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David's diary: February 2008

Well the weekend's been a bit of a blur, but thankfully we were able to batten the hatches and rest for most of yesterday. I braved Sainsbury's first thing in the morning in order to stock up on special-offer crispy duck in advance of our home-group social this week and get a paper of course, but we were then able to put our feet up until the evening when we got a call from our friend Meryl, understandably wanting a bit of moral support as she settled into her new flat. Today we've been out for lunch with Katy's mum, dad, sister and family, making good use of a half-price voucher for Zizzi, then adjourning to Katy's parents' house for birthday cake and games (including the rather good Cranium Cadoo) in advance of our nephew Daniel's birthday coming up in a few days. Must be just about tea-time now, if we're remotely hungry still...

A couple of crumpets and a few squares of chocolate did us in the end, washed down with a glass of some nice Bordeaux Katy's parents had unexpectedly given us. Katy's been up to Harrow today, which meant an early start, but she had a useful enough time and got back here fairly early this afternoon. I too managed to muster some paid work this morning, adding some much needed functionality to the event diary on the church website. OK, so not quite as lucrative as Katy's work, but every little counts! Another of my clients assures me he's putting a cheque in the post tomorrow, including an extra tenner "in appreciation of all my efforts", so hopefully this month can prove to be another vaguely solvent one! Dunno yet what's happening about home group this week, with Wednesday's crispy duck night needing to be rescheduled due to unforeseen circumstances. Thankfully most of what we bought has a good long shelf-life, but hopefully the back-up plan of meeting on Thursday will prove to be popular.

Katy picked up a free energy-saving light bulb when she popped into Waitrose in Harrow yesterday. We decided we should give it a go here in the office since this is a light that can be on almost the whole day, especially at this gloomy time of year. So I fitted it this morning, but very quickly got irritated by its subtle flickering and somewhat less subtle humming. I went to turn it off, and just as my finger touched the switch, the flickering and humming stopped. Yep, it was a dimmer switch, on 99% of the way, but that 1% made all the difference! Therein lies just one of the problems with these so called energy-saving bulbs, the fact that they aren't compatible with dimmers or other electronic switches, incurring extra expense in replacing such switches. Why should we be forced to use inferior technology, especially when the science doesn't actually add up with regards to the alleged benefits? That's right, it's questionable just how much energy or money they save at all, given that they are still quite expensive to buy when not being given away as a publicity stunt, they never last as long as the manufacturers claim, they contain some reasonably nasty chemicals requiring specialist disposal, and to cap it all, they don't necessarily use any less energy to run. Well they appear to, but given that most of the wasted energy from a tungsten bulb is in the form of heat, in the winter at least we have to consider that heat part of our domestic warming, so fitting energy-saving bulbs will require the central heating to run harder to achieve the same ambient temperature. So, beyond being a freebie, whether fitting this bulb here will save us a penny will remain to be seen!

Today's been a day of two halves. This morning: being practical, and between us doing some much-needed spring cleaning and swapping over a couple of light switches so that the dimmer switch is now well away from the office, as I suspected it was still causing problems. This afternoon: making two trips into town to try to procure a working SCART switch box - and failing, so at least one more trip is on the cards for sometime in the next couple of days... Utterly frustrating, but at least today we have ended up with a two-way box that passably works, even if it downgrades the Wii's pristine RGB output to ropey composite and somewhat worryingly powers down the Wii altogether if it's plugged into the wrong input. Still, at least both Argos and Robert Dyas have been cooperative so far, as I become a decidedly familiar face.

Slight panic this morning, as I discovered I had missed a couple of potentially important emailed error messages from one of my client's systems. I'd overlooked the errors because I mistook them for some other slightly unusual messages relating to my spam filter. I had promised I would let my client know about any that arrived as soon as possible, so big oops there! All sorted now, thankfully, and I can vouch that although their web administration interface isn't entirely obvious at times, which contributed to the mistake in the first place, SMS providers TextAnywhere's support service is excellent and they resolved what was I have to concede at least 50% my cock-up without batting an eyelid.

Meanwhile, renovation work has started next door. The previous occupant moved out about a week ago, and the new owners haven't remotely dragged their heels. Various workmen have visited over the last few days, and this morning a skip arrived, and it sounds like the entire upstairs is being gutted given the amount of stuff being thrown out of the landing window into said skip below! It really needed doing though. A year or more ago, some workmen were there and commented in passing to Katy that it looked like it had been largely untouched inside for over twenty years, and it still has the pretty dreadful warm-air heating that someone thought it was a good idea to build these houses with. It's going to mean a lot of work, but I had a brief chat with the new owner this morning and he seems confident it can be habitable again by the end of the month. Ambitious, but he seems organised!

Well, having nothing remotely better to do than walk to and fro multiple times between home and various electrical accessory retailers in Farnham, back to Robert Dyas and Argos I went this morning, returning the second one we tried yesterday and going back to a replacement for the original one. So that's four switches we tried in all, two of them the same model, and all of them from the same manufacturer that seems to have a monopoly on the budget end of the market. But, after all that... it looks like we've got a good 'un. I've tried out all three inputs on it, and all appear to work fine with an RGB signal, and not a dodgy connection in sight. Just as well work's not too busy at the moment, otherwise all this palaver would have cost me about £100 in lost time - quite a lot for the sake of a £9.99 bit of metal and cheap plastic manufactured to evidently dubious quality control standards... Hey ho.

The crispy duck night did indeed happen last night, and was a quacking success in every way. Everyone turned up who was supposed to, no-one turned up who wasn't, there was plenty of food for all, and everyone was amazed how low the cost per head was! Oh, and there were no vegetarians... Good fellowship too - it's easy to make some kind of distinction between the different kinds of event we might have as a home group, but although the emphasis may vary from evening to evening, it's all essentially the same to me; we just discover slightly different aspects of each other depending on the angle of approach!

Hectic last few days, and we simply didn't have the energy to go out this morning, so we've had a day of gentle backsliding instead. Mind you, aside from the crispy duck night, those last few days have seen us go to a big worship event in Aldershot (yes, they do have such things there) on Friday night, a leaders' (and wannabe leaders') morning with John and Ellie Mumford yesterday morning, and a celebration service with them last night. All good stuff, and we don't regret a bit of it, but today really wasn't going to happen. I'm sure God understands!

Having had a practical day yesterday, doing dull things like house-work, paying in cheques and so on, today we took ourselves off to the seaside. Hayling Island is about the closest salt water to Farnham, and it's got a strangely timeless charm to it, in a tacky kind of way. More to the point, we found the beach café open so were able to top up our Bordon Tesco breakfast with a cheap and cheerful hot lunch, in between finally flying our new kite (which was very successful, after a little practice) and having a bit of a walk and a round of pitch-and-putt (which wasn't, despite a beautifully-kept course). We pondered hanging around a bit longer and watching the sun set over Portsmouth, but the healthy sea air had got to us, as it does, and we were both pretty dopey by the time we got home so were glad we'd travelled to beat the rush! The kite had suffered minor damage, losing some evidently non-critical bit of plastic and elastic on one of its first crash landings, but it really wasn't too bad at all for under a fiver in our local sports shop's never-ending closing-down sale, and we think we've fixed it anyway.

Woo, I now have a laptop! Really nothing to get excited about, but it seems to work well enough for what I need, as a stopgap measure. As regular readers will know, I'm hoping to get an Eee PC sometime, but with the distinct possibility of models with bigger screens, better connectivity and longer battery life (and perhaps even some competition) it didn't seem the right time to shell out even the modest amount of money required - if I could find one in stock... So with not much else to do yesterday I had a good trawl on eBay, quite surprised at the lack of decent laptops at fair prices. I would have thought with the number of cheap-as-chips Dells and so on being sold new, there would be a good market in sub-£100 used examples, but not so. In the end, I basically went for the cheapest model that looked like it would fill my requirements (basically for a compact wireless capable web-browsing machine, smart enough to take out to clients) and I found what I was looking for just up the road in Farnborough, settling with £60 cash on the spot last night. All seems well, and being a clean build (and hopefully staying that way) it runs surprisingly fast for something so old. The only downer is with regard to that wireless requirement. Obviously, something seven or eight years old as it probably is wasn't going to have wireless built in, but we have a spare PCMCIA 802.11g card. Or so we thought, until we remembered we'd loaned it out, not expecting to need it again! Hopefully soon to be resolved...

... but not yet, alas. I'm sure all will end well, but the delay is frustrating! I shudder at the thought a little, but I may well roll back the laptop to Windows 98 (or the dreaded Windows ME, for visual smartness) anyway. You see, being somewhat short on memory, it's a little underpowered for Windows XP (especially with layers of Windows Update fudge) and I am reluctant to spend out anything more on what I hope will only be a temporary solution anyway. There are some 128MB upgrades (of which I would need two) on eBay for not too much money, but I really need to weigh up whether they would be an investment.

Otherwise, it's been another busy weekend for us, and indeed another one where a little more sleep would have been good - especially with Katy up in Harrow again today.

Friday evening Katy's parents popped round to scan, enhance and print off a copy of an interesting old photograph of their house they had unexpectedly acquired. Although the original had been dropped through their door without a name or explanation, they're pretty sure it had been found amongst stuff being sorted through after the death last year of an elderly neighbour who had lived there all her life. So they're not sure of the exact date of the photograph, or who the people in it are, but there's a project for them...

Saturday we had Darren, Ceryn and the girls round for the day, kicking off with a bacon muffin and waffle brunch, then a walk down to Gostrey Meadow in town (including a surprisingly well-received observation game for Lois), a good session on the Wii for the girls (young and old) while the boys played network cabling, and finally hot cross buns and crumpets for tea. All a little bit whistle-stop, with our friends needing to be elsewhere early evening, but it was great to catch up with them all as ever!

Sunday wasn't much less whistle-stop in the end, with church in the morning, then Simon and Bex coming round for a late roast lunch while Mali was at a birthday party. Bex needed to go and fetch Mali later in the afternoon but soon returned with a not-too-hyper Mali. More Wii games, then some tea. Then time to leave Katy and David in peace to tackle the washing up mountain... But after all that, Bex had left us a copy of Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga that they had accidentally double-bought, so we had plenty to relax with afterwards!

Tuesday, and I've actually had some work to do today. Not a lot, but perhaps enough to justify my existence. And we've had a nice walk into town and given the Dark Side a little more grief, so perhaps having a little spare time isn't such a bad thing. The laptop is still resolutely non-wireless, but that's another matter altogether. It will soon hopefully have some more memory, though, having decided that 256MB would be good regardless of what operating system ends up on it and how it may be connected to the internet. It took a couple of attempts but I seem to have found the right stuff on eBay at a fair price and it should now be in the post...

They say lightning never strikes twice, but we've won the hospice lottery for a third time! Only another fiver, but hey, it'll just about cover replacing our missing wireless card. Just a shame the cheque got delayed in the post so didn't arrive in time for our bank run yesterday. Maybe next time we'll hit the jackpot? Alternatively, something back off our Premium Bonds would be nice...

The wireless card would appear to be officially lost, but in brighter news, the memory upgrade for the laptop arrived this morning, installing and working without a hitch. 256MB may still not be oodles by today's standards, but it's a darned sight better than the 128MB the laptop came with - let alone its original 64MB as shipped from the factory - and definitely gives a vastly improved overall user experience. Windows being able to idle without continually using virtual memory is generally a Good Thing, I'd have imagined. I've also managed (using some skill and cunning) to flash the BIOS to something vaguely 21st century. This required burning a CD-R to emulate a floppy disk - since a floppy disk is what the procedure asks for - and then totally ignoring the instructions and hazarding some lucky guesses as to what command-line programs to run!

Monday morning, and if it feels like I've been up six hours, it's almost certainly because I have. Katy's up in London today, and needed my taxi services to catch just about the first train of the day out of Farnham station... It sounds like things aren't going entirely to plan in London, but nor have they been here - but all seems to be ending well in both cases, thankfully. The session Katy was supposed to have been helping host today has been postponed until tomorrow, but she's being able to use the time to do some one-to-one training instead, and won't be needed tomorrow thankfully! Here, just as I was in the middle of playing a track I'm working on (more on that in a moment) there was a nasty power glitch, that on first impressions appeared to have damaged our PC, ADSL router and wireless card in one hit. Mercifully, over the next hour I managed to coax them all back into action, but I really don't like it when things like that happen so early in the morning - they can spoil a whole day!

As for the music, well on Saturday morning Jo and Ian came round for breakfast (the civilised kind of thing we're able to do, y'see, rather than rushing around madly as so many seem to have to) and for Ian and me to have a bit of a head-to-head on matters musical. We've had a vague plan for a couple of years to collaborate on something, but it's never really got off the ground. Anyway, we had a fairly productive chat about it all on Saturday morning and have some semblance of an action plan. All being well, we'll be having weekly get-togethers to share what we've been doing in our own time, and hopefully eventually we'll have something worth listening to for our efforts! Where then, we shall see - let's walk first, OK?!

Yesterday was our second Sunday morning leading a set-up team for real, and our first without Andy there as back-up. However, because the school had been off this week, it turned out that everything was still set up from last week, so there really wasn't too much to do - or to go wrong. But despite initial annoyance at having unnecessarily been dragged out of bed so early, it was OK in the end because we had a couple of new team members so were able to make the most of the opportunity to get to know them a bit better and show them the ropes as we had been shown not so very long ago! We didn't make it to the evening meeting - through sheer exhaustion, basically - but we did do most of the jumbo cryptic crossword from the Saturday Times and completed the hardest level yet of Lego Star Wars on the Wii!

Oh, and this morning's technical panics were merely in line with last night's... I was starting to put together an experimental track, and was generally fighting with Cubase in a way I never remember having done in the past. But there was worse to come, as I fired up my wind synthesiser... Silence. Not a dickie-bird. Probably the main reason I was inspired to revive this malarkey and it was broken. Worst of all, there was no way for me to tell whether it was the WX11 controller or VL70-m base unit that was to blame, since they use a proprietary interconnection and there are no helpful LEDs or anything on the WX11 to indicate power or activity. Anyway, after half an hour's stressing, opening up the WX11, and getting depressed about how much it would all cost if I were to replace it, I found a switch on the back of the VL70-m that had got knocked from MIDI to PC-2 - effectively disabling the input from the WX11. Why, oh why, oh why (etc, Anne Robinson style) didn't Yamaha include the status of that switch on the otherwise really quite comprehensive front panel display? It's so easy to knock (and indeed I have a distinct sense of déjà vu about this, from years ago!) while grubbing around the back plugging in cables, and there are legitimate reasons you might want to adjust the setting on the fly anyway, when it wouldn't be convenient to remove the unit from a rack to read the tiny labelling on the switch. Hey ho... Cubase is still being distinctly bloody-minded and counter-intuitive, but at least it all works and sounds great!

Well Ian and myself had a bit of musical mess-around last night, with a modicum of productivity. I think our methods of working are almost completely different - but hopefully not incompatible, and hopefully that can turn out to be a strength in terms of diversity rather than a weakness!

The new laptop wireless card (to replace the missing one, not the one that appeared to be faulty yesterday!) arrived in the post this morning, and set up without a hitch. The signal strength is a bit more variable than I am accustomed, but I suspect that's par for the course with PCMCIA cards with inevitably tiny aerials. But I can use the internet at at least the speed of our broadband link from the office, sofa and garden, so what more do I really need?

What was more of a turn-up for the books? That there was the biggest earth tremor in the UK for quite a few years, or that Andrew Orlowski's report on it on The Register had user comments enabled? Anyway, I'm not 100% sure we were aware of it happening, but I certainly remember waking up at about the time it was supposed to have been, which may have been connected.

Gah, my hosting company's screwed up again. A couple of nights ago they upgraded their servers, which caused a minor glitch while they were performing said upgrade, but nothing needing attention in the longer term. But now they've just changed something else that means that at least one of my commercial websites is more or less broken - and another loses some important functionality. I've emailed them, and am just praying they understand what the issue is, that it's not intentionally been done (allowing connections to remote sites might be viewed as a bit of a security issue) and, obviously, that they fix it. Otherwise with regards to at least the sites I know to be affected, I may as well just throw in the towel.

Having read this article on The Register, we've just signed on the line for BT's new free evenings and weekends package, supposedly at no extra cost provided we commit to stay with them for 12 months. We declined when we received their mailshot about it, because it was somewhat ambiguous as to how much extra it would cost in the longer term - especially given their proven habit of "introductory offers". However, the article linked above pointed out that in the small print was a little clause just mentioning in passing that they are scrapping the flat-rate weekday evening calls, going up from 4.5p to 96p for an hour. For that level of downright extortion, it's worth the risk that we might have to fight over a definition or three. Anyway, be warned if you're currently on Option 1 - but on the bright side, BT are "always looking for ways to give you more value for money" so surely they wouldn't dream of ripping you off...

Nothing formal back from 1&1 yet about the website problems I reported, but as of the last couple of minutes the root issue appears to have been resolved, and hopefully it will stay that way... Glad I kept calm in my explaining the issue to them; I've faced a lot of brick walls from all kinds of quarters over the last few weeks and this really could have been the last straw.

All still working nicely this morning, though 1&1's eventual response to my specific query was irrelevant, and indicated zero liaison between front-line and system support. As I have discovered before and should have learned by now, asking them anything remotely complex is a dead loss. Instead you really have to coax information out of them little by little, generally with questions requiring only yes/no answers - which can be a somewhat slow process in the event of an emergency. In this case, my query was about outgoing connections from their servers, using PHP's file_get_contents and curl functionality, and all they could think of to reply with was to make sure I knew the settings for connecting to their server with FTP to upload site data, pointing me to an FAQ I really wouldn't have been with them for the best part of a decade if I didn't already know... Their hosting is great 99.99% of the time, but thank goodness for that, because it means I only have to contact their useless front-line support once in a blue moon.

Lunch out at the salubrious Aldershot Burger King today, somewhere we don't remember having graced with our presence for a long time (if ever, in my case) and actually quite a nice experience. While in town, we got ourselves a second nunchuk for the Wii, since we finally have a couple of games potentially making good use of it. Yes, two-player boxing on Wii Sports needs it, but boxing is probably the weakest of the five sports represented on there so not too compelling a reason. But Lego Star Wars and Rayman Raving Rabbids, on the other hand...

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