have done better.

#22: "The Woman in White", by Wilkie Collins (a book from The List)
#23: "Gears of Faith", by Gabrielle Harbowy

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Dear Adobe...

Frankly, it's a bit of a pain that you seem to update Flash every couple of days, and that I therefore need to update all my devices, both at home and at work. But I guess it's a living product, and that's probably necessary.

However, when I set up my PC I made sure to choose the homepage, search provider, and anti-virus solution that I wanted to use (or, in some cases, that I was required to use by my employer). I'm quite happy with that choice, and don't want to change it.

That being the case, I'd appreciate it if you didn't ask me, every single time, if I wouldn't really rather use your preferred browser settings. And I'd really rather you didn't leave that box ticked by default, so that I absolutely have to remember every single time or spent several minutes after the update undoing the damage that you've done to my system.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

How is there a Market for Mugs?

As I may have mentioned once or twice, I have many mugs - enough to use a different one every week for half a year without repeating them. But the thing is that I don't collect mugs, nor have I particularly gone out of my way to buy lots of them - I've generally picked one up as a souvenir on my travels, thus having one from each of the countries I've visited (though I don't have one from Germany or from the Netherlands - I'll need to go back). I do have a few others that were bought for me as gifts, or for other reasons, but the majority have been from trips - meaning a rate of aquisition of one or two per year.

And despite that, I have some thirty mugs, with the vast majority of them never being used. Indeed, they're of negative value - not only do they not get used, but they fill up space that would be better used for other things (and, what's worse, I have to clean them periodically, because they accumulate dirt and dust over time, and there's always the risk that someone might visit the flat, have a coffee, and select a mug at random - that mug really shouldn't poison them!).

I've even actively tried to solve part of the problem - my current work mug is marked as not being dishwasher-safe, and yet I deliberately wash it in the dishwasher (I know, so rebellious). My thinking here is that one day the design would wear off, at which point I would discard the mug and switch to another. But no such luck - the design remains in pristine condition.

So...

I find myself in a position where I have a huge number of mugs without ever going on a massive buying spree. I'm also reasonably sure I have a larger than average number of mugs. And while I have acquired a few in the last year (mostly presents for my 40th birthday), I haven't actually bought a mug for a few years now.

That being the case, I have to wonder: how is there even a market for mugs? I mean, these things are produced in a huge variety and in significant numbers, so presumably someone must be buying them... but who? Surely most people buy one or two when they first move out, probably pick up one or two more as they wear out or get damaged (or lost)... but surely that's not enough to support the whole market, which seems to be pretty huge?

Or is this just another area where we have a whole cycle of people buying them as presents for other people, who then hold on to them for a while before gradually binning them? Are people effectively just the digestive tract in the anatomy of some great mug-devouring beast?

(Incidentally, and since I'm sure it's the question on everyone's lips, I currently use four mugs. My favourite mug remains the black one I picked up on the band's trip to Brittany a few years ago. When that is in the dishwasher (it is dishwasher safe), my backup mugs are two Star Wars ones I got for my 40th birthday - one with Kylo Ren on it, the other with the First Order Stormtroopers on it. My work mug, and the one that fiendishly resists my attempts to wear it out, is another Star Wars mug, a Christmas gift this time, dedicated to the legendary 501st Legion. It's fair to say there's a bit of a theme in the mugs people get me as gifts.)

Friday, May 05, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #10: Light Coronation Chicken

I always find Coronation Chicken to be an odd thing - politically, I'm of a distinctly Republican mindset (UK-style, not US), and so a meal that was designed specifically for the coronation of our current monarch isn't my ideal meal. On the other hand, it's worth noting that this meal was developed when rationing was still very much a thing, and takes the cheapest meat and finds a way to stretch two chicken breasts to feed four, and it manages to taste good (if made well). I find I do have to respect that, not least since she could very easily have gone for something well outside the means of her subjects, and especially on the most significant day in any monarch's reign. So, fair play.

Anyway, this particular version comes from my "Let's Cook..." book, by way of Ainslet Harriott. And it's a good one - quick and simply to put together, and definitely meeting my "if made well" criterion. My only slight issue is that it needs to be mixed up and then left for two hours, which isn't ideal when you get in late and are planning to have it for a quick dinner - in the event we had something else, left it chilling overnight, and had a really quick dinner yesterday. But I'm not sure any of that is really a criticism of the recipe, since some things do just need time.

Nice as this meal was, I'm also inclined to think it would be even better used as a sandwich filling - much like the pots you get in Tesco but without the additives and other junk. Which is always a good thing, since I do like a good sandwich filling.

All in all, this was a triumph, and we'll definitely be having this again.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

An Important Question

Since those crazy Americans will persist in putting the month and the day the wrong way around when writing the date, doesn't that mean that Star Wars day in the UK should be on the 5th of April?

Also: happy Star Wars day!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ow!

As I noted in my previous post, things have been difficult for the past few weeks. Fortunately, there seemed to be some light at the end of the tunnel - finally some movement on the house front, the long-awaited abating of the latest batch of IBS issues, and a much-needed weekend with the corresponding chance to rest a bit.

And then my teeth decided to act up. Naturally, they chose their moment for this - right at the start of a weekend, with a bank holiday to maximise the chances of the dentist still being closed on the Monday.

Yeah, it's not been a fun few days.

Friday, April 28, 2017

York

Life has been rather difficult for the last couple of weeks, for all sorts of reasons. So, in a bid to distract from the crushing reality of life, I thought I'd recount some of our recent trip to York.

LC and I travelled down to York on the 11th of April, taking advantage of the fact that the Virgin Trains East Coast line runs through Falkirk and York - a five minute walk from the flat got us to the station and then we just sat on the train for a few hours. Which was nice.

Prior to our trip, we had purchased three-day "YorkPass" cards, giving us access to a whole range of attractions in the city. However, because these cards covered calendar days, rather than 72 hours, we were left with a choice - use the cards on the Tuesday after we arrived, or use them on the Friday morning before we left. We couldn't do both.

In the event, we chose to keep the cards for the Friday (the right choice, as it turned out). In the few hours we had to spare on the Tuesday, then, we took advantage of one of York's free attractions, being the railway museum, which was most impressive. My personal favourite was the Mallard, of course, though sadly the Flying Scotsman seemed to be elsewhere (or, at least, we didn't see it). Still, a good use for a couple of hours.

On the first evening, we ate in the restaurant of the Premier Inn where we were staying, which was fine but not exceptional - that being pretty much what you'd expect of a PI. Likewise, the breakfasts didn't disappoint.

Day Two was rather busier than the first day. Since we had the YorkPass cards, it was of course important to get our money's worth, so off we went...

The first thing we did was head to "York's Chocolate Story" - not to visit the attraction, but rather to book in to visit it later in the day. Which is maybe a tad strange, but there it is. That done, we made use of the York City Sightseeing bus tour, which was a decent way to cover quite a lot of the city in an hour. It's probably not worth doing without the YorkPass, being much smaller than equivalent tours in Barcelona, Paris, or London, but wasn't bad. Oh, but it was cold!

After the bus tour, and after a coffee to warm us up, we went back to York's Chocolate Story for their tour. This was probably LC's most anticipated event of the trip, and was really quite interesting - I hadn't realised just how important York was to Britain's confectionary industry, and vice versa. So, this is recommended.

There was then a short stop for lunch, which was a roll with pulled pork from a little store. And then we went to the JORVIK Viking Centre, where the Vikings have, apparently, returned. And I must say, they've done a good job with the place - a good mix of fun and information, plus some live exhibitions. Good stuff.

By that time, the afternoon was drawing to a close and many attractions were closing, so we finished Wednesday's adventure with a visit to the York Brewery. I think this one was more interesting to me than to LC, but it was interesting enough. Much like the Tulip museum in Amsterdam, it wasn't something we would have gone to without it being in the YorkPass, but it was reasonably interesting - that's actually a big advantage of the YorkPass that it gives an incentive to see some 'lesser' attractions and so help them gain some business they might otherwise miss.

That evening, being our fifth wedding anniversary, we had booked a table at a restaurant called Delrio's. This comes highly recommended - after a starter that was quite nice if somewhat uninspiring (bean soup), I then had one of the best pizzas I've ever encountered, followed by their "meringue of the day" which turned out to be one of the best desserts I've ever had! So, yeah, that's highly recommended, too! (The meal wasn't even all that expensive, especially if you discount the bottle of prosecco - we pushed the boat out on that one, and although we didn't regret it we probably wouldn't make that choice on a more normal evening out.)

Thursday was set to be our busiest day - and then our plans went agley fairly quickly when it turned out that York Minster was closed for the morning due to Easter celebrations. Honestly, how could anyone have foreseen such a thing?

Thwarted, we instead hunted down Barley Hall, which is hidden away in an alley off one of the side-streets. This wasn't quite open, but we were able to kill some time easily enough. Barley Hall was notable for two things: firstly, it was a "hands on" museum, meaning you actually got to play with all the exhibits, which was cools; and secondly they had several costumes from various Tudor-related shows, notably "Wolf Hall"

Having ventured into the reign of Henry VIII, we then stepped further back in time (Great Scott!) and visited the Roman Baths. This was a tiny exhibit that, like the brewery, was diverting enough for a little while, but not really worth visiting without the YorkPass. Still, good luck to them - it was still interesting to see the evidence of the Roman Empire so far north.

Next up was the YorkBoat which, as the name implies, is a boat trip along one of the rivers in York. Which was nice - good to see yet another perspective on the city. Though it was also somewhat sad seeing how the river was once such a vital artery for trade and industry back in the day and is now... not. (Of course, that's also true of Falkirk with the canals, and many other places.)

And then, following a quick Subway lunch, we went to the York Dungeon, one of the other 'big' attractions in the city. This was a lot of fun, though is certainly not one for small children! (Incidentally, and not at all to my surprise, it turns out that I do indeed have the plague. I knew it!)

And then, back to the Minster. This was definitely worth a visit, though perhaps warranted a little more time than we were able to give it (due to Easter celebrations it closed early, too). In addition to the free entry for the YorkPass, we also purchased tickets to climb to the roof, which featured a trek up some hundreds of steps, and then back down again. Nice view, though.

Thursday's dinner was tapas, from a restaurant called Las Iguanas (I think). And very nice it was, too.

By the time Friday came, we'd done pretty much all the key things we'd wanted to do in York. Still, we still had the passes, and still had some time, so off we went again. Firstly, we completed our walk along the city walls (I haven't mentioned this before now, but we did walk along all of it at one point or another), and visited Dick Turpin's grave. This was all en route to the York Castle Museum, which actually was fascinating - I particularly enjoyed their recreation of a Victorian street.

And from there we climbed up to Clifford's Tower, which I think we found most noticable for the very obvious slope of the rooms on higher floors!

And we still weren't done, because following lunch we made a quick trip to Fairfax House - an eighteenth century townhouse that had been converted into a cinema and then restored. This was interesting, though by this point I think we were slightly running out of steam.

There then followed some shopping for souvenirs, some wandering around the Museum Gardens (though obviously this was only done under protest, since the entry was free and so didn't contribute to us getting our money's worth), a look around the Chocolate Festival that was just starting, and then back to the train and then home.

Yes, it was a busy few days, and I think we came home more exhausted than we went! A good trip, though, and one I would recommend for those seeking a short break. I do definitely recommend the YorkPass - there's enough of interest to fill several days there, and it covers a wide variety of things.

Anyway, there it is. I hope you enjoyed my trip to York, much belated as it was.

#21: "Pathfinder: Fangs of War", by Rob Lundeen

Friday, April 21, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #9: Minestrone

This is another one from the "Let's Cook..." book, and another by Antonio Carluccio. And it was quick and easy, albeit involving a fair amount of chopping of vegetables.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite work - the resulting meal felt more like eating a big bowl of vegetables than soup. And it was just really bland. A real shame.

Needless to say, I don't plan on doing this one again. I do, however, have several other recipes for minestrone, so I'm somewhat hopeful that one of them may be better...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Chance

Edit: Immediately after posting this, I discovered that the Lib Dems have ruled out the possibility of a deal with Labour. That being the case, you can downgrade "one chance" to "no chance", and forget the advice below on how to vote - we're getting the Tories regardless.

In any* UK General Election, there are only two possible (final) outcomes: either we get a Tory-led government, or we get a Labour-led government. It's also just possible that we get a situation where nobody can form a government, but that just results in us having to vote again.

(* Okay, that's the current paradigm. Long-term, there's the possibility that one of the big two parties will collapse so completely that they are overtaken by a different national party. In which the same "three outcomes" apply, just with one of the names changed. For an example of this happening, see the rise of Labour at the expense of the old Liberal (not Lib Dem) party.)

So, this election boils down to a choice: which is it to be - Tory or Labour? They both suck, but they're the only options, so when it really comes down to it and you have to choose, what's it to be?

Now, if you chose Tory, here's the good news: you're almost certainly going to get what you want. I suggest you go out and vote Tory, though you do have a few other options available.

But if you chose Labour, then the news is nothing but bad. Firstly, because you're almost certainly not going to get your wish, but also because you're probably going to have to do something you really don't want to do.

Here's the thing: to have any chance of a Labour government, we really need to maximise the number of non-Tory MPs in the House of Commons. When push comes to shove, the Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, and similar will vote to support a Labour PM but not a Tory one, while the Lib Dems will probably join such an alliance if the numbers are otherwise there. And when push comes to shove, Labour will probably accept that support in order to keep the Tories out. (Besides, we might as well assume that that's the case - if it's not, we might as well not bother voting.)

So, since getting the Tories out means voting as many non-Tory MPs as possible in, here's how it needs to work:

If you live in a Tory-held constituency (or Douglas Carswell's constituency), then you need to go and vote for whichever party came second in 2015. Unless that was UKIP (or the Tories, in Clackton), in which case go for the third party. If you live in a constituency that is not Tory-held (or, again, Douglas Carswell's seat), then you need to go and vote for the party that won the seat last time.

Now, this does mean that a lot of people will have to vote for people and parties they really don't like - it means lots of traditional Labour voters in Scotland voting SNP, it means a lot of people who detest Jeremy Corbyn going and voting for him, and it means that the people who gave the Lib Dems a well-deserved kicking in 2015 voting them back in. I'm sure none of that appeals.

(It also means that, in the very best case, we get a government formed from a crazy coalition who don't agree about almost anything, led by a Labour party in disarray, and with the Prime Minister who can't even command the support of a majority of his own MPs. Which I would normally consider a profoundly irresponsible thing to vote for, except that I'm convinced that if the Tories win then England and Wales are headed for economic catastrophe while Scotland and, probably, Northern Ireland are headed for the exit door.)

But that's the price. The margins we're working with are so small, and the polling situation so desperate, that even a mass tactical vote is highly unlikely to be enough to swing this one; without that mass tactical vote, there's no chance at all.

(No, really. The most recent poll of voting intentions put the Tories in 48%. That's already an almost unbeatable position - blocking them requires the rest of the vote to line up just right.)

Given the position that we are in, a vote for anybody else, or even an abstention, is effectively a vote for the Tories.

Your call.

Monday, April 17, 2017

On Universal Suffrage

Captain Ric and I happened to find ourselves talking yesterday evening about the topic of various votes, at which point he expressed the opinion that we really should be using the same franchise for all our various votes - and specifically that it doesn't make sense that 16 year olds have the vote in Independence Referendums but not General Elections.

Now, in principle, I agree with this. Indeed, in principle I would also tend to the view that not only should we be using the same franchise for all relevant votes, but that we should also be using the same voting system for all elections - it really doesn't make sense that we use First Past the Post for General Elections, a modified d'Hondt system for Holyrood elections, Single Transferrable Vote for Council Elections, and an unmodified d'Hondt system for EU Elections.

However...

There are a handful of things in Scottish society that are in fact better than their equivalents in the rest of the UK - notably, things like free university tuition, and free prescriptions. (I have a great deal of sympathy with people from England who complain about this being unfair. It is unfair.) Also, the lower drink-drive limit in Scotland seems to have worked out extremely well.

And I would certainly include extending the vote to 16-year-olds as one of those "better things", and I most certainly would include the use of proportional representation systems - one need only look at Scotland's cohort of MPs to show the failure of First Past the Post, with the SNP winning 56 out of 59 seats on just 50% of the vote.

And so, while I would agree that we should indeed use the same franchise in Scotland as in the rest of the UK, I would argue very strongly that this is a case where it is the rest of the UK that should be changing. And if Westminster won't change these things in the rest of the UK, I don't think Scotland should force itself to use a lesser system just to remain consistent. Why shackle yourself to an inferior system?

(And, likewise, where English people complain about the unfairness of Scots getting free tuition and prescriptions, their complaint shouldn't be about us getting them - it should be directed at Westminster for them not getting them.)

And it's worth noting that the reason Westminster won't change the voting system from First Past the Post is because that system very heavily favours the Tory and Labour parties. Which is a terrible reason for sticking with a lousy system, but it makes it very difficult to change - the only people who can change things are the very ones who benefit from keeping things as they are.

As regards the voting age, my position is fairly simple: by sixteen a person could, at least in theory, have left school and be in full-time employment, and therefore paying Income Tax, and I agree wholeheartedly with that old American slogan: no taxation without representation. If they're old enough to pay taxes, they absolutely should have the vote.

Of course, the main argument deployed against giving 16-year-olds the vote runs like this: why 16 and not 14? This same argument was no doubt deployed in exactly the same way when the age was moved from 21 down to 18, and it is the first step in an inevitable reductio ad absurdum argument - if 16 is conceded, why not 14, and then why not 12, 10, 8... heck, why not give newborns the vote?

Well, actually...

Increasingly, I've been coming to the view that maybe universal suffrage should mean exactly that. That is, a person should be assigned a vote as soon as they are born, with that vote to be exercised on their behalf by their primary caregiver (usually the mother) until either the person turns 16 or they fill in an appropriate form declaring that they will be voting in their own right.

And here's the thing: my youngest niece is a little over a year old. Consequently, she won't have any say in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. But whichever way that vote goes it will have a very profound effect on the rest of her life. Surely, then, someone should speak on her behalf?

Of course, this could give rise to the seemingly odd situation where someone votes at an extremely young age. But so what? If they care enough to have filled in the form to get a vote, and they care enough to go and exercise that vote, then presumably they care enough to have educated themselves on whatever it is they're voting about. Which, frankly, is rather more than can be said about a lot of current voters.

(It's worth noting that this arrangement would give disproportionate influence to the country's population of mums, who would suddenly find themselves exercising many more votes. And that's likely to have the effect of skewing public policy in their favour, which is perhaps not desirable. But the hard fact is that at present our public policy is already being skewed - in favour of pensioners, because older folk vote in disproportionately large numbers. And, bluntly, if the government is going to favour some groups over others because of a need to chase votes, then I'd rather it was mums - at least that would give education an appropriate level of importance.)

Actually, I would go even further than that. Not only would I grant a vote by proxy even to the youngest child in the country, I would also extend the franchise to any and all foreign nationals who are permanently resident here. If you're living in this country long-term, you're contributing to the future of this country - why then should you not have a say in how the country is run?

(I'd also end the practice of disenfranchising all our prisoners. Amongst other things, the EU have ruled that this practice is illegal under human rights legislation. The UK government, to their shame, promptly ignored this.)

Basically, I'm inclined to take the view that the right to vote should be considered a human right - something you get simply by virtue of being human, and something that can't be taken away from you as long as you remain human.

#18: "Armageddon's Children", by Terry Brooks
#19: "Pathfinder: Trail of the Hunted", by Amber E. Scott

Monday, April 10, 2017

Day 100: Update on Goals

Time for another update on the goals for the year. Shockingly, we still haven't moved, which means most things are still on hold. Still, where do we stand...?

  • Weight: Finally, some progress - I've lost about half a stone over the course of Lent, which is obviously good. Still a long way to go, though.
  • Books: By this point in the year I should have read about 16.5 books, and I'm a little further on than that. So that's in good shape. I'm also up-to-date on all the sublists, which is good. Also, I've decided to continue with the Shannara sub-list, which saves me coming up with a replacement sub-list.
  • Super Secret Goal #4: As I said above, we still haven't moved. The latest indications are that it's imminent, but there's still no solid date. It's all very frustrating.
  • Part Five: The House: Obviously, this is on hold, with nothing to report.
  • Part Five: Church: Obviously, this is on hold, with nothing to report.
  • Part Five: Band: We've now reached a point where I've had to commit to seeing out the competition season with the band. My plan now is to do that and then tender my resignation at the AGM in September - that seems a good time to bow out. My hope it to have a really good season with the band, and perhaps help the band secure promotion out of Grade 4B (again), and thus leave on a high.
  • Part Five: Gaming: This is likewise on hold. There has been no gaming since the previous update, and I don't expect any before the next.
  • Super Secret Goal #5: Due to... circumstances, this goal has been set aside for the time being.

This is a fairly disappointing update, due entirely to the move still being stuck. It would be really nice if there was some solid movement before the next update, in mid-May, but I'll believe it when I see it, and not before.

The one real success of the period is the movement, at long last, on the weight goal. Hopefully, this will continue after Lent ends - I'll need to make sure to keep a close eye on that. I'm also quite glad to have my set of books for the year locked in, and also to have decided to take SSG#5 off the list.

But the big thing is still the house move. And that still sucks.

#17: "The Color Purple", by Alice Walker (a book from The List)

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #8: Raspberry and White Chocolate Muffins

The band are playing at a fund-raiser tomorrow, for which we're also running a home-baking stall, and so by way of contribution I'm offering some of Lorraine Pascale's Cookie & Cream Brownies, and also a batch of these muffins. The method for these comes from "The Women's Institute Big Book of Baking", which technically belongs to LC but which, I think, I've actually had more use from.

The method for these is, as you might expect, pretty simple - it's more or less just a cake mixture, with things being folded together, then the fruit added and mixed gently, and then baked.

And, having tested one (for quality control purposes, of course - very important), I can confirm that they've worked well. So I'm happy with that. I just hope they shift well enough tomorrow. And yes, I do fully expect to make these again - either these, or other types of muffin.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

The X-Men Films, Ranked Worst to Best

This afternoon I finished watching my way through my boxed set of the eight X-Men films (it didn't include "Deadpool" or, for obvious reasons, "Logan"). Having just finished that, and since it makes for a good topic for a post, here's my ordering of the films from worst to best:

#10: "X-Men Origins: Wolverine": I have a theory that the fourth film in any series always sucks. It's not an absolute rule, but does seem to hold very well - "The Phantom Menace", "Lethal Weapon 4", "Superman 4", "Batman and Robin"... "X-Men Origins: Wolverine". That seems to be the point where a series really starts to lose steam, where the creative barrel has really run dry, and where it needs to find new direction. And this film doesn't find it. It does have some good moments, but there's a lot of wasted potential here. And a lot of it is just bad.

#9: "X-Men: The Last Stand": If the fourth film is where the creative barrel has run dry, the third film is often where is starts to run low - all the best ideas have been used, you've got the end of the story to tell but have, if you're lucky, built enormous expectations, and it's just hard. X-Men 3 had it particularly tough, following the exceptional X-Men 2, and also because the studio insisted on getting the film out before "Superman Returns". Couple that with the loss of the director, and that one of the key characters (Cyclops) was only available for little more than a cameo, and you have problems. A real shame, because the worst thing about this film is the glimpse of what might have been.

#8: "The Wolverine": I generally take the view that there are six 'good' films, two 'okay' films, and two 'bad' films. "The Wolverine", then, is the weaker of the two 'okay' films. I definitely like it more than the other two, and could sit down to watch it reasonably happily, but there are a few things that just don't work, mostly in the conclusion - one heel/face turn has no coherent build-up, and one of the fight scenes is extremely well-shot but makes no narrative sense. Plus, it features one of my cardinal sins in story-telling - where a character does something stupid for no other reason than that the plot requires it of him (in this case, Wolverine walks through a gauntlet of bad guys rather than either trying to fight his way through or, better, sneaking past).

#7: "X-Men: Apocalypse": The most recent film isn't bad, but it's over-long, and it suffers from basically just showing us lots of stuff we've seen before in other films, but mostly done better. By this point, we've seen Magneto do his thing, we've seen Logan hack his way through bad guys, etc etc. They really need to do something different next time out.

And so, on to the 'good' films.

#6: "Logan": In terms of being a good film, this should be higher on the list. However, "Logan" wasn't enjoyable - I could appreciate how well made it was, how excellent the performances were, and everything else about it, but I didn't enjoy it. Hence the relatively low rating.

#5: "X-Men: First Class": The first of the 'beginnings' trilogy, this film had a lot riding on it - after two poor films in succession, they needed a win. And "First Class" is that win - a reboot for the series that got it going again, introduced a new cast, and told a solid story. I like it. But I don't like it quite as much as...

#4: "X-Men": The first X-Men film has the big advantage of being the foundation on which all the rest are built, which means that much of the good stuff that follows is founded here. But the big thing that makes this film work is the gravitas provided by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, which helps anchor the philosophical underpinnings of the series in something solid - they elevate this from being just another superhero movie into something more.

#3: "Deadpool": Remember how I said that after "X-Men: Apocalypse" they really needed to do something different? Well, "Deadpool" (and "Logan") have the distinct advantage of being examples of 'different'. That doesn't mean that I think the next X-Men film should just copy those - there are lots of ways to do 'different' - but it does give this film room to breathe. And after years of very serious superhero films, with the world being saved dozens of time, and so on and so on, it's nice to have a breather, have a laugh, and just have some fun. So, yeah, I like this one.

#2: "X-Men: Days of Future Past": I don't have much to say about this one - it's just a great film.

#1: "X-Men 2": Likewise, I don't have much to say about this film. For a long time, this was my top superhero film, and although it has since been eclipsed (as I've mentioned before), I still count it as one of very few 'perfect' films (others being "The Empire Strikes Back", "Back to the Future", and "The Wrath of Khan"). Though 'perfect' is perhaps the wrong word - it's not that the film is without flaws, but rather that it's extremely hard to see how it could be improved, because any change you make would probably make it worse (even fixing a flaw, since that will probably take time, affecting the pacing).

And that's my list. Naturally, I don't expect anyone to agree with it, since where would be the fun in that, but I think I'll stick with it. At least until I go through the series again and change my mind, of course!

A Milestone: 1,500th Post

I notice that this blog has now reached another milestone - after eleven and a half years, this marks the 1,500th post. Which is quite a lot, really.

I thought I'd take the opportunity afforded by this milestone to comment on a subject that has been vexing me for some time, an issue of the utmost importance, and a truly crucial matter: my R2-D2 kitchen timer.

Here's the thing: I have three kitchen timers. One of these is the dial on the cooker, which is a fairly standard analogue timer. It's not very good, but that's not unexpected - it does a job in the cheapest way possible. But the other two are a little more annoying, since in both cases the designers have decided that their main consideration should be "looks nice", rather than "actually does the job".

One of these is a little blue bird, in the shape of the Twitter logo. The other is, as mentioned, R2-D2. To use either, you twist the head to the appropriate position and wait, and a bell rings when it ends. Which seems okay.

But no! For there are two weaknesses with both of these timers. Firstly, the method of twisting the head to the appropriate position is inexact at best. If I want to set a timer for 10 minutes, I need to twist it to... round about here. Maybe, ish. That's not exactly great - ten minutes, by the nature of the timer, now means "somewhere between nine and eleven minutes". But it's worse even than that, because both timers actually run slow. So setting it for ten minutes actually means at least eleven, with the corresponding burning of all food.

Huzzah! And so what I have is two timers that have one job, and can't actually achieve it between them. Honestly, you wouldn't think it should be hard - perhaps some sort of digital display, possibly hooking into wi-fi so that it can get time from an accurate source, or something?

Or, and here's a crazy idea, why doesn't our microwave have an option to run the timer without actually cooking anything? After all, that's a digital source, it's pretty accurate, and all it's doing most of the time is sitting there showing the current time. (And, as an added bonus for that one, most things you cook in the microwave then need to be left to stand for some time after cooking but before eating - how much easier would it be if we could just get the timer to count that for us?)

Edit: it turns out that my microwave does, in fact, have a kitchen timer mode. Thus rendering this rant even more pointless on both counts - not only does this mean my complaint about the microwave is invalid, but it means I'm not reliant on either R2-D2 or the Twitter bird for accuracy. They can go back to looking decorative.

Anyway, that's my trivial rant to mark the blog's 1,500th post. I'm sure you'll agree it was worth waiting for. Or, more likely, not.

#16: "The Immortal Throne", by Stella Gemmell (my current candidate for book of the year, though I don't expect it to remain top dog for the rest of the year - it's good, but it's not that good)

Monday, April 03, 2017

Blessings

My Grandma passed away on Saturday.

The last time I saw my Grandfather was just a few months before he died. He obviously knew time was short, and so during that visit he made sure to sit me down and say a number of things that had clearly been on his mind. It was very much a matter of making sure that everything that needed to be said was said, and finally of saying goodbye. I've always counted myself lucky that we had that opportunity.

A few months ago, LC and I took a trip down to Nottingham to see Grandma over a long weekend. And, as it turned out, that weekend coincided with her having a very good weekend, to the extent even that she was able to make it out for a meal one evening, and then to church and to a lunch out the next day. Indeed, it's entirely possible that that was her last good weekend, as shortly thereafter she was going in and out of hospital, and then to the care home where she spent her final few weeks.

(And, not incidentally, it's worth noting that my other grandparents have been ailing considerably in the last couple of years, and yet those weekends when I have managed a visit seem to have aligned very neatly with those weekends when they have seemed to have an especially good weekend.)

Visiting Grandma in the care home was never a pleasant experience, but especially so in the last couple of weeks, when she was clearly going downhill fast and clearly suffering. And on Wednesday I was advised not to delay any future visits.

My final visit was on Friday and, remarkably, it was considerably better than the previous few - Grandma was much more relaxed, and much more coherent than had been the case previously. She was tired, of course, but nowhere near as distressed as previously. As I left, I made sure to say goodbye, but more importantly to tell her that I loved her.

From what I've been told, her final hours were very peaceful - she wanted people to sit with her, but mostly drifted between wakefulness and sleep. And then, when the time was right, she was gone.

It's difficult to write about blessings at a time like this, as I'm sure you can understand. But the story was coming to its end one way or another, and I find it remarkable just how neatly things fell out, once again, for the good - a blessing indeed.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #7: Penne with Chilli Sauce

This is another one from that "Let's Cook..." book, and it's another very quick and easy meal, and the results are good. This one comes from Antonio Carluccio.

But...

This is a slightly tricky one in that it's a good replacement for one of my standbys, but with one tiny problem: the meal it's suited to replace is one of my "I can't be bothered" meals, something I do because it's really quick and easy. This version is a good bit nicer, but it's also a bit more effort, so I'm not sure the better taste is worth even the small increase in time and effort. So I'm not sure we'll be doing this one again.

But, again, I find myself recommending that book - it's a really good one, especially for the £9 I paid for it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #6: Goan Prawn Curry

This was another meal taken from my "Let's Cook with the nation's favourite chefs" book, which is rapidly becoming a favourite resource. This one comes from Madhur Jaffrey, and it's another winner - very quick and easy to put together, and very tasty as well. All in all, a great find. The only down-side is that I don't have much to say about it!

But that's no bad thing. We'll definitely be having this again.

#15: "Straken", by Terry Brooks

A quick note about this book: having now finished this latest Shannara trilogy, I have decided to stick with the series for the rest of the year. This solves one of the issues with my goals for the year, giving me a nice five sub-goals for the reading list.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Distance Between Greatness and Mediocrity

This post has almost nothing to do with James Bond.

The reason I mention him, though, is that over the weekend I was reminded of something he said, that was going to form the introduction to this post until I decided to remove it for being a sentiment I didn't want to endorse. Also, I don't like the cosmetics industry. Anyway...

Over the weekend, I watched three films that caused me to consider just how small the difference between a great film and a mediocre, or even bad, film actually is.

First up was Disney's live-action "Beauty and the Beast", which is well made but which really isn't a particularly good film. It's more enjoyable than "Logan", to be fair, but then it was "Logan's" very strength that meant it wasn't particularly enjoyable. The basic problem with "Beauty and the Beast", though, was that everything that was good about it had already been done better in animated form some decades ago, while everything that was new just wasn't as good.

And so we have the original, which truly is a great film, and a near-remake that just didn't live up to it. The differences were small, but they made all the difference.

(Oh, and incidentally, this also ties into my theory about remakes: while it's tempting to remake something great, you probably shouldn't - you'll fall short in the inevitable comparison. What you should look to remake are things that had a good idea, had lots of potential, but which for whatever reason fell short of that potential.)

The other two films were "X-2" and "X-Men: The Last Stand", the second and third X-Men films. Here, again, we have a great film - X-Men 2 was the film that finally toppled "Superman 2" as my all-time favourite superhero film, and although it no longer has the top spot, that's largely because it has been eclipsed by "The Dark Knight", "Captain America: the Winter Soldier", and "The Avengers", and not because it has not aged well.

But then we have the third X-Men film, and oh dear does it fall short! And yet, it should work - it has the same cast, it has the same strong dynamic between Xavier and Magneto that makes that whole series work, it has what should be a very strong story, and there's a lot of good stuff in there. (My personal favourite is Logan's line, "I'm not your father, I'm your friend" - it's a small scene, but Rogue's subplot is one of the things that stops it just being a blackhat/whitehat slugfest.)

But, ultimately, X-Men 3 just doesn't work. Whether it's because it's trying to do too many things in too little space, or because it was rushed out by the studio because they were desperate to beat "Superman Returns" to the theatre (oh boy, did we all lose out from Bryan Singer's decision to do that one!), or perhaps because they spend too long on their big set-piece action finale without enough good build-up to support it, the film just falls short.

(On the other hand, it's not as bad as "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", which I get to tackle next. I'm really not looking forward to that one!)

There are other examples of this, of course. As I said at the outset, this post has very little to do with James Bond, but "Skyfall" and "SPECTRE" make up one of the best examples of the phenomenon at work - you've got the same lead actor (who has the role down to a fine art by now), much the same core cast, the same director, and a time-honoured formula... and yet one is great and the other just doesn't work.

Anyway, that's my big thought on films for today, and also my review of the new "Beauty and the Beast". For what it's worth, LC enjoyed it considerably more than I did.

#14: "State of the Art", by Iain M. Banks

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Modest Proposal

As we know, last year's EU referendum had a clear result: the UK should Leave the EU.

However, that referendum very clearly did not say anything about how we should go about leaving, nor about what we should do thereafter. That's all up for grabs.

So, my proposal:

We agree with our EU neighbours that on midnight on the 1st of January 2018 the UK formally leaves the EU... for 24 hours. Then we go back to business as normal, and forget all about the last nine months.

That way, Farage gets his "independence day", we have a huge party (and for £350M you can buy a lot of fireworks), everyone's all excited... and then there's a bit of a hangover but we all move on. Oh, and since just about everything shuts down for that day anyway, the damage is minimised.

No, this isn't a serious suggestion... though I'm hard pressed to think of any better outcome.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Once More With Feeling - but let that be the end of it

Less than two days in, and I'm already sick of Indyref 2. Mostly thanks to the constant rolling coverage, and especially the crazy explosion of nonsense, lies, and fantasy that this has all thrown up.

Unfortunately, I'm in agreement with the basic argument that there does need to be another vote: it's absolutely right that in light of Brexit many people (on both sides) may well have changed their minds, and it's also absolutely right that a vote to Remain cannot be taken as any sort of endorsement for Independence itself. So, since the people of Scotland have expressed a preference for two mutually-exclusive things, we need a new vote to sort out the mess. Fair enough.

And I'm also in agreement with the timing of the vote. In some ways, the economic case for independence is hurt by Brexit (because an iScotland and rUK both within the EU would obviously have a significantly easier trading relationship than if iScotland is in and rUK is out). However, once the UK as a whole is outside of the EU, and the longer the UK as a whole is outside the EU, the harder that case becomes - the longer we're out, the further we'll diverge from the requirements for EU membership. Whether we stay in or have to reapply, getting iScotland into the EU will be much easier now than it will be in five years time.

So the vote should be held, and it should be held in about two years - once the shape of Brexit is known in some detail but before it's too late.

(I'm not sure any of that matters. It looks like the Labour, Tory, and Lib Dem parties will resist any referendum on any timescale... and will be outvoted; and while Westminster technically has a veto I don't think they'd be mad enough to use it - I can think of few better ways to drive floating voters towards a pro-independence stance than a widely-hated Tory government telling Scotland we don't get a say in our own future. Doing that would delay the vote, but would probably also guarantee that it is lost when it does happen.)

All that said, we can't keep doing this. Every referendum is necessarily divisive and is a distraction from other issues. Sometimes, those distractions are necessary, but we can't keep going through the pain.

So this vote should be permitted, because circumstances demand it. But in addition, it is long since past time that Westminster formally devolve the right to hold independence referendums to Holyrood, but with an appropriate cool-down period between them. They should have done this in the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012 but didn't, and then they should have done it in the Scotland Act in 2016 but didn't.

As for the cool-down period, I would advocate 7 years. Ideally, I'd prefer longer (10 years, maybe), but there's a precendent in the Good Friday Agreement that should be followed. Though even better would be for there to be a periodic window in which such things can happen - that is, if Indyref 2 happens in spring 2019, then another vote could happen in 2026, but if not then the next opportunity would be 2033. (That said, if it is a window, the duration really should be 5 years, making it a "once in a parliament" deal, or some multiple thereof.)

One more thing, being a little no-doubt unwanted advice to the pro-union camp: please step back from this mad flood of Project Fear stuff. It was a lousy campaign in 2014, that turned a comfortable 70/30 lead into a nail-biting 55/45 end result. It was a lousy campaign in 2016 that lost for Remain. And in 2017 it's still a lousy campaign... and you don't have a massive lead to squander - the polls seem to be sitting at 53/47ish in your favour, so if Project Fear works as well as last time you'd looking at a 38/62ish loss. Find a positive case for the union, and campaign on that.

And if you can't find a positive case for the union... well, maybe you should reflect on that.

Region One: The Cull Begins

Back in October, I noted that I'd decided to call time on Region One. To that end, while packing up our DVDs prior to the house move (that still hasn't happened... but that's another rant), I took the opportunity to separate out the R1 DVDs from the rest, and also to make a list of them. (I also took the opportunity to test a few of the discs, finding that one or two are actually region-free, which is nice.)

I've since divided that list up into three, being discs to replace, discs to discard, and discs that I would like to replace but can't.

The good news on that latter front is that as anticipated, that list does indeed contain only two entries: "Reboot" and "Babylon 5". And, even then, the B5 discs could be replaced, albeit only by replacing the entire series. (There are also two discs, that I'm aware of, that are in the 'discard' pile but which couldn't be replaced anyway. One of these went on that list with some small reluctance; the other not so much. So that's not too bad.)

The one down-side I have since encountered is that when I priced up replacements for that one list, I discovered that this is a more costly exercise than I'd expected. Especially since the truth is that most of these are films we haven't watched for years, and don't necessarily have any burning desire to watch again. (Which is a big factor in us having so much clutter in the first place: I'm generally loathe to throw perfectly good things away, and in many cases we have these things not so much because I want them as because I don't want to be without them.)

Still, there have been some no-brainers: a "Die Hard" boxed set was cheap, replaced three movies in a big box with five in a much smaller box, and was ideal motivation for a re-watch (with only the original to go; I left the best until last). Likewise, an "X-Men" boxed set filled in lots of gaps in that series, freed up some space, and again has motivated a re-watch. I expect the "Terminator" films to be much the same, once I get past my distaste for that set.

I expect that that's how it's going to go now: over the next year or so, I'll gradually replace the discs a few at a time, re-watching them as I go and ordering the next batch as I get to the end of the last. And, of course, if there are any I'm not bothered with re-watching, then they're in the wrong list.

(The down-side of that plan is that I'd kind of hoped to get it all over and done with in one fell swoop, whereas this will take considerably more time. On balance, though, this is probably the better approach.)

Additionally, I think I'm going to take the plunge on that "Babylon 5" set - once we've completed the move (if that ever happens), I'll invest in a new set of the whole series to replace the old discs. (Best do that fairly soon - I don't know how long it will remain available.) Which just leaves the question of "Reboot" unanswered, but gives me at least a year to ponder that one.

It's worth noting, though, that I'm yet to start on the other phase of the project - I'm yet to actually discard any of the discs on that list!

#13: "The Remains of the Day", by Kazuo Ishiguro (a book from The List)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #5: Spiced Chicken, Orange & Watercress Salad

This was another meal taken from my "Let's Cook with the nation's favourite chefs" book, courtesy of Ainsley Harriott. And it has the virtue of being nothing like anything I've made before - chicken strips stir-fried in an orange-based sauce, paired with a refreshing salad.

I enjoyed it very much, although I did feel that the watercress was a bit much. In future, I think I might replace that with rocket, spinach, or both, and only a much smaller handful. LC, I think, was a bit less impressed, although again I think that was the salad rather than the chicken.

Anyway, I'm pretty certain I'll be doing this again, and I'll no doubt be taking some more inspiration from that book - it's a good one!

#12: "Through the Gate in the Sea", by Howard Andrew Jones

Monday, March 06, 2017

Logan

LC and I went to see the third and final Wolverine movie on Friday.

It's very well made indeed, but...

Basically, the film does everything it sets out to do, and does it just right. This is probably the way Wolverine should have been handled in all his solo films, in terms of the language, the violence, and the seriousness of it all. And the performances are great - Hugh Jackman has the role down to a fine art by now, and Patrick Stewart is excellent as always.

But...

I'm not sure it's really accurate to say we enjoyed the film. Admired it, certainly, and appreciated the way it was made, and the performances, and so forth. But it's really depressing, with a deeply ambivalent ending, and is generally pretty grim. So, yeah, it's a good film, but it's not one I enjoyed at all.

It's also worth noting that, like "Mr Holmes" a couple of years ago, the very strength of one of the performances was actually an issue. As with Ian McKellen in "Mr Holmes", Patrick Stewart here is portraying the ravages of age, and in particular a struggle with dementia. And he's very good.

But in being so good, he strikes rather too close to the bone for comfort. It's a great performance, but quite upsetting to watch.

(Actually, see also Maggie Smith in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" - another great performance, but because the character is, initially, a fairly unpleasant racist, it's not comfortable viewing.)

So, I find myself somewhat ambivalent about the film. On the one hand, I strongly recommend it; on the other hand, it does need a trigger warning - it's not for the faint of heart, so brace yourself before going.

(Oh, and incidentally, it also hits pretty much exactly on something I've been looking for for quite some time - an answer to the question of what actually constitutes "mature themes". Up to now, the answer has seems to have been a rather puerile "boobs&blood" formula. But this film addresses questions of age and mortality, and also regret, redemption and just living with the guilt. Strong stuff, and something I hope we see more of now that Hollywood seems to have rediscovered the 'R' rating. Which is nice - much as I enjoy the four-colour heroics of the Avengers, I do also enjoy seeing something rather more substantial!)

And that, I think, is all I want to say about that - I'd rather stay clear of any deeper spoilers for this one.

...

Oh, no, one more thing: oddly, the film left me somewhat conflicted on it being Jackman and Stewart's last performances in these roles. Because, on the one hand, the film left me very much wanting more (albeit perhaps not more of exactly this), but on the other hand it was such a perfect way to bow out. In the end, I think stopping now is probably best - they're unlikely ever to do better. And so, although the rumoured cameo of Wolverine in "Deadpool 2" might be quite nice, I think I'd rather they didn't. In this film series, unlike in this blog post, it seems best to end once you've said all you have to say.

Friday, March 03, 2017

There Has to be a Better Way Than This

We've had another delay in the house move - at the start of February our estimate was by the end of the month, and our new estimate is... by the end of the month. I fully expect the start of April to come with a revised estimate that is surprisingly the same. I suppose I really should have started unpacking.

Thus far, our seller has been extremely patient, and their seller in turn. But I fear that there will come a point where this is no longer the case, and we'll miss out on the house because of stupid bureaucracy. Which sucks.

What I don't understand, though, is how the system has become so utterly terrible - surely there must be a better way to do things than this?

In particular, the problem seems to be the formation of chains: because so much money is tied up in the property that you own, it's effectively necessary to buy and sell at the same time. But the people you're both buying and selling from are themselves trying to coordinate a similar transaction, each buying and selling at the same time, and nobody able to move until they're all able to move.

And that, of course, means that everything necessarily takes a huge amount of time, is hugely stressful, and is also worryingly fragile - a problem at any point in the chain means the whole thing breaks up, and everyone suffers.

What seems to be needed, essentially, is an Arnold Clark for houses - rather than seeking out a buyer for the existing house and also seeking out a new house to buy, one would instead go to a "used house dealer", pick from the houses they have on their books, and arrange a trade-in of your current property.

(To a certain extent, such a thing already exists, in the form of various quick sale merchants. The big problem there being that they're notoriously chancers out to rip people off. Ideally, we need proper government regulation here to ensure that this ceases to be the case. Also, of course, it's the same as the part-exchange option frequently offered with new builds.)

The key point being, of course, that then we wouldn't be trying to conduct two huge transactions at once, but rather just one.

At least, that's my initial proposal for a fix. No doubt, it would also have its own set of problems and pitfalls. But when compared with a system that is manifestly not working as it should, it certainly has a certain appeal.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Lent Begins

With Easter falling relatively late this year, the start of Lent was likewise delayed until this week. Nonetheless, it seems to have snuck up on me, possibly because I just have other things on my mind. (Either that, or it's a consequence of being stuck in limbo and so not really paying attention to time - one day is much like another at the moment.)

For Lent this year, the only thing I'm actually giving up entirely is my usual fizzy drinks (which mostly means Irn Bru, but includes everything in that "sugar water" genre).

However, I'll be cutting back on a great many other things - as I noted in my Day 50 update, my plan during Lent is to really try to focus on getting this weight goal moving. So while I haven't given up things like cakes, alcohol, or chocolate, I'm going to be leaning strongly towards not having them much if at all.

Plus, the other side of that is that I'll need to start taking rather more exercise (which means going from "almost none" to "doing some", which isn't too bad).

But the other thing that is on my mind is the purpose of Lent. On the one hand, it's actually mostly about the seasons - like the Advent fast followed by Christmas feast, Pancake day is largely about using up whatever remains in the store-cupboard, followed by an imposed fast brought on by the stores being empty, followed by a feast as the new seasonal crops start becoming available (all of which is largely hollowed out by supermarkets having everything all the time).

On the other hand, though, Easter remains a Christian holiday, and Lent retains at least some Christian trappings. And on that front, it's a time for some reflection.

See, our plan since October has been to move house and then find a new church. To that end, we've largely said our goodbyes and have mostly disentangled ourselves in Chryston. But it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to maintain any sort of an active faith when not attending regularly - and doubly so since the New Year, when I completed my most recent read through of the Bible, and so stopped regular reading.

That's something that has been on my mind for some weeks now, and given that we still don't have any solid date for moving I'm starting to think it's not something that will continue to wait. So, rather than giving things up for Lent, my intent is rather to pick something back up.

And that's where we are, for now at least.

#10: "Use of Weapons", by Iain M. Banks
#11: "Pathfinder: Black Stars Beckon", by Jim Groves