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David's diary: March 2007

It's been the best part of a week since I last wrote in here, but that's mainly been because of a combination of a lack of too much to say and being way too busy with work in any case! We didn't "do" Alpha on Tuesday night, both being pretty shattered to be honest and really not too sad to be granted an evening off. We did however host our now-regular Wednesday night prayer thing, with Susy and Judi joining us for a couple of hours share-and-prayer... And now it's nigh on the weekend again, and it really can't now come soon enough!

So, work... Well although more customers would always be a good thing, I have to say I am keeping fairly busy with the stuff I have got on my plate at the moment. More tasty invoices sent out in the last couple of days, and if I carry on at the current rate finances really should be looking pretty healthy soon. Of course, financial year-end is coming up soon now, and it will be interesting to see how the tax works out. Having been paid by EDS for only six months of the tax year but taxed as if I was working for the whole year, by my reckoning I've overpaid by about £1500, less whatever tax there is to pay on my own business profits. Whether refunded as a lump sum or offset against next year's tax coding, that will certainly be a useful chunk of money to claw back sometime!

Lunar eclipse, 3 March 2007We sat out and watched the lunar eclipse last night. Thankfully it was quite a mild and still evening, even if we needed our scarves and gloves by the time we called it a night at about 11pm! So much for the eclipse supposedly beginning at 8.16pm, because there was no change visible at all for at least an hour thereafter - and we were fully armed with binoculars, telescope and all, so nothing would have slipped our attention... But anyway, when it finally happened it was beautiful and spectacular, and with the resulting unusually dark sky it was a good opportunity for a look at nearby-in-the-sky Saturn too. We feared loitering suspiciously in our driveway with optical instruments would attract more "attention" than it did, with in the end just one couple from over the road trotting across curious at what we were doing and being suitably impressed with the views!

Well spotted if you noticed that the photograph above was upside-down! It isn't now, needless to say. Reflector telescopes have the side-effect of inverting the image, and it gets all too easy to take it for granted! Sure, it's not as obvious and generally doesn't matter when looking at stars and fuzzy blobs, but I really had no excuse with our trusty Moon... My humble apologies.

With broadband up and down like a yo-yo this afternoon, and BT's maintenance schedule moving back in time, it seemed like a good chance to go and get some "fresh air". We tried at Homebase to find the materials to mend our shed, with limited success, but had a mooch round Halfords and the nearby pet shop, and called at Sainsbury's on the way home. Not a thrilling afternoon, but at least the broadband seems better now and I've been able to do a little more work!

And quite a bit more work today, indeed, getting a couple of major bits of the front end for my new software more or less complete - and, more to point, working reasonably securely. Not sure when I am going to push to release this software; that will all rather depend on how much specifically paid work I get over the next few weeks as I apply what can hopefully now be the final touches and design the launch website. Would be nice to aim for April, though...

Meanwhile, I had an interesting chat this morning with someone at the Inland Revenue. Well over a year ago I was asked to complete a P92 form, to patch up some holes in my tax record, suggesting that I may well have over-paid for up to a couple of years. I never heard anything back once I'd done so, apart from receiving a bog-standard tax code notification, but the more I thought about it, the more I suspected my response hadn't been processed at all. The chap I spoke to this morning was able to confirm that that the enquiry was still "open", and that although these things can be slow, almost a year and a half didn't sound quite right. So he's going to chase it, and who knows, I might finally get whatever (if anything) I'm owed...

Was that really two unrelated entries about tax within a week? Scary! Spot the businessman...

Meanwhile, the week plods on. There was no Alpha on Tuesday night, because the "weekend" (actually an evening and a morning) is coming up, and it would have been a little unfair to make too much demands on participants' (both guests and organisers!) time. But we did host a prayer gathering as usual last night, and had three people join us for that, which was good. I expect I've said it before, but we are acutely aware of the necessity of prayer going on behind the scenes with respect to Alpha, and know from experience what happens if the fellowship side of things gets neglected over the two or three months involved, so these weekly meetings are absolutely key from all points of view.

Yesterday morning Katy and I sat down for an hour and brainstormed what's realistically left for this website I am currently developing, attempting to triage things into "vital for beta release", "vital for public release", and "can wait until the next version". Since then I've been trying to chip off as many of the level 1 items as I can, and am making reasonable progress with doing so. But I think I'm going to take a breather in a little while, especially since Katy has noted it's pretty dry and sunny outside, and the grass is getting rather long. Hmm, so maybe not really a breather, but a change is as good as a rest, they say!

Still very much alive, just been a hectic last few days - though since we've not had to cook ourselves a meal for half a week, we really can't complain! Friday night round with Katy's mum and dad, Saturday visiting Darren, Ceryn and co up near Reading, and Sunday having an impromptu late lunch / early tea with Bex and Si. Which was the best it wouldn't be fair to say, and we certainly enjoyed the whole lot, even if we were utterly shattered by yesterday evening!

This morning I've been having great fun sorting out tax and National Insurance matters. It might be bearable if this was related to the business, but it's not, rather being "just" historical screw-ups I've only just become aware of that I'm trying to rectify...

So, the pretender to Tony's throne (Gordon Brown, that is) plans to clobber us again by phasing out incandescent light-bulbs and "standby" on electrical appliances. All very laudable, and approving noises have come from the predictable quarters. Now, I want to see vastly reduced energy waste, and utterly agree that a lot of the current waste comes from the aforementioned culprits. However, just because Australia have said they're banning such light-bulbs in a few years' time doesn't mean it's a measure we should dive headlong into without first seeing what kind of problems our antipodean friends encounter. And regarding "standby", there's a perfectly good international initiative to persuade manufacturers to make their devices use less than a watt while idle, so why not build on that? Instead, Gordon seems to think he can impress the world by "taking the lead" in a way the UK as the Dirty Man of Europe isn't too accustomed - but a lead that is misguided, knee-jerk, and surely doomed to failure.

Of course, I may have got it all wrong, since I am basing this on what the BBC are telling us, and more and more in recent days their reporting has turned out to be utter twaddle. But that's another soapbox for another day...

It's Thursday, very nearly the weekend, and it really can't come soon enough. I think we've got a fairly quiet one this time, but I do have a track record of forgetfulness!

Yesterday was an absolutely gorgeous day, surely the finest of the year so far. 15.5°C the car reported as we drove out to Frensham to have a picnic lunch on the beach. Ham, coleslaw and (for me, anyway) olive sandwiches washed down with what was left of Tuesday night's Shiraz were just about the perfect accompaniment to whiling away a couple of hours in the sun.

Of course, I've had work to do too, and have managed quite a bit of that over the last few days. But I think I have now come to a bit of a natural pause in the main project I'm working on, so have been trying in vain to tie my clients down with regard to some paid work this afternoon. In the last few minutes I had a little success with one bit, and expect to be able to put in another hour or so tomorrow. Not a lot, but better than nothing!

Hmm, it's been an interesting last few days, work-wise. I was crying out for some more client work to get my teeth into, and lo and behold on Friday morning I had a call from a friend wanting to enhance their website. A few bits of PHP, but most challengingly for me, some Flash - and that is the topic of today's diatribe entry.

Now, let me be clear, I really do not like Flash, and that's about as much as I am prepared to say in a family-friendly diary! But, away from annoying animations and website splash screens missing "click here to skip" buttons, I have to concede it is sometimes useful, and one of its strong areas is in helping making video in particular cross-platform. Look at the rise of sites like YouTube and Google Video - using exactly this technology - for simple proof.

The #1 drawback of Flash is of course its cost. Depending on the exact version, unless prepared to blag being a student, or to succumb to the temptations of spammed offers of "OEM" and pirated versions, we're talking £300+ even for the most basic current edition. There are a few alternative development environments around, but they are all commercial too. So I was quite pleased to find a free system called OpenLaszlo, not exactly a Flash development environment, but able nonetheless to export the necessary SWF files, and (on paper at least) supporting exactly the subset of media-handling functionality I needed.

But two days later, I'm still scratching my head, reluctant to commit to whether I really can do what my friend has asked for. OpenLaszlo is conceptually great, being reasonably programmer-friendly (unlike Flash itself) and based around the rock-solid XML format. But it is just so buggy, and the documentation is inaccurate at best and downright non-existent at worst. All I want it to do is reliably play a sound or video file, from start to finish, reliably report its position in the file, and reliably detect when it has finished. Now, I realise this is technically non-trivial (thanks to the vagaries of streaming content via the web), but it is a fundamental part of OpenLaszlo's core functionality and simply does not work. It worked enough to lead me down the path to believing that it had the answer to Flash authoring on a budget, but has left me feeling like I've wasted two days of my life that I really could have been spending doing something productive with. Of course, it could be Flash Player itself that's the problem, since that's the ultimate delivery engine, but I'm really not convinced. Other related bugs suggest OpenLaszlo really is as unpolished as it seems, e.g. tell it not to auto-play a sound, and it plays the first (arbitrary and variable) fraction of a second of it anyway.

For a system nearing its fourth major release version, I am disappointed, and it's reinforcing my long-held contention that such software is "free" only for those whose time is worthless.

What of the last few days otherwise? It's all been pretty quiet and uneventful really. We had Meryl round for the evening on Friday for the first time in a while, and managed to rustle up good grub for a meal planned at very short notice! Saturday morning was a breakfast morning round at Simon and Bex's, and there was church on Sunday of course, but that was just about it I think. We needed a quiet weekend, and we got one thankfully!

So, with OpenLaszlo dead in the water, alas, and no other free offerings to try, it was time to give Swish Max a go, vaguely remembering it was a viable alternative. Except that despite only being a few months old, it has no Flash video support at all - and the additional video tool they offer is not for programming. All of which only really leaves demoing Flash itself, and the Adobe webserver has been dead as a doornail for several days now, so no chance...

It turned out the fault with Adobe's website wasn't - or at least lay elsewhere than Adobe's door. My ISP acknowledge they've had a few reports of similar things happening recently, and are investigating. Annoyingly, Google seems to periodically disappearing into the same black hole, which isn't good. But anyway, to cut a long story short, by a roundabout route I managed to download the 30-day trial version of Flash 8 Professional, and in one day have managed to significantly better what I did in two days with OpenLaszlo. That's to say, it all basically works pretty much as I intended. There were still some hiccups on the way, obviously - but almost all, as it turns out, caused by yet more substandard free (for those whose time is worthless) software getting in the way of productivity. What I will do about registration of Flash will remain to be seen. Although it's possible I can get this job done within the 30-day trial limit, I sincerely doubt it will be the last time I will need to work on this or something similar, but at the same time I am not really in a position to shell out the several hundred pounds Adobe want. That really leaves eBay and dodgy OEM deals. Rocks and hard places, anyone?

eBay is increasingly looking like the most realistic option, and there are good deals to be had especially if prepared to buy from US and Canadian sellers. There's also the possibility of getting Studio 8 rather than just Flash 8, which only costs a little more but contains a load more genuinely useful tools like Dreamweaver and Fireworks. Anyway, still another 29 days on the trial to go so I don't need to rush a decision, but then who knows how long the deals will last...

What else have we been up to lately?

Well we helped with what will be our last Alpha of this season on Tuesday, because we're busy next week for the last actual session. I think it went as well as ever, and we were impressed with the numbers who have managed to stick with it over the months. Everyone was either too tired or too busy to make our Wednesday evening prayer viable, so there were no complaints when we called that off, and I expect the next time we all meet will now be back as a proper house group again - perhaps even with some new members!

On Wednesday, Katy's parents treated us to a day out at Kew Gardens. They are members, so got us in free with a couple of their guest passes, saving us a nice round tenner a head. I last went for my tenth birthday treat (my choice, apparently) and I remember being most miffed that my parents insisted I was under ten so I got in free... As an adult now, free is good! Considering how enthusiastic all the flowers in our garden have been to show their faces over the last few weeks, we were a little disappointed with how little was out yet at Kew, but it was still all very beautiful and tranquil, and the hot-houses were a treat as ever. Given that it snowed on both Tuesday and Thursday, we were very happy to be blessed with cold but sunny weather for most of the day. As a bonus, Katy's parents had dutifully collected tokens from the Daily Telegraph, and we had a lovely cheap lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant, not at all being looked down on for spending only a fiver a head. We didn't have much energy left by then, but we went back into the gardens for a little while to see the ducks and peacocks, then made our way home.

Studio 8 is now on order from across the pond, and hopefully will be with me long before the trial runs out - and hopefully not too much duty to pay, though it will still be a massive saving on what I could have shelled out... Katy and I have conceived lots more things that Flash and its bundled friends can help with, so hopefully it will pay for itself reasonably soon regardless.

Yesterday was a typically quiet Saturday but today we've had George and Kit round for most of the day - not that they're noisy people, I should clarify! As George commented, the fact that they came for lunch and about the next time any of us looked at a clock it was about 7.30 was proof (as if we needed it) that we really were all enjoying ourselves! And although a little was unavoidable (inevitable, even) there was not too much Monochrome talk, mercifully.

We've been away for a few days in sunny Bournemouth - and contrary to the forecast weather, it really was sunny! Well Monday and Tuesday were supposed to be the best of the week, with lousy weather closing in for the rest of the week, but yesterday actually turned out to be the finest of the lot, as we walked to Hengistbury Head, several miles east of Bournemouth and Boscombe, with fantastic views towards the Needles and St Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight. We also walked to Sandbanks in the other direction on Tuesday, not at all coveting most of the properties there, well-known as some of the most expensive in the world and generally hideous. Wednesday we spent in Bournemouth itself, thoroughly enjoying the Oceanarium - especially the turtles - and mooching round a few parks and shops for good measure.

The New Westcliff Hotel was recommended to us by friends, and delivered the goods. We were substantially the youngest guests there - perhaps unsurprisingly - but were still made very welcome. The dining was a particular selling point, and certainly did not disappoint in any way, with an excellent and different menu every evening leaving us well and truly stuffed in the nicest way. The pool was a bit cold one evening thanks to a mis-timed refilling, but the jacuzzi never let us down, soothing our aching feet after our expeditions! We suspect you can most reliably categorise visitors to such hotels by whether or not they partake of the entertainments, and we fell firmly in the "not" camp. We did give them a fair try, but it really wasn't for us, and the films on show as an alternative we'd either seen before or had no wish to - and we're really not quite sure how many of the dozen or so greying guests filing out from Transporter 2 (as we played pool next door) had really appreciated it...

On the way back today, we visited my mum's cousin Cathie near Dorchester. Well in fact it involved quite a major detour, but it's not often we're remotely in the area so it was worth the effort - and we were able to pop in to the Martyrs' Museum at Tolpuddle on the way, which was interesting stuff for someone as blatantly ignorant of history as I am. We'd phoned Cathie earlier in the week and arranged to take her out for lunch, and she had chosen and booked a table at a favourite cafe. We were a bit early at the cafe but there were some lovely water-gardens there to look around before we ate, and we had a bit of a stroll round the pretty village of Upwey afterwards. Back to Cathie's for coffee and home-made apple cake (with a slice each to take home too!) and it was time to hit the road home, finally encountering some of that forecast rain!

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