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David's diary: February 2007

My main achievement of the morning has been tidying the office. Hardly exciting, but definitely needed! I've also got a little bit more done of this secret new project, but it's not proving my quickest ever... But Katy's home any minute now hopefully and perhaps we'll get out for a bit.

Quite a busy Saturday just passed, what with breakfast round with Simon, Bex and friends in the morning, back round there in the afternoon for Mali's birthday party, and then to see Rachel, Mark and Daniel in the evening. Today's not promising to be much less hectic in different ways, but we decided to be prudent and have a Sunday morning at home for a change. We're not backsliding, just being realistic, with a busy week ahead too!

Indeed it was quite hectic today - and not so very differently to yesterday after all! We arrived at Steve and Katharine's for lunch, yummy self-bagged roast pheasant and trimmings followed by apple and plum crumble. They were at our wedding but Katy unsurprisingly has no memory of them at all, and their daughter certainly wasn't on the scene at that time! Part way through the afternoon, Steve's sister Ruth and her husband Owen and two boys arrived, and a fun but tiring time ensued, culminating in a light tea. Pretty tired and a little peckish again by the time we were home, so Katy rustled up decidedly spot-hitting cheese and mushroom crumpets which seem to be just about keeping us awake for the rest of the evening...

Bashing my head against a wall trying to get any sense out of our ISP. A few evenings ago, peak-time (i.e. late afternoon and evening) transfer speeds went through the floor, mysteriously coinciding with some "completed" maintenance work they were doing. I raised a fault ticket, but since then have been given the run-around. They sort of acknowledge there's an issue at their end, but since they can't diagnose the problem, they're now using our telephone exchange's "red" contention status as an excuse for basically doing nothing. Yes, the exchange is at "red", and yes that does mean raw peak-time throughput is approximately halved - as the BT Speedtester eventually confirmed when I finally persuaded it we really did live here. But that doesn't explain why email transfers three times faster than web - about 1Mbps versus 300kbps - when they are both supposed to be at the same traffic management priority, or why changing to a different gateway at the ISP's end temporarily (but alas only temporarily) yielded so much better speeds... Still, to count our blessings, at least the web hosting account's better now!

Ooh, we've just received an email announcing a major firmware update for our stereo. There had been promises of an electronic programme guide for some time, but then a new model was released with that facility and I guessed that would be that. But no, this updated version, which can be uploaded via USB, lists all that and more in its new features. Will have to ask Katy nicely if she can bring her laptop home tonight, so we can carry out the upgrade!

I should have known it was tempting fate to mention the web hosting, because the associated email has gone belly-up again today. I actually managed to speak with a real human being, but since there was nothing on their support system about a general fault, I think she was moderately sceptical until I started reading actual error messages back at her... She did confirm there was a problem under investigation with the web-mail, however, and I strongly suspect the two issues are linked (they were during that last unfortunate episode), so I'm hopeful things may be back to normal soon, and she's actioned a "reset" on my email account anyway which should blast anything that really is affecting only me.

So although it's not working yet, at least it does look (unlike the "head in the sand" brigade at PlusNet) like they're taking me seriously, albeit as an "isolated case". However, 1&1 seem to be establishing themselves as yet another company that won't acknowledge a fault is real until enough people complain. "We don't have any reported faults," she explained. Had she been any less civil, I'd have hollered back, "What about this one?!" Seems just to be the way businesses work nowadays: "The customer is king, but only when we decide he's worth crowning."

All appears to be well with email and broadband now. The "reset" on the hosting account seemed to do the trick with freeing up my 1&1 email, and when Katy logged on late last night she got good fast internet access - 1900kbps rather than the average of about 200kbps our ISP had deemed our £14.99 a month to be worth for the last week.

And this morning it's snowing again! Anticipating the bad weather, Katy had decided yesterday that she would work from home today, and of course I am anyway, so really no need to go out. We can leave it all for the children who look like they've just been told they've got a day off school, and seem to be enjoying a snowball fight.

Oh, the firmware upgrade on the stereo went fairly well. That's to say, we have a new firmware version installed and it seems to be working, but we had a few worrying moments on the way. At one point, the upgrade got half way through then the associated Windows application announced it had failed, and did we want to retry. Obviously the answer to that was yes, but the stereo didn't understand the concept and locked up. We physically powered it down and up again, but there was absolutely no life from it - and as when our first unit died, there was a valued CD stuck inside... But as a last ditch we thought we would try once more even without any interaction from the stereo, and the Windows application chugged all the way through uploading and verifying, and lo and behold on power-cycling the stereo again, all was fine.

Compared with our Freeview box (which requires use of a serial lead, terminal emulator and an x-modem transfer out of the Ark) the upgrade procedure promised to have been a lot more polished, but was actually scarier...

Anyway, all done now, though not entirely sure whether it will have been worth the effort. The EPG certainly seems to be a bit clunky. It works well enough, but has a severe problem with amnesia unless we fit a memory card - it only remembers the EPG for one digital multiplex at a time, so if we switch between say Radio 3 and Classic FM, we have to wait five minutes for the data to be downloaded again. A memory card would also be useful for recording occasional programmes, though while our aerial installation is "suboptimal", we're not inclined to be too extravagant. Improved compatibility with CD-R and CD-RW media is also amongst the touted benefits, though when I dropped an email to their technical support people they believed that still didn't include multi-session compatibility, which was my main grumble in that regard.

Alpha seemed to go well on Tuesday night, now settling down into a routine I think - though with an evening off next week with it being Surrey half-term. There had been a few issues on the first couple of sessions, but with a bit of cunning, the groups are now well-arranged, and good discussion is ensuing. We hosted another of our weekly informal prayer gatherings last night, which continue to be popular wherever they're held. I really got a sense of something quite special at yesterday's one, and it's important we keep the ball rolling.

Weird Firefox "feature" of the day, as I continue to work on this project involving the Tropical Penguins: It won't display a DIV if its ID is set to contain the word "popup" - even if the pop-up blocker is disabled. Not a great difficulty to work around (so what the point is I'm not quite sure) but it certainly wasted some time diagnosing what was going on!

In other news, spurred on by an email from Meryl, I made a nice snowman earlier. I had forgotten just how therapeutic it was making giant snowballs - but having never had a garden on a slope before, hadn't anticipated quite what hard work it would be rolling Mr Frosty's body back up the hill! Worth the effort, but will he still be there in the morning?

Oh, and on a winter-related topic PlusNet are specifically blaming today's daytime slowness on the weather - and I am almost inclined to believe them, as they claim a huge increase in VPN traffic due to people working from home has been using all their bandwidth.

OK, I am now suspecting the aforementioned Firefox weirdness is caused by what my old colleague Sam refers to as "some evil ad-blocking extension". Nothing is listed in Firefox's add-ons, but I definitely do remember installing something once, and I have got rather used to not getting potential seizures from psychedelic GIFs, Flash animations and so on, so I suspect there's something lurking in there. Still, if I have such an add-on invisibly installed, I doubt I'm the only one, so best to avoid using the word "popup" in my DIV IDs anyway!

Bit of a busy day yesterday, with one thing and another, but thankfully nothing at all scheduled for today so we're being able to put out feet up and recuperate. Mr Frosty's still just about there in the back garden though he now looks more some kind of weird alien than anything else, and I really doubt he'll last the day.

But we still decided to go out for lunch, a bit of a rarity for a Saturday but then neither of us really had much clue what day it was... We hadn't been to AM's in Aldershot for a good while, so gave that a go. It was heaving when we arrived so we had a window-shopping expedition for a little while. On our return, the street immediately outside was crawling with police - on foot, in cars, vans and on horseback - but the restaurant greatly quieter, perhaps as a result! We guess both the busyness and the police presence were due to it being a match day (Oxford visiting, 1-1 the score) but it didn't stop us having a jolly fine lunch out!

And then in the evening we watched Shaun of the Dead once again, good as ever, and getting us in the mood for hopefully going to see Hot Fuzz soon!

Fairly relaxing day today, round with Katy's parents for lunch to catch up on our respective various happenings and to get out for a bit of walk in between the showers. Katy's got the week off work now happily to say, which is just as well because we are both really quite tired even having had this gentle-paced weekend...

A few hopefully minor crises to contend with this evening of an internet-related variety. 1&1 are being their usual somewhat obtuse selves with regard to actually actioning a refund they promised me for the recent email service collapse. On today's invoice, I was correctly credited and debited for a package upgrade, but there was no sign of the goodwill credit, and I don't think the person I am dealing with understands. There's also a possible issue with a customer's website - even if it looks at this point like a problem with their hosting provider, not my own work, though I have a nasty feeling a lot of the customer's time and effort in content creation may have been for naught.

Nothing further back from 1&1 yet, but I don't intend to lose too much sleep over it since there's only about £20 involved. At least they're not proving as technically inept as the other hosting provider alluded to above, who appear not only to have restored a (presumably corrupted) server using an archaic back-up, but also cunningly configured said server's PHP system completely differently. Consequently, although thanks to Google's cache I was able to recover and re-upload a reasonably contemporary set of pages, they don't work because there are loads of default configuration options they have not enabled.

I think everything is now back up and running with my client's website. However, guess which of the following was the hosting company's helpful first response to the support ticket being raised:

  • Promptly enable the standard configuration options so that the site would work

  • Block phpinfo() so that no further diagnosis of their screw-up was possible

Yes, well - and that remains the case, so let's just hope we don't encounter any more problems!

Indeed, no more problems with that website, though I did have to deal with a small emergency on another client's site - and this one alas more or less entirely my fault! It's all very well putting in code to strip any spaces accidentally put into a file-name, but it's worth checking it removes all spaces rather than just the first... All for the sake of a missing "g" in a Perl regex. Anyway, that one's happily up and running again now, so panic over.

Meanwhile, yesterday may well have been St Valentine's day - which we marked with a romantic trip to Sainsburys, enjoying how quiet it was for a change - but today's far more important, of course being the fourth anniversary of our first meeting up. Katy and I had been in email and telephone contact for a little over a month previously, but were keen not to spin that out any longer than necessary and we intentionally avoided St Valentine's day itself, so the 15th of February 2003 it was that our lives changed forever.

Enjoying a quiet Saturday afternoon after a busy last 24 hours or so and evening to come.

We took off up to my parents for the day yesterday. It was Christmas that we last saw them so it was nice to have the opportunity to anyway, but they'd also phoned earlier in the week to report that their video recorder had packed up on them, and after some deliberation we decided the best solution was to give them our one that had been languishing in the loft for the last year. There was simply no point spending much money when in a couple of years' time there will hopefully be a digital signal worth their receiving. But Dad still seemed to think a bit of retail therapy would do good, so we all took a trip out yesterday afternoon, to choose a few shrubs for ourselves at a local garden centre, and to buy a DVD player for Mum and Dad. Nothing at all fancy, indeed the cheapest available from a reputable brand, but they have increasingly been wanting to watch films and so on lately (especially with the number of give-aways positively falling out of the newspapers these days) so it seemed a good time to take the plunge in a cost-effective manner!

This morning was time for our fortnightly breakfast round with Simon and Bex. Numbers were down on usual, but we had a fine feast of fried eggs, sautéed potato and chorizo sausage (I am sure it has a proper name) and a good old time of putting the world to rights. We had a whizz round Sainsbury's on the way back to get a few bits in preparation for our being hospitable tonight and tomorrow, and then got our hands dirty working in the garden for a bit - planting those shrubs we bought yesterday and doing a few other bits of essential maintenance. Finally some dusting and hoovering (yes, it really is a Hoover) to make the house a little more presentable for tonight, and now... ahhhh.

Now Monday morning, and with all our visitors from over the weekend obviously gone, and Katy back at work after a much-needed week off, it's all rather quiet here. All our entertaining worked out well, Saturday evening cooking our "signature dish" of roast pork and barbecue sauce for Susy, followed by us being introduced to Settlers of Catan, and Sunday lunchtime and afternoon cooking up roast chicken and parma ham for Matthew, Helen and Millie, and generally amusing ourselves with Magnetix, puzzles and random cuddly toys!

Still, lots to be getting on with today work-wise, so I suppose I better had be!

And a reasonably productive day it has been too, adding two quite significant new features to one of my customers' web applications, and drafting a specification for another one. Still plenty more to do - should all keep me busy this week, and provide a well-paid break from all the rather more speculative stuff I've been focusing on lately!

Oh, and some may be shocked to hear, but I booked a holiday today. Yes, as in me, rather than Katy - though we will of course both be going on it! Needless to say, a little coercion was involved to get me to do so, but this particular leopard's spots don't change that quickly...

And today I have added the other two significant new features I had promised, as well as walked right into adding a load more stuff. Still, pays nicely - and I was able to pay in a cheque for a previous load of work!

This afternoon we went to see Hot Fuzz, being modest fans of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead as you know. Perhaps not quite as sharp as either of its predecessors, but still a well-spent couple of hours. 3½ to 4 out of 5, Katy reckoned, and I'd say she was about right.

Not got much done today so far, work-wise, but it's been quite productive in its own way! That is so long as £20 to spend at Caffè Uno and two free cinema tickets can be considered productive. The money thanks to the first Tesco Clubcard "deal" we've seen that's worth us using, and the tickets thanks to me querying how much we paid for our Hot Fuzz tickets yesterday. Regarding the latter, it turned out that I was the first person to highlight that the Odeon website is (at the time of querying) displaying incorrect pricing information, and the free tickets have been promised by way of a thank-you for alerting them to the fact.

We didn't stay for much of Alpha last night so have no idea how that went - except knowing that numbers were rather down on the last few weeks, perhaps thanks to the gap last week with half-term holiday. We were both pretty shattered despite effectively having the day off, and I'm frankly surprised we lasted out as long as we did! But everything seemed under control with serving up Sue's curry, thanks to an efficient crew of drafted helpers, so we ducked out a little earlier than usual.

However the last couple of hours have been a bit stressful (with the phone-call from the nice man at the Odeon providing a little respite), thanks to Microsoft, mainly. A couple of days ago, prompted by a friend asking about such things, we experimented with sharing folders over our wireless network. It all basically worked, but our PC was never quite the same since. Things I specifically noticed included:

  • We could no longer use the keyboard (e.g. carriage return or the space bar) to confirm our login identity on coming out of hibernation

  • The PC started trying to use a dial-up connection on a non-existent modem if a web page couldn't be found

  • The most-recently-accessed documents list kept getting reset

Some of these I think I found rational explanations for, but in the end I did a silly thing indeed, and tried using System Restore to get things back to how they were before we started. That seemed to go well, and it flashed up a list of network related things that would be changed, but from then on our wireless connection would not start up at all and indeed would hang Windows trying. That turned out to be something to do with the BT Voyager Wireless Utility getting in a knot, and switching to use the built-in Windows utility seemed to have fixed that. So all was well? No: email had vanished. Not as in couldn't log on to it or whatever, Thunderbird had experienced a complete fit of amnesia and forgotten about all the accounts we had set up. Needless to say, this isn't a very encouraging thing to happen. All the files were there, so after a bit of web research into the matter (thankfully possible with the repair of the wireless connection) it was "just" a case of painstakingly re-entering all the account details and copying a few files. Thankfully I had an ancient version of the offending file prefs.js that I was able to cull some relevant information out of, but a lot has had to be done from scratch. But I think I'm there now, so I think it's time to relax with a game of Pontoon Saloon!

So, there's a big to-do about the fact that Tony Blair is emailing 1.8 million signatories to an on-line petition against road charging, to explain why he plans to ignore them. This has been highlighted as a travesty of democracy, or some-such. I haven't got my email from Tony, but then I'm not sure if I signed the petition in question anyway! As with almost all petitions, signing is a waste of time, but even more so with these ones thanks to the abusable electronic medium.

Here in Farnham, there was recently a petition signed by a few hundred people protesting at the plans to redevelop the slum that is East Street. Someone involved with the project had the frankness to point out that all it proved was that a few hundred people were demonstrably against said plans, and that however many thousand more really didn't care. Or, even, scared to voice support: Indeed when we inspected the plans, such was the level of public vitriol, we were afraid to put our largely positive comments in the visitors' book, lest we get lynched too.

Petitions are basically a "who can shout the loudest" match, especially when they are positively invited. I guess they bring awareness of issues - and there are merits in the arguments behind both these issues I've mentioned - but I'm jolly glad that neither Waverley Borough Council nor Tony Blair view them as reliable statistical indicators on which to unquestioningly base policy.

Quite why the government set the petitions site up in the first place remains a mystery though, certainly. Surely they realised that people who hadn't really thought it through would somehow expect to be paid special attention to, resulting in this current bad publicity. Presumably it was just another superficial "show that we care" gesture, like the ineffectual mobile phone laws, and reckoning logging paedophiles' email addresses will stop them prowling chat-rooms.

Just in case anyone suspected I had defected back to being a Blairite, let me reassure you...

Katy's been up in London today for a big meeting, and isn't likely to have bags of energy left on her return. So I've been and done the shopping, and got a pretty good haul of multi-buys, promotions, reduced-to-clear items and so on! But Katy's just phoned to say her train home has broken down just outside Woking... True to form, there's nothing on the South West Trains website about any delays, the 16:57 still claimed as being "on time", so no idea when Katy will be wanting to be picked up from the station now!

Ah, the South West Trains website explains, deep in a help page:

Any lateness shown is based on reports of trains passing monitoring points located around the country. If a train encounters delay, the extent of this delay will not be known until the train passes the next monitoring point on its journey.

So that means if a train stops completely - as Katy's obviously has - because it patently will not pass the aforementioned "next monitoring point" any time in the near future, it doesn't get reported as late. A cunning ruse I am sure does wonders for their punctuality figures!

Well according to the live arrival/departure board, Katy's train has now been and gone through Farnham without delay. Needless to say, a train-load of very frustrated commuters is still stuck just outside Woking, apparently waiting to be shunted a few yards to Woking station itself, its passengers presumably then to pack sardine-like on to the next overloaded commuter train to come through. South West Trains, these things will happen, but you seriously suck.

Katy was in an hour late in the end, but it seemed like twice that. So much for making an early getaway and missing the rush - an intention in common with many of her fellow travellers. Thankfully crispy aromatic duck pancakes with spring rolls went down very happily, and no more trips to London planned for a while.

Further proof today of how deluded petition signers are: Our local rag has a report about another on-line petition, this one to save a local hospital, a worthy cause indeed. They correctly claim it is the sixth most supported of the current petitions on the website, but then go on to state that "supporters of The Royal Surrey are voicing their views in almost as large numbers [as those protesting against road charging]". Since when has 16,898 signatories been "almost as large a number" as 1.8 million? So clearly I was wrong: On-line petitions are not a case of who can shout the loudest, but who can claim they are shouting the loudest... A subtle distinction, rendering them even less representative than they already weren't.

Why is it that Maplin insist that their USB-compatible turntable is a special offer, when it's at exactly the same price (i.e. £119.99) that every other tat catalogue is peddling it for? Is it some marketing deal that they've come to that they're only allowed to sell it on the condition that it's promoted as some incredible never-to-be-missed offer? I see Maplin's "sale" ends in 26 days. Surely there used to be a legal definition of such an event.

I've been whinging a bit for the last few entries haven't I, and that just will not do! So on an entirely positive note I can cheerfully report that our Caffè Uno vouchers arrived this morning and led a short but happy life. Needless to say we still ended up paying a tenner, but that's not bad for two high-price main courses and starters plus drinks. Definitely an offer we shall take them up on again - and indeed we just happen to have a voucher for a free main course that can hopefully be called into play before it expires!

Work's going quite well, with it always being nice to bank fat cheques as I was able to a couple of days ago. I'm "spinning plates" a little bit, but at least that's a sign of having no shortage of work to be doing - and much of it is directly paid. I'm not the greatest multi-tasker ever, preferring to focus on one thing at a time, but such is the reality of doing business as a one-man band. Striking the optimal balance is something that I will only be able to learn with time - and also making sure I switch off from work when I'm away from the office. When I was working down this way before twelve years ago, I wasn't working from home but near as, and it was very easy to live and breathe my job. I don't have the energy now that I did then so it's not quite as serious, but idle times invariably find my head buzzing with ideas - and the knowledge that unlike with the last two jobs I've had, it's my call!

Life otherwise is good. I'd had a few inexplicable aches and pains recently, that were making me a bit miserable, but those seem to be subsiding now happily to say. Katy's in the thick of it back at work after her week off, but mainly coping OK, with the promise of our forthcoming holiday in (hopefully sunny) Bournemouth an understandably big incentive!

Oh joy, my domain is being used to spam again. I emphasise I'm not actually sending the spam, wittingly or otherwise, it's just that some evil spammer has decided to use random names at my domain as the fake sender addresses. Thankfully I don't think any human being takes any more notice of the sender addresses than they do of the content of the emails (in this case yet another pump-and-dump penny stock scam) any more, so I'm not likely to get any complaints or anything, but that doesn't stop the failure notices coming back thick and fast.

Spam-related issues are the only downside of having a domain, really. So many people grumble about being forced to tell everyone their new email address because of change of ISP or whatever problems, and I wonder how many of them realise they can get a permanent domain (and total choice over what goes to the left of the @ sign) for under two pounds a year! But yes, a domain can indeed open the floodgates to spam, both as a receiver and as a supposed sender. It is of course generally possible to block email to all but specified recipients at a domain, which would protect against receiving bounced email supposedly sent by Shondal Garbino, Hemanth Grosskopf and Chillem305 to name three accounts I plainly do not operate, but one of the real benefits of having a domain is being able to use multiple email addresses without inordinate faff. When signing up with evil websites you suspect will sell your details to the highest bidding spammer, it's a great way of tracking who subsequently gets hold of them. So it's swings and roundabouts really. There's no way I'm stopping using my domain email, but I guess the reality is that I may have to lock down what names I allow it to receive as. The fight against spam is never simple, and always ultimately involves compromise. Hey ho!

Monday morning - well we've not had lunch yet so it must be, right? - and I think I'm having a vaguely more productive time than Katy. I've been able to get my head down and make some progress with some slightly icky Javascript and thankfully somewhat less icky SQL. Katy on the other hand is trying largely in vain to work from home this morning, being thwarted by password problems which as it turns out are afflicting huge chunks of the company's network.

My tummy's rumbling persistently now though, so although I had suggested another half an hour until we took a break for lunch, I think that just have been moved forward a little...

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