Happy thoughts #3

I can’t believe that it’s Friday again (or very early on Saturday): this last week has flown by! And this week it would be difficult to say that my happy thought is anything other than Christmas.

But what of Christmas? What made it special?

  • fun times with friends on Christmas Eve,
  • a great Christmas day,
  • the amount of thought which had gone into the gifts I received from friends, and
  • (of course) the excuse to eat, drink, and be merry.

Maybe I’m cheating slightly on the premise of just having one happy thought for the week, but it’s Christmas.

(For an explanation about happy thoughts have a read of Happy Thoughts #1 or click on the tag below.)

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Out with the old …

Like many people, I have a tendency to hang onto things “just in case”.  I’ve also got something akin to a “man drawer” – a quick look in there today reveals techie gadgets as well as padlocks and a few bits of string.  However, the drawer has tended to overflow, and the things I’ve kept in case they’re useful one day take up too much space.  So once a year (or maybe every couple of years) I make a big effort to rationalise my study.

An annual, or semi-annual, clearout is a pretty daunting task, but the dead time between Christmas and the New Year needs to be filled with something practical, something other than going to work or, worse, braving the crowds and hitting the sales.  (For the benefit of those from the USA, imagine the “Black Friday” shopping experience.)  We make New Year’s resolutions, plans to do something different, and so an effort to de-clutter the environment makes sense.

As would be expected, I found some things which I had thought were lost.  Amusingly, I picture of old mobile phonesalso found some old mobile phones and it interested me to see the genesis of the smartphone: where once miniaturisation was the goal, now the phones have grown again.  (The phones go back to about 1999 – the Nokia 6310 [top left] was featured in Charlie’s Angels, released in 2000. There are also some missing – notably iPhone iterations – where I’ve recycled for cash!)

I did throw away quite a lot (four large rubbish sacks), and I shredded a vast amount of paper.  And of the papers that I needed to keep, I scanned most and securely filed them (with a backup in the cloud) – then they too were shredded.

The clearout was a jolly cathartic experience and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  The trick now, of course, is keeping it this way!

I have a feeling, though, that I’ve been here before … so who has some handy tips?

The art of leadership (according to Dilbert)

Today I had an epiphany.

I have a tear-off, one sheet a day, Dilbert calendar on my desk.  I enjoy the humour and the cynical accuracy, and I pretend that I have never met people like the cartoon nor found some of the situations to be uncannily accurate.

And reading today’s strip I wondered how much we fall for the confidence trick: leadership is the art of trading imaginary things in the future for real things today.

In this context perhaps there are two sorts of manager: those who will develop and encourage their people, and those who exploit the staff to better serve their own careers – the latter being the more likely to use Dilbert’s art.

Maybe, then, Lewis Carroll also understood the lure of the dangled carrot – with the Queen of Hearts proclaiming to Alice [in Wonderland]: “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today“.

Knowing that there is no jam tomorrow, why do we chase the dangling carrot? Because even though our rational brain says “no”, there’s still a worm of hope which says “maybe” – a gambler who wants te believe.

Now knowing the art, I know which leader I want to be (and it’s not as evidenced by Catbert!).

Good King Wenceslas looked out …

One of the only Christmas Carols which I know refers to Boxing Day, or December 26th: St Stephen’s day.

Today I started wondering about St Stephen, and quite what he represents.  Without going into the full detail, it seems that he’s the patron saint of stonemasons and was an early deacon.  A surprise, then, that everyone associates him with the wrong day (25 Dec) and something to do with presents.

So, why Boxing Day?  We know that the Royal family unwrap their gifts on Boxing Day rather than Christmas day, but that is attributed to their German heritage. Several other theories compete for the derivation, but I like to think that it’s because by 26 December the children are fed up with their gifts and are playing with the boxes.

But when was the last time that the snow did lay “deep and crisp and even” on Boxing Day? About every five or six years there’s some snow, according to the Met. office, and the last time that there was anything significant was 2004 (although here in the South it wasn’t much to report).

It’s more likely to snow in the UK in January or February, so perhaps the more likely explanation for a white Christmas comes from the change in calendar in 1752 when Wednesday 2 September was followed by Thursday 14th (a 12 day jump), so what is now 26 December used to be the end of the first week in January. (This also explains the UK tax year ends on 5 April – 12 days after the end of the first quarter (Lady Day) which used to be the end of the financial year.)

I’m off to open some presents and enjoy wassailing. Happy Christmas.

Happy thoughts #2

It has been a bit of a strange week: the classic run-up to Christmas with the typical organisational behaviours, for example people using up their leave at the end of the year – or otherwise absent.

And after a rather protracted week, culminating in Christmas eve eve, it’s now time for ten days away from work. Ten days full of chocolate, food, alcohol, and no doubt the odd present or two.

So to this week’s happy thought: last Saturday was meant to be the busiest shopping day before Christmas – and yet the news announced the same thing for today.  Despite the prospect of being trampled to death by marauding shoppers, we had a weekend in London for retail therapy (Westfield), restaurant therapy (Lebanese – and rather nice), and alcohol therapy (enough said). It was very pleasant, and a worthy happy thought.

(For an explanation about happy thoughts have a read of Happy Thoughts #1.)

The sun has got his hat on (however briefly)

As the sun pokes its head above the horizon for just 7 hours and 55 minutes today I started thinking about solstices, equinoxes, eclipses, and life inside the Arctic circle.

On 11 August 1999 I was standing outside in Southampton: the skies went dark, the birds stopped singing, and the crowds did go quiet as we saw a very-nearly total eclipse. I won’t see the next total eclipse visible from the UK (23 September 2090), but the next biggest partial is distinctly possible on 20 March 2015. There is also total solar eclipse in 2012, but that’s only visible from a very small part of the Southern hemisphere – maybe I’ll go and get a picture.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

From a disappearance of the sun to the its permanence: earlier this year I was lucky enough to visit Longyearbyen, a small town famous for being the Northernmost and well inside the Arctic circle. At midnight I saw both the sun and the moon above the horizon, the light as bright as at any point in the 24 hours.

And so to solstices: what comes to mind? Pagan observance and Stonehenge? Or the conversion of a winter festival to the rather more mercenary Christmas?

Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, or Yule. Are our celebrations really just arbitrarily defined in order to appease as many people as possible – and does that mean that we’ve been politically corrected for longer than might have otherwise been thought?

Taking it for granted

When we are well we take our health for granted, but there is so much going on inside our bodies that it’s almost a surprise that we manage to lever ourselves upright each morning.  And sometimes we take advantage of the multitude of sickness which can envelop our beings with pestilence and plague, though more often with something rather more trivial.

British men (and, in these times of equality, perhaps women too) suffer from the all-defeating manflu, a malady known to reduce the strongest to his bed.  Perhaps keen to get in on the act are the French who have a recognised complaint of “heavy legs“, and indeed this was hitherto recognised by insurance companies and a myriad of potions made available for their remedy.  The Italians, equally keen on mystery illnesses, are afflicted by “a hit of air” – or sitting in a draught as we might call it – but it seems that the seriousness of the injury cannot be understated.

But hypochondria (any my sense of humour) aside, there are others who are suddenly dropped with terrifically bad news.  In the last week or so one of my friends has learned of cancer returning after being, only recently, given the all clear.  Today I heard that a close friend of a friend has breast cancer. And earlier in the year another friend received a terminal diagnosis with an immune system problem.

Often we don’t know what to say or do, partly through confused embarrassment and perhaps partly from misplaced caution. I’ve found that being honest, asking the tough questions that no-one else will ask, and just staying in touch has helped my friends – and when I was a bit poorly these were the actions I valued the most.

Have a laugh at the amusing ailments, but likewise spare a thought for those with (what might be) hidden, but life-changing problems.

Company car or car allowance?

I was faced with this decision a couple of months ago and, as I calculated, there’s no such thing as a free car.  Let us start from the premise that a company is either willing to contribute £x towards a car from a corporate leasing scheme, or pay me £x to source my own car.  It is probably perfectly possible to get a tiny car within the £x such that the tax man’s share is covered by any remainder – but I wanted a bigger car.

So, as well as considering the obvious (company car tax on the one hand, income tax on the other; insurance, tax), I also added in tyre replacement, service, a provision for repairs (especially scuffed alloys!) and recovery.

And, on the side of the allowance, is the potential for a tax claim on the difference between the mileage rate paid by my employer and what HMRC think is reasonable.   Fortunately, I had no overriding principles to sway me one way or the other, but I recognised that “peace of mind” may lean towards a company car, even if more expensive; and, equally, the desire for flexibility may mitigate in favour of a self-arrangement.

Create a fairly simple spreadsheet, plug in a few numbers, and I had my answer – it was actually pretty close based on a guesstimate as to the cost of a private purchase.  But that was only my opening position with the car dealer – and I might have made one side look a bit less favourable than the other for the sake of a competitive edge.  The challenge, therefore, was for the dealership to source the car I wanted at a price which tempted me away from the company lease scheme.

Free servicing for three years, sir? Free recovery? Paintwork protection? As with many negotiations the deal was ultimately down to the items which didn’t hurt their bottom line too much but did affect my spreadsheet.  I did get the car for a very good price (seems the manufacturer wanted to make a “contribution” too, and they happened to have pretty much the car I wanted “pre-ordered”), it was exactly what I wanted, and I’m £150 per month better off than had I opted for the company scheme.

So what did I do that anyone else can do?  Work out the options fully, add a little incentive, and then set a challenge.  The worst case is already known and so the challenge is simply to beat it.  I may have been lucky with the manufacturer contribution, and perhaps with the convenient car in the right place, but I would have got a deal anyway.

If you don’t ask then you don’t get – and isn’t it better to have the money in my pocket?

Peoplewatching

Chinese buffet

Yesterday I saw this picture on facebook and it appealed to my sense of humour – especially as I have seen some rather large diners in American buffets.  By large I mean twice my size and then some.  But I also see these diners leaving food uneaten and then going back for more – often of the same thing they have just left to go cold.

So, this morning in the hotel restaurant, I had a look around to see if I could identify any stereotypes or strange behaviours.  I don’t want to point the finger, but some nationalities are immediately identifiable (each item is from a different group), and other actions just struck me as a bit odd:

  1. everything very neat – knives and forks places together and parallel
  2. cutlery discarded almost randomly across the plate
  3. more food left on the plate than I actually ate!
  4. trying to open the alcohol fridge to have wine with breakfast
  5. taking the only bottle of ketchup from beside the food to their table

Wish I could have taken some pictures without being wholly obvious.

What other strange behaviours have you seen when peoplewatching at breakfast?