06/01/2010

My 2009

"So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun"
Calendrical oddities aside - apparently, the new year started on Christmas day in the Lennon household - it's a relevant quote for me.  What have I done?  It's all too easy to forget, I find. How's my 2009 been?  Pretty much the same as the four or five years before it.  This is my attempt to preserve a few impressions of the year before they slip away.



Transport of the Year
In January I instituted a "no planes" travel policy for long distances within the UK because I am completely fed up with being treated like cattle on domestic routes.  And, as it worked out, it meant that most of the long distance travel I did was on the East Coast Main Line (ECML).  The last time I used the service was two days before National Express handed the franchise back to the government, so I can't say what it's like now, but my experience was almost completely good.  The trains ran on time, the carriages were clean, the wireless broadband was free and I nearly always got a seat with a table for my laptop.

Travelling by train is so much more civilised than driving or flying.  For destinations on the ECML, it's a no-brainer: far quicker than a car journey and pretty similar door-to-door times to flying the longer distances.  The benefits are that I can work (or read, or watch a film) for a reasonable amount of time instead of being interrupted all the time, and I arrive in the city centre and can usually walk to my hotel.  It's not cheap (unless you get enough notice to book a month in advance ... yeah, right, like that ever happens) but it's cheaper than flying and anyway I'm not paying for it.

Gig of the Year
In February I was marched along by my friend Pat to St Deluxe's debut album launch gig at The Captain's Rest in Glasgow.  I'd never heard of them before but I was out in a strange city with an old friend, so a free gig in the basement of a pub seemed all right.  The venue held about 100 people, the stage was barely a foot off the floor and I was only a couple of foot away from the band.  They played a blinder and seeing it all done live, close up and for real was inspiring.  The obvious (and most frequently mentioned) influence is fellow Scots guitar botherers Teenage Fanclub but to my ears there's an equally obvious influence from the mighty Swervedriver.  This was confirmed when I went and had a chat with the guitarist after the gig.  A week later I had the CD in my hands and it's excellent, albeit lacking - perhaps inevitably - some of their live impact.

Actually, I think I only went to two gigs in 2009.  In neither case did I plan on attending until about midday on the day!

Gadget of the Year
Space is at a premium in our house and so we decided in 2008 that the wall of CD shelves would have to be moved - to the loft.  I'd finally got them all ripped to a hard disk in late 2007 (initially using MP3, then switching to non-proprietary, patent-free formats: first Ogg Vorbis, then finally using FLAC once I realised how cheap disk space actually is) but had been searching for a way of playing music off a hard disk to normal audio systems rather than through my PC.  I found it early in 2009: the Logitech Squeezebox. This consists of a server, which runs on the PC with the music collection, and a client, which can be a hardware client running out to a normal hi-fi or a software client running on another PC.  The nice thing about it is that the software (server and client) is completely free (and open source) and so you can try it out before you buy.

After running the server and using the software client for a few months, I bought the Squeezebox Duet.  The server indexes all my music and allows me to call up anything on demand, as well as allowing me to connect to various online services including all of the BBC's output as well as my last.fm stations.  The client - a small black box about the size of a paperback book - connects to my home network, pulls the bytes from the server and does the digital-to-analogue conversion onboard using audio quality Wolfson DACs and outputs via phono connectors to an amp and speakers.  The whole things is controlled by a fancy remote control that connects via the wireless network and therefore doesn't require line of sight.  It's all rather nifty and a lot cheaper than the functionally similar Sonos system (although it's perhaps not quite as simple as that).

One more nice thing is that with a little setup, I can use the server to play music remotely - for example, from a completely different location - thus removing the need to carry any music around with me.

In all, the only drawback for me at the moment is that although all my music is now available, it's not available without the server being on (it usually is, but it's not somewhere where I can leave it on permanently) and a client of some description - either a PC or another Squeezebox.  But that's easily solved ... kerching!  The next step is to move the server to the loft so it can be on all the time and hence available all the time.

Lifestyle Change of the Year
I've blogged about losing weight earlier this year.  It's really made a difference to me and is a rare case of me having enough self-discipline to do something worthwhile.  Er, apart from gaining a little weight over the last few weeks of the year ... ahem.

Consumer Service FAIL of the Year
This one starts in December 2008, when we ordered a new oak dining table and chairs from a local oak and pine shop.  The table arrived within a couple of weeks and with it came some chairs - albeit not the ones we ordered.  It was explained to us that the chairs might take some time and so they wanted to bring us something rather than make us wait.  So far, then, a consumer service WIN then, because they could have just made us wait, or just delivered the table.

We were slightly concerned whether we would be responsible for any damage to the temporary chairs - the covers were an easily marked material and we have three young kids who spill things most days.  Our chosen chairs were just wood - wipe clean!  But we were assured that we would not be held responsible for accidental damage.

Two things unfortunately transformed this into a FAIL.  Firstly, the simple fact that the chairs didn't turn up until late April, a full four months late.  If we'd known they were going to be that late then we might not have bought them in the first place - or certainly waited until paying for them.  Secondly, a more annoyingly, the complete and utter failure of the shop to keep us informed about when our chairs would be arriving, culminating in a stupid conversation with the guy at the shop who explained that the reason he hadn't called to say that the chairs were delayed again was because he had no news for us.

Still, the chairs arrived eventually and the furniture is all good quality so overall I'm reasonably happy and won't name and shame the shop concerned.

Back to the Future Part 1
I've been a U2 fan since the The Unforgettable Fire and I was most into them at about the time of The Joshua Tree.  Unfortunately, their tour that year clashed with my 'A' levels and so I couldn't go and see them.  I've kept an eye on their touring schedule since then but with less and less interest since it seems to get a ticket for these kind of events you have to phone up within micro-seconds of the lines opening.  And who can be bothered with that?

So it was that on the morning of 14 August I was blissfully unaware that U2 were even touring, let alone that they would be in Wembley Stadium that evening.  I checked Twitter as usual and noticed a friend asking if anyone wanted two tickets.  I couldn't let the opportunity to finally see them play live pass me by.  I felt like I owed it to my 18 year old self.

Sure enough, it was the songs from The Joshua Tree that really worked for me, particularly Where The Streets Have No Name, which was fantastic and nearly brought me to tears as I thought, "I've waited over twenty years to hear this live".  Unfortunately, the rest of the show was a disappointment because the venue is way too big for any sort of atmosphere, no matter how hard the guys tried.  There was no way of telling whether they were actually playing live or miming and they were too far away.  I can't say it's the best £80 I've ever spent but I'm pleased to have done it once.

Back to the Future Part 2
Back in my youth I was a very active member of my synagogue's youth group.  My participation ended pretty much at the time I went to university.  However, I've ended up living in the same area, so when my mum wanted someone to accompany her to Friday evening services, I volunteered.  My eldest son was also interested and so we took him too.  And then after a while he decided he'd like to go to cheder too (Saturday mornings in our case), so we started him in on this in September.  We wouldn't class ourselves as very religious but I got real value from my involvement as a teenager, and so I'm happy for B to start attending.

All this meant (re)joining the community after an absence of about twenty years.  It's been an odd experience.  Many of the people I knew then are still there.  The rabbi who took me through barmitzvah and confirmation has just retired and his position taken by his son, who was a friend of mine back then.  It's nice to be somewhere where people remember me, even after so long.  It's nice to see old friends and acquaintances.  The synagogue itself is largely unchanged.  All in all it's not unlike going back in time!

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