Monday, November 27, 2006


In case you're wondering, there will be no photos of the wedding, as there were none of Ed and Jo's wedding, and as there were none from my holiday. The reason for this is simple: I don't own a camera.

This should emphatically not be read as any sort of a hint as regards Christmas. The reason I don't own a camera is that I have virtually no use for one. On those rare occasions where I've felt the need, I've carried disposable cameras, but more often than not I've forgotten to even carry them with me. And I can't own a camera-phone for work-related reasons, so that option is out too.

Loss of confidence

When Andrew (my brother) said that he and Aileen wanted me to play the pipes at their wedding, my answer was of course yes. I'm sure such a response comes as no surprise to you. What might come as a surprise is that on Wednesday, I strongly considered phoning Richard (another brother) and telling him that he would have to do it.

The thing is, this has been a rough year. And my confidence has taken a real battering, personally, professionally, piping-ly, in terms of my faith... basically in general. And the worst thing about loss of confidence is that it impacts directly on performance, which in turn leads to a loss of confidence, and so on. This is why winning and losing are habits, and the longer a losing streak goes on for, the harder it is to turn around.

However, as far as the piping is concerned, there is cause for loss of confidence. Quite aside from the problems with the instructor at the new band, I know fine well that I'm not playing as well as I was in April. I did well at the competition, but the range of tunes I can play well has dropped significantly, the number of errors has increased slightly, and I played really badly at the Armistice, a problem recovered only slightly by the fact that everyone in the band seemed to have a bad day, and the day itself seemed to be a bit of a farce.

On Wednesday, therefore, I sat down with my music and practice chanter to play through a few tunes quickly before going out to see Casino Royale. I never made it to the film. The practice consisted of a string of errors, joined up by the occasional correct note.

Oh dear.

Anyway, it was about this point that I started to panic. Wednesday was pretty much my last chance to get a proper practice in, and if it wasn't good... And, of course, the last thing you would want to do is agree to play and then mess up your brother's wedding. There are some things that just aren't done. (And it's not as if you can make mistakes and hope no-one notices. The bagpipes are a loud instrument - if a solo piper goes wrong, everyone knows about it. And, Andrew used to play, Richard does play, and Graeme (brother #3) also plays. So, the pressure was on.)

At length, though, I decided to go for it anyway. The other rule about confidence is that the moment you quit once, that's you done - might as well quit forever. That's why if you get thrown by a horse, it's imperative that you get back on right away. If you don't, you never will.

So, along I went, deeply unsure that I was doing the right thing, but committed nonetheless.

At this point, I need to digress a bit into talk about weddings. When piping at a wedding, there are various things you can be asked to do. Typically, you are asked to play for the guests arriving (20 minutes before the official start time until the bride arrives, typically 20 minutes late. Aileen was very unusual, in that she arrived early). Typically, you are also asked to play for the couple as they first exit the church. And it's not at all uncommon to be asked to pipe in the top table and/or the couple at the reception (however, having a piper for both events usually costs more, so this is a bit less common). It's also entirely possible, although less common, to have the piper play the processional and/or recessional (the processional is the bit where the bride walks down the aisle. The recessional is the reverse - the wedding party make their way out of the church).

My job was to play for the guests, to play the processional, to play as A&A left the church, and to pipe everyone in at the reception.

The play before the service went okay. There were a couple of bad notes in the first tunes, mostly due to the cold weather, but nothing serious. And the play got stronger as it went on. So, that was okay.

Then came the real tough part. The processional is tricky, because you have to play the tune perfectly, while remaining discreet, and while watching the bride make her way down. You have to pace it so that your play matches the rate of her procession, and you have to stop playing both at the end of a part, and when she arrives at the altar (or slightly thereafter, but NEVER before). Plus, of course, everyone is there by that point, and everyone is focussed on what is going on. A mistake here will kill you. (And bear in mind that if you do it right, no-one will remember the piping, since their attention is on the bride. Do it wrong, and no-one will ever forget.)

So, no pressure then.

Fortunately, everything there went right. And, as I slipped to the back of the church to put my pipes down for later use, Richard (who was holding the door at that point) was heard to say, "that was good." Which is important - compliments from the laity are always welcome, but when those who know what they're talking about choose to comment, their comments will carry greater weight.

Of course, after that it was a walk in the park. Later on, Aileen said to me, "thank you so much for doing that for us." To which I responded, "any time." In hindsight, perhaps that's not quite what I meant to say, but never mind.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Since I'm having a go at the government anyway...

Listening to the radio this morning, I heard a report that the government's sex education policies have done nothing to stop the increase in teenage pregnancies. The government's policy is "be good, but if you can't be good, be careful", which is a nicely mixed message. I'm not surprised it doesn't work.

There are only two policies that might work to curb teenage pregnancy: abstinence or protection. You need to pick one and go with it; attempting to do both is doomed to failure.

Now, in order for the policy of abstinence to work, you need to remove all sexual imagery from music videos, advertising, the soaps and other TV programmes. You need to end the club culture, and it needs to become understood that it's no longer acceptable for adults to sleep around.

Don't like that? Me neither. It offends my notions of freedom of speech, amongst other things.

If you're not going to change popular culture in the manner required for abstinence to work, then you cannot apply it as a matter of public policy. Which, according to my count, only leaves on option...

Living in the Supernanny State

The government's latest initiative to tackle anti-social behaviour in kids deserves comment. Theirs is a two-pronged strategy - mandatory parenting classes for the parents of out-of-control kids, and the hiring of a number of 'supernannies' to assist parents of these kids.

"Huzzah!" say I. Let's waste more taxpayers' money on gimmicks that won't help the situation.

Here's the thing: I would bet that most of the parents thus affected will not attend the 'mandatory' classes, in exactly the same way that these out-of-control kids are ignoring their ASBOs, so many people ignore community service ordered by the courts, and so many fines simply go unpaid.

Even for those parents who do take advantage of the system, these schemes won't help. The kids involved are too old to have their behaviour corrected by a 'supernanny'. By that age, the opinions of their peers hold more weight than those of anyone else, and it will be a mark of honour to beat the system.

No. There are two ways to fix the problems in our society: the slow way and the draconian way.
To do a proper job of correcting our society, the various political parties would need to agree to a long-term cross-party strategy with that end. However, this will never work - the Tories instead prefer scoring easy points against Labour for their total inability to control the problem, ignoring the fact that they couldn't do any better. One of the advantages of being in opposition, I suppose.

What's really needed is a long and slow shift in society, where things are terrible now, and will be terrible next year, but where they might be marginally better next year than this, and might be marginally better again the year after. Carry that through over twenty years, and we'll be getting somewhere. Sadly, it's not going to happen.

If we rule out the long-term solution as impractical, we have to look at other methods of solving the problem. Now, despite all their rhetoric about getting tough on crime, the parties just don't have the conviction to do what is necessary. Probably with good reason.

Here's the thing: going for the parents of unruly kids won't work. Too many of them just don't care, and too many of the others just don't have the needed authority to deal with their kids. No, we now have to deal with this by going after the kids directly.

I recommend two steps. Firstly, we take a 'zero tolerance' policy to drinking, drugs, and minor crime amongst young folk. If the police stop you with drink or drugs, or while involved in any crime, you spend a night in the cells. No warnings, no calling parents to get you. You go to the station, and you sleep in a cell. Your parents can collect you in the morning. (Oh, and if your parents can't be bothered collect you, or refuse to pay for your bed-and-breakfast? Well, I hope it's a nice cell.)

Secondly, where kids are adjudged to be out-of-control, they should be tried and prosecuted as adults. I recommend a three strikes and you're out policy - get convicted of three 'youth' offenses, and thereafter you're treated as an adult.

I'm also leaning towards some sort of national service-style camps for young offenders, where they have to pass out of their military-run training to be allowed back into society. However, I'm not sure quite how best to implement this.

There's more I could say on this topic. But the fact is, there are larger problems with society, and even with the implementation of law and order, that would need to be tackled first. I might discuss them a bit later.

Considering my Position

I've been having a bad time at band recently, such that I'm now considering whether it's worth continuing or not.

The band is made up of a significant number of kids, and a handful of more experienced players. With the departure of the pipe major and some others a few months ago, I have found myself right at the top of the list - the pipe major is better than I am, and one of the instructors is marginally better than me (he's also a much worse teacher, but that's neither here nor there). There are also a couple of people who come occasionally who are better, and there's one guy who is about as good as I am - it depends how we each play on a given day where we stand.

Unfortunately, it seems that the instructor guy just doesn't like me. I don't know what I can have done to offend him, but his critique of my playing has seemed excessively unfair. Now, until last night, I had to assume this this was fair commentary and nothing personal, since the other road leads to paranoia, and since I'm aware that my play is not perfect. However, it was always extremely disconcerting when he would say that the band needed to get its act together, all the while staring directly at me - every time.

However, the band has most recently been learning a new tune called "Wings". The Pipe Major knows this tune. One of the occasional members was a Royal Engineer, and so knows the tune very well (it's their regimental march, you see). And I've been playing the tune for ten years, and so know it very very well - a fact not known to this instructor guy.

The rest of the band, including the instructor, don't really know the tune at all.

The band practice around a table. The way it works is that someone will play a part of the tune, the instructor will comment as necessary, then everyone plays the part, and then you move on to the next person. It's a simple and effective method. Due to my position at the table, I was the first to play the tune solo.

I did so. And, having played the tune for ten years, I played it very well. The timing was spot-on, the phrasing was perfect, and so on. There was a grand total of one gracenote missing. I say this not out of pride, but to point out that I played the tune well, and I know that I played the tune well.

The instructors comments were that it was totally crap, that most of the doublings were missing, and that I had to play it again. None of which was true. Which confirms my suspicions.

Sadly, it would not be at all good for the band for the newest member to tell the main instructor that he's an idiot. So I restrained that urge, and fought down my desire to stand up, flip him the bird, and walk out.

This leaves me wondering if this band is worth continuing with. The fact is, I don't really want to be in a band that continuously plays the same four tunes over and over. I don't want to get back into teaching loads of kids to improve. I've done that. I'm looking for a band that will make me better, not worse. And I definately have better things to do with my time that have my play unfairly slated just because this guy doesn't like me. Time to move on?

(Incidentally, this is worth comparing with the events at my band in Yeovil. There, the pipe sergeant had a similar critique of my play. However, in that case, he was dealing with specific bad habits that had slipped in, and fundamentals of play that needed tightened up. He also had the virtue of actually being right. The net effect was that I came away from Yeovil a much better piper than I was when I arrived. None of that is true here.)

Friday, November 17, 2006


If you check my post about the contents of my fridges, you will note that the list included eight hotdog rolls and eight sausages. Since those heady days, I have consumed four rolls and four sausages, leaving four rolls and four sausages in my freezer. Or so you would think!

Instead, when last I checked, there were four hotdog rolls in my freezer, but no sausages. Now, I know I didn't eat them, what with the associated rolls still being there, and there's been no-one else in the appartment to eat them in my stead. And yet the sausages have disappeared.

I have checked everywhere. I checked all the drawers in the freezer, the bit of shelf I use for thawing food for consumption the next day, the other fridge, and even every shoe in the appartment (long story). No sign.

This is almost as good a mystery as the Case of the Lost Pen, and slightly better than the Case of the Missing Cheese. Where could the lost sausages be?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

So not the point!

Apparently, some Christian think-tank has published an article suggesting that Christians should wear white poppies for Rememberance Day rather than red ones. Seemingly, white will symbolise that redemption comes not through war (red), but through Christ (white).

It would appear that someone forgot to actually put brains in their think-tank before letting it run.

Here's the thing: the poppy doesn't symbolise redemption at all. It's a symbol for the sacrifice hundreds of thousands of men made in a pointless war ninety years ago. It's a reminder to us all to not be so bloody stupid again. It's not a statement of faith, and frankly shouldn't be hijacked as such, and it really should be one of the few things we can all agree on: war is bad, m'kay?

Besides, even if you're determined to steal the poppy for your own use, keeping the poppy red is better suited to your purposes. One of the reasons the poppy is so effective is that it is red, and blood is red, and so it symbolises all the blood that was spent in this sacrifice.

Now, here's a question for this Christian so-called think-tank: can you think of another sacrifice involving the spilling of blood? Here's a hint: it's the single most important event in the history of your faith.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Let the Games Begin!

For the past while, I've been becoming increasingly worried about my health. So, the logical and sane thing to do is to make an appointment, and go see a doctor. That way, if it's nothing I get to stop worrying, and if it's something I get it sorted out before it gets worse.

I don't know if I ever blogged about my fun and games getting an appointment on the one occasion I needed to visit the doctor in Yeovil. Basically, before I had to get an appointment, I had to register. And to register I had to go in to give them my NHS card. I can't recall if it simply wasn't possible to register by phone, of if I just didn't have my card to hand, but I had to leave work, go home, get the card, go to the surgery, register, and then make an appointment to see the doctor.


Anyway, having decided to see the doctor here, I prepared myself to the likelihood that I would have to register. So, I spent some time this morning digging through my letters, until I found my new and improved NHS card. Then, in the hope I could register by phone, I came to work.

So, the first step was to find a likely practice to register with. This should be easy - there was a website I used last year to find the nearest practice, and then I just called them. So, onto Google I go...

and find that that website only covers England. There is an NHS Scotland website, but it in no way helps residents find a surgery - it's all about careers, and adverts for how the NHS is helping us better. Yay!

So, instead I just googled for doctors in Falkirk. Fortunately, there is full-blown medical centre two streets over from me, so it should be them, right? (I hadn't just gone directly to them, in case they were a specialist centre or something.)

So, I get the number and phone them. Well, they are a nice, normal NHS facility, but their list is full. Great!

The receptionist there gave me the number for Allocation Services. I should phone them.

So, I did. And, the result?

Well, they can't take details by phone. I have to write to them (not email!), and they'll assign me a doctor within 48 hours. At which point, presumably, I can register, and then I'll be able to make an appointment.

This is the point where I call shenanigans on the whole bloody fiasco.

Here's the thing: when people move to a new place, they should register with a doctor and a dentist as soon as they get there. They should, but they don't. There's a huge list of things that need to be done, and some of them don't get done. This is especially true if their record is that they've visited the doctor precisely twice in the last decade, and are not intending on staying where they are for very long.

So, they only time these individuals (and by that, I mean me) register is if they feel the need to see a doctor. And, unlike the pensioners back home, I'm not in the practice of making a weekly appointment just in case - if I'm wanting to make an appointment, it's because I'm thinking there's something wrong.

And, stress-related problems are on the rise, at a near-astronomical rate. Specifically, whatever my problem is, it's very definately aggravated by stress. (Indeed, I'm hoping it's just stress, since that I can actually manage.)

All of which means, when someone needs to register, DON'T GIVE THEM A BLOODY RUNAROUND!

Frankly, allocations and registrations should all be handled online. At the very least, it absolutely has to be possible to email Allocation Services instead of writing them. (Oh, and when your website wants to redirect people to their local health authority, have them input their postcode, not click the appropriate location on the map. Funnily enough, I know my postcode; I don't know the exact location of Falkirk on your badly-drawn map.)

I know the NHS is under-funded, and that it has a lot of very dedicated people working very hard. And, on the front end, I've never had cause to complain; the service is generally very good. But the bureaucracy is a joke.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

That word, it doesn't mean what I think you think it means

I've just read a news article with the headline, "Charisma has an impact on election outcomes: study". To which my first reaction was, "well, yes".

However, it turns out that the study was in fact on the relative effect of a person's appearance, versus what they actually say, on election results. Which is a rather different matter. Still rather an obvious one, though.

To assist the people who conducted the survey, here are the factors that contribute to election success, in decreasing order of importance*. The ideal candidate should:

1) be very tall.
2) have really good hair.
3) smile a lot.

And that's about it. Being articulate is over-rated, being intelligent is irrelevant, and being of strong moral fibre is a distinct liability.

It's fair to say I'm no fan of democracy.

* I should note at this point that I didn't come up with these criteria. I'm only repeating them, largely because they're depressingly accurate.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A triumph of democracy?

I find myself distinctly troubled by the verdict in the Saddam Hussein trial. See, while I'm in no doubt that he was a murderous tyrant, and while I further have no problem in the use of the death penalty in extreme cases (I'll get back to that), I don't believe that he received a fair trial. What's more, I'm not sure it was possible for him to receive a fair trial.

Regarding the death penalty: I'm of the opinion that it is acceptable, but only in extreme cases. Where I define 'extreme cases' as those cases where the alternative is for the condemned to be incarcerated for the remained of the life, with no chance of ever being released. In those cases, and only those cases, I'm inclined to just execute them quickly and cleanly. If nothing else, it removes any risk of escape on their part, and since we're dealing specifically with extreme cases, one can only assume an escape would lead to grave danger to the public. However, if the possibility exists, no matter how slight, for rehabilitation and release, I don't accept that the death sentence is warranted. (I will, of course, accept that opinions vary widely on this matter.)

Regardless of that, though, I'm very clear on the point that anyone who is accused, no matter how plain their guilt, must be afforded a fair trial. And this is doubly important when the death penalty is likely to be imposed.

And, I'm sorry, but I just don't accept that that was the case here. Did anyone seriously think there might be an acquittal? Furthermore, if there had been an acquittal, would anyone have really accepted it as the right verdict, or would they simply have assumed it was due to a corrupt court?

And, here's a very interesting question: if there had been an acquittal, would the Americans have accepted a restoration of Saddam to power, and promptly removed their troops from Iraq?

If the answer to any of these questions is 'no', the trial wasn't fair. Instead, it existed solely to provide the world with the sight of 'justice' being done. Which, frankly, is offensive. He should have just been 'killed while resisting capture', and had done with it.

(One more very interesting question: since I'm almost entirely certain that the verdict was the correct one, and am satisfied that the punishment is right given the extreme circumstances, does it really matter if the trial was a sham? My answer is yes.)

President Bush has hailed this verdict as a triumph for Iraqi democracy. But here's another interesting question: can a democracy properly function while a country is under occupation by a foreign power, no matter how well-meaning? Or, to put it another way, if the terrorists put down their arms tomorrow, and instead campaigned in the election on an "America Out" platform, and won, would the US really leave? What if the platform were less US-friendly even than that?

As I said, I've very troubled by it all.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Appropriately Scared

My neighbours were having their electricity meter replaced yesterday. Consequently, my power had to be switched off for a while. Having planned for this, I had decided to go to the cinema last night, but on checking the listings I found that there was only one film I actually wanted to see, and it was on later. There was one other that looked okay, but the synopsis indicated it was the very definition of a 'date movie', so not something to go to on my own.

So, I was in the appartment during the power shutdown.

However, I am not remotely scared of the dark, and anyway it wasn't that dark. And the power came back some fifteen minutes later. No, the big scare came later.

Having watched a bit more of "Dukes of Hazzard" and determined that it truly was a bad bad film, I decided to switch the computer on, as I had things to do. It powered up, connected to the network, and...

No internet!!!!

Fortunately, there was a simple explanation - the router and the Sky box both tried to access the phone line at the same time after they powered up, the Sky box got there first, and the router was therefore blocked. All I had to do was restart the router again, and whole thing came back together.

Still, it was not the most pleasant of things to happen, even if it was appropriate to the date.