Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #47: Bolognese Sauce

Tuesday was a busy day, so in order to reduce the workload, I actually spent Monday evening putting together the bolognese sauce. It was a simple enough task, but rather time consuming. In particular, the chopping of all the vegetables took rather longer than I expected.

Still, the end result was rather impressive. This was a distinct step up from the jarred sauces have used previously. That said, I think it could probably be improved - I shall have to look into that. This sauce was advertised as being simple and consistent, and certainly lived up to that, but it does mean that there is room for experimentation.

That'll be 4-0 on the mince chapter. Next week, I'll be tackling the "Pot Roast Meatloaf" that I skipped this week. After that, I'll be taking a couple of weeks off while I'm in France, before a triumphant return to tackle lasagne.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The European Championships and Callander Highland Games

It has been another busy weekend with the band. On Saturday, we had the third of the four Majors we are attending, the European Championships in Inverclyde. On Sunday, we returned to the site of our big triumph of last year at the Callander Highland Games, which remained our best shot at glory for this year.

My goals for the weekend were three-fold: qualification at Inverclyde, a place at either of the two competitions, and to read at least two novels. (This last had nothing to do with piping, of course. It ties into another of my goals.)

The weather forecast was for sunny spells between heavy showers on both Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday morning, I looked out the window, and decided it was a day for sunblock. This proved to be a wise choice - there wasn't a hint of rain, and instead was blazing sunshine all day. As a consequence of my decision, the only impact is a slight deepening of the tan on my knees.

We went, we prepared, we waited. One of our younger pipers had to be dropped from competition - a problem with his pipes. He would be able to play in the final, if we qualified. This increased our determination. We had to do it for him.

We played. I thought it went well, on my side of the circle at least. But when we came off, the Pipe Major was raging. He'd obviously heard something I hadn't. Oh dear.

An hour later, the results were posted. We had come fourth in our qualifying group (of 15). We had qualified!

One down.

We waited some more. The pages in the first book passed. I ate lunch slightly early (breakfast had been at 5). The Pipe Major said to wake him at 2:30. We waited some more.

2:30 arrived, so we woke the Pipe Major. The band headed down to tuning. We made ready. The piper who had to be dropped the first time was brought back into the fold. Sadly, another piper had to be dropped - more trouble with pipes.

We played. It went well. When we came off, we were all more than happy with our performance. Could it be - could we actually come away from a Major with a place?

We waited for the march past. I finished that first book just as the time came to get ready. And so we did, and went on, and got our results.

We didn't come away with a place. In fact, we came twelvth in the final. Out of twelve. Still, as the goal for the day was qualification, it was still a successful day.

Sunday morning greeted me with rain. So, no need for sunblock, then.

The day began with a bout of frayed tempers, upset drummers, and general tension. One of our key drummers had decided he wasn't going to come out because... well, I'm not actually sure why not. As far as I can make out, he just couldn't be bothered. The effect of that was that another drummer, who had been supposed to be enjoying a day off, had to be drafted in at short notice. The Lead Drummer was understandably annoyed, as was the Pipe Major. And, unfortunately, the absent drummer's brother eventually got sick of fielding questions...

So, it was an auspicious day. We made our way to the competition, only to find that the bus couldn't park. The ground in the car park was too soft, so we'd never get back out. Instead, we had to grab whatever we needed for the full day, and then the driver would take it away for the day.

We trudged through the rain to the field, whereupon we identified a likely shelter from the storm. The Pipe Major went off to find out when we were playing, while the rest of us shivered. It turned out we would be first on, so we set about tuning up under this tent.

It transpired that they elected to move the competition off of the field and into the tent where we were tuning up. As we were first on, we were allowed to continue tuning there. And, when the time came, we played, and it was good.

After we had played, with nothing else to do, and only this tent to huddle under, I listened to the other bands. It was quite illuminating - suddenly it is clear how we can have been playing really well and still not been getting anywhere. Lots to think on there.

As the Grade 4 competition wound down, the sun came out. The rest of the day was then considerably more pleasant. We played again in the Grade 3 competition, but that's not really important. And then came the March Past and the results. Frankly, I didn't expect much - we might get fourth if we were lucky.

We won.

Yes, for the second year in a row, we won the Grade 4 competition at the Callander Highland Games. What's more, where there were only three bands last year, this year we came top of a field of seven, including our two closest rivals (geographically, that is). Score one for the good guys!

Two down.

On the way home, I finished the second of my novels for the weekend, and made a very small start on the third. Three down.

It was a good weekend.

#31: "Shadows Linger", by Glen Cook
#32: "For Your Eyes Only", by Ian Fleming

Friday, July 24, 2009

Oh well

Falkirk lost the second leg of their Eurpoa League qualifying match 2-0, thus being eliminated from the tournament 2-1 on aggregate. This is somewhat disappointing, although not unexpected as it was their first-ever European adventure.

I guess that means we won't be playing in the next round, then.

#30: "Pathfinder: Dungeon Denizens Revisited", by Paizo Publishing

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #46: Minced Beef Wellington

When I first got the book and looked through the recipes, it was this one that most caught my eye as something I wanted to try. When, last week, we reached the point where this was next on the list, I found myself somewhat apprehensive. I wasn't the complexity of the dish that was a factor, since it isn't hugely difficult, but rather the cooking time. It needed an hour in the oven, which meant not eating until 7:30 - rather a hardship when one gets home at 5:30 tired and hungry.

Still, I persevered. As I have said before (though not here, I think), it is the rules that we make for ourselves that are the most important, and that meant I had to do something towards the book this week. And, frankly, one evening is as good as another, especially since I am out all weekend, and so lacking in opportunity to put things right then.

Anyway, although it proved quite time consuming, the process of putting together the Wellington was fairly straight-forward. And once it went into the oven, that was the task essentially done. I spent the next hour productively making lunch and reading the latest Bond novel.

It turned out that the Minced Beef Wellington was essentially a giant Cornish Pasty. There's no great harm in that - I do quite like Cornish Pasties - but it wasn't really the revelation I had expected. (Truth be told, though, that seemed unlikely in a chapter on mince.)

Still, it was nice enough. One to have again, I think, although one to have with company, rather than to eat alone for four days. I'll give him the win; that's 4-0 on "Homely Mince". (That said, both the curry and stir-fry chapters still have the edge. There has been nothing here that has really sold this chapter, yet.)

The next one is supposed to be "Pot Roast Meatloaf", which comes highly recommended. However, for reasons to convoluted to go into here, I'm going to skip that one, and instead proceed to the "Bolognese Sauce". (I have a girl coming around, and spaghetti bolognese fits better than a pot roast. Oh, there you go - turned out they weren't too convoluted.)

Anyway, must dash. I'm supposed to be cleaning three rooms tonight, and I have done a grand total of none of them!

#29: "Goldfinger", by Ian Fleming

Monday, July 20, 2009

To Infinity and Beyond?

When the Moon rises tonight, I will inevitably find myself pondering the anniversary. Forty years ago today, Man landed on the Moon for the first time.

It was the culmination of our greatest adventure, it is arguably our greatest achievement to date, and it is absolutely worthy of celebration.

But I'm sure I will also consider one other thing: We don't go there any more.

It's not that we don't have the technology; we just use it for sending text messages (LOL). It's not that we don't have the money - our money is essentially virtual these days anyway (and besides, there are massive side benefits to all the R&D that would be involved). Basically, we don't have the will. The reason we choose not to do these things is precisely the reason JFK gave for doing them in the first place: "because they are hard."

Seriously, we should go.

The Thornton Highland Games

Once again, it has been a busy weekend with the band. On Thursday, we played at the Falkirk stadium, celebrating the team's first ever match in European competition. This was a good night, especially as Falkirk won the match 1-0, and might just have done enough to qualify for the next round. Maybe.

On Saturday, we were playing at the Falkirk Wheel once again for fundraising purposes. Unfortunately, with the weather not being terribly good, we didn't do particularly well. This was a shame, as the band actually played really well. Still, it was worth doing. We were also very lucky - we decided to finish early, and just as we did so the heavens opened, and so we narrowly avoided getting soaked.

Yesterday, we found ourselves at the Thornton Highland Games for yet another competition. It was a reasonable day, although there was a rather nasty wind during most of it, and a few light showers.

At the Thornton Games, we played three times, in the Grade Four competition, the Grade Three competition and an Open competition. This last was the organisers' attempt to attract a few higher-grade bands to their games, while not being able to attract enough to justify a full competition for those grades. Unfortunately for them, it didn't really work, so they got us instead. However, I'm not really interested in any competition other than the Grade Four.

The band played really well. In fact, we put in the best performance we have managed at any contest at any point this year. For the first time, we managed to all start correctly, we didn't let the tunes run away with us, and we got the phrasing of the tune right. After our success at Cupar, hopes were high that we would be in or around the prizes once again.

The judges felt differently. Despite the feedback forms not indicating anything particularly wrong with the performance, we nonetheless came seventh. (The results aren't online yet, so I don't know how big the field was. I believe there were eight or nine bands present.)

This was an especially disappointing result. Previously, we've had to look back and admit that we didn't play well, and that the results were therefore fair and accurate. The onus on us has been to improve, and then the results would follow.

But yesterday we know we played well. And, what's more, there isn't any clear indication of why we did poorly, or what we should be doing to improve. It's purely a matter of what seem to be reasonably encouraging comments on the sheet, followed by a surprisingly high number.

Oh well, no point in dwelling on it. Next week we have the third Major of the season, the European Championships at Inverclyde, followed by the Callendar Highland Games, the site of our one and only success last year.

#28: "A Sword From Red Ice", by J.V. Jones

Day 201

It doesn't seem like any time at all since the update for day 150 of the year, but according to the calendar it has been seven weeks. (Actually, eight. The previous update was early.) Anyway, yesterday was day 200 of 2009, and so the time has come for another update on progress against my goals for the year.

  1. Super Secret Goal #1. Complete. And there was much rejoicing.
  2. Super Secret Goal #2. Abandoned in April; included here for completeness
  3. Books. I finished "A Sword From Red Ice" on Friday, taking me to 28 for the year. I am also 100 pages from the end of "Goldfinger", and am hoping to finish it off tomorrow. Hopefully, I should make some decent progress on this one over the next few weeks; the advantage of all those bus trips to and from competitions.
  4. Weight loss. No progress to report. My plan to really try to focus on this during June failed.
  5. New skill. I have picked out the course I wish to attend, but it doesn't start until October.
  6. Car fund. This was completed. Of course, in the end I didn't need to buy a new car, rendering this somewhat redundant. Never mind - I now have the funds available for next year.
  7. General finances. No progress to report. That said, there's not too much more for me to be doing with this.
  8. Band. We won a prize at Cupar, but failed to qualify at Banbridge. As a result, we now need to qualify at both Inverclyde and Cowal to complete one part of this goal, but need only pick up one more prize anywhere to complete the other. This goal will be resolved one way or the other in the next six weeks or so.
  9. The house move. I have spent some time in the last couple of weeks putting up endless bookcases, and arranging books on them. It was a long and tedious task, but also a job well done. Still to do: clear out the rest of the junk in the Purple Room, invest in a dining table and chairs, and get a tumble drier. I also want to get some nice pictures for the walls, but this part of the task will be something to work on over time, rather than something to rush out and do.
  10. TV. Completed. My weekly viewing now consists of "House", "Dollhouse", "Chuck" and "Lie to Me". I have even started to work through the bank of movies I have had stored since December.
  11. RPGs.The second of four remaining sessions in the "Star Wars Saga Edition"
    campaign was on Saturday, and it was good. It looks like we might not finish this one off in the allocated four sessions, but that's okay. Slightly less good, we missed one of the four weekends that we thought might have been usable due to illness (not mine). However, it looks like we might just get that back, if the band drop out of the competition on the 8th of July (as seems likely). I haven't done any meaningful prep for the next game, and will have to get on with that.

And there it is. Three goals completed, one abandoned, and seven remaining. Of the seven, #8 and #11 will essentially be resolved by the time of the next update; these will be my main focus for the next seven weeks.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Quest

Back when I moved home, I was told by my then GP practice that I had moved out of their catchment area, and would have to find a new practice. Apparently, the NHS have this system of catchment areas in order to ensure that doctors can (theoretically, of course) go out for a home call if necessary. And, having moved to an appartment that was a whole 2.1 miles from the practice, I am now too far away.

(Someone really should do something about this. I think we need some sort of device that is capable of moving itself along all those fancy roads we have. I even have a wonderful idea for the name: let's call it auto, which means 'self', and mobile, which means 'move'.)

Anyway, given that 2.1 miles is clearly too far for a person to travel, I set out on the task of finding a new GP. And so, my first port of call was the NHS (Scotland) website, which provided guidance on how to do this: look up the practices in your area, pick one, phone them and ask if they're willing to take you on as a patient, and you're done.

So, I looked up the practices in my area, of which there are about ten. Of these, six are closer than the one I was with (and I presume, therefore, that the others should simply be discounted from consideration).

Picking one was a slightly harder challenge. On what basis should I make the selection? After all, I've never used any of them, and so have no basis for comparison. Perhaps I should use the length of the name? Or perhaps the number of vowels in the surnames of the doctors (it is well established that a low usage of vowels improves patient health - except in Argentina, for some reason). Or perhaps I should just make some metric up out of thin air, for comedic purposes?

In the end, I phoned the nearest practice. I'm sure it's no basis on which to pick a doctor, but there was no Dr Zyrryk in the area, so what could I do? Anyway, I phoned them, explained that I'd just moved in, and asked...

Before I finished the question I was interrupted. "No, we're not taking on any patients. You have to go through allocations. Click"

I never did find a practice that was taking on patients. Even when I promised them that I would never, ever get sick they were unmoved. Allocations it was.

So, I dug out the letter I wrote to them three years ago, back when I tried and failed to find a GP in Falkirk last time. I edited the letter to explain the situation (and also comment that, actually, I didn't feel any great need to move, what with having a working prototype of my new automobile, and anyway I could walk the distance in 40 minutes, and daresay could go even faster if I used a horse-draw carriage (or 'car' for short)). But there was just one small problem: no address!

So, I went back to the NHS (Scotland) website (all the while bemoaning the fact that while I was told several times I had to go through Allocations, no-one bothered to think that I might need an address). Still, how hard could it be to find an address? Surely, in the "How to Find a GP" section, there must be a "and if all else fails, write to this address"?

Well, you might think that, but you would be mistaken. The address was nowhere to be found. But, fortunately, help was to be had. There was always the "Email Us" option. Hurrah!

I filled in their form with gusto, rather enjoying the fact that I'd be wasting the time of an over-stretched and over-stressed member of NHS staff on a trivial enquiry that could be resolved by a slight adjustment to their website. It was with great glee that I considered all those people suffering from Swine Flu who would have to go untreated while someone looked up an address that should be readily and easily available on the website. Truly, it was a good time.

When I clicked "Submit", the system showed up a page confirming my request had been sent. It also said a confirmation email would be sent to me. Good, good.

What I didn't notice was that the webpage also gave a unique "enquiry code" for my request, which I would need to access the answer when it arrived. What I didn't realise was that this code would not be included in the confirmation email. What I did not realise was the true depths of stupidity that went into designing this system.

Two days later, I received an email saying that a response to my query was available, and providing a link to said response. I was at something of a loss as to why, rather than just telling me the address, they instead sent me an email saying that they had told me the address somewhere else.

Still, I followed the link. And was presented with a page asking for my unique "enquiry code", and also the "response code" from the email telling me where my answer was to be found. So, I entered the response code, and then looked up the "enquiry code", which of course was in the confirmation email I had been sent two days ago. After all, no-one would be stupid enough to design a system where you had to copy down a number that is shown exactly once, and then lost forever more...

At this point, I considered using their system to email them again to ask the same question. I then considered emailing them again to instead tell them I'd lost my "enquiry code", and could they tell me how to retrieve it. I then considered writing a real letter, lambasting them for developing such an idiotic system, giving a detailed description of just why you shouldn't give people the "enquiry code" after they've sent the email, why it should not be shown only once and then lost forever, and why you want to encircle it with big red text reading "for the love of all that's holy, copy down this number!!!"

Unfortunately, I didn't have the address to which I should send such a letter. Shame.

In the end, I settled on doing nothing at all. After all, it's not as if there's much danger of me actually getting sick any time soon. I mean, it's not as if WHO were, at that very time, predicting some sort of pandemic (pan meaning 'all', demic from demos meaning 'people'). I mean, we've since been informed that we should expect as many as 7 billion new cases of Swine Flu per day by the end of July (in the UK alone!), but this was back in the more innocent days when they were predicting that only 95% of us would die of it.

So, yes, not getting ill it was.

Anyway, I forgot about the matter for a while, being rather too wrapped up in the development of my exciting new mode of transport. Development was going well, as I found I was able to borrow a few ideas from the engine design of my car.

Last week, the postman rode through town on his white horse. (Technically, the horse could have been of another colour. I wasn't there to see it. I merely say 'white' to add a little descriptive flourish to the text. Also, as the colour white denotes purity, I am ascribing to the heroic postman a certain noble quality. I mean, it must be a bit rough, riding through Falkirk with all the Nedmobiles around the place.)

While this paragon of, um, letter delivery was making his rounds, he delivered to me a letter from my GP, noting that I still hadn't found a new practice, and that I really should do so. And, wonder of wonders, they included a form to send to Allocations to enable me to do this, complete with an address to which I should send this form!

Weeping the tears of pure joy that this development inspired, I filled in the form, put it in an envolope, added the address and a stamp, and then walked to the nearest post box, ready for the return of the postman. And now, I eagerly await the news that I have been assigned to a new GP, while at the same time satisfied at the conclusion of my most epic quest to date.

The End.

Monday, July 13, 2009

My Day Off

Life is insane at the moment. In addition to work, I am busy with the band every Saturday and every Sunday between now and the middle of August (and most Saturdays and Sundays after that and until mid-September). Not to mention my hectic schedule in the evenings: I'm out at one thing or another four out of the five evenings this week. (Though this week is particularly hectic.)

So, it was with some anticipation that I was looking forward to last weekend. The band had a fund-raiser in Grangemouth on the Saturday, which would take only a few hours, and nothing on the Sunday. I was getting a whole day off!

I staggered through the end of work on Friday, leaving with that annoying sense of failure that always comes when you don't quite solve the bug that you've been chasing. It happens.

Friday night was then spent engaging in one of those traditional but nerve-wracking landmark events, followed by watching Torchwood, and finally a return home for some well-earned sleep. My plan to buy some bookcases for my many RPG books remained incomplete.

Saturday arrived, and I immediately found myself running late, of course. Compounding the difficulties was a text from the Pipe Major, saying that he was going to be late himself, and that I should get things started without him.

Somehow, I managed to make it to Grangemouth on time, or as close as makes no difference, only to find only two other members of the band there. So, we had to wait a while for some others to arrive before we could start.

In the event, we had quite a small turnout, of six pipers (two of whom were learners), two snare drummers, a tenor and a bass. The Pipe Major never did get there. We played for three hours, on and off, and made £156, which is not a bad return on investment.

I then went and bought the ingredients for the burgers, and then went and bought the bookcases I mentioned previously. While battling these into the car, I suffered a mishap, and so went immediately back into the store, and bought a new watch to replace the one I had just destroyed.

Saturday evening I spent collapsed on my sofa, curled up with not one but two books. I still haven't actually assembled the bookcases. (I have no idea when I'm going to put these together, except that it has to be before Friday morning, and the only evening I'm not busy this week is in fact Friday. Perhaps I'll put them up in my sleep.)

So, Sunday. My big day off. No band engagements to play, no pressing tasks, nothing immediately in need of doing. Fantastic.

Except it didn't quite work out like that.

The reason I was due a day off from the band was that there was an event on, but it required only a mini-band, rather than everyone. Since I hadn't been told about it, I therefore assumed I didn't have to go. Said delusion lasted until about four on Saturday, just after I put both pairs of band socks into the wash, when the text arrived asking for volunteers. Sigh.

And so, it was off to the wedding, my first for some months. Fortunately, my socks had dried overnight, which proved to be a pleasant surprise. We played, and it was good. Then we played some more, and it was a bit less good. Then we played some more, which was a bit better. Then we waited for the receiving line to complete, and then I piped in the top table. Then I was done; the Pipe Major piped in the couple, thus laying claim to the dram that was assigned for the piper. (No matter; I had to drive anyway.)

From there I went to the parental home, where G had cooked my dinner, and then to church (I've missed several weeks recently, and will be missing several more before this is all done, so I really felt I had to go when the opportunity presented itself), and then I headed home to deposit my pipes. But no sooner had I got in than I headed out again immediately, to join a portion of the band in the pub for some bad karaoke. Then, finally, home to watch "House", and get myself to my bed.

It was a nice restful day. I'm looking forward with great anticipation to my next day off, on the 18th (and possibly 23rd) of August. It's also fair to say I'm a little tired today.

#27: "Pathfinder: The Great Beyond", by Todd Stewart

(Yes, I know I said "A Sword From Red Ice" was the next book. I'm nearly finished it, honestly!)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #45: A Cracking Burger

I forgot to get anything out of the freezer for dinner today. So, a quick trip to Tesco was followed by a spell of making burgers. Oh no!

Steph/ven's all-time top foods:

  1. Lasagne
  2. Curry
  3. Burgers
  4. Pizza (pepperoni, of course. It is the Knig of pizza toppings.)
  5. Chilli

(Honourable mention for calamari, which despite being seafood, and therefore not suitable for human consumption, is nonetheless rather nice.)

Jamie has already managed to convert me from jarred versions of two of the above to the home-cooked alternatives, and is set to have a crack at Lasagne in a few weeks. He tackles pizza in an entirely different book, which I don't have but might invest in at some point (since I do like Italian food).

So, how does he do with the burgers?

Well, it was rather fun bashing up the cream crackers. Quite relieved the stress of a rather difficult day. And then there was some chopping, cracking an egg, mixing, mixing, mixing, then chopping salad, cooking the burgers quickly (I thought), and then an assembly innabun. From start to first bite took about fifty minutes, and I now have four homemade burgers in my freezer ready for later use.

But never mind that tosh. With a burger, only one thing matters. Was it good?

Oh yes. It was a gooood burger. It was so much better than the boxed Bird's Eye burgers I usually have as to be insulted by the mere comparison. It similarly blew the 'Big' Mac out of the water. (Though these days it should really be the "Average Mac", or perhaps just the "Mac". It's been shrinking, see, and now there's nothing Big about it. But that's another rant entirely.)

(Though, seriously, why did they have to shrink the Big Mac? Despite its failings, it used to be a real burger. Now it's a toy burger. It's like those "Fun Size" Mars bars. I tell you, there's nothing 'fun' about having to eat fifty of them just to feel like you've had a real Mars bar. I blame Morgan Spurlock.)

Anyway, the bottom line is that I'm almost converted. One test remains: I need to know how well the homemade burgers freeze and defrost. If they work well, I'm going to have to bid farewell to the store-bought variety, because they just don't compare.

Curse you Jamie Oliver, you win this round!

Also, 3-0 in the "Homely Mince" chapter. Next up is "Minced Beef Wellington". Although, as this is a 'real' meal, I'm not entirely sure when I'll get around to it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #44: Rice Salad

The best thing about the "Rice Salad" is that it marks the end of the salads chapter. Unfortunately, despite Jamie's claims to the contrary, this was a fairly bland effort that, although it really wasn't much hassle, was nonetheless not worth the hassle involved in putting it together. I really was not a fan. It was okay, but after 25 minutes of boiling the rice (per the packet instructions), 'okay' just isn't enough.

So, that brings the tally for the "Lovin' Salads" chapter to 7-4 in favour. The best salad in the chapter was definately the "Mediterranean Chopped Salad", the worst the "Evolution Tomato Salad", for the disappointment more than anything else.

The next chapter in the book is "Simple Soups". However, as soup is more a lunch meal, I have elected to skip this chapter for now. Once I am done with the breakfasts, I'll return to this chapter. Instead, I'm moving on to "Homely Mince", which already stands at 2-0 in favour (for the meatballs and pasta and the chilli con carne). The first recipe in that chapter is "A Cracking Burger", which I will be tackling on Tuesday.

Monday, July 06, 2009

600th post: Thriller

Michael Jackson made exactly one concert appearance in Scotland, and I was lucky enough to see him live on that date. This was back in 1992, when he was still at, or very close to, his peak, and it was quite a concert.

(I realised today that at the time of that concert, MJ was the same age I am today. Scary thought, that. However, where MJ suffered a very deep and sad decline, I do firmly believe that my best days are still ahead - what I do doesn't depend on the fickle attentions of the public. But that's an aside.)

Somewhere along the way, Michael Jackson lost the ability to produce the music people wanted to hear. "Thriller" remains an exceptional album, better than virtually anything that has been produced since. But that is 25 years ago now. And in some ways, I'm glad the temptation to try to get tickets to see him again is now gone. I fear the planned concerts would have been a big disappointment: we would have wanted the Michael Jackson of yesteryear, but he was long-gone.

And, of course, if the concerts had been anything less than stellar, you can bet the media would have queued up to take their shots. This being the same media that have run nothing but tributes to a man they hounded, marginalised, or ridiculed for years. The same media that are busy turning his funeral into a circus, rather than letting him rest in peace as they should.

The concert in 1992 ended with "Michael Jackson" flying away into the sunset using a rocket pack.

A few days later, the newspapers were filled with a detailed analysis of just how and when he had switched with a stunt double to safely achieve this. As is so often the case, they felt compelled to rob Peter Pan of his magic.

I don't care. Better to remember him like that.

Cupar Highland Games

Spurred on by Captain Ric's cruelty last week, the band were determined to play better this week. Or maybe that was just me.

The bus was scheduled to leave for Cupar at 10:45 in the morning, and so we gathered at the school at 10:30, ready to board and get going. Alas, there was no bus. So, we waited. Half an hour later, we were starting to get worried. Even more worrying, the pipe major had forgotten his phone, so might have been getting a call even then explaining the problem, but we would never know...

The bus arrived at 11:30 sharp. It seems there had been a slight mis-communication somewhere along the line. Still, no matter - the competition didn't start until 13:45, so we had plenty of time...

As we travelled, the rain started. Oh yes, we thought, today is going to be a good day.

Just as we arrived in Cupar, just as we were getting to the competition field, a random phone rang. It was a friend of the band, who had been calling around after failing to reach the pipe major. Apparently, we were due to go on any minute, as why weren't we there yet? We pointed out that it wasn't yet one o'clock, and so we should have had plenty of time. It seems there was another slight miscalculation.

We arrived, and rushed off the bus. There then followed a frantic tuning session, during which the rain stopped, and then we had to go on and play. (Truth is, that probably helped us - the wait to go on and play can be a real killer.)

We played better than last week, but still not as well as we can.

(Due to the size of the competition, we were also entered in the Grade Three competition. We played that one slightly better again, but it's not really relevant to the discussion.)

After we had played, we hunted down some food. (Cupar is a wild and dangerous place, where a man can eat only those things that he can bring down with his own wits. I personally trapped a steak pie by enticing it by laying a bed of chips in a cunningly-placed cardboard box.)

Also, there was tennis on, although we didn't have time to watch the whole thing.

We then returned to the bus to play the march past, marvelling at how glorious and sunny the day had become. And then came the result.

We came fourth, out of six bands in our grade. Which, amongst other things, represents our first prize of the season. So, all in all, not a bad day.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Too Darn Hot

Yesterday, my office was flooded because of all the rain. (No, really.) Consequently, today the whole building has been filled with drying machines, which are basically giant hair dryers, that have been running on full power for hours.

It is therefore rather warm.

In order to counter this excessive heat somewhat, I would normally go and stand outside to get some air. However, the sun is beating down extremely brightly at the moment, as it has all day. So, no help there.

(Yes, I'm aware that I've just complained about both bad weather and good. I had been feeling insufficiently British.)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Apparently, if you start a draft of a post, save it, write a couple of other posts, and finish off the first post and hit "Publish", it inserts the newly-completed post below the ones you had previously published.

So, feel free to go back and read my report on the British Championships, below. It's a thrilling tale of action, adventure, and peripheral vision.

Curse of the Sprawling Fantasy Epic

As you may have noticed, I haven't been able to report the completion of a book for the past several weeks. Partly, this has been because I have been working in advance of my target, and so decided to focus on other things instead. However, part of the problem has been to do with the content of "A Sword From Red Ice", the third but not final part of a trilogy from JV Jones.

The first two parts of this series were excellent novels. The setting was very well drawn, the characters were interesting, and things happened. It was good. When I finished the second book, the third was due to be published in hardcover in a month or two, and then paperback a year later. This was unfortunate, but I accepted the wait.

That was about five years ago.

The third book was published in hardback about eighteen months ago, and then paperback a few months ago. When it was published, there was also the news that this was now book three in a tetralogy. Uh-oh...

It seems that long waits of this sort are the kiss of death for fantasy epics. "The Wheel of Time" is the most obvious example, with "A Song of Ice and Fire" suffering the same fate recently. And now this series has the same issue. The problem is that the author has too many characters and too much story, and the whole thing becomes a sprawling mess. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep it under control and keep the story tight, which means deadlines get blown, the series bloats... and then because the series has bloated the author expands what they're writing some more, and you end up with book after book in which nothing happens.

I'm currently just over 100 pages into "A Sword From Red Ice", just under a sixth of the way through the novel. About half of the main characters have been reintroduced, and almost nothing has happened. A lot of people have talked... but they didn't really say much.

By contrast, "Lord of the Flies" was almost done by this point. Bond would be busy having the villain's evil scheme explained to him over cocktails.

And all those extra words don't make the novel better. Quite the contrary, they just take up space.

I've complained about this before, I know. But it really is a plague in recent novels, and especially in the fantasy genre. It seems authors have forgotten how to concisely draw characters and situations, and to stay on topic to tell their stories. Or perhaps they just need stronger editors.

Either way, there are very few stories that both require more text to tell than "Lord of the Rings" that are also truly worth the telling.