Yearly Archives of: 2006

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Bang Bang Yawn

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Tonight is the 5th of November and every kid who grew up in the UK had the line "remember, remember the 5th of November" drilled into their heads from an early age. Each year on this night, in true British style, we celebrate a failure. We celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot he was involved in which was a fiendish plan to blow up the houses of parliament in 1605. Mwa ha ha ha! [Rubbing hands together in an evil, super-villain way].

What happens each year is a human shaped effigy is created called the 'Guy' (usually by children from a local school). It's sat atop a large pile of wood, often tens of feet high. This whole ensemble is set alight while children stand around with sparklers in hand (responsibly) waving them around. And then of course there's the fireworks display.

I remember going along to many a Guy Fawkes night as a child and I never really enjoyed them. Sure, the fire part was nice – everybody likes fire, it's warm, colourful and everything looks good by firelight. But fireworks on the other hand do nothing for me. My brother and I have a strange affliction that if you sneak up behind either one of us and shout 'Boo!', then nothing will happen. We'll just turn around and look at you. We don't jump out of our skin – for some reason our panic response has just been turned off. It's quite bizarre. And it's probably one reason why fireworks do nothing for me – they don't make me jump.

Fireworks go bang and so I hear a bang. Big deal. A rocket flies up in the air, explodes, some colours fly out in a spherical pattern and fall to the ground. Marvellous. Now the Northern Lights (which I've seen twice in my life – once in Yorkshire bizarrely) are amazing, awe-inspiring and just plain jaw-dropping. Fireworks by comparison are just irritating.

I remember planning our wedding (well okay, that wasn't me, it was my good lady) and I recall being asked if we wanted fireworks after the ceremony. I just shrugged my shoulders and like the spoilsport that I am said "why would we want to do that?". In retrospect perhaps I should have been a bit more positive, but still, it was £500 saved in the end! So please forgive me if I type up a rant on how annoying fireworks night is for me instead of going out, standing in the cold and hearing people say "wow!" and "weeeee!" as some things go bang and flash.

Bah humbug! Roll on December (which I'll be mostly spending in Australia)! 

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Brother In Another Country

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My brotherSeveral years after the low of living with me in Yorkshire my brother (right) has finally hit the big time. To be fair, things went really well after his ill-fated stay with me. He’s spent the past year or so living in Edinburgh and making the most of the rich and vibrant night-life. He got a great job that’s much more interesting than mine (i.e. it’s not writing software) and he’s been having a whale of a time.

He stayed with us this weekend for the last time because he’s moving to California. San Francisco to be precise. I’d normally say he’s a lucky git but to be honest he’s worked hard and deserves everything that’s coming to him. If I were a betting man I’d have said that I’d have been more likely to move to the centre of the software world before he would but it’s funny how life surprises you some times. And how settled I am living in Yorkshire!

For one thing, I’m going to miss him. He’s my brother and my best friend. Barely a few days go by that I don’t speak to him, so for him to be on the other side of the world seems a long way away. However with modern technology like Skype we’ll be able to talk just as much as we do now. It also means I now have a holiday destination for early next year. We did a California road trip a couple of years ago and loved it and I can’t wait to go back.

So to my younger brother Jamie, good luck, all the best and stay off the burgers! ūüôā

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My Life Without (The) Sky

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A couple of months ago I bought a new TV that happened to have an integrated digital decoder. This meant that I could receive Freeview which is, perhaps not surprisingly, free. I've had a Sky Digital subscription for the past 6 years and at £40 a month it occurred to me that if I could live without it, I'd have paid for the TV in two years.

On thinking about it some more I realised that the only things I actually watch on Sky (which contains several hundred channels of mostly rubbish) are The Simpsons, some Spanish football and the odd Premiership match. Oh, and a couple of series like Stargate SG-1 and it's cousin Stargate Atlantis (well, we've got to get our sci-fi fix). Since The Simpsons and things like Stargate can be downloaded from file sharing networks for free (as we did with Lost Season 2 – we devoted an entire weekend watching all the episodes back to back – I only wish the ending was worth it!).

Freeview has 30 or so channels including Sky Sports News which meant I could still watch Soccer Saturday from my sofa when I was feeling lazy. So I decided I'd cancel Sky and see how I got on without it. Now that's not as easy as it sounds.

If you try to cancel Sky they'll put the pressure on to try and keep you thereby lowering their churn rate. It's a well known fact that you can get Sky for half price by threatening to cancel, getting offered it at half price for three months, then doing the same in three months time. Oh, call during the week if you want to try it out! But if you really want to cancel then you have to battle through a half-hour gauntlet of hard-sell. I didn't want that because I knew I could be tempted to keep it. So I did the decent thing…

…I told them I was moving to New Zealand! Within 3 minutes it was cancelled and they were wishing me good luck. Although it would be 4 weeks before they actually turned it off. And that happened to be Monday of last week.

So I've had over a week without Sky and it's been tough going cold turkey. I've missed the sound of Homer Simpson saying "D'Oh!". I've missed several good football matches. And I've missed randomly flicking through the music channels. Initially I wanted to pick up the phone and be re-connected, but now I'm realising that there are plenty of other decent things to watch, and more importantly there are many more interesting things to do than watch TV!

Of course it could be that I'm in such a good mood that finally the vastly under-rated yet hilarious Garth Marenghi's Darkplace has been released on DVD that I'm pretending life without Sky will be okay. Only time will tell…

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Add To Contacts

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Interesting spelling for NokiaI just got a new mobile phone and since I was switching from Nokia (interesting spelling suggestion right) to Motorola and I couldn’t get the import tool to import my list of contacts I had to painstakingly go through all my numbers one by one and copy them to their new home.

It was a strange and in many ways sad experience. I’ve known a lot of people over the last 10 years or so of mobile phone ownership. Quite a few I’m still in regular contact with but a surprising number of them I’ve not spoken to in over 2 years. A few even longer. And there were a couple who I couldn’t even remember at all.

It’s sad because if you’ve made it into my contacts list then it means you mattered to me when I added you. I only save the numbers of people I want to call again. To see the name of former close friends and wonder what they’re doing now means I didn’t keep in touch like I wanted to. To see the name of someone I can’t even remember feels like a failure. And no, before you suggest it I’m not going to call them!

You see time’s short and life’s short. You can’t keep in contact with everybody. Your life and their lives move on and you can only look back with fondness at the time you shared. There’s no sense looking back with regrets. But if it’s all the same I’m a sentimental old fool so I’ll keep all the numbers. Even if I never dial them again, at least they’re there as a memento of times past.

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Tournament Players

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I’ve spent the past six months playing in an 8-a-side league with work. It’s been an interesting experience. For one thing, no matter how seriously you play football, it’s always a different matter when you’re keeping score and even more so when it’s in a league.

The standard was pretty high, high enough that if we slacked off we’d get punished. One team in particular was full of really good players, we got hammered by skill, youth and teamplay¬†and it was a wake-up call of how hard we had to work to win. We struggled to get a regular team out – some people were put off by how tough it was and others were working away. So with a make-shift line-up each match we didn’t do too well. When we realised we needed to win our last 4 games to stay up we pulled it together and won 3 out of 3, but just fell short in the last game and got relegated. (Well, the last game of the season to decide who went down was forfeit so we went down – a brown envelope full of ¬£20 notes probably fixed that one). It was disappointing but all the clich√©s they say about football are true. It’s a team game and the league table never lies. We may have thought we deserved to stay up but if that was the case we would have.

And so it came to the end of season tournament. A chance to redress the balance and salvage some dignity. We had to merge with another team to get enough players together and even then we only had 8. Given that we would have to play up to 6 games to win the tournament some subs would have been nice. As it happened one of our players sprained his ankle in the first match so we had to draft in a friend from one of the other teams to join us.

There were a total of 14 teams and¬†you had to get through a mini-league of¬†3 matches, then on to the quarters, semis and final. We won our first match, then lost the second (we played two in a row and weren’t concentrating). We won the third and that put us through to the next round. We thought we were lucky to get through and the injuries started to pile up. I had an injured hip before I even started (I could hardly walk last Wednesday), one guy as I mentioned sprained his ankle, another had two dodgy knees and our keeper strained his groin right early on.

So into the next round we went and managed to win it against – ironically –¬†the team of the guy who joined us when we went a man down. I almost hoped we’d lose so we could have a rest. Almost. Then came the semi-final. It was close (I came within an inch of scoring which is better than I’ve done all season!) and went to penalties. Incredibly,¬†we won (with me scoring a¬†very calmly taken penalty) and we were through to the final!

All but one of us was now hurting and the lad who sprained his ankle came on again much to my surprise (tough lad). That was lucky as another of our players did his knee in and his day was over.¬†We were up against a good team we’d lost to in the league and they had 4 subs so would surely be fresher. It was agreed we’d play 10 minutes then if it was level go to penalties (we were running short on time and the England match was starting). After some good battling performances (when our last injury-free man got injured) it was 0-0 and the shootout began.

Me, a medal and a trophyIt was quite a demonstration of penalty taking as it got to 4-4 and nobody had missed (including me). Our stand-in player scored, their effort was saved and we won! We couldn’t believe it!

I felt a little bad for the team who lost as undoubtedly they were a quality team but it’s all about results at the end of the day. And while it wasn’t exactly like winning the FA cup, there were 13 other teams there that day who really wanted to win and took it very seriously, and yet it was us who came away with the trophy (right). It’s the first time I’ve ever won a medal for anything and while it may be a trinket you can buy for a few quid it’s a symbol of the 8 of us being the best out of perhaps 140 people. Not bad and I’ll always treasure the memories.

In the end, I think having no subs helped us as we had to pull together as a team more and to say we gave battling performances each match would be an understatement! Anyway, we’ll be in the second division next season so we’ll be looking to bounce straight back up. But at least we’ll have a trophy sitting in the office for the next year to remind us of our achievement!

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Some Thoughts on Windows Vista

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I decided to install the first release candidate of the new operating system from Microsoft called –¬†as I’m sure most people know –¬†Windows Vista. Like all users, I’m not a big fan of change so it took me a while to get used to where everything’s moved to. Much like Office 2007, things are more logically organised, it’s just that when you get used to them one way it’s hard to adapt to the new way, even if it’s more logical.

Once I got past that I was a bit underwhelmed initially¬†to be honest. I like Windows XP and I’m quite happy with it. My initial impressions were that while there was some fancy new eye candy there really wasn’t anything groundbreaking that would make me say “ditch XP and go to Vista now!”. However under the hood, an incredible amount of work has gone on to make Windows more secure and run faster.

In terms of security, frankly I found all this User Account Control to be a pain in the ass so I disabled it. The idea is that you run software and it’s run as a restricted user so it can’t do any malicious damage to your machine, unless it requests admin rights and then you’re asked if you want to grant them. This can be irritating when it pops up for everything you run (an exaggeration I know but it feels that way after a short while), and even more irritating when you run older software that unwittingly accesses “restricted” areas as part of its normal operation so stops working correctly. I found this with TextPad not being able to remember all of its settings, for example. You can opt to run applications as an administrator but it’s still a pain and gets in your way when using software not designed to use it (I guess a lot of software companies will have to release patches to fully support Vista). Since I know what I’m running, I just turned UAC off for now, I’ll take the risk!

In terms of performance it seems to be a lot faster than Windows XP, which is no slouch. I’m testing it on my trusty old dual P3-800 workstation with 1GB of RAM (which used to be BUILDMACHINE3 at a company I used to work for) and while the fancy Aero glass interface won’t render (the graphics card is ancient) it really does fly.

It’s a lot easier on the eye too. I can suffer from eye strain when staring at a computer screen for too long so sometimes wear glasses. With Vista I’ve noticed I don’t need them at all and I can stare at the screen for hours and have no eye strain whatsoever. They’ve obviously done something to the fonts and ClearType because it’s just so much easier to look at!

So it’s faster than XP, looks better than XP, has some fancy software that XP doesn’t have and a lot of redesigned GUI like the Start menu and¬†control panel amongst others. I was looking forward to using it from now on. But I’ve hit a problem. “Find in Files” hangs Visual Studio 2003 in Windows Vista and it’s not likely to be fixed. You see, Microsoft are not going to support Visual Studio 2003 on Vista.

I can perfectly understand why. In previous versions of Windows Microsoft have gone to unbelievable lengths to preserve backwards compatibility with older software. The number of workarounds coded into Windows for bugs in 3rd party software is staggering. However since Vista has such a different security model to previous versions, some things are just going to break and in the interests of protecting end users in the future and moving the technology forwards, that’s a sacrifice they’re making. Were I in the shoes of those making the decision, I suspect I’d make the same call.

Print preview won't be in Notepad any time soon!It’s very easy for someone to criticise and say “well they should just fix it”. But when you see the amount of work that goes into every feature that makes it into Windows (in short, anything ending in “bility”, such as reliability, localisability, internationalisability, compatibility, usability, testability, manageability, upgradeability and so forth), you have to admit that you just can’t do everything, you have to make judgment calls and do what you think is best. Putting a feature like Print Preview into Notepad would be a straightforward coding task, but to get it into the next version of Windows would take a hell of a lot of work and quite a few people – all of which takes time and money. They have to choose very carefully where to invest that time and money if they want to actually ship the product in the next century. Those who are quick to criticise clearly don’t appreciate what a massive undertaking shipping a new version of Windows really is – you just can’t get away without having such controls in place to ensure shipping a solid product. It would certainly scare the hell out of me!

I still use Visual Studio 2003 to develop John’s Background Switcher and some other bits and pieces. In fact that’s all I use it for since at work I use VS2005 and .NET 2.0. I’ve been tempted to move to VS2005 for many reasons including the number of bugs fixed in 2.0 that exist in 1.1, although I’ve not done it yet since .NET 2.0 penetration is nothing like as high as 1.1.

However for the time being it means I won’t be running Vista exclusively since the only work I do on my home machines is VS2003 based and I seem to use “Find in Files” a surprising amount! It’s a shame because Vista really does look impressive and the more I’ve been playing with it the more I’ve liked what I see. And remember, I don’t like change, so for me to jump to a new version of Windows, I must be going to a better place…

Update (27 Feb 2007): Jim Salem found a fix on the MSDN forums for the Find In Files problem I mentioned with VS2003 on Vista – check the ‘Disable visual themes’ box on the Compatability tab of the properties for the shortcut to VS2003. Thanks Jim!

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We Haven’t Changed A Bit

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I met up with some ex-colleagues on Friday night. I met them when I started my first job in Leeds for a company who shall remain nameless and I remember the time fondly. Not for the work, because that sucked. My timing was out as when I joined them there wasn't really anything relevant to my skill-set for me to do (they were a sort of consultancy / body shop / pimping operation) and I was young and cocky so I was a tad pissed off to be sitting around reading rather than working with shiny new technology.

However all was not lost. You see we had table football.

As soon as the clock struck 12 we'd surround the table and the banter would begin. At times I could barely stand up for laughing such was the quick wit of some of the guys. Even when not playing it was hilarious to watch two protagonists trying to win the game, and if not the game then putting off the other one. Oh, and of course fighting like crazy to avoid the shame of a 10-0 hammering.

There was the power player, the skillful one, the show-boater, the people's champion (who's always the moral victor), the shoot-on-site one and of course the lucky one (I hate lucky people!). They all know who they are! I was never much good at it but it was a lot of fun and better than writing another tedious white-paper nobody was ever going to read. It certainly served to get rid of some of the frustration of the job!

So we met up for the first time in quite a while as I said (we've all kept in touch but just don't together often enough) and it was a real laugh. Even though 4 years have passed we were right back there discussing the finer points of goading an opponent to lose at table football and such like!

There are some people you meet and for a time you're really close, have a great time and are best friends. But when that time passes and you only meet up now and then, it's never quite the same again as the shared experiences are in the past. Fortunately with these guys it's like no time has elapsed at all and we picked up from where we left off. I guess that's my definition of true friendship. You don't need to work together or spend a lot of time together, but when you do things are just back the way they were.

And you know, I'm sure I dished out a 10-0 hammering one time to Nige… I just bet he's blanked the trauma of that out of his mind – but I never will! ūüėČ 

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Roll On Dark Nights

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Normally at this time of year – when the nights are drawing in, the temperature is dropping and the leaves are falling – I’d be moaning about how the Summer should have been longer and that I’m looking forward to Spring already. But not this year. From a photography point of view, the fact that it’s getting dark earlier means that sunset is earlier and so I don’t have to wait until 11pm to get quality photos!

The best time for low light photography is around or just after sunset and as it’s been dark so late I’ve been missing the joys of night photography. In fact since it was last Winter that I really got into photography, I’ve probably spent more time on night shoots than during the daytime. I was lucky enough to catch a beautiful sunset after a thunderstorm with my friend Ade the other night and got a whole load of shots like this one:

Canal By Firelight

If it weren’t for the fantastic light in the sky, this wouldn’t make a particularly interesting shot and the more I take photographs the more I’m looking out for interesting light. It’s what separates the ordinary from the extraordinary. And nice though warm, sunny days are, they’re not as conducive to the style of photography I like as a dark, menacing Winter evening! (Okay, I’m just trying to be optimistic about the end of Summer, it’s a survival mechanism).

Oh, I’ll be continuing my photography tips series shortly. I made the mistake of saying my next article would be about exposure, which is undoubtedly the most tricky and complex photography subject so it’s taking a bit of time. D’Oh!

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Marriage Advice From The 60s: The Engagement

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Wedding Eqituette by Margot LawrenceWhile looking around a car boot sale the other weekend I looked at a box full of books and saw the title “Wedding Etiquette” on the spine of one of them. I took it out to have a look (and see where I went wrong) and was most amused to see the cover pictured right.

As you can probably tell by the photo, it was written in the 1960’s by Margot Lawrence so I wondered how out of date the advice contain within would be…

It’s actually been a very entertaining read and quite eye-opening in terms of the different attitudes to relationships and marriage from then to now. The youngsters today can learn a lot from literature like this – divorce rates are a hell of a lot higher now than then, as are the numbers of people living alone.

I’ll write a few posts on different pieces of advice that the irrepressible Ms Lawrence offers in her 1963 masterpiece so that you too may learn the lessons I now have. Firstly I’ll talk about the engagement itself.

On the subject of courtship she has this to say:

“Nowadays most young people require little guidance as to the formalities of courtship – indeed, such formalities hardly exist. An acquaintance develops into friendship, affection to love, and eventually the moment comes when they decide that they will get married… Most young people take the view, and even their elders would probably agree, that courtship is entirely their own affair.”

The trouble is, in these days of iPod’s, broadband, speed-dating, binge drinking and one-night stands, courtship is something that just doesn’t seem to happen and isn’t taken seriously any more. For shame. Getting to know your potential life partner is something you should take time and care over – not get shacked up with them within a month of meeting them in a sleazy nightclub when you went back to their place!

As for engagement:

“The first requirement of etiquette comes even before the engagement is formally announced, and that is, the customary interview between the father or guardian of the girl, and the young man she hopes to marry… At the interview, he should be prepared to state frankly his position and prospects; say enough to show that he has given some thought to how he can look after a wife and, later, a family; perhaps satisfy his prospective in-laws as to his own family background, education and general standing; and altogether show that he is a fit person to be entrusted with the girl as his wife.”

All too often marriage is impulsively rushed into without due consideration and fore-though which down the line can lead to problems. Hey, I’m as guilty as the next guy! I proposed on a whim in New Zealand without thinking it through – who’d have thought I’d eventually have to actually get married! ūüėČ But to have to justify what makes you fit to marry your partner, even to yourself, can be quite enlightening. The thought that it’s not some right you automatically have assigned to you by default might make you try a bit harder.

Apparently, when announcing an engagement (italics are hers not mine):

“The name of the bride’s mother must appear in the announcement, even if she is divorced and re-married. To omit it is only possible if there has been some kind of open scandal about her.”

Makes me wonder where Ms Lawrence learned that particular lesson from!

Another particularly poignant section discusses the Broken Engagement which is “an embarrassing ordeal for both parties”. Interestingly the book goes into details suggesting that the girl should return the engagement ring, but the most useful advice is about letters:

“The disposal of letters sometimes presents a problem. To return them may seem an unnecessarily dramatic gesture, but to retain them is usually unwise unless actual legal questions are likely to arise. Probably the most commonsense course is simply to burn them.”

I can see there’s no going back when you get on the wrong side of Ms Lawrence!

I’ll finish by quoting the section on the behaviour of the engaged couple – youngsters these days lack any of the respect, manners and self-control described here:

“Engaged people should be wary of adopting a too-proprietary air towards one another in public or of showing demonstrations of affection that may embarrass others. At the same time they must each make the happiness and welfare of the other their first consideration.

“It is a real breach of good manners for either to go out alone with, or partnered by, a member of the opposite sex. There is no harm in, say, an engaged girl whose fiancee is unavoidably absent, going to a club party or dance with a group of young people, but she should not go if it is the kind of group where the men and girls are formally paired off in partners.”

I’m guessing Ms Lawrence doesn’t believe that men and women can be “just friends”. Or maybe she was just bitter she never got invited to those sorts of parties!

So there, that’s your engagement sorted – next you can just get married right? Wrong! Ms Lawrence has a lot more advice to give. To be continued…

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TinyMCE and Movable Type In Perfect Harmony

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I’ve been a Movable Type user for a few years now and prior to the release of 3.3 I was considering making the switch to WordPress. This was primarily for the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor which meant I would no longer have to type in raw HTML when I wanted to insert a picture or a table. When 3.3 came out I realised that they hadn’t added one so I thought I’d have a look on the net and see if there was another way to do it. And then I came across TinyMCE (which is what WordPress uses incidentally).

TinyMCE is an open source javascript control that can turn any text area on a web page into a rich text editor with only a couple of lines of code. Since it’s pretty easy to write transformer plugins for Movable Type to change its appearance it was very straightforward to embed TinyMCE in the editor window like so (it looks like it should always be there):

TinyMCE in Movable Type

All of a sudden I don’t need to worry about HTML tags, previewing what the entries will look like, spell checking (it uses the Google spell checking API), creating tables and a whole host of other things I shouldn’t even think about in the year 2006. It makes me wonder why SixApart don’t include TinyMCE as standard…

Of course Movable Type, WordPress and their brethren don’t just have to be for blogs. The ‘My Software‘ section of this site also lives within Movable Type, was really easy to set up and trivial to make changes to.

When people ask me why I give away John’s Background Switcher for free I just need to look at software like TinyMCE, see the amount of work that’s gone into creating something so incredibly useful that’s given away for nothing and think that I’m doing the right thing!