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David's diary: January 2007

Well, how else can I really start this clean sheet than by wishing all my readers a happy and prosperous new year? On that basis, therefore...

Happy (OK, and prosperous) new year!

A new year that was seen in round at Simon, Bex and Mali's, additionally helped by Cate and Phil - and not to forget (as if we could...) SingStar Legends on the PS2, far more fun than anything Jools Holland or anyone else might have had to offer. We feared we might not make it through to midnight, but in the end the time flew past and we wandered our damp walk home well into the small hours of this morning. So, a little bit bleary eyed this morning to say the least, but I think we will reap the rewards of having taken it pretty easy last night really - especially since I suspect we may need to have mustered up some considerable energy by this afternoon...

I wanted to put a nice 2007-themed photograph up on the home page of this site, but Internet Explorer let me down as usual. It looked great in Firefox, but in Microsoft's sadly ubiquitous offering the formatting of the text flowing round it was completely shot. Issues like this are why web professionals given any choice in the matter steer well clear of Internet Explorer, preferring any of a growing number of viable alternatives. Alas, most of the rest of the world has yet to see the light, so we still have to accommodate its brokenness.

Anyway, said photograph which you would have been able to see on the home page had Internet Explorer not been such a steaming crock was taken on a nice New Year's Day walk at Frensham Great Pond with Katy, Rachel and Daniel. We didn't go too far, with both Rachel and Daniel being somewhat under the weather (Mark really wasn't fit to be anywhere but in bed so never came close to joining us...), but we had a good run around nonetheless - some of us more than others, perhaps unsurprisingly, but we all did quite well I have to say!

And with that, Christmas and the new year are over, basically. Our tree's still to come down and be packed away for another year, and indeed will later this week, but Katy's now back at work and, with that, life has quickly and unavoidably returned to some semblance of normality. So it's perhaps not a surprise in the least that I have nothing else to report here. Move along please...

Nice gentle start to the year for Katy though, with today off as per usual for a Wednesday. We took a trip up to The Meadows at Camberley, finally succeeding in our quest to find some decent jeans for Katy at the M&S there and having a look round the Tesco Extra - perhaps even more enormous than the Milton Keynes one! This afternoon I've been catching up on a few business-related bits: sorting out receipts, National Insurance registration and all that dull kind of stuff as well as trying to do some actual paid work.

We had Meryl round for Chinese takeaway last night, since I had burned her a CD-R with a couple of MIDI files she had painstakingly transcribed and she hadn't forgotten we'd mentioned receiving new games for Christmas. Though in the end it was probably the "town and country planning" game - requiring only pens, paper and a few brain cells - that was the biggest hit...

Yet more evidence of the rubbishness of Microsoft products this morning, trying to do a proof print of a set of business cards from Word. Now, you might have expected there to be issues with page margins, or the output size not being quite right. But they were fine. The problem was that it couldn't print white - and no, I'm not using coloured paper, as was the case in the apocryphal tech support story! Imported images - no matter what format - that contained white actually printed with a light but noticeable dither. I solved it in the end by exporting from Photoshop in transparent PNG, so that what was previously "white" was now transparent, and thankfully Word coped with showing the genuinely white page background colour through that. But oh what a palaver! Almost enough to make me switch to OpenOffice. OK, only joking.

It's easy to find reasons to point and laugh at the technology news site, The Inquirer. Their main competitor, The Register, only really has Andrew Orlowski to be embarrassed about with his tediously predictable daily rants, but The Inquirer neatly shoots itself in the foot even more than average today. They have this thing about using tiresome "witty" alternatives to words and names, e.g. "Internet Exploder" for Internet Explorer, "stimulation" instead of simulation, "open sauce" for open source etc. Except today they have an article on the Mozilla Foundation (responsible for Firefox and Thunderbird), which becomes both "Mozzerella" and "Mozzeralla", but never "Mozzarella"... If you're going to be oh-so-clever, at least get it right, you fools!

About a month ago, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was reportedly facing calls for his resignation, having accidentally let it slip that Israel had nuclear weapons, confirming one of the world's worst kept secrets. Now today the Sunday Times reports that Israel is actively planning a nuclear strike on Iran, using "bunker busting" weapons to destroy facilities some people think might be being used to manufacture an atom bomb. As if contemplating the use of nuclear weapons isn't bad enough as it is, it would have been even more difficult for a country that officially is not a nuclear power to justify using them pre-emptively against a country that flatly denies even trying to develop them. So was Olmert's slip accidental or not? Decide for yourself, and hope and pray that common sense will ultimately prevail on both sides of the Middle East.

Today's been a pretty typical Sunday really. We headed into town for lunch after church, making use of the excellent deal at the Hog's Head once again. Although quite a few things were off the menu today, Katy got her long-wanted ham, egg and chips, whilst I went for the sort-of-healthy chicken and chorizo salad I almost had last time - certainly one of the best pub salads I can remember! This evening we've been munching bagels, crisps and mince pies (our last evidence of Christmas) lest anyone have fears of too much healthy eating, especially after the mountain of roast vegetables we had yesterday! Been doing a little bit of work in advance of a meeting I hopefully have tomorrow morning with a local graphic designer; to some extent there is no agenda, but it'll be good to have a few examples of my stuff printed off for her, so we can discuss what will be a productive and mutually-beneficial way forward.

Business as usual with the US military, then - though I see the BBC have slightly altered their reporting of the raid on an alleged al-Qaeda base in Somalia. Earlier they reported that the raid was described as "successful", even though it was completely unclear who had been killed. I guess if killing's your business, that makes any killing a success. I was about to say at least they had kept the quotes about most of the casualties being civilians and including a four-year-old child, but no, even they have gone from the BBC's main article on the story now. I had to wonder why the reporting on the "invasion" of southern Somalia had been so apathetic to date, but I guess today's events and reporting thereof confirm that the whole scheme was orchestrated by those who have the western media in a headlock. Plenty of cases in the past of the US and UK encouraging local forces to do their dirty work, and not caring what happens to them in the process beyond the strategic outcome, so it's no surprise really.

Thursday, and back to work. Yes, sometimes even I have to pinch myself, but this really is now my job - OK, not writing stuff here, but you know what I mean! Just a few minutes ago I was checking up on how much profit I had made so far, and although it's not a lot, I am most definitely in the black as far as the business is concerned, and don't expect that to change - except for the better. Although I have yet to see any new customers, I am being really encouraged by everyone I talk to about the business, with almost everyone thinking they may be able to find me work. I would be foolish to go unhatched chicken-counting at this point, but if even 10 to 20% of those leads turned into real business, that would be a huge success!

Yesterday was Katy's day off as usual, and although not formally agreed, Wednesday is a day when I try to switch off from business matters to a large extent. I didn't manage entirely, but had to feel no guilt when we went for a nice if somewhat impromptu curry lunch with Ian and Jo, interrupting a really quite decent walk into town, out again and round the park, back into town to pick up a few groceries, then back home. All good for our general health and well-being - and we didn't even overeat at lunchtime!

Has phishing perhaps had its day? For months, attempts to fraudulently obtain login details for bank accounts we do not have have represented a fair proportion of the filtered spam in our email inbox. But for the last few days, I had noticed that all phishing purported to be originating from just one bank at a time, Woolwich being the firm favourite over Christmas. And today, not a jot - and only half the volume of spam altogether into the bargain.

Clearly top of the league of what's left is the perennial favourite of "specialist pharmaceuticals", with pump-and-dump schemes next. Dodgy software, gambling sites and loan offers are considerably thinner on the ground, and there is one botched attempt to obtain PayPal login details propping up the Conference.

Of course, it may be some new configuration on a mail server somewhere that's stemming the flow, but we can always hope that spamming really has now been proven to be a waste of everyone's time, not just the recipients'... Ultimately, like most modern viruses, spamming is done for commercial reasons, and if commercial value wanes then so will the associated junk mail. One would reasonably hope that every fool who hands over their bank details to a phisher is one fewer to make the same mistake again in the future, and surely there is a limited supply of such fools as people become more educated about the risk of committing financial information to scammers who can't even use vaguely correct grammar most of the time.

Though on the downside, given that there always will be those out to steal from and otherwise make a fast buck out of us - and the internet provides a wonderfully anonymous way of doing so - that presumably means that if phishing for banking details is no longer lucrative they are dreaming up ever more cunning and subtle ways as we speak...

Saturday and emphatically not working. Yes, I had all kinds of work-related ideas buzzing round my head last night that really didn't contribute towards remotely settled sleep, but I am most determinedly not doing anything today. I'm "currently" (were it not the weekend) working on an update to the on-line calendar application I produced for a client, and it's being a little more fiddly than expected, but I am still well on course to deliver it by the promised date. Today's being fairly busy so far anyway, so it's nice to just sit down and relax for a bit. One of Katy's old friends popped in for a little while this morning, and we've been out to the garden centre this afternoon to get some fresh air apart from anything else. I hope the gift selection there really had got a little bit more contemporary; either that, or we are starting to get middle-aged...

Then to wrap up an altogether nice day yesterday, tea round with Si, Bex and Mali! Yummy!

I'm sure Ecademy is a good professional networking site, or I wouldn't have been recommended to join it, but their sign-up procedure is worrying. Having handed over minimal details, their welcome email reads:

Someone signed up for a user account on Ecademy and supplied this e-mail address as their contact. If it wasn't you, simply ignore this mail.

If it was you - congratulations! You've just joined a vibrant and busy worldwide networking community.

So, anyone can pretend to be anyone, basically. Hello?!

We've tried hard to see this whizzy comet thing, we really have, but with no joy so far - and I suspect the days we will be able to in the northern hemisphere are now somewhat limited. It seems rather amazing that but for a couple of fuzzy amateur photographs on the BBC News website, C/2006 P1 McNaught seems to have had almost zero mainstream media coverage. It's the brightest comet in forty years, reportedly visible even in broad daylight, and has come at a time when despite multiple conflicts and so on the news media seem to be struggling to find any real news to report - yet there's been practically zilch about it. Now I'm sure if some loony sect had claimed it was harbouring a UFO or was a harbinger of apocalyptic doom, it would have been an entirely different matter. We can but hope that at least the Aussies and fellow southerners will get a bit more excited about it, since they'll be able to see it by night very soon, and by all accounts it should beat the literally brilliant C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp into a cocked hat!

Gah, it always seems to be the way, my recommendations being the kiss of death... No sooner have I sung the praises of 1&1 to a customer considering ordering web space, their service has more or less completely collapsed. Customer websites are still working, but their email system has jammed to a halt on and off over the last 24 hours (and is currently completely dead) and their account administration screens are now returning "please try again later" error messages with no indication of what "later" might mean. Their telephone helpline acknowledges they have a problem, but gives no indication as to when it is likely to be fixed. In the meantime I have customers understandably distressed at the email silence, and I am unable to work due to the administration screens being inaccessible. I'll say it again: gah!

Things seem to be slowly crawling back to life, but I fear it may be too late for some. 1&1 insist that no email has been lost, but they seem to be taking a mighty long time to clear the backlog - not surprising given that last time they crowed about it they claimed to have over two million customers... A press release reproduced by The Register says the outage was due to a "surge in email volumes", which generally means a spam attack. I'm pretty sure last time I checked, 1&1 weren't doing all they could to block spamming via their relays, but all seems to be in order now, so perhaps this incident persuaded them finally to bite that particular bullet.

Anyway, apart from a couple of hours' downtime, over lunch thankfully, today's been pretty successful, and bar the very dull "testing, testing and more testing" bit (which Katy has kindly offered to help with) I think I have finished my latest job. Even without the aforementioned technical hitches it all took a little bit longer than I might have anticipated, but I think the customer's got a pretty good system, and hopefully still before the promised delivery date.

Meanwhile, tonight's kick-off night for Farnham Vineyard's Alpha Course. Since for some bizarre reason we have been identified as punctual and generally organised people, and we were not keen to be directly involved in small group leadership again this time, our roles are of a logistical nature, making sure everything happens - and to time! It was of course about this time last year that the Pioneer course started, but this really is promising to be quite different - not to say better or worse, just different. The Pioneer course stuck close to the HTB guidelines, whereas Vineyard (as often seems to be the case) have different views on some aspects and consequently have always done things differently, which we may sometimes need to bite our tongues and be open-minded about I suspect. So long as it works, we'll be happy, and we have to remember that the dynamic of this course should be very different to the Pioneer one if only in terms of the expected numbers! Key word of the day: "different".

It's Wednesday, and into the third day of 1&1's "resolved" email outage. My email backlog is still about an hour and a half, and one of my clients is still waiting for messages from yesterday. How rubbish is that? Mind you, looking around at alternatives reveals just how poor the most obvious competition is too. Hey ho, I guess with the hassle involved in moving a now fairly complex domain and email structure elsewhere, we'll just have to ride the storm and hope for the best. In fairness, it's the only service collapse there's been in about seven years of being a customer, but one that is costing my clients hard cash with every hour of unavailability and zero customer service is certainly enough to prompt a bit of shopping around.

In better news, Alpha got off to a good start last night, and although we all had to "wing it" somewhat, and it was a little chaotic at times, I didn't have to significantly bite my tongue once, since it really couldn't have been done much differently to how it was. We'd eaten well beforehand, but I have it on good authority that Sue's beef bourguignon was top notch, and what little we witnessed of the talk and discussion seemed to be going well, with everyone captivated. We were supposed to have sloped off once the guests were seated, but we were keen to see a little of the fruit of our efforts (and if anything was glaringly wrong for future reference, which thankfully wasn't the case) so in the end almost lasted the duration!

Just about perfectly timed with getting the email problems sorted out once and for all (bar a few minutes' delay remaining on delivery), our printer/scanner's gone belly up. We'd been really chuffed to bits with this Canon Pixma MP130, giving excellent results and not costing too much to run. But now it reports "CARTRIDGE JAMMED", which a trawl of the web reveals actually should have said "YOU'RE SCREWED". So, what to do next? I need to be able to print in colour, and reasonably urgently. I am utterly unconvinced that spending more than we did on this one will guarantee better longevity, and now all the current manufacturers have rejigged their ink systems so they're expensive to run. Quite honestly, the only logical choice is to spend as little as absolutely possible (e.g. Argos have a Hewlett-Packard one for a penny under £20), and bin it when the ink (which also costs getting on for £20 a pop regardless of manufacturer, and our experience of "compatible" ink is bad) runs out. So much for the environment; printer manufacturers you should be ashamed of yourselves.

I had forgotten that printers were sentient beings, because it clearly became aware that we were investigating alternatives, and as quickly as it had decided to go wrong, it started working again. Thumping it a few times may have contributed; I bet that resolution isn't in Canon's service manual. Obviously, this doesn't entirely inspire confidence, and I'm not considering the odds on it remaining "fine" for another day, week or month now, but at least the immediate crisis appears to be alleviated.

1&1 continue to be pretty monumentally poor. They did at least eventually respond to my email enquiry, with assurances that everything was now working but with a backlog to clear. However The Register is reporting yet another service collapse today, which may or may not have been at least contributing to even more big problems for my clients. Even when it was working earlier, the email backlog was still somewhere between 15 minutes and an hour, and I can only imagine that's now gone back to being worse. The lack of communication about the issues is the worst thing. Having to resort to reading The Register to get service status updates from a company I'm paying a couple of hundred pounds a year to altogether really isn't acceptable.

They'll probably try and blame it on the weather conditions, even though they're in Germany... The weather here in Surrey is pretty lousy though, still blowing a gale and with torrential rain from time to time. Katy had to dodge a fair few fallen trees on the way home from work and her windscreen thankfully survived a few direct encounters. We walked into town this afternoon for Katy's dental appointment and it was really quite hard work at times!

First test loopback email via 1&1 arrived before I'd finished pressing the send button. I knew that was too good to be true; the next took half an hour, and I'm still waiting for the final one well over an hour later. Needless to say 1&1 have got another earful from me this morning, as they go into their fourth day of utter uselessness.

Here's a copy of my latest support enquiry to 1&1. To hell with confidentiality, this has gone on long enough.

Thank you for your replies to my earlier queries, and I look forward to hearing what you will be offering affected customers to compensate for what has now run into the fourth day of catastrophic email difficulties.

Please:

a) When will you publish a proper explanation of what's happening?
b) When is it really going to be resolved, hopefully?
c) When is the email backlog likely to be cleared?
d) What is being done to minimise chances of repetition?
e) What measures are being taken to improve your dreadful communication?

Once again, regarding (a) and (e) above, for a company we pay hundreds of pounds a year, the apparent contempt to your customers is shocking.

Regards

David Gosnell
Goznet Systems

Mercifully, things seem to be better now, with instant delivery of all test emails now - even if they were clearly lying through their teeth about the "first in, first out" basis of message handling given that some from yesterday didn't arrive until this afternoon. However the latest "service update" via The Register implies there may still be more glitches to come as they patch the system, so who knows how long it will last.

Still, at least they are still in business, unlike half the shops in Aldershot, where we went for a bite to eat earlier. Thankfully Caffè Macchiato was thriving, but the last three or four shops in the Galleries shopping centre are all advertising (genuine) closing-down sales, with no sign of what (if anything) is expected to take their place. The Galleries' website is down for maintenance, but "will be back soon". Shame the same can't be said for their shops!

The BBC News website is currently carrying the headline Jade 'faces fight to save career'. Aren't there some additional quotation marks missing there?

Meanwhile, we're just back from a nice afternoon entertaining, eating with and praying for the old folk. These approximately quarterly parties are a real blessing to the elderly in Farnham, and hopefully they can continue for a long time to come. When we left the Pioneer church last year we debated whether it would be appropriate for us to carry on helping with the parties, but we're glad we decided to, and indeed about half the team are now with different churches but still supporting these excellent events!

Enjoying a nice restful Sunday afternoon now. We had Katy's mum and dad round for a meal last night, which was a good opportunity for everyone to catch up with various happenings and generally have a nice time together. We cooked up one of our favourite relatively quick dishes - roast chicken breasts wrapped in parma ham served with tagliatelle. We've got a pretty busy week coming up (and no real let-up in sight, or way and another) so it's good just to be able to relax a bit now. I've done a little bit of client work this afternoon, but nothing too stressful or problematic, and now I can just put my feet up for a bit!

OK, "for a bit" turned out to mean for about ten minutes, when I remembered I had more stuff I needed to do before tomorrow - and not even all paid! Maybe one day I shall become a hard-nosed businessman, not just a conscientious one...

I believe a nice slow-cooking chilli is just about ready now - I can certainly smell it anyway!

1&1's eventual response to my five very specific questions:

Basically we do not have any email problem and the emails in our mailserver is being delivered into your mailbox.

Ungrammatical, but accurate, at the moment of belated response, if not exactly answering said questions...

Today I've mainly been ferrying Katy to and from the garage where her car was being serviced, and trying in vain to sort out a problem with CD-writing on Katy's parents' PC. The car's all sorted out (albeit a little more expensively than we might have hoped) but the PC's going to have to wait until another day. I may well have since found the solution, however. Windows XP's built-in CD-writing wizard was reporting "Q:\ is not accessible - incorrect function" or somesuch, and the "Recording" tab was missing from the drive properties, which everything I could find on the web pointed towards being either an incompatible CD rewriter, or a clash with EasyCD software. Neither of these were credible causes, and none of the solutions worked in any case. However, digging further down into the nether regions of the Google results unearthed some interesting registry settings relating to CD-writing, in particular a flag called "NoCDBurning". I don't yet know for sure if this is behind the problem with Katy's parents' PC, but I managed to exactly reproduce (and fix) the symptoms by experimenting with it. In the meantime, I was able to copy the photos they badly needed backing up on to my pen-drive and get those safely burned on to a CD-R back here. Phew!

Alpha seemed to go quite well again last night, at least for the dining phase of the evening which we were overseeing before making our agreed early exit. Sue's lamb shanks with all the trimmings went down a treat and no-one could claim to be hard done-by portion-wise!

This morning, of course, we woke to quite a covering of snow. Not too much of a surprise (unlike in London, by all accounts) having noted last night that the gritting lorries had been out in earnest. Most of the snow's gone now, but we were glad neither of us had to travel for work - though we did go to Tesco to do our weekly shop and treat ourselves to a nice hot breakfast.

We've got a few people hopefully coming round this evening, trying to keep the ball rolling with fellowship while Alpha's inevitably occupying many of the busier people's schedules. It was the lack of anything like this that contributed to the downfall of our house-group at the Pioneer church, and although in hindsight we could perhaps have done more at that time, we can at least learn from that and make sure history doesn't repeat itself!

We had four people round plus ourselves, which was about what we had hoped for, and we had an excellent time of prayer and sharing. No-one was after a late finish, us included, so it was short and to the point, but we're all keen to do the same sort of thing again next week and hopefully sustain it over the next couple of months.

I may be my own boss now, but that doesn't stop the recruiter scum from still getting to me. Needless to say, once you're on these lowlifes' databases, there's no getting off them without actual threats. I get used to just deleting a lot of their "chatter" on sight, but there are a few agencies who managed to more spectacularly get into my bad books while I was genuinely seeking work. I had to complain to one of them earlier today, and they responded by sending yet more unsolicited job details. I had warned them that any further unsolicited email would result in a formal complaint, so I'm now waiting to see what the REC (who seem to be the closest thing to an industry regulator) will do to enforce my request.

Had a good curry out last night with Jo and Ian, by way of an early celebration of Jo's birthday - 21 again, we are assured. Portions at the Balti Hut were a little stingy last time we went for a lunchtime special, but that was quickly forgotten about because they did us proud last night with their midweek banquet! Today's being typically uneventful, but I'm taking the opportunity to spec up a potentially quite interesting product, of which I have already proven the basic concept... But I think Katy's wanting to get some fresh air so as to stay awake, and I think it will help clear my head a bit too, so I'm going to go and see if she's ready to go out somewhere.

Bleurgh, for a moment I was trying to work out what day it was. Of course it's Monday, with a quiet but active weekend in between that entry and this one.

We got out for a good walk on Saturday, again treading some of the paths we got lost on a couple of years ago, but this time knowing exactly where we were at all times! When we went out walking with my parents at Christmas we found a rather picturesque little unnamed lake near the Devil's Jumps, and that was our destination once again - plus another even smaller but equally tranquil one, more of a pond really! - albeit approached from the opposite direction. I really will have to sort out some photos from both these walks, as the lakes were almost magical in their unspoilt peace and calm.

The peak of our endeavours on Sunday was going swimming for the first time in well over a month. We knew if we let it slip, it would be harder to get back into the routine, and we really didn't manage many lengths at all yesterday. But we went, and it did us good - though we will know for reference that even Sunday lunchtime is busy compared with our "usual" weekday slots! We treated ourselves to lunch at the Hog's Head by way of reward for our efforts, and although the service was unusually lousy the food was great - and indeed this evening we are going to try and approximately recreate the salad I enjoyed.

Yesterday, sparked by an email from a friend, I decided the time was right to create myself a MySpace account. Thankfully a pretty painless experience - well the creation bit anyway. As for actually using the account, i.e. setting up and editing a webpage, by golly what a load of tosh it is. It must be the most hacky, ugly system of its kind on the face of the planet. Allowing (indeed, forcing) its users to (ab)use HTML and CSS to customise their page is simply asking for trouble, so it's no wonder most people's pages are such disaster areas - not helped by starting with a sow's ear in any case. But when it's used by well over 100 million people (with mine amongst 230,000 new accounts on the average day) as a supplementary communication means on a par with instant messaging etc, dreadful though it is, I would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand on principle.

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