Sunday, August 28, 2016

Experimental Cookery 2016 #6: Desperate Dan Beans

This one comes from Tony Singh's book "Tasty", and is one of the first things that leapt out at me from that book. It's little more than a base of onion, garlic, ginger, and chilli cooked with baked beans, but it was rather nice all the same. Recommended.

And that's that - short and sweet this time.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Well, That Was a Short Season

Rangers' draw at Kilmarnock last night puts Celtic in an odd position.

On the one hand, there's no doubt that Celtic will win the league, and quite handsomely - Rangers are clearly in no position to mount a significant challenge, and having three clubs serving as nearly-men (Rangers, Hearts, Aberdeen) actually means less of a challenge than just one (as they're more likely to take points off one another than any of them are to take them off Celtic).

But, equally, Celtic have essentially no chance of doing anything in the Champions' League - Barcelona and Manchester City will be the two qualifiers from the group, and Borussia Mönchengladbach will take third place (and the Europa League spot). That's not the worst thing, as Celtic have done extremely well to get where they are, and get to enjoy some great European nights, but that's all. The bookies are giving better odds of Celtic ending with 0 points than they are for them qualifying.

So, here's the tricky question: if Celtic are basically nailed on for the league and also near-certain to go out of Europe, why bother spending money strengthening the squad? That's a really poor investment of resources.

Of course, there's potentially an argument for investing so that qualification for the Champions' League group stages next year, and that does make some sense. And it's especially important as next year is probably the last year a Scottish team even has a chance of qualifying. (The rules have changed, such that out of 32 qualifying teams, 4 each will come from England, Spain, Italy, and Germany. This leaves only 16 for everyone else, almost certainly meaning at least one more round of qualifiers, with the last against yet-harder teams. And Celtic just barely scraped through this time. But that's another rant... short version is that the sooner we get a proper European League, the better.)

The other unfortunate consequence of all this is that there's now virtually no interest in this season's football - the Premiership is all wrapped up, Falkirk don't seem to have even started in the Championship (shame, that), and so that just leaves two cup competitions to care about. And, sad to say, I don't, not really - cup competitions come down more to who has a bad day than they do to who is the best.

Still, it was nice while it lasted. Ish.

#46: "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", by Douglas Adams

Thursday, August 25, 2016

End of an Era

Many moons ago, back when I started university, I bought for myself a CD/cassette/radio player. This was allegedly portable, but the sheer size of the thing made a mockery of that claim. But that was fine, since I never really wanted it for that purpose.

And it's done me sterling service in the past twenty-two years, and most especially in the last seven when it has sat atop our fridge and provided music in the kitchen. But it had certainly started to show its age - the radio reception was patchy at best, even with the aerial extended (and that aerial was also becoming increasingly fragile), and there appeared to be a loose connection somewhere - in CD mode it sometimes managed playback through both speakers, sometimes through only one, and sometimes none at all. (And this wasn't a "have you tried turning it off and on again" problem - the loose connection would move around, such that audio would come and go.)

So it was finally time for a replacement, and so yesterday I went and purchased a new, much smaller, CD/radio/other player. Which is considerably better since the radio is digital and so has better reception, the system has actual presets, which means we can change the channel without risk that we'll never ever be able to find our way back (you wouldn't think that would be an issue, but...), and the CD player actually works. Plus, it also has the ability to play back from both SD cards and USB keys, which is certainly nice to have. The only real downside, and it is a pain, is that the whole thing isn't wireless - I'm increasingly of the opinion that if we're going to have an "internet of things" then we really should get on with it! (But the wireless ones were vastly more expensive for no huge gain, so...)

But this does mean that we are now, finally, and for the first time, completely without the ability to playback cassettes. Granted, we haven't wanted to do so for some years, and I'm not even sure we even have cassettes left, and besides cassettes are long obsolete (of course, that's also true of CDs, DVDs, and even Blu-rays), but still...

Anyway, that was the big excitement of last night.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I probably shouldn't have enjoyed Channel 4's comedy "Wasted" - it was aimed squarely at twenty-somethings and heavily featured youth culture and drugs that I've never been interested in.

But when you have your very first scene accompanied by "The Touch" by Stan Bush, you're hitting an awfully specific reference. And after that I pretty much had to watch the rest. Plus, Sean Bean's cameos were great.

The show to which it is most comparable (and indeed a comparison that many reviewers made) was to "Spaced", the show that gave us Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Jessica Hynes. And there's some truth in that, especially with the many references to pop culture (typically "Game of Thrones" and "Lord of the Rings" rather than "Star Wars" and "The Matrix"). However, that's perhaps a little unfair - such a comparison unfortunately makes "Wasted" a less-good "Spaced"... but that's largely because "Spaced" had some of the funniest moments I've ever seen - with the end of the second-last episode in particular being genius.

So, anyway, that's that. I now await the inevitable news that it won't be returning for a second series.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Just Cruel

They say that you shouldn't allow mobile phones and similar electron devices into the bedroom. The reasons for this are actually pretty solid - not only is it really easy to get drawn into these things, and indeed get emotionally wound up by them so that it becomes hard to sleep, but apparently the blue light they generally emit also makes it difficult to sleep.

On the other hand, my alarm clock died on me some time ago (unreliability being the single worst failing such a clock can have), and I didn't really feel it was worthwhile spending money on a new one when my phone has a perfectly good alarm on it. And since that's the main use I actually get out of my phone...

Besides, there's no huge harm in that, since my phone is so very basic that it's easy just to ignore it.

At least, it is apart from when spam callers decide that it's a good idea to phone at 11:30pm. Frankly, that's just evil.

So it looks like I'm back in the market for a new alarm clock after all, after which I'll be instituting a ban on phones, tablets, and the like in the bedroom. Because enough is enough.

#44: "Spelljammer: Into the Void", by Nigel Findlay
#45: "Pathfinder: Hell Comes to Westcrown", by Ron Lundeen

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

How to Gain Confidence

Right now, there's a gap between what the band can do and what the band actually does. The reason that the band failed to qualify for the final on Saturday, put simply, is that when we went onto the competition field some bottles crashed, and the play just didn't live up to the preparation.

And it's a fairly consistent thing: everything sounds fine in practice, but when we go out for performance it's noticably worse, when we go out to compete it's worse again, and when we go out to a Championship it's worse still.

The downside to that is that there's not a huge amount you can do about it in practice. As noted, when we're practicing things sound fine, because everyone's in their comfort zone and the confidence is high. It's when the pressure is on that the confidence goes... and you can't practice for that pressure situation without the pressure, for obvious reasons.

Simply put, confidence is gained by doing difficult things well. So you do the practice and the preparation, because that gives you the very best chance, but then you have to go out and perform. And then you have to do it again, and again, and again. And, likewise, you go out and compete, and hopefully each time you compete you get better, and you gain confidence, and so you get better, and so it goes. (And that applies in pretty much every field. To gain confidence, do difficult things well.)

There's a flip side to this, of course, and it's a killer: confidence is much easier to lose than it is to gain. Because if you go out to do the difficult thing and it doesn't go well, that's going to hurt. And it's going to hurt more if someone proceeds to gleefully point out all the ways it didn't go well. And it's going to hurt even more if that "someone" is the person who should be building up the confidence instead of knocking it down.

It's fair to say I get quite frustrated when I push a learner forward to play with the band so they can gain experience and confidence, only to have the powers-that-be in the band proceed to tear into them for every single little thing. If they weren't making mistakes, they wouldn't be "learners". Grr.

And since I'm on a nearby topic, here's how to give criticism. Firstly, you want to 'sandwich' your criticism: you want two positive comments and one constructively-negative one. Start with a positive, then the constructively-negative, then finish with the positive. The positives can be nice and general - "yeah, that was pretty good". The constructively-negative needs to do three things: (1) it needs to be specific, (2) it needs to highlight not just what's wrong but also how to fix it, and (3) it needs to hit the highest priority. If there's a whole mess of stuff needing addressed, tackle the most important once first, then tackle the next one. (And don't do the "round robin" of picking one the first time, then something else the second, something else the third, and then back to the first. That has the double-whammy of both confusing people and giving the impression that they just can't get anything right.)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The World Pipe Band Championships 2016

Yesterday was the second day of the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, and the final Championship of the 2016 season. As always, it was an early start, as the organisers require all the buses to be in the park by 8am, which meant a 7am pick-up to be sure.

The journey to the event was fine, the tune-up was fine, everything was fine up until the actual performance. And then the performance just went to pieces. I guess nerves got the better of some of our younger members or something, but apparently the start was just bad (I didn't hear that), the play was wavering (a common issue we've faced all year), then at one point the pipers and drummers moved out of sync (I heard that)... and then, at the end, one of our pipers simply forgot to stop.

So that was fairly depressing. There then followed several hours of waiting for confirmation that we hadn't qualified, followed by more hours of waiting for the march-past. That actually wasn't too bad, since Glasgow has a fairly decent town centre, so LC and I went for lunch followed by some shopping, but probably wouldn't have been my preferred way to spend the afternoon.

The end of the day was rather a hassle though - there was some doubt over whether we'd do the march past at all (we did), followed by a lot of waiting around, followed by more waiting for everyone to get back to the bus, followed by an unconfortable journey home. Still, at least we didn't have a major falling out, which I had feared.

In the qualifier we came 12th out of 22 (six qualified), being 8th and 16th for piping, 11th for drumming, and 13th for ensemble. All in all, a disappointing result. (Our drum major also competed, but didn't do terribly well.)

The upshot of this is that next year we'll be in Grade 4B again. Still, this does have the advantage that our younger members now have a year more experience, which should stand them in good stead for next year. Maybe.

We now have, in theory, three contests to go: Crieff on the 27th, Peebles on the 3rd, and Innerleithen on the 10th. However, there's some doubt about that - there has been talk of cancelling Crieff, while we seem to have been missed from the draw for Innerleithen entirely. So it's possible we may have as few as one more competition to go. To be honest, I wouldn't mind that at all, as I tend to view the last Championship as the 'real' end of the season, and the point at which I'd prefer just to put it in the past and move on.

Bridge of Allan Highland Games 2016

Anther "for completeness" post, as I was unable to attend this event (for reasons I'll blog about later). Last Sunday the band competed in the Bridge of Allan Highland Games. We were entered in both the 4B and 4A contests, but it appears the Pipe Major elected to withdraw from the latter (not a surprise).

In the event, the band came 4th overall, scoring 4th and 5th for piping, 2nd for drumming, and 7th for ensemble. Which was a decent result, but perhaps not the very best preparation for the Worlds...

Also of note, our young drum major competed, coming 2nd overall in the Juvenile contest on a Marching & Discipline preference. Which is a good result for her.

#41: "Career of Evil", by Robert Galbraith
#42: "The English Patient", by Michael Ondaatje (a book from The List)
#43: "Trigger Mortis", by Anthony Horowitz

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The Mental Check-Out

When you go to an ATM to get money out, the process is straightforward: enter card, enter PIN, request money, take back card, take money. (Obviously, that's a simplification, but that's not important right now.)

What a lot of people don't realise, because they don't give it a moment's thought, is that the order of those last two steps is actually important: it's important that the ATM gives you your card back and requires you to take it before it gives you your money.

The reason for this is that when a person who goes to the ATM to get money, once they have that money, will mentally move on to the next thing on their list. And so, if the ATM gave the money and then the card, this would lead to people wandering off with their money, leaving their cards behind them.

And the reason for that is that people have a "mental check-out" - they recognise the end of what they were doing and so they immediately move on to the next thing. They're now thinking about going to the pub, or into Tesco, or whatever else. They're no longer thinking about the ATM. Heck, they may even forget they were ever there at all!

One of the things that constantly bemuses me about bands is that over the years I've seen basically every Pipe Major I've ever seen make the same critical mistake: We come to the end of the practice, we've played our last tune, but the PM has something to say to the band (an announcement of bus times, a discussion of uniform, whatever).

So the Pipe Major says, "right, that will do for tonight" and then tries to make his announcement. The problem being that by that stage everyone has mentally checked out - they're putting kit away, they're thinking about locking up the hall, they're rushing to the toilet, or they just want to have a natter with their friends. Basically, they're no longer a band; they're a crowd of people in a band hall.

And yet the solution is so obvious: make the announcements before dismissing the band. "Right, that will do for tonight" should be the last think the pipe major says to the band (as a whole) that night.

But maybe it's just me. After all, as Londo Mollari said, "the universe is already insane. Anything else would be redundant."

Monday, August 01, 2016

Star Trek: Beyond

I didn't get a chance to blog last week (pretty much at all), but I should have mentioned that LC and I went to see the new Star Trek film on opening night. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and felt that it was by far the best of the three "new Trek" films. In particular, I was glad to see the back of JJ Abrams' overuse of lens flare and also to see that the trailers had been misleading on one point - this wasn't a third part to Kirk's origin story. Instead, it was a good, fun action film.

Of all the previous films, the one that it put me in mind of most was "The Voyage Home", despite the plot having absolutely nothing in common with that film. But where most of the films are pretty grim struggles against impossible odds with little or no humour (or, when they're not, they're just rubbish), this one wasn't - it was light, it was funny, and it was entertaining. I couldn't really ask for more than that.

Well, except for one thing. Apparently, when writing the script, Simon Pegg was asked to make the new film "less Star Trek-y". Which is an absurd request, really - let it be what it is, and if that's not good enough, go do something else. But, fortunately, the script writers were very much on the ball with that one, and littered the script with lots of little references to older (and new) Treks for those who could see them. Good stuff.

So, I was very much impressed with that film.

(Next up is probably "Suicide Squad" on Friday. It looks like we're probably going to miss "Ghostbusters", and very likely "Finding Dory" too - we just don't have time to see all the films we want this summer. A shame... but they'll be out on blu-ray soon enough, and someone's got to keep that industry afloat...)

The Scottish Pipe Band Championships 2016

Saturday saw the band attend our penultimate Major Championship of the year, this time in Dumbarton for the Scottish Championships. We went in high hopes of building on what we'd managed at Forres, and even of coming away with a prize.

The journey to the competition was fine, and the tune-up went well. Indeed, it went so well that the pipes were all ready in really good time and we were able to take a few minutes break. We therefore went on nice and relaxed and prepared. And we played well, giving our best performance of the year, and were well confident that we must surely have qualified - after all, we did so at Forres and we'd just played better than then, so...

Yeah, you know what's coming next.

We came eighth out of fifteen in our qualifying heat (six went through), being 7th and 7th for piping, 5th for drumming, and 7th for ensemble. The critique sheets gave no real indication of where the problems lay - it seemed that the judges liked out performance; they just liked some others more.

That made for a very long day, as we had to wait around in solidarity with our drum major, who didn't find out her result until later. (Unsurprisingly, she didn't win a prize - I say 'unsurprisingly' because she's up against kids who are considerably older and who have been doing this for years.)

And then home, and to bed.

It was actually a pretty good day, all things considered. But the result was, once again, just depressing. I really felt we'd done enough to at least qualify.

We'll have to see how things go at the World Championships. Unfortunately, that one has three qualifying heats of twenty bands each, with four going forward to the final, so it's a tough ask at the best of times. Alas, I don't fancy our chances, based on sheer probabilities if nothing else. And if we don't qualify, that makes for a really disappointing season - so much work, basically for nothing.

#40: "Doctor Who: Engines of War", by George Mann