Dear Diary... December 2003

Tuesday 30th December - The end of the year already

It's already almost the end of 2003, and the year has already gone by me. What happened? A lot. What didn't happen? A lot too. But I know what definitely made the year complete - being promoted and just being more happy in my life generally. Quite simple I know, but at the end of the day sometimes you just have to appreciate those things without going too deeply into just why things are as they are. After maybe indulging myself on watching the Matrix Reloaded DVD this afternoon maybe I can't be bothered thinking any complex thoughts?

Anyway, Christmas was very nice, thank you. Not least because it was a really nice relaxing time on the whole, got to see all the family on Christmas Day and hand them their presents and have far too much Christmas dinner. And on Boxing Day over to my relations' for a bit of a do, and for the second year running, a quiz hosted by yours truly. I do all the questions, and the answers, and then do all the answer sheets at the ready. It's usually good fun, and this time I pitted all the males in the family against all the females to see who would come out on top. Amazingly, it was a dead heat with both teams scoring 74 out of 100, and indeed the females getting all 20 points in the final round, based on children's television. Come to think of it, 74 is a pretty high mark, might have to make it a little harder next year in terms of difficulty. Either that or every member of the family plays on their own to see who is top dog, now that might be very interesting.

As for presents, my friends and family picked well, I received a stack of DVDs, a few CDs, a book, some clothes, and possibly nicest of all, a little display case with six of the Muppet toys you got at McDonalds earlier in the year. So I now have Gonzo, Fozzie, Kermit, Rowlf, Animal and Miss Piggy all in it, which is great. Apparently one of my relatives had to do a bit of eBaying to get the Miss Piggy one, but glad they did, it just completes the collection nicely and makes it just a nice individual present with some thought into it, which is good. Must admit though my friends did ever so well in their selections too so I was well chuffed, not least with the Frank Sidebottom best of CD, A,B,C&D. All of his classics are on there, and even some new ones, like Anarchy in Timperley, for example. Shame though that due to the time restrictions of a CD the likes of "Guess Who's Been on Match of the Day?" and "Mexico '90" were cut short compared to their original 7" vinyl incarnations (which I have somewhere) but no matter, the spirit of the papier-mache headed one is still there. You know it is, it really is! Thank you.

Even managed to get a bargain in the sales this year - although I must add, not for me. I noticed the folks at Richer Sounds were having a sale on, and my dad had been talking to me about getting a replacement DVD player for his Rowa one in the front room (which when he got it was £49 at Asda when everyone else was selling budget players for £150) - anyway, we'd noticed there were some nice models: the Pioneer DV350 and the Toshiba SD220E for around £50, in an open box sale. (Let the review links speak for themselves.) Usually these mean they've been ex-display, but in fully working order and possibly missing the instructions or the remote depending on how it's graded. So on Boxing Day morning, the two of us went up to the Stockport branch, got there at 11:30am and there was already a queue forming. We weren't too far from the front, although we did notice a stack of Philips DVD recorders by the front door that were going for just £200 Region 2 or £220 multiregion. They would be soon gone when the doors opened, I should tell you.

Anyway, the staff were all in by 11-50am, and so it was time to enter. We queued up to the tills and on the left of the shop as we entered, I saw a stack of DVD players wrapped up in their plastic wrapping, without their boxes. Also there was the main list of what they had in the sale, and what was in this branch from that list. My heart pounded as I saw there was both the Pioneer and the Toshiba in. I saw a Toshiba SD220E at the top of the stack and I said to my dad "I'll grab this just in case we don't get the Pioneer one, then you can have it." A quick check revealed all was well, instructions, remote and unit in great condition! The plan was also to get a cheap DVD player for my sister for her birthday, but most of the good budget models weren't available in Stockport (other branches probably had them) and the other budget ones seemed to be by naff makes to me. I already was putting some of the money towards my dad's as his birthday present, and I thought "do the same for my sister if I have to". Got to the counter, and I asked "Do you have any Pioneer DV350s left in the sale?" and one assistant said "Not sure if we've got any." The bloke next to him said "I think we've got one downstairs actually". He went down and located it, in its original box and with the instructions and remote. Apparently it was the only one they had there and we managed to snag it. So I gave my dad the money towards each of them and one card swipe later, all was done. Two top notch multiregion DVD players (only downside: in silver) for under £100. The Toshiba SD220E was a benchmark at its original price of £180 for ages, and the Pioneer's a nifty slimline bit of kit.

Excitedly, we unpacked them at my place and rigged them up to my JVC widescreen television. Put in Enter The Dragon Region 2, no problems. The sound and picture was spot on on both. Then the test - try a Region 1 disc. And so on went Finding Nemo, without any problems whatsoever. Marvellous. So they both did the job well, and when we returned to my parents' place later in the day, we both gave the Pioneer a stern roadtest, and it passed everything we threw at it, from VCDs, DVD-R recordings, MP3 discs, and some more Region 1 titles my brother had. Most excellent. My sister's new Toshiba now looks the part along with her silver television in her bedroom, so she was happy enough and spent the day after watching the Care Bears movie, apparently. Well, she liked it as a child, and someone even found her favourite bear - Tenderheart Bear. And people say I'm the big kid in the family?

May I wish you all the best for 2004, dear reader.

Tuesday 23rd December - Eat, eat and be very merry

Well it's almost Christmas, and as usual I've probably eaten far too much - already. Went out for a nice meal with my friends on Sunday, and the mushroom ravioli I had was one of the best dishes I'd had in ages, really lovely and tons of mushrooms as well. Not to mention the tiramisu for dessert either which was simply divine. Having done three courses there, I'd followed that up yesterday with another visit to Buffet City (because it rocks) with my colleagues from work which was any excuse to get my way through lots of crispy won tun, vegetable spring rolls, crabstick, chicken with mushroom, Yeung Chow fried rice, and so on and so on. Okay so they hiked the prices up a pound in the run up to Christmas to make a little extra (but so do everyone else virtually) but even so for £6-50 during lunch times it's pretty hard to beat value-wise. Only snag is that I definitely felt I've eaten too much already, and having bought a big jar of Quality Street for the Christmas period (well you have to have stuff for when family and friends come over) I don't really want to open it or else I know I'll be nibbling at chocolate all over Christmas. Note how I didn't buy any Roses or Minature Heroes this year as I felt like a change, and I love the toffee pennies in Quality Street..

I already have a few presents but to be honest I'm being good and not opening them till Christmas Day, or else that just spoils the whole moment for me. I think I can work out there's a few DVDs and CDs in there judging by the packaging, but I made my list that big this year that literally I have no idea what they could be. Probably a good thing too so there's a fair bit of variety to be had when I open them on the day. It feels nice when I can have them all opened and I'm like a big kid all over again shaking the boxes and so on wondering what they can be. And of course I can watch as everyone else panics over the Christmas shopping - like a few of my work colleagues have done! Apparently the centre of Manchester has been choc full of people. Rather them than me!

Even City got into the spirit and gifted Leeds a goal last night. Thank heavens for the equaliser from Sibierski late on that at least meant we didn't lose our last game before Christmas. However why the hell Keegan persists with McManaman is beyond me - he's crap! Utter crap. Almost the worst player to have played for City in the last 10 years (and we've had some dross in that time) and just doesn't seem to care as much as some of the players do. I just wonder if The Goat was still here how many goals we'd have scored lately, at least he knew the true meaning of never say die. Others should be like Joey Barton, Claudio Reyna and Shaun Wright-Philips, battling for the cause and really giving their all as much as they can. Except there seems to be this conception of certain players being guaranteed a place in the first team, and that sucks bad. Bah!

Ah well, may I wish you all a Merry Christmas and may you receive the one true gift at this time of year - and that's happiness.

Thursday 18th December - I got active

Well, I was so happy yesterday as my subwoofer arrived. I was crafty enough to actually get a lead that I needed to hook up the subwoofer to my amp, and so when it came, I was ready to rock. I plugged it all in, and set everything as I needed. And it was go. And how! I watched The Matrix with it, and the soundtrack was just immense, as it was in xXx. I also picked a few rock and dance albums which had good low frequencies, ideal for testing. And they worked well, too, with everything being well defined, not boomy, but certainly when some of the explosions kicked in it just rocked. I'm so happy now as I made an informed decision based on my own research and it paid off. Must admit it also looks very nice working with my Mission M73 fronts and M7C centre speaker as well, so all systems are go. Oh yeah!

Thankfully I've just found out that the local bus company have called off their planned strike for this weekend! Phew. I think common sense might have prevailed in the end, because if they had have gone on strike for three days starting Saturday, a lot of people would have been extremely upset with them and also on Tuesday they'd have been given grief big time and made to suffer for their actions by a very angry public for the "Bah! humbug" actions. Not just that either. Basically the union doesn't agree with the pay rise or how it's structured, despite it being something like 7% over two years. Considering where I work we've accepted a two year deal totalling 6.4%, it's actually a pretty good deal. I don't know the full facts of course, but after the vote went for strike action, the bosses said "we can go to ACAS (arbitration service often used in disputes) to try and sort it out if you like" and apparently the unions said no, which was a bit of a smack in the teeth. But an emergency meeting this afternoon at least has postponed the action, although there might be strikes in the new year. We shall see. However, the drivers should also realise the economic circle with public services like they provide: namely that an increase in wages equals an increase in fares, equals possibly less passengers, equals possibly less services, equals less jobs. Simple, but true in this day and age.

Tuesday 16th December - Let's get active!

I can't wait till tomorrow, when my Mission MS8AS active subwoofer (in black, of course) arrives to the towers. I have the day off to receive it, set it up and then give it some thorough testing with films, music et al. Although I'd much rather use it with a Dolby Digital amp, as I mentioned my Kenwood KRV7070 Pro Logic one has the sub out, so it can be used now and then when I go for the next upgrade, everything's in place, which will be nice. I know full well a good test suite of CDs too, anything from bass intensive tracks to those that rock out, and things in between. And for DVDs, can't get much better than the orignal Matrix for intensity can you? It'll be interesting to see what can be done.

Anyway, I had to face the Monday morning at work getting stick from the Manchester United fans as they celebrated their derby win over City. It's one of the hardest things to do as a football fan - take stick. It's easy to give it (like I did last season, hehe!) but at the same time you do have to be able to take it back too, and to be fair, I know that although we could have snatched a 2-2 draw, we could have been hammered 4-1 or even 5-1. And that would have sucked. Big time. So I guess I should thank my lucky stars.

Been clearing out some old PCs, mainly stripping out some old ones to see if there's any useful parts. As well as some memory sticks of PC100 RAM (handy) I even discovered not just a Soundblaster AWE64 (a classic card in its heyday even if it was ISA-based) but an original ISA Soundblaster 16! Wow. That took me back to the days when I got the PC and it had a Soundblaster compatible card in the days when if you were going to be anyone, you needed to be compatible with Soundblaster as the standard so that all the old DOS games would run fine, and essential if like me you're a pinball freak and wish to run the likes of Pinball Fantasies and Pinball Illusions with sound, for sure. One day pinball will make its comeback and everyone will see what a great game it is, here's hoping.

With Christmas coming time to check the film schedules, and what do I see? Muppets from Space on Christmas Day! Excellent choice, Channel 4. Unfortunately Christmas Eve has Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace on ITV. Don't watch it, whatever you do. There should only have ever been three episodes of Star Wars: namely Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I don't subscribe to that episode four five and six bollocks that George Lucas tried to fob off people with, and he still won't release the classics on DVD. And even if he does, he's going to alter them. What the beep is going on?? Hopefully that plus the appalling character that is Jar Jar Binks will make you turn the TV over on Christmas Eve. BBC1 has Chicken Run, classic Aardman animation. If you haven't seen it already, watch it. It's great fun, and Jane Horrocks is superb doing the voice of Babs. "My whole life flashed before me!" [pause] "It were very boring!". Class.

Sunday 14th December - Derby day blues

As you can imagine, I was most upset at yesterday's capitulation by City in the Manchester derby. Truth is that we weren't good enough, we could have been three or four down by half time, and we need eleven players with the same sort of spirit and determination that Shaun Wright-Phillips had. His goal was really good as he took on four players and then slotted a left foot shot into the bottom corner. He ran to the City fans, held his badge and apparently was said to have yelled "f--- off" to the Man U fans. Now that's the sort of spirit that I want to see in all our players, especially those that just think they have to turn up to play at the moment (yes Nicolas Anelka, that means you) and go through the motions. If we're not careful we could well be looking at a relegation dogfight which I'd much rather not consider to be quite honest. Leeds at home on Monday 22nd now becomes a crucial game to say the least. Just hope that we can get some of the pride and passion back for then or else.

It's been a quiet week in terms of stuff happening, but in the run down to Christmas you always get that a little as everyone is just winding down towards when they finish. Well, sort of. I'm in till the 24th but at least on that day we all finish at 12 noon so it's not too bad. The crazy thing is though that if you want that day off, you have to book it as a whole day off, which seems stupid! Needless to say you now have a situation where everyone is in on Christmas Eve and basically we all know no work will get done to be honest. Not that we mind, it's a good time to swap presents with the office I work in and that at least makes it close to Christmas. I now never open any presents till Christmas Day so I suppose at least it's not too long to wait.

Sports Personality of the Year award later tonight, and it'll be interesting to see who wins (although I have a fair idea whom). No, not this year's award, that to me is pretty cut and dried, but who the public voted the best of all the winners of the last fifty years. There's so many excellent sports men and women whom have graced the BBC annual award since 1954 (yes, that long ago!) and it really does read like a who's who of British sport. Amazingly only three people have won the award twice (Damon Hill, Nigel Mansell and Sir Henry Cooper) which also goes to show you how hard it is to actually either win or be in the top three. Plenty of excellence amongst the winners too, with world record holders at their time, world champions and all that. Usually those that win those sort of titles get the awards simply because they were untouchable at the time. For example, Sir Steve Redgrave's fifth gold medal in his fifth consecutive Olympic Games? That's pretty tough to beat in 2000, after all that makes him one of the all-time Olympic greats, never mind of this country. So that award will interest me greatly. If you want to pop over to the results later, click here...

Tuesday 9th December - All you need is cheese, actually

Had a busy weekend, not least on the Sunday as off I went over to Goodison Park to see City take on Everton. Thankfully I managed to get on a train from Piccadilly although as it was a local stopping service, it was choc full by the time we hit St Helens, and I couldn't believe the driver was still trying to cram on more passengers when it got to Huyton. It was a little delayed due to the massive amounts of people (who were doing Christmas shopping so late of course) and at Lime Street station they have a policy of checking all tickets at the barrier before you exit the platforms. Cue obvious queue as you're waiting for ages to get out. Not good.

However, soon made my way to the ground and got me seat, and it was quite bitterly cold. Thank heavens I'd worn the gloves! The game itself was pretty exciting too - yes it did end 0-0, but with the amount of chances both teams had it could well have been 3-3 without any problems. We did okay, and Richard Dunne at the back was outstanding, nothing was getting past him that day and he really did the business. Joey Barton grafted hard in midfield and had Everton's battling midfielder, Thomas Gravesen in his pocket. Apparently Gravesen's not been having a very good season and the Everton fans certainly have been more critical of him from what I could hear anyway. It doesn't surprise me to be honest, he kept giving the ball away when he tried to pass it. I think had Everton started with Kevin Campbell up front, we might well have lost as his aerial presence gave us a few minor hassles. At least we got a point and kept a clean sheet, so that's not a bad thing to take into one of the games of the season on Saturday as we head across town to the Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy that is Old Trafford to take on "them". Enough said. I don't hold out much hope and I think we could actually get panned, but if we show the same desire as last time we were there (only this time no Goat to do the business!) we might get something. We shall see.

After I got back, I went over to the cinema to see Love, Actually. I'd been meaning to see it for the last couple of weeks and it did seem to me to be quite funny. And was it? Well, to an extent it was, but in parts it was also extremely cheesy to say the least, left you feeling a little sickly with all that lurve going on. Having said all that there's some good characters in it, such as Harry (played by the superb as ever Alan Rickman) a boss of a publishing firm who's really bored with it all, and his secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch) who gives him a fair bit of attention, not to mention Martin Freeman from the TV series "The Office" turning up as a porn star double (not spoiling it, go see it) and really being quite hilarious. But the two that stand out for me are Liam Neeson, who plays Daniel, who's wife has lost her life, and his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) - those two become closer as the film goes on and Daniel helps Sam to try and get his girl of choice who's at his school. They're both very funny together and also there's that touch of humanity which is a rarity but so nice to see. So much so I can almost forgive Liam Neeson for Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Almost.

However, on the flip side, I wish the folks at Working Title would stop casting Hugh Grant in almost all their films, and every time they do it's always some bumbling English bloke. I am sure that he could do better in other roles, but he just seems to be typecast, most likely a bad thing to be honest. He doesn't do very well in this film and the role seems a bit contrived and puts you off the more important characters, such as the excellent Bill Nighy as ageing rocker Billy Mack. Not going to spoil it for you, but the scene where he is with Ant and Dec (who play themselves! ;) is a classic and had everyone in AMC giggling with laughter anyway, it's, well, find out for yourself! Told you I wasn't going to spoil it. Oh, and who the hell cast Laura Linney in this film? I mean she was okay in The Life of David Gale, but awful in Mystic River (about the only bad performance in that: Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon were awesome) and not very good here either. A bad choice. Someone like Joan Cusack might have done a fair bit better to be honest.

Anyway, still two down at work due to the flu bug going around now. Just hope I don't get it this close to Christmas, that would suck. Bad!

Saturday 6th December - Football's coming (to the) Home (Nations)

Well what a week that was. Work was thoroughly intense, not least as we were two staff down so I had to do a lot of the on the road work, so to speak, on my own, not helped by the fact the student server went down twice in three days which didn't help things. Still, if there was one thing I learned from it is that you have always to have some form of contingency plan available if everything doesn't go as expected. On the whole though, pretty pleased. Around one seventh of the academic staff are now on our Windows XP build (and that's after one week and a bit) and so hopefully with a bit of progress we can get more on by Christmas and do things nicely. The reaction from the staff so far has been pleasing, and most of them don't seem to think it's changed too much (probably a good thing, as some people fear change more than they should) but not only that, having all the newest versions of Office etc makes them more in line with what the students now have. It's all go, I can tell you.

I guess it's probably a good thing that there'll soon be a nice wind down for Christmas as well, with us finishing on Christmas Eve. Although often it feels strange and surreal to be working on that day, at the same time it's what I've been used to over the last seven or eight years, so what you've never had you don't miss. It was tempting to finish on December 19th and have all the way to January 5th off, but as that's when we're coming back into work anyway, no point in taking those couple and a half days just for the sake of it - best use them later on in the holiday year (it doesn't run January to December, you see) when I need them. Thankfully I've never had to work Christmas Day, although some members of my family have had to due to the line of work that they're in. Mind you, a lot of places pay quadruple time for New Year's Eve night, so that is probably a good incentive for some people, especially if it's a bar and they have a lock-in!

Every single advert on the television is almost either for toys or for Christmas offers at big stores, and this is where the ugly and disgusting commercial side of Christmas really kicks in, the side I dislike. The side that says to parents what their kids want over and over again, the side that is purely there for profit, the side of which makes me feel a little bah humbug to be honest. It shouldn't be based on how much something costs, it's the thought that counts. I'm quite sure that if I could only afford gifts from a local pound shop, provided I chose with care, most people would appreciate it's the thought that counts. And as long as there's always that out there, then to hell with the commercialism I say. Not least if you've had the misfortune to be in the Trafford Centre lately, bah!

I was amazed tonight to discover that in the ten nominations for the Record of the Year thingy on ITV1, there was actually a proper band with proper instruments nominated! Full credit to Evanesence's excellent "Bring Me To Life" for breaking the mould that usually is a stale turd of those nominations and actually at least making people wake up and realise that there is good rock music out there that people want to listen to. Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is The Love" also deserves credit too as a very intelligent rap record that shows much more maturity than you'd think, and if I had to pick one, any of those two would do. But definitely not trash like Rachel Stevens and (yet again!) Westlife. Shouldn't they ban non-original songs in this record of the year? It'd be a lot better if they did as it's then rewarding proper talent.

However, the most dramatic event of the week was the draw for the 2006 World Cup (sorry, rugby union fans, although England are now the best team in the world, compared to proper football and even rugby league, there just isn't any comparison) and what a draw it proved to be especially if you were English, or Welsh, or from Northern Ireland. All three teams were drawn in the same group - the odds on that happening must have been quite high to be honest. We also face Poland, which might be tricky, as well as Austria and Azerbaijan. The Welsh have the advantage with the latter as they played them in Euro 2004 qualification and so will know what to expect., and I can only imagine what it's going to be like down at the Millennium Stadium when Wales play England - it's going to be intense. Very intense. Reminds me of the times as a child when England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would play the Home Nations Championships, games against each other home and away that honed many a player's international skills as well as giving that little bit of edge between the countries in that they always wanted to beat the others. It'll be interesting to see what happens but above all else it gives England a good a chance as any for qualifying for the World Cup. Here's hoping.

Monday 1st December - Christmas is coming, and don't I just know it?

It's December. Already. That's pretty scary actually as it means that 2003 is almost over with, and it feels like it hasn't even been like eleven months since I relaunched the web site. But nothing changes. City can still dominate games and then go on and lose them like against Middlesbrough yesterday. It's pretty typical though as they are one of our bogey teams and they have a habit of turning us over. I just hope that it isn't going to be the start of a massive post UEFA Cup knockout hangover that's going to cloud the team. Not least as I'm off to see them at Everton on Sunday and a win would be nice just to get us back on track a little. To be fair, Everton have not had that good a season (mainly though due to injuries) and the likes of Wayne Rooney throwing his proverbial toys from the pram when being substituted at Bolton on Saturday isn't exactly going to help them one jot. I can just see it being nil-nil already, although an away point might actually be pretty useful. We've lacked goals and time and time again I'll say it - we were stupid getting rid of Shaun Goater. Well, not we, Kevin Keegan. It's about time he took some responsibility and admitted that he was wrong.

Everywhere you go it's the Christmas spirit, and it must be galling if you do your shopping for presents in December. Not least as every single shop insists on playing some awful version of Mistletoe and Wine just to really get you in the mood. Hmm. Great (sarcasm there, naturellement). And you know full well you're battling against a million others at the same time to get the parking space, not wait in a long queue et al. Actually, I had to nip into Stockport yesterday and head to Staples for some blank CDs. As I went through the centre all I could see was a mad gradual rush of people into the town centre, and looking at some of the queues in some of the shops I was glad mine was all done, let me tell you. Next of all places was completely choc full by around 11am, and so I just got what I wanted and went home. I also picked up the classic PC game Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 while I was in Staples as well for £3 (bargain) so I just had to get it and fire up the gamepad when I got home and kick some skateboarding ass.

Anyway, back to December and Christmas. The bets are already on for the traditional mad season of who will be Christmas number one in the charts. Well I know whom I don't want it to be - the Pop Idols with their ruining of the John Lennon classic. I really don't want The Darkness to be either, as it's a little bit cheesy for them and they're better than that (even if they remind of me of an overexuberant Queen at times). I'll hedge me bets for the Bo' Selecta! single, "Proper Crimbo" because it's genuinely funny and at least doesn't take itself too seriously. The video is hilarious too. Anything has to be better than Cliff Richard, who has released another Christmas single this year. It's too much. We suffer enough with Saviour's Day, Mistletoe and Wine and that god damn awful Millennium Prayer (where is that sick bucket when you need it eh?) and another one is just too much for me. One year I'd love a non-Christmas single to be number one, or something really avantgarde like the excellent EP from Blacksmoke. If you visit their website, you can make the EP yourself by following the DIY instructions. Who said the spirit of punk was dead eh?

Anyway, I think I finally recovered from City's horrible horrible European defeat, and instead watched the UK Snooker Championship. Excellent final too and I was chuffed for Matthew Stevens to win, as he fought back from 0-4 down to win 10-8, really determined stuff. Considering it's the second largest ranking tournament (the first of course being the World Championship) there weren't that many actually there at the Barbican Centre watching, which was a little disappointing. Maybe the clamour for other sports like rugby union (sell out crowds all over the Zurich Premiership, wonder why?) and so on is taking the limelight away. Ah well...