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David's diary: November 2007

No-one else has signed up to Catalogue Shopping Review yet, but that's hardly surprising because Google's still not indexed the site, and indeed I am still waiting for them to get back to me regarding my advertising request. As usual with such things, every page says something different with regards to how quickly they are supposed to process applications - so, somewhere between 24 hours and one week, and it's fast approaching the latter... We've been away for a few days, and I really had hoped things might be properly in gear by our return, but not so.

Anyway, yes, we've been away for a few days by way of celebrating Katy's birthday, staying a couple of nights at the really rather posh Avisford Park Hilton just outside Arundel. Definitely a cut above the other (perfectly good) Hiltons we've used, at Bracknell and Newbury North, with wide-screen televisions in the rooms, proper table service in the restaurant, and extensive leisure facilities - though no hot tub. We did our best to make good use of what was on offer, though have to admit that our practising on Wii Sports tennis wasn't the most comprehensive preparation for the real thing, even if it had improved our confidence, and we did not too badly considering how long since either of us had last played!

Before we checked in on Sunday we drove straight down to Littlehampton and had sausages and chips followed by a stroll along the beach. Yesterday we got out and saw the birdies at the nearby wetland centre. It was almost exactly a year since we last went, so things weren't so very different, and we must organise another trip in say spring. Today we drove to the beach at Climping with a picnic lunch and walked along to the other bank of the Arun at Littlehampton, before making our way home. The weather was nowhere near as glorious as forecast (as usual for the BBC) but still pretty ridiculously mild for the start of November.

Bah, thwarted by typical British weather again! Earlier this evening we had a look at Comet 17P/Holmes, which recently made the minor news when it unexpectedly and mysteriously brightened by a factor of a million and became a naked-eye object well beyond the orbit of Mars. It's a bit dimmer now but still perfectly visible without binoculars or telescope if you look in the right place and have anything but the most polluting street lighting. Anyway, binoculars proved better than the naked eye, and the telescope still better (at least when using the 25mm SMA eyepiece), but I decided I would go one better and make an adapter for our camera.

And what do you know, in the five minutes flat between me commenting that there was nary a cloud in the sky, and having a rudimentary adapter (based on one my mum made for her microscope) up and running, it had all but completely clouded over. And now the rain's come, and looking settled in for the evening. The curse of the backyard astronomer strikes again...

Hmm, I'm having to put up with more ads when web-browsing now, but am being pragmatic about it because I will hopefully be generating at least some of my own revenue through their ilk. Ages ago, and I really do mean ages ago, I installed an ad-blocker for Firefox. It worked, and I forgot about it. But from time to time I had been finding odd quirks in my own websites, even where I wasn't using advertising. DIVs mysteriously vanishing, in particular. Some time ago I tracked the problem down to this ancient ad-blocker, indeed one so ancient that Firefox's configuration options aren't aware of it, and adjusted its behaviour slightly. But then when I was setting up the Google ads for my new site, I found they weren't appearing - but confirmed they worked just fine in all other browsers, including Firefox in Ubuntu. I discovered that any DIV beginning with the letters "ad" was doomed to be hidden by the ad-blocker. But could I find where I adjusted the settings before, vaguely recalling editing some Javascript file or similar? Could I heck! Of course I don't have to see my own ads, especially as I am not allowed to click on them, but it's kind of reassuring to visually confirm it's all working. Anyway, so eventually I decided it was time to reinstall Firefox and blast our profile, backing up our bookmarks and making a note of our favourite extensions first of course! So we now have a nice clean Firefox 2.0.0.9, but displaying ads I never knew existed... Hey ho, pragmatism rocks.

Talking of the Wii, we fear ours is somewhat ill, possibly terminally. We noted from the start that it was a bit noisier than we'd expected, especially since the disc drive hardly ever stopped spinning. Over the last few days it seems to have been getting even noisier, and inducing a resonant vibration too suggesting the whole thing might rattle itself to pieces if left unchecked. We've also been getting more than a few error messages normally associated with dirty discs and dodgy modifications, altogether pointing towards a duff drive unit.

So what do we do? We have about four days left on the Argos replacement guarantee, but Argos have none in stock locally so there's little or no point taking it back since we don't want a refund if it's going to leave us empty-handed. Nintendo are resolutely ignoring our emails to the recommended address, and I got bored waiting on hold on their support line this morning.

Well Argos are living up to their reputation of excelling in the in-store customer service stakes. We've had our fair share of dud products from them over the years (hence the inspiration for my latest website) but we've never once had any issue at all with their customer service when we've done so. Realising they had no Wiis in stock, we took a walk to our local store (not the one we bought from) to explain our predicament and they've reserved us a replacement from a batch due in tomorrow evening, no questions asked, and assured us they would have done so even beyond the 30-day guarantee. Quite happy not to have to haggle!

Just rolled out the WAP version of Catalogue Shopping Review, on m.csreview.co.uk! For once, a really quick site to develop, though in a way there's not a lot to it. No logging in, no reviewing, and really quite stripped down functionality I might enhance a little. Basically it's designed to allow you to look up products with minimum fuss while you're out and about - particularly in your local Argos leafing through the catalogue and wondering if that el-cheapo Cookworks kettle is any cop. Obviously still of limited use while hardly anyone has added reviews, but that's another issue altogether you uncooperative lot!

Not all work today though, with Jo coming round this morning for a coffee, a bite of lunch and a brief but intensive introduction to the wonderful world of Wii. She also brought home-made chocolate brownies, which went down rather splendidly with the aforementioned coffee! Jo also kindly dropped us off in town on the way home, so our walk to Argos earlier was more of a short stumble we have to admit, though we did make our own way home afterwards and plan on walking out to home group later as usual.

Well we have a new Wii, swapped by Argos as promised without any trouble - and several hours ahead of schedule. Not sure it's any quieter in operation than the one it replaced, but no nasty error messages yet as far as I know. Obviously we'll be keeping a very watchful eye on it over the next couple of weeks! Doing an in-store swap means we've lost all our Miis and saved data, but there wasn't anything too precious and we made sure we had a record of all our hairstyles and whatnot. I'm sure we will recover our modest rankings and handful of medals soon enough!

A most definitely fun weekend, kicked off with Bex and Mali coming round to play Friday afternoon, Rachel and Daniel doing similarly yesterday afternoon, and going along to a slightly-different-from-usual More...? event in the evening. The latter normally comprises live music and a minuscule amount of testimony, but this time it was a games evening, with plenty of distractions of both the electronic and traditional varieties on offer - and Scalextric sitting somewhere in between! Just a shame only about a dozen of us braved the slightly wintry conditions to make it along, because it was a lot of fun for those who did. Hopefully the organisers will not be discouraged and will try similar things again because they are a really good way to get to know people.

Ooh, thunderstorm! Well maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's been chucking it down with rain for the last little while and there was a huge lightning flash very close by, and perhaps another a few minutes earlier. Hey, at least it woke me up a bit more!

Is it International Day of Website Collapse today, or what?!

Ah, all bar one of the sites alluded to above are back on line. Alas the one that isn't is one of mine - or, rather, belongs to a client. Hopefully this will be the final spur for him to sign up with a competent hosting company, given that in the last year his site has now been blighted by:

  • Restoration, twice, to prehistoric back-ups, once completely removing his site
  • Hacking (mercifully non-destructive) thanks to the server being fundamentally insecure
  • Name-server collapse, rendering the site completely inaccessible
  • Installation of a lobotomised version of PHP, rendering the site non-functional

They may be cheap, but it's cost my client immensely in other ways...

On a roll after our Wii Sports fitness ages of 24 and 25 this morning, we decided we'd get out on our bikes for a bit. Trouble was, it was the first time in several weeks for one reason or another and we didn't do too well. Still, at least we got out for half an hour and that must have been good for us. Perhaps we worked off a rasher of our brunch bacon. Between us. Hey ho.

Of course it had to be the day, fate being as it is, that Catalogue Shopping Review had some big problems too! Well the problems had been there for some time, but hadn't yet manifested themselves, thanks simply to the fact that hardly anyone's visited the site yet. Anyway, Internet Explorer in particular really wasn't happy, as a combination of its own general uselessness and a dash of cack-handed programming on the part of yours truly. It meant that not only could members not change their displayed name, but they could only get to reviews if they pressed return after entering a product code, and not if they clicked on the obvious button to do so... All is well now I think, though there are a few less urgent issues that I spotted while fixing that, so I'll be kept busy for the rest of the morning now!

All is quiet and happy now. I have hopefully given both Google and Yahoo a little helping hand with indexing CSR, by the addition of semi-automated site-maps. Just got to work out how to do the same with MSN Live Search... Lots of pages about its wonderful new support for site-maps and industry standards, but no obvious sign of the facility itself. Typical Microsoft, really. No wonder I'm seriously thinking of completely spurning Bill Gates next time I get a new computer, which might not be too long a wait if everything goes to plan business-wise!

If there's one thing that's letting the Wii down, it's Nintendo UK's appallingly slow customer service. Over three weeks after I initially enquired about our first one's dodgy disc drive, they got back to us with a returns number. I'm sure it's not incompetence on their part but serious under-staffing consistent with their inability to keep up with retail demand, but that's a bit late really isn't it? At least Argos were able to oblige in a more timely fashion!

Mind you, at least Nintendo did eventually get back to us, even if the urgency had passed by then. Quite unlike Aigo (manufacturers of Katy's nice but slightly buggy mp3 player), who just delete support tickets to clear their backlogs rather than actually do anything about them, then have the gall to publish glowing alleged testimonials of their customer care expertise!

Katy's getting her hair cut, en route home from a morning at her company's Harrow office. She phoned a few minutes ago to warn me that we may need to edit her Mii... Should I be worried?!

Not too worried, thankfully!

Today's been busy and tiring, with a seminar about church-planting up at the Baptist church (but hosted by the Vineyard) this morning, and a trip to Tesco at least partly to stock up on goodies for tomorrow morning's meeting. Needless to say, the seminar was by far the preferable of the two, though hopefully the shopping will help make tomorrow's early start more bearable!

Feeling a bit fragile, but hopefully a nice chicken jalfrezi shortly will do something about that!

The jalfrezi certainly helped, as did another big curry out with a bunch of friends after church today. But that was after an early start as we continue to learn the ropes in the church set-up team. That involves being there an hour and a half earlier than usual, heaving stuff around for an hour, welcoming and nourishing people as they arrive, relieving them of their tithes and offerings, and putting everything back where we found it when everyone's gone! It's not as hard work as it sounds, and it's proving a great way to get to know more people, and it's about time we did now we've been with the Vineyard here for a year and a half... Anyway, we battened the hatches when we got home, and really don't plan on doing anything else today except ponder what we might have for supper - if we feel remotely hungry.

Needless to say I'm not doing too well at getting back into my work today. With no client work in the offing, Katy suggested it would be a good time to revisit my website system. She was quite right, but there's something really quite demoralising about doing so when there's no specific customer in sight. But I know that when there is a real customer, it will be another rush job and end up nowhere near as generic as I would like, so it's really quite hard to call!

Meanwhile, I have proof that computers are dumber than even mentally challenged human beings. As seems to happen once in a while, some kindly soul decided to attach my email address as a reputed supplier of misspelt Viagra. Consequently, I have been in receipt of about 10,000 (seriously) bounce messages and Barracuda spam-filter notifications. Thankfully most of these were intercepted by my email provider so I haven't had to waste my bandwidth downloading them all. As far as I can tell, not one of the messages was from a human being, complaining about my peddling such wares. Now given the stupidity of at least 1% of the computer-using population (perhaps more than that, given how many people admit falling for phishing scams) I would have expected a few. Spam like this hasn't gone out with real sender addresses for years now. If even the dumbest internet users have sussed that, why can't these "market-leading" filters and servers show at least comparable smartness?

It's our "day off" today but I'm doing a little bit of work late this afternoon, even though I'll probably have a longish day tomorrow with Katy being up in Manchester for the day. Today though we've been for a brisk walk in the park, though it wasn't windy enough to test-fly our new kite, and made the most of our last opportunity to use another of our vouchers for a free main course at Pizza Express. Soon after we got home (by which time it had also started raining), Katy's dad pulled up outside, having borrowed her car overnight. With Rosemary away for a few days (but back now), Rob had been round for a meal last night before a rehearsal for a play he's in, and we made sure he was well stuffed with chilli and profiteroles!

Hmm, I did try to get back to sleep after Katy left for Manchester at about 5am...

So, having been up since almost as unearthly an hour as Katy, I've lost pretty much all concept of time. Having sorted out the search page on CSR (it's really quite neat now) I decided I'd be healthy and go for a bike-ride, coming home very hungry. It was only a little while later I vaguely remembered I hadn't had lunch... I hope Katy's being more conscious! As for the bike ride, well it confirmed that at least in my case, our underachievement the other day was squarely down to lack of fitness. OK, it was a bit damp out today which didn't help, but even so I was struggling on the hills like I thought I had long got over, and my legs ache like heck!

Hmm, the Register is carrying reports of a prolonged service outage at 1&1, my web hosts. Seeing as I have been successfully connected to and browsing my development and live sites all day (apart from when I was out on my bike, obviously) and picking up my email without a hitch, I would seem to be all right, Jack. Personally, I'd say the Register's report smells brown, and the reader feedback published so far would indirectly tend to confirm that.

Needless to say, my cynicism was only partially justified. It seems like the problem isn't with 1&1 as such, but their link with certain ISPs. PlusNet (which I use) is fine, for example. Virgin (which one of my clients uses) certainly isn't. As usual, people jump to conclusions and blame it on the most obvious thing that's not working, i.e. in this case the web hosting. The problem could be anywhere between Virgin and 1&1 really. Having just discovered that 1&1 are now part of Murdoch's empire, let's hope he's not having another spat with Branson!

The issue was fairly and squarely with Virgin Media, which was somehow preventing access to many German and Austrian sites - not just ones hosted by 1&1 by any means. Sadly the news coverage of the problem was damagingly misleading, so it wasn't at all surprising I had customers threatening to request refunds etc! Not of course that I am foolish enough to permit automatic refunds for issues beyond my control (which even a problem with 1&1 would have been) but I would still have offered free membership extensions as compensation...

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