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December 1st 2011
Thanks to those of you who had a go at the quiz last time. Between them the first two entrants (Chris & Tim) got all the answers correct except the 'andante' question, which, oddly, everyone got right at the weekend away. Here are the answers:
1. I Am the Walrus
2. Mylo XylotoActuaries are cool, honest
3. Bob Dylan
4. At walking pace
5. The Eagles
6. Money Money Money
7. Steve Brookstein
8. Cliff Richard
9. The Rolling Stones
10. Empty orchestra
In other news, last weekend was the annual pub quiz/crawl of the Bristol Actuarial Society and I took part for the fifth year in a row, this time in a team dressed as soldiers. As you can see from the picture above, I bumped into my good friend Rick, who was dressed as a pilot. Because he was taking part in the quiz/crawl as well, not because he likes people to think he's a pilot. Anyways, our team came a credible 5th out of 25ish teams, although if we'd remembered to hand in the envelope we were given at the start of the night we would have gained an extra 20 points and won first prize.
In union news, you may have spotted that thousands of public sector workers were out on strike yesterday over proposed pension reforms. Those of you who know my politics and my general antipathy towards unions will not be surprised to learn that I think the strike was misguided, but I have to admit that I have more sympathy with it than I have had with previous strikes (Bob Crow springs, like a ghoul, to mind). Actuarially speaking - and I know you love it when I do that - the argument in favour of pensions reform is compelling, but it's not a lot of fun for those affected. The strike was unreasonable, but a lot closer to being reasonable than a lot of strikes.
I have yet to read the Hutton report (though it's on my reading list), but I do know that people are living longer and that defined benefit schemes are found almost nowhere other than public sector. If you'll forgive me for going back to basics (as the Times maxim goes, never underestimate your audience's intelligence and never overestimate their knowledge) a defined benefit pension scheme (let's call it a final salary pension, for the sake of argument) is one in which the amount you'll receive is defined. For example: "We'll give you 5k a year when you retire", or "We'll give you half your final salary when you retire". A defined contribution scheme (otherwise known as DC) is one in which the amount that's paid towards your pension is defined. For example: "We'll pay 8% of your salary into a pension fund until you retire." If, like me, you work in the private sector, you'll almost certainly have a DC scheme rather than a DB (defined benefit; keep up) scheme. The key distinction of course is that, in a DC scheme, whatever your money makes is what you get: if it's invested in such a way that it makes stacks of money, you're in luck; if not, then hard cheese. The risk lies with you. In a DB scheme the risk lies squarely with the company (or government) paying your pension; if the markets are bad and investment growth is poor, you don't need to worry because what you're going to get isn't going to change.
In a nutshell (and I apologise for how nutshell-ish this is - I'm a Life actuary, not a Pensions actuary), that's why public pension reform is necessary: the government can't afford to make up the difference between what's been earned and what has to paid any more. As it stands, there doesn't appear to be any prospect of public sector workers getting DC schemes, but surely that's the way things will move over the coming decades - this anomalous distinction in benefits between public and private sectors can't continue indefinitely. This is why, as much as public sector workers are aggrieved, we in the private sector are feeling a little bitter. Their pensions may be getting worse, but they're still a cut above most of ours.

On this day in 2005... As Advent begins, so does a new dawn for Rob's hair.

December 8th 2011
Are you sick and tired of reading stuff by boring old me every time you come to this page? Don't answer that, of course you are. There's a whole world of people out there - 7 billion by the last count - and I continue, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, to vary the authorship of this page not a jot. But maybe for not much longer, as this week I received a deeply personalised offer from a lass by the name of Izzy Woods. She is offering her services as a freelance writer for this page, producing - for free - 'a high-quality article written specifically for the site ... written with the site's readership in mind'.
I hope Ms Woods will forgive me for harbouring suspicious thoughts, but I'm not entirely convinced she is a devotee of this page. I might even go so far as to suggest that she's landed upon this site at random (and perhaps cyberbotically. That's a word, right?). My evidence for this is twofold: firstly, if she truly believes that a 'high-quality article' is compatible with this site's readership, she hasn't familiarised herself with the usual content on this page. Secondly - and perhaps more tellingly - the title of this page is 'Colin's Online Diary' which, while arguably a trifle narcissistic, is admirably clear in limiting the potential authors of this page to one. Well, I suppose it doesn't rule out other people called Colin, but until Messrs Firth, Farrell or Powell give me a call, you can assume that the Colin referred to is of the Thomas persuasion.
So I'm afraid it's a no from me, Izzy. But I feel a bit mean-spirited now, and can't help considering the remote possibility that Izzy Woods is a long-term fan of this page (that makes six, if you include Pluggy) whose hopes of adding her penmanship to its annals have just been cruelly dashed by the man she once viewed as a demi-god. So let me apologise by pointing you towards some of her previous work, and invite you to avail yourselves of her services if your own blog is becoming too one-sided: www.wiki-bee.com.
In other news, I feel it is only my duty to inform you of recent Facebook joiners. If you were surprised to see Jay join the site, after years of antagonism towards it, you will scarcely believe me when I tell you that Rob Roe, who has previously vowed never to sully himself with the thing, is now fully signed up. Not only that, but my mother has joined the rest of the family by setting up a Facebook profile of her very own. When I've told people about this (this kind of thing passes for hot news in the Thomas family. This is why I'm frankly in desperate need of a quality freelancer to take over my conversational duties as well as my blog entries) they've generally suggested that I'll have to be careful now that she can see what I'm up to. Hmm... having mulled it over, I think I can live with my mother knowing that I have exactly 365 friends, two albums full of DVD screenshots and an 80% win record in Scrabble.

On this day in 2005... John Lennon 9th October 1940 - 8th December 1980

December 10th 2011
Just a quick entry before I head up (down? sideways?) to London, to congratulate myself on reaching eight years of this page, and more importantly to say happy birthday to the fellow in the middle below. That's Dad as Bruce Forsyth, surrounded by me and Simon as Jedward. But that was probably obvious. I shall also take the opportunity to complain that the people upstairs set off the fire alarm at 6.30am... grumble, grumble.
Jazz hands!

On this day in 2003... This diary begins, as all good diaries should, on my Dad's birthday.

December 18th 2011
I am now bedded down in Somerset for the duration, having finished work at noon on Friday, not to return until after Christmas. Tonight is the first of several carol-type events I will attend with my flute (which tends not to see the light of day between one Christmas period and the next) or just my singing voice - I might even get to go carol singing with Paddy Ashdown again. Anyways, as narcissistically as you might expect, I have devised a quiz based on my entries on this site throughout 2011. Kinda like I did last year. Have a go, see how much you remember, and relive the good times...
On this day in 2003... I'm officially no longer a member of orchestra! I have blown my last.

December 22nd 2011
This year I decided to read only books that I hadn't read before, and promised to let you know how I got on (you remember. Sure you do). I really should have kept a list, I guess, as I'm racking my brains to think of the various tomes I've digested throughout the year, and I'm fairly confident I haven't remembered them all. I certainly haven't read several of the books I was intending to at the start of the year, partly because Times-reading takes up a lot of my time (and now that I walk to work I don't have my traditional bus-time for reading) but mostly because I've just turned to other things.
I began the year reading The Complete Yes, Minister, a book that went far beyond simply reproducing the scripts from that sitcom, instead producing each episode in the form of Jim Hacker's diaries, occasionally interspersed with notes from Bernard Woolley, a memo from Sir Humphrey and so on. This made the book sometimes even funnier than the series, a trend that was also continued in the sequel The Complete Yes, Prime Minister, which I borrowed from Rick. Other books I borrowed from Rick this year included the first seven Terry Pratchett books, since I had not previously read any of that man's works. The first two (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic) were very enjoyable, although I felt that, like Douglas Adams, they sometimes tried too hard to be amusingly wacky; the tone then changed completely in Equal Rites to be rather more straight, to show that Pratchett has some versatility. This versatility was further displayed in Mort, Sourcery (probably my favourite), Wyrd Sisters - with some clever references to Macbeth - and Pyramids, which I found rather disappointing as it didn't properly develop the amusing theme of a guild of thieves.
According to the quote on the cover, Terry Pratchett was a fan of the Thursday Next trilogy by Jasper Fforde, which I also read this year - I finished it within the last few days - having been lent it by a chap from work. The books are set in an alternative history (dodos are no longer extinct; the Crimean war is still happening) where literature dominates every area of life - instead of a jukebox in the corner of the pub, there is a machine reciting Shakespeare. In the first of the series, The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next (the name of the protagonist, in case you were wondering) 'reads herself into' Jane Eyre and changes the plot-line to the one we know and love; the next two (Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots) get increasingly more bizarre as Thursday spends most of her time in a universe of fiction. I doubt I'll bother to read the rest of the series, as its oddness tends to lead to a lack of internal consistency and an alienation from the characters.
The only other sci-fi/fantasy books I read this year were Dragonsdawn and Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey (who, I discovered, died a month ago); I'm still reading the latter, but again I doubt I'll continue with McCaffrey's books (beyond, I expect, the other one I've been lent) - the characterisation is not strong enough to compare with, say, Robert Jordan.
Autobiographies have cropped up a few times during 2011, including the second volume of Michael Palin's diaries, Halfway to Hollywood. Like the first volume, this book provided an intriguing insight into the life and work of one of Britain's best-loved comedians; I was particularly intrigued to see how much time and effort Palin put into a film called The Missionary, which has sunk with very little trace in the intervening years - even mediocre films are the result of months and years of dedication. As in the first volume, Palin comes across as a decent chap but rather ruder (particularly about the Goodies, Christians and his fellow Pythons) than you might expect from a man who is often regarded as one of the nicest people around. At least he has something to say and only published the diaries after many, many years as a living legend, which cannot be said of Rob Brydon, whose autobiography Small Man in a Book is eminently missable. Brydon certainly seems like a lovely bloke who worked hard to get to where he is today, but his story is not unusual enough nor his anecdotes exciting enough to make this book anything more than pleasantly diverting. Rather better was the autobiography of his Gavin & Stacey co-star, James Corden, which was titled May I Have Your Attention Please?. You could argue that Corden has not been around long enough to warrant a life story, but this book clearly meant a lot to him and acted as a form of therapy as well as a source of income. I don't follow celebrity gossip so I hadn't been aware of many of Corden's indiscretions (a rather boorish comment after winning a Bafta; frequent drunkenness and arrogant behaviour) but this book was effectively Corden's mea culpa and a tale of redemption. He comes across as a great bloke, and it seems churlish to wish there were one or two more Gavin & Stacey anecdotes.
The most interesting book I read this year was The Insider by Piers Morgan, heavily edited diaries of his time as a newspaper editor on The News of the World and later The Daily Mirror. Morgan manages to come across as less unpleasant than he really is, but he can't make his activities seem anything other than vaguely repulsive, especially when he tries to justify the indefensible. I was not surprised to read of his contempt for the privacy of people in the public eye, but I must admit that the level of betrayal and deceit between newspaper editors was something of an eye-opener; Morgan is delighted to recount the occasions when he or one of his staff stole, word for word, copy from another paper, even one from the same stable.
The only other non-fiction book I can remember reading this year - unless you count the 50 Years of Private Eye coffee table book - was Dave Gorman vs. The Rest of the World, a return to form for the writer after the disappointment of America Unchained. Gorman, whose 'Are You Dave Gorman?', written with Danny Wallace, remains one of my favourite books ever, writes in the same vein about challenging all comers at any game of their choice. The pursuit is less obsessive - and deliberately so, as Gorman is an older and more sensible man these days - but the stories are funny and generally captivating. Not as captivating, though, as One Day by David Nicholls, the 2009 sensation recently adapted into a film. I found myself tearing through the novel, eager to read each new chapter and find out what happens next to Emma and Dexter, but when I reached the end I was curiously detached from their story. Maybe I'll give it another go sometime, but this felt rather like fast food; it's enjoyable at the time but leaves you feeling rather unsatisfied.
I'm struggling to dredge my memory banks now, although Simon has just reminded me that I read Study in Scarlet this year [Edit: I've since remembered that I actually read this in 2010] (I have to admit that I missed out the chunk of the novel concerning the back-story of the victim - life's just too short) - it was curiously unmemorable, considering it was the first Conan-Doyle book I've read (unless you count the first few pages of Hound of the Baskervilles, some years ago). Holmes is more pleasant than I'd been led to believe from some adaptations, which paint him as frosty and severe, but I found it difficult to come afresh to a character I've already seen portrayed in so many different ways on TV and at the cinema.
There are probably others that I've forgotten, but - as my mother always used to say - they can't have been that important, then. The list is notably lacking titles from the BBC's Big Read (with the exception of the Pratchett books), which I'd intended to be the basis of this year's reading - so I have plenty to carry over on my to-be-read list for 2012. The book I'm really excited about for next year, though, is the final installment of The Wheel of Time, which will draw to a close a fantastic series that has captivated me for 13 volumes and more than a decade (it would have been 22 years if I'd started when the first book was published). Let's hope that Brandon Sanderson can continue his good work following the death of Robert Jordan, and give this superlative series the ending it deserves.

On this day in 2004... Many of you out there may be labouring under a misapprehension, and I feel that it is my duty to disabuse you. You may believe that Little Britain is funny.

December 25th 2011
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild, He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing:
"Glory to the new born King!"

what was I listening to?
An Innocent Man - Billy Joel
what was I reading?
The Well of Lost Plots - Jasper Fforde
what was I watching?
Morning Glory
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