Yearly Archives of: 2007

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Local Newspaper’s Bargain Of The Century

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While flicking through our local free paper – The Target – my friend (who’s staying with us this week) came across the following bargain-of-a-lifetime advert:

A less than appealing sale item

Normally I wouldn’t pay any attention to a sale on a cooker but my eagle-eyed friend is a Scotsman too and was drawn to the paltry £1 discount. I wonder if anybody reading it was stupid enough to think “wow – at that price I’m ready to splash out on a new Rangemaster!”. I mean, this is Yorkshire – they’re even more canny with their money than us Scots! 😉

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Losing My Mother

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My mother in her 20'sMy mother died just over 5 years ago from cancer and not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. I thought it was about time I wrote about how losing her has changed the way I see the world, has changed me and what it’s been like trying to get my head around it all.

It’s true what they say, you can never really understand what it’s like until it happens to you. I once described losing my mother as like the sky suddenly falling down. My mother carried me for 9 months, gave birth to me, was the first sight I ever set my eyes upon, fed me when I was hungry, got no sleep for months when I woke her up crying at night, changed my nappies, watched me smile when I recognised her face, start to crawl, take my first steps, say my first word. She was always there for me, every memory I’ve ever had growing up has her in it. When I was upset she was there to cheer me up. When I needed advice it was her I sought out. And when I stepped out of line it was her who put me back in step. She was a strong, loving mother who I always knew was on my side, would do anything for me and my brother and gave us the perfect upbringing that made us the men we are today. I’d known her as my mother and as I became an adult I knew her as the woman Jean Conners with a devilish sense of humour and a certain innocence about her. She was the most wonderful person I’ve ever known. She had always been a huge part of my life and now that she’s gone I realise that I’d always assumed she would be.

You never expect the sky to fall down, the sky is always there and always will be. And that’s exactly how I felt about my mother.

When my father phoned me early one morning to tell me my mother was dying the first words I said to him were “you’re joking”. Obviously he wouldn’t, but my instinct was that it couldn’t be happening. Him phoning me again later (I can’t remember if I’d left to drive home or was just about to leave) to tell me she had died just didn’t seem real – I was numb. I arrived home before my brother (who’d been staying with me that weekend and was driving himself to my dad’s) and stepped into the hall. My dad came over to me and something I didn’t expect then happened. All my life my dad had been the one to comfort me in times of sadness but this time he was the one holding onto me and I was the one comforting him. It’s times like that you realise when you’ve grown up and become an adult. We were both inconsolable and if you ever find yourself imagining what a situation like that is like, imagine it a million times worse. And then when my brother turned up, well think a British billion times worse (that’s a million million). Even then, I still just couldn’t believe it.

In the months after her death I just couldn’t grasp that she was gone. I’d walk past an arts and craft shop and my first thought would be to take her there the next time she was down. I’d see something on TV that I knew she’d be interested in and I’d go to pick up the phone and call her before reality hit me. It was as though my brain just wouldn’t accept that she was gone forever.

Whenever I’d visit my father’s house I’d come down in the morning before anyone else was up and watch TV in the lounge like I always did. I’d be sitting there waiting for her to come in and sit next to me like she always did (we were early risers). I cried far more while she was suffering with cancer than after she died but on mornings like that I could never hold back the tears, sat there sobbing on my own waiting for someone that was supposed to always be there who I started to realise never would be again.

After some time – I couldn’t tell you how much – my brain dealt with things in a different way. I seemed to accept that she was gone and didn’t find myself about to call her any more. Instead she kept turning up in my dreams. Sometimes the dreams would be set in my childhood and it was only when I woke up that I’d feel sad, knowing I’d seen her again, or feel happy because it felt like I’d spent some more fleeting moments with her. More upsetting were the dreams where I knew she was dead in the real world, and in the dream she did too and I was just talking to her telling her how I missed her. Waking up would just take me away from her. If I were a spiritual person I’d feel comforted that maybe she was reaching out to me from beyond the grave, but unfortunately I know better and it’s my mind coming to terms with her death showing me what it thinks I want to see – or something like that. Odder were the ones where in the dream I saw her and was really upset knowing that when I woke up she’d be gone. I’d wake up with tears on my pillow but had left the sadness in the dream and didn’t feel upset at all.

The dreams started to fade away (although they do come back from time to time) and I found that my mind seemed to understand that she was gone. It was as though in the preceding years (and it took that long) my brain had been drip-feeding me little bits at a time rather than trying to get my head around the concept that my mother was gone all at once. It’s a good job I didn’t take it all in at once – because it’s such an utterly terrible thing to have to get used to and live with. I feel so bad for friends who lose parents because I know that it actually never gets any easier with time – you have to carry the pain and burden for the rest of your life. The only thing that changes is that you learn to live with it in your own way.

As I said at the start, not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. I still get upset from time to time but my mother was exactly the same decades after the death of her mother. She never hid the tears from us and as a result we were brought up knowing that it was perfectly normal to miss someone you loved and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

She wrote me a letter when she knew she wouldn’t make it and in it she told me she’s always admired my positive outlook on life and to make the most of life as it’s so precious. Every day that goes by that’s exactly what I try to do.

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Another Satisfied WordPress User

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Well no sooner had I written that I was pondering switching blogging platforms from Movable Type to WordPress than I started actually doing it. One of my many character flaws is that once I get an idea in my head I tend to go 100% all guns blazing and don’t stop until I’ve done it and this was no exception.

Having been a Movable Type user for several years I’d not paid a lot of attention to WordPress other than installing it and having a quick look at it a couple of times. Version 2.3 was coincidentally released just at the time I was thinking of moving my site so I took it as a sign to proceed.

I must say, I’m very very impressed with WordPress. Writing good software that’s easy to use, powerful and fun is very difficult. There aren’t that many people out there that can really do it. But writing good software that’s easy to use, powerful, fun and easy to extend is much harder. WordPress manages to do this very well, better than any software that I can think of. While I know PHP quite well, I hadn’t used Worpress at all yet within 4 evenings I’d managed to do the following:

  • Import all my posts and comments from Movable Type
  • Create a theme that looked exactly the same as the old site but used the new functionality that WordPress offers (such as improved comment handling)
  • Write a plug-in that changes the WordPress WYSIWYG editor to be just the way I like it and tweak the RSS feed to be just the way I like it
  • Migrate the ‘My Software‘ section of this site over to WordPress Pages – a much better way to handle things

To an experienced user of WordPress this is all pretty straightforward stuff, but I’m not an experienced WordPress user. Up until a couple of weeks ago I’d never so much as looked at the documentation or actually written a post with it. Now I’ve moved my site to a different platform, haven’t broken any links and it all seemed far too easy – which I like!

Wordpress on John’s Adventures

My point is that to do what I’ve achieved as a novice MT user moving from WordPress to MT would have been a far more serious undertaking (note that I’m talking about Movable Type 3.x here, I can’t comment on MT4 as I wasn’t impressed enough with it to see what’s changed under the hood). I’d have been able to import my content no problems but creating a theme is a lot harder in MT – they’re stored within the database whereas the theme files in WordPress are files in a folder making them easy to copy onto a test server where I can get things right then simply copy to my live site. With MT I’d have to do a lot of copying and pasting or database updates – not ideal. I’d probably have ended up just using the default template and tweaking that rather than using my existing lovingly created and evolved layout. Of course, some might argue that’s a good thing…

The documentation for WordPress is also worth a mention – whether you’re modifying themes, writing plugins or just trying to figure out how it all works. It can be a bit tricky to find what you’re looking for in the MT documentation (or maybe it’s just me) but the WordPress docs rock. Whenever I was stuck trying to figure something out when creating my theme or plugin the solution was easy to find and explained thoroughly. Feature-wise I think WordPress and Movable Type 4 are pretty much on the same level but I find WordPress to be faster (on my server at least) and with a far more active community in terms of themes and plugins – which is always a good sign for a product. In fact there are so many plugins out there it makes my head spin!

I know they say “a change is as good as a rest” but it’s more than that. I actually feel more inspired since installing WordPress. I can’t put my finger on why but when I log in and look at the clean, slick interface I just want to write something. Which is great news for me – but bad news for you, the poor reader. So I’ll apologise in advance and you can just blame the developers of WordPress – it’s their fault for doing such a damn fine job! 🙂

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Caffeine Overload Equals Bad

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My coffee machineA good friend of mine rather likes coffee. When I last worked with him he’d frequently do ridiculously long hours, drink copious amounts of Red Bull (which is loaded with caffeine) and it’s no surprise to me that he’s now taken the same approach to coffee. He doesn’t drink a cup, he drinks 5 cups. All double strength. And when he’s a bit peckish he just eats a mouthful of raw coffee beans. I believe he’s also ground coffee into his toothpaste too. (Note, everything is true apart from the toothpaste – so far as I’m aware).

I always react with incredulity (you know, that sort of expression where my eyebrows jump two inches upwards) when he tells me about the amount of caffeine he ingests but as I was sitting doing some work on John’s Background Switcher yesterday I realised that I’m just as bad. I tend to start every day with a freshly made latte (we have loads of disposable cups so I can drink it on the drive to work). I then eat several tiffins – chocolate based biscuit snacks – per day if I can get any (I really must write about my obsession with those some time), which contain more caffeine. I bring a bottle of juice to work to stop myself buying fizzy drinks (which works) but then go home and reward myself with a can of Irn Bru (good work undone):

My Mac and some Irn Bru

For anybody who’s never heard of the stuff, Irn Bru is the ubiquitous Scotsman’s drink. Most Scottish people I know love the stuff, and most non-Scottish people I know – who’ve tried it – hate the stuff. The advertising slogan of the 80’s described Irn Bru as being “Made in Scotland…. from girders” (said in a gruff Scottish accent) and that’s about as close to an accurate description of the taste as you’ll get. It’s loaded with additives, loaded with caffeine, and could probably strip paint at 30 paces. But I love the stuff!

I probably drink a can a day on average – far too much – which adds more to the caffeine count. If there are still some tiffins around I’ll eat them too. More caffeine. The bottom line is that like my friend I consume far too much caffeine and no doubt that’s what causes me to stay awake really late at night and struggle to get up in the morning and crave that first cup of coffee to wake me up.

I’m sure I can cut down on the Irn Bru, but I love the taste of coffee so I reckon that’ll have to be my vice (everybody’s got to have a vice) and, with a heavy heart, I’ll have to cut down on my beloved tiffins. I’ll give it a couple of months to see if I feel any different and report back then. In the meantime expect more posts in the ‘Rant‘ category!

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Things Don’t Always Turn Out As You Expect

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I wrote a guest article on my friend John Topley’s site about my Life With a Mac (since he was the one who got me in to Macs by writing a guest post on here I thought it best to write about the results on his site). Since it was quite a few paragraphs of me rambling I decided it needed a photograph to add a bit of interest and break up the text. I wanted to somehow involve my Mac and to a lesser extent me (since I’m the owner).

In a flash of inspiration I thought I could take a picture of me using the Mac, looking over the screen which would show off the Apple logo and not show off much of me (since I’m actually not into pictures of me and I’m sure nobody else is). Then I thought that if it the light from the screen illuminated my face, that would be cool like the suitcase in Pulp Fiction – you never get to see what’s inside it but you get to see it glow when John Travolta’s character looks inside it. The shot would hopefully capture the joy I get from using my Mac and hint at the warm glow I get inside from it. I set it up, took the shot and ended up with this:

Me and my Mac

I think you’ll agree that it’s not quite what I was intending! I quickly realised two things when I opened it in Photoshop. One was that it was only going to work in black and white. And two was that there was no way I could make me look anything other than evil! I look like a scheming super-villain planning something fiendish. I really like it, although not for the reasons I originally intended.

I’ve often said I’d rather be lucky than talented and this is the sort of thing I mean. Had I actually managed to create the exact shot I wanted, I’d have been happy and that would have been that. But instead I got something completely different that I didn’t expect by sheer luck and am delighted by the results – much more so than if I’d got it “right”. Talent is over-rated! 😉

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Time To Put Down Some Roots

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I’ve wanted a yucca plant for about 20 years but for some reason never got around to buying one. My mother used to drag my brother and I around garden centres when we were kids and I’d often imagine I was in a jungle exploring and hiding from tigers. I’d particularly like hiding behind the giant yuccas with their thick trunks and tropical looking leaves as they provided excellent cover from marauding predatory 200KG cats and younger brothers. Whenever I’d walk past a yucca in a garden centre, DIY store or supermarket, I’d make a mental note that I must get one one of these days.

My new yucca plantWell, after two decades that day has finally come. I noticed a few of my colleagues had plants on their desks and that mine looked a little shabby by comparison (well a lot shabby really). Aside from the football trophies (there are 3) on my desk it was all paper, books and post-it notes. I thought a plant would brighten up the place no end and since I was coming up on having been at my current job for 2 years (which is about as long as I’ve ever been in the same job) I decided I’d finally get a plant – the first I’ve had at any desk I’ve ever sat at.

So a trip out to a garden centre in Gargrave (not far from where I live) and I was returned to my childhood surrounded by clumps of bamboo, various bushes and trees along with a hell of a lot of plants. Of course without my childhood wonder and imagination it was less a jungle and more a plain old garden centre. Luckily they had loads of yucca plants in various sizes so I bought the one pictured and am now doing my best to keep the thing alive! (I’m not particularly green-fingered so it’ll be a first). Luckily I hear they’re used to desert conditions so my forgetting to water it for weeks should work out nicely.

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Stick With Movable Type Or Twist To WordPress?

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I’ve been using Movable Type as the power (with a capital ‘P’) behind this site for the last few years and I’ve been pretty happy on the whole. One thing that was missing was a decent WYSIWYG editor (so that when I write a post I can see how it’ll look when it gets published) – but I sorted that one out by using TinyMCE. Another was comment spam but I fixed that with CAPTCHA. Everything was great, it was working happily and despite the fact that I really liked the look of WordPress (more about that later), I was happy to stay put.

Then recently Movable Type 4 was released. I installed a beta version to have a play around and I really liked it. It’s organised similarly to WordPress (which is much nicer to work with than Movable Type 3) and it seemed very slick. That is, until I tried editing a post. Six Apart have implemented their own WYSIWYG editor and, to be frank, it’s nowhere near good enough. I never find myself switching to the plain HTML view to fix something TinyMCE has messed up and it was only when testing MT4’s rich editor that I realised just how good TinyMCE is. MT4 produces some real garbage HTML underneath, doesn’t let you edit the properties of images you’ve placed such as the CSS class or style you’d like to apply to it (unless you switch to HTML view), doesn’t support tables (except with HTML view) and when creating a new post it doesn’t even surround the text with paragraph markers (unless you switch to HTML view) and you end up having lots of line breaks entered instead of paragraphs. These things may seem minor (and there are many more) but they’re annoying enough for me to not upgrade my installation. It’s the 21st century, I shouldn’t have to be hand-coding HTML to produce a basic, standard blog post about my hair or new football boots.

I have attempted to write a plug-in to get TinyMCE working with MT4 but haven’t managed it thus far – the entry editing page is quite different to the MT3 one and is proving rather tricky! Plus I’ve not really sat down and dedicated a lot of time to figuring it out.

I will say though that there are plenty of other slick features I like such as being able to create pages (a la WordPress), manage uploaded files (such as pictures) more easily, some more powerful template tags, finer-grained user permissions, better look-and-feel and just basically a more logically organised front-end. But until I manage to use a better WYSIWYG editor, I won’t be upgrading.

Which brings me onto WordPress. Many times over the years I’ve been tempted to migrate my site over to WordPress. It’s been ahead of MT for ages in terms of features and the fact that it’s written in PHP (which I know) rather than Perl (which I don’t and don’t particularly want to) makes me like it more. The latest version – 2.3 – has just been released and after installing it I’m impressed. The management pages are much faster than MT4’s, nicely laid out, and best of all – it uses TinyMCE for entry editing! I can quite easily write a plugin (plugins are incredibly simple to write since they’re PHP which I know as I said) to use the same options I use in TinyMCE on my current MT install. I’ve looked into migrating the content (pretty straightforward) as well as the layout (time consuming, but not hard) and maintaining the links structure so no links get broken and it’s mighty tempting.

Of course, you as a reader couldn’t care less, you see the output, not the tool that creates the site. “So why are you telling us about this John?” I hear you say – to which I reply that “you’ve got some attitude mister!”. Well I spend most of my time in Movable Type and very little of it actually browsing my own site, and you know what they say: a change is as good as a rest!

I know that the sensible choice is to just stick with what I’ve got now. It works and changing platform won’t really make any different to those reading my ramblings. Just because something is new and shiny doesn’t mean I should instinctively use it. But if I know me I’ll find myself sitting in my house on a rainy Sunday with nothing better to do and then port the lot to WordPress. Or maybe I’ll properly crack putting a decent editor into MT4. We shall see… And in Yorkshire most Sundays are rainy Sundays!

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Selling Stuff The John Conners Way

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If – like me – you’ve just redecorated a room in your house (in my case my office / second TV room) then you’ve probably got some excess furniture. Particularly if you went to IKEA for shelves and came back with stupidly expensive floor-to-ceiling book cases (which, to be fair, are both solid and very cool). Normally I’d just break them up and throw them down the local tip but these are different days. Now I have a Mac that just begs me to do creative things with it. When combined with the fact that everyone who knows me probably thinks I have a massive ego – I don’t really but nobody believes me – I thought I may as well give them what they want. So I came up with the following picture and emailed it round work to see if there were any takers:

And incredibly I got rid of the lot within about 20 minutes! Excellent! Now, when it comes time to sell my car, I wonder what I’ll be able to come up with… You see, this is one of the many reasons that my brother works in marketing and I don’t – I think he got the marketing gene and I got something else – not sure what!

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My All-Or-Nothing Approach To Reading Books

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I haven't read a non-technical book for well over a year. The main reason for this is that when I read books I tend to do it to excess. Like my mother before me I'm able to read books rather quickly – I can get through an average-sized 300 page book in a day or two (although normally I like to take it easy and stretch it out another day or so) – and when I do that I'll pick up another book straight away and so on. This means that I can get through a lot of books in a short period of time. The side-effect is that I tend to burn out after a while and a year can go by when I don't read a thing. Then I'll pick up a book and the cycle starts over.

For example, I borrowed the first Inspector Rebus book written by Ian Rankin from a colleague a few years ago. I really enjoyed it (being set in Edinburgh was a great start). After reading it I realised that Ian Rankin had in fact written a dozen or so Inspector Rebus books (17 now) so I made it my mission to read them all. I ordered 3 sets of trilogies and then proceeded to read 8 of the books back to back. Then I burned out and didn't pick up another book for quite some time.

As I said, I haven't read a non-technical book in over a year (maybe two now I think about it) and while I was away on holiday on Arran the other week I spied an Andy McNab book on the bookcase (called Aggressor as it happens). I sat down and read it and rather enjoyed it (an easy read with adventure, sex, guns, and lots of tough-guy SAS-speak). Following that I spotted the first two books from the Terry Pratchett Discworld series. For years I've been meaning to read them but since there are so many I knew it would be a major ordeal to get through them all (which my compulsive reading habits would demand) and refrained.

So here were the first two books in the series and I had no excuse but to read them. Which I did. I was halfway through the second book when we left but I decided to "borrow" it and return it when I'd finished (reminder to self: make good on that promise). Pratchett's humour really cracks me up and I kept annoying my good lady by bursting into laughter at random times. When I finished the second book I was straight on Amazon marketplace buying up more of them for 1p a pop. Then I had a look and realised that he's written about 36 of the damn things! Since I want to avoid burnout this time I'm attempting to pace myself by only buying 3-4 books at a time, reading them and then getting some more – trying to drip-feed myself instead of binge eating them.

Anyway, I've just started book six (Wyrd Sisters) and I'll try and take my time about it. It's better than sitting in bed a night reading about regular expressions!

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Adios Vista, Hola XP Again

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While I don’t like to be on the bleeding edge of new technology and software, I do like to stay on the leading edge where possible so when Windows Vista was released late last year on MSDN I installed it on a machine at home, liked the look of it and then put it on my work machine (wiping the hard drive first as it needed a good tidy up anyway).

At first I liked it. The new user interface looked slick and a cut above Windows XP, the Windows+Tab 3D effect looked very nice indeed and I even liked the way the new address bar turned into buttons so going up several folder levels involved less clicking. After installing all the software I use I even got used to living with the UAC popups – although I eventually turned the whole thing off and ran as an administrator since most of my time at work is spent working with Visual Studio 2005 and IIS which both require you to run as an admin if you want to do any debugging. I know it’s “wrong” but I’ve never once had a computer virus or piece of spyware so I wasn’t concerned.

The Grey Screen Of MiseryAll was well for a while but as time passed I started to get more and more frustrated with Vista. For one thing, it’s significantly slower than XP. My work machine is a dual core P4 3GHz with 1.5GB of RAM so isn’t a lightweight. But run a couple of instances of Visual Studio, Outlook and a few other apps and it would grind to a halt in a way it didn’t with XP. I’d spend a lot of time looking at the ‘Grey Screen of Misery’ (right – question mark added for emphasis).

So I had to learn to be more patient between starting a debugging session and anything actually happening. I realised that if I was in a hurry I was going to get annoyed so I relaxed a bit. But then Visual Studio started to crash. A lot. And in a multitude of different ways. Like so:

One of many Visual Studio crashes on Vista

It would crash in the middle of it sitting around doing nothing. It would crash when I was debugging some code. It would crash when I closed it. When I opened it. Just any time it felt like it – and it was driving me crazy! Writing software is something that you need to be able to concentrate for extended periods of time to do well – and when your machine is flaky and falling over frequently requiring numerous reboots you just can’t get anything done. (And before you ask, it was indeed doing the same before I disabled UAC – it wasn’t spyware or a virus, it’s just the standard behaviour that I and my colleagues who installed it came across). I even went as far as to completely uninstall Visual Studio and put it all back on again. No change.

One or two problems to report...Vista’s nifty feature of being able to check for problem solutions from the web wasn’t very handy either (right). As with most things that don’t work when you’ve tried them numerous times I gave up checking for solutions when it never found any.

I started considering wiping my work machine and re-installing XP and the more crashes I came across doing my day job the stronger my feelings got. Eventually I had a bad day where I got hardly anything done and I actually had a lot of work to do but every time I started something Visual Studio crashed and I had to almost start again. I cracked and copied all my documents onto an external hard drive. The next morning I got out an XP SP2 CD and put it back on.

Here I am a week later and I don’t regret my move one bit. XP is much faster, Visual Studio is rock solid again and hasn’t crashed once. I can safely say that while there are indeed some really nice new features to Vista (I’ll probably write about them once the bitterness has gone), I don’t miss anything at all about it. Not a thing. I’ve read about loads of problems with Vista and graphics cards, other pieces of hardware, iTunes and that sort of thing but my work machine really only has Visual Studio, Outlook and a couple of web browsers running. Nothing special and no on-the-edge hardware. And yet myself and my colleagues who took the plunge have found that Vista just doesn’t cut it as a day-to-day development system. What finally made me roll back to XP was the fact that the other developers who stuck with XP weren’t having any crashes at all.

I can only join the chorus of people who say that Vista really isn’t worth upgrading to for the time being if you’re a software developer. I’ll mention that my good lady’s laptop – which is used exclusively for surfing the internet – is running Vista and has been as solid as a rock since I installed it, so I’m not saying Vista isn’t ready for most people’s uses. It just isn’t ready for mine, or anybody who does the same sort of work as me.

See, I wrote a whole post about Windows Vista and never once mentioned how much more I love my Mac. That’s for another day! 😉