goznet ...

David's diary: November 1998

It's Monday evening, and a long overdue chance to sit back, relax and take stock of things a bit. I've just done my longest day at work for several years, but got the SDL stuff finished in the process - finishing at about half past eight and then winding down by chatting to Zoe, though she'd had a lousy day for one reason or another... I thought I was going to have to get the SDL stuff done by the end of normal office hours, but there was an e-mail from Karen this morning specifying only that she absolutely definitely had to have it by nine tomorrow morning, so it allowed me to be a little less stressed today - though the long hours had their toll in their own way, coupled with lack of food since mid-afternoon. One chicken kebab with barbecue sauce and garlic mayonnaise later, and I feel a lot better, though I think I'll call it a day very soon.

The weekend was fairly hectic, but thankfully a down a couple of gears from some of those of late; I think for once I maybe just possibly came out with a little more energy than when I went in, but not by much. Saturday morning I did my shopping and stuff - and again very nearly bought a Minidisc recorder, with a nice Sony one just reduced in John Lewis - and then had a fairly lazy afternoon. I had tentatively agreed to help do some decorating for someone as a bit of an outreach thing; that never materialised - I think it might happen in a couple of weekends' time now - but I had to be "on-call" just in case there were any last-minute arrangements. When I finally gave up any hope of that, I decided I'd go home to my parents for the evening, travelling down to get there in time for tea, and returning fairly late, once everyone had gone to bed.

There were two main purposes to the trip back home. Firstly, to return my dad's cycle computer that he'd lent me to try and repair. I had a bit of a tinker with it Saturday afternoon, and fixed a dodgy contact, and it seemed to work fine, though the real test will be when it's mounted on the bike with the proper magnet and everything. Secondly, to pick up the little powered PA speaker my dad had agreed to give me - though I insisted on paying for the fish and chips, and there's also a few hardware bits he wants from Maplin that I won't charge him for. The speaker seemed quite loud when I tested it out at home, but in the school hall up at Wolverton on Sunday morning it seemed less than marvellous - even for foldback monitoring purposes - although I could coax louder but lower quality sound out of it by overdriving the microphone input on it.

Sunday morning, I played at the celebration at Wolverton, and that all seemed to go quite well - once I'd sorted out my loudspeaker thing anyway. I had the evening off, playing-wise, which was really quite welcome - it was my first such evening for probably a month now. However, I still got roped into doing the OHP acetates, but that takes only a few minutes' preparation to get the right slides out - and hope the musicians don't change the playing order too much! Doing the OHP seems superficially very easy - and I did fine anyway - but it gets harder when things change from the previously-agreed plan - as they invariably do at least slightly - and especially when unscheduled songs get started on the chorus, requiring sudden brain-wracking to try and remember what the first line of the song is, given that they are indexed by first lines only...

After a McDonalds lunch - an increasingly regular occurrence - I went down to the Kings Centre with Mark for a while, to start building the bonfire for the party this Friday. Mark had already got a load of small wood bits for kindling, but we spent about an hour building up pallet wood around it. It's not done yet - still about sixty pallets to go! - but hopefully we and a few others will get down there tomorrow evening before it gets too dark and get it finished off. That will mean ducking out of work a bit early, but Karen did say I was to take it a bit easier once I had got this SDL stuff out of the way - actually, she told me to take some time off, but I don't think I can spare that much time - and I could always go back to work afterwards if I felt particularly conscientious, the Kings Centre being only five minutes away from the university.

Anyway, I'm now absolutely shattered, and am looking forward to a good night's sleep, and maybe not too rushed a start in the morning - though I'd rather not take liberties at both ends of the working day any more than I can help, even with about three hours unpaid overtime worked this evening. So I think I will have a nice relaxing bath and call it a day, but a day which has been most satisfyingly productive; always a nice feeling...

A nice, quiet, and largely uneventful day - much needed after a very hectic month. Karen seems happy with the SDL stuff I handed over to her last night, and I was able to start going through the student-testing feedback from one of my S103 applications. The latter was quite gratifying in a way, because although there were quite a few documented problems, one of the most important things was an assessment of how effective the software was at teaching, and my Electrons in Atoms software came out the best of the Block 7 applications!

This afternoon I was ushered into Joel's office for another chat about future projects, and it looks like he's going to get me on to some very interesting stuff pretty much immediately. The downside is that I might have to work with the Centre for Modern Languages again, although things have changed a lot since I was there last - but the incentive is the likelihood of working on some internet-based audio and conferencing software, probably using Java. This would be great programming experience, and right up my technical street.

Later in the afternoon, I ducked out early for a couple of hours to help Mark finish building the bonfire down at the King Centre, though I went back to work later to finish off a few bits and pieces and also do the long awaited reorganisation of the X-ian Files in the Religion and Faith section on Monochrome. Simeon and Daniel also gave us a hand with the bonfire, Simeon being particularly useful by climbing the tree that was rather overhanging the pile of pallet-wood, and sawing back a few of the more easily-ignitable branches.

But now, with everything done that I can do here, and time getting on once again, it's time to hit the road back home, and hopefully get another good and recuperative night's sleep!

Slept quite well, but not much of a surprise when I didn't get to bed til about one. So much for my plans for an early night... When I got back from work, Mark was busy catching up on some marking, and I suggested he might like to go for a drink when he was done. But after a couple of phone calls, we ended up going - with Phil, just back from his CU meeting - round to Andy and Rosie's, where I was introduced to the delights of Risk. When explained quickly, the rules seem to surpass even those of Mornington Crescent, or the rubric of an English Literature paper, but they turned out to be fairly straightforward in practice. I can't say I much liked the game, but maybe I'll give it another try sometime when I've thought a little more about strategies.

Still going through this S103 student feedback this morning, now onto the Block 8 Chemical Equilibrium stuff, and the comments are altogether more favourable than for the Electrons in Atoms. This surprises me, given my relative happiness with the two applications, but you never really can tell how good a bit of educational software is until it is out there in the real world, with real students using it - even IET's "developmental testing" phase isn't very realistic in practice, since the testers don't have the pressures of life while they are trying out the software in the lab. Once again, the most important ratings for my software were most pleasing - again the best of the bunch - with all eight testers finding it very effective as a teaching component.

But now I've got to decide which of the requested changes I can realistically make by the hand-over date of the middle of this month. There's a couple of previously-known bugs I need to fix anyway, and there's a few changes that are being made to all the applications - such as changing the credits screen and adding support for automatic text transcripts of the spoken audio content. The main problem with the Electrons in Atoms software is that it overruns their time estimates by a factor of about three, on average - and student experiences vary widely in this respect, depending on many factors - so ideally, quite a lot needs to be chopped out of it, but it will be very hard to decide what can bite the dust; I think the time estimate should just be upped...

Had a nice and fairly quiet evening last night; there was a multi-player Quake game after office hours, which I joined in with once I had the right version of the client, but I didn't hang around too long, and almost got an early night. I had a further play with the little amplifier my dad had given me when I got home, and was dismayed to find that my non-destructive tinkering the other day had rendered it somewhat dead. A loudish transformer hum when the mains was applied, but no power on light, and certainly no amplification. Working on the basis that I hadn't done anything specific to cause that, I guessed that dismantling it again might cure it, and it did, thankfully, though I'm still not sure what the matter was. Hi-tech equipment just tends to be like that...

Working with Phil for a little while, I managed to find some better settings with which to use the amplifier on-stage with my VL70-m. The VL70-m, we fairly conclusively discovered, puts out lower line output levels than many other similar bits of equipment, but with a little care, good results can still be had. The distortion I was getting from plugging it into the microphone input on the amplifier turned out only to be due to me overloading the input stage, not the whole thing; by turning down the VL70-m, and correspondingly turning up the amplifier, we were able to get much louder sound, with little or no distortion. There was slight radio interference with too much amplification - I had heard this was an occasional problem with the VL70-m even though I had not directly experienced it before - but I managed to find the levels to set on both units that maximised the signal to noise ratio, with minimal distortion. It will mean that the PA guys will have to turn me up a bit higher on the mixing desk, because my main output will be correspondingly a little lower, but I don't think there should be much problem, and the little amplifier should do sterling service for foldback monitoring from now on!

Mum phoned me at work just before I got in this morning; trust her to catch me on the day I had a little lie-in... She's just taken delivery of an S-reg Renault Clio, and was a little scared about taking it out. Sadly it's not for keeps, and is just a courtesy car while her Metro's being mended after a bit of a crunch - no-one else involved and no-one hurt - the other day, so I've encouraged her to make the most of it. She said she would have preferred an M-reg Metro, but I guess beggars can't be choosers, and in any case I think it will be good experience for her to try driving some different vehicles. Hopefully her car will be back within a few days; it's at a repair shop in Leighton Buzzard which is a bit of a long way away, but since the courtesy car was delivered when hers was collected - and presumably the reverse will happen when it's all been done - it doesn't really matter.

Early Saturday morning - or early as Saturday mornings go for me, at least - and kind of half-awake but unable to get back to sleep anyway, though still pretty tired. Maybe I'll try going back to bed in a short while and see if I can at least get a little more rest before what will probably be quite a long day again.

Last night's bonfire and fireworks spectacular went very well, although we didn't quite get the numbers we'd somewhat expected - lousy weather earlier in the evening probably took its toll, even though conditions were perfect come half past seven. The bonfire was scaled down slightly - it was deemed to be just a little too hazardous-looking - but still burned more ferociously than many people could bear, and our resident fireman Chris looked quite anxious as he ran around checking for hotspots on the nearby buildings. With pallet-wood burning as easily as it does, the wood which we had earlier removed soon came into service, but it was as well we didn't let it all go at once...

Simeon had done an excellent job buying the fireworks, proving that with some careful choice you can manage an impressive display without a budget running into thousands. Needless to say, the display wasn't of the continuous-barrage variety as there will no doubt be in Campbell Park tonight, but nevertheless we still managed to considerably overrun the half-hour slot we had reckoned on for the pyrotechnics. There were a couple of misfirings, but no serious mishaps, and apart from a few kids a little shaken by some of the noisier explosions, and a few more understandably distraught at having to make an early exit for whatever reason, I think everyone enjoyed it all immensely.

It was back to Chris and Claire's afterwards - apart from for Mark, who had to be up very early this morning - for beer and videos. Chris being somewhat of a real ale connoisseur, beer took the form of some pleasantly obscure Chiltern Brewery bitters - a real blast from the past for me - whilst video entertainment was provided by First Contact, which I'd not seen before, and a bit of Close Encounters. This was followed by further Risk, which I politely declined from joining in with, although their first game only lasted about five minutes before Phil won. When the second game ended, I have no idea, because that was when I decided to call it a day and wander back round the corner.

Tonight is the city fireworks display in Campbell Park, and I've agreed I'll go up with Colin and Rachael's family, which should be quite fun. Last year I went on my own - and didn't really see anyone I knew, more than fleetingly - which was all very well, and I still enjoyed it, but it should be better with company from the start. As the biggest free display in the country, it's attended by tens of thousands of visitors, and somewhat inevitably is almost all rockets and things rather than ground-based fireworks, but that tends to fit in quite well with the - admittedly somewhat tacky - musical accompaniment, a somewhat predictable medley of science-fiction themes and Wagner...

Work on Friday wasn't too bad at all, getting a number of the changes done to my Electrons in Atoms application for the 1999 S103 release. Specifically, I added the more detailed "About" information, which it was decreed should now take a multi-page format, including details of key staff involved with the application - basically the chief academic, software designer and graphic designer - additional copyrights and so on, and contact details for the Open University, now that it is likely that many students will be using the CD-ROMs outside the scope of the full S103 programme. The other major change was to add support for a synchronised script viewing system Chris developed with some OSD funding; this is to help deaf students by providing a text transcript of any spoken audio which updates automatically as the software progresses. This wasn't quite as trivial a task as I'd hoped; in principle, all I had to do was mark-up the script file with a few tags, and add one INI-file update call per audio file played, but I had forgotten how horrendous parts of my code were and it took me a while to refamiliarise myself with quite how I'd done it. All these changes seemed to work very well, though, and Phil seems pleased with what he's seen of it so far - always a good thing!

There's still a few miscellaneous bugs to be fixed, some of which were leftovers from when the software was rushed through QA earlier this year. Readers may recall that the academic author came to me long after the software had gone to QA for the final check-over - and in fact had gone to AV for final mastering, it turned out - with some change requests and bug reports, and then had the cheek to be miffed when I was unable to do much about them. But anyway, that's water under the bridge, and those changes and bug fixes will get made for this forthcoming version, but it's a matter then of deciding which of the problems, change requests, and so on that have emerged during the software's use this year are worth worrying about and fixable within the very limited time and resource we have available. Thankfully the Chemical Equilibrium software I think will get away without any changes at all, other than the enhanced "About" information and the script-viewer thing, and I think that although there is a lot more audio in this software than in the Electrons in Atoms one, the script-viewer modifications should be relatively straightforward since I don't recall doing anything too clever - where being overly clever today generally means being sadly incomprehensible tomorrow...

Having finally attracted the attention of someone in John Lewis who knew what they were talking about - actually, to be fair, John Lewis audio-visual staff are generally pretty good, just in short supply, especially on a busy Saturday in the run-up to Christmas - I took the plunge and went for that Sony MD Walkman that had just been reduced in price. There's a new model just out which for about eighty pounds more, you get about a quarter of an inch shaved off each dimension and an LCD display on the cable to the supplied headphones I wouldn't use anyway - I intensely dislike inner-ear headphones, and will stick to my Sennheisers. The salesman very kindly let me read just about the entire user manual to check it really would do what I wanted - which it would - and so a couple of hundred quid later, I have now finally entered the digital recording age. A little frustratingly, there is currently an offer for three free blank discs and a sampler of prerecorded material, but they are only available when you register the unit, so I still had to buy a set of discs to get me started, although my application for the freebies will be off on Monday I don't doubt, once I have photocopied my receipts and so on as it recommends.

It's a little fiddly to use, but seems full-featured enough, and the experiments I have done so far with it have been very successful. Since I couldn't justify the price of any of the very limited range of prerecorded discs available, I had to dive straight in with the recording functions - which, getting priorities right, are explained as the very first thing in the manual - and it all seemed very painless and top quality. Recording the demo tracks from my VL70-m module, it managed to identify each track and number it accordingly without me lifting a finger, and it was pretty easy to remove the few seconds gap from the start of the first track, methodically using the unit's basic but quite versatile editing features. Track and disc naming is fiddly, but perfectly possible; as far as I am aware, this portable will do just about everything its full-size hi-fi cousin can, just having a lightly different array of inputs and outputs to suit its anticipated duties. The next big test will be to record some full-range music, and see how compatible - or not - Sony's ATRAC compression technology turns out to be with MPEG audio compression, although it won't be a disaster if there are problems, just a bit of an annoyance.

Sunday's more or less over - probably - and it's been a pretty good weekend, really. Last night at the city firework display was good fun as expected. Although we tried hard to find fault with it - as is somewhat traditional - we reckon it really was as good as last year's. My companions for the evening were suitable companionable, seemingly spending most of the time with one or the other of Charlotte or Abigail being decidedly indetachable... As it turned out, Mark did get back from his leadership conference in time, but was in charge of a huge group of YPF folks for the evening - and they were going to the fair afterwards, which didn't really appeal - so I was somewhat glad to have previously agreed to go with slightly more restrained company.

I played morning and evening today, although this morning's meeting was a bit different, as Dave and Mo's first ones at the helm, and as a result, we only had time to do a couple of songs right at the end. So I was quite pleased to be asked by Phil to play tonight, when we had well over half an hour at our disposal. It looks like Dave is going to bring quite a different style of leadership to our congregation, and he's already shared with us many of the changes he hopes to implement. As MKCF's senior pastor, we all know him very well anyway and a lot of what he stands for, so none of the changes should come as too much of a shock, but it's inevitable that some of them might be initially uncomfortable to make, even though they are for the best.

At lunchtime, a couple of Phil's college friends visited, and we all tucked into a selection of home-cooked burgers, pork chops, sausages and chips - making a pleasant change from the usual McSunday Lunch! Enjoying the good weather while it lasted - tonight's foul again - most of us then went out for a stroll down to Willen, quite by chance meeting up with a number of YPF guys and girls out for a similar Sunday constitutional. Alas we walk about twice as fast as them, and they were going off to the fair again anyway, so we bade them farewell and returned to Springfield in time for a bite to eat before going to the school to set up for the evening. Phil's friends stayed for the sound-check and warm-up, but had to head off before the meeting proper.

So that's the weekend done with, just about. I'm not sure if we are to expect a YPF invasion tonight, or if - as seems somehow more likely - they've decided to subsidise the city fireworks yet further at the fair. There's South Park on cable in a little while, although I could quite easily wait until tomorrow evening's slightly earlier repeat showing, but apart from that, that's it, and hopefully I can get a good night's sleep for a change before what should be a moderately busy week at work.

Another modestly productive day at work today, merging the revised "About" information - design credits, contacts and so on - into the Chemical Equilibrium software - not quite as painless as it should have been - and marking up the script text ready to add the script-viewer synchronisation hooks. Another pain was that since hearing-impaired users will not be using Windows Notepad any longer to view the script, all the forced carriage returns had to be removed; Notepad defaults to not having word-wrap whereas the new script-viewer always wraps long lines, and has a default window size just too narrow to display the old line format attractively.

After lunch I got a short visit from Guy, who's our main software designer on CML projects. It seems likely that after a gap of getting on for two years, I may be returning to working on CML stuff. I can't say this fills me with the greatest joy, though things have advanced a lot since I was last assigned to them, and there are some more attractive associated incentives, it has to be sad. When I worked for them before, I was new to the university, had little experience of the tools I was using, had no experience of dealing with academics, and their ideas were altogether very vague - I didn't stand a chance, and I think people realise it now.

The "carrot" of my assignment back to CML stuff is to be to work on some Java-based audio conferencing software, as part of a wider internet-based collaborative working system. This will involve learning Java, but I have moderate C and C++ experience, and we have excellent in-house technical support for these things anyway. The "stick", however, is that I will also be helping on the latest version of the software I was working on years ago, now being developed using Director, which I will also have to learn - and learn not to despise. Alas, whether the carrot or stick is the more significant component, effort-wise, depends on who I talk to.

This evening I've been playing a bit further with the Minidisc recorder, this time experimenting with recording full-range music, rather than the easily-compressed signals I had previously tried. I would say there was a modest clarity loss between the original source and the recording, but it wasn't serious, and could be due to any number of factors. I particularly noticed hi-hats getting a bit muffled, but looking at the specification for my drum machine, I see they were originally sampled at 48kHz versus the Minidisc's 44.1kHz - with a pretty sharp 20kHz low-pass filter too - so some loss of high end sparkle I think was somewhat inevitable.

Overall though, I would say the results were pretty good, and well in excess of what one might expect from even an exceptional cassette recorder. The mere factors of the very low noise floor - and therefore lack of any need for noise reduction - and the improved frequency response over cassette tape's usual 16kHz or thereabouts maximum, are enough to ensure that quality is bound to be a lot better. I'd like to try recording from CD sometime - maybe even using the optical link - because that would probably give the fairest comparison between source and recorded material, since the basic audio specifications of Minidisc and CD are very similar.

I've pretty much decided not to go to the Generation X sports night at Bletchley leisure centre tomorrow evening. I don't feel totally recovered from my recent bugs, and if anything my sore throat seems to have made a bit of a comeback over the last day or two. I had kept meaning to invite my colleagues from work along - I think they would have gone for it, somehow - but I never got around to it for one reason or another; I think if I had done so, I'd have felt more encouraged to go myself, but all in all, I think that under the circumstances I could use a quiet evening in. I just hope they get enough people along to break even, that's all.

Another fairly good day at work, completing the 1999 changes for the Chemical Equilibrium software - barring any hiccups picked up on by QA next week, of course. It was largely straightforward but time-consuming adding the script synchronisation stuff, and I had to keep my head, especially when dealing with such a large number of both audio and executable files. This leaves about three days to agree and implement the more fundamental changes - and also the small handful of bug-fixes - to the Electrons in Atoms software, also for S103; it'll be a bit of a rush, but manageable I am fairly sure.

This evening I decided I would go to the Generation X sports night, and was very glad I did. Andy had phoned earlier trying to get a lift, and I had declined there and then. But five minutes later I changed my mind and rang him back to say I could take him after all, although we ended up with Phil driving. We had about three-quarters of an hour of swimming in the leisure pool, with the slide and everything, then a couple more hours of various things; I stuck to table-tennis and crown-green bowling, still suffering emotional scarring from past experiences at squash and similarly futile pursuits.

So my planned nice quiet evening in once again came to nothing, but it was good to get out and enjoy the company of friends, as well as get some fairly unaccustomed exercise. I'm generally pretty bad at anything vaguely resembling sport, but so long as I can avoid utter humiliation - and I did at least manage to win two of my three games of table-tennis against Keith, even if I didn't fare quite so well against Alan - I can at least enjoy failing miserably. I expect that once again - as with the golf - I will be feeling the consequences of this tomorrow morning, but overall it's got to be good.

I've now just about knocked all the S103 update stuff on the head, ready for hand-over at some point on Monday; I could make further changes, but would rather make sure what I've done is right, and the most important things have been tackled. Any feelings of last minute rush have to be somewhat diminished by the revelation that Ian's not even going to be starting his until Wednesday, only two days after the deadline which has been known about for the last couple of months...

A few days ago it was my housemate Phil's birthday, so on Wednesday evening we got round to watching the video of Contact he'd been given. I never got round to seeing the film when it was on at the cinema, but was mightily impressed by it - more of a psychological drama with a little bit of action than real science-fiction, but raised some very interesting issues of faith and so on which I think many people on both ends of the belief spectrum would do well to consider.

Last night was interesting, to say the least. With no neighbourhood group meeting - for the guys anyway - I agreed I'd join my colleagues for a short drink after work. Except that - needless to say - this "short drink" ended up with us being at the Old Swan for about five hours, though with me driving I couldn't participate in the drunken debauchery as much as some of the others, although my days of enjoying getting hopelessly plastered I suspect are long gone anyway.

By the time we left the pub, I was the only driver left sober, so I was pleaded with to make two trips to Martin and Craig's house. Craig was pretty worse for wear by that time, but still insisted in letting off a firework he'd bought a few days previously. Unfortunately he didn't quite understand the seriousness of the advice to stand back at least 25 yards and ended up half blinded by the thing when it exploded at the end of its "display", but we think he's OK now...

Anyway, it's now the run-in to the weekend, with our usual Friday afternoon extended coffee break shortly - though we have serious things to discuss, like the future of our department - and then the usual early finish. Tonight's the night we have to break the news of the changes at Kids Club - Mark's written an excellent letter explaining everything - and tomorrow I really should be helping on this long-awaited decorating job, after Eric left a message for me last night.

Tonight's Kids Club membership-list announcement went mercifully painlessly. There were a few inevitable gasps of astonishment and claims of unfairness, but all in all, I think it was generally accepted that things had to change. It was perhaps helpful in a way that this evening had a little less going on than on many recent ones; Mark could use that as part of his reasoning behind the changes - that is to say that with numbers as they have been, it is nigh on impossible to run a particularly interesting programme.

Eric rolled up at the end of the meeting, which was just as well, as there was no other way he could really have let me know what was going on with this decorating job I'd promised I would help with. It turns out that it's not going to take up as much of the day as I'd feared; I guess many hands makes light work, remembering with a certain amount of fondness the blitz job we did on our office where I used to work in Hampshire. So I'll be picking up Eric and maybe a few others tomorrow afternoon and taking it from there.

To add further fuel to my thoughts of a possible career change, I've been made to feel surprisingly old at work for the last couple of days. This comes after the revelation via the grapevine - but now confirmed - that Craig is leaving for a job in the City. This is particularly poignant because Craig started work at the university the same day as I did, leaving me as the only one remaining from that recruitment drive. I feel moderately happy there for the moment, but this might well slightly tip the balance...

All in all though, this has been one of my better weeks at the university, I think, getting a considerable amount done, being well pleased with it, and receiving some nice comments from significant people. After the doom and gloom of the T305 stuff, which really did have me on the brink of throwing in the towel, these updates have been a comparative breath of fresh air, and hopefully there is still better to come - once the powers that be have actually made a decision on the emphasis of the CML work I am to be doing.

A busy old Saturday, spending lunchtime dashing round the shopping centre, and the afternoon and early evening doing this decorating job. Pushing my poor little car to the limit, I took Jeremy, Andy, Rosie and Eric down to the house at Tinkers Bridge, and in two or three hours we did a pretty good chunk of what needed painting, and had a fun time doing so. It turns out that the lady we were doing it for used to go to church - and is a confirmed Anglican - but got too embarrassed by her little ones taking money from the collection basket; we think we can bring her back to the fold, needless to say... Andy and Rosie made their own way back home, but the rest of us stayed a little longer, sorted out Karen's laptop and prayed with her for a number of medical problems she's suffering from. Then it was up to Wolverton to drop Jeremy back at home, then back to mine to share a pizza and trimmings - and discuss the merits or otherwise of the Simpsons upon the youth of today - with Eric for a while.

But now it's all over and I can hopefully put my feet up for the evening; it's been all-go really for several days, with only a few minutes of peace and quiet here and there to reflect and so on. Tomorrow morning I'm not scheduled to play, and barring sickness or anything, it looks like they have a fairly strong, if traditional, line-up. I've not yet been contacted about the evening meeting, but that tends to get done in a frenzy sometime around Sunday lunchtime, unless - as often seems to be the case - I bump into Tim briefly in the morning. Wednesday night there is a full church music practice, which should be quite interesting, though it's not clear how much actual playing is going to involved, or if it's primarily a teaching session Tim has in mind. Having three or more of quite a few of the instruments would certainly make for an interesting experience, which is why I suspect Phil is right in thinking it's not really going to be a music practice in the traditional sense of the word.

Apparently Wolverton do their music practices slightly differently to ours anyway, and I suspect it's something we should consider taking on board; they used to work the same as we do - i.e. one combined rehearsal and teaching session per month - but now have two meetings a month, one comprising about two hours of solid playing, and the other a teaching meeting. The trouble with the way Centre run things at the moment is that by combining the two aspects in one meeting, we don't get enough time to do justice to either. It sometimes seems poor enough that we only get one practice a month, but even more regrettable that we only normally get a chance to practise a couple of songs and give mere lip-service to anything teaching-wise. I realise that for Gareth - the Centre church worship leader - free evenings don't grow on trees, but at the same time I doubt it would be beyond his or anyone else's capability to reorganise things sufficiently to generate a lowly extra couple of hours a month.

Today's been fairly busy and it's not over yet, with the Sunday evening meeting in a short while - though by some miracle I've managed to avoid playing tonight, despite musicians being a little thin on the ground, so I at least get an hour's reprieve. This afternoon, after comparing the merits of different kinds of bass guitars and drum machines with Phil, we went out for a stroll in the Brickhills - the playground of Milton Keynes, to many - which made a nice change, though it was a bit on the cold and damp side. Good to get out anyway, and the car ran remarkably well considering its usual reaction to even the slightest inclement weather lately...

The new MKCF address list finally got issued today, and I'm happy to say that I did get committed in time to be included on its "better half". Needless to say, though, they didn't get my address quite right, which is actually quite surprising given that quite a few people have been through this house over the last couple of years. My phone number's listed correctly though, and that's the main thing really, and it wouldn't take an Einstein to work out what my correct address would be. Still no e-mail addresses included; that's something a few people have been fighting for quite vigorously, and I would hope that soon the powers that be will wake up.

Been experimenting more with the Minidisc, this time testing with analogue recording from CD; when I get round to replacing my broken CD player - as distinct from my CD-ROM drive which I used this time - I'll try and get one with optical digital outputs, which should yield the best possible Minidisc recording quality. Results with analogue were pretty good though; there was a slight drop in the spatiality of the stereo content compared to the original, but I was probably being over-critical, not being too sure what to expect. I think results will be better from a proper CD player, because the rather high noise-floor on my CD-ROM won't have helped.

The end of Handover Monday, and the deed has been done. I'm pretty confident that problems - if any - should be decidedly minimal, even where changes made might actually have been a little more fundamental than I'd have liked for ongoing maintenance tweaks. This afternoon we also had a lengthy seminar on the future of our department; some important stuff got discussed - though how much clout our opinions really carry remains to be seen - but I have to say that I find stuff about resource-flow and so on extremely yawn-inducing.

A couple of interesting issues raised their heads at church yesterday, which will need more consideration. First off, I got my first Christmas invitation, other than from my own family. This is a Good Thing because it means that I won't now be forced to travel up to North Wales if I don't want to spend the day moping around on my own wondering what could have been - though obviously it will mean having to get a few more presents in... I daresay other opportunities will yet arise, but it's nice to know I have a fall-back option!

The other is that Dave approached me, with a view to me joining the administration team. Pete and Wendy have done it for several years but are now stepping down, and feeling seems to be that their roles should be filled by a larger team rather than just a couple. As Mark pointed out, that probably means more work overall, but at least it would be spread thinner. Quite what I would be doing remains to be seen - even Dave had no idea - so in the meantime I've promised to commit the idea to further thought and prayer, then see...

My tape deck is clearly jealous of its new adopted digital brother, because last night it turned its toes up. The left channel seems to have died, and simple diagnostics seem to suggest that it's a problem on the main board, not just a loose connector or the tape-head. Add this to my CD player which has been dead for more than a year now, and I really do think the whole lot is crying out to be replaced. The tuner-amplifier is still working nicely, though - though for how much longer, I have to wonder - but that could go into service as a dedicated multimedia and studio amplifier if I got a more modest integrated system to replace the CD and tape deck; manufacturers like Sony and Denon do some nice ones, and they often seem to get reduced in price for some reason. All a big pain though, and the only saving grace is that I don't use tape a great deal - but it's still important for recording odd demos and so on for the benefit of those yet to join the digital age.

Worse news last night is that my brother's wife is very unwell again, this time suffering from severe anaemia. It's not clear exactly what the matter is, and a kidney problem which has also been identified could either be a cause, a symptom, or completely unconnected. Worrying times for everyone, though, and although she's on an ordinary ward, she has already had a blood transfusion, so it is pretty serious especially when the cause is unclear. Sadly it seems to be one thing after another with them, after all the problems over the last few years; things seemed to have been getting a lot better lately, but now things have taken a turn for the worse in a very different way. Thankfully my brother is very tenacious, and will continue to be as totally supportive as he has been in the past - even beyond the call of duty, in the opinion of many - so his wife will get the very best care she can, both while in hospital and whenever they decide to let her go home again.

Very little new news regarding my brother's wife; I guess it'll take a while to get the results from the biopsy she had yesterday, and in the meantime we just have to keep hoping and praying that it's not as serious as it seems. The way I see it now, one of the biggest priorities must now surely be to get her back home by Christmas, even if she needs further treatment afterwards. Although Christmas in hospital is normally made to be quite a fun time, it must always rate a poor second to being able to spend it with your family and friends in your own environment.

Meteor-watching last night turned out to be a pretty fruitless experience. I walked up with Phil to the beacon in Campbell Park in the late evening, in an effort to get at least a little bit higher with the mist as it was, but there was still nothing to be seen - though it was good to get some fresh air. I had a look outside before I finally went to bed, which should have been coming up to the peak period, and although the sky was by then a lot clearer, still no meteors. So I was really quite unimpressed with this so-called best shower for thirty years or whatever.

Tonight's music-group meeting is not an instrumental one, fairly happily to say - though that does mean we'll go two months without a proper practice. I'm not sure exactly what Tim has lined up - I spoke to Andrea last night - but it doesn't involve playing or singing, or not much anyway. A few weeks back, Tim started up what he boldly called a "School of worship", and laid down some very interesting objectives for that; I would guess that tonight's meeting will be following on from that, which is essential if it is to become anything more than just a good idea.

Anything good about today - and there have been a few reasonable bits I suppose - has been completely overshadowed by news from my brother regarding his wife. She really is in a very bad way indeed, and even if she gets over the current problems, the knock-on effects look likely to last a lifetime. The biopsy she had the other day has shown that the inflamed kidneys are the cause of the anaemia, although what is causing that inflammation in the first place is not so clear. Amongst other symptoms are osteoporosis - generally only a problem with the elderly - and bone-marrow deficiencies, which should be able to be corrected with hormone replacement therapy, although there is likely to be temporary hair loss as a result. Far more worrying however is that the treatment which has been deemed necessary for her kidneys is very likely to leave her sterile.

My brother seems, at this early stage, to be facing up to realities quite well, but I would guess that the full gravity of the situation may yet hit him hard. They were not planning on having a family for the time being - even though everyone agrees that my brother would make a great dad - but I doubt the thought of an imposed "never" was one that had seriously crossed their mind either, and this is the likelihood now. I should emphasise that it's not totally certain the treatment will have this effect, but the odds seem to be stacked against a happier outcome. For my part, I just hope and pray that once again, statistics can be proven to be wrong and will be encouraging further prayer on this issue within the church; Phil very kindly set the ball rolling at yesterday morning's Generation X meeting, and there will be a lot more to come at this rate.

Not too bad a day at work, slowly starting to get to grips with Macromedia Director which I am likely to be using to some extent with the CML projects I'm going to be lending a hand with. It's an authoring tool I've avoided like the plague up until now, and although I doubt I will ever love it, it is a skill that - if I am being pragmatic - would be worth picking up, being more saleable than perhaps anything else in the multimedia world. Jon's lending me a fairly good book - although it's a version out of date - but it is almost nauseatingly sycophantic in its defence of what is certainly only one of the lesser of several evils in the multimedia authoring tool marketplace. Colour toolbar buttons a radical breakthough..? I ask you!

Kids Club tonight I feel went very well indeed. This was the first meeting with an enforced membership list, and for one reason or another we barely got even half way to our projected numbers. But as a result, we were able to run quite imaginative and structured activities, and fit a lot into our hour-and-a-half slot. That simply would not have been possible with three times the number of children, so we are definitely counting our blessings. I think the youngsters enjoyed it more too - not just having better activities to do, but also the simple factor of not falling over each other even when not doing anything particularly active. I think we only had to turn away about half a dozen non-members, so all in all, pretty successful.

The weekend is looking a bit uncertain at the moment. Sunday morning I am helping with the Fat Fish at celebration, and Daniel's asked me to play what has now become affectionately known as my "armadillo" - a name Chris coined for my MIDI sax a few weeks back, and that has stuck since - for some of that time. I think I am also needed in the evening, but that's normally a bit more ad-hoc. I've not heard back from Gareth yet, but there's a possibility I might be driving Shine to the airport Saturday morning; if I did, I would hopefully be driving Trevor's new turbocharged VW Sharan, since it would take everyone rather than needing two vehicles. But it's not looking too likely at this point, which I must admit is a bit of a relief.

Now at that usual Sunday-afternoon break in the weekend's proceedings, and it has ended up a busy one as perhaps was to be expected given the recent run of similar weekends. Friday evening was the start of Rosie's "birthday weekend", sinking a few down at the Olde Swan in Woughton-on-the-Green, where a short-notice Saturday evening birthday-party trip up to Northampton was also sorted out on her behalf. Most of us had a healthy lie-in Saturday morning, but once I'd done my weekly shopping, it was round to Andy's for another game of Risk; the game's growing on me a little bit now that I can appreciate some of the strategies that can be employed, and in fact I very nearly won.

In the evening, about a dozen of us, as agreed, went up to Northampton for Rosie's birthday meal at a Mongolian restaurant there. I think that was something new for almost all of us, with a very DIY main course; you take a little Oliver Twist style bowl up and fill it with your choice of raw ingredients - meats, vegetables, spices and so on - which you then get stir-fried while you wait and look on stomach-rumblingly, and go back again and again for as much as you can manage. The birthday serenade from some Mongolian-dressed actors was a little too below the belt for Rosie's liking, but I think it was all taken in good spirit, and everyone enjoyed the whole evening immensely.

This morning was a very different one for me, helping Daniel out with the Fat Fish Sunday school group at the celebration in Wolverton. The main meeting got off to quite a late start, so we didn't get anywhere near as long as we would have liked, but numbers were fairly depleted anyway so it didn't work out too badly in the end. The praise and worship section was very short, but that was just as well as far as I was concerned, because I really wasn't on form; just hope I'm better at this evening's meeting... More leaders would have been nice, leaving me and Daniel to do most of the donkey-work, but it's only once in a blue moon either of us will probably have to run things.

The evening meeting today should be a bit different too, as a "questions and answers" follow-on from this morning's meeting when our guest speaker apparently spoke on the subject of Christian education, and more specifically the setting up of Christian schools. This is quite an emotive subject, and we suspect our low numbers this morning were partly due to some families deliberately staying away, but it does seem likely that we will be going ahead with setting something up. It wouldn't be the first time, and in fact in the past, experiments have proven to be less than entirely successful, but maybe this time they are taking a more thoughtful and considered approach to it all.

Working in the education field - broad though it may be - I do feel this is an issue close to my own heart. I am very much pro-choice in education, feeling that a variety of different types of schooling is important in any society. But I am extremely cautious of anything that would force Christian children to be set aside and apart from their non-Christian peers; conventional schooling has so many positive advantages that I am not sure a narrower education would be able to provide. Far better I feel would be to encourage recently much-eroded Christian teaching and values in mainstream schools; we - and our children - are called to be in the world, even if not of the world...

The evening meeting was interesting, as expected, and offered a lot of food for thought over the coming months, years or whatever kind of timescale is attached to any plans there may be. The praise and worship was as good as it's ever been, most of us felt, and for once we weren't too restricted for time, getting probably the best part of an hour... The question and answer session lasted about three quarters of an hour, and raised some quite important issues relating to Christian education. The speaker was from a successful Christian school in Oxfordshire, and could happily report positive things like a 100% success-rate at GCSE grades A to C - in stark contrast to the academically dismal performance the last time MKCF tried to set up anything similar - and glowing OFSTED assessments. Their continued belief in and use of corporal punishment raised a few more disapproving eyebrows, and it was the opinion of those I chatted with afterwards - and me - that it would be a good thing if the proposed legislation on this was passed and it became a non-issue. It really does have little or no place in today's education system, and the manner in which it is implemented really does seem to be completely pointless and sounds more like calculated retribution than good discipline. Overall, I think the impression was given that the proposals weren't entirely worthless, but that there would be a lot needing to be resolved before most parents would be particularly happy about taking their children out of the state system - and that what was right for Witney was not necessarily right for Milton Keynes. Memories - and the personal legacy - of past experience still linger on for many people, so I am sure we won't be rushing into anything without serious consideration, but most people I talked to seem to think it pretty much inevitable we will be proceeding with the plans on some level or another, and probably sooner rather than later. Would I want my - hypothetical - children to go to such a school? I'm not sure; I remain decidedly unconvinced after today's "sales pitch", and would like to see proof of success before gambling my child's academic future on some idealist whim, that is assuming that I even felt the environment was helpful in other more vocational ways. I suspect such feelings are in the majority tonight, and in a chicken-and-egg type way could be the downfall before things have even started - that would be a pity, but we have to be realistic and responsible when such important things are at stake.

It been an altogether pretty uneventful last couple of days, really. I've been very weary for one reason or another, so haven't been doing much in the evenings, and work is being exceptionally mundane - if that's not an oxymoron. I'm slowly getting on with learning Macromedia Director, and it's beginning to make a few sense-like glimmers, but it's still a horrendously unpredictable and unreliable environment to work in. If Macromedia and Asymetrix - the producers of their main rival, Toolbook - spent less time trying to get one up on each others' version numbers with minimal real technological progress, and more on making substantial improvements to their software, the multimedia development world I am sure would be a better - and more stable - place. But I suppose that's the late 1990's computer industry for you, and should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen much the same with Windows word processors and spreadsheets over the last half-decade. It just somehow seems a bit different when it's specialist and professional development tools we are talking about, not some more mass-market and end-user oriented product.

Guy and Colin popped into see me today, having had a chat with Joel about my commitments over the coming months. I'm not sure yet whether it's a good or bad thing - that will depend entirely on the nature of the work involved - but I'll be concentrating almost entirely on the language-centre projects in some balance or other. I will most likely be starting with the Director-based stuff - just as well I'm starting to learn it right now! - and working on that until perhaps about Easter next year when the internet conferencing application might have been rather better specified. Apparently in the space of only a few minutes, Joel managed to give Colin a much better impression of what the state of play really is with the conferencing stuff than Craig managed in his two-hour sales pitch last week. That's probably no surprise, given the subtly different angles the two are coming from, but came as some reassurance given that there were aspects of Craig's presentation that did leave me somewhat concerned about quite how the project was likely to be run, and exactly what the deliverable objectives were to be at the end of the day.

For some reason, our house seems to have been invaded by aliens. Why they chose our household of all the possible victims is a bit of a mystery, but whilst they don't seem particularly aggressive or anything - no attempts to assimilate us or anything nasty like that yet anyway - they do seem to appear in quite odd places and at quite awkward moments. So far the - smallish, with grey, slightly shiny skin and bulbous eyes - visitors from outer space have been spied asleep in our beds, making use of the downstairs loo, and even showering. They also have a very alarming habit of waiting outside our bedroom doors, which can be quite alarming when bleary-eyed in the morning or answering a middle-of-the-night call of nature. But as I said, they don't seem to mean us any harm, and just seem to be quietly observing and trying to integrate with the human lifestyle in their own kind of way. If things escalate, we might have to consider taking more drastic action, but for the time being, I think we can get along amicably enough. At least they're not making telephone calls back home yet - to be quite honest they don't say an awful lot - but if they do we'll just have to give them their own PIN code so the Ionica bills will be itemised properly.

I finally got round to collecting my free sausages last Saturday. Regular readers might recall that I received a voucher from Walls for taking the trouble to fill out the feedback form on their "Bangers" web site. Questions like my age, occupation, and of course how many sausages I eat per week. The voucher arrived incredibly swiftly, complete with a signed letter and a recipe booklet, but I kept forgetting to take it whenever I went shopping. But I finally remembered last weekend, and my accidental delaying paid off handsomely, because not only did Waitrose stock the particular sausages in question - I couldn't be entirely certain they would - but they are currently on a "buy eight, get two free" promotional offer. So I happily returned home from my shopping trip with not only eight free sausages, but also two even freer ones... Not eaten them yet, and not exactly sure when I will; to be honest I'm not the world's number one sausage fan, though there's enough people around who will eat them if need be, and we do have an occasional late-night fry-up for no obvious reason other than counteracting anything healthy we might have subjected ourselves to during the day. So I'm sure there won't be any problems at all getting them eaten...

Monochrome may be dead for the moment, but that's no excuse to ease up on the diary-writing - for as long as I have anything worth sharing, anyway. Still no sign of the prints back from the film I sent off last week - but nothing to get too alarmed about yet - though there was a nice parcel from Sony sitting on the table when I got home. As expected, the contents comprised three blank Minidiscs plus a compilation disc of various artists - some well-known, others not so, and generally somewhat American - signed to Sony. Not all the music on the latter appeals, but when it's for free I really can't complain, and it gives a good taster of the excellent sound quality on commercial discs if nothing else.

With a few spare moments earlier in the day, I finally got around to pulling together and putting on-line a web page about my baptism and subsequent commitment into MKCF earlier this year. This was perhaps spurred on a little by Phil L finally remembering last Thursday to bring me a floppy disk containing the digital originals of the baptism photographs he used on the card he gave me, and I have to say they really bring the page to life. Judge for yourself on http://www.cuchulainn.demon.co.uk/dreamer/mkcf/ where you can also read a pretty much complete transcript of what I - and a few others - said at my commitment "ceremony" about a month later, including the latest updated version of my testimony.

Before leaving work this evening I had a rare on-line chat with Zoe, though things were a little overshadowed by a mutual friend of ours having just lost his job rather suddenly. One way or another I get a lot of moral support from Zoe - many of our experiences seem alarmingly similar, and we seem to have quite an understanding on everything else - but despite flurries of e-mailing every day or so, opportunities to chat properly seem to come all too rarely for my liking. It's too easy for me to get totally wrapped up in life here in Milton Keynes and with MKCF, so it's great to have someone with a subtly different take on life to provide a much needed reality-check, quite aside from charming company.

When I went to visit Andy on Saturday afternoon, he had just installed the infamous Freeserve internet software on his PC. Freeserve is a new service provider run by the Dixons group of companies, and has come in for quite a bit of stick both before and after the launch a few weeks ago. The main difference between Freeserve and any other existing ISP is that there are no monthly subscription fees, with users paying only their local telephone call costs if everything goes to plan - or extortionate technical support fees if not... I had as negative preconceptions about the service as anyone else - probably instinctive anti-Dixons prejudice as much as anything - but have to say that in practice I was very impressed. I'm not sure Freeserve would suit me, but for many people it would be ideal - there's not a lot you can't do with it - and I would have no reservation in recommending that anyone wanting to set up a new account at least gave it a try, but not to waste too much money on the technical support hotline if things didn't quite go to plan. In the case of the latter scenario, they would almost certainly be better off with one of the conventionally-funded ISPs.

Sony are in my good books at the moment. Quite aside from having sent me the free discs yesterday, today they had fixed their European web site after a complaint I had made about one of their product pictures - guess which one? - being of the incorrect model. Odd that the picture was fine until a week or so ago, then they completely bodged its replacement. Really no idea why they changed the picture at all, and they've gone back to the original one now, happily to say. Would be nice to get a thank-you though...

Finding Sash's "Stay" on the end of the free compilation disc, I thought I would compare it to Kaleid's "Durrel" demo - which Sash allegedly plagiarised. The case has received a lot of publicity, but frankly I can't see why; the tracks are only superficially similar, and that similarity could quite easily be completely coincidental. It was the same story when I tried comparing their "Encore une fois" with Faithless's "Insomnia" - yes, there were a few tenuous parallels, but claims of theft seem frankly ludicrous.

I abhor blatant ripping off of musical - or any other - ideas as much as anyone, and probably take a tougher line than many, as a musician and programmer myself. But is it really possible to claim copyright on a certain interval between two notes in a bassline - especially when the whole thing is transposed - and can you really claim copyright on the use of a synthesiser preset sound used in the context it was intended by the manufacturer? And since when has gaining inspiration from others been against the law?

Last night was both frustrating and rewarding in both different and linked ways. With no neighbourhood-group meetings for the men, a few of us gathered round at our place for an impromptu game of Scrabble. Respecting no conventions with these things, I destroyed Mark's winning streak and chalked up an emphatic win. Yes, there was a seven-letter word in there, but even without the bonus points for so doing, I would still have been ahead. But I'm sure this will be just a flash in the pan, and I will return to my losing ways all too quickly.

Then shortly afterwards, further reward with a - not entirely unexpected - first telephone call from Zoe. But this quickly turned to frustration as she got cut off after about ten minutes. About an hour and a half of frantic redialling and so on later, though, I did manage to get back through - I was really quite worried, in my usual paranoid kind of way - and it turned out there had been a fault with the line, and we went on to natter for about another half hour before finally deciding to call it a day, long after midnight.

Kids Club went fairly well tonight, the second meeting under the new membership system. We were back up to more or less full strength tonight, but still managed quite easily. Next week's going to be a bit different and interesting since the school has oh-so-kindly double-booked the hall for the evening, so instead Kids Club will be joining forces with YPF for the evening, up in Wolverton. The YPF are a good bunch really - in fact a fair number of them are downstairs at this very moment, getting their weekly dose of space invaders and general frivolity - and it should be a good evening next Friday, though quite what will happen is anyone's guess.

Ended up a bit of a mundane Saturday, really - though the night is yet young and much more could happen yet, I guess... In the hope that I might have got a visit from a friend at some point - but realising that fate was conspiring against this happening - I got up and did my shopping fairly early, a bit of a mental and physical strain after not finally turning in until about three o'clock in the morning for one reason or another. In the end, the visit never happened - but plenty more opportunities to come I am quite sure - and I took advantage of the opportunity to rectify the frankly embarrassing state my room was in. Now YPF are round again, and I'm taking a short breather from games of space invaders, Lemmings and Sonic the Hedgehog - all gets a bit manic for me sometimes, but I'll be down again soon enough I'm sure. Tomorrow lunchtime should be quite good, with Mark having booked a nice big table at a curry house in Wolverton, to celebrate his birthday, and I daresay things will continue well into the afternoon, evening and beyond...

Today's been a busy and fairly tiring one, and it's by no means over yet. As usual, I get a break before the evening's activities, but it's a lot shorter today thanks to a packed lunchtime and afternoon of other stuff to do doing. The morning meeting was as good as ever, and it was formally announced there that I am to be part of the new administration team - so I guess there's no turning back now... At lunchtime a good load of us piled up to the Eastern Paradise curry house in Wolverton for one of those eat-as-much-as-you-like Sunday buffets - very good food for a very good price; I'd recommend it to anyone that way inclined. It was to celebrate my housemate Mark's birthday really, but I don't think any of us were the type to turn down a good opportunity for a nice meal out, so I expect it would have happened anyway if anyone else had the idea. Then this afternoon there was a Generation X teaching meeting at Nic and Shelley's, with my other housemate Phil talking briefly - I am sure he could have continued for days or weeks if necessary - on the subject of the relevance of Christianity to the society of today, and whether we accomplish this - the answer to the latter of course being "no", but with some guidance on how we might begin to rectify that.

Been a funny old day so far - but hopefully I can have a relatively quiet evening now. This morning I had the delightful experience of my car resolutely refusing to start. It was a worsening of what had been the problem quite a lot with the recent rather damp weather; whilst in the past, a quick squirt of damp-start had always done the trick, it really was very ill indeed at nine o'clock this morning, and wasn't going anywhere in a hurry.

So for the first time, I called out my breakdown people, and the guy arrived in his van at about ten - well within the hour I had been promised. He quickly diagnosed the problem as most likely being damp in the distributor cap, but despite stripping down the entire grille and radiator assembly to get to the thing, he simply couldn't get the cap off, and even though he eventually managed to get the car started, it ran very unhappily indeed.

He was really frustrated at his inability to do anything about it, so instead he kindly towed my car up to my favourite Metro-specialist workshop at Wolverton, who had agreed at short notice to look at it with some bigger tools at their disposal... The cheeky monkeys got me to go shopping for a new cap and rotor arm - both were in a bit of a bad way - although the supplier was only just round the corner, and I expect it was cheaper that way.

While it was there, they also checked the brakes for wear - since I had been a bit alarmed to be getting fluid level warnings only a few months since the last pads were fitted - and topped up the fluid a little once happy there wasn't too much amiss, and also changed the type of oil lubricating the carburettor; this last part was a little worrying, because it seemed the wrong oil had been used for years, impairing performance and economy.

But if the morning had been frustrating and annoying, it was all made a lot better when I got the bill for the work. Bearing in mind that the parts I needed to buy had set me back about twelve pounds, it was a very pleasant surprise indeed to be charged only about ten pounds for the labour. The guy didn't even seem too worried about me paying there and then - "drop in a tenner when you're next passing by" - though I settled up then anyway.

And now, with the combination of the new distributor cap and rotor arm, and the tweaked carburettor - oh, and a bit of tuning while he was at it - the car really does feel a lot better than probably ever before while it's been in the family. Taking it out for a quick test spin before paying, I almost lost the back end such was the unexpected power it was developing, and it's definitely generally accelerating faster than I previously recall.

So after all the fun and games with the car, I grabbed a bite to eat at home and finally toddled into work at about half past one. I had phoned in earlier to warn them I was going to be late - though I had somewhat hoped I might have been a little earlier, but it didn't really matter. Thankfully though I got to work just in time for a CES afternoon seminar I had completely forgotten about; this was on the topic of making our software more accessible to disabled students, and was both useful and interesting - as well as mercifully short. It's amazing how little effort it need take to quite substantially improve the ease with which vision, hearing or mobility-impaired students can use our software, so long as these things are thought about at a relatively early stage in the specification or development, and there are even adaptations it's fairly easy to add after the event, such as hooks to the script-viewer software I have referred to here many times in the past.

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