Activity central chez Sutherland

Activity central chez Sutherland

30 July 2000

Wow, it’s been such a busy couple of weeks that it’s hard to know where to start. I think I’ll lead with the thing that’s most prominent in my mind (and body) right now: pain. Vast amounts of it. Muscular pain, from my neck, through my back and thighs, all the way down into my feet. I don’t think I’ve ever had muscle pains in my feet before. And it’s all SARAH HENRY’s fault.

See, back when I was still working for the Royal Bank, she convinced me to take part in a friendly mixed netball competition that took place yesterday at the Pleasance sports centre of Edinburgh University. We had two evening practice sessions, one two weeks ago (Tuesday 18th) and the other Thursday past (27th). I thought I knew pain after the first of those sessions, but that was nothing compared to the sheer agony that comes from five tough 20-minute games in a single afternoon. Anyone who says that netball is a girly sport, I can now with some degree of confidence brand a clueless nutter. It’s very fast, requires heaps of tactics and technique, and enormous amounts of physical fitness (qualities which I don’t possess, but I tried to make for with raw enthusiasm.).

We did actually manage to win the competition, though! This was probably because Sarah Henry and Lynsey Malcolm both play for Scotland, and our other guest star James (whose surname I’ve forgotten) plays for the England men’s team. Having such star quality on board might have helped us along. Greg McAllister, all 6’2″ of him, played some great attack and defence as well, and I just ran up and down the court like a crazed ferret, trying to get my hands on any ball that came near me. Because we only had five players, we had to borrow two extras from some of the other teams. Because Sarah knows everyone, she was able to poach the best and the brightest from elsewhere to come and play for us. Seems to have worked!

Exam Fever

About two years ago I convinced the Royal Bank to pay for a set of Microsoft exams that would qualify me as a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD). I passed three of the four necessary exams (two core Windows exams, and one on Visual Basic 4), but failed by one measly percent on the MS Access exam. I always intended to re-take the last one, but I was too busy with work at the time to be thinking about even more work things extracurricularly.

Now, though, I’m working for Cedalion, which is a Microsoft Solution Provider (MSP). To maintain this status, they must have a certain percentage of their developer employees qualified at MCSD or MCSE (MS Certified Systems Engineer) level. Part of my job duties now include making sure that I attain this qualification as quickly as possible, and maintain (or improve on) it. To this end, I sat exam 70-152, “Designing and Implementing Web Solutions with Microsoft Visual Interdev” last Monday (24th July). This was right after our anniversary weekend (more on this later), and although I didn’t have much time to study, I still managed to fly through it with a score of 84%. (The pass mark was 71%.)

Next ones up are Visual Basic Desktop and Visual Basic Distributed, which I’ve got lined up for Monday August 28th. I’d taken the Interdev exam first, because this is what I’ve been working with most over the last couple of years, and I knew it was going to be my strongest subject. I’ll definitely need to put in more work for the VB exams, though!

The continuing story of a car

Not too much to report on the car front right now. Toyota UK have sent us a brochure on the Picnic, and we’ve sent back our colour selection. We’ve been advised that the 7-seater model in Pacific Blue (600 x 290, 36K) is in plentiful stock, so we’ve gone for that. This means that we’ll probably get the car a little bit faster, but of the available choices, it was the nicest one, too. Toyota should get back to us soon with a delivery date, and after that it’s just a matter of waiting… More details as soon as we have them.

Yet another romantic weekend

Last weekend was our 7 year wedding anniversary! I can now definitely say that the first seven years of a marriage are the hardest ones. To celebrate, we hired a car for the weekend, and drove down to our favourite restaurant, The Plumed Horse. Saturday 22nd July was a glorously hot and sunny summer days. We set off late, and meandered through the Borders, stopping off for a picnic and a mid-afternoon nap at St. Mary’s Loch, before zipping the rest of the way to Crossmichael.

When we got there, we checked into the Deeside B&B, and got cleaned up before hiking all the way across the street to the restaurant. As usual, the food was fantastic. For starters, I had a medallion of goose and duck foie gras embedded in a muscat and calves foot jelly, and Abi has a warm goats cheese salad. Main course was lamb for Abi and sea bass for me, and for dessert Abi chose the chocolate tart, while I went for the banana brulée. (See my full review of the experience on DooYoo.) We had another bottle of the splendid 1988 Tokaji with the dessert, and because by that time the restaurant had emptied out (it was a very quiet evening–apparently July has been a quiet month for them overall, but they seem to be booked up for most of August already) we asked Charles and Tony (the owners) if they wanted to share a glass to the Tokaji with us. Charles smiled and declined politely, but such tempting bait did manage to lure Tony out of the kitchen. We then spent the best part of an hour just chatting away, and having a splendid time. We wandered back across to the B&B feeling full and happy.

The next morning, being gluttons for culinary punishment, we had a full cooked breakfast before setting off for Hadrian’s Wall, which runs roughly from Carlisle to Newcastle. Neither of us had visited this part of Britain before, and we were amazed by the unspoiled rural beauty of the countryside. Rolling hills with crags and little lakes, small villages with country pubs and people sitting on the steps up to their front doors in the summer sunshine. It looked like a marvellous place to spend a walking holiday, or a weekend break, and I’m sure that we’ll be back at some point in the future.

Music Fest

And if all this activity wasn’t enough, on Thursday evening this week (just after netball practice) we went out to the Port O’ Leith pub to see my drum teacher (Craig Hunter) playing with his band Monkey House. They were playing mostly rock and blues covers, and sounded great even in the tiny space they had to fit into. (The Port O’ Leith is a small pub–if you just stick your head into it, you’d be surprised they’ve got space for the bar, let along a band.)

Then yesterday evening we were out seeing Courtney Pine as part of the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. He had a truly awesome band on stage with him, and they gave up their all on a fantastic set of funked-up jazz that had even me (who doesn’t dance) swinging away during their encore. Courtney Pine is a man who loves his music, and loves playing live. When he really gets into his solos he looks like he’s throttling every last note out of his sax, and placing every ounce of his heart into the effort. One of the highlights of the gig, though, was Mary Pierce on vocals giving a truly stunning performance on Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times.” Sent shivers up my spine.

And no, that’s not all. Tonight we’re going out to see Dr. John at the same venue (Queens Hall), also as part of the Jazz & Blues Festival. Yes, folks, the Edinburgh Festival season is fully upon us. As always, we intend to make the most of it, but as always, we’ll just have to wait and see if we have the get up and go to actually get ourselves to more than just a couple of events.

Until such time as I have more to report, it’s over & out from me.


Slow news week

Slow news week

13 July 2000

…So I’ll just keep this one brief and to the point. The most interesting
event over the past week was, of course, Abi getting a tattoo. You can read
all about it on her section of the sunpig
, but that doesn’t stop me from mentioning it, too. Even though we
had to get up ridiculously early on Saturday morning to get an appointment
for that same day, it was still worth it. It looks great.

My favourite line now: “Hey, there’s something on your arm.”

If I didn’t have a severe needle phobia, I’d be tempted to get one
myself. (Not that I have any idea what I would like embossed on my skin for
the rest of my life, though, so it’s probably more a mild envy of Abi’s than a
genuine desire.) Abi has suggested that the next time I’m under general
anaesthesia, she’ll hire a tattoo artist to come and do one for me, so I won’t
have to suffer through the whole pain and fear thing.

Latest car update

Unfortunately, it’s nothing too exciting. I called up my good friend at
Fuji on Tuesday, and asked him if there was any progress. He said that he’d
been in touch with Toyota, and that they were now getting ready to take things
over from him. Then, on Wednesday morning I got a call from Toyota UK, first
of all congratulating me on winning the car, and then explaining what was going
to happen next.

They’re sending us out a brochure on the Picnic, and a colour chart, so we
can choose what kind of paint job and interior trim we want. Then, we send our
selection back to them, and they arrange for this vehicle to be delivered to a
local Toyota dealer. Unfortunately, because they don’t have huge numbers of
Picnics in stock, this will probably take somewhere between 4 and 6 weeks.
So we won’t be able to drive it down to Dumfries and the
Plumed Horse for our anniversary
next week. Oh well…

If we we’re not going to have our own brand new car, we’re going to have to
rent a car for the weekend. Because it’s a special anniversary weekend, I had
a sudden wonderful idea of maybe hiring a little sports car, rather than the
normal tiny hatchback we go for. I went by our usual rental place
(Enterprise, in Leith)
at lunchtime yesterday. They greeted me with their usual enthusiasm, but the
only thing they had that came kind of close was a BMW 3-series. That was just
a bit too big, though. I’d really had my mind on a Mazda MX-5, or an MG.

The ever-friendly staff at Enterprise mentioned that Budget might have
something more along these lines, so I gave them a try, but they weren’t taking
any bookings until August. (Can I also say that the very fact that Enterprise
were willing to refer me elsewhere is a typical indicator of their very high
levels of customer service. These people are great, and really do their best
to make car hire an easy and enjoyable experience.) Lunch over, I scouted
around on the web for a bit and came up with
Avis Prestige
, which hires out luxury and sporty cars. A brief look at their
prices, however, told me that this was not going to fly, though. (£320 for a BMW Z3
for the weekend? Hmmm…probably not.)

So, a little disappointed, I ended up back at Enterprise, where they were only
too happy to supply us with a Renault Laguna-class vehicle for next weekend. It
should have a CD player, and they assure me that it’s a really nice drive. I’m
looking forward to it.

Books, movies, and music

(Though not necessarily in that order)

We saw two films last week,
Chicken Run
Mission Impossible 2
Chicken Run was very funny, and a great family film, and MI-2 was a
pretty good action movie. (Towards the end, though, the stunts did cross the fine
line between breathtaking and ridiculous, though.) But between the two of them,
probably the neatest thing was the “CR-1” Chicken Run/MI-2 crossover trailer that
was shown just before MI-2. Almost worth going in to the cinema to it on its own!

Music-wise, I bought three CDs on Saturday, Liquid Skin by Gomez,
Dizzy Up The Girl by the Goo Goo Dolls, and I Like to Score by
Moby. Although since the weekend, the only thing I’ve had running on my MP3
player is Byzantium by Deep Blue Something. (Remember the song “Breakfast
at Tiffany’s”? That’s them.) See my
review of the album

And finally, I’ve just finished reading John Sandford’s Night Prey.
If you’re looking for an excellent police/serial killer thriller, pick up one of
Sandford’s Prey series. I’ll have to do a proper review on DooYoo, or
somewhere else at some point. (I’ve just found out about
ThemeStream, which seems to bill itself
as more of an on-line magazine and review digest than other reputation managers.
I’ll check it out and write some more about it, too.)

And that’s all for now!


“Bloody Hell–we’ve won a car.”

What a very enjoyable, but utterly peculiar weekend.

It all started last Christmas… Instead of giving my grandmother a normal gift (she’s very hard to buy presents for), we decided to take her away for a weekend. Our original idea was to take her to Glasgow, but on reflection we decided that Deeside in Aberdeenshire would be nicer. So that’s where we were for the last couple of days.

Because my parents are away on holiday in Florida at the moment, they are letting us borrow their cars. We’ve had their Suzuki Vitara in Edinburgh with us for the last week, and we drove up to their house in Murthly on Friday evening. On Saturday morning, we then swapped the Suzuki for their BMW 7-series (a very choice automobile…I highly recommend you try one), and headed up to Aberdeen.

We had lunch at my grandmother’s place, and then set out for a nice relaxing drive along the Deeside road. We stopped off in Banchory for a poke around a shoe shop, and briefly entered the car park at Crathes Castle, but decided to move on because it was raining and quite windy. Later in the afternoon we had afternoon tea and a scone in Banchory, and had a wander around the village centre before checking in at the Darroch Learg hotel, just at the edge of the village heading West.

I hadn’t known about the hotel before we went there–I had only found it on the web a week and a half ago, as I was calling around places to find out if they had rooms for this weekend. On the web site the hotel looks elegant, and close up it matches that impression very nicely. The outside looks like an old country mansion (though with an regrettably tatty modern extension), and the inside is exactly what you would expect: wood panelling all round, a lounge with large comfortable chairs, coffee tables and a fireplace, and even a separate smoking room with a selection of cigars and spirits displayed in a massive Victorian cabinet. The fires weren’t lit, but I could easily imagine walking in there in the middle of winter, brushing the snow from my boots, and settling down with a glass of wine and a good book….

The bedrooms were not quite as sumptuous, but still very comfortable, and came supplied with fluffy towelling robes, which was a nice touch. Grandma’s room was a small double, while Abi’s and mine appeared to be more like a suite. Its bathroom
was certainly large enough to warrant a chair in the middle of it, in case you got tired while crossing from one end to the other.

After we’d splashed some water on our faces and changed clothes, we all went downstairs and had tea in the lounge, while examining the menu for dinner. Although the residential side of the hotel is very fine, it is surely the restaurant on which the owners pride themselves most. Since 1997 they have had three AA rosettes for food each year, which puts them quite squarely in premier league–there are only 20 other 3-rosette establishments in the whole of Scotland. (And, damn it, why is the Plumed Horse not one of them?) Making our choice from the menu was difficult, but we eventually settled on a different dish each, after which we were ushered through into the dining room, which has a conservatory-like sun room extension. As if by magic, some of the day’s first rays of sunshine speared the clouds and sparkled down on us as we took our seats.

After a complimentary taster of home-smoked salmon and red pepper, I tucked into some tortellini of crab and langoustine. Abi had a pithivier (a puff pastry shell, as far as we could tell) filled with goats cheese, and decorated with a spicy tomato jam, and Grandma had smoked trout with poached egg and chive hollandaise. My tortellini were large and juicy, perhaps a little too much so. The shellfish filling was coarsely chopped and oozed dribbles of oil into the creamy crab sauce. It was delicious to mop up with some of their home-made granary bread, but the greasiness lost them a few presentation points.

For the main course, Grandma had saddle of local lamb, with tiny mushrooms and a ratatouille gratin on a bed of polenta. I tried a nibble of the ratatouille, and it was sweet and fruity–very nice indeed. Abi had veal on a bed of puy lentils with a gratin of potatoes and butternut squash. Her plate also contained a black pudding type thing, about the size and shape of a baby aubergine. I didn’t try it, but it looked like an interesting addition to the ensemble. I had been unable to resist ordering the fillet of Aberdeen beef, which came on a bed of creamed celeriac (something I’ve never tried before, but must definitely do again–it tasted a little like herby cheesy creamed mashed potatoes…), and covered with brashed shin, and some of the freshest peas and green beans I have ever tasted. As for the beef itself, well, I took it rare, and it tasted as smooth as cream, and had the distinctive dairy flavour of top class, fresh fillet.

By this time, we were all rather full, but this didn’t stop Abi from ordering a chocolate tart which she described as having “more cocoa butter in a single mouthful than in a whole bar of diary milk.” Grandma had a trio of pears in red wine, while I made the (apparently predictable) choice of creme brulee, which came with toffeed apples and apple sorbet. The caramel crust on the creme brulee was thin, but the body was thick and deep, and after I had scraped as much of it out of the ramekin as I could, the bottom was coated with tiny vanilla seeds–always a good sign.

All of this was accompanied by a half bottle of Alsace Gewürztraminer (Hugel, 1998) and a full bottle of Australian Orange Merlot (Reynolds, 1998). The Gewürztraminer had an intensely fruity taste up-front, but was a bit hollow in the middle, and Merlot always tastes too oaky for me after a couple of glasses, but they were easily drunk selections nevertheless. After the meal, we retired (briefly) to the drawing room for coffee and sweets (home-made fudge and Turkish delight), before falling exhausted into bed.

So much for the first day. Everything was fine up until then: we were all having a great time chattering away in the lovely surroundings, and enjoying the excellent food and the luxury of the hotel. When we got up this morning we had no clue, either. We
went downstairs for a large cooked breakfast (delivered to almost the same presentational standards of the previous night’s dinner–one wonders if the chef just pulled an all-nighter), and then drove off into a gloriously sunny morning. Our plan was to head to Braemar, then turn around and loop through Speyside (Tomintoul, Dufftown) and back towards Aberdeen.

Well, we got to Braemar. We parked the car and took a walk down out of the village centre towards the royal grounds, where the Braemar games (one of the best-known Highland Games–the one the royals attend) are held each year. The weather was glorious, the sun fair burning down on us, and we had happily snapped off almost a whole roll of photos. There was still plenty of day left, though, so on our way back up into the village, I popped into the Alldays shop and got a pack of Fuji “Multi 400” film. On my way out of the shop, I read the back of the pack, which explained the “Instant Win with Foolproof Colour” competition. Some packs of film come with enclosed colour-coded slips: a “blue” slip means you’ve won one of 1000 quicksnap cameras, “green” gives you one of 50 mobile phones, “red” is one of four iMac computers, and a “cyan” slip means you’ve won one of four Toyota Picnic people carrier cars.

“Just like a lottery scratchcard,” I said to Abi and Grandma when I left the shop, and I showed them the pack. I started to open it, prying open the side, and then saw the little slip inside with a bright cyan dot with the word “cyan” printed on it in big letters. Curious, but not quite believing it, I pulled the rest of the slip out of the packet, unwrapped it, and read the words “Congratulations — You’re just won a Toyota Picnic!”

To make it even more real, the slip was signed on behalf of Fuji Film by a real person, in genuine blue ballpoint.

“Bloody Hell,” I said, “We’ve won a car.”

I think Abi may have looked at me in disbelief at that point, but I’m not sure. I started feeling a little blurry and excited. I read the small print a couple of times, showed to it Abi and Grandma, and they both agreed that we had, in fact, just won a car.

Wow. Still feeling light-headed, I went back into the shop, and in a trembly voice told the woman who had sold me the film that she had just sold a winning packet. I showed her the winning slip, and was reluctant to even let her touch it–I was so worried that she would take it, or that it would evaporate into thin air, or that I would just wake up, but none of that happened. I went back outside, and with the last few snaps on the old roll of film, Abi took photos of me standing in front of the shop with, holding the winning ticket up in front of me. (I’ll scan the photos and put them up here on the site as soon as we get them developed.)

Just to calm down a bit, we went next door into a big hotel, where Abi and Grandma sat me down and fetched me a diet coke and a piece of millionaire shortbread. I think that that this point they were a bit concerned about my ability to drive them safely back to Aberdeen. I got over the shock eventually, though, and then went through a phase of the giggles. I mean, we’d just won a car. It seemed incredibly funny, and still does. On the drive towards Braemar, we had even been talking about how much we were enjoying not owning a car, because it was too much of a drain on our finances, and then suddenly we’re just handed one. Even as a good little atheist, I had a brief moment of doubt about the random nature of the Universe… (But only a brief one ?)

So then we got back into the car, and tried to behave like normal. Failed, giggled for a bit more, then drove on.

And as if that whole episode wasn’t bizarre enough, just after we’d turned onto the Tomintoul road, we turned round a corner and found an enormous horse bearing down on us at a full gallop. It had its head down and its dark determined eyes looked like they would shoot lightning bolts at anyone or anything that got in its way. “Oh crap,” I thought, “it’s going to run straight at us and stomp all over the hood of the car…” At that point I also wondered if this really was a dream–it seemed so unreal. Maybe that’s why I felt relatively calm as I steered to the side of the narrow road. The horse just stormed straight past us, though, completely uninterested in anything but going straight ahead as fast as it could.

The rest of the drive was blissfully uneventful. We got back to Aberdeen at about 5 o’clock, dropped Grandma off at her house (with a whole bunch of new stories to tell her neighbours), and then drove back to Edinburgh, stopping off at Murthly to drop off the Beamer and pick up the Suzuki. Bit of a let-down, that was 🙂

(Okay…so we also stopped off at a nearby Sainsbury’s and picked up a copy of “Top Gear” magazine so we could see what kind of a car the Toyota Picnic is, and how much it is worth…. Wouldn’t you?)

So now all we have to do is claim the damn thing. The claim ticket says to send the ticket to Fuji via recorded delivery, but I’m suddenly developing a deep mistrust of the postal system and everyone at Fuji who stands between us and the person with the actual keys to the vehicle. Part of me wants to hop on an EasyJet flight tomorrow and deliver the ticket in person. The more rational part of me is saying that I should call them up tomorrow morning and ask them for advice. I’ve never had to claim a prize before, so I don’t know just how paranoid I should be. (The answer is probably “not at all”, but I’m still feeling too hyped up t be able to think rationally about it.)

Am I going to be able to get to sleep tonight? Is this really a winning ticket, or just some kind of elaborate hoax? What kind of Toyota Picnic is the prize? Is it the bottom-of-the-range 2.0 GS, or the top-of-the-line 2.2TD GLS with all the trim? How long will it take for them to deliver it? Will they want to take publicity photographs, and if so, could this be the breakthrough into modelling I’ve been waiting for?

All these questions, and maybe more (who knows…who really cares?) will probably be answered on this here web site, sooner or later.