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David's diary: June 1997

What a weekend, and indeed what a week! Everything seems to be happening...

At work, it's all-change with my projects, probably. With Bob defecting to the BBC, I am taking over his main development project, a simulation and tutorial on chemical equilibrium, pressure and temperature, based around a model of gas molecules bouncing around a box. I see trouble ahead, though, since the software is supposed to be able to run on very low specification PC's, and it barely works on my reasonably respectable Pentium. I am also likely to be doing some work on another project he would have been working on soon, all about spectroscopy, which promises to be interesting if nothing else, and a subject area in which my scientific background should come into play in a big way. Good news - for me at least - on the modern languages front, is that we have a new recruit starting shortly with a track-record in phonetics etc, and it is likely that he will work primarily on language projects in a manner I have never really been able to for one reason or another. The language department won't be too overjoyed with yet another staff-change and the necessary briefing etc, but at the end of the day, this new guy sounds like he could be just the kind of person they want, need, and have never previously had.

I've been dabbling in some socket programming on behalf of the Orchard talker I help run, and am starting to get reasonably confident about handling TCP and UDP exchanges, especially when using programming components that neatly separate the concepts and technical details. Specifically I have been developing a Windows client to communicate with the talker software, which allows the user to maintain a list of connected users without ever really connecting, the idea being that it can alert you to when people connect and you can then opt to connect too. By using UDP rather than TCP, no connection is ever established as such, making it all very light on resources. The only TCP used was for an extra I decided to include which would let you finger a connected user, and that too was straightforward enough. The main difficulties encountered in writing the the client were in parsing the packets received, which encoded a multitude of different events, though later versions of the protocol have been better organised, making this parsing a far more logical and structured process - though there also now some error-checking mechanisms which although entirely worthwhile, added a few complications of their own!

Then Friday things really started happening... I'd had rather an uncertain week relationship-wise for various reasons that I think I have largely managed to put behind me. Just before five I got phoned at work by Kate who was insistent that we should meet up that evening, which we duly did, although it was a bit hurried, since she was going down to Brighton later in the evening. All very pleasant though, and many hugs were exchanged, and she busied herself punching in beats on the drum machine - she will make a musician yet... Ideally we were supposed to have gone down to Brighton together, but with her being away for the previous few days, it was rather difficult to organise anything, so I'd planned my own journey, travelling down Saturday morning with Alex, a friend from Leicester. The excuse for the trip in the first place was to attend the wedding of our friend Michael, wheelchair-bound with incurable multiple sclerosis, and piecing together his life after the diagnosis and subsequent separation from his first wife who rejected him when he suddenly was no longer a rich and successful businessman. Her loss, and Sarah-Jane's new gain, for Michael is the kind of guy whose pragmatic outlook on life could and should be an inspiration to us all.

The wedding was at the Church of Christ the King, and officiated by Dave Fellingham, a well-known worship-leader and prolific Christian song-writer. Needless to say, meeting up with Kate on Saturday morning was not quite as easy as we had hoped, though we were only five minutes late for the wedding in the end, and luckily they started late so in fact we missed none of it at all. The well-attended ceremony was actually nicely low-key and not over-long, and the music was good, as would have been expected. The reception afterwards was civilised, but pretty packed out. Tim (Dreadzone) Bran turned up later with his girlfriend which was great, taking loads of pictures for the web site etc. No sign of Willy (London Beat) Henshall who had been one of Michael's key mentors over recent years, though I gather he was only really expected for the more family-based evening do.

Kate, Alex and myself spent the beautiful afternoon strolling up and down the prom and irradiating ourselves on the beach, enjoying what for me at least was a very rare seaside visit. After a pizza, we agreed that Alex and myself would head home, whilst Kate would check back in at her guest-house, which she'd already booked anyway. Just as we were leaving, Kate's Beetle ground to a halt, close inspection indicating that some vital bit of the engine had blown itself off when she started it. From previous experience, she reckoned it could be repaired with some coke-can metal and Araldite, though it was as well that she wasn't needing to rush home that evening and could spend a little more time seeking to get it repaired properly. Nevertheless, Alex and myself really had to head off, feeling a little guilty at leaving Kate stranded, though she almost certainly knew more about what she was doing than either of us could have contributed. Apart from an accident holding up the M23 close to the M25, we had a good clear run back, though I was still utterly shattered by the time I got home.

So I slept like a log, almost oblivious to the door-bell being rung at six on Sunday morning. A bleary-eyed peer out of the curtains revealed a police-car pulled up outside, and for a moment I feared the worst, though I'm not quite sure what the worst was. On the entry-phone, they told me that someone had reported a break-in at my flat and could they come up. Oddly enough, now they mentioned it, my door was indeed ajar, though we had a look around the flat and saw nothing untoward, so I guess I must just have somehow forgotten to shut it last night; I told them I would contact them if I discovered anything odd, though it was almost certainly just me being utterly absent-minded, and someone else being remarkably vigilant. I think it was probably the guy who lives across the landing from me, who just happens to be a detective or something, so I guess he spots things like that without even thinking about it... Funnily enough though, I remember having a dream last night that I was back home at my parents' house, and there was some confusion over the door being open or unlocked or something, so I guess the subconscious was busy at work and if I'd realised the significance, I could have saved my neighbour some concern, the police a visit, and got a better night's sleep myself!

Wow, another one of those weeks. Some lowlights and some highlights, for sure. Sadly I decided I couldn't go on further with Kate. She's very sweet, and a lot of fun, but it was abundantly clear things weren't going to work out, and as time wore on, we were irritating each other more than ever, and misinterpreting each other to the extent that it was clear we would never have a great deal of understanding. So I made the bold and painful move to stop now - at least for the time being and give ourselves time to think about what we may have said or done and whether it is or isn't irrevocable. Kate of course insists she never meant to come across as any more than just a good friend, and I appreciate her feelings, but unfortunately she - maybe unwittingly - frequently hinted at more than that, which contributed a considerable amount to my recent state of mind - which, I should add, seems to have been more or less instantaneously cured by making this decision.

Yesterday I went shopping for a present for my dad, whose birthday was last Thursday - yes, I sent him a card in time for the day, so I didn't entirely forget him - and ended up getting a nice folksy CD. Why oh why oh why though did they design the CD case the way they did? It seems like a miracle of completely rubbish engineering design. Needless to say, the first time I opened the box on getting it back home, the hinge mechanism broke off, and it's not the first time such a thing has happened, I can assure you. I thought, "Oh that'll be easy, I'll just swap the broken plastic cover for one of my multitudinous beermats-in-waiting", only to find that of course since this new disc is a double, the cover is subtly different in construction, so I had to sacrifice one of my own favourite double discs, but never mind, worse things have happened...

Today was the annual Stony Stratford Folk-on-the-Green free festival, though the first time I had ever been. Previously I was going to go with Kate and her friends, but clearly more recent events meant that wasn't going to be the case. I didn't even see her there, though she was adamant she was going, and I would hate to think that anything that had happened would stop her, so I guess she was lurking under some leafy tree - or more likely outside one of the many bars which do a roaring trade for at least one Sunday a year. The festival featured mainly local talent, and some local talentless, too, but overall it was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon. I could have stayed on late into the evening and watched the Cock And Bull Band play at one of the hotels, but that would have cost money, and having already seen them play for free, and got their latest CD for my mum's forthcoming birthday, when the weather started closing in - with a trombone quartet accompanied by not-so-distant rumbles of thunder and the early signs of a tornado funnel forming in the clouds - and I started getting decidedly cold, tired and hungry, I decided to call it a day.

Over the week I have also been working on converting this remote notification client thing for the Orchard talker into Delphi. It had been in Visual Basic up until now, but as I wanted to add further features, VB was showing itself to be less than ideal, so it was a very worthwhile exercise converting it all into Delphi, which only really took a couple of hours, but resulted in a much better-looking, faster, and more flexible application, to which it will be far easier to add further features as required. I had a few problems along the way, connected to the fact that this is what is called an MDI (multiple document interface) application, i.e. one of those where you can have several windows open at once within one parent frame, but it all seems fine now. Sure, there's some nasty bugs to fix, but I am reasonably confident of ending up with something really quite good, and learning a lot about network programming along the way!

Oh yeah, I forgot completely about Friday night and Saturday! I had agreed to met up with an old friend of mine on Saturday, who was in Cranfield for the weekend in connection with the graduation ball there. Knowing I had a long day ahead of my, I turned in quite early on the Friday night, though extremely conscious of the commotion from downstairs - now regulars will realise that this is not a particularly remarkable thing, though it did appear this time that the guy was trying to kick in the front door to the block of flats, and it seemed that his girlfriend - for once - was prepared to take a bit of a stand against him. Either way, a little while later, two police Astras and a van-load of dogs pulled up outside, and with the cooperation of someone who shall remain nameless, they got access to the block, though they couldn't initially at least actually get into the flat for some reason. I got the impression that before the police had arrived, the guy had managed to get in, by persuading one of the other residents that the entryphone system wasn't working, and the girl had taken refuge by locking herself into her room or something, and wasn't going to risk coming out to open the door for the police. Well anyway, nothing really happened, though a couple of young men were told to clear off, though it seemed - though I'm not sure how he got out of the flat - that one of them, perhaps unknown to the police, was the guy in question. The police went away, and that was that... Until a few minutes later, they returned with reinforcements; all told there were about twelve officers, who arrested the guy - who had returned from hiding around the corner - screaming, kicking and swearing, and bundled him into the back of their Transit van, all the time protesting his innocence and claiming the police were roughing him up. No specific charges were read out, only talk of "allegations", and something to do with a complaint made by the kebab-van owner at the end of the street. So I finally got to sleep at about 1am, and was just about awake enough in the morning to do my weekly shop before going out to meet Steve.

So Saturday lunchtime I drove out to Cranfield, my first brave trip to the previously uncharted and no doubt dragon-infested lands to the east of the M1. Steve was staying with rugby club friends, and was certainly the worse for wear after a heavy night at the ball. Nevertheless we had a pleasant pub lunch in some obscure little village, then went on to have a wander round Cranfield Insititute, where Steve had done his Masters degree. Quite a weird place, really - a haphazard combination of ex-barracks and other military buildings, modern purpose-built educational facilities, and a bleak and windswept airfield. I'm not sure if it's the kind of place I would like to study; being all post-graduate and with a very high proportion of foreign students, it's apparently not always fun on a plate, with most of the students more inclined to bury themselves in their books for 23 hours a day than anything much else, though Steve seemed to have had a good time, probably because it's one of those "what you make of it" kind of places. Anyway it was good to see Steve for the first time in about a year; he's doing quite well working at Psion, currently in the process of setting up a new production facility near Oxford - and he is staying there during the week, which is cool because it is near enough for us to meet up more often, and Steve always has been and is continuing to be a very supportive and positive influence in my life.

Well it's my first time back home in about a month, and so the first opportunity I have really had to reflect in quite a while. I think recent events have changed me, and - on the whole - for the better. Sure, I've been left pretty emotionally and physically drained, but I now feel far more ready to face an uncertain future. Where I go next is anyone's guess, but I feel can approach what lies ahead in a more relaxed, wise way.

I'm certainly not going to fall for the same tricks again if I can possibly help it. It is true that I do feel older and less energetic with every passing day, and if I could reverse that, I would. Indeed if I could put the clock back about five or six years, there's a whole lot of stuff I would change, but then I probably wouldn't have had all the positive experiences of that period which are still highly significant and important to me, despite having been overshadowed by a relatively small number of - admittedly, quite seriously bad - negative ones.

Life follows strange twists, and, like that butterfly innocently flapping its wings, who can really say what would have happened different if one seemingly small variable had been changed. At the end of the day, one simply has to use bad situations to learn something positive. It's corny to say that every cloud has a silver lining, but it's true - though sometimes the location of that silver lining is far from obvious and may even come as a complete surprise.

Hearing the little lad over the road shattering the peace of the neighbourhood with his sadly pretty apalling trombone-playing reminded me of the importance of encouraging an interest in musical creativity. Maybe at the moment I can only vaguely discern any hint of familiarity in Paul's rendition of "Happy Birthday", but I hope he can sustain his interest in some shape or form.

For far too many people of my generation, their only childhood experience of playing musical instruments was the en-masse recorder school recorder classes, where even if you were in time and tune, noone else would be, so it still sounded dreadful. Any chance of nurturing anything other than a passive interest in music was blown at an early stage. Yet many children did not even have that much opportunity, which is even sadder.

Today's children increasingly have electronic keyboards at school and at home, and whilst many purists malign such things, if they are opening up the possibility of making music to children who otherwise wouldn't, then I'm all for it. My sister has always been very musical, oddly enough sticking mainly to the recorder, but didn't always find it easy passing on that interest to her children. A couple of years ago, we bought them a fairly cheap Yamaha keyboard; Alison insisted we should get one that could play chords, having had her own negative experiences with the very cheapest Casio toys. And now they've just bought a real piano, pretty certain it will give many years of pleasure!

The whole point is that creative musical interest can develop and manifest in different ways, and all should be encouraged. Some people will tend towards rock or pop music, others towards more traditional or classical forms. All are equal, and all are certainly better than nothing. The tragedy is that anyone who can appreciate music passively probably has it in them to create music, even those who claim to be tone-deaf.

Perhaps the most maligned area of musical creativity is that of electronic dance music, using computer sequencing and so on to reduce the need for "real" instrumental skill. Yet those "real" instrumentalists can carry on to their hearts' content - it is merely their snobbishness that makes them jealous that people who have perhaps not been through years of formal training - but just have an ear for a good tune - can actually be successful and make music that - by all accounts - more people like to listen to.

I am not knocking those people who have had formal classical training - I am one of them - but as soon as music-making is widely seen once again as an exclusive pastime, it will be doomed until the opportunities from the next technological breakthroughs are realised, then no doubt squandered again.

Quite a busy time at the moment on a number of fronts. Sunday afternoon I went to my old junior school fete, which was a bit of a trip down memory lane, though rather sad because a favourite teacher from the past who I had chatted to a years previously had recently had a heart-attack so wasn't there. Of course the fete seems a lot smaller now that it did when I was little, but I guess that's just me getting bigger and less overwhelmed. This year was a bit different because of the inclement weather, with many of the stalls moved indoors, which was rather steamy and claustrophobic. As with the last time I visited, I did my usual bit of supporting the stalls runs by people I knew, and buying a book for the school library - it's sad that they have to resort to such tactics to get books, but if that's the only way they can get enough money to sustain a good quality library, then I just have to be pragmatic about it.

I got my car insurance renewal papers over the weekend, but was shocked at the premium Direct Line tried to charge me, on account of having made the write-off claim almost a year ago; it was over 400 quid compared with about 300 last year. I made a whole list of 0800 phone numbers to shop around, but come the evening I really couldn't be bothered, so went with Kwik-Fit in the end - on a recommendation - for a bit more than I paid last year, but with the claim blotting my copy-book, I doubt I got have done any better, and the sales-woman at least managed to sound as if she was being sympathetic to my plight! Real pain though, because you get stung no less than three times if you make a claim: first when they don't pay out enough in the first place, especially for inconvenience and other such unquantifiable things; second when you lose any no-claims bonus you might have had or be earning; and finally when they bump up the basic premiums in the first place. My claim has cost me about 500 quid so far, I would have thought, and it will still be taken into account next year. And the only thing the claim had to do with me was that it was my car that was involved... Pesky kids!

British Telecom are messing me around, with taking over the line at my flat. First they try to charge me 130 quid, which I challenge, but they still send the red bill out. They eventually send out an amended one for 13 quid which I pay more or less immediately, but now today I get a letter telling me they're going to cut me off in five days from the letter's date, i.e. about two days from now. But I had paid, so I thought I would ring their automated line specially set up for doing so, or so they claim. However, clearly their automated line only works during office hours. Hopeless. This is what privatisation does. Generally I am pleased with the way the market for telecommunications has opened up - I'm not yet inclined to go with anyone other than BT, while BT are making so many discounts to stay competitive - but for anything other than run-of-the-mill service, they're utter rubbish; I've had serious problems of one sort or another every time I've had to do business with them in the last few years.

The summer holiday looks like it might finally be taking shape. I desperately need to get away for a bit, and an unusual destination is looking more and more likely. The latest plan - and if I can sort out flights, it should be a goer - is to go out and meet a Slovenian friend, and climb their highest peak, Mount Triglav, which is about 10,000 feet, well over twice as high as Ben Nevis, which I haven't climbed either. I understand it can be climbed without mountaineering skills, but it's still a long slog, about a 50-mile round trip, the kind of distance I haven't walked for a while, though it should be OK spread over a few days. This is an utterly crazy idea, I know, but if I don't do this, I probably won't do much else, and conventional holidays do not inspire me in the slightest these days. The problem is with finding flights out to either Ljubljana or Graz - just over the border in Austria. Anyway, I'll do some more research at the weekend, i.e. visit travel agents etc, and see what I can find out. This would certainly be one opportunity not to miss!

Hmmm... odd day of ups and downs. I got my new car insurance details through in the post this morning, and they were mainly in order, but there were a couple of things I wanted to query and amend. Firstly my job title and employer, though it turned out that they didn't have anything better to match with on their database, so I probably look like some whipper-snapper sales rep who drives a red company BMW up and down the motorways all day. Then there was the mileage - amazingly I really didn't have a clue what this was, and was out by a full factor of two, though it didn't matter! Then... finally, was the fact that their details said I had a child safety seat. I don't. But for the fact that they are generously waiving it because it was their mistake, the fact that I don't have one would have put by premium up by about 25 quid! It would be cheaper to go to Halfords and buy a cheap child seat I'm sure. Except that I don't have a child! Documentable proof that insurance companies discriminate against childless people. Crazy, but true...

Yesterday, our departmental intranet web server went on-line, so I had a good play with that today, specifically exploring rudimentary active pages, using server-side VBScript, JavaScript, and Microsoft's own JScript variant. I really thought that as a proprietary Microsoft non-standard, it was going to be horribly bad - like Exchange, Internet Explorer and everything else - but I have to admit that I was quite impressed. Of course, it's hopelessly non-portable, running only on NT servers, so I probably won't be creating any active pages of my own for the time being, though from the end-user's point of view, it's great, with ASP pages being properly viewable in any browser, from Lynx to the latest Netscape - incredible concession for Microsoft! The syntax when you want to intermingle script and HTML gets a bit tortuous, but the end result seems worth it, though for the things I was trying to do, I could just tack the scripts onto the end of the document, which was a lot easier. My first program simply counted from 1 to 5 - not that impressive - but I rapidly moved on to prime number calculation, though I politely declined from trying to break any world records, in the interests of server performance if nothing else...

Speaking of which, sadly the DPLinux server is in trouble. It seems someone hacked into it while DP was out of the country, and set up some CPU and network bandwidth eating jobs on it, sufficient to bring most of the University of Sunderland to its knees. The net result is that the entire structure of access to the machine is being revised, with it losing most of its users, and the web site and Orchard talker going off-line for the time being. Very annoying, but entirely understandable, and as with the Spodbox episodes in the past, my sympathies have to lie completely with the system admin. In this case, of course, it wasn't just DPLinux that was directly affected by the hack, so there are wider political issues at stake. This comes all too soon after a strange complaint was received regarding the Orchard talker, running on DPLinux, which turned out almost certainly to be unsubstantiated, but it makes me wonder if the same person was involved in both episodes, and had a malicious motive against either the machine's owner, its many users, or indeed the University. Either way, it's a sad day, and once again, one individual manages to wreck the good intentions of another who was perhaps naive enough to open his machine up to people he almost certainly little knew. In the meantime, we have to consider finding a new home for the Orchard - yes it used to be on Spodbox, so we get used to this kind of thing, though we did think its future on DPLinux was assured...

Oh, and speaking of bringing networks to their knees, our Quake matches are getting ever more frenetic, and we've started connecting to public servers, where we can play people we don't know, just for a change. It's amazing seeing the range of playing styles of others, though incredibly, we actually fare quite well on the whole, perhaps because we are so bad, we do what is least expected - rather the way I ever win at games like chess! This server today had loads of different rules, which gave the game a very different complexion - for example the objects regenerated very quickly, monsters periodically entered the game to spice things up, there were some crazy new weapons, and things like the Quad-damage lasted even beyond death. Having said that, for the first time, I would actually have said that playing the game was a tad scary, so I'll probably stick to more regular game-play in the future, though who knows, I might yet get to like it. The worst news of all though is that the sequel is on its way. When Quake 2 hits the streets, it simply won't be safe to wander our department of an evening, that's for sure...

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