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David's diary: April 2007

April 1st, but really not feeling too much like fooling - or being fooled, for that matter. No bad reason, just not enough energy! We're not sure if anyone will try anything on at church this morning; it's the first post-Alpha Sunday meeting, in fact technically it incorporates the final session of Alpha, and it might just get a little too bewildering for some (or many)...

The Studio 8 software I ordered arrived promptly and unproblematically, by the way. I was a little concerned that there were no printed manuals, but I checked the eBay description again and I had misread "installed" as "supplied", and indeed was rather glad not to have had to heave a couple of thousand pages of documentation home from the post office, as the package would almost certainly not have fitted through the letterbox!

It's Tuesday, and thankfully being a substantially better day than Monday, which was not a good day by any stretch of the imagination. Enough said about Monday, methinks.

Today I seem to have landed myself a couple of quite good jobs, the more modest of which is pretty much a done deal, and the potentially more lucrative one with a little more negotiation required I suspect.

Now Thursday, and reluctant to get too engrossed in work because we've got power supply problems. So far this morning, there have been three noticeable glitches, and it's only been by sheer luck really that they have only wasted my time rather than temporarily lost work. I've phoned the electricity company and there's a recorded message apologising for what certainly sound like related problems in this specific area, so I'm confident that things will be back to normal later today and I can make up time a little then if need be. All rather annoying though, and I'm feeling it could be a wise time to invest in a simple UPS - one allowing about a quarter of an hour of reserve power costs only £20 at PC World, though despite being an exclusive "Collect@Store" item it doesn't seem to be in stock anywhere...

Despite Tuesday's distinct improvement over Monday, it's continued to be a reasonably challenging week in many ways, business-wise, but a definite high point was having Lorely from the church office round for a cuppa yesterday evening who was able to give some really good insight into some of the issues affecting me at the moment and into running the business as a whole. It applies to many things - not just business matters - but it is one of the fringe benefits of church, that there is always someone out there (and normally more someones than one realises) who have been through exactly the same problems so can offer valuable wisdom and support. That's to say, we're never alone in any sense of the word!

The power has settled down, and the Southern Electric fault line no longer has the earlier recorded message, so I've ploughed ahead and finally installed Ubuntu Linux on Microsoft's Virtual PC. I've had it installed on VMware for a few months, but the latter proved to be slow and leaky, and doesn't (in its free form) support Windows guest systems with a usable colour depth, so I've moved across entirely to Virtual PC for such services. But installing Ubuntu proved to be quite challenging in its own right, even without the complication of dodgy mains supply, requiring perhaps a dozen attempts of varying lengths to get there with a readable screen and no errors. But I'm there now, and therefore can now test my sites on at least a slightly wider range of browser and operating system combinations than previously. I was spurred to installing Windows 98 because I was aware of rendering problems in Internet Explorer 6, but my attempts a couple of months back to get IE6 and IE7 coexisting in XP were particularly disastrous, so virtualisation really was the only way ahead. And now, thanks to Virtual PC and a bit of blatant CSS hackery discovered more by luck than judgement, said rendering problems appear to be history - though since I have Microsoft to thank for both the cause and the resolution of this issue, I'm not going to sing their praises from the rooftop too enthusiastically!

It's Easter Saturday (if that is the official designation?) and I've been doing a bit of work, specifically getting back to a potential client who had a query about an estimate - to put it mildly! I can't really say any more at the present time, but perhaps I can recount it sometime when it's all blown over, with the names changed, since it really is all quite a hoot.

That means yesterday was Good Friday, and as we try to when we're around (and awake in time), we took part in the Walk of Witness in town in the morning. The leaflet encouraged participants to bring a small cross, but we came empty-handed and soon paid the price, me being roped into carrying one of two decidedly large crosses and Katy donning a fluorescent yellow jacket and stewarding the rear of the crowd. It was pretty painful going for me, and thankfully I was provided with a screwed up "Stop the war" jacket (one size fits all causes, evidently) as a bit of padding. Katy overheard a little boy say to his mum, "That man's got a really big cross!" but I had to remember that padding aside, it wasn't half the size of the one carried up that hill almost 2000 years ago, I hadn't had the flesh scourged from my back before I even started, and I wasn't going to be nailed to it as the grand finale to the walk.

Later in the day, at quite short notice, we also got out for a far more pleasant walk with Cate at the Devil's Jumps, vaguely retracing our steps from when we were there with my parents over Christmas. None of us had bags of energy, but as in the morning, it was perfect walking weather, and we had wonderful views from the top of the Jumps, and the nearby ponds were as charming and magical as ever. Back at home Katy cooked up a yummy pork and hoi-sin stir-fry, followed up by mango and (aptly) passion-fruit sorbets I had prepared for such eventualities!

So not bad going, considering we're not even half way through the weekend yet!

Easter Monday is surely one of the most bizarre days of the year, a bank holiday with no real reason at all. In fact Easter as a whole is a little odd, and no-one really knows what to do with it. It's the longest guaranteed weekend of the year, thanks to Good Friday and Easter Monday, but there are no real traditions associated with it beyond the sharing of chocolate and - for some, at least - going to church. Christmas seems well defined in terms it being a time to spend with family and so on, but Easter? Longest weekend, and potentially nothing to do, really.

So it was a real blessing the weather was so utterly fantastic for the entire time, because aside from our walk with Cate on Friday, it meant that when we had Katy's parents round for a roast yesterday we were able to spend most of the afternoon in the garden, and today we could take a picnic up to Farnham park and enjoy our pâté and shiraz in almost wall-to-wall sunshine.

Almost a shame the weekend is now more or less finished, but it's been a good one from start to finish, and there's going to be plenty to keep me busy this week so perhaps it's just as well!

So, back to work this week, and it's being a little less stressful than last week, mainly thanks to one difficult potential customer seemingly having been scared off by the reality of what a good website costs. This week I've mainly been working on Flash stuff, getting tantalisingly close to what I'm aiming for with it, but not quite attaining the polish it really needs to be acceptable to my own standards. So taking a bit of a break from that today as far as possible and working on a few bits for the church website that I'd agreed to assist with, and awaiting the post when there should be a couple of CDs that I need in order to press on with other work.

The CDs arrived yesterday and were quickly processed, and I've made a lot of headway with the church site - nothing too immediately visible, but revisiting some really quite bizarre under-the-hood coding that can't entirely be explained away by the site being largely unchanged in five years! Today's Saturday though, self-evidently, and any work done today has been strictly in the garden, finding our barbecue was in need of a bit of attention before we would be happy cooking for anyone but ourselves on it (we had sweet chilli sausage kebabs) and finally making a start on our shed roof while we've got a few bone-dry days forecast. It was also a breakfast Saturday, with croissants and jam order of the day round at Simon and Bex's, where we also were last night to look after Mali while his mummy and daddy were enjoying a joint birthday treat up in London. So really quite a busy weekend so far, and I suspect tomorrow's not going to prove an awful lot different!

Sunday evening, and aching quite a bit thanks to an afternoon of shed repair-work. B&Q finally came up trumps with the bits we needed, and we managed to work round a slight misunderstanding regarding the pre-cutting of the boarding we bought, though later had our own mishap when I dropped a length and it broke... All is well now though, and there's just a bit of nailing to be done I think. Thankfully the forecast is remaining dry, if not quite as sunny as previously thought, so hopefully we can get those last few clout nails in tomorrow afternoon.

The shed's all done and looking pretty good, though we'll be cautious about letting anyone more expert in these matters inspect. The proof of the pudding will of course be when we next get some rain, and if that ever happens I suspect it might come in quite large quantities!

I did a little more for the church website this morning, but most of the day's been taken up with the should-have-been-trivial task of fitting some new memory in Katy's parents' PC. They had been grumbling about how Microsoft's updates upon updates had been slowing things down to a crawl, and I've been in the business long enough to know that extra memory is the most cost-effective way of boosting performance. So we ordered a 256MB stick from Crucial, and it arrived the other day. I was offered lunch in return for fitting it, so arrived early enough to get that done before eating. Except of course what should have been a five-minute job ended up taking three hours, since although the new stick fitted OK and Windows started up without a hitch, lots of subtle and not-so-subtle errors (including spontaneous reboots and spurious explanations from Microsoft) started appearing, suggesting all was not well. I needed to run Memtest86 but there wasn't a spare floppy disk to the seen, but thankfully I caught Katy before she finished at work and she came by with a disk we could use, and we quickly diagnosed hundreds of errors - but across the entire memory range, not just the new stick. However, I took the new stick out, and the test completed flawlessly. Weird. In the end, we went against the instructions (and time-honoured tradition) and re-fitted the new stick in the third DIMM socket rather than the first, and whaddya know, it's all been fine since. So quite what was going on there I really don't know. Oh, and in the process of all this I managed to render the machine unable to power on, as I experimented (responsibly, I thought) with some of the settings in the BIOS that might have affected such things, and believe me I quietly panicked. Thankfully it was easy to get to the CMOS battery and discharge jumper, so the panic was short-lived...

Surely the best reciprocal link spam I have received to date:

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[snip]
Below given are the site you have to link:

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[snip]
Looking forward for a positive response
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Well they've got their link, I guess...

What other excitement over the last few days then? Well on Friday night we helped celebrate Phil's 50th birthday at the Bengal Lounge, with about twenty others. Service wasn't at its best, but the food and company were both excellent, and hopefully helped soothe the pain of such a landmark event... Then on Saturday morning we drove up to my parents, staying the night and returning early Sunday evening. The weekend there involved the usual mix of walks in the Chiltern countryside, fixing niggling computer problems and being decidedly well fed, but it's a formula that's proven pretty good over the years! We got back just in time to go out to More..? last night, our church's monthly Sunday evening chilled gathering, with good music, a bar and a few minutes of low-key testimony and message. Numbers were a bit down on the last time we'd been, and I got the impression the music may not have been quite as planned, but it was the perfect way to wind down after quite a hectic weekend really!

Back to Flash stuff for the last couple of days, after the couple of weeks' distraction that the church website happily provided. And it's not going well. To cut a long story short and not give away any confidential details, I'm trying to produce a generic Flash-based media player. Flash video is all the rage, as anyone who's visited YouTube or any of its countless imitators will realise, but I have been asked to produce a custom-branded player that is compatible with mp3 files too, and will make best use of the internet connection speed available. The single biggest issue is proving to be that Flash's support for mp3 files is somewhat flaky. It can play them OK, but when it comes to getting simple metrics like the duration and so forth, no chance. In fact video files aren't a great deal better in this regard, but they seem a little more reliable. So my code comprises layers of fudge over layers of fudge, and needless to say, even the best fudge isn't very solid. Frustratingly, the code will work great in Flash one minute, fail up on the web, then fail back in Flash again with no obvious changes. Now admittedly the streaming/buffering I am trying to do is a little more sophisticated than the customer really specified, but I have my own standards and am not prepared to deliver something of which I cannot be proud. I really thought last night I had cracked it and was going to have something deliverable after all, but this morning's completely turned that around and I'm now having to seriously consider turning away good work for the second time this month. Annoyingly in this case, it's good work that I have already invested several days' effort (and £300-worth of software) in, but I can't pump my time into black holes forever, and I am acutely conscious that I am losing the plot with the other stuff I'm supposed to be getting ready for a release that should have been a month ago...

I may have found a fair compromise in this Flash media player business. Still to hear back from the customer as to how they want to progress this now, but the worst case scenario is that I have settled on a solution that is good enough that I would be prepared to use it elsewhere and recoup some development cost if they decide they don't want to go with it "as is".

Anyway, with today being Katy's day off I've been a little more relaxed than average, enjoying a late breakfast of our last pack of hot cross buns before starting to spec up some of the last functionality to be added to the main web system I am working on when I get the chance. This afternoon we've been working in the garden for a little while - not wi-fi-ing from the garden table but mowing the lawns and so on - so we feel quite virtuous, if a little hayfevery.

Now Sunday, as you can see from the line above, probably... We had quite a busy day yesterday with looking after the oldies at the quarterly-ish OAP party we help run, and had Meryl round for an impromptu lunch. Today we've been to church of course, eaten French bread and pâté, strawberries and chocolate truffles in the garden, and been for a bit of a leg-stretch round Cutmill Pond. Quite a busy week coming up too, but then there's a long (and hopefully sociable) weekend to long forward to, so I'm sure we'll cope!

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