Monday, July 30, 2012

The Olympics

Not a fan. Sorry.

Firstly, the good: The opening ceremony was fantastic, and was exactly what it should have been. In light of Beijing, and our utter and obvious inability to outdo them in terms of sheer spectacle, it was absolutely the right decision to take the ceremony in a completely different direction. And it was good. I particularly enjoyed both the "Bond" segment and the "Mr Bean" segment.

I also don't object particularly to the spend. It is, generally speaking, right that the UK bid for events of this sort, and that does indeed mean bringing the Olympics to London and, potentially, the World Cup to England. Fair enough. (Although, that said, if the bidding process is corrupt, as I think we must suspect, we should be declining to take part, and very noisily highlighting that corruption. But that's another issue.) And, of course, having won one of these events, we really need to "do it right"... even if with hindsight, I think we would have preferred Paris had had this one.

And I don't really object to the sporting side of the event, although as I've mentioned before, I'm uncomfortable with the way our sporting elite also tends to be our economic elite. I'm also rather uneasy with the emphasis that we place on sport in the first place - we idolise our athletes, our footballers, our (well, England's) cricketers, Andy Murray... but, really, is that where we should be putting our attention? Where are the "math Olympics"? Where are the ultra-high profile celebrations of engineering talent, or industry, or, yes, the NHS and education?

But that's not what really hacks me off...

What really hacks me off is that we have utterly ruined our major sporting events by letting the sponsors get their hands on them, and we have also allowed these extra-national bodies (the IOC and FIFA) far too much power to dictate terms to host nations. Frankly, we should have told them to sod off a long time ago, and if the demands were a necessary prerequisite for hosting the event, then we should not have signed up in the first place.

So, to host the Olympics we required a special law, controlling the use of various Olympics-related terms for advertising purposes, and over and above the normal trademark, copyright, and IP protection laws (which are already draconian)? Sod off. To host the Olympics, we require special lanes set aside in an already-congested London road system (which then cannot be used by the citizens of this country who paid for and own the damn things in the first place)? Sod off. To host the Olympics, we need to disrupt a multitude of already-struggling small businesses, to suit the already-ultra-rich sponsors? Sod off.

The monetary price of the Olympics was high, but was acceptable. But the undignified crawling to the IOC (even if the process actually was fair), the unreasonable acquiescence to their demands, and especially the disgusting suspension of the normal rule of law?

Yeah, that's unacceptable. Not a fan. Sorry.

European Pipe Band Championships 2012

Oh, the week I had...

A week ago last Friday, while LC and I were travelling down to my cousin's wedding (more on which later), the pipe major of the band finally decided that enough was enough, and resigned, effective immediately. To be honest, I couldn't blame him either for doing this or for his timing, nor was it at all surprising. But it did drop me in it, of course.

Over the course of the weekend, before I could get everyone together and try to start rebuilding things, it all kicked off. I guess it's the down-side of things like Facebook - people can say things will an immediacy that wasn't previously available, emails can be sent while angry, and so forth. The upshot was that by the Monday, my already-hard task of getting the band ready for the competition was suddenly that much harder.

So, I spent the week running here and there, speaking to various people, smoothing ruffled feathers, and generally getting things back to some sort of normality.

Anyway, we had two practices, and I was gratified to learn that all the band members who had signed up to go to Ireland were still intending to go to Ireland, and indeed were mostly planning to stick with the band. Unfortunately, though, quite a few people couldn't make it to practices that week - two pipers and more than half of the drum corps were missing. This would come back to bite us.

So, we got ready as best we could. And then, come Friday morning, we got on to the bus at the disgusting hour of 7am. (Which had meant getting up at 5:30, which is pretty evil.)

The journey to Ireland was then mostly uneventful. There was a blessed lack of drunkeness, and things were generally calmer than they had been the previous couple of years. I was actually a lot happier about this trip than I had been.

We arrived at the hotel about 2:30 in the afternoon, got checked in, and spent a little time wandering Belfast city centre, although we had to return to the hotel to avoid a nasty shower. Sadly, the available time wasn't quite enough to do anything meaningful with the time; LC and I will have to return to Belfast some time for a real visit. Later, several members of the band went out for the evening to grab a bite to eat, before returning to the hotel for a pint, and to watch some of the Opening Ceremony (and more on that later, too). And then, bed.

The start of the Saturday did not go well. I had made certain to tell everyone, "meet in reception at 8:45". That gave us plenty of time to get on the bus, get to the competition site, and get set up. 8:45 came and went, and a key member of the band was missing. (We later learned that he hadn't slept well, had therefore slept in, and so was running very late.) After a significant delay, we set off without him.

We got about 300 yards, just far enough to make turning back an impossibility, before we discovered that we didn't have the bus pass needed to get us into the car park. Our travel convenor wasn't on the bus (she had decided to stay in Belfast and join us later), and had forgotten to hand over the pass.

So, we made a call, and she jumped into a taxi to follow us. Meanwhile, the bus carried on, and I desperately hoped they'd let us in anyway... or at least let us unload before banishing the bus. In the event, they let us in... and the travel convenor arrived two minutes later with the now-unnecessary bus pass.

The band were given instructions to gather to get started at 10am. Meanwhile, I went to sign us in and get a programme. And things started to calm down.

We gathered, we proceeded to get ready, and things proceeded... okay. Not great, but okay. This was the point where we really started to suffer from the loss of our previous pipe major, though, because we didn't really have anyone with the expertise to set up the chanters and the drones just so. (For those who aren't experts, a single piper typically has three drones that need to be tuned to match the individual chanter, which can be set to a more-or-less arbitrary frequency; a band requires that all the chanters share the same frequency, and indeed that all the individual notes be adjusted using tape so that they all match, and then that all the drones be set to match.) And the guy who is our next-best option? He was the guy who slept in.

Oh, and of course the people who hadn't made it to the practices were quite far out from where they should have been - an inevitable consequence of missing those practices. So, there was work to be done, and nobody really with the time or expertise to do it. Damn.

About 10:20, our late-sleeping member arrived in a taxi, and started to get ready at some speed. Ten minutes later, we moved round from the bus park to the tuning field, and had our final tuning. The net result? We knew there was still a lot to be done with the pipes, but just had to go with it. But the play... I was reasonably happy with the play. Anyway, the steward came, so it was time to go on.

I remember very little after that. I remember messing up the command to halt (pipe bands, unlike the BB, don't use check-paces, which means everything I know is wrong). I remember shaking as I told the band to relax and enjoy it. And I remember being enormously relieved when it was all over. That's about it.

To be honest, I was delighted just to get on and play. So, once the band was off the competition field, I made sure to thank and congratulate everyone. And then, we waited - because that was just the qualification round, and we might have to do it all again later.

Well, no such luck. They announced the results at 12:30, and we didn't make the cut. This wasn't really a surprise - in Ireland, against all the Irish bands (who are generally very good) it was always going to be a challenge, and that was before the pipe major quit. With that, and everything else we'd been fighting against...

LC and I went for lunch at this point, and ate far too much. We also proceeded to get both rained on and sunburnt, because that was the sort of day it was.

At 2:30, they released the commentary sheets. There were thirteen bands in our qualifying heat, and we were last. We came 11th and 13th in piping, 10th in drumming, and 11th in ensemble. But, to be honest, I wasn't bothered by that in the slightest - I take the view that only the qualifying positions matter, and that the difference between 7th and last is essentially meaningless. (Incidentally, of the six qualifiers from our heat, 5 were Irish. Of the prize-winners in our grade, all six were Irish. That's not a complaint, merely an observation - as I said, the Irish bands are very good.)

What was surprisingly reassuring, though, was the commentary on the feedback sheets. Both judges put a great deal of emphasis on the pipes not really being set up correctly. Which sounds bad, but is actually a good thing - both because we knew that, and also because it's a mechanical thing which is quite easy to fix. The other thing they said was that the play was quite nervy, which is also not surprising. It is, of course, difficult to get people to relax in a situation than that... but I guess that's what we'll need to do.

But the important thing was that this was not the critical mauling that I had feared. And it gives us a platform from which to proceed. If we can get the pipes set up better for the Worlds (which should be easy enough), and if we can just get a bit of confidence into the play, that by itself will be enough for a better result.

The rest of the afternoon dragged past slowly. It would have been good at this point to gather the band back on the bus, return to the hotel, and call it a day at that. Unfortunately, we had sold a number of seats to another band, and they had qualified, so we were stuck there. (There might have been options, but we didn't explore them. Perhaps a mistake.) Still, we waited, and then we did the march past, and then we waited some more. It was somewhat heartening to see two of our local bands win the Grade 2 and Grade 1 contests. Congratulations to them.

We eventually got back to the hotel, LC and I had showers, and then we went for dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was okay. And then we went to bed.

The journey home was largely uneventful, although a few people had a few too many. Still, we got home without any fights, without any travel sickness, and without any great trouble. While on the ferry, I spoke to the committee, and said that I want to lead the band out at both the Worlds and Cowal (since I won't get another chance), but that I'm not a candidate for taking over permanently.

My current plan is to remain in position on an interim basis, until the band finds a new permanent PM. At that point, it is my intention to fade out of the band - firstly by reducing my attendance at practices and by not competing, and then later by giving up my various responsibilities altogether at the end of next year. I've come to the unfortunate realisation that the only time I've really been happy at the band recently is when the PM has been away and I've been in charge... but that I'm also not the right person to take the band forward (and don't have the time or energy besides). So, for the good of the band I have to step aside, but for the good of myself, I don't really want to work with another pipe major (whoever that may be).

There are now two competitions remaining. The Bridge of Allan Highland Games have been cancelled, and any effort to put together a band for a contest on the Saturday have failed (can't say I mind that). That leaves the World Championships in two weeks, and then the dread Cowal in four weeks. After that, the band will take several weeks off, before returning for our AGM.

There was one other really good thing that came out of the weekend: I finally finished "Clear and Present Danger"!

#24: "Clear and Present Danger", by Tom Clancy (the worst book of the year to date)
#25: "Pathfinder: The Island of Empty Eyes", by Neil Spicer
#26: "Pathfinder: The Price of Infamy", by Time Hitchcock

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Lady Chocolat and I went to see this on Friday, shortly before jumping in the car for a long drive down to England. The short version of my review: it's an outstanding film, and you should go and see it now.

The film is exceptionally well-made. The cast is universally excellent, the special effects are seamless, and all in all it's just about perfect. There are a couple of issues with the sound - firstly, the score is so loud that both LC and I left with headaches that took quite some time to subside; and some of the dialogue from Bane can be hard to follow at times. Which is a shame, because this Bane is very different from the one in "Batman & Robin", and actually has significant dialogue.

Some of the early reviews of this film have claimed that the film is almost incoherent. I can only presume that the reviewers weren't paying attention, or perhaps didn't realise that this was a film that actually has a plot, beyond the standard action-movie excuses for blowing things up. Either that, or they just didn't like it, but wanted to dress that up in fancy words. But actually, the film hangs together extremely well, with characters having actual motivations, with the twists being both surprising at the time and yet obvious in hindsight, and with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is very much a piece with "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" (such that if you didn't see those films, don't bother watching this one). It's also very definitely the conclusion of a trilogy - this film picks up dangling plot threads from the first and second film, resolves some and continues others, but it also generally comes to an end. I can see a way for them to continue the story if they so wished... but if they never do then it will remain entirely satisfying and complete.

Now, about that plot... (I'm going to avoid spoilers, so feel free to read on.)

I found the first half or so of the film almost unwatchably painful, but in a good way - the director and actors did a marvellous job in setting the scene, in gradually stripping away all the comforts that normally surround Bruce Wayne/Batman, and in generally taking things to a very, very dark place. It's rough, it's horrible, and it made me want to run screaming from the cinema. I don't think any other film has ever had quite that impact on me (even "The Descent", the only film so scary I had to pause it and take a break).

And then there's the Rise. Because, of course, this is a superhero film, and the end of a trilogy - it's just not done to drop down into Hell and then stop there (though that would be awesome). Without going into spoiler territory, I can't say much more than that, but I can say that I found the conclusion of the film to be suitably epic, to be extremely satisfying, and to make a lot of sense within the context of the film. Good stuff.

I do have three nitpicks with the plot, but I can't go into them without spoilers. So if you want to know, ask me about it some time. They are really nitpicks, though, and don't have too much impact on the whole.

The big question remains, though: is this better than "Avengers Assemble"? And the answer is yes... and no... and yes... and no. Basically, it's like asking which is better: a hammer or ice cream - they're so fundamentally different, and each so excellent in their own way, that it's really not possible to pick a winner. I enjoyed AA more... but found DKR more satisfying as a whole.

Ultimately, I'm just glad we have both. Truly, fans of superheroes have been spoiled this year.

Monday, July 16, 2012

This Weekend, I...

This weekend I finally contacted Sky and cancelled my contract. Which I feel is quite quick and efficient, given that I've only been talking about it for about three years, since "Lost" and "24" ended. The guy on the phone did try to talk me around, but he didn't try very hard - a 25% discount for 6 months really doesn't bridge a 168-hour gap in their weekly schedule. The one thing I will miss is the ability to record things - will need to look into some sort of Freeview/Freeset recorder.

This weekend I mentally checked out of band. Just as I thought things were getting better the battlelines were drawn again. And I'm not interested in fighting to make things better if I'm doing it alone. There needs to be a spirit of compromise, or there's no point. (It doesn't help that I haven't been enjoying the playing side for the couple of months since Dunbar, and I'm certainly not enjoying the administration side.) I don't really want to leave, as I feel this is as much my band as anyone's, but it's come to a point where I don't want to stay either. So, I'll give them until the end of the season, but if things don't dramatically improve, I'll be walking away at that point.

This weekend I tried to spend the gift vouchers I got for my birthday, with mixed success. The HMV gift card went on the blu-ray of the "Muppets" movie, which remains good fun. I especially enjoyed all the parody trailers on the disc, and also the previews for "Brave" and "Planes". The deleted scenes were a mixed bag, but mostly I was glad that the plot of the show was changed, leading to their removal.

However, I failed to use my Waterstone's vouchers. The store in Falkirk had one book I decided I wanted, but I decided to try the one in Glasgow and pick it up there. The store in Glasgow didn't have the book in question (typical), and while it did have a book I was kinda-sorta interested in... I decided to hold onto the vouchers and consider using them later. After all, there's no rush. (Ironically, the book I do want is "Conquerer" by Conn Iggulden, which comes out in paperback today. However, Tesco will probably have it for £3, rather than the £8 price at Waterstone's. So, no voucher there.)

This weekend I went to the Kelvingrove museum, where I had all sorts of great ideas for the next chapter of the game. Which is lucky, since I was supposed to do two hours of prep work this weekend, and utterly failed.

This weekend, Lady Chocolat and I rewatched "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight", in preparation for Batman-day. Surprisingly, I found I enjoyed the first of the two more than the second; although "The Dark Knight" is an outstanding film, and Heath Ledger in particular is brilliant, it was extremely long and actually felt quite tiring. However, I don't know what they could consider removing to improve it, since everything in the film is essential to the film. I'm also a little concerned that "The Dark Knight Rises" may be labouring under "Phantom Menace"-level expectations; between the first two films in the trilogy, and the need to beat "Avengers Assemble", it has a massive job to do.

This weekend, we also played through a significant portion of "Lego Pirates of the Caribbean". It was good fun, except for one particularly frustrating section. (Seriously, three-dimensional jumping puzzles on a two-dimensional screen, when you don't have control over the camera? Whose idea was that?) We've now made our way through "Dead Man's Chest", which managed to be better than the film, in the same manner as the first "Lego Star Wars" game.

This weekend, I got a haircut. It's funny how you don't realise how untidy it has become until it gets tidied up.

And that's pretty much it. For all that this weekend was supposed to be a really quiet one, we got an awful lot done. And it was mostly good. Mostly.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

They're Building a Helipad at Roses

Okay, so I spent most of yesterday depressed, bored, and angry. You may have noticed.

Fortunately, the band had a gig yesterday at which it appeared that the clouds are beginning to lift. We even managed to find the half hour this week when it stopped raining. (Next week's break in the rain is scheduled for the Saturday...)

Anyway, LC has made me promise to make today's blog post (or posts) light-hearted and funny. So, reform of the House of Lords, then...

As for the title of this post. In Edinburgh at the moment, there are roadworks on Quality Street.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

All That's Wrong? No. But Something That's Wrong...

So, a few weeks ago, the headteacher at a private girls' school described a cover of Zoo magazine featuring Kim Kardashian as "all that's wrong with society". She then went on to explain her reasoning on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" page. (To be honest, I wouldn't bother reading the article. Her premise is correct, but as with so much on the Comment is Free site, the reasoning is sloppy.)

Anyway, I considered posting a rant about it at the time, but then decided against.

However, yesterday Amy Childs (apparently of "The Only Way is Essex" 'fame') weighed into the discussion, leaping to the defence of Kardashian. And rather spectacularly managing to shoot her point in the foot by not actually understanding what she was arguing against.

See, the point that the headteacher was making was not "Kim Kardashian is all that's wrong with society", it was "this picture of Kim Kardashian is all that's wrong with society". So, in defending KK (and, by extension, other reality 'stars' like herself), she actually defended her against a charge that had not been made. (Her defence was also incorrect, but I'll get to that.)

Now, as for my original rant...

Clearly, neither Kim Kardashian nor the Zoo cover picture of the same is all that's wrong with society. There is, after all, plenty of blame to go around.

However, the wider point remains valid - Zoo's approach to rating women purely on 'sexiness', and further in boiling that quality down to a number to be rated (which in any case is nothing more than a thinly-veiled excuse for printing pictures of scantily-clad women for their readership to ogle), really is both sexist and demeaning (to all concerned).

But, of course, Zoo is far from alone in this. In fact, our society is soaked in this imagery, and the attitudes that drive it. After all, although I haven't seen Zoo's list, I can confidently predict that it amounts to the standard list of this year's pop stars, reality 'stars', actresses, and soft-porn stars. All of whom are required to do photo-shoots wearing relatively little to drive their careers - Rihanna, for example, is actually a relatively capable singer, but you'd be hard-pressed to spot it given that she's required to spend most of her act looking and acting like a stripper.

(And, of course, the poster child for this is Abi Titmuss, who gave up a career as a nurse in order to become a soft-porn star. For which she was rewarded with money, fame, and more respect than she had had previously. If that doesn't show just how fucked up our priorities are, I don't know what does.)

But let's not think this is all about men, and men's magazines, and men's entertainment. After all, Rihanna is marketed at teenage girls. "The Only Way is Essex" and "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" are made for, and overwhelmingly watched by, women.

And then there's the fashion industry, which appears to be run by men who hate women, which employs almost obscenely thin models who are then required to torture themselves for their 'art'... and which has a business model driven by women. The reason the fashion industry uses stick-thin models is that women are more likely to buy clothes modelled by thin women.

Or the cosmetics industry, which now presents women with an image of beauty that is literally impossible, invites women to recognise that they don't measure up, and then suggests that their products will 'fix' these alleged imperfections. (But then, if the model in the ad is wearing hair extensions, or eyelash inserts, or... why would people buy into these outright lies. And yet they do, which is why they do it.)

Or the diet industry, which again is largely based on lies. "Special K" is advertised to women... and does so using a scantily-clad woman who didn't get that figure simply by eating "Special K". Or, of course, there's the glossy magazines with their weekly "miracle diets" that promise painless, fast weight loss. If they work at all, they're based on deeply unhealthy habits. (Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if I saw the headline "Is the miracle diet we told you about two weeks ago killing you?" Because the answer, quite often, would be 'yes'.)

Fundamentally, these industries have based their entire business model on making women hate themselves. It's deeply unpleasant... and yet women buy into it in disturbing numbers.

(Returning to Zoo and its ilk for the moment, I'm at something of a loss as to what should be done. See, freedom of expression is really important, even speech we don't like. And nobody is being forced to do these shoots - if women choose to do so, they should have that right. So, ultimately, what needs to change is that the women involved will have to stop consenting to their own objectification. I don't like leaving it at that, but alas that's where I think I have to stand.)

Of course, men aren't exempt from attempts to make them hate themselves so they'll buy product. Take a look at the likes of "Men's Health" magazine, and you'll see much the same thing - miracle workout routines to build muscle fast (coupled with cover models who didn't get that way following those routines). And, of course, the advert with David Beckham posing in his underwear, complete with computer-enhanced 'package', is not even a little different from the "Special K" model. It's just taking longer, but we're getting there - more and more boys are developing eating disorders, seeking out cosmetic surgery, and buying all manner of 'product' - basically, falling into exactly the same self-destructive behaviours that the glossy magazine/diet/cosmetic/fashion industries have been driving women to for decades.

Now, as for Amy Childs...

A key part of her defence of Kim Kardashian was that reality stars "aren't doing anyone any harm". (Incidentally, Jordan has used the same argument in the past regarding herself.)

Except that they are. Every time a girl gets herself a boob job rather than an education, every time she aspires to be a talentless zelebrity rather than a teacher (or nurse, or scientist, or astronaut, or...), every time she throws herself at a footballer* rather than having the self-respect to want something better, she is being harmed - especially for the overhwelming majority who don't 'make it' and so don't get to live the life of the rich and famous.

* Not that there's anything wrong with footballers. It's the "throwing herself" part that's the issue.

And Kim Kardashian is particularly destructive, since to Keep Up with her you need to start immensely rich, with at least minor fame in the family. Simply putting out a sex tape isn't enough - without the money and famous name, that just makes you a porn star.

(And, of course,all the above applies equally to boys. Except perhaps the boob job. And the footballer.)

I've gone on too long. But this is an issue that really pisses me off. We've almost completely failed those even just a few years younger than myself. And it's getting worse.

The Centre Cannot Hold

Problems continue to brew at the band. Morale is at a very low ebb, several of the relationships are breaking down, and the competition season is going badly, and so failing to distract everyone from everything that's going wrong.

Still, with a bit of luck the tide is starting to turn. The reality is that we're all in this together, and nobody benefits if the band collapses. So, hopefully we can start to mend those fences before things go too far.

Of course, it would help if everyone was on the same page about how things were supposed to work...

The management of the band is really made up of two parts, neither of which can function on its own, and neither of which is truly independent. These are the playing side and the administrative side. The committee is supposed to be made up of both.

A single person can fill two or more roles on the committee and in the band. However, the committee should be at least 10 people strong, with a quorum of half the membership required for a meeting to take place. (Due to various factors, our current committee is reduced to 8, with only 5 regularly able to attend meetings. Yes, this is one of the problems we're currently facing.)

On the Playing Side

The key people on the playing side are as follows:

  • The Pipe Major: The Pipe Major is in overall charge of the band. He's responsible for setting the musical direction of the band, for choosing the tunes, for teaching the band, and for generally getting the band ready for events and competitions. As a practical manner, the Pipe Major must also liase closely with every other member of the committee, as everyone will need to bounce ideas off him. The Pipe Major is elected by the band at the AGM, although this tends to be a formality as there is usually only one real choice.
  • Pipe Sergent(s): In short, the Pipe Sergent steps in when the Pipe Major is unavailable. In general, the PS is in charge only on a temporary basis, so shouldn't be making any sweeping decisions! The Pipe Sergeants are appointed by the Pipe Major.
  • Lead Drummer: Just as the Pipe Major selects scores and teaches the pipers, so to does the Lead Drummer select scores and teaches the drum corps. The Lead Drummer is appointed by the Pipe Major.
  • The band also (officially) has a Development Band, with its own Pipe Major and Lead Drummer, although this has fallen by the wayside this year. Again, these individuals are appointed by the Pipe Major.

It should probably be noted that most of the members on the playing side are appointed, rather than elected, to maintain consistency in the musical direction of the band.

On the Administrative Side

All posts on the administrative side are elected by the band at the AGM. In the event that a member steps down, a replacement should be elected at an EGM by the band, although in some cases the committee may continue without.

  • Chairperson: As the name implies, the chairperson chairs committee meetings. Essentially, that is his only job.
  • Secretary: Simply put, the secretary's job is "communication". He should be dealing with all external communications, making sure that the band responds to equiries about events promptly, dealing with RSPBA registrations, competition entry fees, child-protection disclosure, and so on. Additionally, he should ensure that the band members are kept informed of what they need to know. The secretary's job is one of the biggest in the band, and probably the one that most often fails to get the recognition it deserves.
  • Treasurer: Handles the money. This person should keep track of moneys in and moneys out, ensuring that the band always has the funds it needs, and making sure that we don't over-extend ourselves.
  • Travel Convenor: With the band attending several competitions, including a trip to Ireland, and so requiring buses, we have a dedicated Travel Convenor. The role of this person also covers finding a venue for practices, and indeed a replacement venue if the original is closed for any reason. Quartermaster: Handles the uniforms, instruments, and other "physical assets" of the band. This person should be the go-to person for getting new members kitted out, should be the person who recovers outstanding kit from members when the leave, and should keep track of what we have and what we need to continue fielding the band. In theory, the QM should also conduct twice-annual kit inspections, and so should ensure that members are keeping kit in appropriately good condition.
  • Representatives: We have a Parent's Rep as a matter of course, and also appoint Piper's and Drummer's Reps as required to bring the committee up to the required strength. As the names imply, the job of the Reps is to speak for their respective constituents, ensuring that any concerns that they have are appropriately addressed.
  • Honorary President: Until April 9th of this year, the band also had an Honorary President. The Hon Pres had no particular job, but was appointed for life to reflect many years of long service. It is not expected that we will have another Hon Pres any time soon.
  • Fund-raising: Additionally, we have a couple of people who are supposed to coordinate fund-raising activities. In practice, these have ended up being responsible for fund-raising activities, but that's actually not their role. After all, the entire band benefits from funds raised, and so the entire band has a responsibility in this area.

So, the way it should work:

  1. A member of the committee recognises that something in their area needs to be dealt with. For example, maybe the QM recognises that we need new drums as the existing ones have become quite old.
  2. The member determines specifically what needs to be done, and in what time frame. For example, "we need 6 drums, they'll cost £80 each, and we need them by the start of next season."
  3. The committee member brings the issue up at the next committee meeting (or, if it's urgent, calls an immediate meeting to resolve the issue). In particular, if significant amounts of money must be spent (more than £100), this must be voted on by the committee.
  4. Once the required action has been authorised, the committee member should proceed to resolve the issue. In the example, the Quartermaster would thus source the required drums, ensure that they are suitable (by speaking to the Lead Drummer), and thus proceed with the purchase. The QM should not need to return to the committee for further authorisation unless the issue turns out to be significantly different from that discussed. (For example, if it turns out we need 8 drums instead of 6, or they cost £120 each, or...)

And that, broadly speaking, is how it should work. The reality is somewhat different... (Oh, and incidentally - the example I used is just that. It doesn't reflect any issue the band is currently having, and shouldn't be read as a metaphor for anything.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tom Clancy

Reading "Clear and Present Danger" is an interesting experience. I've seen the film, of course, which I thought was okay but not great. However, as far as I can tell, the novel isn't about Jack Ryan - when making the film, they repurposed it to star Harrison Ford. (Interestingly, I think they did the same with "The Sum of All Fears", despite that not starring Harrison Ford. Why not just cast Ben Affleck as the character who was the actual protagonist of the novel?)

However, that's not the 'interesting' part.

What I'm finding interesting is that Clancy is very obviously a real expert in his subject matter. He clearly knows boats, and the operations of the US Coast Guard, and the nature of military life, and something of politics. There's very definitely an authority to his writing; he knows whereof he speaks.

Unfortunately, it seems that what he doesn't know is how to write.

His characters are all given long and detailed backstories... and very little by way of distinct characteristics. They tend to be defined by their jobs, and all tend to be one-of-a-kind individuals who are near-legendary in their fields. And, curiously, they all seem to have a "beautiful young wife", possibly a couple of lovely children, plus (and this is important) a selection of mistresses. Because that's an important detail - I presume that later in the novel two characters will have a conversation about their respective mistresses. (Perhaps trading them like football stickers - "got, got, need, doubler, got...")

Likewise, his descriptions of mundane events are full of all sorts of fabulous details about how things work, and how the organisations operate. Fantastic. Except that it slows the pace down to a crawl. Oh, and also, when something actually does happen, the details tend to be glossed over rather quickly - presumably because at that point he doesn't know whereof he speaks, and so can't write with the same authority.

It's frustrating - I think there is quite an entertaining story under there, once I wade through all the extraneous detail. But then, it's quite likely that this is one of those cases where the film really is better than the book.

Means Tested Benefits

In principle, all benefits should be means-tested. After all, the government raises a limited amount of money via taxation, and it's better that that goes to those who really need it. In particular, if a person over the age of 60 has not yet retired, they can probably buy their own bus pass.

In practice, if it costs more to perform the means-testing than is saved by performing that check, then it's better to just pay the money out. Call it an efficiency saving.

(It's also worth noting that if you means-test for a benefit, a lot of people will therefore refuse to apply at all, as a point of pride. They don't want to be thought of as a burden on society. However, I'm disinclined to give that argument much weight, especially given the "it costs more than it saves" argument. That said, I'm also inclined to think that people generally shouldn't have to apply for benefits - in general, they should just be sent out as soon as they're eligible. Again, as a matter of principle, although I daresay the practicalities of this make it impossible.)

Monday, July 09, 2012

Not as Good as I Remembered

For my birthday, my various siblings each got me money, which seems like a really dull present, but which actually allowed me to pool all that money and invest in the "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" blu-ray sets. Which is excellent.

Of the Harry Potter films, I've long considered "Chamber of Secrets" to be my favourite. I also like "Order of the Phoenix" and "Deathly Hallows, Part 2". The rest I generally consider quite flawed - "Philosopher's Stone" is too close to the source material, and so too long, while "Goblet of Fire" and "Half-blood Prince" each compress the story far too much, and so lose a great deal in the translation. "Deathly Hallows, Part 1" is just a waste of two and a half hours. (That leaves "Prisoner of Azkaban", which may well be the best of all, technically speaking. I just found the change in tone a bit too jarring - it wasn't what I expected after CoS, and I've never really cared for it as a result.)

On Saturday night, LC and I sat down and watched the first half of Chamber of Secrets, and I was dismayed to find that it just wasn't as good as I remembered. It's likely a result of seeing them grow up, and thus advance in their craft, but the three lead child-actors are actually quite painful to watch here. And while the story remains excellent, the film just takes too long to get to the point - by the time we gave up and went to bed, Harry had only just found Riddle's book, and by that point we'd already watched 90 minutes, with another hour to go.

It's a real shame. Still, perhaps the other films will have grown on me instead? Indeed, I'll have to give PoA another look, as the tone might fit my more cynical view better...

#23: "Snuff", by Terry Pratchett (excellent book; his best in years. Still, not the book of the year.)

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Princess and the Piper

I'm the one that looks like me.

In case you're wondering, we talked about the band's support for the Seagull Trust, and also the weather.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Three Facts

1) We have a 'moat' at work. Actually, it's a little stream, over which there are two small bridges.

2) Due to extremely heavy rains, the moat flooded today. My shoes are utterly soaked, and I've had to wash both my socks and shoes.

3) I can't post the picture that proves this, for important legal reasons.

Outlook 'help'

I'm a bit confused: what exactly is the point of a Help system that isn't automatically set up when the program is installed, that then takes an age to install when you need it (so that you can Google the answer much more quickly), and that then requires a restart of the PC before it can actually be used (thus forcing you to abandon what you were doing before it can help you do whatever it was)?

Independence Day

I would just like to note that I've been keeping careful watch, and there's been no sign of the aliens taking off from Bonnybridge. Also, Bill Pullman isn't yet president.

So the apocalyptic future so chillingly promised in the film won't be coming true. Well, not this year at least.

(Of course, that's assuming that their predictions weren't superseded by those they made in 2012. But I haven't yet heard any reports of the neutrinos having mutated, so I think we're okay.)

Monday, July 02, 2012

The British Pipe Band Championships 2012

Saturday was my birthday, and I got to spend it in an uncomfortable bus, reading the latest Terry Pratchett novel. Not exactly my ideal day, I'm afraid to say. Still, it could have been worse...

The day started at 6am, which is a totally unacceptable time to be getting up at the weekend. LC and I made ready, and then wandered down to the pick up for the bus. The bus was late, although not unbearably so. And so, we were off to Annan!

On the journey down, I finished off the latest Pathfinder and then started in on "Snuff", which turns out to be a really solid read. And then, a scant two hours later, we were in Annan. Here, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the promised rains were not in evidence, although the field was a bit of a bog.

So, we made ready, we played, and it was okay - probably our best performance of the year. Still, on hearing it played back from the video LC made, I was pretty sure it was not a prize-winning performance.

The rest of the day was the usual tedious waiting. There was one short shower, but otherwise it was a reasonable day. Still, we spent most of the day hiding in the bus and reading.

And then there was the march-past, which seemed to take an age to get started, but which was fairly brisk once we were moving. And, sure enough, the band did not win a prize. In fact, we did rather poorly: 7th and 16th in piping, 11th in drumming, and 14th in ensemble, and 15th overall, out of 17 bands in our grade. (Actually, this was comparable to last year.)

We made our way home, getting in just before 10pm. LC then headed out to get some takeaway, while I got changed. Then we watched the end of the tennis, and that was that.

All in all, a fairly disappointing day. It's also quite dispiriting, in that we're clearly not going to get anywhere this season. Fortunately, there are now only four competitions remaining: the minor at Bridge of Allan, plus the majors in Belfast, Glasgow, and Dunoon. After that, I'm going to be giving some serious thought to the question of whether I want to compete or not next year.

#22: "Pathfinder: Tempest Rising", by Matthew Goodall