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David's diary: December 2009

As they say, it never rains but it falls, and after a pretty stagnant last few weeks work-wise, things have hotted up a bit in the last few days. Green shoots of recovery, dare I say? Still keeping an eye out for something to bring in a bit more regular income though, although no-one's bitten quite yet. So only green shoots, really!

Managing to economise a bit, though. Little things like my watch battery giving out last week, and getting a set of watch-repair tools (and a lifetime's supply of batteries) off eBay for half the price Timpsons extort for two minutes' work.

Katy grumbled a teeny tiny bit last night that I'd not been keeping this diary up to date, so I guess I'd better put that to rights!

We put the Christmas tree up yesterday afternoon, its second year with the new white LED lights, and it looks as lovely as ever. Just a nice simple four-foot artificial green tree (and yes, it does actually have four feet, now you ask) with small red and gold baubles, the aforementioned lights and of course the angel Angela on top. Means that the run-up to Christmas really can start now, especially since we've got our first batch of cards off too.

Also meant that getting up at 6.45 this morning wasn't too gloomy an affair, especially once I'd surreptitiously adjusted the time-switch from 7 o'clock. Why so early? Katy's first day back at work today - and what a cold and frosty morning she "chose". I hadn't said much about it here (in fairness I haven't said much about anything here!) but Katy's role was made redundant at the end of July, and she had been out of work for the last four months or so. Really not our finest hours, one way or another, but by now Katy should be rendezvousing with her new boss before digging into the inevitable reams of induction material.

My "exciting news" of the last week is that my business has a new web-server. Over recent weeks I and a couple of my clients had noticed a bit of a slow-down on some of the sites I manage on a "shared" server, and the straw that broke the camel's back seemed to be a photo/video upload site that went live just over a week ago. As it happened, perhaps not the most business-critical site I've ever created, but one where the high number of people experiencing problems (not just slowness, but random errors) was nonetheless downright humiliating. I did a bit of digging around, and also consulted my provider's technical support, eventually coming to the conclusion that the server must simply be overloaded with other unconnected customers' accounts. So I am now mid-stream in moving all the dozens of sites I run on to a new dedicated server for use by my direct clients and me alone, and those that have been moved seem to be running very smoothly indeed. A few hitches along the way in terms of configuration details, but I think I now know all the pitfalls, and transferring the remaining sites shouldn't cause any significant problems.

The photos website was a tie-in with a wedding we went to last weekend in Milton Keynes, that of one of my big clients. We had already decided to make a weekend of it, and earlier in the year had secured an excellent deal at the wedding reception hotel for a two-night stay. So we drove up on Friday and kicked off the weekend with a bit of Christmas shopping in Central Milton Keynes, not quite as much as we'd hoped, but still enough to make a dent! We had our inclusive hotel dinner on Friday evening, with the Holiday Inn Milton Keynes East staff doing a sterling job of looking after us despite it being the start of their craziest weekend of the year with parties and so on. We dined in the reception area, which was actually quite fun watching people arrive for the other events, and were never once neglected. After dinner we met for a drink or two with Gareth and few of the guests arriving in advance, then called it a night.

The Saturday was of course the big day, but we could enjoy a leisurely start with our delivered newspaper and typical Holiday Inn breakfast buffet. The service itself was lovely, striking just the right balance, and Lauren stunning of course, arriving to the dulcet tones of none other than David Grant - yes, he of Fame Academy etc. Photos immediately after were a brief affair, with the cold and dark closing in, and we were happy to return to the hotel for the wedding breakfast and reception. Our invitation to the breakfast was a late one, but gladly appreciated, and we were at a table where I at least knew a few of the people. The schedule had slipped by a couple of hours by then due to the weather, so the hot meal was appreciated all the more, entertained along the way by table magicians Daniel Alexander and friend. The evening reception started very late in the end, another reason to have been very grateful for our invitation upgrade, and to be honest we didn't last too much longer, but it was a great and lovely day and evening. Thank you Lauren and Gareth, and may you have many happy years together! Oh, the photos? At http://www.laurenandgareth.co.uk of course!

Sunday we'd decided that rather than head straight home, we would pop in on one of the churches where we might find a few friends, deciding on New Life in Wolverton. That consequently developed into a lunch invitation with Trevor and family, with the invitation evidently thrown open a little wider in end, which was lovely because we got to catch up properly with our friends Chris and Claire too. Needless to say by the time the world had been put to rights (or at least its wrongs identified) it was getting gloomy again, and we hit the road home. Although a little slow in places, thankfully the drive both ways was hugely better than that when we went up a few weeks previously and crawled almost the whole way in both directions. Glad to get home though, even if the week to come was to prove challenging!

Does this site seem any faster to you? It should do, because it's just been moved on to the new server, in fact almost the last site to be moved. Almost, because I've decided to hold off moving Diary 4 for a couple more days. I tried to move it late last night and it all went rather catastrophically wrong, so I had to roll things back. I've done some more controlled experimentation today and have fixed the problem (a very subtle variable referencing thing that changed between PHP 4 and PHP 5) but am just holding off for a couple more days, to test some more and so that I can do the roll-out when I'm next around for the evening. This site itself proved to be a bit more fiddly than I'd hoped, being based on version 1 of my content system rather than version 3 as my newest sites are. I'm trying to migrate everything to PHP 5, and have a handy hack to handle XML issues, but for some reason this site wouldn't play ball with it, so I had to be resourceful and build myself a custom binary of PHP 4. I guess in retrospect I could have used that for Diary 4 also, but as I say, I'm keen to get as much as possible working with PHP 5, since it isn't an abandoned platform.

I'm still not 100% happy with the server as a whole though. It's locked up inexplicably a few times, mostly when I've been taxing it quite hard building stuff, but also completely randomly in the middle of last night - though I guess it could possibly have been as I was packing up for the night, burning the midnight oil as I was... Something seems to be leaking memory like a sieve, which I suspect could be a part of the problem. The finger was understandably first pointed at Apache, which is known to have a few issues in that department, but although I managed to improve things a bit in that respect with some configuration settings and periodic restarts, the free memory is still reducing at a rather alarming rate and even running "top" it's not immediately obvious what's to blame. I have a hunch that I might well be re-imaging the server with a different flavour of Linux in the near future, but for now I'm just keeping a close eye on things, and hoping nothing I do exacerbates the problem.

In far more exciting news, it has snowed today - and after a disappointing mere few flakes in the morning it got really quite heavy this afternoon and settled convincingly. Odds for a white Christmas now? Has meant it's been pretty cold in the house though. I managed to keep the office at a cosy room temperature, but the rest of the house dropped to almost single figures, and now needs a bit of a kick start before home group later this evening!

Rather more snow overnight, though hardly a patch on February's, so all this talk of schools closing and so on really does seem rather a nonsense this time. Katy made it to work just fine once she was out of the close, and her office is at the top of a hill like the side of a house! Thankfully the snow mostly held off yesterday evening, and our church leaders' Christmas party went without a hitch, the first formal event at our newly refurbished centre. Bitterly cold walking back to the car afterwards though - a bone-penetrating combination of wind and snow the likes of which I'd only experienced before on top of Snowdon!

Right, got another potentially slightly late evening working coming up, so going to get a breath of (very) fresh air for a bit and take a wander into town. Thankfully still got my old boots here, given that my favourite ones are in the back of the car which is, well, elsewhere today!

Friday's walk into town was quite bracing, as indeed was last night's walk round to Simon and Bex's for our pre-Christmas "breakfast" - quotation marks needed really given the time of day, and the fare on offer was decidedly un-breakfast-like too! This evening we had our carol service at church, which was about as lovely as such things invariably are, but now it's time to lock out the world and maybe go and find some more "stuff" in Rabbids Go Home...

I might have nailed the crashing problem on the server. If it stays up now, I will know I turned off the culprit! In the absence of anything else useful in the logs, I set a watchdog script going so that I could tell exactly when the server died, and it obliged at 8.04 this morning, exactly coinciding with Plesk's back-up manager backupmng's scheduled task invocation. Didn't take much web searching to find evidence this software is prone to getting stuck in a loop that brings down the computer it's running on, so given that I'm not really using Plesk at all, let alone its built-in back-up system, it seemed a good candidate for switching off altogether.

This Joe McElderry vs Rage Against The Machine thing has been all very entertaining, but for what? Well done to RATM for beating McElderry to the top spot, not something many people I know will be too sorry to hear, but it's really not the triumph it superficially sounds like. The obvious "problem" is that Sony still distribute the winner, and have at the very least doubled their filthy income as a result; surely it would have been better to champion an independent act? But the problem goes deeper, and to the root of the "reality show" phenomenon. These shows pander to a public who believe they are disenfranchised and have no influence in a world gone crazy, that won't grant them a referendum on every whim. But give them the opportunity to text in their vote, and they suddenly feel empowered, that they finally have the perception of a direct say on something so important as choosing a throw-away TV star. Eventually, it dawns on them that they are being manipulated by Simon Cowell et al, and the recent "fight back" is born. But what does that really prove? Just that one ultimately cynical and arbitrary marketing campaign is more successful than another, and in this case feeds only Sony and the perceived popularity of a UK singles chart that really should have died a death years ago.

We may have raged, but the machine still won.

Needless to say it's been a fairly busy few days over Christmas, and it's not over yet... Challenging weather beforehand, both sets of parents and our in-laws over the last three days, and friends arriving shortly for the day today. Thankfully the server problems have settled down since I isolated Plesk as being the cause, so I have at least been able to relax in that regard!

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