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David's diary: July 2007

Flipping heck, is it really another new month? At least this time I have sorted out another issue with this diary; last month I fixed a long-standing bug that meant the time was wrong on the first entry made, and this time I have streamlined the page creation associated with starting a new month. It's still not perfect, requiring me to edit the site menu more manually, but the trickiest part to do and get right is now automated. Boring, eh?

Anyway, Katy's up in Manchester today, and I'm trying to get on with work when I can, but it's been a little challenging thanks to a BT engineer having been working outside much of the day and the phone line (and hence internet connection) going up and down like a yo-yo. Our phone is OK now, but a neighbour called round a few minutes ago to say his phone is dead, and the engineer is now nowhere to be seen. Hopefully he's just taking a late lunch break, but it's hard to be totally sure... We've also had some pretty entertaining weather here, with hail pounding down at a 45° angle a short while ago, and still some ominous clouds and rumblings of thunder.

A couple of weeks ago I reconfigured my spam settings. It was prompted by a phase of receiving dozens of pump-and-dump scheme messages in the form of hefty PDF attachments, and I really didn't appreciate wasting such a large chunk of our broadband usage allowance on such things. So now almost all spam is quarantined on my POP3 server, with only a couple a day slipping through my defences now the filter's well trained - and even they normally find their way into Thunderbird's spam trap. But the downside is that the excitement and anticlimax of receiving several dozen messages a day and most of them getting tagged as spam has now been replaced with the sheer dullness of usually getting next to nothing at all. But perhaps that's also a reflection on something else...

A few more rumbles of thunder, and one of the most impressive nimbus clouds I've seen in a long time is just about to pass over...

I was just thinking again earlier that it would be really good if the BBC News website properly differentiated between Surrey and Sussex news. They used to have separate headings, but with exactly the same (mainly Sussex biased) news underneath them. When they realised how stupid this was, they simply merged them, with the Sussex bias remaining. But I just went to the site again a few minutes ago, and it's like they read my mind, because Surrey and Sussex are now completely different entities, and the Surrey news is actually about Surrey. Of course, there's still the little issue that here in rural south-west Surrey we really don't feel a lot of affinity with parts of the county that are practically London, but hey it's a start!

The BBC report today that all the recent "terror" suspects are "linked to the NHS". By golly, you mean to say that it's law-abiding taxpayers' money that has been spent not only on thwarting and investigating these inept alleged acts, but on staging them in the first place?

So, the journalist Alan Johnston has, mercifully, been released - and there really can't be more than a literally small handful of people in the world who aren't (or wouldn't be) glad of that outcome. Ironic though that some government minister or other got a sound-bite on the BBC this morning, extolling the virtues of the petition that 200-odd thousand people had signed, emphasising that such things clearly do have sway. Unless of course said petitions are directed towards our own government, in which case they are ignored patronisingly.

Meanwhile, hopefully in response to our neighbour's support call, the BT engineer was back first thing this morning, and workmen have since re-filled the hole - though thankfully taking the opportunity to fit a proper manhole so that if further work is required it shouldn't mean digging up the pavement again! I just had bad visions of left-hand and right-hand non-communication between the jackhammer and engineering crews, and the hole merrily being filled in while there was still an open support ticket (and the jackhammer crew being more than delighted to be paid twice) but thankfully that doesn't appear to have been the case.

No house group last night for various reasons, and although there had been talk of meeting here instead, in the end no-one was up for that, so we went to the pub instead - not least to see what they were like without a haze of tobacco smoke. Or, rather, two pubs. First of all we thought we would try the Blue Bell at Dockenfield, having been advertised a bit in the local press recently. The staff were pleasant enough and the choice of beers great, but the whole place was overall so sterile we really couldn't stand being there any longer than it took to down our drinks. We decided we would go on to the Cherry Tree at Rowledge, a pub we knew from the past to be good, but it has to be said, it too was a disappointment, feeling only marginally more cosy than the Blue Bell. Between the half-baked smoking ban and the accelerating restaurantisation of these "destination" venues, is the traditional country pub now dead?

Woo, new sports glasses in the post this morning! Not sure if they make me look mean and serious, or downright silly and not entirely unlike Geordi La Forge, but they'll certainly make cycling more pleasant. Just got to see if Katy gets on with them too, because if she does we'll order another pair, they're so cheap. Three different coloured lenses too - rather like the Bloc Stealth systems, but at about a third the price and delivered free...

Nicest day for ages, but feeling complete crud. Just ain't fair! We got out on our bikes for a bit yesterday and I think were already going down with something such was our distinct lack of stamina, and we're paying the price a bit today. We had our fortnightly breakfast round at Becki and Simon's, but any plans to do anything else today have gone by the wayside for now.

We were pretty whacked yesterday too, and unusually gave church a miss in the morning. We still staggered round to friends for lunch as planned, knowing that wouldn't mean too arduous an afternoon, but it still finished us for the day. Katy was meant to be up in London today, but thankfully had the flexibility to call in with her apologies and work from home instead - something she is managing considerably better than me so far.

We've been up to see my parents overnight. It was a bit borderline whether we would be fit enough to travel but in the end we weren't too bad, and it was good to get away for a few hours anyway. My parents had been having a bit of trouble with their computer lately, and since it's generally been so well-behaved since we upgraded it to Windows XP a while back, it was a shame to let it languish... We think we've alleviated the problem for the moment, but it can almost certainly do with some extra memory, which we've promised to sort out for them by the next time we go up to see them. The computer was fine in that regard (if not many other regards!) in the Windows 98 days, but the combination of Windows XP and more demanding cameras and so on really have now tipped the balance and another 256MB is a must-have upgrade now. We'd been pondering taking the bikes up, but in the end the weather was actually pretty uninspiring most of the time we were there - but we still got out for a bit this morning, walking down to Great Missenden for a coffee and a danish. We were on our way back home soon after a late lunch with Mum and Dad though, wanting to be back well in time for the house group barbecue postponed from last week, but we've just discovered (thankfully before we defrosted our meat) that it's been postponed again, hey ho...

It has to be said that Prestwood is going down the pan a bit, sadly - at least as far as its internet face is concerned. I recently joined up with the Prestwood Appreciation Society on Facebook, but have discovered it's overrun by chavvy boy-racers, boasting about their 90mph exploits on the village high street. And there's another thread asking "whatever became of..." Well as it happens, I know pretty much exactly what became of the person in question (because they lived very near by) and it was in part thanks to the bad influence of these ASBO magnets (I suspect there are still beer-cans in my parents' hedge) that it did.

I really need to let off steam, but too many people I care about would risk getting scalded...

Me's really not very happy today, and I wish I knew what would make it better.

We had a nice evening out round at Ian and Jo's with a bottle of red, though. Our original plans had fallen through, but they'll save for another time and we'd not caught up properly with Ian and Jo for ages - and it also of course meant meeting Hebe and Sophia for the first time, very cute fluff-balls! This morning we went along to the café outreach training session organised by the Vineyard, which was quite interesting and encouraging, but neither of us had the energy to stay on for the "practical" bit, and felt a little uncomfortable with it anyway; we're not all called to do everything, after all, and we wouldn't be practising what we preach if we didn't know when enough was enough for our limited energies!

Bah, film industry bureaucracy! This morning I went with our aforementioned friend Jo to see the new Harry Potter film, delighted at last to have the opportunity to use the free guest passes offered as compensation for messing around with ticket prices when Katy and I last went to the cinema. But needless to say, the passes were declined, because the film is a new release and not yet on "free listing". The passes themselves mentioned this phenomenon, but without a word of explanation as to what it actually meant. By chance, as we were waiting to go into the screen, we bumped into the very chap who had sent us the passes, and questioned this, having a quite enlightening conversation about the stranglehold the film distributors have. That's to say, they would have loved to let us use the passes but they're not allowed. He agreed that the terminology used was industry jargon, but explained that the listing on the website would state it in plain English that guest passes were not valid. However, on getting home I thought I would test this explanation, and surprise surprise, it's not mentioned anywhere, even when one goes into the booking process. Anyway, we agreed I would get in touch again if there were any further issues, so hopefully Odeon's customer services will pass on my observations, and make sure the site's fixed... Ironic, really, given that the passes were issued in the first place thanks to misleading information on the website!

Yesterday evening we got out for our first bike ride together since being ill. I went out for a bit on Sunday afternoon, doing pretty much our usual circuit, but yesterday we loaded the bikes up on my car and spent the last couple of hours of daylight on Thursley Common. If we thought the Frensham sand was hard going a few weeks back, we really had seen nothing... We had a vague recollection that Thursley wasn't sandy, but it was somewhat incorrect. Suffice to say we walked rather more than we would really have liked, but the saving grace was probably the remnant of last summer's famous fire, which meant we could at least ride alongside the worst of the tracks, though burnt heather makes for a strange surface it has to be said!

We woke up this morning to the sound of digging, then angle-grinding, outside the house. Yep, the BT engineer (or his spade-wielding lackey) was back, since frankly they'd done a pretty bodged job last time when it came to filling the hole. Certainly looks a bit smarter now, but only time will tell if the surfacing remains solid this time or if the local cat population dig it up again...

Bit of a vehicular "nasty noise" theme going on at the moment, but hopefully all now under control! Katy's car's been in today having a wheel bearing changed, since it was making a heck of a noise and obviously wasn't 100% safe. It turns out it wasn't the wheel we (or even the mechanic) first thought, but he came up with the best description yet of its sound, like a helicopter... Also getting nasty noises from my bike, after a rather muddy ride yesterday. I feared it was the "sealed" bottom bracket having ingested some grit and/or water, but thankfully Google was my friend and I found some advice that the kind of noise being experienced was more often caused by just a mucky chain. So I got myself nicely greasy by lifting the chain off the chain-ring, and what do you know, the chain-ring went round smooth as a baby's bum, indeed no problem whatsoever with the bottom bracket. So glad it's nothing very mechanical, but anything making that much noise isn't good in the long term, so I'm investigating the best way to clean (and keep clean) the chain given Surrey's obviously particularly vicious muck!

Well I'm about half an hour away from getting about £15 worth of chain cleaning technology for 99p plus postage, so here's hoping... No cycling this weekend, though, with it having been otherwise really quite busy!

Yesterday afternoon we had the last of the quarterly-ish OAP parties. They've been much loved for the last ten years, but we simply no longer have the manpower to run them. So we decided to wrap them up with a celebration of the last decade, our own contribution being a "slide show" of some of the highlights of the last four or five years in particular. There are plenty of other events going locally on that our elderly friends can get involved with, so hopefully we won't be leaving too much of a void, but I am conscious that in many ways this is our last link with Pioneer (who physically hosted the parties) broken. In some ways that is a healthy thing, since we must not hold on to the past, but it does mean we'll have to try extra hard maintaining contact with the people we had lived alongside for so long.

Today's been quite hectic too, although in a slightly more recreational way. After church (and helping pack away the crèche stuff - about as close to crèche as we hope to get this side of parenthood) we toddled into Aldershot for lunch at AM's - but not before popping in on George and Kit and friends, luncheoning across the road at the Goose! And this afternoon and early evening we've been (surprisingly for me in particular) pretty absorbed by the golf. Well, stranger things have happened, if rarely.

I was sniped on the chain cleaner, needless to say. But the seller seems to put one up every day, so maybe I'll get luckier tomorrow..? Might have to resort to sniping, myself, I guess. Or maybe the old toothbrush really will do the trick for next to nowt?

Second time lucky, though the bidding went right to the top of my auto-bid range, in the last five seconds... Still about half typical retail price, anyway, and given the amount of crud that came off yesterday with the help of a toothbrush and a bit of WD40, I'm pretty sure a specialist cleaning tool should do some good!

Meanwhile, I've actually been doing some paid work this morning! It's been a bit of a lean last couple of months in that regard, and this hardly tips the balance, but it's a relief that things are still ticking over. The object-oriented rehash of my current project is going well (if not quite as quickly as hoped) and I have another project waiting in the wings, but such work is a big gamble, and may never recoup development costs...

The chain cleaner arrived in the post this morning, and amazingly fitted through the letter-box! Not tried it out yet (beyond confirming that it basically fitted on our bikes without any problem) since our chains aren't too mucky at the moment, but we're going out in a little while and it will be good to give it a try after that...

In other news, I've just finished reading The Da Vinci Code. I'd been steadfastly avoiding reading it for ages, and have had no great inclination to watch the film, but we spotted it at a charity shop the other day and thought we'd see what all the fuss was about. It was a good if somewhat formulaic read, but although I obviously hoped that much of the "fact" presented was at least highly debatable, it was only on checking the Wikipedia entry on the book afterwards that I realised just what arrant twaddle it was, right from its opening premises. But as arrant twaddle goes, pretty enjoyable - just don't expect to be enlightened about anything other than some parallel universe! Now I just need to read Nicky Gumbel's notes that we've had lying around for a year or so - they should sign, seal and deliver Dan Brown's fate for good.

Had a good ride, and took the opportunity as we passed by to drop off a card with our friends who've just had a new addition to their family - welcome to our weird but wonderful world, Lucy Charlotte! Half way round the Alice Holt trail we also bumped into the chap who sold us our bikes in the first place, out cycling with his family. Funny that: we saw him yesterday when we popped in to his shop to get a bottle cage and water bottle, and he admitted he hadn't been out on his bike for ages. Looks like we guilt-tripped him! Not so funny was me almost falling off right under his nose before I realised who he was, now that really would have been embarrassing... Oh, and the chain cleaner seems pretty effective for a mere fiver!

Gosh, is the month nearly up again? Still, at least summer seems to have started properly, at long last! The main highlight of the weekend was going up to Reading on Saturday to see Darren, Ceryn and co., and we although our original plan to take bikes was postponed until another time (Dinton Pastures still looking like a swimming pool apparently) we did get out on foot for a bit and it was really rather nice out. Katy and I also celebrated the new-found sunshine yesterday by having a properly al-fresco barbecue, sun-hats and all; we'd had a house-group one on Wednesday but despite an optimistic weather forecast it rained persistently so was more indoor than out!

I tried giving the new BBC iPlayer a go earlier, having been invited (OK, accepted) to trial it. I can't honestly say it got off to the best of starts, but the story does have a largely happy ending. The instructions provided, despite being detailed, were incomplete, with the most notable omission being not mentioning the third-party ActiveX plug-in from a company no-one's likely to have heard of. This really should have been part of the software installation that preceded the warning message! So I was finally able to set an episode of Doctor Who downloading, and was pleasantly surprised that a 45-minute programme was going to eat only about 200MB of our broadband allowance and hard disk space. However, for several minutes the download progress indicator stayed resolutely stuck at 0%, despite some apparent network activity. I feared perhaps they were using some kind of peer-to-peer technology to do it, which I know to be prejudiced against by our ISP, but just as I was moaning about it on the provided forum, the download sprang into life and at quite an acceptable speed. Before I knew it (in fact before I was expecting, suggesting the earlier reported inactivity may have been deceptive) the download had completed, and I was invited to watch Christopher and Billie's adventure at the end of the world. Though not quite from the start, alas: it seems that the timing of programmes on iPlayer is just as wayward as that on the BBC's live broadcasts and no-one's checking. Still, no disaster in this case (not the end of the world, that came later...) and the quality of playback was very good. Not quite DVD standard, but it was never likely to be at that data rate, but better than VHS and better than most web video. It was a little disconcerting when the Windows screen-saver kicked in part way through, but that's probably more of a Windows Media Player issue than iPlayer itself. The limited compatibility is also a problem, since Internet Explorer is not our primary web browser, and I know there has already been a backlash from open source and Linux advocates, but I suspect the BBC's relationship with Kontiki (whose unexpected plug-in almost spoiled the show earlier) is too ingrained to do much about that in the foreseeable future. But overall, for a beta and a first (public) effort thereof, not bad at all, and hopefully the start of a for once very healthy bandwagon that other broadcasters will jump on to.

Oh, and what is this iPlayer anyway, I hear some people wondering..? On a conceptual level, it's a system allowing the broadband download of BBC television programmes from the last week, that are then digitally locked to self-destruct after a month. In the meantime they can be watched (with Windows Media Player only) as many times as wanted, but not copied to other PCs, again thanks to that digital lock. On another more philosophical level, it's yet another complication to the already over-complicated world of video-on-demand, Sky+, digital video recorders, Freeview Playback, Slingboxes and so on. All these can co-exist, but even I as a relative tech-head find it all rather too much to keep track of!

Hmm, apparently iPlayer really does use P2P, so I'm surprised how fast the downloading was. Perhaps we'll have to try it again this evening, when PlusNet's traffic management should have kicked in good and proper... Also of course means being wary of how much we are uploading, since that's all part of the deal of P2P, though we may need to play ball a bit to get good downloads, depending on how it's all been set up. Otherwise, we'll just have to be selfish and move programmes out of the download folder a.s.a.p.!

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