David's diary: October 2008
Café Rouge acquitted themselves wonderfully the other evening, definitely somewhere we would return to for a special occasion - or with our next lot of clubcard vouchers, more to the point! Excellent and friendly service, luscious starters, mains, desserts and drinks - all for even less folding stuff than we parted with for a mere baguette and coffee each at the Gorge today.
We had our first "new" home-group proper on Wednesday, with a small but select handful of people joining us at ours for prayer and cackhandedly-led worship. We're still to find out really who's in and who's not after the leadership change, and that's something I suspect we will discover quite arbitrarily. The general reaction has seemed very good, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, as they say - so time will tell if anyone's just been being polite...
Monday evening, after what turned out to be quite a busy weekend - what with a meal round with Katy's parents on Friday, breakfast out Saturday, church set-up and Meryl round for lunch yesterday, and probably more that I have temporarily forgotten! Church set-up was probably the most stressful part of all that, especially being a couple of members down on our team due to illness and pre-agreed absence, but I think we came through smiling!
Today I've finished off writing an HTTP relay, and it seems to work well. I recently created a secure document sharing area for one of my clients, but their web account supports only one inclusive SSL-secured connection, so when we rolled the site out to live, that meant we needed something similar for the development version. It wasn't practical to make the new relay secured, but I was able to emulate (as far as I can tell) all other aspects of the "proper" one. For a short bit of code (just under a hundred lines), it took an inordinate amount of time and head-scratching to write, going through two different scripting languages before ending up back where it started. Two quick hints for anyone trying to do the same, before they email me for help: don't use the CURLOPT_FOLLOWLOCATION directive unless you really need it (you almost certainly don't in this context, and should let the user's browser look after any redirection), and trying to override the Transfer-encoding HTTP header will lead only to pain in general. Oh, and if you need to handle both file uploading and the possibility of arrays of similarly-named form variables, be prepared for hacky workarounds and pray you don't need them simultaneously!
Hey, we've been away for the weekend - and almost made the news! Well, not really the latter, but it's not often places we'd never heard of prior to holidaying at hit the national headlines while we're there... In this case, Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, which on Sunday hosted a big parade to honour nearby RAF Lyneham, the base which has the grim responsibility of receiving dead servicemen from Afghanistan et al. But as for our break, well we had a couple of nights at the Wiltshire Golf & Country Club, just outside the aforementioned Wootton Bassett, and right underneath the flight path of Hercules coming in and out of the base. Thankfully (being a pretty much brand new hotel) the double glazing was good, and overnight flying was minimal! The hotel was lovely, anyway, with helpful friendly staff, complimentary fast wi-fi, great leisure facilities (with a splendid view) and well-appointed rooms - at least once we had reminded them we'd booked a double rather than a twin, anyway!
Friday afternoon we mainly spent acclimatising ourselves there (i.e. using the pool, steam room etc), before driving into Wootton Bassett for a curry. Stoked up with a hearty breakfast, Saturday we explored around the village of Broad Town (neither particularly broad nor town-like), eventually finding its somewhat elusive white horse hill figure, and nearly doing ourselves a mischief on the treacherous slopes in the process! We had a decent pub lunch, and not much need for tea later. After checking out on Sunday we drove down to Devizes and the famous Caen Hill flight of canal locks, meandering our own way home via Alton Barnes and a picnic on Knap Hill overlooking the remnants of some summer crop circles.
Altogether just what we needed, even if I at least took half the weekend to realise it! Our only real grumble would be just how anti-walker Wiltshire seems to be. Even on the more popular downs, waymarking and path maintenance are frequently dire, almost like they don't want walkers there - and it would have to be said that some of the signposting on the roads wasn't much better. Shame, because it's truly glorious countryside, which would surely be appreciated by many more with only a little effort on the council's part.
Although we had wi-fi at the hotel, and had taken my laptop which was handy for checking maps, car parking and so on, I very definitely avoided doing any work - and thankfully had no need to. This morning though, well that was another matter altogether, and I'm mighty glad that 1&1 hadn't chosen Friday afternoon for their service collapse. In fairness, their telephone support seemed to have improved significantly on the last few times I'd had reason to contact them, but a 99.99% uptime guarantee still only allows for 52 minutes downtime per year, and five hours just doesn't cut the mustard so I've lodged yet another complaint with them - and in the past they've actually been pretty gracious with crediting my account so it should pay off. Surely it would be better to make a more attainable promise in the first place though?!
So, another load of sensitive private data has gone walkies - and this time it's somewhat closer to home. Not that I am a member of the armed forces or have ever applied to be so, but as I suspected, the people who lost the portable hard disk in question were my former colleagues... And I don't just mean people who worked for EDS (which despite recent redundancy announcements is still utterly massive); I mean people literally just across the landing from where I worked in that godforsaken place at Hook, some of whom I actually know. Oops!
I am ashamed of myself, I scored only 8 out of 10 on the BBC's old computers quiz.
On May 1, I bemoaned the near impossibility of buying a budget USB computer keyboard. Obviously all the big manufacturers are avid readers of this diary because now the tide has completely turned, and it's near impossible to get a PS/2-connected one now, just when we need one! Add the extra conditions that it should have the proper tried and trusted layout without any needless quirks thrown in just to annoy, and that any bonus keys should include a sleep button, and - guess what - the choice whittles down to... none. Hey ho.
Or maybe one. But that one turned out also to fail on another critical and somewhat unexpected issue; it was slightly warped, such that it thudded against the desk with every keystroke on the right-hand half - and yes, I did check it on several surfaces to ensure it wasn't our desk! Back to the shop it will go tomorrow, alas. Didn't particularly like it in white anyway, and that was all they had. Perhaps I really can clean up this old manky one and restore hygienic operation?
Took well over an hour, and a surprising amount of Dettox liquid, but the answer is yes.
Business is being rather quiet again, hence why it was worth spending that long cleaning the keyboard rather than buying a non-budget replacement on the web and saving the time. But I have had a few bits to do over the last week that have actually been able to be invoiced for! That's to say, although I've been rather busy lately, a lot of it has been unpaid for one justifiable reason or another, a good example being this rather snazzy film database, which I was happy to take on partly in order to hone my skills in AJAX and a few other technologies.
On Friday I got a slightly urgent call from an old friend of mine, who had run out of time with producing a website he had promised to put together for a business local to him, wondering if I could help out for a couple of hours. OK, so in the end it all took a little longer than expected, but not too colossally, and I'm actually rather pleased with the end result from a technical point of view given the constraints in place. It's not been published yet, but I expect I'll put in a link to it when it is, even though it's not one I can really put the Goznet Systems stamp on!
I'm also waiting for the go-ahead for a fairly large chunk of work for an existing client, whose website has been running rather wild in recent years, with lots of broken links and repeated HTML. I've done the last few bits of maintenance that they have requested, but the site really such a technical minefield now that an overhaul is needed before anything much else is done. Hopefully they'll consider a few hundred spent now to be a worthwhile investment...
Overall, I'm still really enjoying being in business by myself, and do not regret for one moment leaving EDS, Ninedots and their like well behind. Although I still have many slack days, overall the amount of work I have is ramping up, and I have been able to reward myself with a couple of pay-rises in recent months. Still not a living wage really, but I just about pay my way, and there's no reason why things shouldn't continue getting better, while maintaining the valuable freedom and flexibility I have come to enjoy over the last two years.
People often ask me how the recession (there, I've said it; it must be true) is affecting me, but frankly it's not really. Apart from anything else, I have no yardstick to compare against, with the economy having been starting its slump all the time I've been going it alone. Ultimately, I think I will benefit, just as Domino's and others at the lower end of their respective markets have found. People still need ever more websites, just find their purse-strings to be rather more tightly controlled, and that's where people like me can come in and save the day.
We walked into town for a bite of lunch and to take back the aforementioned warped keyboard. "That's weird," the bloke commented as he confirmed our diagnosis, before taking our word for how much we'd paid for it and refunding us with a crisp tenner from a wad of cash in his pocket. Now that's what I call good customer service. Yummy baguettes and coffee at The Gorge too!
Well that was a singularly unreassuring process. I went into town to pay in a cheque at the Alliance & Leicester, but found that they had drastically reduced their opening hours without telling anyone - including A&L themselves, given the over-optimistic information on their website. So along I toddled to the Abbey, new siblings to the A&L after Santander's buy-out, hoping they might offer their new-found customers service, but - although perfectly friendly and apologetic about the state of affairs - no such luck, and no idea when that might change. They suggested I might write my account number on the back of the cheque and post it through the A&L's door, but I decided I would give the Post Office a try, seeing as they can handle payments into both the A&L and Smile - where the money may well ultimately be bound. But without a paying-in book, impossible. Or not. Or maybe. Or who knows... They were helpful enough there - despite the broken English of almost all the staff on duty - so I decided I'd trust them at their word that it would be OK, but I'll only believe it when I see the money in our account.
Then I tried to report those out-of-date opening hours to the A&L via their web form. Well that only took four attempts between errors quoting their infamous negative reference numbers and overzealous session time-outs, and I am sure that as per usual they will say it's not their problem. But you never know, stranger things have happened. Just not very often.
Hey ho, I gave World of Goo a go earlier - well the demo levels available for the PC, having seen that the full Wii version currently rates 96% at Metacritic, only one percent behind their top scorer Super Mario Galaxy. Not bad at all, and for the perfectly fair points equivalent of £10.50, thought it could finally persuade us to buy into the whole WiiWare downloadable games thing. Except that not only have they not actually released it worldwide yet, but the UK release is going to be in a retail box rather than a download - and although a price has not yet been announced, it's not expected to compare with the WiiWare non-option. I guess you could argue they were testing the market with the download release, but it stinks of rip-off Britain as usual to me. Oh well, let's hope it commercially bombs like the equally-good-but-not-at-full-price Eledees and Mercury Meltdown Revolution, and ends up on the clearance shelf at Zavvi nice and quickly. It's the only way we're going to pay the going rate in this extortionate country of ours.
As for World of Gü - now that we might pay good money for, suitably "gift-packaged"!
The cheque "paid in" on Wednesday seems to have found its way to our account, which is rather better than I was realistically expecting. Hopefully it will now go on to clear. As far as my grumble about the mis-advertised opening hours is concerned, it's reportedly been escalated, though these days that's usually a euphemism for "sorry, not our department".
Today I have been educated, sort of. One of my clients wanted a web page added for a new act on his books, namely a practitioner of the art of free-running or parkour - though I might well incur some wrath for equating the two allegedly totally different disciplines. Although the act itself is perfectly normal, and his video a bit of fun, my first reaction was nevertheless "what the heck's that all about?" and I hoped that Wikipedia might clarify. Despite a lengthy and detailed article, it didn't, instead giving the overwhelming impression - on objective analysis - that free-running and parkour are basically hyperactively energy-inefficient but philosophically mutually incompatible ways of getting from A to B, dressed up as deeply mystic experiences. I'd assumed that Katy would share my bemusement at it all, yet, bizarrely, she knew a surprising amount about it already... Anyway, if you'll excuse the pun, I feel suitably enlightened now!
Nice afternoon out today with Katy's sister and our nephew. We had been planning on going into Guildford, but I'm not sure any of us really felt like traipsing round shops for several hours, so last night we agreed we would meet up at Wimbledon Common instead. Katy and I had never been there before, and it really was quite an island of calm considering its location. Plenty of open space to run around and fly our kite, woods to wander around with fallen trees to climb on, and a decent little café to ply us with all the food we needed at not too extortionate prices. And we bagged ourselves a brace of Wombles for supper; what more could we have asked for?
A Flash-based video player I had adapted for a client's site the other day stopped working, complaining that the Flash plug-in was obsolete. Needless to say I checked my development copy, and that also failed. It didn't take long to find the culprit, though: the version checking was assuming a single digit Flash plug-in version, and I had recently updated to - you guessed it - version 10. So it quite understandably decided that 1 was less than 8, and refused point-blank to proceed. Apparently this is likely to be quite an issue over the coming weeks, and has been dubbed Flash's "Y2K", with so many having made similar historic assumptions. Thankfully, from my point of view, this was the only time I can remember having based a client's Flash file on third-party code, and I've tried to be a bit more sensible in the stuff I produce from scratch!
At some point earlier this afternoon we looked out of the window and the sun was shining, so we seized the moment, wrapped up warm, and went out for a walk round Frensham Great Pond - then promptly had more or less every type of weather bar snow thrown at us. Still, in between hail-storms, with the sun low in the sky, ominously moody skies all around and the leaves on the trees just about turning, it made for rather beautiful conditions as you can see!
I'll spare you a picture of our car with snow on top though, looking much like any other car with snow on top to be honest, the only unusual thing being that it's still October. We noticed what the weather forecasters are apparently referring to as "winter mix" (which we previously thought was a seasonal dried fruit and nut selection) coming down last night, but weren't expecting it to freeze quite so solid. Don't know quite how cold it got once it evidently cleared, because our home thermometer's playing up, but the car one was still reading just below freezing when I took Katy to the station just after seven o'clock, and we had a lot more ice-scraping to do than we had anticipated before we could go anywhere! Mind you, a trip into London is one thing, but some people we know are off canoeing the upper reaches of the Thames for a few days from today - and indeed camping for the first couple of nights. They were looking forward to enjoying crisp sunny mornings, but I don't think they were quite expecting this yet!