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David's diary: March 2008

New month, and oh joy, a new web hosting foul-up. This time they do at least seem to be crediting me with a little bit of intelligence but it doesn't seem to be hastening a solution. Suffice to say that although all my sites are still working fine (though I am keeping a very close eye on them, needless to say) I have no FTP or shell access to them because my home directory appears to have the wrong permissions set after they tried to fix a quota display issue. I can update this site because it's running through a content management system, but I can't actually update the system itself, and my static client sites have been rendered inaccessible for maintenance purposes. I'm not jumping up and down too much yet, but if it's not been resolved by this time tomorrow I may well be singing a decidedly different song.

Mercifully, my websites appear to be back up, albeit running a little on the slow side. I realised soon after writing last night's grumble that in fact there was a more dramatic issue that adversely affected Diary 4's scheduled notifications, but all that appears to be moot this morning. No official confirmation back from them that everything is now OK, but hopefully appearances are not deceptive, and what's fixed can now stay fixed. The quota display issue is still present, but I can live with that so long as my sites are fully operational!

Woo, good news for a change - Asus have just announced the 8.9-inch revision of their smash-hit Eee PC mini laptop, and contrary to utterly unfounded speculation they have in fact increased the screen resolution too. The bad news is that it's not going to be available until "Q3" (i.e. July, if we're very very lucky) and then goodness knows in what kind of volume, but the cheap laptop I bought recently was specifically to tide me over, so I can wait, really I can...

I had a back-up plan in case there were still problems with my hosting, but since I had no reason to update anything, I got on with said back-up plan anyway. The laptop is equipped with wired and wireless network adapters, but there's a high probability that some clients I visit may not have a convenient network point or wireless router to connect via, so today I have been setting up a reasonably well-featured web server on the laptop itself. From reasonable past experience I went for XAMPP, which is a self-contained LAMP-style server stack but also available for non-Linux systems including Windows XP. The first fun and games came with trying to get it to work with multiple virtual hosts. No one resource on the matter told the complete story, but after an hour or so's prodding around in httpd.conf files and so on, I managed to persuade XAMPP to serve up four different sites on localhost sub-domains. They were the easy ones, though. Diary 4 was next on my hit-list and proved to be distinctly more complex since it is has no static files for pages, instead relying on complex interaction between PHP INI files and .htaccess files. I got there in the end - at least once I'd got the right MySQL password and worked out how to enable the necessary XML extension in PHP, whose absence was stopping the main page for each group dead in its tracks without even the grace of an error message... Actually, I'm sure I could have made it display an error message, had I been editing the right PHP.INI file in the first place, a somewhat common issue, limited Googling on the matter soon revealed! Anyway, a productive day's tweaking there, and although the laptop is rather creaking under the strain of all these unfamiliar servers, I can feel confident I can visit clients and demonstrate my work with or without a network connection to hand. Phew!

The websites are still fine, and running much faster than yesterday. I guess there was a backlog of stuff to catch up with, with how ever many hundred customers' deferred cron-jobs and so on. Anyway, today I've been pondering an overhaul to my invoicing system and indeed starting work on that. Until now I have been using Excel spreadsheets, but it would be far more convenient to have it on the web, so that's what I've set out to do. This afternoon Katy and I went for a walk round Frensham Little Pond and brainstormed a few ideas in connection with this and a few other aspects of the business, so I'm pretty confident I'm doing the right thing here.

And lo, Doug did enter the UK top 40 singles chart, at number 36. The on average evidently more discerning purchasers at 7digital.com placed him at a far more lofty number 2, behind only Mike Oldfield. Fair start, anyway, and a great example of the "don't ask, don't get" principle of life, considering why his single's even available to buy in the first place!

So, pretty breezy out today and there were a few flashes of lightning over lunchtime, but all in all, today's much trumpeted inclement weather hasn't really affected us here. As usual, the BBC were trying to make the most of the lack of news, finding somewhere a bit bleak in London's docklands for a dodgy live broadcast, and showing a couple of hairy landings at London City Airport, known for its wind shear at the best of times. The west and south coast got it bad as expected, but really nothing to be too surprised at for the time of year - neither was the Environment Agency's spokesman's direct linkage of the storms to climate change and rising sea-levels, yawn yawn yawn*. Amusingly, half way through one report, the screen momentarily flashed red with THE BIG STORM in giant lettering. I guess someone just had to have their moment of fame, given that as with the last dozen weather warnings the BBC has hyped up, there really wasn't even a tea-cup to have a storm in...

* For the record, I do believe climate change and its knock-on effects to be real, and to be at least human-exacerbated, but the linkage of just about everything in day-to-day life to it is getting distinctly tedious and often fallacious. But as with the recently revealed lie that supermarket plastic bags (whose usage I would also like to see reduced) kill however many gazillion sea creatures a year, and doubts that low energy light-bulbs will save the average household a single penny in reduced power bills, the government believes that if they bamboozle us with enough pseudo-science we'll eventually give in as the path of least resistance, as we accept ever more unnecessary and often costly restrictions on our freedom.

Oh my, 1&1 have collapsed again. This is getting somewhat tedious, and is not at all consistent with my overall experience over the however many years it is I've been a happy customer of theirs. I can use this website only because it predates my dabbling in databases - that's right, all their database servers have decided to go off-line. Needless to say, not only does this outage interfere with almost all my commercial sites, but I'm developing another one on an agreed shoestring budget right now, and I can't do a ruddy thing until they deign to fix it...

Apparently the problem affected only 10% of 1&1's users, but they were the 10% of 1&1's users who make use of databases so that was more by luck than judgement... Anyway, all seems to be well again now, which is just as well because yesterday I was up in Milton Keynes meeting a couple of my clients and if the sites had been unavailable it could have been bad news indeed!

So yes, I was back in Milton Keynes for most of yesterday, one of only a very few times I have been up since moving down here four years ago. It had changed quite a lot in that time, and not really for the better, so I can't pretend I regret we made the decision to set up home down here rather than up there. When I lived there, it was predominantly unspoilt, with lots of green spaces, but that's been heavily eroded in the last few years, with various monstrosities sprung up, leafy corners developed in the pursuit of wealth, and just generally nowhere near as pleasant a place to pass the time outdoors. I wanted to kill some time after my meetings so as to avoid the worst of the rush-hour traffic, so for old time's sake walked round Willen and Caldecotte lakes. Willen Lake now charges for car parking, at the same hourly rate as Farnham town centre. I happened to bump into the meter attendant, who explained the charges had been introduced to counter a crime wave in the locality, and it had succeeded. I can understand the reasoning, even if it's not the most imaginative solution possible, but it somehow still seems wrong. And at Caldecotte, a new development is being built right at the lakeside. I wondered what the rather odd ground-floor was all about with its grilled windows, until the ramps gave it away that it's semi-underground parking. How nice, to go for a peaceful walk by a car-park, built in that hideous yellow brick that's ubiquitous in the town...

As for the meetings, before and after lunch at the Barge, they went well. Definitely good to talk face-to-face once in a while, and there should be a reasonable amount of work to come out of our discussions. So despite Milton Keynes not being the place it used to be - and the journeys to and from being pretty depressing - it was definitely a worthwhile day out!

So this morning I've been writing up "minutes" of yesterday's meetings, interspersed with sorting out about 2000 (and counting) bounce messages triggered by another manhood enlargement scam spam kindly sent out in my name. My spam filter is quite well trained now, so hopefully I've not junked anything important, but if you have emailed me today and have not had an anticipated reply, it might be worth giving me a call just in case my finger slipped!

And still they flood in at several thousand an hour. As I know I've said before in these hallowed pages, mail server handling of spam is monumentally stupid. It's fair enough that I get bounces for non-existent addresses, full mailboxes and so on, but ones like this are just plain dumb:

A message you have sent has been detected as Spam and will not be
delivered.  Details of the message are as follows:

Date: 03/18/08, 12:42:52
Subject: saluuk

Oh, you're so clever detecting the message as spam. So clever in fact that you'll automatically complain to the person in the world least likely to have had anything to do with it, doubly clogging up the internet. Once again, it's been years since spam has been sent with an honest sender address - something even the most gullible humans appear to have grasped long ago. For goodness sake, if spam filters can be updated to detect the latest synonyms for the male member, update the damn things to reflect reality. Spamming may be a sad fact of life for the internet today, but a sensible technological response to that fact seems a good way off yet.

Don't worry - as if you were - I'm still very much alive, just been very (but quite comfortably) busy with work the last couple of weeks since that trip to Milton Keynes, and it's not about to stop, thankfully! Had the weekend off though, entertaining my mum and dad for a few days. They came down Friday afternoon and left just a little while ago. On a few occasions we've mentioned our fortnightly Saturday breakfasts and they've always been quietly envious, and this time it coincided with their visit so we added to the crowds there. The rest of Saturday was a wash-out but we had both fair and foul weather plans, so drove up to the Milestones museum at Basingstoke, which is a fully indoor reconstruction of streets from Victorian times onward. Today's weather was much better, and after a late start we decided we'd hit the coast, taking a five-mile stroll out along the sea defences from Langstone, stopping for afternoon tea in Emsworth. Plenty of other eating in between, making for an altogether thoroughly civilised weekend! Still More...? to come this evening, which should wrap things up very nicely indeed.

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