goznet ...

David's diary: December 1999

Yesterday was pretty dull really, with an annoyingly-overrunning meeting stopping us going to lunch properly - hence I had only a chicken, bacon and mayonnaise sandwich - and nothing much else of note happening at work. The evening was a bit better, with another practice for our Christmas extravaganza at the Central Milton Keynes shopping centre, which was also an opportunity for me to try out the little amplifier Chris has loaned me after the sudden demise of my one a couple of Sundays ago. I got back home at the same time as Mark, who'd been to another band practice, and both feeling hungry, went by a roundabout route - like any journey in Milton Keynes, some would argue - to McDonalds for a drive-through supper. A short phone-call to Zoe later, and it was time to hit the sack, getting another fairly settled night's sleep.

This morning started a bit frustratingly, going via Maplins to try and get a circular spirit level for my telescope, but them being out of stock and not expecting replenishment for well over a week. I tried the nearby Homebase, but the only vaguely appropriate spirit level they had was a two-axis one, which doesn't really suit a tripod mount, and four times as expensive as the one Maplins list anyway, more to the point. Never mind though, I guess I can wait until Maplins get their new stock in, so long as I don't plan on making any observations in the meantime from anywhere less level and firm than the patio - or am prepared to take half an hour setting up and aligning again. Still an annoyance, though, but maybe I'll try B&Q in Bletchley later, where the guy Maplins reckoned I might be able to find something similar.

Oh well, so much for any plans I might have had for this evening, unless any new ones materialise pretty soonish. First off, I had been about to go to a band practice for Sunday's celebration, but thanks to a communication lapse somewhere along the line - I get used to such things, in fairness - I hadn't been advised it was called off. Thankfully, I'd had a hunch it might be, so I phoned Daniel to check, and my suspicions were confirmed.

With another superbly clear sky tonight, I thought I'd instead have another evening of astronomical viewing, but then found that the keys to the new patio door have gone walkies, so I can't get out there anyway. So my final idea was to phone fellow star-watcher Tim to see if he'd like to go out anywhere, but Andrea explained that he's in hospital at the moment; I knew he was going in at some point, but no-one actually ever said when...

So here I am, pondering what to do next, having spent a few minutes getting my room back into some semblance of order now the window's more or less done; I really ought to get on with writing this music for the Christmas thing, but I'm feeling a bit negative at the moment, so it mightn't be such a good idea, since I want it to be spiritually inspired. Perhaps I'll see if I feel any better in a little while, if nothing else has come up by then.

After a pretty manic day so far at work, things have calmed down a little, so I guess I can catch up on what's been happening. I did eventually get a bit of music done last night, but not a lot, so I am quite seriously considering engaging my contingency plan and jazzing up a few carols instead to last the twenty minutes I'm on stage for. It would be cheesy, but given the surprisingly un-seasonal feel of a lot of the other music there is going to be, it might well be appreciated more. My the time Mark was back, and the back-door keys reappeared as mysteriously as they had vanished - though I think I heard Mark giving Phil a plausible explanation - it had clouded over and I was very tired anyway, so after a short phone call to Zoe, I called it a day, since I needed to be up in good time this morning.

This morning... Yes, well it was a bit of a crazy time for all of us, doing 1001 things in preparation for lunchtime's relaunch of our conferencing software. My main responsibility was to rationalise the user database, which showed up a few glaring errors I had to get advice on fixing, mainly thanks to duff information being provided in the first place - garbage in, garbage out, I believe the saying goes. The responsibility for announcing the relaunch was also mine, but that was relatively straightforward, and the technical advice included seems to have been understood well by almost everyone, with no-one reporting any major problems so far this afternoon. Neither I nor Sam will be dashing off tonight, when we expect more users to come on line, though I can't stay too late, due to prior commitments.

That was an amusing and nostalgic aside, just chatting to a certain Guy Swarbrick using our internet conferencing software. Many people will recognise Guy's name, as a key contributor to - and more recently editor of - Personal Computer World, the definitive and longest-running popular British computing magazine, our equivalent of something like Byte. I'd previously noticed his name on our student lists for the MBA course we're inflicting our software on, but had assumed from the student's comments elsewhere - claiming not to be technically-minded - that it must just have been a coincidence, but talking to him just a little while ago revealed the truth. What he's doing studying for an MBA with the Open University is anyone's guess, though...

It's been a quiet couple of days from me, diary-wise at least, and it's partly for lack of things really worth writing about, and partly because to be honest I've really been quite low and wouldn't want to bore everyone with endless self-pity and glass-half-emptiness. But it's the weekend now, which is cause for a bit more cheer, kicking off last night with a visit to see Kirwin - a top-notch blues band our friend Richard plays guitar in - at Zaks in Wolverton, even if they were running quite late which meant most of us - myself included - only lasted for the first of their two sets. Now it's Saturday, though, and I guess I'd better get up, breakfasted, dressed, bathed - in some order, anyway - and go and do those things my Saturdays are famed for, so that the rest of the weekend can happen...

My shopping trip went straightforwardly enough, with no great excitement or other events of note, but once I arrived back home, things started getting more interesting. "Anyone can get into the garden through the back gate", I was recently told. Anyone apart from me, it turned out. You see, when I left to go up to the city centre, Hazel was in the middle of doing the cleaning, so I lent her my front door key so she could lock up properly. Without my key, I was obviously going to have to come in the back way on my return, but to my alarm found the garden gate was securely bolted from the inside and thoroughly overgrown with brambles, impossible to climb over without tearing myself to shreds, and I picked up a fair few scratches even trying.

Loaded with shopping, needing the loo, and no way of getting into the house, I decided it would be a good time to make the acquaintance of our next door neighbour Steve, who I see about a lot, but had never really talked to at any length. So I spent the afternoon round there, supplied with ample cups of tea and access to the bathroom... Phil had mentioned a while back that Steve was starting to make a dolls' house for his niece, apologising in advance for any late-night drilling and so on that might result, and this afternoon I got to see how he was getting on with it - in fact it was hard to avoid, with bits of wood all over the living-room floor. It looks like it will be a true labour of love, with minute attention to constructional detail, well on a par with commercially available ones costing anything up to two thousand pounds.

Hearing I was "into computers", he leapt at the opportunity to show me his computer set-up, used almost exclusively for playing racing games. I must admit I had heard him and his friends playing late at night before, not that it had ever really kept me awake or anything, but it was nice to see - and play - it all for real. I've never really been a massive fan of computer games since my ZX Spectrum days, but Steve might just have persuaded me otherwise, with his force-feedback steering wheel and pedal system hooked up to a pretty mean touring-car racing game. I'd used steering wheel joysticks before and been thoroughly unimpressed, but this one felt about as real as you could get, with varying resistance and so on; very good indeed, and I now realise why Steve plays it so much...

Anyway, with no sign of Phil or Mark getting back to open up, and time getting on a bit, Steve got his step ladder from out of the van, and being a little taller than me, climbed over the back gate and unbolted it for me. "If only we'd thought of that earlier", he said, but hey, it made for quite a fun afternoon, and it was nice to get to know him better, having lived here for a year and a half and never really having spoken to him any more than in passing - and I think he enjoyed a bit of company too. It's funny how good can come out of the most annoying and frustrating situations, though I must admit I'll be double checking that back gate before I go lending my keys to anyone in future!

This evening's been very clear, so it was another good opportunity to get the telescope out, and bagging a couple more Messier objects in the process - I really should start noting those I've managed to spot; it would be something quite special to have one day found the lot. I also had what must have been about my best look yet of the so-called "double cluster" between Cassiopeia and Perseus, a truly spectacular field of stars to look at with low magnification, with the Milky Way as a backdrop. It was very cold out, however, and eventually it started clouding over a little, so having had a quick look at the Orion Nebula again I decided it would be a good time to call it a day, and come into the warm again, which is precisely where I am now.

Another excellent Sunday has just about come to a close, but you'll have to wait until at least the morning proper to hear about it all, 'cos I'm off to bed just as soon as I've checked my e-mail...

Yesterday... all my troubles seemed so far away, or at least they were able to take a break for the day. Mind you, Sunday didn't get off to too terrific a start, with Zoe's train delayed by over half an hour due to endless engineering works, and it looking a bit doubtful whether we were going to get up to Wolverton in time for me to play. As it turned out, we arrived just in time, Chris was very understanding, and I was mixed in stereo for the first time ever, so it wasn't all bad after all. Celebration was typically good, with Stuart Bell from Lincoln speaking mainly on the early church - following on nicely, if quite coincidentally, from Paul's neighbourhood group theme a couple of weeks ago - continuing in the evening meeting by talking about the rebuilding of the temple and so on in Ezra and Nehemiah, and their continuing application to life today.

Being the anniversary of my starting to "go out" with Zoe, we decided we'd treat ourselves to lunch at the Darjeeling in Stony Stratford; we'd been there once before - when the Eastern Paradise was closed for the day for work on its kitchens - and been dead impressed, and they lived up to expectations once again. What I like about the Darjeeling is that although they offer an eat-as-much-as-you-like Sunday lunchtime buffet like just about every other Indian restaurant in the city, they structure it more like a proper meal, so it doesn't seem like the vulture-fest these affairs often end up being.

It was just a little bit too bitterly cold to go for a walk, so instead after chatting to Jon and Gemma - Phil's brother and his newly-wed wife - back at the house for a bit, we went on to Chris and Claire's, who'd invited us to drop in if we liked. So we stayed round there for a while, watching Under Siege 2 on DVD - having watched the first film in the series last weekend - and the Simpsons, before toddling off to the school for the evening meeting, with Stuart speaking once again as I mentioned. Somehow I managed to avoid getting nabbed by Mo to do waitering for this evening's Ladies' Night, though I'd already agreed I'd probably go round and see Chris anyway, so I'd have had a good chance of getting away with it anyway!

Anyway, after a brief bite to eat at KFC - not too hungry after that big lunch, and the chocolate-coated nuts and raisins round at Chris and Claire's - we hit the road back to Iver, chatted with Zoe's mum for a bit, munched a couple of the chocolates I'd bought Zoe to celebrate our year together, then called it a day as I disappeared off into the darkness for another week... An uneventful enough journey back home, and I made quite good time, getting back at about one o'clock, not that I particularly wanted to get up this morning, but there's nothing new in that...

No last-minute desperate phone-calls from Mo, but I spent the evening round at Chris's anyway, with Claire off at the Ladies' Night thing herself. We happily passed the time watching Deep Space Nine - which I followed a lot better than last week's episode, though I've still completely lost track of what's going on in this series - and the last part of Channel Four's excellent Universe documentary series. Far too damp to even contemplate going out anywhere star-gazing, so that was a very good second best. A little bit of web research on uillean pipes later, and it was time to toddle back round the corner, shortly to call it a day myself.

The cat's taken up temporary residence amongst the pigeons as far as Zoe's job is concerned, from what I can tell, with the announcement yesterday that her company's future is looking very uncertain indeed. Basically, it looks likely that early next year, having been bought out, they will be relocating to somewhere quite different to where they are right now, with an obvious impact on the people currently working there. If the pay was better, I guess it might be worth Zoe's while considering commuting to wherever they end up, but that's frankly not the case, so her options are currently very open indeed.

The possibility of moving up here to Milton Keynes is one Zoe would seriously consider if the opportunity arose, but that would require a combination of a number of factors working out fortuitously - but stranger things have happened, for sure. This would obviously be something I'd need to talk over with Zoe a lot more, but suffice to say that I'll be keeping a close eye on any jobs available locally, especially ones that look like they might entertain the idea of day-release. Anyway, this is all somewhat hypothetical at the moment, with the only truly certain thing being that everything's uncertain...

Right, time to head home, although I'll be back here soon after for our monthly astronomy club meeting at the observatory. I would just sit out the next couple of hours here, but I'm a bit hungry, and the weather's looking good for at least the early evening, so I might as well go and fetch my telescope so I can let the experts find me some interesting things to look at - and so I can weep at the quality compared with their megabucks cassegrains and fluorite refractors. The main theme tonight is astronomy software for the PC, which should be interesting; I wonder if they'll mention CyberSky, my own personal shareware favourite?

Yesterday evening wasn't too bad, though there were a few hitches along the way with the astronomy club software demonstrations, and most people headed off pretty quickly once the meeting was done - probably because it was just too cold to loiter... As expected I popped back home first to grab a bite to eat, then promptly got waylaid by a phone-call from Nigel, with a few extra things for me to do this coming Sunday morning, but I was still back at the observatory in good time, so no problems there.

Aside from the usual space missions news - including updates on the doomed Mars Polar Lander, bearing in mind that at the last meeting I went to we were hearing much the same kind of things about the similarly-doomed Mars Climate Orbiter - and run-through of the notes on the best things to be looking out for this month, there were demonstrations of a couple of general purposes astronomy software packages, some image processing software and some very pretty stuff from more successful missions to Mars and other planets.

Andy also went through the astronomy tutorial software that made up part of the S103 Discovering Science course, which was quite interesting as a project I had been involved with other aspects of. Andy couldn't show all the software he'd intended, having not realised that he couldn't just copy the installed applications on to a CD-R disc and expect them to work, needing the original set-up files which were inaccessible, back on his office PC... There was still plenty to show though, and the S103 stuff was very extensive and interesting.

Plenty of coffee and mince pies on hand kept us going throughout what was a pretty nippy evening, with only an electric fire to warm the place, and as I said, most people went home once the main part of the meeting was over, leaving just me, my colleague Mike and a very few stragglers - not that we had a huge number along this month in the first place - to have a brief, if chilly, look at a few objects of interest with my telescope. It was very clear, but the skies weren't as dark as I'd hoped, so it probably wasn't really any better than the view I'd have got from our patio.

So I arrived back home soon after ten, missing a phone-call from Zoe by a matter of a couple of minutes, though I phoned her back shortly after eleven and had a good chat about all kind of stuff. Obviously the uncertain situation with Zoe's job was high on the agenda, though it's early days yet, and she's not rushing into anything, at least not until she's had a chance to meet the new bosses and weigh for herself which direction the company looks like going, both strategically and physically.

Yesterday evening was quiet and fairly relaxed, not rushing home from work, then not doing a great deal to be honest, and getting a fairly early night into the bargain - once I'd had my customary phone chat with Zoe, anyway. Highlight of the evening though was Mark managing to persuade a TV game thing he'd got for his birthday to work. This took a little doing, bearing in mind our television is old and SCART-less, but he managed to fudge a solution via the video recorder, and a couple of bits of parcel tape later - to keep everything secure - it was working. We're not exactly sure what the legal status of the product is, bearing in mind it includes pixel-perfect copies of such classic arcade games as Galaxians, Pacman, Dig Dug, Lode Runner and Starforce; I guess that fact that it's "made in China" says it all... Still, not bad at all for about a tenner, apparently - even if Mark had to shell out a little more to connect it up - and there will be a fair few hours of amusement in there I'm quite sure.

Right, it's time to head home and get ready for tonight's fellowship Christmas Dinner. I guess this means that Christmas really is more or less here, even if I have been sporadically scoffing chocolates from my advent calendar for the last week or so... The cool news of the day is that another friend looks like they'll be making the trek up to Milton Keynes shortly, having all but accepted a job with Scripture Union in Bletchley. He's not sure exactly when he would take up the appointment, or when he would be prepared to move up here rather than commute from Berkshire, but this is all good news anyway. Happening place, you see!

The Christmas dinner thing at Milton Keynes College last night went very well, and was excellent value for money too. There was a slight slip-up with the plum pudding - which made me glad I went for the strawberry cheesecake - but that was about the only hitch in the whole evening. I arrived shortly before eight, as requested, and needless to say was about the first person there apart from the organisers, but people soon started arriving in dribs and drabs. I did the decent thing and posted myself at the entrance to the college, to make sure people knew where they were going, but it was bitterly cold outside so I was glad to come inside, buy a beer and take my place at the table.

I sat with Alan and Helen, and Daniel and Jodie, later joined by newlyweds George and Cally, back from Brazil for their marriage blessing at Cornerstone tomorrow. Plenty of food and drink was provided as part of the deal, plus the obligatory hats, party-poppers and crackers - the first time George had seen crackers, let alone pulled one! - with the only hitch being that aforementioned one with the plum pudding, when someone obviously misheard "brandy sauce" and prepared a load of bread sauce instead... Not too pleasant a combination, but they were very apologetic and provided second helpings - with squirty cream - for those affected, and it was more cause for amusement than anything.

After the main meal we adjourned to another room, where there was plenty of coffee, mince pies, cheese and biscuits for all, offering a good chance for an informal natter with anyone and everyone, then it was time to head home and - via my usual late-night phone-call of course - to bed. I didn't sleep too amazingly well, probably unhelped by having put all the bed-linen in the wash in the morning, with no real chance to re-make the bed properly yesterday evening. Still, it's Friday today and the weekend's not far off now, so no big worries really.

Given the choice of dodgy jewelry, miscellaneous lumps of rock, rainsticks, didgeridoos, a special offer if you bought at least five pots of honey, and a stand full of cut-price Dorling-Kindersley multimedia CD-ROMs, there are no prizes for guessing which I found most interesting at the Children's Centre Christmas Fayre. OK, so Sam and Will went away with at least five pots of honey each, but I gave in to temptation and left with Redshift 3 on CD-ROM for a mere tenner, compared with the full retail price of almost thirty pounds. OK, so you get what you pay for to some extent with astronomy software, but this one's not bad at all, giving Chris's Mac one quite a good run for its money, with nice digitised pictures when you zoom in and so on. It's a bit clunky to use, but the results are well worth it, and it's got a huge amount of background information, videos and so on to keep me amused when it's too cloudy to have a look outside for myself. It needs Windows 95 or 98 to work properly, so for the moment I can only use it at work, but that could be yet another incentive to sort out my home PC system once and for all...

I'd better keep this quick because I've got far too much to do, and I'm hungry too, so all told I'd really better get a move on.

I was up quite early this morning to get all my shopping stuff done - and just as well, judging by the queues in Smiths - although I saved a few minutes by driving in, thanks to the lousy weather. Only a few minutes, though, because parking at this time of year is a complete nightmare. But I still got everything done that I needed to, in time to get dressed up for George and Cally's marriage blessing this afternoon. I can't remember the last time I wore a posh jacket, but it's something I don't mind doing from time to time for a good cause.

Parking this afternoon was even more horrendous than this morning, even well away from the shopping centre itself, and I ended up in the pay-and-display eventually, shovelling in enough change for pushing on three hours, just in case... It turned out just as well I did, because to be honest the service did drag a little, but it was still a lovely time, and a packed house at the city's biggest Christian venue. There were a few nibbles and drinks afterwards, but I didn't hang around too long, not least because my car-park ticket was fast expiring.

Anyway, any plans for a nice relaxed evening have been dashed by discovering this morning that as part of tomorrow afternoon's practice for the shopping centre event, they're expecting me to perform whatever I'd planned - or was going to be planning. They speak past tense, I speak future tense, but they win. Oh well, bang goes my hopes of playing something specially written and carefully crafted. It's just be Christmas songs after all, and very hurriedly thrown together ones too, though I guess I could always just make a rough backing track for tomorrow and jazz it up a little over the next couple of weeks.

But I'd better get on with that - having found that the Christmas MIDI files on the web, that might have sped along the process slightly, are dire to the point of uselessness - and, as I said, get something to satisfy this ravenous stomach of mine before I keel over and am not much good for anything...

Houston, we have re-established communication. Well, not with the Mars Polar Lander, but just with this diarist, off-air for the last day or so, due to being just far too busy.

Saturday evening was long but quite productive, though first I cooked up a rather uninspiring Tesco pizza, really quite grim apart from being a stuffed-crust one. Then I set to work on those Christmas MIDI files, working through a number of songs from the nativity section of "Songs of Fellowship". I transcribed - and practised playing along to - six carols in about four hours, before recording them to Minidisc in advance of Sunday's formal practice. Zoe phoned half way through the recording, so I phoned her back afterwards to sort out Sunday morning's logistics, before heading off to bed.

Sadly I didn't sleep at all well, with too much music spinning around inside my head for me to get to sleep quickly, and then sleeping patchily before needing to be up in good time Sunday morning. I probably got about five or six hours sleep in the end, which is in no way enough for me, and I think it showed throughout most of the day on Sunday. It turned out that I could have had a few more minutes in bed Sunday morning, because Chris was a little late opening up at the school, which was unavoidable but still a bit of a pain as I had a lot to do - thanks to some short-notice juggling of administrational responsibilities - before picking Zoe up. As such, this time it was my turn to be half an hour late at the railway station, but Zoe understood...

The morning meeting seemed just about the right length, with another typically exuberant talk by Paul, even if the music seemed a bit strained at times, as if they were desperate to fill the allotted time. After chatting to a few folks and so on, we headed off to Pizza Hut for our customary Italian-for-two deal, which always goes down well both on the palate and the wallet, and then it was time to go back to the school for the shopping centre practice thing.

As we'd expected, they were running well late even before the first group had done their stuff, though somehow we were almost back on schedule by the time I was due to be on, and my traditional carols - even if performed using very untraditional technology - seemed to go down very well with all present. We stayed for Daniel and Jodie's piece, since they needed a few "volunteers", but then we toddled back home, thinking we were "required" in the early evening to help a friend out with moving some stuff. However Sarah phoned just after we got back, and I had misunderstood her a bit, since she actually wanted to move the stuff during the week, not yesterday evening. That was no problem though, and I've agreed to give her a hand tomorrow morning; for various reasons that works out better anyway, even if I'm having to take the morning off work to do so.

With nothing on television, no time to watch a film, and loud snoring to distract us anyway, we braved the cold and damp, and wandered down to the Barge for a drink, getting back to the house just in time to go on to the evening meeting. That was very good, even if it overran quite seriously, with Andy giving one of his more memorable talks - somehow including swallowing raw egg, and recounting stories of infestations of armour-plated maggots - and a decent period of prayer for the four congregations.

By the end of the meeting it was getting quite clear outside, and we pondered doing a little astronomical observation - having had only overcast or damp Sunday evenings for weeks - but eventually gave in to the freezing cold and instead Zoe pre-signed a load of Christmas cards, so I can get on with writing those out properly now, and post them as appropriate. Our journey back to Iver was via Stacey Bushes KFC and the BP garage, as seems to be increasingly the norm, and we made excellent progress with no hold-ups at all.

Zoe's mum had more or less gone to bed - and I had much the same thought in mind - so I didn't hang around too long, though Zoe and I looked up at the stars for a bit, especially since I'd just spotted a couple of Geminid meteors, though Zoe was unfortunately looking the wrong way at the time - can't imagine why! - and felt the cold more than the urge to see her first shooting star. The journey home was a bit mucky, but I made good time nevertheless, and was in bed not long after one, getting an unusually good night's sleep too!

Well if there's one thing that can bring a bit of early Christmas cheer, it's being forewarned that your pay-packet's going to include a bonus. If my memory serves me correctly - which it probably doesn't - this is the first time I have been singled out for such a "special award". Quite why they think I deserve it I will not ponder - though it's probably fair compensation for those antisocial hours I've occasionally had to put in - but the fact is that a nice round half-grand will do very nicely thank you very much. Taxed, of course, but since I wasn't expecting it all, I'm hardly in a position to complain...

Well the evening's sped by, and I'm not entirely sure what happened to it, though I can remember a few bits and pieces...

I spent getting on for an hour of the evening out in Campbell Park on a Geminid-spotting mission. I only saw three or four of the elusive meteors during the half-hour I was concertedly looking, though I spied a couple more just as I got back home, including a very nice one heading south that seemed to last for ages. Tonight was supposedly the climax of the shower, though these things are often quite hard to predict accurately, and I have a hunch the true peak was during daylight hours which wasn't a lot of use.

Before I went up to Campbell Park, Sarah phoned, asking to rearrange tomorrow morning's plans to help move stuff to her new house, since she'd just remembered they clashed with her youngest daughter's nativity play, so we're doing that on Thursday now hopefully. That works out quite well, given that I'd forgotten to tell anyone but Sam that I wasn't expecting to be in work tomorrow morning! We also had a bit of a chat about various stuff, worthy cause for a fair bit of prayer on my part while out in the park afterwards.

Mark's gone out for the evening now, but I had an unusually good chat with him earlier, about lots of different and interesting things, from the benefits and risks of technology, to his future plans and accommodation possibilities. With our busy lives, opportunities like that don't come too often and are worth making the most of! But now I'm pretty tired after a long and quite eventful day, so I'm going to get this diary entry finished off and collapse into a nice hot bath for a while, and hopefully sleep like a log again.

I didn't quite get the early night I was hoping for, but it was worth staying up, and I slept well anyway. Having finished my bath, it was getting fairly clear outside again, so I slipped on my dressing gown and slippers and braved the cold to have another look for meteors. A nice one soon whizzed across the sky in a westerly direction, and realising I was going to be out there for a little while, I fetched the cordless phone to give Zoe a call.

Our conversation was frequently punctuated by my running commentary on what I could see in the heavens, with it developing into quite a shower over the next few minutes. A bit before midnight I was counting up to three or four meteors a minute - not very big or impressive ones, but that's quite a rate nonetheless. The peak was apparently at about 11 o'clock this morning - with the American west-coast getting the best of it - so it probably got still better after I'd gone to bed, though apparently, unlike the Leonids, the Geminid stream is quite wide, so what I saw probably wasn't much less intense than it was going to get.

Anyway, that was a vast improvement on the wash-out that was the Leonids last month, indeed the first meteor shower I've ever deliberately seen. I mean, I've seen meteors before, and some pretty nice ones, but this was the first time I'd ever had any success having made the effort to specifically go out and look for them, and it was well worth it.

After a clear, cold, night - resulting in mucho ice-scraping needed this morning - it's a glorious day here in Milton Keynes, a little chilly but very crisp. As such, it didn't take me much thought to accept Will's suggestion of walking out to the Olde Swan in Woughton, and our colleague Callum joined us soon after we arrived, having cycled over. A spicy sausage and melted cheese hot hob made for an ideal lunch for me, though the others had already eaten so just had drinks. Still, it was good to get out while the weather was still smiling, and it was a good chance to chat with Will for one of the first times I can recall. Anyway, on with the afternoon - I've plenty to do...

Well my lengthy MIDI-file transcribing session on Saturday evening paid off well, with Maureen now inviting me to do two twenty-minute slots of our Christmas entertainment up at the shopping centre next week. I had been scheduled just to do a single solo set on Thursday afternoon, but I'm now down to do the same on Wednesday afternoon, having gone down well at the practice on Sunday afternoon. I actually need to transcribe a couple more songs, still being a little short of the required length, but that's no problem, and this second performance will provide even more incentive to make a good job of it. This is of course all in addition to the other stuff I'm taking part in anyway, and gives me an even better excuse to have taken the week off work - even if I just realised I had my name down to go to some party or other on Monday, which I will honour if I can.

Managed an early night last night, not doing too much during the evening other than a brief spell of star-gazing, then chatting to Zoe on the phone for a bit as I got ready for bed. Today's been pleasantly unproductive, with the centrepiece being our departmental Christmas dinner, the last one with our department in its current form. This meant that Jim's closing speech was decidedly downbeat due to the lingering apprehension about the future - prospects are probably worse for the management than us rank-and-file members - and at times it almost looked like he was holding back the tears, although the terrific food and drink more than made up for any negativity in the event. Malcolm and Tio also received their quarter-century long-service awards, which made for a pleasant aside. For the first time ever - and obviously also the last time as the Academic Computing Services, at least as we know it - coach transport to and from the hotel in Winslow were laid on for a small surcharge on the cost of the meal, a truly excellent idea which almost everyone opted to go for, and it gave a certain legitimacy to our being out of the office for pushing on four hours... Needless to say, no-one's much in the mood for doing a lot this afternoon, and now it's just about time to head home anyway.

Got another fairly early night last night and slept very well, thankfully. I didn't have to rush to get up this morning, either, since I'd booked the morning off work to help Sarah out with moving out a few bits and pieces from her old house. So we met up in Fishermead at about half past nine as planned, and since Sarah had the bigger car, she drove us down to the dreaded Lakes Estate in Bletchley. We loaded up about a boot's-worth of miscellaneous books, tapes and so on, before going for a coffee and a chat at the Christian charity-shop on the estate.

I arrived at work a bit before lunchtime, and was delighted to find the chicken curry had been postponed from yesterday - I thought I'd missed it due to our departmental Christmas lunch out, but it turned out they'd cooked up a turkey roast in the canteen too yesterday, and they're obviously under some kind of moral obligation to serve up curry at least once a week! Anyway, this afternoon's been fairly usefully productive, going through a lot of technical queries and so on, but I'm really quite tired once again so won't be hanging around a lot longer.

A bit bloated again, thanks to the annual QA Bash at lunchtime today, but it's my last day proper at work until the new year now, so I'm not feeling too guilty about it. I say "last day proper" because I'll actually be back in for a couple of hours on Monday, having clean forgotten about a party that's been organised to get to know some of the people we'll be working alongside after our new-year reorganisation. Later on Monday afternoon is the first performance of our band up at the shopping centre, though, so I won't be hanging around any longer than necessary - but having said a while back that I'd go, I feel a slight duty to at least put in a token appearance.

Working backwards in time, last night's neighbourhood group wasn't too bad, if a little unconventional. I was late in from work, so missed the first part of the evening, carol-singing up at the old people's home, but I knew they were meeting back at Paul and Carol's afterwards, so I joined them for that. It was quite a houseful, with both Springfield groups gathered, but it was a nice relaxed time, and a good chance to chat with various people and see the photos from George and Cally's Brazilian wedding. I wasn't home too late, thankfully - being very tired - but still managed a phone-call to Zoe before hitting the sack after a long, busy, but rewarding day.

I've had a couple of complaints lately about how prolific my diary-writing is, with people apparently unable to keep up with the happenings in my allegedly hectic life. I suppose I am perhaps one of the more "reliable" - let's not say "predictable", even if that is true to a degree - contributors to the diaries on Monochrome, but I didn't really think the quantity I write is really that much greater than many others. Still, this entry is only yet more for those people to read and lose track of, so normal service will resume shortly.

Saturday's been fairly uneventful, getting up at a leisurely hour, having got to bed quite late last night after watching "The Siege" on video - with Mark, Alan, Helen, Andy, Rosie and a suspiciously under-age, but not terribly attentive, Harriet - and then reading for a bit. I walked into town this morning and bought a few necessary individual Christmas cards and a couple of magazines, had a look around the newly refurbished - but just as expensive as ever, of course - Chappells, and did my weekly shop in Waitrose.

The latter shopping also included buying a few mince pies for tomorrow morning's carol service, and some extra bread and sliced ham to make some sandwiches up for the tea we're providing at one of the nearby old people's homes tomorrow afternoon. Alan and Helen have also invited me and Zoe round for tea at some point tomorrow afternoon, so I'm not sure exactly what our moves will be, but I've said we'll drop off the sandwiches round at Maureen's early afternoon whatever happens.

I took a late lunch at the Arena McDonalds, mainly because I could go via Maplins where they had finally got the circular spirit level I needed in stock. Potato wedges are back at McDonalds, and just as delicious as ever. The spirit level is a bit smaller than I'd anticipated, but that presents no problem at all, and could be a positive advantage. I expect I'll use a couple of the sticky pads I have left over from securing the finderscope to mount it onto my tripod accessory tray, since that should be a pretty good horizontal reference when the telescope is correctly aligned.

Now I'm relaxing for a bit, but I need to crack on with some more preparation for next week's shopping centre entertainment while I have the chance. Specifically I need to programme up a couple more backing tracks for my solo set, re-record them using sounds from the higher-quality MU80 synthesiser module I've been lent, and finally practise a few of the trickier bits for our band's set. Hopefully I can get all that finished rather earlier than Saturday night last weekend, especially since tomorrow's looking like such a busy day once again.

It's been a fairly relaxed Sunday as they go, but still a good one, though spoilt more than a little at the last by the news that Mark's in hospital tonight - and not quite sure for how long - after a bad asthma attack with a few other complications. Together with other key people suddenly falling ill for one reason or another, our line-up for the shopping centre event is now looking decidedly ragged. We've learnt not to be too surprised by this over the years; these things happen, true enough, but this is downright attack.

Anyway, the rest of the day was fine, managing a fairly leisurely start after another quite late night of finishing off my backing tracks for the shopping centre thing. I managed to get the morning off from playing, so just had to help get the chairs out and so on before walking back home to wait for Zoe. A snow-clad Polo pulled up just in time for us to walk back up to the school, though the meeting didn't start on time by any means, but it was worth waiting for, apart from a rather long and rambling talk right at the end.

There were mince pies, coffee and so on served up afterwards, so we stopped awhile for a chat with a few people, and were then invited out for a pre-Christmas lunch with Chris and Claire, opting for the Kam Tong Garden, definitely our favourite Chinese in the city. Their Sunday buffet was as excellent as ever, and we were all pretty stuffed. Thanks must go out to Chris and Claire for being complete stars by footing the bill, and also for agreeing to accommodate Zoe again when she visits for a few days towards the end of next week.

Having made our supply of ham sandwiches for the old people's home tea in a spare few minutes earlier - more than filling a dinner-plate with them in the process, just a single loaf of bread's worth! - we quickly popped those round to Martin and Maureen's as promised before going back to Chris and Claire's where we watched "Demolition Man" on DVD. We'd all seen it before, but it's an entertaining enough film, and was a good way to pass an afternoon which we didn't really feel like spending doing anything too energetic or outdoor...

After that we drove round to Alan and Helen's, via the shop to get some drink, for a bit of tea and a few games - both traditional and Playstation - catching the beginning of one silly film, and then watching the whole of "Muriel's Wedding". I really didn't think I was going to last the course - and Zoe was looking pretty tired too - but somehow we managed to stay to the end and I think it was worth it, even if it's one of those films where you really wonder what actually happened, other than a fairly disjoint sequence of events.

But then it was time to head home, to be met with the news about Mark, and then for Zoe to be waved on her way - in a much more cheerful-sounding car than of late, it has to be said! - back to Iver. Another weekend over, and not long until the next one, and not only is it a somewhat special one, but it's also going to start a couple of days early - hooray!

Good to see Christmas cheer alive and well, with some of the most obnoxious messages I've ever seen on our conferencing system, aimed fairly and squarely at me. Still, I'm assured that for each of those, there are ten praising me, so I'm not going to let the so-and-so's get me down. Anyway, I seem to have found myself in my office for an hour or so this afternoon, despite being on holiday - I came in for this lunchtime party thing, and needed to sober up a little, but it was also a good opportunity to write a couple of messages in respect of a bug in our system which manifested itself over the weekend. But that's all done now, and I need to get back home now to prepare for our first set in the shopping centre late this afternoon, so signing off for now.

Phew! That's our first day of entertainment up at the shopping centre over and done with - just another three to go, plus the different stuff happening on Friday. I drove up to the city centre, arriving at about half-past four, in time to catch the end of the not-really-Shine set and get ready for ours.

Mark should of course have been playing in the not-really-Shine band but was obviously unable to - it's now looking like he's not going to be out of hospital until either tomorrow or Wednesday - so with Nicola ill too, they were a bit short on numbers, but still sounded great.

Our band went down well too, I think, and there were no major slip-ups on my part - a bit of pressure never seems to do me a lot of harm - and by the time the dancing teddies had interrupted proceedings with their nauseating five-minute sing-song in the middle, our hour seemed to go by mercifully quickly.

I did a bit of Christmas shopping afterwards - nothing too bulky since I was also laden with my music stuff - grabbed a burger for tea, and bumped into a few old friends on the short stroll back to my car. Now I'm understandably shattered and looking forward to a quiet evening in, with as little music as possible, especially anything in the slightest bit Christmassy...

It's the last day for first-class Christmas post today, and I duly ventured out to pop a few more cards into the letter-box next to the shop across the road, but I have no intention of going anywhere much else until I need to drive up to the city centre once again at about four this afternoon. Although it snowed overnight, with quite a sprinkling still evident when I got up, it's mostly melted now, though it's still cold enough not to have thawed properly, with even the walk up to the shop being quite treacherous. So I had a nice lie-in this morning, followed by a long hot bath, and aside from that brief arctic expedition and a quick practice of "White Christmas" - which was probably my weakest piece yesterday afternoon - that's about all I've really done today, and no plans to do a great deal more in all honesty.

The end of another weary day of our shopping centre entertainment, with an even wearier one to come tomorrow and Thursday, but it's all good fun and I wouldn't miss it for the world. I drove up there quite early today to listen to a bit of the stuff the earlier acts were doing and to make sure I was ready with less of a mad panic than yesterday. I bumped into my old housemates briefly, which was a pleasant surprise, and we chatted for a bit.

Our band's set went well; I'm not sure if the public reaction was quite as good as yesterday, but it was still popular with our captive audience of families queuing to see Santa. The singing and dancing teddies were mercifully broken for most of the day, eventually coming back to some semblance of life - singing at least, even if not dancing - half way through our set which was a bit of an annoyance, but nothing we couldn't adapt to.

So tomorrow's the first day that I'll be doing my solo set, and I've just run through it a couple of times to make sure I'm at least moderately confident about it all, so I'm pretty much all set. Since I'm on at two o'clock, with a couple of hours until the band's set, I'm going to be sitting around for quite a while tomorrow, but at least there's plenty going on in our "patch", and I can always go and have a look round the shops I suppose...

Three days down of our shopping centre entertainment, just one and a bit to go, and today's been fairly busy. I drove up to the city centre at about midday to listen in on our programme more or less from the start, but soon got roped into helping Daniel and Jodie a bit, and doing an unscheduled extra solo set, which was fine in that it gave me yet more practice before the real crowds arrived. I was a bit wobbly in places, but not too fazed by the size of my potential audience, and I think it went down quite well, especially the second time around.

The annoying teddies were back on singing and dancing form and running two minutes early throughout the day - proof that they operate on a time-switch without the slightest bit of human intervention - and they seemed to have an uncanny knack of echoing whatever we were last playing, especially in our band that closed proceedings as usual. People would be forgiven for thinking there was some kind of conspiracy between us and the unfeasibly chipmunk-voiced beasts, but I think it's just a reflection on how few popular Christmas songs there really are.

Tomorrow's the last full day of entertainment, with another solo set from me at three, and the band at five o'clock again; Friday's a bit different, with just a carol concert mid-afternoon, though I think our ever-popular free gift-wrapping stall will be carrying on as usual regardless, with the Salvation Army band in accompaniment at least for the first part of the afternoon. Zoe's driving to Milton Keynes tomorrow morning and will be spending the rest of the week up here, helping out in particular with the charity collection in the city centre.

Meanwhile, I'm going round to Andy and Rosie's this evening with Mark and Phil to play a few games - we all really need to get our minds off this seasonal music for a bit, and much as Risk may not be my personal favourite, it'll certainly meet my requirements sanity-wise and the change of scenery will do me the world of good. Hopefully we won't be back too late though, because this city centre stuff is utterly shattering; maybe I'll take my own car so I can make an early exit if need be...

It's been a busy afternoon, but one which very nearly didn't happen, with Zoe very much delayed by heavy traffic on the way up, arriving almost an hour and a half late, and only just in time for us to go and do our stuff up at the city centre. We made it in the end, though, and the afternoon went well, with the only hiccup being Robbie getting delayed by about half an hour, so we had to "busk it" for most of our allotted time.

That's the main part of the week's entertainments over now, with just the community carol concert tomorrow afternoon, and then we've been invited round to Chris and Claire's - where Zoe's staying overnight anyway, as usual - for the evening for a few pre-Christmas festivities. We also need to fit in a bit of fairly mundane shopping sometime earlier in the day, but that shouldn't be a problem.

The next few days' activities seem to be taking shape slowly, with things hopefully planned through from Christmas Day itself until about next Tuesday, giving us a couple of clear days to recover before the new year's celebrations we've both been invited along to. Hopefully the latter in particular can go a bit better than the last ones did, in retrospect, fun though they may have seemed at the time...

This is just a brief base-touching entry, since I'm very tired and am heading to bed imminently. It's been an excellent last few days, however, including the final afternoon up at the city centre, Christmas Day itself down with Zoe's family, then Boxing Day until today visiting my sister's family - and my parents who were themselves visiting - up in North Wales. But more about all that can wait until sometime when I'm not half keeling over for want of sleep.

Right, I'm feeling considerably more awake now, so I'll go into a little more detail about the last few days. I'll try and keep things fairly concise, but can't make any promises...

The Christmas Eve community carol service on Friday afternoon went well enough, with quite a few people coming along, though mainly people we knew. We ran well ahead of schedule, though, so with Doug's accompaniment on keyboard, I filled a few spare minutes at the half-way point, bearing in mind we still had an enforced pause due to the pesky singing teddies.

In the morning Zoe and I had been into the city centre to do a little last-minute Christmas shopping, specifically things for my family, for us to take up to Wales on Sunday. However, we later realised that Rafael was a fair bit older than I'd thought, so while we were in town for the carols, we popped back into the Early Learning Centre to swap his present for something a little more grown up by a factor of six months.

As planned, we spent the evening round at Chris and Claire's, with Trevor and Jan there with their family when we arrived, and a steady flow of other visitors throughout the evening. Chris plied us all with exceptional sherry, brandy and so on, and a most pleasant and relaxing time was had by all. With Zoe again sleeping at Chris and Claire's, I left her there when I walked home, to get a good night's sleep before the even busier weekend ahead.

At about ten on Christmas morning I walked back round to Chris and Claire's to pick up Zoe and wander up to church for a short carol service. I had been asked to play, and with such a shortage of musicians it was difficult to say no, but it was fine anyway, with quite a relaxed feel to proceedings, just taking things as they came, really. It was quite a packed house, as I have come to expect on Christmas mornings, and the whole event seemed just right.

After the carol service, we loaded up a few bits and pieces into Zoe's car, and drove down to her parents for the rest of Christmas Day - and beyond... It was quite an easy journey down, arriving at about lunchtime as planned. They tend to have their main Christmas meal in the evening, so lunch was more of a brunch type affair, with scrambled eggs, bacon and so on, but that was just fine since neither of us had had a great deal for breakfast.

The afternoon was spent putting final touches to the Christmas decorations and present-opening, with everyone getting a nice load of stuff, both edible and otherwise - but mainly edible, needless to say! Probably my most practical gift, however, was a CD storage unit from Zoe, though the ear-plugs came a close second, something I'd been meaning to get for several festival-going years.

We ate Christmas dinner itself while watching the first part of the BBC's excellent dramatisation of David Copperfield, and that was probably just about it for the day, bat the usual general nattering bit and reminiscing about Christmases past. A low-key, but nonetheless great day, and I was quite happy to collapse into a spare bed for the night.

Sunday morning we weren't up quite as early as planned, but not too late either, and it turned out not to matter too much anyway. Having had a bite to eat for breakfast and packed our stuff, we drove back up to Milton Keynes. We transferred our luggage into my car - being somewhat fitter for the long haul ahead - and put in a few more bits and pieces, left a message on my sister's answerphone and my mum's pager to say we were on our way, and hit the road up to North Wales.

We travelled through a mixture of weather - with quite wintry conditions in Snowdonia itself - but generally made good progress apart from the inevitable snarl-ups round the Birmingham section of the M6, and arrived up in Criccieth just about in daylight. We had no trouble finding my sister's house, and they were all there - including my parents - when we arrived. Their house really is on the slopes of Criccieth castle, with spectacular views in most directions.

With neither of us having been there before, Martin gave us a guided tour of the myriad rooms, and of course Zoe had to be introduced to everyone too. Tea was jacket potatoes with a variety of accompaniments, and we stayed the evening, doing yet more present-opening, watching the concluding part of David Copperfield, and so on. Everyone both young and old seemed to enjoy the Jenga-clone game we'd bought them, with even Fern making a good attempt at playing, even if she did need a little help steadying the tower...

We didn't stay too late, though, especially since Mum and Dad needed to show us where we were staying and so on, leaving at about ten o'clock if my memory serves me correctly. Where we were staying turned out to be about two miles out of Criccieth, up a very steep, rocky and uneven lane, which was quite a challenge for my car and probably more especially my driving, but the house at the top was comfortable enough, though typically poorly heated.

I'm not sure exactly whose house it was, but I understand my parents were "house-sitting" and looking after the family's two cats in the process, so it was quite a mutual arrangement. I'm not sure if there's a special name for a female shaman - I presume it's not a shawoman - but that's apparently what the lady of the house is, and there seemed to be quite a lot of associated paraphernalia about the place. There were three bedrooms there, anyway, so sleeping arrangements were straightforward enough, and I think we all slept well, even if it was a bit of a partial hibernation thanks to the cold...

Monday morning we thawed out at a leisurely pace, packed a bit of lunch, and drove over to Criccieth in Dad's car. Those so inclined - which was Mum, Dad, Martin, Raf, Holly, Cass, Zoe and myself, plus Beth the dog - went out for a walk down the sea-front, dodging the high-tide waves smashing against the sea-defences, then down on the rocky beach itself where the waves weren't quite so fierce. We were probably out for about an hour, returning on a cliff-top path, which was bit muddy, but with superb views back into the town and the surrounding coastline.

We ate our lunch back at the house, and then - taking two cars - all of us apart from Dad drove over to Portmeirion for the rest of the afternoon. I'd not been there before, but had heard enough about the place; it's perhaps one of the grandest follies in existence, a complete Italian-style village built by the sea near Porthmadog. It's all delightfully tacky, the children always seem to enjoy it, and there are splendid views too to Borth-y-Gest and beyond, so it was quite a fun place to spend a couple of hours.

Mum, Zoe and I bought a few bits to eat at the Spar shop in Porthmadog, and drove back to the house up the lane to cook up a nice hot meal. Zoe and I then drove back over to Criccieth to spend our last evening with Ali and her family, before returning, not too late, to where my parents were staying.

Again, we all slept well, this time with hot-water bottles for company all round, and in the morning, once Zoe and I were packed, we all drove across to Beddgelert for a walk in the beautiful countryside round there. We saw some truly spectacular scenery on the way, with evidence of a lot of snowfall over night, and thankfully were able to get some nice pictures to prove it.

The walk out of Beddgelert was all very pleasant, not going too high, thankfully, though the weather still started to close in, and we were a bit damp by the time we got back to the village. We stopped for lunch at a cosy little hotel in the village, with Zoe and I going for their delicious chilli con carne, before we parted ways with Mum and Dad as we set off on the long haul back home.

The traffic was a bit heavier than on Sunday, as we'd expected, but we still made good progress and the weather was quite kind to us most of the way. We saw a lot of snow about, but the roads were fine, and we arrived back in Milton Keynes soon after six.

After unloading our stuff, we grabbed a bite to eat at KFC, came home to do a little star-gazing - pity it wasn't clear when we were up in Wales, but never mind - and then with both of us quite tired it was time for Zoe to be on her way back to Iver and me to be on my way into a long hot bath and then to bed, with good memories of a great few days.

It's been a very relaxed day today, not doing a great deal at all really, other than briefly wandering up to the shop over the road to stock up on milk and toothpaste. Matt dropped in for a short while en route to having a game of squash with Gareth, and picked up a few accessories I'd recently got for his laptop, and that was about it, really.

Oh, Andy and Rosie phoned to sort out a few more details of our New Year's Eve gastronomic bash, for which I've volunteered to do my "traditional" sweet'n'not-very-sour pork dish. And that really was my lot, and I don't expect this evening to be earth-shatteringly exciting either, but I'll be quite happy with it being that way, still fairly weary from the last few days.

There's no sign of Mark or Phil being back from wherever they've each been for Christmas - not that I was expecting them back quite yet, but there's been a couple of surprised phone-calls from other folks so maybe my memory's serving me typically incorrectly.

I managed another fairly early night last night, got another good night's sleep, and am having another moderately relaxed day - or at least now I've done what I need to anyway. I heard Mark arriving back quite late yesterday, but didn't get to see him and a note on the table left strict instructions not to wake him up for any phone-calls this morning...

With the weather decidedly foul this morning, I drove up to the city centre to my shopping for tomorrow night's feast, though I didn't manage to find the mead I was looking for, and it's pretty unlikely there's anywhere in town that would sell it having exhausted the most probably outlets. I couldn't find anything much in HMV to spend my various gift vouchers on, so that can wait until I get some inspiration, as I'm sure I will.

I later drove up to Wolverton, buying a couple of older Delirious albums from their Cutting Edge era; I'd been meaning to get these for ages, but they had never been in stock when I remembered to look... I hoped I would also find a copy for myself of the Plumb album I've been listening to a lot lately, but there was no sign of that - or their earlier album - so I'll probably try and persuade Mark or Phil to buy it through Premier on my behalf.

While in St Andrews bookshop I bumped into my friends Nigel and Christina, who I'd not seen for a couple of weeks, so we had a bit of a chat about general Christmas and New Year happenings, the it was time for me to head into the wintry murk and back home. I need to give Andy a phone-call sometime to sort out a few more details for tomorrow, but that's about it, I think.

Right, a couple of last bits of shopping for this evening have now been done, Zoe should be well on her way up the M1 by now, so I guess it's time to declare a diary black-out until the new year. As such, I hope and pray everyone has - or had - a good evening, travelling and partying safely, and that the new year can bring everything that you could hope for and more.

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