Dear Diary... April 2004

Thursday 29th April - Dott to Dott

Well, the snooker's still on the telly, and the coverage has been superb to say the least. We're down to one table as it's the semis now, and one Glaswegian has excelled himself by reaching the finals, by the name of Graeme Dott. He used to have a bit of a reputation to be a bit of a grinder, who would take time to get the results. But he's also played some good stuff this tournament and after knocking out the number four seed, John Higgins, along the way, he's now in what promises to be an intriguing semi-final against Matthew Stevens. As the other semi is Ronnie O'Sullivan against Stephen Hendry, no prizes at all for guessing whom I might just be cheering on in that one. It could well be an all-Scottish final, but either way, the standard's been pretty good with over thirty century breaks, the highest being a 145 from Joe Perry - and unless anyone achieves the magic maximum, I can't really see anyone beating that to be quite honest.

Went Pizza Hut for the first time in a while the other night. The good news is that it still rocks in terms of what they do for starters: the potato skins are just as good as ever. And they've now added nachos to the starter selection too which has to be a bonus. As one of the few people (till you read this of course!) who know that you can ask for a pizza with barbecue sauce instead of tomato sauce, I asked for my usual deep pan Farmhouse with barbecue sauce, and it was utterly delicious. The barbecue sauce really gives it that bit of kick you need, and you really enjoy it more because of that. The big kid in me said have dessert, so it was off to that ice cream factory for me - not least as it's Mr. Whippy ice cream and all that. Rather heavenly. And I know, big kid and all that, but it's one of those things you can't resist I'm afraid.

Been busy at work too, it's the start of the term and that means one thing: deadlines. Lots of them. Cue lots of panicking students almost everywhere. I however have not had to see too many of them as I've been gradually moving administrative staff over to the GroupWise email system, and then showing them what to do. Maybe there's a future in me being an IT trainer with all this practice that I'm getting at the moment? Maybe. I might have to look into that one eventually, but see how it all goes first. But we also had a huge delivery of chairs (they had to be purchased to deal with Health and Safety requirements, you see) and place them all in the rooms we needed to put them in. It does look a lot more professional now, and they're even in the corporate colour of the workplace, which is something (that was also why there was a delay in getting them - can you believe that?)

Went to the Trafford Centre last night on a present shopping mission for someone's forthcoming birthday. As much as I dislike the place, it's the only centre locally open late during the week, so it was time to head there and find what I want. And I did, virtually almost after going in almost every shop I could think of to find the present that I wanted! Isn't that always the way? It did give me a good excuse to have a look around Music Zone though, and there was my little reward. For a few weeks I've been after Jethro Tull's "Songs From The Wood" CD. Since I heard the band Cold Flame rehearse a lot of Tull songs for their shows not so long ago, it's kind of rekindled my interest in the band that was first impressed upon me by my father. Indeed, I already had Aqualung and Heavy Horses, and Songs From The Wood is one that I've always sort of respected. Plus it has "The Whistler" which is really infectious to listen to (certainly as Cold Flame did it anyway) - and there was the CD in Music Zone - for £4-97. Result? Definitely. And yes, it's the remaster with two bonus tracks, before you ask. Not bad at all. I should mention the other main feature of Songs From The Wood - one of the few good Christmas songs ever to be released in "Ring Out Solstice Bells" - almost worth it for that alone.

Thursday 22nd April - Snooker Loopy

Snooker loopy nuts are we, we're all snooker loopy. Well, I am anyway. It's that time of year where BBC2 is continually on and the television is well and truly hogged as the World Championships get underway from the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. And the Beeb have excelled themselves this year: at any time pressing the red button brings you interactive snooker, and it rocks. It really does. It means that from the start of the day's play you can watch any of the two tables (for the opening rounds, it's divided in two so that the matches can be played) easily, with full uninterrupted coverage. And that means that you can watch it all live as well. It has been a brilliant innovation and one that I've certainly enjoyed thus far. As for the snooker itself? Well, it's the World Championships so often the first round games can be a little bit on the nervy side, which is fair enough. But one game I really enjoyed was last night - Steve Davis against Anthony Hamilton. Davis is still in the top 16 in the world some twenty three years after his first world title, and that tells you something about how good he is and how much of a legend he is in the game. Anyway, Steve was losing 5-2 and about to play a shot when a mobile phone rang. The referee (the very lovely Michaela Tabb - and a superb referee to boot as well) told the person to turn it off, then Steve said "Tell them you'll be home very late!" which had the crowd in stitches. Not least as some of the opening frames took their time due to some superb safety play from both players. Anyway, that seemed to inspire Steve a bit as he racked up 127 to win that frame (and missed out on the current leading break of the tournament right at the end) and then another 119 in the next one to pull it back to 5-4. Near the end, he said "you can come again!" to the person with the mobile, which was a great touch.

And judging by the fans' reaction to those two centuries, they appreciate the true sportsman that Steve is - excellent at his craft, but enjoys the game and plays it in the right spirit how it's meant to be played. The same can't be said for Quinten Hann, or indeed, Ronnie O' Sullivan. Ronnie went down a bit this week for me with some of his antics during the earlier rounds, and today with Andy Hicks (who almost had a punch up with Hann after he beat him) Ronnie seemed content to wind him up by conceding a frame by moving a red while he was playing - bang out of order. I think they both need to look at the players who people respect, like Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Mark Williams, Paul Hunter, Matthew Stevens etc, and even some of the young talent whom we've seen in round one, like Ryan Day, who know what it takes - indeed five seeded players have already exited. Some of the youngsters are really doing well and showing talent and composure which only has to be good for the future of the game. Ronnie should look at the cheers when the second of Steve Davis' centuries went in, and how the audience really enjoyed seeing the game being played the right way. I hope Steve can finish the job tonight and keep going - that would be good.

Rant over. In other stuff, I've been busy at work rolling out more PC changes so that the front USB ports can now be used for attaching those USB pen/key drives. I have a Cruzer Mini 256MB one myself, and they're really good. Perfect and portable all in one go, which is what you want really. And if your PC supports USB 2.0, well it's pretty quick off the mark as well, which has to be a bonus. I also managed to check that my XP patches that I rolled out had been done successfully, and they all had. Result! Big time. I can now adapt that in future and save myself lots of time and hassle, which has to be a good thing. In fact, one of our other teams used the instructions I gave them and rolled out the patches on their site - which is most excellent to do. At least it's done, anyway.

And there's finally a branch of the rather good Quality Save shop in the centre of Manchester. They've opened one up in Piccadilly Plaza, and they couldn't have found a better place to put it, right opposite all the buses. They tend to do toiletries, food, water and so on, and are pretty cheap to say the least. For example, that decent Thirst Pockets kitchen roll - three rolls for 99p, excellent. That's not all: they also do Highland Spring 1.5 litre bottles of still water for 19p (and Highland Spring is a pretty good make) - and if that isn't enough for you, a 1 litre bottle of Perrier with lemon for a mere 29p! Now I happen to love that stuff and so for me that was a bargain - must try and get some more bottles of it later in the week for that ridiculously cheap amount of cash. They also do household stuff, and things like toilet roll and bin bags are cheap, and good makes too - I got a 12 pack of Dixcel kitten soft for £2-49. Beat that! This is one great thing about living up North you know - lots of places to get good stuff for not much dosh. And when you're paying a mortgage, every penny counts..

Thursday 15th April - Spot the Easter bunny

Well, Easter weekend came and went, but I had a really nice time, because my cousin Alison and her husband John came up. Great to see them and the first time I've seen them since they were married last year (it's almost a year already? sheesh!) It was great to just relax and do stuff, we crashed out Friday with Finding Nemo, as they hadn't seen it - not that I ever need an excuse to watch the film again of course. On Saturday we headed into town and it was the first time that I'd ventured into the Manchester branch of Fopp (I've spent many an hour in their Sheffield and Nottingham branches) since it opened around a week ago. And it's pretty good: lots of cheap CDs and DVDs and the new releases are priced not too badly, the selection's good and there's even a coffee bar in the downstairs part, which is nice. The sign didn't mention decaf, which miffed me a bit (in fact it's a problem with a lot of coffee places, they haven't heard of that word obviously). I emailed the store after the weekend and got a nice reply saying that they do actually do decaf. Good of them to reply, actually. Excellent!

I tried to resist the lure of all that entertainment staring at me, but plumped for Divine Comedy's "Fin du Secile" CD for a mere three quid. Couldn't grumble, and neither could my relations as they bought a few CDs between them. After walking round town and heading in a good few shops it was time to hit lunch at Buffet City - not been there for ages and thought it'd be a nice relaxing meal. And so it proved. They were both impressed and for £5-50 for all you can eat, that's just unbeatable. Clearly the prices down South have something to learn - you can do quality food on a budget, and we all enthused about the Thai chicken in this temarin sauce, absolutely gorgeous. If you ever see it in there, fill your plate with it - it's that good. I even resisted the Thai garlic mushrooms to have it, that's how much I liked it, so that says something I suppose.

Went into the centre of Manchester on the Saturday night, and coming out of the Waterhouse, the most bizarre sight you'll see. A man walking his pet bunny rabbit. No, seriously. Big floppy ears and everything! There was this rabbit, hopping around the Central Library without a care in the world. Had I not had witnesses, no one would have believed me and that yellow van would be pulling up at my house. That sight gone, and it was into Ra!n Bar as the Brooklyn Best in there is a damned good pint, and so it proved. Quality ale and really brewed well, and of course proper hand pumped too - none of this press a button bobbins for me of course. And guess who I saw in there? The actor who plays Peter Barlow for Coronation Street! There he was, just mooching at the bar with a friend. I'm not a Corrie nut, but I recognise most of the cast, and indeed a lot of them usually drink around the Deansgate Locks area (so I'm told anyway) so if you really want to do a bit of celeb-spotting, you never know.

As for this week, work's been busy and quiet at the same time. There's no one around in terms of students, but I still have had lots to do - not least today rolling out a couple of critical Windows XP patches (definitely do a Windows Update, folks) that theoretically could see another attack on the Blaster scale if not patched. Thankfully I'm used to doing these rollouts, so had the Zenworks application object done in pretty quick time, and got clever. See, with there being two patches if you do them as separate application objects, both try to run at the same time and only the last one gets applied. So what do you do? Easy. Simply do a batch file that calls all the patches (so they run in turn) and then just call the batch file as your application object. And it works too. Must remember that for next time, actually.

And I even had the time to fix a PC for someone, and judging by the smell coming from the case, it was at least a dead PSU, so got a new case with PSU in it, tried it, still no joy. I could smell a funny smell from the motherboard first time round though, and it sounded like the CPU had fried along with the mobo when the PSU went - and not surprising. The case was poorly designed so that the PSU was virtually sat on top of the CPU heatsink and fan. Anyone heard of the word airflow with those case designers I wonder?. Not good. One motherboard later (a really nice Elite L7VMM Pro integrated one - it's only used for office work you see) and all was done in about an hour, Win98 kicked in fine and all the drivers installed without any problems. And that's what you want. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Isn't it nice when things just work?

Thursday 8th April - A la claire fontaine

Well, I'm back, after my little mini Easter sojourn. And where did I go? Paris! It's one of those places that I've always wanted to go really, and after my brother had been there last year with his girlfriend, I thought it about time that I venture abroad for the first time in absolutely ages. I'd booked the flight and the accomodation, so all I had to do was turn up at Manchester Airport Terminal 1 and check in, and off I'd go. Did that okay on the Sunday, and at around 3-30pm Paris time, I touched foreign terra firma for the first time in some eleven years, the previous time being a holiday in Tenerife with my then girlfriend. Anyway, the first thing that hit me is how awful Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle airport is. It's really bad. The whole terminal is in this rotunda-like building and when you depart or arrive, you're at one of seven little satellites that connect with the rotunda. Thankfully though once I'd collected my luggage, it was to head on to the shuttle bus to the airport's RER station to head off into central Paris. That journey was at least fine, and I managed to sort out the travel tickets by bus at the same time as getting the train ticket.

Checked in to the hotel, then straight off on the 82 bus that took me straight to the Eiffel Tower. After waiting almost an hour in the queue for a ticket and to get to the first lift, it was then a half hour queue or so from the second floor up to the top of the tower. And believe me, it was darned windy up there. I did feel like Peter Kay though, look, I'm live! At the top of the tower and everything! It was worth it, definitely, if not just for the view that you get of the whole of Paris and its suburbs to boot. The day was pretty cloudy so maybe I couldn't see as much as I'd like, but nonetheless when I got to the bottom, it was then lit up and it looked really nice that way. I can understand just why it's so popular though, in reality it's a massive feat of engineering that was really good. And besides, I'd done it now so at least I could say I've been there.

Monday was a master plan, to see a few museums et al and see the more cultural and historical side of things. Top tip: get yourself a pass to see the museums and monuments. I got the one day pass for 18 euros (there's three day and five day versions too), and basically rather than queue up for a ticket at each place, you just ignore that queue and go virtually straight in to each one. Get it from any metro or RER station. I got one before I headed off on the 21 to my first port of call: the Louvre. And what a massive place this is. From underneath the pyramid you can go off in one of three main directions, and I first headed for Sully. This contained the history of the Louvre, and deep underground you could see all the foundations that had been lovingly restored, with also a part about Napoleon and some nice Egyptian and Greek exhibits. Then it was through the second, Denon, and this had the Mona Lisa (and a queue for photographs, obviously) and a lot of really nice historical artworks. The third part, Richelieu, had a lot of more contemporary parts, not least the palatial look of when Napoleon was there, all the sumptuous rooms really took you back in time to a time when it was luxury all the way. Very lovingly kept as well, and worth a visit definitely. As it was I'd blitzed the whole thing in around three hours, and so off I walked straight westward, down through the place de la Concorde, and up the famous Champs Elysees towrds the Arc de Triomphe. Only one small problem: it was closed. Whaaat? Turns out that the Queen was there doing her duties as part of the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale, an agreement between the UK and France. So plan B: head off towards la Defense, and at the next roundabout, on the 82 back towards base and off to the Pantheon. Now that place did inspire, as many famous French historical figures are buried here, not least Marie Curie, Louis Braille and Alexander Dumas. It may sound a bit morbid, but understanding the importance of the place (not least with the rolling footage showing you the state funerals of some of the historical figures) made you realise it wasn't built to look very much like St Paul's Cathedral.

That done, on the 84 bus and off to the Musee d'Orsay. But it's closed on a Monday. Damn! No problem, I went back to the Arc de Triomphe on the 73 bus, and it was now re-opened. I saw the very bunch of flowers the Queen had laid earlier (cordoned off) and then up the two hundred and odd stairs to the top. About two thirds of the way up there's a nice display of some of the history of the freedom of France, and that was good to take in. Then, via Gare d'Est so I could take in a scenic view on the bus of the suburbs a bit, on the 31 then the 47 to the Pompidou Centre. Lots of modern art here, but the stuff that really interested me in the modern art stakes was the many works of Picasso, Matisse and Warhol they had. Oh yes, and the Jackson Pollock painting that very much inspired the Stone Roses' single covers. I spent a fair bit of time here taking all the art in, at least most of this modern art was actually good art, unlike a lot of rubbish and pathetic art that you see these days at the Turner Prize and stuff like that. By this time it was getting late(ish) so on the 38 back to the hotel, and out for a relatively late evening meal. I had taken in four museums and monuments covered by the card (note that the Eiffel Tower isn't one of them though!) and that would have cost much more than the card's total, so that definitely made it worthwhile.

On the Tuesday, I took things a little easier and headed first on the 85 to Marie XVIIIe, on the other side of Montmartre, from there an uphill walk up the back of Montmartre, and at the top a lot of hustle and bustle, not least at the Place de le Tertre, where everyone wanted to an artist's impression of your picture. Just to the left was the Sacre Coeur, and as much of a momument as it is, it's also still a normal working church. At the time, there was a service going on so I made my way silently around. Despite the notices that no photography inside was allowed, I still noticed some people being completely disrespectful and using their flash to boot. Not least that was probably disturbing the service as well, and even if like me you don't have time for religion, you accept that others do and you leave them to get on with their lives. Not this tourist, I felt like having a polite word with her outside and telling her how pathetic she was. And she was American. Anyway, I walked down through the little streets of Montmatre going down and it's really nice to see the little shops and cafes tucked away. Had a nice lunch at one of them too, definitely worth looking around there to find a nice eaterie for sure. That done, down to Pigalle where the Moulin Rouge is. Moved away quickly back on the 85 though, not least due to the massive amount of people walking towards the adult shows and going in, and even though I'm no prude, you did feel a little uncomfortable.

Time for a boat cruise, and crossing the Pont Neuf (which is undergoing stone cleaning work at the moment) I saw the Batobus stop that I also saw at Musee d'Orsay the day before. So on to that, and cruised round the Seine in a nice one and a half hour trip, nice and relaxed, chilled out and all that. Wonderful stuff. Headed off at the Notre Dame Cathedral to go round there, and that was pretty nice, although it was being done up. Again, there was a service on, and again, ignorant people taking pictures of the actual service. Really annoying actually. The queue for the top was way too long so I headed down the Rue Rivoli and into some of the shops, not least La Samaritaine, a rather nice but darned expensive department store. Imagine my shock then when I spotted C&A! Yep. They closed down in England a few years back, but over in France it seems they're popular, and it was chock full of people too. Got to Chatelet and so back on the 38 to the hotel, and headed later into the Latin Quarter, more at the St Michel end this time, to munch a really nice three course meal (gorgeous Steak au Poivre as well) and then back to the hotel. Couldn't believe how quick the time was going.

Checked out of the hotel Wednesday morning, but I could lock the luggage away. That done, it was off to Montparnasse to head around the shops, and there was one of the Galleries Lafayette department stores, pretty nice albeit expensive, along with various other places (and another C&A!). Also, I was going to head up the Montparnasse Tower but it was very windy, so didn't fancy that much really. I'd already been to the top of a few places anyway, so wasn't too bothered. Headed to Luxembourg Gardens and had a nice walk around there, including having lunch sat in the gardens, and then off to Charles de Gaulle to get the flight home. I felt really sad leaving, but there you go. I suppose normality hit me when I landed at Manchester, but nonetheless I had a great time and would recommend it to anyone. So go!

Sunday 4th April - National Treasure

Well, I had my usual bet on the Grand National yesterday, and guess what? I didn't win! At least I didn't back a horse that fell at the first this year. Instead up till around the Canal Turn second time around, I genuinely thought I had a chance with Bear on Board, he was moving up nicely alongside Monty's Pass and looked like possibly riding into contention. But the horse to watch was what a friend of mine put on, Amberleigh House. He kept coming from the back and as they turned the last corner for the last two jumps and the dreaded run in, he kept catching them. The fall of Hedgehunter at the last gave the horse renewed hope, and as you saw Clan Royal veering off the wrong way, you could see that there was the chance, up he came to the Elbow and from there you could see Amberleigh House battling on and got him within the last 100 yards to get a famous win.

Not least of course, as the winner was trained by Ginger McCain, a name synonymous with the Grand National legend that is of course Red Rum. McCain himself thought Amberleigh House was the best chance he had of winning since Rummie, and a third place last year, and a second in the Becher Chase in November (also run over the National Fences) should have been a good guide that he can take these fences. And so it proved. It was probably a blessing in disguise though, as at Becher's Brook the first time round, there were nine fallers in all, mostly due to a loose horse veering across the fence for some of the front runners, which wasn't good. The best news of all though was that all the horses were safe and sound, and the rain in the morning softened up the ground enough for the horses, I feel. Hedgehunter thankfully had just winded himself when he fell at the last, and a bit of loving care soon had him on his feet again.

A great race fitting for a great event that the National is. When you see a horse majestically clearing Becher's Brook or the Chair, and really giving a jockey a good ride, you can see how free the horse is as they ride around some of the toughest fences in racing. And not just that either - the National itself is in good shape. Thirty nine runners (would have been the usual forty but for a late withdrawal) and eleven finished, which is about right. Some of the jockeys had sense to pull up the horse when they knew the horse was tired or had no chance, and this included some of the favourites. The bookies were probably pleased that Amberleigh House won though, as Clan Royal was the joint favourite and that'd have been a heavy payout. Still, I wish I was collecting the sixteen pounds plus stake for the win though!

Anyway, I've got to go. I have an airport to be at and a plane to catch! I'll reveal all soon.

Thursday 1st April - Not an April Fool

The new month has started, I'm off work, and ready to relax after the long slog at work and I've managed to achieve a few successes along the way. Not least managing to find out a way to ensure that some system wide changes can be implemented quickly and easily via a single Novell Zenworks application object. It works well, and I've written a guide how to effect the application object properly, and that took some doing, not least as I like to have a lot of screenshots which show the users what to do. In total then, it was twenty pages but believe it or not, only a 300K word document despite over thirty screenshots! Hey, you're all thinking, how did I manage that then? Well it's really easy and this isn't an April Fool either. Simply do this little lot:

* Get to the window you'd like a screenshot of, and press ALT+Print Screen if it's a window, or Print Screen if it's the full screen.
* Start up Microsoft Photo Editor (it's included in Microsoft Office installs) and then do Edit, then Paste as New Image.
* Now go to File, then Properties. Change the image type to 256 colours (8-bit).
* Do File, then Save as, and select the file type gif, and give it a name.
* Badabing! Screenshot saved as an image that doesn't take up memory.
* If you want to insert it into a Word Document, in Word, do Insert, Picture, From File and browse to where you saved the image.

Easy when you know how. And the screenshots stay pretty much intact because we changed the file properties first. Otherwise it turns ugly, believe me. It did mean though that everything worked out well, and when I tested the object out, it worked, first go. I rock! :)

Anyway, Internet access at home came back on yesterday morning, thankfully. So, I'm done. I'm going to Jersey for the summer holiday, and I can't wait. The more I look at the brochure, the more I want to go. And that's not taking into account that I'm in Paris soon as well, which I really can't wait for. I suppose you all come to a point in your life when you think "about time I started exploring a bit more" and for me, now I don't have to think about saving for a house deposit anymore (good job too, considering how much they are round here these days!) I can at least spend some of what I would have been otherwise saving up ona break and not be too badly off either, which is nice. Very nice indeed. So the flights to Jersey are done, as is the accommodation as well, so now I can just wait until the time comes around. Wonderful.

Watched the first day of the National meeting this afternoon, and it threw up a lovely story in the Foxhunters Chase (which is the Amateurs' Grand National) - the winning jockey had only had her baby ten weeks earlier, and there she was doing a splendid job and despite her horse almost falling at the second, she got it together and the two of them rode around superbly after that and deserved to win. You could hear the crowd all cheering her on down the home straight and the infamous run-in, past the Elbow, and pass the finishing line with plenty left in the tank. And all the horses in the race, despite a fair few falls, got back nice and safe, and that's also good to know. It was intriguing seeing the professional riders taking a break watching the amateurs having a go at the big fences and, to be honest, doing a mighty fine job. Everyone got over The Chair, and it was only really Becher's Brook that took out a few, like it tends to do every year.

Was a bit gutted last night though. England played Sweden in a friendly, and for the first time ever, Man City's Shaun Wright-Phillips was called up into the squad. Most of the subs got a game, but he didn't, and it must have been mighty frustrating for him. In a game that the Swedes took control of in the second half, we needed some trickery on the wing and not the useless Joe Cole (whose move to Chelsea has proved his downfall, I have to say) and I'm sure that most other fans apart from City fans would have loved to see Shaun on the field, taking the Swedes on, and really going at them putting the fear into their minds. But alas, Sven showed his usual contempt for friendlies by not finishing with the side that they started. No wonder some of the players looked disinterested. Despite the fact he's signed a new contract, is all this tinkering in friendlies absolutely necessary? Does it really help? I don't think so. And I am doubting whether he's the man to really take us to glory in Euro 2004. I'd love to be proved wrong.