Dear Diary... December 2005

Saturday 31st December - Sale Mania, But Not For Me

Well, the winter sales have started, and have I managed to get any bargains whatsoever in terms of clothes? Absolutely none. The reasons for this are manyfold, but the biggest reason of all to be brutally honest is that when you compare most shops, the women's section is choc full of clothes that you'd actually want (indeed, a couple of my friends have done really well in them) - but when you get to the men's section, it always feels like a token effort in that they're just trying to tempt you in with the promise of good stuff. In reality it's stuff that I wouldn't wear or stuff that's too old for yours truly. No matter where I went it was the same story, so I'll probably stick to the likes of Matalan which have good deals on all year round, not just at the moment.

Did at least manage to use the vouchers for HMV that I'd got for Christmas off people (and thank you ever so much for those!) - as a result I blitzed quite a few albums that had been on my wish list for quite some time - and as a result the collection's grown in size. I picked up another eight in HMV, including Air's classic Moon Safari album, and then went into Fopp and found another two there including Traffic's seminal 1970 album John Barleycorn Must Die, with extra tracks and digitally remastered. Thankfully at my mum's is still the original Island pink "i" label copy that's quite rare, and as such I don't need to play that anymore, but instead just go for it with the CD and really enjoy listening to that and all the other music that I treated myself to. As I got a few DVDs for Christmas I decided that concentrating on music was a good thing to be honest.

Went to see King Kong at the pictures in Stockport as well - I'll probably review that for the reviews section so I won't comment here. However, the people who own Cineworld cinemas need to do a couple of things: first, please make the seats more comfortable. Compared to my usual haunt of AMC in Deansgate the seats are not that great whatsoever, and I was soon wriggling around in them trying to get a comfy position. Second: the enormous rip off when it comes to drinks and snacks in the cinema - okay so the ticket price was less because I didn't go at a weekend, but even so: almost three quid for a small box of popcorn, and £1-50 for a bottle of mineral water that I can get at the local corner shop for around 55p, come on! With prices like that no wonder that people who go smuggle in their own stuff to be honest. I'd went on the Wednesday as I took an all day Greater Manchester rail ranger ticket, went to Bolton to do some shopping, then to Stockport, and then to the cinema and back from Stockport to home, so that worked out well. Considering the distance you can travel for just £2-70 after 9-30am, it's well worth it if you want to leave the car at home and you're close to a train station..

Right, I'm off out to head towards Rusholme to eat my way towards New Year. Have a lovely 2006 everyone, and I certainly hope it's going to be better than this year, which wasn't too good. Despite the happy moments I had with people (and thank you for those) there was too much bad karma around me which made it not the best to be honest. I have a funny feeling though that 2006 is going to be a year of change, wait and see...

Monday 26th December - I Am The Quizmaster

Since I started a little bit of fun on Boxing Day three years ago, it's been tradition for the family to get together on Boxing Day evening, have a little bit of a buffet and some drinks, and then for me to instigate a quiz so that everyone could have a bit of fun. This year proved no exception as I pulled out all the stops to make the Boxing Day quiz just as good as previous years. Last year I did multiple choice answers and it proved really succesful in eliminating arguments and also marking them correctly, and I did mostly the same this year.

Some changes I did make though was a round where I played snippets of ten Christmas songs and the particpants simply had to decide if it was an original or a cover version - that went down well. And indeed the "one two three four five" round, where the first question you guessed one of, the second two of, etc, to the fifth where you guessed five of. I used a couple of questions from the quiz that I won with Quizteam Aguilera for good effect, so that the contestants had to name five Disney animated films with one word titles, certainly got the brain cells going. And not to mention the film themes played backwards round, and that definitely had a few heads scratched. The killer though was the odd one out round, and that threw a lot of people. To give you an idea, I've repeated a few of the questions below. Simply decide which is the odd one out, and then click the contact me link above to send in your answers. If you dare! Here they are then:

1. Quizzed, Zygotes, Jinxing, Quivers
2. Buzz, Woody, Hamm, Bullseye
3. The Incredibles, Shrek, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc
4. Slade, Mud, Wham, Band Aid
5. Les Dennis, Max Bygraves, Bob Monkhouse, Roy Walker
6. Robbie Keane, Andrew Cole, Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler
7. Daffyd, Sebastian, Andy, Bubbles
8. Paula Radcliffe, Wayne Rooney, Kelly Holmes, Andrew Flintoff
9. Daleks, Slitheen, Cybermen, Autons
10. Monkees, Bay City Rollers, S Club 7, Boyzone

Answers on a postcard etc etc. Needless to say it was competitive with the women of the family on one side and the men on the other, and the men won convincingly by 8 points in the end, although both teams struggled a bit with the round above. So see how you do. Submit your answers to me by the end of the year and I'll see who did well..

Sunday 25th December - Happy Christmas!

Well, despite my previous diary entry, I'd tried as much as I could to put all the misery of the year behind me and actually try to enjoy the Christmas festivities today. My mum had invited me over for Christmas dinner along with most of the family and indeed that would be quite a nice occasion, there was 15 of us scheduled to be at the table, and my Mum's cooking is nothing short of really lovely, and it of course also meant that I didn't have to cook either, which for me was a definite plus to say the least.

Most of the relatives had actually dropped their presents off at my place already, so it was nice to be able to get up Christmas morning and open the many presents that people and friends had purchased for me. It was so nice of them to actually think of me and I really appreciate it - it's better to give than receive though and I'm sure that they would be really happy with the presents I'd give them later on in the day. I opened them up, and it's going to be a music and movie fest for me for the next few days, as I got quite a few CDs and DVDs, including some gaps missing in my collection, so that was very nice. Stuff like Alanis Morrissette's acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill, the 2CD anthology of Natalie Merchant stuff, Suicidal Tendencies' classic "How Will I Laugh Tomorrow.." album (cheers Dan!), PJ Harvey's first album "Dry", the limited version with DVD of Katie Melua's "Call off the Search", the first of Johnny Cash's "American Recordings" albums and Röyksopp's seminal "Melody AM". Think that's enough to keep me going.

Not to mention the DVDs to add to the collection. My cousin got me the 3-disc Ashes box set, my uncle got me the 3 disc Match of the Day 60s 70s and 80s set, and add to that I also got the Muppets Series 1 box set, Weird Science, Matrix Revolutions, American Beauty, series 1 of The Clangers, the complete Series 4 of CSI, series 1 and 2 of The Office, Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back, Martin Lawrence Live, and.. well you get the idea. That's why it's so easy to come up with a Christmas list: because then people know what you don't have, plus if your list is large it's still a nice surprise to see what people have got you come Christmas morning. And it certainly was for me - so thank you, everyone!

My Mum's Christmas dinner was rather lovely as well, turkey and all the trimmings, and it was so nice and filling that no one noticed that the stuffing was missing, at all. And that included me, who normally loves the stuff big time. It was great though, and with some nice profiteroles to finish things off that certainly made the dinner very nice indeed. Everyone afterwards mucked in to dismantle the table that my uncle had built for the occasion so it could be put away and the downstairs room returned to normality: primarily so my sister's one year old could start to play with all his new toys he got at Christmas. I was pleased that she really liked the clothes I'd got him from Gap, and everyone was chuffed with the presents I'd bought them. My brother went mental when he saw that I'd managed to get him the Harvest label t-shirt from Selectadisc in London - he certainly will be wearing that when the weather gets warmer for sure. Sort of thing I would wear actually :)

Thursday 15th December - Christmas Has The Stuffing Knocked Out Of Me

For personal reasons, although I'm trying to get into the spirit of things, I'm really not in the mood for Christmas this year. Of course this won't mean I'll give any less, nor will I put less thought into the present choosing process (done, wrapped and all that) and I'm sure what I get people will be appreciated. It's just that feeling of emptiness I have and how I just don't want it to be here, really. I'm not even excited about one of the first Christmas do's hat's happening tomorrow, instead my mind is focussed on other more important things.

Part of my reasoning is probably it's at this time of year you start to think more about yourself, how far you've come, how far you want to go, and also what's going to happen in the next year or so. To be honest, the outlook's a little on the bleak side to say the least and that doesn't cheer me up no end either. And added to that there's more strain in terms of work because of the grand plan which will mean me not having that same team spirit ethic and working with the people I really enjoy working with now, it's quite clear that I'm having serious considerations about leaving my current work position and getting somewhere else. I don't want to do that, I love the job that I do, I really enjoy it lots and it feels like all the mood at the moment of one that I don't know what's going to happen and that obviously puts people on the back foot.

Being on a course with people who do similar(ish) jobs to me elsewhere has kind of opened the eyes a bit as well. I really enjoyed everyone's company last week and certainly if nothing else it proved that there is life elsewhere, even if I might have to commute further. I know full well that everyone else probably has the same bull office politics, but nonetheless it's like right now I feel really undervalued in what I do. And that isn't good. It's another thing I have to consider though as well in that is the grass going to be more green on the other side, or would it turn a nasty shade of brown on me? One thing I do know: with a mortgage and bills to pay I definitely don't have the same flexibility that I would have if I was living with parents in that they would at least support me a bit - I have to work to ensure everything I've earned stays mine.

And naturally it's also a bit depressing in that people close to you aren't also having such a great time of it either, and it's emotionally draining being kind and supportive (even though of course you get that back the same as you gave) - one of those things I suppose in that mutual support and letting things go is also good for the soul if nothing else.

Sorry, I've ranted on a bit there. Onto less depressing news and while playing the computer at Scrabble today, not only did I rack up my highest ever score of 513, but I also played my highest ever move as well - elitists, which was worth 113. It would have been worth more only for the fact that the letter that was already there was a blank t, and I had to use the second blank tile as an s. It did straddle two triple word scores though,. so 1 for the E, L, I, T and S, and double 1 for the I. So that's 7, multiplied by triple word = 21, multipled by triple word again = 63, plus 50 bonus for using all my tiles = 113. Of course if all the tiles weren't blanks it would have been 131, but that's me being pedantic I guess.

I did work out that you could score big if your word straddled two triple word scores, and I mean really big - for example if you played quizzing (using a blank as a z and having a tile already there in position) - you would score 374 points in one go provided the tile in place wasn't the Z hogging the double letter score. Otherwise you'd score nice and high like this: Q=10, U=1, I=1, Z=20 (double letter), Z (blank)=0, I=1, N=1, G=2. Total for the word = 36, multiplied by triple word=108, multiplied by triple word again=324, add 50 bonus for using all tiles=374. There you go. I wonder if that's ever been played?

Thursday 8th December - Presentation and A Faint Journey

So, the final day of the course, and today it was about the presentation of a 10 minute piece. As we had an hour or so to prepare I knocked together some Powerpoint slides, remembering a useful tip given yesterday for dyslexic students in terms of colour schemes et al. After the morning coffee break I went first and showed them how to think about table design in Microsoft Acccess 2003 and briefly went through what the field data types did. Realistically I knew this might take the whole ten minutes and the exercise might or might not be doable, as it turned out I got into the first field of the exercise before time ran out, so I didn't time it that badly.

I got very good feedback from the group I was with and that helped enormously with how I aim to present things in future, so thanks to Arwyn, Gareth, Dan, Elaine, Chris and Conor for their fair and constructive views. I read them all later on what they'd written down in their feedback sheets and it was really good to see that they didn't hold back. Sometimes you need to know what you were doing right and not so right in order to make yourself better, and definitely for them it gave them a pointer or two for doing their presentation, plus I'd got mine done so I could sit back and relax for the rest of the day and watch the others sweat it out.

As it turned out, all seven of us in our group did a varied range of presentations, and on the whole they were all of a very good standard. I think as well that they weren't sparing in dishing out materials for each of their presentations (neither was I to be honest) and providing you with good hands on ideas during them too. What I think impressed me most of all was how clear everyone was when presenting, good usage of body language and posture, excellent warmth, and backing up out of something if things went a little awry too - which was very pleasing. I think I learnt a heck of a lot today, more than perhaps I'd realised, and most of the groups (there were two groups, one in each training room) thought the same too.

It felt hard to say goodbye when it became 4pm at the end of the course: I felt like I'd networked a bit and made some new contacts, and hopefully had some good times with them along the way. I'm hoping to stay very much in touch as well because getting different ideas from different people who do a similar job as me in different places means you can share experiences as well, and that can't be sniffed at. Plus it's always good to build up some contacts, so to that aim that did the job well. And to Paddy and Jenny, our two tutors: a big thank you from me personally. The whole experience was really enjoyable and it made me feel much more valued in what I do, and even if I can't put all my new found skills into practice, they're there stored and ready, and definitely one that has given me some new found confidence if nothing else.

So I walked with Dan to Edinburgh Waverley station and as he headed off on the 1705 train to York and homeward bound, I waited for my 1752 train direct back to Manchester Piccadilly and home. I managed to get to the platform nice and early so that with Boots Meal Deal in tow, time to head home. I had a couple of ladies sat opposite me who'd been to Edinburgh for a day out, and it was all going well for them heading back to Oxenholme until one of them needed the toilet, feeling a little unwell, and fainted on the train. Thankfully one of the passengers on our carraige was a doctor, his daughter was coming back with him as she'd been for an interview at the University of St Andrews no less. With his help we got to Oxenholme, and the train manager had arranged for paramedics to be there to collect the lady and get her off to hospital safe and sound. We made it back into Piccadilly a few minutes late as the signal person decided to let a late train through ahead of us. Why?? Still, I got back home safe and sound and at the end of the day I had a great time on the course: must go back to Edinburgh for a more leisurely trip sometime too.

Wednesday 7th December - We Are Quizteam Aguilera - Resistance Is Futile

So straight after breakfast and into an intense second day of theory, discussions and activities. It sped by in a way and then it didn't, I think primarily because a concern was that I didn't want to develop a full on cold, and the heat in the room made it a little bit on the stuffy and uncomfortable side. That said, we did crack on with lots of ideas and information about the preparation, how to ensure that you were able to be concise and to the point, ensuring that you don't overdo important things but spend the right amount of time on them (something I find invaluable to be honest) and plenty of other thoughts in terms of design, planning and implementation. That was actually really good because it gave everyone a good overall view of how others would also approach their planning and see how they'll manage to turn into good courses.

After this intensity what I think we needed was some light relief, so after dropping off my stuff and heading back to the training suite to check my e-mail at work (yes, I'm sad, I know) and also to try and prepare for what I was going to present the next day (we each have to do a 10 minute presenation that could be part of something we're going to show the users) it was then to meet up with everyone at the Human Be-Inn for some more of their scrumptious fare. Although it was generally agreed that the desserts were a little disappointing (too much presentation and not enough content for me really) the mains were rather ace: I had the steak ciabatta sandwich with chips, and like I asked, they even made sure there wasn't onions on it, and such attention to detail is always a good thing in my eyes.

And then to wind things off: a pub quiz! Earlier in the day Mandy, Dan and I had spotted that there was a board outside a pub right round the corner from our accommodation and the board stated that the quiz started at 9pm (supposedly anyway) - so thankfully that gave us enough time to eat our meal and get a few of us together down there to The Southsider for the shenanigans. We got there at 8-55pm, and they were showing - of all things - Man U on the telly! I was almost about to say "bah!" to that, however I asked the bar staff about the quiz and they promised us that it would be starting at the end of the game. And then I glanced at the scoreline. And that made Conor especially happy (with him being a Liverpool fan and all) as it looked like Man U were heading out of Europe altogether, not even a UEFA Cup slot. And try as they might, the equaliser just did not materialise whatsoever.

So the final whistle went, the masses left the pub leaving the remainder of us left in there to wait with bated breath for the start of the quiz. While other teams were around us in the pub, we quickly thought of a name, no less than Quizteam Aguilera (work it out for yourselves). So the newly formed team of me, Dianne, Barbara, Mandy, Arwyn, Gareth, Dan and Conor set to work. The first two rounds were quite good in that the questions were answerable and that you could work some of them out. By this point we were in joint second, so really not doing that bad whatsoever. Then came the music round and the introductions to twelve songs were played, and you had to guess the title and artists. Gareth, Conor and Dan were particularly good here and they spotted quite a few straight off without hassle, and I even spotted the Crystal Gayle song, which prompted the team behind us when they revealed the answers that I was showing my age! I wouldn't mind, but I'm not that old you know!

Two rounds to go, and round four was supposedly the nasty round. Nasty it might have been for the other teams, but amazingly we plucked answers from the corners of our brains and managed to do stupendously well. One I was really pleased at getting right for the team was that La Brabançonne was the national anthem of Belgium, and by the end of round four we were in the lead - two points ahead of the team of students sat behind us. Not bad, eh? The final round was one question: you got one clue at a time to the answer, and once you knew the answer you'd run to the quizmaster dude with your answer sheet. However, you could only guess once, so if you got it wrong, you were knackered. The team near to us did exactly that, and guessed on the fifth clue, six points, and as it happened on the next clue we knew what the answer was, so we went off and handed the sheet in. We were confident of getting it right, and if both teams did, we knew we'd win by a point. As it happened as the other clues went on for the other teams, we knew we were right and the groans from behind us told us all we needed to know: in fact that meant they finished third, and it meant that Quizteam Aguilera had won the prize of a gallon of beer - shame it was gone 11-15pm by this point. Then there were five questions to win the cash pot of £92, not to be sniffed at either. We didn't get them all right, and neither did anyone else, although one team did get four out of five. We ended up giving the beer to the students behind us who'd been our rivals, they shook our hands and said how sporting we were, and one of the female students (assumedly their captain as she handed the sheets in at the end of the round) was quite shocked but you could tell by her happy smiling face we'd made her day. Well, a bit of Christmas Goodwill and all that, eh?

So with that done, off back to the accomodation and into bed by 11-45pm, much more relaxed before the "du du dunnnnnnn!" moment that would be tomorrow's presentation! So be warned folks: if you hear of a team called Quizteam Aguilera next time you hold a pub quiz, be warned. It could be the eight of us reforming to show you how it's done. I have to say a big thank you to all of them for making that night so enjoyable, fun, and overall such a good bonding exercise. We rule!

Tuesday 6th December - Edinburgh, Here I Come

After an intense day at work where I really had to concentrate a lot because of an important meeting, it was time to have the rest of the week off. But I wasn't just slacking off at home I should add, oh no. I was actually off on a course to with honing my skills with regards to training. After all, it's important for me that staff get to be shown how to do some things properly, in particularly when I get them started off on 1:1 sessions using the e-mail system we use and that sort of thing. So a while back I signed up for the course, and got it paid for through work, which is always nice. And it wasn't even like most of them usually are, where they're just based in the City Centre with no real change of scenery. It was up in Edinburgh no less.

So today it was time to get myself packed and ready and head off into Manchester Piccadilly station to get the direct train leaving platform 14 at 11:56. I got a nice comfortable seat with a table and everything, settled back with my Boots Meal Deal lunch and then plugged in my headphones to the onboard audio system. Nothing. Plugged them in again. Still nothing. And then into the seat next to me. Nothing. It turned out that most of the train's system wasn't working when it came to the onboard audio, which was a real nightmare. I'd deliberately left behind the trusty iPod for that reason to ease the load slightly. Mind you, it was also nice to look out of the window, stare into space and then see how the landscape changes, from an almost coastal view as you headed out of Lancaster, to countryside and bleakness all around just north of Lockerbie. As you pass the Scottish border there is a little sign by the side of the track to tell you that you've left England behind, and apart from a short hold up just after Haymarket station, the train got to Edinburgh Waverley just after 3-30pm, around five minutes late. Not bad I guess for a three and a half hour journey it has to be said.

So I walked out of the station and climbed tons of stairs to hit Princes Street, got to the lights and turned right over North Bridge (it was a very long way down, no wonder you can't see over) then headed towards the main University campus and to the accommodation that was booked for me. I checked my stuff in and managed to take some time out to relax a bit and use the travel iron on some of my stuff before heading to the initial venue for the first couple of hours' worth of training session. It'd be here that I'd first meet the people who I'd work with for the next two days, and through little ice breaker sessions, finding out what you wanted to get out of the course and an introductory hour or so, that helped a lot, as did the evening meal afterwards at the Human Be-In, which if you're in Edinburgh I can heartily recommend. The Thai green chicken curry I had was utterly delicious.

So everyone got chatting and got to know each other, and to give you an idea of the mixed bag, we had four from the University of Westminster (Andreas, Georgie, Kevin and Junaid), three from the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff (Arwyn, Chris and Gareth), two from the University of Bradford (Elaine and Mandy), two from Trinity College Dublin (Niamh and Conor), one from the University of York (Dan), one from the University of Liverpool (Barbara), one from Northumbria University (Dianne), and of course me, making up the 15 in total. After the meal a few of us decided to head out and along part of the Royal Mile. For a Tuesday night it was pretty quiet but we did find a nice quiet pub where had a good sit down and chat before getting back to the accommodation and into bed by around 11pm.

Sunday 4th December - We Want Six!

Amazing how much football can cheer you up isn't it? It was a fairly busy week at work really, with me slowly getting back into the swing of things after having a week off last week, managing to get most of the jobs done that I needed to do, and even managed to diagnose a faulty hard disk using the hard disk manufacturer's own diagnostic CD, and even finished the last present from my Christmas shopping list today, so now I can sit back, relax, wait for the postie to deliver the last present and then wrap it, and watch as everyone else runs around in a panic.

Today though, despite the onset of a possible cold, was the perfect winter warmer for me. Manchester City were on the telly and to make it nice, a couple of relations came over to join me to cheer on the beloved blues. So you can imagine my delight as first we went 1-0 up, scored straight after they did to make it 2-1, scored a penalty rebound to make it 3-1, then after they pulled one back we scored two excellent goals to really show Charlton how it was done and ended up winning 5-2. Fantastic stuff, and with a few minutes left the City fans (and me of course) were chanting "we want six!". I was actually at the last game away from home that City did score six, so that was kind of poignantly nice for me as City went for it. Must admit I joined in the City fans on the telly chanting "Oh Andy Cole, you're not Man U anymore.." as he nonchalantly scored his seventh of the season and did the business. Fair play also to Joey Barton for a great performance, particularly more so as his brother was sent down to prison for the racist murder of Anthony Walker (which Joey had nothing to do with - in fact he went on telly telling his brother to hand himself in.) and it must have been a difficult time for him - and he responded to Pearce's faith in him. In fact, good old Psycho got everything right today - swapped the players around and really got the best out of them. He rocks!