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David's diary: January 2008

Happy new year, everyone!

Strictly speaking it's my first day at work after Christmas and the new year, but Katy doesn't go back until tomorrow so I'm not doing too much other than catch up on a few bits of business "housekeeping". Mercifully, my client who had been having horrendous problems with his hosting company over the last year has finally managed to get shot of them and move his site on to my server. That's good for my business because I can charge for the hosting now, but on the other hand I was equally able to charge for time spent sorting out the problems with the old hosting company, so I'm mainly just happy for him as a friend that the problems should now be history! Not too much else had happened over the last week or two, so I might go and see if Katy would like to torment a few more rabbids before lunch.

Oh, New Year's Eve went really well. Everyone who'd said they were coming to our party made it, and we had no last-minute extras, so all ten of us managed to sit round the table for our Moroccan lamb wrap supper. Really just a nice chilled evening, with light music and no drunken excess, but plenty of games (board and Wii) and civilised chat. Jools Holland and friends welcomed the new year in their customary pre-recorded fashion, Mali finally keeled over at about 12.15, and everyone wended their ways home soon after. It took us three attempts to fully clear the washing-up mountain, but that was really the sole price to pay for an evening when we were able to relax almost as much as everyone else.

Wow, almost a week on, how busy I must have been! Well, not hugely, but the new year is seeing a little bit of extra activity business-wise, one way and another, and I've just sent off invoices for another £160-worth of work, so that should help boost the bank balance in a couple of weeks. It's still not enough for the business to be viable in itself, but whatever else I decide to do to supplement it, it'll carry on ticking over happily enough!

In the meantime, the biggest news is that we're hopefully selling Katy's car. She's had it for about 11 years and it's done her (and more latterly us) very well, and not cost a bomb to keep on the road, but it's really now an unjustifiable expense and likely now to cost much more to run than it's worth. Other couples seem to cope perfectly well with one vehicle, and it's really once in a blue moon that we've used (let alone needed to use) both our cars at once, so the time has come to bid Katy's 306 a fond farewell - and hopefully not just for scrap! Katy's dad has kindly offered to do the selling for us, since we really haven't got a clue, and our first potential buyer is hopefully coming round this afternoon to have a look.

And so, with minimal ceremony, Katy's car is... no longer Katy's car. The guy who visited yesterday afternoon offered what we thought was a fair price, and he came back and paid cash later in the evening. All quite easy in the end, though we were still glad not to have been the ones who had to field any tricky questions, especially where the price might have been impacted. So we are now officially a single-car household, and although it will take a little getting used to, it really does make sense from just about every point of view.

So we took our car into Farnborough this morning for a late breakfast at Poppins and to have another look in PC World at laptop bags, now that Katy's got the go-ahead to buy a new one and put it on her expenses. Happily we came home with full tummies and a nice new backpack for Katy's increasingly frequent London trips!

I'm still in love with the Eee PC they also still had there at PC World, but am going to try my best to hold off indulging myself until the reputed second generation machines are launched later this year - with bigger screens apart from anything else, the current 7" one being just a little on the small side given a choice in the matter. I just hope they keep them running Linux, given that there are suggestions that the new models will have WiMax wireless capability which might force them to use Windows. I've been thinking long and hard about this whole open-source thing, and without being a zealot about it, I don't want to be under Microsoft's thumb any longer. I have nothing against companies selling software, indeed I would be a hypocrite if I did, but I do have a problem with forced obsolescence driven by commercial pressures. I believe in upgrading based on proven need and technical merit alone, and I know that Linux, OpenOffice or whatever will never force me to upgrade without jolly good reason - and without money being directly involved, that won't be because someone's revenue stream is drying up.

It was a valiant effort on my part, but I have to give in and admit that I have succumbed to this cold I've been fighting off for the last couple of days. Hopefully (with the help of plenty of vitamin C) it won't be too bad, and if the rain clears up I might get some fresh air by walking into town to pay in the spoils of our car sale, so I've felt an awful lot worse... No other real news I don't think - as if even that was real news, of course.

Thankfully I've been feeling quite a bit better the last couple of days, and we were able to go to Sophie's flat-warming party as planned on Saturday evening. It's a small but well-designed flat, and happily accommodated the eight us of for the evening, and we all fitted round the table for Thai green curry with all the trimmings. If I hadn't been feeling substantially more healthy, I expect I would have crashed today, but we got to church OK in the morning and out for a lunchtime pizza in Aldershot afterwards. We also poked our heads into the nearby Game store's January sale, and relieved them of a Wii RGB Scart cable for well under half price. There was a little bit of an anxious moment later when we discovered the RGB signal horizontally shifted the picture unacceptably, but then Katy saved the day by spotting an option in the Wii settings we'd never noticed before, to compensate for this. So we now have a gloriously clear (and centralised!) picture, and since our TV is 60Hz compatible, hardly a flicker in sight either!

Phew, I have finally finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows! I'm not claiming that as some kind of monumental achievement, just relief that I've caught up with the rest of the world and don't need to actively avoid spoilers and whatnot. Since this was the hardback edition that I was loaned by Ceryn, in the interests of those reading the paperbacks, I won't contribute even more spoilers. I did enjoy it though, it did all kind-of make sense, it's a lot more "grown up" than any of the other books, and I still don't wear a pointy hat or pretend I can ride a broomstick or cast spells. Harry and his wizarding pals revived my love of reading; in fact even "revived" isn't entirely accurate, since I'd never really enjoyed fiction, so it can't all be bad...

A little while ago Katy excitedly called up the stairs, "I got the pigs!" Well, I know exactly what she was talking about, even if most of the rest of the world wouldn't have a clue!

Quite a nice balanced day for me really, with a few quids' worth of work to keep me busy, a healthy walk and a tasty lunch out. Possibly even just about profitable, if it hadn't been for the Indian recipe book and hiking socks we picked up at Frensham Garden Centre!

Oh, and over the last couple of days I've also done a load of backing-up, a bullet I had to bite eventually in the name of responsible digital housekeeping! It always seems to be the way that affordable back-up systems run sufficiently behind hard disk capacities to make backing things up a chore and logistic nightmare. But I gritted my teeth, and have generated a stack of eight DVD-RWs full of old photos, business documents and miscellaneous twaddle from the last goodness knows how many years. Hey, our next desktop PC will have a Blu-ray or HD-DVD writer - but no doubt a hard drive capacity somewhere into the terabytes, to keep with tradition...

I see the BBC's website reporting is up to its usual lame standards. They have an article entitled Giant palm tree puzzles botanists, which is a scientifically interesting and valid enough story. However, the BBC excel themselves with claims like:

The plant is said to be so big it can be seen on Google Earth

[The palm] is so large that it can be seen in satellite photos

Obviously all those splodgy green things seen all over Google Earth images (including the one covering our front garden) are something other than trees. That would be incentive enough for some major scientific investigation. Besides, Google Earth mainly uses aerial photography, not satellite imagery, so if the BBC are making (or more likely, recycling) the second boast based on the Google Earth amazing factoid, they really don't do their homework, do they?

So, Facebook and Scrabulous are all over the news, for the wrong reason. They even made it on to the BBC TV breakfast news today, with a typically throw-away comment about time-wasting. I've mentioned it a couple of times here, but Scrabulous is basically Scrabble played on the web, using Facebook as an intermediary so you can challenge your existing friends on there. Trouble is, although the authors had the courtesy to let the copyright-holders know what they were doing, they seem to have taken the unsurprising lack of response as tacit approval, and now Mattel and Hasbro's lawyers are getting their teeth into the matter. Common sense would suggest that the Scrabulous community of over half a million daily users is one ripe for tactful exploitation, rather than one to exasperate by forcing the shut-down of the application they've come to love, with no viable alternative. But on the other hand, intellectual property rights would appear to have been violated, and even if the intentions of Scrabulous were honourable, not to act firmly with such a high-profile violator would send out a dangerous message. So all in all I'm really quite undecided on the matter. However, if Scrabulous is forced to close, I will almost certainly stop using Facebook. Not as some kind of protest (as if anyone would notice), but simply because Scrabulous is the only worthwhile thing on there, the only thing coming even close to justifying the bloat of spammy applications since Facebook opened the floodgates.

Also in the news, Apple have announced their latest triumph of form over function, the MacBook Air. By getting rid of bulky gubbins like an optical drive and decent-capacity hard disk, they've honed it down to a supposedly razor-thin 1.9 cm. Now obviously, you would want to plug in an optical drive and a memory stick, probably an external hard disk and a mouse, and quite possibly a network cable or digital video camera. Sadly, however, Apple's trimming down also applied to its expansion potential, with one USB port and that's about it. Even the headline-grabbing thinness is not all it's cracked up to be. It's claimed as the world's thinnest (and the BBC blindly accept that assertion, obviously) but it's not. Amusingly, though, Wikipedia's got into a "my laptop's thinner than yours battle", with the MacBook Air article saying the laurels are worn by the Mitsubishi Pedion (at 1.8 cm), but the newly-added Mitsubishi Pedion article claiming the honours actually go to the Sharp Muramasa, whose (also newly-added) article serves only to boast its supposed 1.4 cm thickness and no further information... Well, who knows, then. And frankly who cares - once you've looked at the thing the wrong way and it's snapped in two.

Woo, I'm currently connected via a USB ADSL modem rather than our wireless router. A bit of a downgrade, right? Well yes, but it means we're finally getting somewhere with setting up broadband for my parents, with this modem arriving this morning, its inclusive £3.75 price tag undercutting PlusNet's delivery charge alone! We bought it via eBay, so although it's new and unused, I'm giving it a good work-out here to be sure - and so far so good. The broadband service itself is on order and seems to be going through slowly but surely. Just waiting for a line activation date so we can arrange a trip to my parents to get it all plugged in and working...

Broadband activation is scheduled for a week's time, so now just trying to arrange a good time to visit my parents, given that we're actually rather busy around then! Hey, it's good to be busy though, and today I certainly have been! One of my clients wants text-messaging capability added to his website, so today I've been working on a generic infrastructure to allow that, such that it would be reusable by multiple clients with billing tracking and so on. For more than a few awkward moments I thought the SOAP interface to the messaging service I'm using was broken, but needless to say it was my fault, and everything now appears to be nicely up and running. Next step is to get his website communicating with my system, but hopefully that won't prove too complicated either. That can wait until next week now though!

Hmm, lots to almost do, but very little to actually do. Well there are things, but they're not things that will help with the faltering cash-flow, and I'm monumentally bad at chopping and changing what I'm doing during any given day so while I live in hope something pending approval or whatever can get the go-ahead, I'm stuck in limbo... Hey ho, it's all part of being in a small business, and the price paid for being able to be responsive and competitive rather than having the oil-tanker style inertia of a big company.

But anyway, well it was a good weekend, though one when we certainly enjoyed the little down-time we got too! On Saturday we went along to the home-group leaders' introductory session, for those who have either just started leading a group or might be interested in doing so at some point. We've not decided anything yet, and we attended this in the same spirit as the church planting one a few few weeks back - that is to say, to push on some doors and see if any of them open. Saturday evening we popped round to Katy's parents, to back up their 2007 digital photos and to grab a copy of the broadband log-on script I wrote for them ages ago. As it turned out, though, I ended up replacing their script with an improved version I wrote on Saturday afternoon! On Sunday we had a tentative lunchtime invitation from Susy, and that did indeed happen, so we had a good opportunity to catch up with all sorts of things in our lives, over yummy beef casserole and blueberry ice-cream.

We've got a busy weekend coming up, just for a change, like... Tonight we're doing the catering for the Vineyard newcomers' evening, and Sunday we're officially heading up set-up for the first time having taken over from a couple who have recently moved. Sunday shouldn't be too hard going, since the teams are all pretty organised, though I suspect we may be quite low on numbers so it may not be quite as slick as we are accustomed. This evening's proving to be quite time-consuming though, having done the bulk of our shopping for it last night, thankfully well under budget, but needing a lot of on-the-fly recalculations as the numbers had increased a lot since we'd devised our shopping list! I popped back to Sainsburys this morning for their entire stock of fresh baguettes while Katy was cooking up the chicken pieces, so now it's just a matter of getting it all presented nicely at the Centre!

A bit more fun and games with my car when I took it out this morning, though. A couple of months back, we had noted that the washer fluid mix was stinking, but successfully flushed it out. But today it was starting to whiff again, so needed a repeat treatment. Apparently a drop or two of bleach can help, but I'd be a bit wary of doing so with anything that's going to get close to paintwork! But while checking that out, I found that the rear washer had stopped working yet again! That must be about the fourth time now. Silly me though assumed it was the same problem as last time, that the hose had come detached from the jet, but having destructively dismantled the tailgate trim to investigate, everything was of course in perfect order there - but water was gushing out from under the front of the car instead... So, assuming (dangerous, eh?) the hose had instead come off the reservoir, I wondered how on earth to get to it, and failed to find any advice on the web. As a last ditch attempt before quietly forgetting about it until the next service, Katy had a look under the bonnet while I attempted to operate the washer, and exclaimed "Whoah!" as water sprayed everywhere from a hitherto unnoticed hose dangling free thanks to an under-tightened jubilee clip. All sorted now, but the washer system as a whole really does seem to be a weak point in Volkswagen-Audi Group cars.

Point and laugh today at the bizarrely popular tech blog The Inquirer, whose article Microsoft offers Vista speed tips claims that the only advice Microsoft give is to "delete programs you never use and limit the number of programs at start-up and er, that's it". Obviously they missed the previous tip that said "try using the scroll-bar to view beyond the first screen of a web page". Of course none of the further tips given really tackle the quite serious performance issues Vista specifically presents, but such misleading reporting does no-one any favours.

It's been a busy last few days, anyway. The newcomers' evening on Friday went well, and we were catering for about twenty in the end. There were a few left-overs but nothing went to waste, and I think it was a worthwhile evening for all concerned even disregarding the supper! Church set-up on Sunday was OK too, and we've got a couple of new recruits to our team so it should be a bit easier next month.

Work's been a little stressful, thanks to the combination of revisiting Flash video, and a few email problems. Flash is as painful to work with as ever, but on the bright side perhaps finally this will justify having shelled out on the package last year, when the project I got it for at the time fizzled out. The email problems were a real annoyance, and as ever, getting hard information out of 1&1 is like extracting blood from a stone; it's not that they're uncooperative, it just takes immense perseverance to know the right questions to ask. I think the problems are solved now, and that another simultaneously-occurring issue I thought was related wasn't after all, but it was doubly frustrating as we were just about to go away for a couple of days!

Not that it stopped us doing so, going up to visit my parents overnight, principally in order finally to install their broadband internet access. That all went pretty smoothly, and we think the slightly flaky connection reliability to start with was part of the "training" process. It seems to have settled down at about a 2Mbps speed, which is pretty respectable considering their village location and that the modem is plugged into a DIY extension with a slightly dodgy line socket. We also got out for a nice walk yesterday, making the most of the bright weather (before today's utter bleakness), though it was very muddy out which made it pretty hard going at times. We had a hearty pub lunch at the end of it, so it was well worth the effort!

Back to the grind today, though, and picking up the tail end of those email problems and also looking a bit more into this Flash video malarkey, having found some problems when we tried my player on my mum and dad's PC. It's hardly a state of the art machine, but we would have expected better playback quality from it, especially given that it was fine with BBC stuff and so on. Just a shame I hadn't prepared some Sorenson Spark encoded clips to compare with the On2 VP6 ones. The latter is known to be more demanding on decompression performance, but much higher quality as a reward, though I really wasn't expecting it to grind to a halt quite so spectacularly on a PC only just under half the speed of our one.

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