Sunday, May 31, 2009

What I Was Going to do on my Holidays

On Friday, my holiday for the forthcoming week was cancelled. I was not best pleased. Anyway, just for fun, here's the list of what I'll be missing out on:

  • Dentist's appointment
  • Watch Prison Break through to the end of the series
  • Cook lasagne
  • Band practice


  • Lunch. Yes, I have lunch every day, but this was going to be an extra special lunch. Maybe pasta.
  • Evolution Carrot Salad
  • Watch "Wall-e", and at least one film from the Sky+ box
  • Start preparing the "Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay" campaign


  • Go see "Terminator: Salvation"
  • Cook Chicken Tikka Masala
  • Watch one or two films from the Sky+ box
  • Clean the apartment top to bottom


  • Take car for MOT
  • Cook Chilli Con Carne
  • Watch a film from the Sky+ box
  • Band practice
  • Vote, assuming I haven't been disenfranchised by a freak bureaucratic mix-up


  • As little as possible.
  • Cook Chicken Korma
  • Watch two or three films from the Sky+ box
  • Maybe get car back from MOT, if it had to be kept overnight.

And so, by the end of the week, I would have cleared off almost everything from the Sky+ box, cooked a whole lot of food to restock the freezer to absurd levels, but otherwise not done too much.

As it is, I'm going to try to fit as much of that in to the time I have available. In particular, the dentist's appointment and the MOT are still happening, and I'll be trying to fit as much of "Prison Break" and the films into the time I have available as possible.

So, it's really not too bad. The only thing that I'm really annoyed about losing is the "do as little as possible" bit, and I'm not sure that was ever really going to pan out.

Still, it's annoying losing the holiday like that, especially at such short notice.

The Grand Experiment: Week Nine

And so, we reach the third and final leg of the Grand Experiment, and the first of four trips to Asda. Despite their being an Asda within a mile of my flat, I instead elected to travel to the larger store in Grangemouth. The primary reason for this was actually parking - Asda Falkirk charge £2 for parking, which is refunded in-store, and I don't have a single coin in my wallet.

In theory, the larger store should have had a better selection, but this proved questionable at best. Despite the relative sizes, the stores in Falkirk do seem to do a better job of stocking things than the larger stores in Cumbernauld and now Grangemouth. Strange. That said, the only thing I simply couldn't get was binbags, which I actually was going to discount (as the stock would have lasted me six months), and I'm not urgent for them at this point. I was also unable to get Asda's own rolls, so had to get some more expensive Warburton's ones - the price of which will be reflected below.

Anyway, the list is as follows:

  • Bread (3 loaves), £2.16
  • Poppadums (10), £1.00
  • Mars Ice Cream (8), £3.00
  • Rolls (6), £1.00
  • Yoghurts (12), £5.92
  • Sandwich Meat, £0.42 (there was also a pack that refused to scan. Surprisingly, I ended up getting that for free!)
  • Pizza (3), £5.00
  • Clementines, £0.62
  • Tomatoes (12), £1.76
  • Coriander, £1.17
  • Lettuce, £0.50
  • Chicken Burgers, £2.74
  • Washing Liquid, £3.85
  • Irn Bru (24 cans), £6.78
  • Carrots (3), £0.29
  • Apples (7), £1.44

The total came to £37.65. From this, I'm going to deduct the £3 for the ice creams, taking it to £34.65. This is slightly more than the average for a week from Tesco, but there are several items on the list that represent 'stocking up', so I don't think this will be too bad.

The one item that might swing it is the yoghurts, which I buy every week, and which is consistently cheaper from Tesco than either Morrisons or Asda. Still, we shall see what happens over the next three weeks.

Bathgate Highland Games

The first competition of the season is always the Dunbar Highland Games, and always attracts a very large number of bands - everyone uses it as a guide to how the season as a whole is going to go. And, of course, the Majors attract a lot of bands. However, we're now into the bulk of the season, during which the competitions become smaller.

After coming tenth at both Dunbar and Dumbarton, my goal for Bathgate was to come ninth or better. It turned out, though, that only nine bands in our grade showed, so that proved a very easy target to meet.

Yesterday was, of course, a gloriously sunny day, which meant I had to put sunscreen on in the morning. Oh, how I hate that stuff! Still, it had to be done, and it meant that today I have not a single bit of sunburn (nor even a tan!), except right on the front of my nose, which seemed somehow to get missed. Quite annoyed about that.

We played well. Rather better than we have previously, in fact, and for the first time in the season there wasn't a mismatch between how the pipers played and how the drummers played. (At Dunbar, the pipers were sixth but the drummers well down the field; at Dumbarton the drummers were sixth and the pipers eleventh.)

We came seventh. I was actually rather disappointed with that. And, to be honest, I do feel it wasn't really a fair reflection on our performance. At Dunbar, if I'm being honest, I think we got rather lucky with the result; Dumbarton I thought was probably about right. But yesterday thought we did better than we actually placed.

Oh well. It was still a good day, despite it all.

After the competition, we went to Morrisons in Falkirk to welcome back the football team. (They lost, but the town decided to celebrate anyway.) We were on TV. We then travelled to the stadium and played for them again, at the end of their parade through the town.

And after that, we retired to the house of one of the families in the band, there to have several drinks, and long and fruitless conversations about nonsense. Finally, a few of us headed up to the town, but that proved to be a waste of time and money. It turns out Falkirk has yet a third club (I think it hasn't been open long, hence why that number keeps going up), so we went there. Apparently, it is considered to be the place to be seen in Falkirk, which I suspect is a bit like being the best team in the third division, or the best band in grade 4B - it's better to be that than nothing, but it's still pretty poor. Anyway, it really was better than the other two but...

I got to bed just before 3. Then, some annoying ball of continuously fusing hydrogen decided to light up the sky, and cause me to wake at 8. Grr, stupid Sun! So now I'm updating my blog, watching "Dollhouse", and going to go to Asda for week nine of The Grand Experiment.

Next week, Markinch.

#24: "Pathfinder: Guide to Absalom", by Owen K. C. Stephens
#25: "Pathfinder: Legacy of Fire Players' Guide", from Paizo Publishing (various authors)

(I feel it's a bit of a cheat adding that last one to the list, as it clocks in at a mighty 36 pages. However, it is described as a book, and it has a set of covers, so technically it counts. The next couple have an average of 650 pages each, so I'm going to take some comfort in that.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

MP's Expenses

When I first heard about the expense scandal, my initial response was, "so what's new?". As the extend of the corruption was revealed (and we're not at the end yet), I moved through anger, and now to my current state of terrible sadness and disappointment. One emotion I never felt, though, was surprise... and isn't that a damning statement?

I've since been listening to a lot of the talking heads trying to make sense of all this. One of the things that I've heard said repeatedly is that the root cause of all this is that the 'political class' have become disconnected from the rest of society, and thus formed a culture of corruption. I disagree.

The mere existence of a 'political class' is the root of the problem. Democracy is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people. What we have, for the most part, is a new nobility, that merely swap positions and privileges every few years.

Of course, I'm not a great fan of democracy at all. I certainly don't believe it works when we have an electorate that actively rejects any notion that they should educate themselves on the people that will represent, the policies they espouse, and the burning issues of the day. Sure, it's much easier to get one's opinions from the Sun, but it's hardly conducive to a system that works.

I've also heard a lot of the talking heads going on about what MPs must do to regain the trust of the public. They've all been tarred with this same brush of corruption, so must win back our trust. Of course, they talk about it as though some quick fix or grand gesture is what is required. Heaven forbid they should consider that the answer should be "many years of honourable service".

So, what do I think should be done?

Well, the first thing is to stop these idiotic half gestures and the posturing that's going on. Simply scrapping the second home's allowance, for example, isn't the answer - some MPs, and notably those from Scotland, actually should be allowed such a thing. And, indeed, the "John Lewis' List" isn't a terrible idea - yes, it sounds terrible, but actually, it makes sense that it should be known what can be claimed, and the sorts of amounts that are reasonable. (Of course, £5 for a potato peeler isn't exactly 'reasonable'.)

Secondly, there needs to be a clear statement from all MPs that, "MPs are not above the law". We should stop talking about MPs being forced to resign because of dodgy claims, or paying back the money, and start talking about real measures being taken against those who have defrauded us. Because it is quite simple: those who have claimed fraudulently have committed a crime. And you can't pretend you claimed £15,000 on a mortgage that doesn't exist by mistake - people don't make that sort of mistake. I bet there's not a single MP out there who could have claimed £15,000 for a mortgage, but forgot to do so. The curtains have been pulled back on all of this - it's time for the MPs to accept responsibility for their actions.

Thirdly, all expenses must now be made public. Otherwise we're just back to the corrupt leading the blind.

Fourthly, for MPs to win back the public trust (and they must) we need a full generation of stellar service. Twenty years with nary the hint of a scandal. No more of the merry-go-round of a story breaking, then denials, then silence, then the PM declaring his confidence in the accused, and then finally a resignation. If you fail us, you must go... and not just as a minister, but as an MP.

Fifth, and finally, we need a root and branch overhaul of the way MPs are paid, and the way they claim expenses.

Personally, I think MP pay is actually fine. The basic MP gets twice my salary, and I'm well paid. And, let's be honest many of them also get other salaries, from public speaking, from newspaper articles, or from directorships. These are, by and large, not poor people. However, a modest increase might (might) be appropriate.

But the current rule, that MPs get a pay rise calculated to be in line with other public servants, such as teachers, nurses and so forth, must be retained.

As for expenses, the most problematic of them all is the second home's allowance. The rule here really should be simple: MPs don't own the second home. Instead, the constituency owns the home, and builds equity in it. When the MP is voted out or retires, his successor gains the use of the home. He can move to a different property if he wishes, but he is responsible for making the switch, and in all cases the monies involved (and the properties involved) belong to the constituency. Oh, and second homes should only be available for constituencies more than 1 hour's commute from Parliament, of course.

Once you sort that out, a lot of other things fall into place. MPs will no longer be able to claim for moats and duck islands, or be able to flip properties, or enable family members to build equity at our expense.

Next up is travel expenses. Here, we should set up some formulas - we know the distance from the constituency to London. We know the distance from the constituency home to parliament. We can also make a judgement on how many journeys are required. Thus, we can get an estimated mileage for the year... and allow a number of pence per mile. Sorted. (That's over-simplified, of course. If it's cheaper to fly, for example, we can trade X miles for a single plane ticket at £Y.)

The food and drink allowance should be slashed. The argument here is that if a private employee were away on a business trip, the company would pay for their food and drink. This is correct, to a point. However, if an employee were away on a long-term trip, the company would actually arrange semi-permanent lodging (a rented flat), and they'd be expected to feed themselves. MPs should be allowed a very small amount of money for supplying tea and coffee (and even biscuits!) for their constituency offices, but that's it.

And so it goes on. The principle here is that MPs shouldn't be out of pocket on all these things, but neither should expenses be a kind of top up for their clearly meagre salaries. Oh, and any argument that, "we want the top people, and so we have to pay them the top salaries" doesn't wash with me - if there was any evidence that we had the top people, I might agree. As it is, I refer you to my point four - earn back our trust, and then we can talk about pay rises.

Of course, it's all meaningless. As a result of this, we will see a grand total of 0 charges being brought. We will see a handful of MPs standing down, and a further handful being voted out. We will then see the new crop being just as corrupt and venal as the current mob, albeit perhaps slightly more sneaky.

Once upon a time, I thought I was hugely cynical. I now recognise that I was hopelessly naive. Sadly, I'm starting to this that that is still the case.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #38: Meatballs and Pasta

Due to the Champions' League final being played tonight, I found myself playing host. Consequently, there was a need to provide food, and thus there was an excuse to jump ahead again to the "Homely Mince" chapter of the book.

This meal was excellent. The meatballs were very quick and easy to put together (albeit rather messy), and then cooking up the sauce was nice, quick and easy. The only problem was trying to juggle the needs of cooking the sauce, the meatballs and the pasta all at the same time, while also reading the instructions from the book as I went. Still, next time will be easier.

The eventual results were extremely satisfying. The meatballs proved to be slightly dry (probably due to being cooked a shade too long at slightly too high a temperature), but were basically fine. The pasta and the sauce were great.

So, that would be another win for the mince chapter. That would be 2-0, although I'm not realy ready to start scoring that chapter for a few weeks yet, until I have finished the salads.

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #37: Evolution Cucumber Salad

Another week, another salad. This may be the least inspiring chapter in any cookbook ever. I mean, I get that it's important to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and I get that most people don't eat salads because they tend to be deadly dull, and so efforts to try to improve them are worthwhile. It's just that these efforts to prevent them from being deadly dull are themselves deadly dull.

The cucumber salad was okay. It was an improvement over the potato salad and the tomato salad of the last two weeks. But, really, I don't think I'd bother making it again - for the most part, I think I'd be just as happy eating a chopped cucumber, without all the fiddling.

So, I'm afraid this is another loss, putting the score at 3-2 against for this chapter. Next is an "Evolution Carrot Salad", which no doubt represents another marvellous opportunity to grate big holes in my thumb. I can hardly wait.

However, I'm not sure if that will take place next week. I'm not at work next week, and one of the things I'm planning on doing is restocking my freezer with cooked meals of various sorts - lasagne, chilli, and the various curries. That being the case, I'm not sure I'll really have a suitable opportunity to fit in the carrot salad. We'll see.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Goals in Review

Saturday is day 150 of 2009. Isn't it shocking just how fast this year is going? (That said, I can't say I'm sorry to see it go - I knew going in that this would be a bad year, and thus far it has been worse than I had expected.) It also means that the time has come to once again review the goals I set for the year.

  1. Super Secret Goal #1. Yep, this one is moving. I'm going to say no more than that.
  2. Super Secret Goal #2. Abandoned in April; included here for completeness only.
  3. Books. I'm now at 23 books, and should complete the 24th on Thursday. Given that the target was to have read 22 by the end of the month, that's going well. Additionally, I think I have now picked out enough books to see me through until the end of the year.
  4. Weight loss. According to the scales, I am 6 pounds from my target. For the past six weeks, the scales haven't really moved, though; they just fluctuate around this same position. I am going to try to increase the pressure on this one in June, and try to hit the target by the end of the month. (That said, there is something to be said for never quite hitting the target, as doing so forces a continuation of the diet, where a completed goal could result in back-sliding. Hmm...)
  5. New skill. Deferred until July.
  6. Car fund. This should complete at the end of this week. Next Thursday, my car goes for its MOT, at which point I'll learn whether I actually need a new car or not.
  7. General finances. The Grand Experiment is two-thirds complete, and should finish in June, at which point I will take a decision on which supermarket to use. Additionally, my credit card bill (which I pay in full each month) should return to the 'comfortable' threshold in June, having jumped when I bought the flat.
  8. Band. We did better at Dunbar than last year, and qualified at the first Major of the season, although we haven't placed in the prizes. This looks to be going well. The earliest we could complete this goal is by the end of July; a more realistic appraisal should really be done in mid-September, though, once the season is finished.
  9. The house move. All being well, I'm going to start setting up bookshelves in the Purple Room at the end of July. However, this is contingent on factors outwith my control.
  10. TV. "24" finished last night (though I haven't watched it yet), "Fringe" finished on Sunday (likewise), "Prison Break" finished last week (same), and "Bones" finishes on Thursday. Despite having picked up "Lie to Me" and "Dollhouse", my TV-viewing is starting to look a bit sparse. This means is that I should complete this goal, if only by default, some time next week.
  11. RPGs.The first of four remaining sessions in the "Star Wars Saga Edition" campaign was on Saturday. It was good, but it was also pretty obvious that the campaign has lost a lot of energy in the break. I'm now more convinced that it was the right decision to cut it short. That campaign will probably conclude in July, and the next begin in mid-September, thus completing this goal.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Grand Experiment: Week Eight

This was the fourth and final week at Morrisons, and provided a bit of a dilemma: should I buy just enough to get me through until Monday (and thus back to my normal shopping day, but leave them with only three and a half weeks), a full week (giving the right time, but leaving the annoyance of another week of shopping on a Thursday), or until the following Monday?

In the end, I decided to go for the longest option. This means there are quite a few things to discount from the list.

Anyway, this week's list:
  • Shredded Wheat (30), £2.32
  • Fruit Juice (2 x 1 litre), £2.46
  • Milk (2 x 2 pints), £1.72
  • Cheddar, £1.87
  • Rolls (6), £0.95
  • Yoghurts (18), £8.88
  • Peanut Butter, £1.57
  • Cooked Meat (3 packs), £5.00
  • Almonds (300g), £3.00
  • Chillies, £0.50
  • Tomatoes (6), £0.88
  • Pizza (2), £3.29
  • Shampoo (2), £1.69
  • Bananas (9), £1.29
  • Lettuce, £0.50
  • Cucumber, £0.70
  • Mouthwash (boaky green flavour), £2.93
  • Yoghurt, £0.78
  • Cotton Buds, £0.35
  • Mint (fresh), £0.75

The total for the week came to a mighty £43.12 (ouch!). However, from that I am going to deduct one of the packs of yoghurts (£2.96), one carton of milk (£0.86), two of the packs of sandwich meat (£3.34) and the cotton buds (£0.35). This reduces the total for the week to £35.61, which is considerably higher than the target of £13.30. Indeed, the total for four weeks of shopping at Morrisons now comes to £145.67. The total for Tesco was £123.36. As I'm not consciously aware of shopping for more, or for more expensive things (and, indeed, the salads should be less on average than the various curries), this fairly clearly indicates that Morrisons is not the winner. Given that I really didn't enjoy shopping there too much, I'm not too disappointed by this.

A week on Monday, I'll be off to Asda for the third and final leg of the Grand Experiment. In theory, they should work out to be the cheapest of the three. We'll see.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cutting it Short

Back when I wrote up my goals, one of them was to "Complete the "Star Wars Saga Edition" campaign, and begin my next "Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay" campaign." At the time, the plan was for this campaign to run for 20 sessions (of which we had, and have, played three), before coming to an end that would also neatly set up a sequel campaign for next year.

I had also envisaged that that would essentially be the pattern of the year: two campaigns per year of about 20 sessions each, with as many as 12 Saturdays skipped due to band competitions, illness, family commitments, or for other reasons.

It turns out that this is vastly over-generous. We haven't managed to get together for the game for almost three months, and there are fewer than half a dozen Saturdays between now and mid-September in which I am free, never mind the rest of the group.

Fortunately, I am never without a backup plan, and so the new pattern is as follows: in mid-September, I will start a new campaign, slated to run through until the end of April. Allowing for missed weeks due to various commitments, I am estimating we should manage about 25 sessions in those seven and a half months.

During the 'off months' of the band competition season, we'll try to get together for the odd game or two, but these will take the form of one-shot games (or maybe a 'mini-series'), but not a full-blown campaign.

And so, come September, I expect to start up the new "Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay" campaign mentioned in my goals. Between now and then, I hope to post a few things about the world-, adventure- and campaign-building that I am doing for this campaign (to break up the monotony of the Experimental Cookery, the Grand Experiment, and my moaning about whatever I feel like ranting about on any given week).

As for the "Star Wars Saga Edition" campaign? Well, I have a backup plan for that too, which I call my "Writers' Strike solution": I'm going to run the campaign for four more sessions in between competitions, and bring it to a suitable mid-season break. At that point, which I hope will be nicely game-changing, I'll stop the campaign, with a view to picking it up next September for continued play.

(Unfortunately, carrying the campaign through to the full 20 sessions would probably not get it done until December, which would leave us with the same problem next year. And expanding it out to run right through to April doesn't work - preparing these things takes quite a bit of time, such that it's easier to cut short than it is to extend.)

Anyway, that's the current plan. The first of those four remaining sessions in due to take place on Saturday. It promises to be quite exciting; they've just been captured by Imperial forces, and look set for torture and eventual death. Unless, that is, they can contrive a means of escape...

#23: "Pathfinder: Dragons Revisited", by Mike McArtor

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #36: Evolution Tomato Salad

Of all the many places I have visited, I think my favourite was Rome. There are several reasons for this, including the grandeur and the weight of history about the place, the fact that it was gloriously sunny, and the fact that I went just as my life was starting to come back together following a long and difficult spell of unemployment.

Of course, there was also the food. Be it pizza, pasta, or something else, I'm a big fan of Italian food. And one of the key ingredients, and therefore one of my favourite fruits, is the tomato. So, I was rather looking forward to the tomato salad.

Sadly, I needn't have bothered, because this one was frankly a disappointment. Unlike the Evolution Green Salad, where the lettuce was complemented and improved on by the other components, here the tomato was left to try to make up for the shortcomings of the tuna and the beans. The dressing was rather anemic, and didn't really help things.

And also, the tomatoes themselves were a let down. I don't seem to be doing at all well with fruit and vegetables from Morrisons, and so it was here, with the tomatoes not being very nice, either not being quite ripened, or being past their best. (I suppose tomatoes aren't quite in season yet, which can't help either.)


Next week is an "Evolution Cucumber Salad", which actually looks quite promising. I am intrigued by Jamie's plans for the humble cucumber. The week after that is an "Evolution Carrot Salad", which also looks interesting. However, for now I have to mark this a loss, which brings the salad chapter level at 2-2.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go boldly to see the new "Star Trek" film. Although, it seems oddly inappropriate to do that on the tenth anniversary of "Phantom Menace" being released (in the US - it didn't reach the UK until July).

Monday, May 18, 2009


It turns out there's a hole in my bagpipes. This explains why I've been so hard pressed to actually play them of late.

This is bad news - I could really do with not having to spend the money on a repair right now. On the other hand, it's better to know, and get it fixed, than to continue on suffering.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

My Life in Random

This week, I discovered an odd discrepancy between my home PC and the one at work. At home, if I open Media Player and hit Play, it will start back up where it left off - with the same track from the same album. At work, doing the same causes it to put together a random playlist of about eight hours of music from my library, and play that from the start. Which is quite good fun. And so I found myself listening to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" at one point this week. I certainly intend to.

They say it's a really bad sign when visions of the upcoming weekend are all that get you through Monday morning. It's an even worse sign when visions of the upcoming Monday are all that get you through Saturday morning. I have been absurdly tired all week, and have only now begun to recover. Those eleven hours of sleep this morning might have something to do with that.

Pineapple smoothies don't really work. The flavour of the pineapple isn't really strong enough to overcome the flavour of the banana. So, they're nice enough, but they might as well just be banana smoothies really.

"Coraline" is a very good film, in the same mould as "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "The Corpse Bride". It's probably not quite as good as "Nightmare", but about on a par with "Bride". However, I don't think the 3D quite works, or perhaps it is just my eyes. Regardless, I think I prefer my films in glorious 2D, the way Spielberg intended.

Speaking of 3D, in order to get the effect one has to wear silly glasses. These glasses allow one to see a whole extra dimension. I was therefore most disappointed to find that, we I looked at something that was already three-dimensional, I wasn't able to see the future.

The ending of "Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles" was awesome, and left a lot of unanswered questions, the biggest of which was "Now what?". Normally, I couldn't wait for the next season. Sadly, it has been cancelled.

Despite my assertion that I was done with "Heroes", I relented, having been assured by friends that Volume Four was much better. This turned out to be incorrect. I'm now really done with "Heroes". One day, I might blog about just what has gone wrong, and why the show shouldn't be fixed.

I have now read 22 books, that being my target for the end of this month. With two whole weeks left in the month, I don't know whether to carry on into the next couple of books, or to take a break. Truly, this is a dilemma on a par with the yoghurt issue.

I've run out of material. I'll stop now. Maybe I'll go read a book. Or not.

(Perhaps if I wear the magic future-glasses, I can pretend I'm reading a book from next month? Would that be too silly?)

The Scottish Championships

In the competition season for pipe bands, there are five so-called 'Majors'. These are the Scottish Chapionships, the British Championships, the European Championships, the World Championships, and the Cowal Games. As far as I can tell, three of these always take place in Scotland, and it is unusual for both of the other two to be elsewhere in any given year.

Still, never mind such oddities.

Yesterday was the first of the Majors, being the Scottish Championships, held in Dumbarton. It was a day of mixed weather, starting off rather dull, then featuring a very heavy shower, then a dry spell, then a very light drizzle, and then glorious sunshine. Somehow, my band avoided the rain when we had to play.

Due to the number of bands involved in the Major competitions, the contest is split into two parts. The first is a qualifying round, during which bands must play a selection from a preset choice of tunes. There are about a dozen such tunes, all of roughly the same complexity, and bands are required to play a medley of three.

There are typically two qualifying groups, and six progress from each group to the final (I guess that if there were a huge number of bands, they would have three groups, each of which would provide four finalists, and so on). Yesterday, each qualifying group consisted of thirteen bands.

This week, having learned a lesson from last week, the band spent a bit less time preparing. Start up, tune the pipes, play a couple of sets to ensure everything's in readiness, and then wait. Then to the final tuning area, run through the qualifying set a couple of times, and then wait. Hope that the nerves don't get you, and then on we go.

So, we played. And immediately there was a problem - one of the younger members of the band hit the wrong note at the start. This, sadly, is about as disasterous as you can get; a bad start means a bad first impression, and then... The rest of the performance was generally very good. There were a few errors, where there should have been none, but otherwise it was fine. The stop was very good.

And so off we went, and thus began more waiting.

As I said a couple of months ago, the target I have set for this year is for the band to qualify for the final at three of the four Majors we are attending. It would be terrible to miss it at the first outing, and thus lose out on any slack going forward. Also, it makes for a very unpleasant and long day having to wait for the end if you haven't qualified - it isn't even practical to leave early, since the police won't let buses out.

Fortunately, that was a moot concern, because we qualified. In fact, we came fourth in our qualifying group, which suggested we should be in with a shout of actually winning something. (The Majors have six prizes at each grade; the Minors have four. The level of competitions at the Majors is also much higher, so the chances of winning something aren't generally much different... except at Dunbar which, although a Minor, is also a very big competition, being the first of the season.)

So, we waited again, then made ready again, and played again. For the final, bands are allowed to play pretty much any tunes of sufficient duration and complexity. At our grade, that essentially means four 2/4 marches, which isn't particularly tough. That said, playing them well... that's another matter.

The final performance was better than qualifying. The start was very good, the end was very good, and there were fewer mistakes. It was also much, much better than last week.

Or so I thought, anyway. The judges, it seems, felt differently. The band came tenth out of the twelve finalists. The pipers were eleventh, and the drummers sixth. (The drummers result was actually very good news, though - a few heads had gone down after last week, and this restores some confidence.)

It really must be noted that this actually represents a fairly significant step forward. Last year, we played one Major (Cowal), and failed to qualify... and failed badly. The year before, we played one Major (Cowal), qualified, and then came last in the final. So, although it doesn't seem like too much, tenth is still an improvement.

It was a good day.

The Grand Experiment: Week Seven

Most of the bananas I bought last week collapsed in a mushy heap very quickly. I was most disappointed in that. And a lot of the sandwich meat I bought likewise had to be thrown away, having gone off. This dismayed me more than a little.

This week saw me purchasing a fair amount of frozen fruit (for smoothies), and some bottled water. I know: bottled water is an abomination, especially when living in a region where the tap water is indistinguishable from the bottled. However, I feel justified in this action: after six months of refilling, my previous three bottles had turned brown, and therefore needed replaced. It wasn't the water that I needed; it was the bottles.

In any event, neither of these two will be charged to the total. Conversely, I will be charging some milk to the total - I ran out on Tuesday, just after the store closed, and so had to make an alternate arrangement.

It's safe to say that Morrisons won't be winning this one: not only are they not the cheapest supermarket, but they really aren't convenient either.

Anyway, the list was as follows:

  • Frozen Pineapple, £2.49
  • Frozen Summerfruits, £2.00
  • Frozen Black Forest Fruit, £2.00
  • Irn Bru (24 cans), £4.82
  • Sandwich Meat, £5.00
  • Tinned Tuna (4), £2.69
  • Cannellini Beans (1 tin), £0.40
  • Yoghurts (6), £2.96
  • Basil, £0.69
  • Olives, £1.49
  • Salad Tomatoes (12), £1.76
  • Water (3 x 1.5l), £1.56
  • Cherry Tomatoes, £0.74
  • Vine-ripened Tomatoes, £1.39
  • Almonds (300g), £3.00
  • Lettuce, £0.50
  • Apples (6), £1.59
  • Dishwasher Tablets (42), £4.89

The total for the week came to £39.97. From this, I have to subtract £6.49 for the frozen fruit and £1.56 for the water, but add £1.86 for the milk. This gives a revised total of £33.78.

This brings the running total for Morrisons to £110.06, leaving £13.30 for next week's shop. Somehow, I doubt that that is a reasonable target. And then, it's off to Asda, to see if they can do better.

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #35: Evolution Potato Salad

Somewhat belated post this week; I had the salad on Tuesday as scheduled, but wasn't able to find time to update the blog until now.

This one consisted of boiled potatoes dressed with a lemon dressing, with added chives, yoghurt, lemon zest, and bacon. I also had burgers with it, which proved to be a mistake, being a bit too heavy. Oh, and I also added a selection of cheeses, per the suggestion in the book.

Well, the cheeses were fantastic. There was a nice cheddar-and-onion, and a very nice wenselydale-and-cranberry. Very impressive.

As for the potato salad? Well, it was nice enough, but nothing really to blog about. I guess if I were a potato salad-fiend, I might be more impressed, but as it is, it struck me as okay but not something I'd really bother with again.

So, I'm calling that a loss, giving a score of 2-1 on salads. Next week (this week) is an "Evolution Tomato Salad", which should be quite nice.

#21: "Pathfinder: The Jackal's Price", by Darrin Drader
#22: "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Literature, with a capital 'L'

I've been finding it hard to think which books to read next. To that end, I turned to Amazon's recommendations system, which has occasionally served me well in the past. However, I was rather surprised this time to find the recommendations packed with GSCE study guides, past papers, and the like. I was confused by this, until I found out why: it was because I have recently ordered "Lord of the Flies" from them.

This amuses me. It seems the only people who read such books are poor students being forced to do so. I dread to think what's going to happen when I add "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and "Brave New World" to the history.

Meanwhile, I'm finding myself running short of reading material. I'm trying to ration out my current authors of choice (Fleming, Cornwell, Iggulden) to last the rest of the year, and I find I have very limited patience for reading yet another tedious, derivative and unending fantasy series (of which there are many). There's also a limit to how many 'worthy' books one can read in sequence - probably about two.

On the plus side, I have successfully corrected the slip in the reading, and am instead now a full week ahead of schedule. Huzzah!

#20: "Doctor No", by Ian Fleming

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Competition Season Begins Again

Yesterday was our first competition of the season. The band came 10th out of a total of 25 bands, representing a massive improvement over last year's 21st out of 22.

However, I'm not very sure how this actually happened. Frankly, I'm wondering if the judges were actually listening to our performance, because we were pretty bad. In fact, we were downright terrible in places, most notably myself.

Unfortunately, we started getting ready in plenty of time, only to be kept waiting an additional half hour after we were ready. The bagpipes, being a temperamental instrument at the best of times, really need to be kept active once tuned to perfection, so we had to keep playing. This left everyone pretty exhausted by the time we actually got to play.

And then, just as we started, I felt something go in my shoulder. Suddenly, there was absolutely no strength in my left arm, and I was stuck trying to play a fairly heavy reed with just my lungs (and my noted inability to breathe in a circular manner). This is about as bad a thing as can possibly happen on the field of competition - had it happened just one tune earlier I would have been forced to drop out; not ideal, but the best thing for the band. Instead, it happened just after the point of no return, and led to my chanter dropping in and out during the performance, my drones dropping in and out during the performance... it was just bad. Basically, a very disappointing way to start the season, and a cruel blow after so much hard work and practice.

And yet, somehow, the band came 10th. The pipers actually came 6th out of 25 (how?), with the drummers being further down the field. It's all really confusing.

Yesterday also saw me not getting home until just after midnight on Friday, then getting up at 5:45 to get the bus, and then not getting home again until after 11. I'm now so tired I'm not thinking straight. Therefore, I'm off to bed.

#19: "Sword Song", by Bernard Cornwell

The Grand Experiment, Week Six

I appear to have found the best time for visiting Morrisons, and it is on Thursday after band (rather than Monday after band, which I would have preferred). With that in mind, here is the list:
  • Yoghurts (12), £5.92
  • Fruit Juice (2 x 1 litre), 2.46
  • Bread (3), £2.55
  • Cheddar & Onion cheese, £1.28
  • Wensleydale cheese, £1.05
  • Chocolate, £2.50
  • Shampoo (2), £3.38
  • Mixed Nuts (400g), £1.99
  • Potatoes (1.5kg), £1.29
  • Lettuce, £1.09
  • Onions (10), £1.29
  • Lemons (3), £0.43
  • Bananas (9), £1.29
  • Cooked Meat (3 x 10 slices), £2.50
  • Tomatoes (6), £0.88
  • Chives, £0.69
  • Mouthwash (blue), £1.46

The total for the week was £32.05. However, I'm going to discount both the chocolate (as this was an unusual expense) and the Wensleydale (due to the increased price due to having to go to the Moon to get it). This brings the total for the week down to £28.50, and brings the total for Morrisons to date to £76.28. This leaves £47.08 for the next two weeks, to break even with Tesco. It doesn't look good.

Oh, and also: I resolved my yoghurt crisis! On Friday morning, I ate an Orange and Chocolate yoghurt, thus neatly side-stepping the issue. Huzzah for lateral thinking!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The wrong yoghurt

Each day, I bring two yoghurts to work, one strawberry and one raspberry and blackcurrant. In the morning, I eat one of these yoghurts, and in the afternoon I eat the other. The following day, I reverse the order, so where I might eat Strawberry on Monday morning, I will instead eat Raspberry and Blackcurrant on Tuesday morning. It is a system filled with many subtleties, and one that has worked extremely well, until now.

This morning, I ate the wrong yoghurt! I was halfway through the pot before I realised to my horror that I was eating Strawberry in defiance of the system!

Now I'm totally thrown, baffled and confused. See, this leaves the question: what do I do tomorrow? In order to resume the system, I should eat Strawberry again in the morning, but this will leave me having done so on three consecutive days. On the other hand, if I instead eat Raspberry and Blackcurrant tomorrow, I will be guilty of carrying on in this flawed pattern. What to do, what to do?

One thing is certain: this is the worst thing that has ever happened.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #34: Evolution Green Salad

Jamie's book contains four different 'jam jar dressings' for use with salads. I have now tried three of the four, and thus far they're all winners. To be honest, though, the first one I tried, the French dressing, is the best so far.

This green salad was a revelation. The concept is quite simple: start with a standard green salad (lettuce leaves dressed with one of the dressings), and 'evolve' it in a number of small steps. In this case, the steps were the addition of bacon, nuts, and parmesan.

The result was simply amazing, being far greater than merely the sum of its parts. In fact, astonishingly, I enjoyed it rather more than the burgers that I had with it. Perhaps it was the lack of chips that made the difference this week...

Anyway, that's 2-0 on the salads, with eight to go. Next up is an "Evolution Potato Salad", which applies much the same principle to boiled potatoes. Could be interesting. Apparently, this one should be served with cheeses; I think I can manage that...

#18: "Pathfinder: House of the Beast" by Tim Hitchcock (and others)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Hard Sell

While wandering Glasgow town centre investigating coffee houses (don't ask), I decided to stop in at Subway for a bite of lunch. (The people who put together my food plan also investigated fast food offerings. Subway have an entire menu I can select from.)

Just as I turned into the street bearing the store, I was accosted by a gent.

"Do you go to Subway often?" he asked.

"Sometimes," said I. "In fact, I'm just going there now."

"How would you like to eat for free at Subway right though to the end of the year, for a one off payment of £10? How does that sound?"

"It sounds too good to be true," I replied.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be correct. What they were actually selling was a glorified "buy one, get one free" scheme, whereby if I and a friend went to Subway, I could order sandwiches similar to those of said friend for free. Also, there were a bunch of vouchers giving me a free sandwich if I bought a drink.

Oh, and it applied only in a particular set of stores, notably excluding the two I am actually likely to visit often. Shame.

"I'm going to decline," I said. "The reason I don't get a drink is that I'm trying to avoid liquid calories, so these vouchers aren't of any use to me."

"Well, you could always get a water..." he said.

The vouchers actually clearly stated on them that they only applied to particular drinks. Water was not in that category. I'm going to be charitable, and say he must not have realised the conditions of the offer he was making... although my suspicions are otherwise.

But I'm a bit annoyed. I said no. That should have been the end of it.

Anyway, I finished with what I should have said in the first place. "I'm going to decline," I said, and walked away.

Experimental Cookery Breakfasts #10: Granola

Apparently, granola is a fairly popular breakfast choice. This surprises me, as I'd only ever really heard of it in the context of granola bars, which have the double whammy of being held together with sticky toffee (and so loaded with calories), and also not tasting very nice.

It turns out, though, that granola is basically roasted mixed grains, nuts and seeds, topped with some nice dried fruit. There's a little more to it than that, but the basic upshot is that my entire appartment has been smelling of toasted almonds all day, which certainly doesn't suck.

It tasted very nice, too, but I'm not 100% convinced it tasted nice enough to justify all the hassle of having to cook it in the morning. It should be better now, since I made a sizeable batch, but still... I guess that's another one to make up in a batch every couple of months and then store.

I'm also sure it contained a truly horrific number of calories. Nuts are loaded with fats, while the hunny used to sweeten the deal isn't exactly light. But still, my sources say that a big breakfast, even an extravagant breakfast, is no bad thing, in that it sets you up for a full and active day, and actually reduces calorie intake for the rest of the day.

Anyway, this was another win, allowing Jamie to once again break even on the breakfasts at 5-5, with two to go. Next up is stewed fruit, although I don't know when I'll get around to that - next Saturday is the first competition of the season, which means a very early start.

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #33: Good Old Chilli Con Carne

There is a jar in my kitchen. It was originally a jar of chilli con carne sauce, but it is now used to keep all my small change. At the end of the year the jar, and all the contents thereof, will be given to charity.

Yesterday, I was transferring some change from my wallet to this jar, when I considered that I haven't had chilli con carne for some months, and that I really would quite like to do so. However, Jamie's book has a recipe, and so I decided that, even though I hadn't reached the "Homely Mince" chapter, I would skip ahead a bit, get the ingredients, and cook it up.

Chilli con carne is one of my favourites, which means that this represents a third chance to compare Jamie's method with the 'packaged' version. The chicken fajitas were a wash; the results from the book were marginally better, but they were a lot more hassle to prepare. The ckicken tikka masala, though, was a clear win for the book.

As was the chilli con carne.

The resulting meal was very different from that which comes from the jar. It was a lot more open, and less gloopy, which was a distinct improvement. And, although the meal was a bit less hot than I was used to (and a bit less hot than I would prefer), that will be easily fixed in future.

The method itself was nice and simple, which is always a bonus, but it does have an hour-long simmer stage (requiring periodic stirring, too). However, this made enough for six meals, which reduces the pain somewhat.

As with the curries, therefore, the lesson to learn from this is that I need to cook up a batch every couple of months, as time permits, and freeze the other five servings. This will give me a freezer absolutely loaded with all sorts of fine foods, ready to be defrosted and eaten at will. Huzzah!

Of course, the major problem with this outcome is that I don't know where I'll get a new jar for next year's collection...

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Grand Experiment, Week Five

As noted before, getting to Morrisons on a Monday was difficult. However, due to a void in my schedule, I was able to fit in a visit this evening. As an added bonus, this allows me to get some things in stock for a dinner tomorrow.

Unfortunately, my experience with the store was similarly unimpressive. I had quite a long and complex list, but finding things proved shockingly difficult at times. I arrived just before seven, and fifty six minutes later I emerged, having purchased everything. (This was fortunate - statistically, men can shop for 67 minutes before going stir crazy.)

Anyway, the list was as follows:
  • Tortilla chips, £0.88
  • Pizza (3), £5
  • Irn Bru (24 cans), £4.86
  • Yoghurts (12), £5.92
  • Almonds (2 x 150g), £3
  • Pine Nuts, £2.79
  • Toothpaste, £1.94
  • Streaky Bacon (16), £1.77
  • Mince (2 x 454g), £4.74
  • Chopped Tomatoes (4 tins), £1.94
  • Chick Peas (1 tin), £0.59
  • Tomatoes (4), £0.50
  • Rolls (6), £0.47
  • Carrots (2), £0.21
  • Yellow Peppers (2), £1.58
  • Celery Sticks (10), £1
  • Apples (6), £1.59
  • Lettuce, £0.69
  • Onions (2), £0.37
  • Yoghurt, £0.78
  • Coriander, £1.09
  • Chilli Powder, £0.89
  • Re Kidney Beans (1 tin), £0.33
  • Reduced Salt Soy Sauce, £0.79
  • Balsamic Vinegar, £0.91
  • Grated Parmesan, £1.47

The total came to £47.78. Given that the target is £123.36 for the month, that really doesn't look promising. However, this was almost certainly the 'big shop' of the month, and as such may be giving a false impression (hence doing four week blocks).

My impression was very definately that Morrisons was less well-stocked than Tesco, that it was less well laid out, and that it was generally a less pleasant experience. Plus, the lack of 24-hour shopping is a distinct weakness.

I also noted that there were a lot of offers dotted around the store, perhaps moreso than at Tesco. I think that Morrisons do okay, provided you adopt a "strike force shopping" mentality, and stock up on things when they're cheap. Otherwise, I really can't see them beating Tesco.

Thank goodness that's over!

April was a bad month. Too much of life just didn't work, there was too much stress and, with the exception of two Saturdays, a painful lack of anything good happening. It started badly, with a warning of tough times ahead (actually, on the 31st of March), and then continued as a never-ending slog of stress, badness, and general unpleasantness.

Thank goodness that's over.

May, on the other hand, carries the promise of not only being a good month, but actually of being a great month. We'll see how long it lasts, but for now there's a great deal to look forward to:

Firstly, there's... oops, can't talk about that.

And then there's... ah, not going to talk about that either. (Don't ask: International Man of Mystery stuff.)

Also, this month sees the start of the competition season. The first event is a week tomorrow, at which point we'll see if all the effort we've put in over the last six months has been worth it. For the moment, I'm cautiously optimistic.

This month will also see the season-ends of "Terminator: SCC" (actually finished last night, but I haven't watched it yet), "24", "Lost", "Prison Break" and probably "Fringe". So that's a lot of good TV there. And "Terminator", "24" and "Lost" have been particularly good this year.

Of course, all those shows ending also means that I get my TV viewing under control, in line with one of my stated goals. I'm also planning on getting caught up on my reading this weekend (I'm about two days behind), and this month should see me reach my savings target towards my new car (ready to find out in June whether I'll actually need a new car or not). So, by the end of the month, I should have abandoned one goal, completed two, be nearing the completion of two others, and have another two well in hand.

And, added bonus: I have a bunch of extra holidays I get to take this month, if I can find a good reason.

As I said, it looks like it should be a good month.

#17: "Star Wars: Invincible" by Troy Denning