September 11, 2010

HP Mini 210-1012sa netbook


Yep. Got myself one of these second hand a week ago and I'm very pleased with it.

Let's get the boring bits out of the way:

* Intel Atom N450 processor (1.66 GHz)
* 1 GB DDR2 PC-6400 RAM
* 250 GB SATA hard disk
* Broadcomm 802.11b/g WiFi and Bluetooth
* 100 mbps fast Ethernet network port
* 3x USB 2.0 ports
* HC-compatible SD/MS-Pro/MMC/XD card reader
* 10.1" 1024x600 widescreen format display
* Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3150 display adapter
* 5225 mAh battery
* Windows 7 Starter

Having been a long-term user of GNU/Linux on all of my desktop/laptop machines for more than a decade, I hope fellow Tuxophiles don't feel betrayed at my switch to a Windows machine. I could get Ubuntu netbook edition, or even the full desktop edition, working on this machine but to be honest, it does what I want it to do. Not only that, it does it much better than earlier incarnations of Windows. We all use various versions of Windows in the workplace, and as one of the later arrivals, I'm lucky to have a Windows 7 Professional desktop, so I'm pretty used to it now.

One of the first things I did on this netbook was upgrade from Windows 7 Starter to Home Premium. I do like the Aero themes that you get with it and the graphics system on this machine is perfectly capable of supporting them with no noticeable slowdown. I then upgraded to 2 GB or RAM. For that, I certainly recommend Mr. Memory. I ordered the RAM on the Wednesday afternoon, and it was waiting for me on the doormat on the Thursday evening when I got home from work.

Even though the machine is pretty small (the size of the display sort of gives that away), the keyboard is perfectly usable. You have to be careful while typing because the keystroke sometimes doesn't register if you don't press square on the key.

There are two reasons why I bought this machine. Firstly, I wanted a convenient way to access the internet (e-mail, social networks etc.) when not at home in a way more practical than using my mobile phone. If I'm not within range of a WiFi hotspot that I can use, then I'll simply tether the phone to the netbook via a Bluetooth connection and use it as a modem.

Secondly, I wanted something powerful enough to enable me to get some work done of an evening during the week without having to turn on the main desktop computer, which makes a lot of noise with all the fans in it. This machine is not quite so powerful, and its screen resolution is certainly lower, but it does have the advantage of being almost silent, and the reasonably large capacity of the hard disk means that I can carry my entire media collection with me.

So, mission accomplished. I now have something powerful enough and with enough RAM for me to view the sites I look at most of the time, that has great battery life (about 8 hours), that is small enough to carry around and that has plenty of connectivity options.

Seven weeks into the job

So, my seventh week on the job has finished. It certainly went out with a bang given that I nearly killed the development server we use to write software and test it before releasing it on the public servers. Luckily for me, no actual damage was done despite the potential for much work being lost. A few files containing documentation and sample code relating to a language we don't even use (Java) were deleted, and the Apache web server had to be restarted (but could probably have continued running without a restart anyway). Needless to say, I have now added more checks to stuff I write...

The first two weeks were spent getting to grips with the software used internally. You can know all there is to know about PHP and MySQL and then some, and you'll still have to spend time familiarising yourself with the way they're used in the workplace: database structures and the purpose of each table and field, home-grown libraries and how to use them etc. Just over 2 more weeks were spent fielding live requests for software improvements/fixes, and since then I've been working on a project that was assigned to me fairly early on and should go live towards the end of this year or early next year. I can't go into specifics about the nature of the project in question until it actually goes public.

Perhaps more importantly than any aspects of the work itself, I'm getting to know my co-workers a lot better now. Having spent years on the receiving end of the advances of salescritters and marketdroids, I will probably take some time getting used to those members of staff in the company. It's nothing personal, I'm sure they're lovely people, it's just the type of job they do that has made my life a misery in the past.

The development team that I work in has 7 members including yours truly. The IT manager and IT support guy are in the same room as us, so that's a total of 8 people other than me, and I can only think of good things to say about all of them. There's always a great atmosphere in the office and we get on well.

While not wanting to count my chickens before they hatch, I'm fairly confident that I'll be staying on once the probationary period is up (end of October). The thing I'm working on now is slated to go live around Christmas or the New Year, another section of the back-office software we use needs tidying up and revamping and I've been given that to do for around June next year, and some work involving Google Maps that needs starting next year some time has also been given to me. In short, it's piling up. I don't think they'd be giving me the work if there was much doubt that I was fit for the job. Of course, I'll have to avoid killing servers for a while now...

August 30, 2010

2010 Colne Blues Festival

So, having missed the two previous venues, I decided to attend the 2010 Colne Blues Festival over the bank holiday weekend. The idea was to turn up around lunchtime on Saturday, spend the afternoon and evening soaking in some music, stay overnight with a good friend who goes online by the name "Psychomania", grab a late breakfast in town and then head home on the 13:35 train back from Colne.

Of course, I had to take the wherewithall to snap a few photos while there... Yes, I know that many of them are of pretty poor quality, but there are also some cracking snapshots in there, one in particular that I entered into a photo competition :o)

Anyway, we met up with Mr. and Mrs. Psychomania and a mutual friend (who was starving and had started eating before everyone else. Way to go, Faye...) at the Wetherspoons in Colne. Having had a reasonable breakfast and wanting to sample some of the roadkill, err, sorry, roadside fare later on, I settled for a burger & beer deal, as did the Psychos, and Roy decided to go for a steak & kidney pudding and chips.

We decided to head down to the Crown Hotel shortly after 1pm to catch a Cumbrian band called "Feed Me" who were starting at 1:30. The pub was pretty crowded and it was difficult to get to the bar to be served. Once there, however, the service was great because there were enough staff manning the place. The only let-down, and this was general throughout the town, was the plastic glasses in which drinks were being served. It's just a precautionary measure to prevent trouble and injury when people get a bit tanked up. The band, although we didn't actually see it with our own eyes, seemed pretty good. We were round the corner so that the main crowd would sort of dampen the sound and let us hear something a lot better than they would...

The next place we stopped at was "The Venue" (used to be Colne Conservative Club, the Google street view photo is out of date), a bit further up, where a band called DC66 were playing. I don't want to make any enemies online or offline, so the less I say about this band the better.

Beating a hasty retreat from The Venue, we headed down to the sports centre where some great, young musicians, the Mitch Laddie Trio were on stage. At only something like 16 years of age, this is a young guitarist who is going to go far. I'm glad I heard him in the sports centre, where there was decent amplification so that you could hear all the instruments instead of just a distorted audio mess. This trio is one of the two acts that I would definitely come back to Colne next year to see.

Once Mitch had done his bit, the plan was next to get back to the Crown Hotel and listen to the Welsh T Band, who were kicking off at 5.30pm. Unfortunately, there were too many people in the pub by then and it was almost impossible to hear what they were playing. I have heard that they're supposed to be pretty good, it's just a pity that I didn't get to hear them myself. Apparently, the sound was much better in the beer garden at the Crown Hotel, but Roy and I were both getting a bit hungry again, so we headed out to get some more food. There's a Thai take-away van on the roadside, so I went for a green curry while Roy opted for the special chicken fried rice. Feeling greedy, we then went to the van next to the Thai one and I had a Cumberland sausage. Roy had a burger and onions. The others had caught us up by then and had a bit more to eat. I think we all pretty much stuffed ourselves that day...

The main reason we all gathered this weekend was to see a friend of ours play with the next act that was on at the sports centre. He was drumming for Cliff Stocker's Slack Alice. They're all fantastic musicians and Cliff Stocker has a distinctive, gravelly voice. My photo of Colin Redmond is the one I entered into the competition :o)

The other act that would definitely draw me back to next year's festival is Chantel McGregor. A lot of the music she plays is instrumental, and boy can she play that guitar! She can sing well too, and she's extremely self-effacing and modest with that. When the lights go on and she can see the crowd that has gathered to see her, she is genuinely astonished and humbled. I really like her style of playing and how she can get so much out of six strings, even when the place is riddled with technical problems, as it was this weekend. Definitely one to watch out for.

After Chantel had done her piece we started a leisurely walk back to the Psychos' house, stopping for a pizza en route. It was probably about midnight when we got back, thoroughly exhausted. But it was well worth it. I could kick myself for missing the 2008 and 2009 venues (I wasn't in the area for 2007 and earlier) and plan to attend 2011, especially if Mitch Laddie and Chantel McGregor are playing again!

August 07, 2010

New job!

It's a while since I put anything up on this blog, and for the past two months I've not really had time. Today, however, I can spend some time penning a few words about what's been going on of late.

I suppose the biggest story is the fact that I've just started a new job, which is something that not too many people can lay claim to in the current climate.

In June some time it became apparent that my current status of working self-employed was not going to be enough. Pay was not high at all and I had to expend ridiculous amounts of energy chasing up what little I could bill. All of that in the knowledge that bills might never be paid at all given that several people I worked for in France had me do work and then said "oh, by the way, I've gone out of business and can't pay you" when it was time to settle up.

Towards the end of June I grabbed the bull by the horns and started writing a CV. That weekend I asked my sister, who's very good at this sort of thing, to go through it. She gave me pointers for style etc. and on the Monday 21st I published it on monster.co.uk. Almost immediately I took it down again to add a few details, and it went back up on the 22nd. I also fired off about 6 or 8 applications to various recruitment agencies and firms with openings, with very little confidence, however, given that I have no formal training or qualifications in my field of work, "only" 8½ years experience doing it self-employed.

On the morning of Wednesday 23rd the unexpected happened. I had barely woken up and had my face buried in a bowl of cereal when the phone started ringing. The first one to call was a certain Fiona Campbell from IT Works Recruitment in Preston who wanted to know if I was still looking for work, said that she had a client looking for a web developer and asked if I was potentially interested in the job and would I like her to set up an interview? Well, errm... Yes please.

There followed several more calls from other recruiters of varying degrees of professionalism throughout the day. I think the battery in my phone was flattened in that one day of usage...

Anyway, Fiona got back to me (she was the one and only recruiter to do so, so kudos to her for that!) and confirmed that my answers to the various questions she asked me tied in with her client's expectations, and she set up an interview for me with "I Know UK" in Leyland on the following Monday, 28/06, at 11am.

I went along, nervous as hell, and met up with Michael Helm (manager) and Paul Maden (head of IT), who asked a few questions and set me a task to do on an isolated workstation. I had to use PHP to fish some data out of a MySQL database and then, in a second part, use AJAX to pull that data into a web page and populate a table with it, and then use event handlers to update the data on the page in response to clicks on parts of it.

The first part of the test was ridiculously easy, and yet I failed it because nerves got the better of me and I didn't see an error that was the kind of thing you'd expect someone new to PHP to do. I sincerely thought I'd blown it because of that but carried on anyway after Paul gave me the solution. I succeeded in getting the second part working using JSON despite having never worked with it and having to learn about it there and then. At about 1pm I left feeling a bit shaken up. Fiona called to find out how I felt about it and I told her that I wasn't 100% confident about it all.

A day or two later Fiona called again with the good news that Michael and Paul were interested in bringing me in for a second interview. Apparently, I was the only candidate so far to get the second part of the test working (and still am at the time of writing, I've since seen another candidate fail miserably), and the second part was the more important of the two. An interview was set up for the following Friday at 11am. I was told that it would go on for 40-60 minutes and that I should know that day if there was going to be a job offer. It went on for almost 3 hours and they wanted me back again on the following Monday (05/07). I was far more optimistic at this point in time merely because they did want me back. They weren't going to waste time tying up two members of staff grilling someone they weren't interested in, were they?

Meanwhile they asked me to cast a critical eye on their public sites and to suggest improvements on both the aesthetic and technical sides of things. That weekend I gave myself a crash course in jQuery and jQuery UI and produced a mock-up of what their regional, public sites could look like. Armed with that and with some suggestions from my brother-in-law, I went to the 3rd interview at 2.30pm. The interview went well and I felt I had clinched it. I spoke with Fiona, who said that the preliminary outcome was that there definitely was an offer on the table but that she had heard that from a colleague and wanted to get absolute confirmation from Michael herself before telling me to crack open a bottle of bubbly. I gave her the green light to accept any offer from a certain threshold upwards. By then I had also decided to walk from Centurion House to Chorley bus station (about 5 miles) to clear my mind a bit. About halfway there I received another call from Fiona, who gave me final confirmation that the job offer was there and that she'd accepted it on my behalf.

So, in the space of less than two weeks, I had not exactly found myself a job, rather the job had found me. All I had to do was put my CV up on a recruitment website and headhunters were banging the front door down. That is NOT what I expected. What I did expect to have to do was a part-time job stacking shelves in a supermarket. It seems that formal qualifications are not all they're cracked up to be after all.

It was agreed that I'd start work on Monday July 26th. That left me precisely 3 weeks, so I worked like stink that week until the Sunday, when I travelled down to Southampton to meet up with Chris. We stayed with some friends there and, on the Monday, travelled across to Folkestone to cross over to France via the Eurotunnel. I spent 2 days with him, then a week with my father (photos available here), nearly got stranded because of the French air traffic controllers' strike, but made it back by rail via the Eurostar on the Wednesday 21st.

That left me 4 days to rest and recover, and the following Monday was my first day on the job!

The day is rather long. I have to get up at 5.45am, shove some breakfast down my neck and be out by 6.25. There follows a one-mile walk to the bus stop and my bus leaves at 6.50. The journey takes just over an hour, including a 20-minute wait at Chorley bus station, and I get into work at 8.00 on the dot. I have to do 7½ hours a day and can take 30 minutes for lunch, so I can leave as early as 4.00pm, although my bus back home doesn't leave until 4.51, so in practice I do leave later than 4.00, but I do take a bit longer than 30 minutes for lunch sometimes. The trip back takes just about as long and I get home at 6pm give or take a few minutes. I did start by taking a packed lunch to work but decided that that wasn't enough to sustain me for the day. In fact, I even felt pretty awful on the first Wednesday there. Instead of that I usually eat at the canteen now. The food is made there and then, it's not expensive, it hits the spot and it keeps me going for the day. Remember, I have to wait 6 hours between breakfast and lunch unless I buy a snack at the bus station while waiting for my connection, and another 6 hours between lunch and tea. That's a long time to wait.

Having now worked two full weeks at I Know UK, I can say that things are going very well indeed. I started by going through some training exercises in order to become acquainted with the software that they developed in-house. I need to know it inside out because, ultimately, I'm going to be called upon to maintain it and the underlying database. Those training tasks took me until Monday evening this week. On Tuesday I started doing work on portions of the software that are going to go into production and be used by our staff and our clients.

That day I also received an interesting piece of news. There has been talk of allowing people who have stayed in hotels and other hospitality facilities owned by our clients to leave feedback about their stays. The details of the mechanics will be bashed out in a meeting a couple of weeks from now. It is, however, something that's been on the drawing board for a while now but has had to remain there through lack of personnel to cobble it together. The project has been assigned to yours truly. Barely a week after joining the company I have been assigned a project that could end up being a fairly high-profile feature of a client's listings on our sites...

Thursday morning I also had a bit of a surprise. We were visited by the Manchester Evening News. During their tour of the premises given by our MD, Marcus, they were shown into the software development office and introduced to the dev team, of which I am the latest member. He introduced our manager, Michael, by name and explained his role. Michael also said a few words, then Marcus introduced Paul by name. He also introduced me by name, saying that I had recently joined the team and that I was hired to be Paul's backup eventually. What surprised me was that he didn't introduce the rest of the team, i.e. the six other developers present in the office. Does this mean that I am slated to have a "rank" above the others, that I am to become the "deputy head of IT" in the long run? That's great if it does, far be it for me to complain about it! I'm just not entirely sure that this, errm..., minor detail was made clear when I went for the interviews.

All of this within two weeks of joining the company...

Anyway, all of this is very satisfactory.

The next priority is to save up for a second hand car. I will then be able to cut down travelling times by half and also drop Roy off at his workplace, which is en route to mine. Having driven one for a while with Chris in France, one model that I know quite well and certainly like is the Citroën C5. I'm looking at getting the 2.2 HDi VTR version. I can get one for under £3000. I'm looking regularly at this search on autotrader.co.uk to see what the market in these cars is like, and it seems active enough. People are buying them second hand, which is a good sign. A used car seller I know in Leeds has pointed out that these cars are cheap because they have a reputation for poor build quality, and while I respect his opinion and his knowledge of the business, I don't agree (sorry, Steve!). Having always driven Citroën cars for the past 11 years, including a C5, I have never had any issues with their build quality. On the contrary, I have always been rather impressed. But anyway, while I do like the idea of the C5, I'm certainly not against any other good deals that might crop up. A VW Passat, Vauhxall Vectra, Renault Laguna, Peugeot 406, Honda Accord, Toyota Avensis or even a Škoda Octavia or similar would be good (Škoda cars are no longer the joke they used to be).

The car is, however, a few months down the line. Time now to get my nose down to the grindstone and start saving up!

February 21, 2010

'Ello, 'ello, 'ello...

We had a bit of excitement this morning. Early this morning.

Around 5am I was woken up by an altercation next door. I was aware of it going on for maybe 5-10 minutes, but then I drifted off again.

At 6am we had Greater Manchester police knocking on the door gathering information because there had been what the officer called a “serious incident” next door. Roy went down and said that he'd not heard anything, which is to be expected if he's sleeping on his left side because he only has 40% hearing in his right ear. When he told me what the fuss was about I told him that, unlike him, I had heard noises an hour or so earlier.

I then phoned Greater Manchester police to volunteer this information and before long, the plod was knocking on the door again to take my statement.

The fact that the officer seemed very interested in knowing if I'd heard any bumps or smashes and that he referred to the events as a "serious incident" lead me to believe that someone may have been hurt. The occupant next door is, I believe, a single mother with two children aged 5 and 7. Did she break down and hurt one of her children? Did the father pay a surprise visit and get more than he bargained for, or dish out some tough love? I don't know. The police wouldn't say what had happened.

I'll have to keep an eye on the Bolton News.

Update: at around 3pm, forensics officers took away what looked like a bag of clothes. We know what they're usually looking for when they do that...

Update 21/03/2010: about 10.30 this morning I received a call from Bolton CID. DC Debbie Dixon wanted to come round and take an official statement from me that would be entered into the case for the forthcoming trial. We agreed that she'd come at 1pm that day.

While she was writing up the statement from the answers I'd provided, I quizzed her about what actually happened. She didn't want to give anything away that might interfere with the case, but I did find out that our neighbour had sent her two children away for the night and that it was her estranged partner (and father of the children) who assaulted her that morning at 5am.

Given that the man was already there at 5am and that the children had been sent away for the night, it is reasonable to assume that this was an attempt at reconciliation, which went very wrong.

The man is currently in custody awaiting the trial, which is slated to begin on August 16th at Manchester Crown Court and go on for 5 days. If the defendant pleads not guilty or if his account doesn't tally with details of my statement, then I might be called to give evidence in the witness box.

February 17, 2010

Why do people not think?

Have these people never heard of budget planning?

Imagine the following scenario. I'm sat at a table in a bar somewhere, and the bartender knows that he should pull a fresh pint and bring it to my table when I've finished the one I'm drinking. That is, unless he's been told that I didn't want any more. Now suppose that this system has been working for several years already without a hitch, but one day I go into the bar, drink as much as I want, but when the bartender brings me a fresh pint, I say “Thanks, but I've had all I want.”

What does the bartender do with the pint he just pulled for me while working under the assumption that I wanted another one? All he can do is pour it down the sink, which is a huge waste.

Webhosting is a similar situation. When I host a site and manage mail for a client, I have to pay the registrar for the year's domain registration in advance and I have to pay my own provider for webhosting in advance.

In order to avoid nasty surprises, I notify clients that their webhosting will soon be up for renewal 8 weeks and then again 4 weeks before the renewal date. I then send the bill 2 weeks before the renewal date. In both the reminders that are sent out before the bill, I ask the client to let me know if they don't intend to renew before the day I send out the bill.

Imagine my frustration, then, when a client who knows that he or she is no longer going to need my services sees the first notification, 8 weeks before the renewal date, and says nothing. The second notification, 4 weeks before the renewal date, goes by and they still say nothing. By this time I've already paid for the domain registration and and I've paid my own hosting bill. Only after I've sent the bill do they wake up and tell me that they've gone out of business and that they no longer need hosting.

Not one, but three clients have pulled this stunt on me in the space of a week. On top of that, there's another one I'm keeping an eye on, who I'm almost certain is going to stiff me the same way.

How am I supposed to do any form of budget planning in these conditions? Some of my equipment here is getting old and beginning to show it. I need to replace some of it and I was banking on some of this income to be able to do so. Obviously, there's no way I can spend the money before I have it and I don't have any credit facilities, so this means putting off the purchases. It also means that I'm out of my own pocket with the expenses I've already had. All I can do is pour the beer down the sink having pulled it for these clients. It's extremely annoying.

There's not a lot I can do about this so, really, I'm just ranting at how inconsiderate people can be. I'll just have to redouble my efforts and find new customers to replace those that I've already lost and probably will lose in the near future.

Grrrrrrrrr........

January 19, 2010

New blog

The reason for this entry is merely to inform you that I started another blog a few months ago. My new blog will be reserved for the more technical articles that I publish related to computers and telecommunication while this one will keep to more social issues.

I'm not going to move the technical articles already published here. They are linked to in several places, and asking everyone to update links on their sites is too much like hard work both for me and for them. So, the old articles will stay put.

New technical articles will be published over here from now on: