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  • Super Secret Goal #5: As noted in the previous update, this goal is no longer applicable.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!