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David's diary: September 2007

First day of September, and first day of service for my brand new website, Diary 4. This is the project I've been vaguely alluding to for the last several months, and now I finally can breathe a small sigh of relief as it's launched. In a nutshell, it's a site where groups can manage their time collaboratively. I doubt it's entirely unique, but I've not come across anything quite the same. I'm sure there will be some teething troubles, but it's been pretty thoroughly tested and I was able to launch it with infinitely more confidence than when it came oh so close a couple of months back - then rewrote it! To celebrate we cooked duck in plum sauce, and it rocked.

As I was saying a few days ago, this was going to be a busy weekend, and it has been. Yesterday, aside from launching Diary 4, we also resumed our fortnightly breakfasts chez Becki and Simon, and this morning we went back to our old church here for a one-off, to witness our friend Meryl being amongst those baptised. There was also a contribution lunch* afterwards which we couldn't really say no to participating in, food being involved. This afternoon Katy was a bit pooped, but I decided I needed some fresh air and exercise so went out on my bike for an hour or so, up to Alice Holt forest (no imagination, I know) and a couple of laps of the cycle route there - a total of about 11 miles according to Google Earth, so not bad going considering the terrain and how lethargic I've generally been feeling lately!

* Something churches seem to specialise in - indeed does anyone else actually do such things? Actually, yes, but they normally get called pot-luck lunches, which some overly-religious types get funny about. What churches almost certainly are unique in, however, is the abundance of quiche and rice salad at such events.

Oh yes, I got more junk mail (real junk mail, not email spam) from the wonderful folks at Domain Registry of America. Banned at one time (and perhaps still so?) from operating stateside due to their underhanded sales techniques, they now cheerfully bombard everyone else in the world with their appalling offers. They have at least now revised the wording of their letter to say that they're actually asking you to switch your domain registration to them rather than renew it, but it's still an altogether pretty deceptive document. The small print on the back really is the smallest print I have ever seen without use of a microfiche viewer, and includes such gems as basically prohibiting customers from suing them for any reason whatsoever. Oh, and they want about twice the going rate for their service (£18 a year for a dot-com, they have got to be kidding!), so they were never remotely in with a chance, even if they weren't scammers.

Diary 4 now has infinitely more real members than it did a week ago, but since it wasn't launched then, that's not really so amazing. In truth, it's getting off to a slow start, and a few issues are arising already, but that's not so surprising either really, and nothing's too catastrophic. I have a short list of minor bugs and slightly more major feature requests to work through, but nothing that's going to need me to burn too much midnight oil.

Today's been a long day (indeed it's been a pretty long week, for various reasons!) so hopefully we should sleep a bit better than of late tonight. I got out on my bike for a bit this afternoon, doing about 10 miles I think (based on having done the circuit before), but Katy really wasn't up to it today. The route I did was one that's been pretty mucky in the past but it was bone dry today. Summer's late, but it seems to be here finally.

So, a pretty lazy Saturday, and we needed it. We actually had some vague semblance of a lie-in this morning, and I took a slow amble up to Tesco Express for a paper (not that the news headlines were much of a surprise, something I'd seen coming for the last four months, alas) and some brioches for breakfast. Lunch out in Farnborough, in the salubrious setting of the Princes Mead Burger King and a bit of a mooch around the shops there. A bit more work on Diary 4 this afternoon and evening, particularly focussing on compatibility with Safari, a browser that is unfortunately used by a lot of Mac owners for reasons best left unknown, and thankfully (for the sake of testing) broadly comparable with the equally bad Konqueror on Linux. And crumpets with salsa and melted cheese for tea - actually a really yummy combination, why not try it sometime!

Just got a spam message, not a noteworthy occurrence, I know! Its subject line was Re:CAD (COMPUTER-AIDED DESIGN), so I would at least have expected it to offer me a pirated OEM copy of AutoCAD at some infeasibly low price. But no, it's for dodgy watches (sorry, prestige replicas) from someone who clearly fell on the keyboard when they registered their domain.

Today's generally been a little busier, but pretty sociable too. Church in the morning, of course, and after a light lunch and apparently failing to mend our leaky kettle, we went round to Katy's parents to help celebrate her dad's birthday - along with about twenty others! We were just in time for scrummy desserts, and it was nice to properly meet a few other people from the church, now that Katy's parents have followed in our footsteps and have joined a home-group that seems to have a bit more time on their hands! Lots of amusement to be had keeping small children entertained too, from playing boules to speculating (with ever-increasing imagination) what creepy-crawlies the unknown flavour of crisps contained. Then all became quiet for a short interlude, before Rachel and Daniel visited for a birthday tea and innumerable games of monstrous "heads, bodies and legs". But now it's late, and despite Katy having taken this coming week off work, we're both pretty tired and about to call it a day.

We went to see The Bourne Ultimatum today, finally making use of our freebie Odeon passes - the inferior blue ones, that is, i.e. the time-limited ones that can't be used for watching new releases, according to a definition of "new release" that is shrouded in industry buzz-word mystique. Anyway, the film was a fine conclusion to a series that had an inauspicious start but certainly improved with each sequel. Just a shame about the multiple camera angles per second, blur-o-vision fight scenes and the super-wobble-cam effect on almost every shot, meaning we both came out with a bit of a headache...

Less excitingly, we decided our old kettle really had had its day, and while we were out bought a new one at Argos, this one with hopefully better water retention properties, and chavvy blue illumination. Similar illumination of the entrance to the store parking might have been good though, with the Basingstoke out-of-town retail park in question apparently designed to be as inaccessible to the general public as reasonably possible.

My car's in for its birthday celebrations today. No anxious calls from the garage - and this one actually seems to phone if there is a problem, rather than relying on telepathy - so hopefully all is well and we can go and pick it up soon. We seriously considered taking it to Katy's favourite independent garage this time, but there was quite a lot due to be done, which obviously meant the main dealer cost even more but I just feel a little more confident especially while there's still a little bit of the manufacturer's warranty left.

Otherwise, pretty unexciting times. OK, car servicing and MOT-ing is unexciting really, isn't it. We went out for a nice meal at the Slug & Lettuce on Tuesday, courtesy of our Tesco Clubcard vouchers, and had a picnic by the lake yesterday, but otherwise life is just chugging on really!

Mind you, talking of exciting things, I forgot about the "exciting" (their word, honest!) new EDS pension options I received information about in the post yesterday. Never before has balancing risk and return been such a gripping issue. Shame that amongst all the options there was nothing about ethical investment, but I can sleep easily at night knowing that the extent of my pension pot would probably run to about a single nut and bolt for a Saudi jet fighter.

The garage phoned twenty minutes after that; all was well, and indeed the bill came to about £20 less than what I had been quoted, so altogether pretty happy. The car even got valeted!

Today I've mainly been developing a WAP site, a read-only view of a bookings calendar I produced for one of my clients. Yes, I know WAP is a bit outdated in this age of smartphones and UMPCs, but it's still the lowest common denominator of mobile internet access and (while most networks still charge exorbitant rates for data transfer) nice and lightweight on bandwidth. Anyway, it all seems to work - at least on Opera (the Windows version of which is handily WAP compatible) and on my Sony-Ericsson... If there's one lesson I've learned from the last day it's that WAP implementations are incredibly inconsistent, and with no wiggle room if the browser arbitrarily decides the WML is incorrect. I really have no idea whether the site will work at all on anyone else's phone - or what kind of feedback they will get if and when it does fail. My phone was bad in that latter regard, surpassing even Internet Explorer for its unhelpful error messages - "Try a different site," it suggested! I'm just hoping that Sony-Ericsson's WAP engine is fussier than most, because it's been bad enough debugging the site with the phone right here, let alone hearing of problems second-hand. Anyway, I've sent my client the address for the site, and I'm sure I'll hear soon enough whether it works for him or not!

The BBC News website reports that a Tiger Moth biplane crashed into hay-bales near Crowhurst in Surrey after having to make an emergency landing yesterday evening. I am however most disappointed there was no mention of a flimsy barn or startled chickens.

Alas we didn't make it to church this morning, for sheer lack of sleep and therefore energy. But we went along to Yarden's (formerly Nameless Music) new mini-album launch worship event this evening at KC21 in Aldershot, and that was well worth the effort even if we were pretty shattered by the end. We also had lunch round with Becki and Simon, but apart from keeping Mali amused that's never really too draining an experience!

More WAPping today, and I think I've finished the site for now - and it's been well received by my client with his swish Nokia. Got bitten a little less by browser inconsistencies, but that's only because I'm growing wise to them now... Mind you, I thought at one point that if I changed the doctype from WML 1.1 to 1.3, my supposedly 1.3 compatible phone would understand the relevant extensions, but how utterly wrong I was. Well, I couldn't have it all easy could I?

A bit of a lazy day yesterday, but I think I needed it for more reasons than I care to specify. Today I've been planning out in detail the first significant changes to Diary 4, in response to a combination of potential customer feedback and sheer common sense. They're going to involve a lot of major updates to all parts of the system, and I want to make sure I'm going down the right avenue, so I'm not rushing things - but it should be worth the effort!

Trying to find out details, pricing and UK release date for a new album, I inevitably visited play.com. There, greeting me at the top of their homepage, the dreaded words "James Blunt is back after a three year absence!" You mean to say, the biggest blight on the three years we've been married hasn't even released anything in that time? Well obviously play.com's assertion isn't strictly true, when we take singles into account, but maybe we should at least be glad for about the last year we've managed to keep the airwaves largely clear of the bleating toff.

Mind you, any of the aforementioned's blight was (temporarily at least) more than countered by having a good old fry-up for breakfast this morning. Lincolnshire sausages, bacon, hash browns, chestnut mushrooms, baked beans... Mmm! What no fried eggs? I'm not a big fan, it has to be said, unless they're baked into cake. I can tolerate them, but don't generally choose them. So we did without eggs. Katy was so magnanimous!

So today I am starting to implement the changes devised yesterday morning for Diary 4. For the moment, concentrating on the user-interface side of the improved involvement and notifications system, and it's looking pretty neat. I am a bit concerned that the database load is going to be substantially increased, but I can look into that in due course - and besides, by the time it becomes a serious issue I'd hopefully be able to afford a dedicated server!

Involvement and notifications are all nicely updated now, and contrary to my fears last week, I think the load on the database has not been dramatically increased - indeed may even have been reduced, especially with regard to the scheduled tasks that run every ten minutes and need to be reasonably lean and mean. Having a fairly quiet weekend certainly helped with finding time to do all that, though that didn't mean we couldn't get out and be sociable, enjoying a good evening (and curry) round with Liam and Ali on Friday, and lunch out yesterday with Rachel, Mark and Daniel in Aldershot. Oh, and we also went out for a snack lunch on Saturday at Frensham Garden Centre, finally choosing a nice houseplant (a "lemon and lime" dracaena) to replace our pensioned-off coleuses. Hmm, so perhaps not such a quiet weekend after all!

Second rainbow of the day, as the weather continues to be pretty ... well, autumnal I guess! I suppose we had this notion that with our belated summer, perhaps everything would be pushed back, but no, autumn has begun and autumn is definitely here. After all, we seem to have quickly forgotten how glorious spring was, thanks to the flooding in between!

Anyway, it was a pretty rough night here, with a howling gale and bucket-loads of rain, and Farnborough (just up the road from here) even made the headline news for an alleged tornado ripping off a garage roof or two. It was quite funny hearing the BBC's rent-an-expert speculating on whether Farnborough's visitor was a real tornado or just a bit of a squall - he seemed like just the kind of nutter you would expect to storm-chase, referring to particularly powerful storms as "good ones" and no doubt getting himself worked up into an ecstatic frenzy in the event of the reported "utter devastation" being anything more than the usual journalistic hyperbole.

Of all the features of Facebook, perhaps its most compelling isn't really, since it's actually a third-party application - namely the rather wonderful Scrabulous. It's been around for some time by the sounds of it, but has received fresh impetus (and load on its servers) by its connection with the Facebook social networking phenomenon.

But boy, some of the new intake using it via Facebook lead to despair, normally involving recurring themes about the recognised dictionaries used and the inclusion or otherwise of particular words - in case it wasn't obvious, Scrabulous is an (unofficial) implementation of Scrabble. This unedited but anonymised user comment yesterday evening just about sums it up:

JUNE is a word you freeks!
what kind of imported dictionary you guys using?

That is moronic on just so many levels. I just wish I'd known about Scrabulous before so I could feel somehow morally separated from this new wave of cretins.

I've added a few more features to Diary 4 in the last couple of days. As well as some further refinements to the involvement and notification stuff, I've also implemented a referral scheme - and a news feature to make sure people are aware of all these things! The referral scheme is pretty neat: a group gives out a personalised link, and if another group signs up via that link and goes on to subscribe (i.e. pays me hard currency) the original group automatically gets at least a couple of months bonus membership. Given that even groups who have not themselves subscribed can reap the benefits of "recruiting" others, and so potentially get eternal free membership, it's really pretty tasty and should be a large part of my growth model.

Of course, to recruit referred members needs members in the first place to do that referring, and that's continuing to be a stumbling block, a particular problem being that none of the people I have approached regarding advertising have yet got back to me. I didn't have any delusions it would be easy to get this off the ground commercially (a boss from many years ago debunked Waldo Emerson's "better mousetrap" myth) but I had a vague hope that waving money in the face of carefully chosen people might have attracted a little more interest from the word go. I have a few members, but not remotely enough to feed us - especially given the number of free subscriptions I'm having to give out to get the ball rolling at all!

In an ideal world, I would have course have loved to offer Diary 4 completely free of charge to all, but that's simply not viable when this is my living and I have invested approaching six months' development time in it. The whole free software thing is great, and I have the utmost respect for those who selflessly release their labours of love to an often ungrateful public, but they all have either day jobs or rich venture capitalists behind them to help restock the larder. Yes, there are sites that successfully turn a profit on the basis of their advertising revenue, but they are a rarity. In any case, by all accounts banner advertising is less effective than ever before (a combination of more aggressive ad-blocking, and the perception that most web ads are for scams), so even those few sites using it successfully at the moment are having to plan for harder times ahead if they don't start charging for at least part of their service. I think this referral model that allows penniless punters that have the gift of the gab to get lifelong free membership finds a reasonable middle ground in all this, but the bottom line remains that I need people on board and paying in order to make ends meet.

My next website will be free, indeed can only be free, but I have a vague plan for profitability that should work in a way that was never going to be viable with Diary 4. Here's hoping...

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