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David's diary: December 2006

It would be great to kick off December and advent all cheerful, but to be honest I can't really. Hit a low yesterday realising just how badly my career's been shafted by EDS, and that put me on a pretty lousy footing for dealing with anything else that was anything less perfect than it should have been. So I think I might have ruffled a few feathers, and am holding off digging myself in any deeper until I've had a chance to talk things over with Katy.

The rest of the weekend was good, though, and since it effectively started Thursday evening when we drove up to my parents, it was a long one - though thankfully mainly quite relaxed! The weather was pretty foul up there, but we got out for a nice pub lunch on Friday and for a coffee and mooch at the local garden centre on Saturday morning. Then on to Reading to spend the rest of Saturday with Darren, Ceryn and co, catching up with our various bits of respective news in between entertaining the girls as best we could, getting back home late Saturday evening.

Trying to do some promised web work today, but although I can FTP in to the account (50% of the time, anyway) the web server itself seems to be down (100% of the time) so I can't actually test anything I've uploaded! Hey ho.

The web site access has been sorted out now. Turns out the server in question was being subjected to a denial of service attack that the engineers were not having any joy stemming. In the end they "fixed it" by moving the site on to a different server. I wonder if the original server is working again yet..? Anyway, at least they seem to be efficient people in the unlikely event that I need to deal with them again, and I can press on with the site design now.

Yesterday we went into Basingstoke to do a little bit of Christmas shopping and to pick up a couple of other bits and pieces we were struggling to find elsewhere. Last time we went, we used the park-and-ride bus service, but realised that in fact for the length of time we (and I, especially) were going to tolerate shopping, it was actually cheaper to park in the town centre. And much cheaper than going into Woking, say, on the train. So much for public transport, once again. Anyway, we found most of what we wanted, eventually, but were miffed to find that Oil & Vinegar have closed down there, with the nearest store now miles away in Windsor!

After shopping we stopped for a nice lunch of tapas before adjourning to the identity-challenged cinema at the leisure park to watch Casino Royale. Our holding off for a couple of weeks paid dividends, with an almost empty theatre. As for the film, not the best ever Bond movie, but still pretty good, and refreshingly different - badly needed to inject new life into the franchise and retrieve it from the techno-overload of the last couple of outings. Any worries about Daniel Craig not being up to the job proved groundless, thankfully.

So, not that you'd know it from the news coverage, but there's been a tornado in London. OK, I'm being mildly sarcastic there. We're currently being subjected to 24-hour on-the-spot live outside broadcasts, aerial fly-throughs and goodness knows what else. What next? The novelisation? Film rights? An American Weather System in London? Yes, it was windy - very windy - and houses got damaged, people got injured. But it happens about fifty times a year in this country, a few of those times in similarly built-up areas. I guess just not in beloved London. The only bit of real news on the matter this morning was the disruption to local bus services.

We started planning the rest of my life this evening. My working life, in any case. And hopefully a long and fruitful one. We went to the pub to celebrate, I hope that wasn't too decadent.

Well that was a mercifully better weekend than the last one, with a few "loose ends" hopefully tied up, good Christmas entertainment enjoyed on Saturday evening, and a semblance of a plan for Christmas itself coming together.

The entertainment was provided by the Waverley Singers' Christmas concert at St Andrews, in aid of our local hospice - and a fine evening it was too, with a wide range of seasonal music both secular and religious, most of it bearable and all of it certainly well performed by the choir, brass consort, organist and baritone. Our friend Meryl had planned to come for tea in between her afternoon rehearsal and the concert itself, but the rehearsal got put back thanks to a (rather oddly-timed) wedding, so she came for lunch instead in the end. To finish off the evening we enjoyed mince pies, stollen and mulled wine round with a few of the choir members.

Second bit of festive cheer yesterday, even if it was strictly speaking to celebrate our friend Ian's birthday. Specifically we went along with him and Jo to the rather splendid Frost and Fire concert at the Maltings, featuring the ever brilliant Waterson-Carthy clan, backed up vocally by The Devil's Interval and musically by a hearty brass section. The musical selection leaned towards a Christmas theme but covered the entire year, including Easter, harvest festival etc. Norma explained that they were harking back to an era when the pagan and Christian aspects of Christmas and life in general were far more intertwined than they are now, so there was certainly some "interesting" theology - though in fairness the same could be said for Saturday's concert! There were also morris and clog dancing numbers, and a mummers' play based around St George. All jolly good fun, anyway, and wrapped up with rousing if unusual renditions of various carols with audience participation. Best night out for a long time!

The rest of the week so far has proven pretty good too. The biggest news is that after much consideration, I have decided to dip my toes in the water as far as being properly self-employed is concerned, and as such, as of yesterday afternoon I am registered for tax purposes and can start formally trading immediately. It doesn't necessarily preclude me from taking on more conventional employment should the need and opportunity arise, but this is where I'm going to be taking things for the time being. I already have a number of clients and potential clients, and next to no operational costs, so should start turning a modest profit almost immediately.

I simply came to the realisation that this was the most practical and proactive way out of my current slump. The commercial IT market is remarkably slow at the moment. A cursory glance at the job websites may appear to show rich pickings, but a closer look reveals that most of the positions are being advertised by a small number of somewhat dull companies, and that (even more than usual) each such position is being advertised by half a dozen different recruiters. Part of my rationale since leaving EDS was to get a feel for what I value in work, and basically that's proven to be doing interesting, creative things where I can call the shots. So, here I am...

Meanwhile, I've spent much of today round with Katy's parents, sorting out various software updates on their computer. Talk about one thing leading to another! In all we must have applied two dozen updates to various applications, browsers, firewalls, anti-virus systems etc. Confident it's all much happier now, anyway - and jolly glad to have had broadband at our disposal for downloading things like Office XP SP3! The only casualty was the Instant CD writing software, which to be honest I was surprised had worked this long given its advertised incompatibility with Windows XP SP2; today it finally stopped working and had to be quietly euthanased.

Not a bad weekend by any means. Friday evening we got our Christmas tree up and decorated, having been sitting in its box in the spare room for the last month. I know they are supposedly bad for the environment, with all their non-recyclable PVC and twisted metal, but there's no way we could go back to a real tree now, and besides, there's no reason why this one shouldn't keep going a good few festive seasons yet! We got that done in advance of Rachel, Mark and Daniel visiting yesterday afternoon, though there was also the small matter of our fortnightly breakfast at Simon and Becki's in between, obviously the last one before Christmas though we will manage another before the new year! As planned, we went out for pizza and pasta with Katy's sister's family before inspecting the Farnham Christmas lights and braving the slacks in Elphicks. Today, after church and a light lunch, we've been for a bracing walk around Frensham Little Pond and plotted menus and so on for the days around Christmas itself.

Obviously, small business matters are never far from the forefront, whether thinking about and discussing how to move things ahead, and also of course actually doing the work that's currently on my plate - of which there is some, thankfully, even if the main job at the moment is probably coming to a natural pause. This job is proving quite a good experience for me, dealing with a customer who has quite strong opinions but is ultimately very reasonable and who fully respects where my expertise overtakes theirs. I'm confident that their website will be top notch, and having been directed to some sites covering similar themes, I have to say it beats them all hands down. The visuals may not be jaw-droppingly amazing (whilst being perfectly acceptable, I should emphasise) but it is the behind-the-scenes stuff that really makes the difference, prompting more than a couple of exclamations of "wow!" from my customer, on realising the facilities available and how the site should largely manage itself on a week-to-week basis.

Anyway, I expect Katy's more or less finished watching her "dead bodies", so I'd better wrap this up for now as I promised I would finally let her open the port - and I ought to be there to supervise, right..?

Last few days before Christmas, and Katy's finished at work for the year now. It'll be nice not to be going anywhere too far for a change - not that we mind travelling in the least, but it'll be good to take a year off and have people come to see us instead! On that note, we had Meryl round to visit yesterday evening - somewhat unplanned, when she had a power cut that wasn't going to be resolved for hours and she was unsurprisingly bored with sitting in the dark at home. We pondered turning off all our lights and getting candles out, but a) thought it a little cruel, and b) doubted Meryl would believe us anyway having passed the seasonally-illuminated house at the entrance to the close... Anyway, we played Rummikub and the London Underground Game long into the night; how better could we have passed the evening?

I've now finished phase one of the website I was talking about on Sunday, and the invoice should be paid later this week. All good stuff, and the customer's written a glowing testimonial for me to use! I'm really pleased with it too, and it should be a good framework for other similar styles of site. I'm even inclined to rewrite parts of my own content system (which this one didn't use since it's independently hosted) to incorporate some the better features implemented. My business-promoting website at www.goznet.co.uk is getting there slowly too; just trying to put together a page of examples, probably the final bit badly needed to make what I have to offer look attractive to the average punter.

Today's cold and murky though. Thick fog's lingered all day, and when we popped out to do some shopping the car thermometer read about 0°C as we left and barely any higher when we got back. Apparently this weather's set to stay with us until Christmas, which is a pretty miserable prospect - actually, I tell a lie, according to the BBC, the fog's only forecast until Friday, then it changes to mist... Hmm, and according to The Weather Channel, there's going to be snow tonight and tomorrow, but then we've never been sure whether they generate their forecasts using meteorology or divination. Still, at least they reckon Christmas itself is going to be at least vaguely sunny. Anyway, the executive summary is that it's going to be mightily cold and pretty downright miserable for the next few days, and it's just as well we've cranked up the heating because the best place to be is indoors in the warm.

So why, exactly, an hour later, was I to be seen having a walk round the block, inhaling some no-doubt carcinogenic cocktail of fog and car exhaust fumes. Perhaps because Katy persuaded me - and did go with me!

Last month polonium 210 was the issue the authorities were happy to wash their hands of whilst gleefully letting the media do their work of running with the ball instead. This month it's the old favourite back again, veils, with the apparently sheer speculation that the murderer of a police officer might have fled the country disguised as a Muslim woman. The authorities insist this was only one possibility being considered, and not one they are taking very seriously, but it's hardly surprising that having allowed the press to get hold of the vague notion, it's been blown out of all proportion. I'd like to think that it's just bad media management again, but have to suspect there is an agenda behind all this, exploiting a press that's hardly known for showing restraint when anything vaguely sensational rears its (veiled) head.

So, the final run-in to Christmas now, and I'm just about looking forward to it after a shaky start. I guess there are just so many unknowns at the moment that it's hard to relax, to wind down and just enjoy the festive season. We had Cate round for lunch today (as a guest, not for us to eat), and although conversation rarely strayed too far from business matters, at least we could start to be celebratory, and she was just the first of many visitors scheduled over the next few days. Ultimately, it's the people who make or break Christmas, and I think they're going to save this year. I can take or leave the religious side of it; we're not specifically called to celebrate Christ's birth, and the choice of date is more to do with assimilated pagan festivals than when we believe He was actually born, so I don't get too up-tight about "what Christmas has become", when to a large extent it never really has been what it notionally claims to be. But I'm certainly not against it, only the expectations that society seems to have placed upon its participants - particularly with regard to the commercial side of it, dare I say. Christmas shopping should be a pleasure, but it was far from the case for me. I love giving things to my friends and family, but I like to do so on my own terms and in my own time, not because society demands that I do so whilst suffering canned In Dulce Jubilo for the twenty-seventh time in any given hour. But after all that, I am now looking forward to Christmas. Everything's under control. But why should what should be celebration of a joyous occasion be such a downright struggle?

I fear this is going to be a long, hard Christmas period for the internet world. There is talk of a spam, phishing and general malware bonanza, with few system administrators around to plug exploited security holes, and already I've started to witness a general decline in system reliability - even while said administrators were mainly still at work, albeit somewhat sozzled from their lunchtime festivities - whether due to malicious attack or simply lack of inclination to fix those problems that "just happen". Hundreds of ChurchInsight-hosted sites simply reported Service unavailable this afternoon, which is pretty poor form really, and DNS has been flakier than a certain crumbly chocolate bar. And I fear it can only really get worse from here on in...

So, another Christmas is over - and with it, so is 2006 very nearly. And I've just about got used to getting the year right on the few cheques I have to write these days... It's been a good Christmas, altogether, made even better by not having to travel very far at all. My parents came down to visit for a few days, which kept us both happily busy - and that was even before considering our all helping out at the Farnham churches' Christmas lunch on Christmas day itself! Anyway, we all seemed to have a good time, not stuffing ourselves too stupidly, getting out for some nice healthy walks despite the murky weather, and even having some time to reflect on what Christmas is supposed to be all about. All is quiet again now, though. I wonder what we shall do for New Year's Eve?

Today we've been down to the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reserve at Arundel. Katy had last been when she was 15, and if she found it interesting as a half-way typical teenager it had to be worth us paying a visit - and indeed it was. It was hard to predict quite what we would see, but we reckon we identified at least a couple of dozen different species of ducks, geese and swans, and it certainly made a nice day out - especially with a short but interesting boat trip thrown in with the admission fee. I remember from childhood visits to Slimbridge and similar reserves that photography tended to be a little disappointing, with birds ending up little more than brown specks, but I think between us we got a reasonable crop of pictures today; perhaps I shall post some up when we've had a chance to sort through them properly!

Not the best day in my life, but then again probably not the worst either. As I was talking with Katy earlier, as if the expectations surrounding Christmas in our culture weren't enough, then there's the almighty crash when it's all over, and we're then expected to summon yet more energy and enthusiasm to see the new year in.

Today we've mainly been trying (with varying success) to sort out technological problems, swapping the digital weather station someone thoughtfully gave Katy for Christmas for one that doesn't seem to work any better, replacing our bathroom scales with ones that might actually be honest rather than unduly flattering, and trying (OK, failing) to talk my dad through sorting out something that's gone pretty catastrophically wrong with their computer's DVD drive. The weather station's the biggest pain of the lot really, because it's so hard to tell whether it's us or it that's the problem - i.e. whether it's really faulty or just us being silly for expecting it to behave per specification. Seems just so typical of modern technology: everyone loves how affordable all these gadgets and accessories are now, but it definitely seems to come at the price of quality and reliability - as witnessed by (amongst other things) the mobile phone battery we bought for my mum recently, which also had to go back from whence it came when it proved worse than the worn-out one it replaced... Thank goodness returns policies are generally pretty good these days, but they really have to be in order to cope with the cheap rubbish that passes for reputedly saleable goods - though it's cold comfort when we have to waste so much time diagnosing problems and so much money on petrol or postage returning them.

Perhaps tomorrow will prove to be an at least slightly better day.

A bit better, though it was a balmy 18.9°C outside last night - well, according to Katy's weather station - which didn't lead to the best of nights' sleep. OK, that temperature wasn't genuine, so back will go this replacement too next time we're anywhere near Farnborough. But yes, today's been a bit better, if somewhat unexciting.

Of course the biggest event of the day was the overnight execution of Saddam Hussein, which has somewhat overshadowed the news media. Such a tyrant's departure from the world will surely not be mourned by too many people, but that doesn't make it right to have killed him for his crimes, especially for such blatantly political and backside-covering reasons. Just one more senseless death to add to the dozens reported from Iraq every day, basically, and just one more inexorable step towards oblivion in the Middle East.

Just randomly looking back at my diary from the summer of 2004, and realising just how good I have it now in comparison. Every day it seemed like I found another straw to be the last one, so I am so glad those days are behind me - and so amazed I lasted at the company in question as long as I did. Of course, I hardly have my own customers hammering at the door yet, but on the other hand nor did they really - if one defines customers as people actually prepared to part with the folding stuff for what's on offer... So it's early days, and 2007 is promising to be a year of unknowns, somewhat, but at least a year when we try to grasp hold of our lives and take positive action to improve them. This time last year I was sinking into depression, which really got quite serious by the time I flipped at an irritating colleague, signalling time to go and see the doctor, with a week off work and a month of medication to follow. To some extent I don't feel hugely different a year on, but what I didn't have then but certainly do now was hope.

Meanwhile, we took another trip into Farnborough after church today. We took Katy's weather station back to Maplins, where strangely enough the assistant guessed what the fault was - perhaps lucky, or perhaps we weren't the first... Anyway, we got our money back on that with no problem - at least once Katy stopped trying to persuade him to refund the current rather than sale price! - which we promptly blew at Pizza Hut. They weren't doing their daily lunchtime buffet for some reason, but we got an excellent deal anyway, so no complaints there. We also picked up a paper trimmer, so this afternoon we've been sorting out framing a few prints to replace some outdated ones, and I can now sort myself out some business cards to distribute!

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