Keydet Piper I'm thinking bagpipes

Monthly Archives: May 2009

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A bad sign?

I’m currently on hold, waiting to speak with customer service rep for a certain satellite radio company. I won’t name the company, but they’re not joking, if you get the pun.

Does it say anything about a radio company that the hold music is unintelligible because of poor sound quality and frequent static?

Very entertaining video

I found this video this morning: it’s tremendously entertaining. It doesn’t have anything to do with bagpipes, but it’s still fun.

Dog shaking


I’m hoping that Google comes out with Chrome for Mac sometime in the near future. I use it on my Windows machine at school, and it’s a great browser. It’s much better than Internet Explorer, but it doesn’t take much to be better than IE. Match the superior browser with the superior operating system and you’d have a winning combination!

Memorial Day Reflections

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a day set aside in 1868 to remember the sacrifices of those who have given their lives in the service of this nation. I won’t spout political rhetoric or get into the philosophy of protecting the US and the people who live there (I’m not sure how much the US actually needs protecting these days), but I do think it’s important to remember those who have served and died. Don’t focus on the wars, battles, or skirmishes, but on the people who fought in them.

Keep in mind that many of the war dead have been young men under the age of 25. Many of them would have seen their friends and comrades dying all around them moments before their own death, and that’s something that no one, especially one so young, should have to face. It’s no wonder that those who survive combat are forever affected by its memory.

The national moment of remembrance happens at 3:00 pm local time today, and I encourage you to take a minute to reflect on the young people who have had their lives cut short by the horrors of war. Whether they believed in a greater cause, saw the military as the only way out of their home town, or were attracted by the enlistment benefits, they died in ways that no one ever should. Remember that, and remember them. We owe them more on this day.

Dedicated to my Brother Rat, Capt (post) Luke Wullenwaber, killed in action in Khaladiyah, Iraq on November 16, 2004.


A Movie Ponderable

I’m watching The Time Machine on DVD at the moment, the 1960 version. I’m enjoying it so far, but it’s still early. The beginning of the movie opens with four gentlemen invited to dinner at the home of a mutual friend. The friend arrives late, dirty and disheveled, after returning from the distant future.

I’ll say that again: the man arrives late, just as the others are sitting down to dinner. Certainly, any man with a time machine has no excuse for arriving late for anything? If he returned promptly at 8:00 for dinner, couldn’t he have made it five minutes earlier? Or a whole hour, and give himself time to get cleaned up before his friends arrived?

Marty McFly made the same realization in Back to the Future; just made me wonder.

Piper Spotlight: Gavin Stoddart

Here’s another installment of Piper Spotlight, this time focusing on P/M Gavin Stoddart, MBE BEM. Gavin is an army piper, playing first with the Scots Guards and later with Royal Highland Fusiliers. He spent the last 16 years of his army career as director of the Army School of Bagpipe Music. His professional competition career lasted only ten years, but was certainly illustrious: he won the gold medal at Oban in 1981 and Inverness in 1983, and won the overall title at the Glenfiddich twice (1983 and 1988). In 1983 he was awarded the British Empire Medal, and in 1999 was honored as a Member of the British Empire for his services to army bagpiping and drumming.

My first encounter with Gavin was during my first trip to Scotland in 1999. He was in charge of the massed pipes and drums at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, in which I was supposed to participate. I hadn’t learned the music properly (or indeed at all, since I had only been playing for a year), and so got a thorough tongue-lashing from Pipe Major Stoddart. I was still able to participate in the Tattoo, but unfortunately not as a piper.

In June 2006 I actually met Gavin again when he was an instructor at the National Piping Centre’s summer school in Winchester, VA. I told him that the last time I saw him he had yelled at me, and he grinned and said, “Well I’m sure I didn’t mean anything by it.” Over the next few days, Gavin turned out to be a warm and easy-going fellow who told stories as well as he taught bagpipes. His stories often started with a phrase like “So I was judging the MSR at the Glendfiddich one year…” and continue with an account of how a wonderful performance was lost in the last two bars, or how a certain piper won first place in the MSR despite the minor technicality of playing the wrong strathspey.

After a few days of the class I was quite comfortable around Gavin, and was thus much less nervous when I learned he was to be my examiner for the piping proficiency test I was about to take. He was kind enough to cut me some slack when I didn’t know the name of all the piobaireachd movements (I knew how to play them, certificatebut wasn’t certain what they were called), and after I was done told me that he enjoyed listening to my piobaireachd. He was also kind enough to pose for a photo with me and my newly-earned intermediate piping certificate. I had a lot of fun during that week, and I’m happy that my only interaction with Gavin wasn’t that he yelled at me. Thanks Gavin, for being a great role model for aspiring pipers.

Source for biographical information

Still waiting…

The other day I posted about my geocaching adventures, specifically how the search for my 100th cache find was thwarted by low batteries in my GPS.I had hoped to go back and grab #100 on Monday, but forgot that I had signed up to donate blood that day. Tuesday night I’m going to a Sea Dogs baseball game, so I’m afraid the milestone will have to wait for Wednesday night. Argh.

As I was writing it I thought I might create another blog about geocaching, and so have I done. Called Keydet Caching, it will focus on my geocaching adventures and general thoughts on the subject. You might notice I’ve gone back to Blogger for that one; WordPress seems to be a bit more professional, but Blogger has much more to customizeability.

Now instead of one blog not updated very often, I’ll have two!

The best-laid plans

Me: “Hi, my name is Nathan, and I’m a geocacher.”

Support group: “Hi Nathan.”

Yes, I’ll admit it, I’m addicted to geocaching. It’s an organized outdoor activity that uses the GPS satellite constellation; if you have a hand held GPS unit, you can find things that people have hidden places. It’s basically an abuse of a multi-billion dollar government satellite array to find $10 worth of tupperware and trinkets somebody hid out in the woods. I guess it’s no worse than using the same technology to navigate your car to the grocery store, but it’s far less practical.

The way I got into caching was because of my bagpipes. I was practicing in a park near on the way home from work when I lived in Pittsburgh, and as happens when one pipes outside, it tends to attract passersby. This particular group was a father and son; the son trundled off to some part of the park carrying something that looked not unlike a cell phone while his father stayed to chat with me. He told me about “this stupid little game” (his words), and how they could have used my help on a puzzle cache a while back; one of the clues was written in Gaelic. I found his assumption that I know Gaelic because I play pipes fascinating (I play mahjong but don’t speak Chinese), but I was intrigued by this activity he described. After ten seconds with a search engine I had a name: geocaching.

A year or so later I actually got a GPS unit, and have been caching ever since. There are caches all over the world, so anywhere you go you can probably find some caches nearby. It extends the time required for a drive if you’re stopping for 15 minutes every few miles, but it is pretty cool. It’s pretty geeky, but I do enjoy it.

So I went out geocaching today, as I often do on the weekends. I started the day with 92 finds (actually a low total compared to some people who are truly obsessed), and had planned to find my 100th cache. I spent the time walking between the first three or four caches I found composing an introspective and reflective blog post about my 100 finds, but unfortunately it will have to wait: I was forced to stop after finding 7 new caches due to failing batteries in my GPS. I usually carry a backup set, and ironically the one time I don’t have spares is when I need them. I did stop at the store on the way home (the whole point of the trip into town) and debated buying batteries so I could go back and grab one more, but I have a plethora of AA’s at home and nothing planned tomorrow after school. Wait until then for that blog post; in the meantime here are a few photos I took this afternoon. They are from the top of Cathedral Ledge and White Horse Ledge, overlooking North Conway and the Mount Washington Valley. Yes, those are rock climbers.

Kearsarge Mountain


Some thoughts about competition

A few weeks ago I started a post about why I compete but never got around to finishing it. The gist is that I enjoy competing because it gives a specific event to prepare for (and thus a reason to practice), and I adopt the mindset that I’m competing against myself. If I can force down the nerves and play a good tune, I’m usually pleased with myself, and it usually happens that I come out somewhere in the prize list.

Yesterday, Jim McGillivray posted a note about competition on his Facebook profile*. A little background: Jim is a well-known piper, a judge in Ontario, and a winner of the gold medals at Oban (1991) and Inverness (1985), as well as the Clasp at Inverness (1987). Since then he’s started two piping-related businesses, McGillivray Piping and, and made a couple of videos about bagpipe maintenance and tuning. In short, the guy knows what he’s talking about when it comes to pipes.

His Facebook note contained this quote:

I didn’t like competition. It made me nervous to my stomach, but it focused my practice, and winning prizes was good for my self-esteem. Competition was the catalyst for my development as a player. But I quit competing at age 36 – a relatively young age for pipers – because I disliked it.

It’s unusual to hear such a successful competition piper say he didn’t like the competition. He recognized it was good for his playing, but still didn’t enjoy it. Can’t blame a guy for leaving competition when he didn’t like it. Even though he doesn’t compete anymore, he says “deep down I accept competition as a traditional and crucial part of the art.”

He continued to say that “deep down I accept competition as a traditional and crucial part of the art.”

However, I think teachers, prominent pipers and piping writers should help younger pipers try not to make competition the ultimate goal of our music.

He has a point: there is more to piping than competition, though it’s easy to forget that. The true joy of piping is not about how many prizes you win, but just playing the music and meeting the people who play it too.

My teachers have always encouraged me to compete, and I will continue to do so because I enjoy it. I admire people who get out because they don’t like it. It’s easy to get swept along with the crowd, especially in a band full of solo competitors, but if you don’t like it you shouldn’t feel like you have to do it. I say don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, which is why I will always encourage my students to compete at least once, but there should be no stigma around those who decide not to compete.

*Yes it’s true, Jim McGillivray is one of my Facebook friends. I’ve never actually met the guy; I watched a contest that he judged and have picked him out of a crowd, but I’ve never shaken his hand. And by the way I’m pretty sure I was the one who sent the friend request.

A drastic change

There’s a lot of talk in the media about going green, alternative energy, and reducing fossil fuel emissions. I’ve heard lots of people telling me to reduce the energy I use, but to be honest it’s hard to put that in perspective. Since I live in a dorm, I don’t pay an electric, gas, or heat bill (I’m enjoying it while it lasts), so it’s hard to see how much energy I use and how to reduce it. I came across this video this afternoon and it does a nice job of explaining energy consumption in terms of light bulbs.

His point is that it’s going to take a lot more than just unplugging idle appliances and using CFL bulbs to reduce our energy consumption. A 90% reduction is recommended by climatologists, and that’s a drastic change. Trying to get all 61 million people of the United Kingdom to change so drastically in a reasonable amount of time would be about as easy as slowing the rotation of the Earth, so the solution is to find some way to generate electricity from non-fossil fuel sources.

A lot of people try to tell me than wind energy is the way to go, and while it is viable in certain areas a single turbine doesn’t produce much energy in the grand scheme of things. To genererate enough power to satisfy the UK, half of Britain would have to be covered by windmills. Literally half, that’s not just a figure of speech.

There’s obviously a discrepancy between the number of nuclear and wind plants that exist and the number needed to power the UK, so what makes up the difference? Fossil fuels: power plants using coal and natural gas to produce electricity. These are cheap and plentiful, but they also are very polluting and generally not nice to be around because of what they do to the air.

I’m telling you, nuclear is the solution for the next 50 years, until wind and solar are able to produce enough power. It’s the only way to still meet the demand for electricity while still cutting carbon emissions. This quote I saw a while back is stunning, and it pretty much says it all.

“A 1,000-megawatt coal plant is fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day. A nuclear reactor is replenished by a single tractor-trailer bringing new fuel rods once every 18 months. Over the course of a year, the coal plant will release 400,000 tons of sulfur and fly ash. Some of this ends up in landfills, but most escapes into the atmosphere where it kills 30,000 people annually, according to the E.P.A. Then there’s the carbon dioxide — seven millions tons annually from each plant — which is the principle cause of global warming.” William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy.

Note the first part of that: 110 cars of coal every day, or a single truck every 18 months. I can’t decide which is better!