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Take That China!
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Give Me Your Voice
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My Way of Losing My Mind is Quite Constructive
I'm A Cilla Black Fan On Bike

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Tuesday, February 28

Post work
I left work at 6.30, having had a last-minute spurt of enthusiasm for something I was working on. To Tesco for some food (I went healthy in my choices), then home.

I use the word "home" guardedly. Home is where the heart is. My heart is not here in Farnborough. So, perhaps home is where your stuff is? My mother suggested that home is where you wash your underpants. In that case, the room in a shared house in Farnborough is home. I had a couple of loads of washing through various machines over the course of the day. I also ironed a bunch of shirts before I allowed myself to make something to eat.

Following food consumption, I retreated to my room to see whether I could find the floor - it was under the rubbish somewhere. After much moving of things, I found the floor. It needs vacuuming. I hung my pictures - they're not pictures, actually. They're clip-frames with either sheet music or programmes from some of my favoured musicals.

I sorted through some boxes and notepads. I played a new tune on my piano and whistled that tune from Mary Poppins that I mentioned earlier.

My girlfriend came online and we played an online game. After a time, I started updating my blog. My post of earlier today was prematurely published. So, if you read it and thought I'd missed the weekend out, then read back.

Then it got late and I falsely altered this post's time and date to make it come into the right day. Oh, how I deconstruct my own behaviour.

Late to rise
I woke up today at after 9.30. I didn't leave the house until 9.50.

I arrived on time for work.

Local living has its advantages.

Lunch at the house
I headed back to the house for lunchtime. It gave me a chance to do some washing and pick up my mobile phone which the early morning rush has caused me to leave behind. So, despite the fact that I drove into work, I still got a lunchtime walk. I also got to play on my piano for a bit, which is nice. Apparently, I've written a song in E flat. That's not like me at all. Still, that's the key it wants to be in.

Other songs
Despite panning Mary Poppins the stage musical back in December, I tried to listen to its soundtrack today again. I think one of the main indicators of a reasonable soundtrack is whether some of the songs surface in your head unbidden. There were one or two moments from the stage show which had come back to mind. I'd listened to the soundtrack once (maybe twice) before going to see the show and I didn't think of it much afterwards. However, at some point in January, the song "Anything can happen if you let it" along with "Cherry Tree Lane" came back to my head. Both songs are new to the show: the original Sherman brothers songs are still among the best songs written in their genre.

Having listened to the soundtrack again, it's fair to say that "Anything can happen..." has become my latest bit of ear-candy. It's a truly feel-good type of a song. I shall probably stop listening to it as quickly as possible, but for now, I've enjoyed sticking it on a loop. It builds and it has a nice core tune. That's probably all you need from a show tune. There are some lyrical stinkies:

If you reach for the stars
all you get are the stars
but we've found a whole new spin:
If you reach for the heavens,
you get the stars thrown in

That's a perfectly good line (or two) except for the fact that "whole new spin" is pretty unnatural. A smattering of:

Anything can happen. It's a marvel.
You can be a butterfly, or just stay larval

Somewhat adds to the silliness of the piece. Put in a chorus doing huge oohs and aahs and the song is trying a bit too hard. However, it's still pretty good. However, I should really buy the movie soundtrack - them Sherman brothers songs are just miles and miles better.

It's "those".

Monday, February 27

Early to work, early to leave
As my girlfriend had to leave early to get to uni, so I also left early. I arrived at work soon after 9am. That's quite a normal arrival time. The car journey had been eventless. Good!

I was to stay a couple of nights in Farnborough this time, rather than go back to my girlfriend's house. I think that the commuting has been driving me mad and I really had to sort out my stuff. So, this was to be an experiment in not clinging to anyone's apron strings. Not that anyone wears an apron.

Lessons from Newcastle
I may have moaned about various things that happened in my last job, but I learned quite a lot from the events of the last couple of years. Some of what I learned was how to deal with keeping builds working and how to keep a project in sync - and why they're both important.

I did a bit of stirring up today. I'm concerned about the time it takes to get a green light after making a change that affects the software we're making. The short answer is that it's not going to change hugely. D'oh. At least I knew the options. They were irrelevant.

It's worth pointing out that I'm pulling things I miss from Newcastle into my working life. I'm also doing things that I never got the chance to do in Newcastle. Without having proper experience of them, I'm inventing my own approaches and criteria. So far, the feedback is good. To all those back at my last place in Newcastle - you're a bunch of talented people with good ideas and you taught me a lot - I mean that to all of you, with a few exceptions (you don't know who you are).

A rearrangement night
After work, I got food and then spent the night holed up in my room. I moved things around and wired some of them into each other. It was fun.

Sunday, February 26

I slept into the afternoon on this bright Sunday. I couldn't help it. I was tired. So, I slept.

Email and TV
Waking up, I shunned breakfast in favour of sitting with my laptop in the sitting room, watching TV and catching up on emails. An evening meal approached at leisurely pace. When it arrived it was good.

Reading and bed
My girlfriend had some work to do for her course. I read my book as she did her work, with a cat lying purring on me from time to time.

Then it was time to sleep.

It was the best day ever!

Saturday, February 25

Picking up la voiture
I woke up early enough to pick up my car. After agonising over whether to get it fixed, I gave it the benefit of the considerable doubt and handed over the better part of £400 to the repair people. Vital work had been carried out on the brakes, some of which had been cooked by the fault which gave me burning smells and "some sort of mist" (my favourite description of the smoke-like emission from the front of my car - it was a burning brake pad).

The up side of the work that they carried out is that my car now runs pretty smoothly. They replaced a headlight (which I know is user-serviceable, but they might as well do it for me). The accelerator pedal was sticking first thing in the morning and now it doesn't stick. Overall, the car is a lot happier. I celebrated by filling it with petrol. Champagne doesn't make it run as well.

Box office blues
In search of something to do for the day/evening, I happened upon a listing for Stewart Lee, who was performing at The Arts Depot in Finchley. I had planned to try to get along to see Tim Vine perform his show a couple of days previously (13th Feb) but my luck was out then - though they'd had a few single tickets, they sold the show out completely.

I didn't want to be disappointed again, but feared that I would be. Stewart Lee is a superb comedian, and his show was bound to be sold out. I perservered through countless telephone messages saying that the box office was receiving outrageous traffic and couldn't answer my call - could I leave a message? I reasoned that that was a bad idea, given that they'd be too busy with calls to check the messages. So, I re-rang and re-rang. I'd have preferred an engaged tone to the message. Anyway, I eventually got through. I checked availability - they had plenty of tickets left and were not likely to sell out. I reckoned that I could chance a quick discussion with the girlfriend before booking.

That lack of being decisive on my part cost me another 30 minutes of ringing and re-ringing. Idiot! Anyway, I got my tickets booked and we were due in London by the evening to see the show.

Finding the venue
We set off to park near the venue. We would be due there near lunchtime and could have a day out in London before going to the show. It seemed like a good plan. The venue was tricky to find. We had to ring the venue again for directions. The problem arose as the sat nav processed the address and put us at the end of the street where that address can be found. However, the address has another meaning - go to the other end of the street and find a huge block of flats and go into it. Weird. From observations we made when we saw him hurrying to the venue and what he said on stage, Stewart Lee found himself in a similar position.

Anyway, spotting the act rushing to the venue was still a few hours ahead. We had an afternoon out to enjoy.

House of Ignoramuses
After a tube ride into town, we had a wander along Oxford Street. Lunch seemed a wise thing to try to get. I suggested we go to the cafe inside House of Fraser. I regret this suggestion. It introduced us to a world of hurt. After a lot of time ascending between the traditional department store floors on the escalator (I only mention the traditional aspect of it as I got a sense that that building has looked that that for a very long time), we found a cafe where you wait to be seating. We waited. Other people were not waiting - they seated themselves. After waiting and being ignored (and I'm not unnoticeable), we decided to join the throng of self-seaters. We were halted by a member of staff - now they see us! Then we were seated at a table in the corner.

Then we were ignored for about 10 minutes.

At one stage I summoned a waiter over. He explained that it was not his section and that somene would be along shortly. I asked how long it might take to get lunch. He assured me that there was no problem.

Indeed, there may have been no problem in a world where you can be ignored by staff for the better part of 15 minutes when you want food. The service industry is impoverished enough as it is without this happening in premium-rate cafes. I was prepared to buy us lunch at a premium price for what it was (a couple of sandwiches).

As it was, we left without paying. Don't worry. To put it more clearly, we left without paying, eating, being served or ever wanting to go back to that bunch of slackers. We even took the lift down to avoid the repeated escalator changing.

After getting lunch from Boots, we sat in a corner of the Trocadero where people don't normally sit and ate our sandwiches, bought at a fraction of the price of the cafe we'd left.

Then we went and played on the machines. There's a quiz game which we mastered and won enough tokens on to enable us to "purchase" something of vague value.

Mr Lee
Returning to the arts depot, we picked up tickets, had a pre-show coffee/coke, and then sat down to enjoy the low-key but powerful rhetoric of one of my comedy heroes. It was a lesson. I learned that even the sorts of things that countless comedians can say to a flagging audience can sound fresh. I learned that to be shocking, you don't have to be in-your-face. I learned that to be intelligent, you don't have to be obscure and unapproachable. Overall, I learned that I was right to like Stewart Lee before most people in the audience had heard of him.

Having enjoyed the show, there was a trip home, via a Nandos for some take-out chicken. Nandos gets a lot of my food budget these days.

Friday, February 24

We're jammin'
So, it's my 32nd birthday and I've chosen to spend an extra 20 minutes in bed. The plan was to collect my car from the repairers and return their loan-car, the fun but cramped Micra. I'm not running incredibly to time and we've got a meeting planned for about 9 seconds after I reckon I'm going to arrive at the office - 10am.

I drive the route that my sat-nav recommends to the dealers. It tells me to turn left, the road is a no-left turn. I turn right (there being no straight on). The sat-nav then plots me a route which does not involve turning back. Good, think I, there's traffic on the route back, and this new route seems to involve some dual carriageways. Smashing.

Then, rounding a bend to join the M4, time being tight, I nearly hit a line of standing traffic. The Micra's brakes manage to bring me to a halt. Over the next 10 or so minutes, I watch my arrival time (on the sat nav) increase. I decide that there's no way I can pick up the car. I ring the garage to let them know I'll be along the following day. That's fine. You shouldn't use a mobile while in a moving vehicle... no problem on that count.

I replot my journey to the office. That's not helping much. I'm still stuck in plenty of stationary traffic. No movement for minutes. Then we move a bit. Very slowly. Then nothing. I'd like to think that I was one of the people who invented the practical alternative to ringing in sick - ringing in late. I rang my team mates. The person I spoke to was understanding and suitably aware of the irony of my missing the meeting I'd suggested we start having. So, he agreed to reschedule this meeting for my actual arrival, whenever it was.

Overall, my journey took 2 hours. I was into the office desperately late. Given that the office is full of commuters and traffic does, sometimes, happen. People were generally understanding. Most understanding was a colleague, who arrived nearly an hour later, who had been in the same traffic jam. Her bonus DVD extra was that her car burst a fuel pipe during the jam. A passing motorist rigged something up for her.

Stand-up Frustration
So, this meeting. It was a stand-up meeting. You can take the developer out of the Agile team, but you can't...

It's strange the things you miss. The daily meeting turns out to be quite important to me. So, I explained the reasons why I felt I needed one, and we're now trying it out. I think it could work. In case anyone is reading this and hasn't heard of stand-up meetings, here is my take on what we're doing and why.

Why? - Keep everyone informed of what's going on. Make sure people get the help they need. Shorten the time between delivering news and deliver it incrementally within the team. We also have a second team who we're working alongside. So, we need a protocol for exchanging updates and problems.

What? - The daily interesting news is. What did I do last? What are my obstacles/puzzles/problems? What will I do next?

How? - We're actually doing a stand-up at the start of the day and a hand-over report in the same format at the end of the day. The hand-over report is by email and we receive a hand-over before our stand-up. We have encouraged the other team to do a stand-up too.

Stand-up - It's not a comedy thing in this case. Basically, you have a meeting where all the participants attend and do not sit down. The standing is supposed to encourage people not to drag the meeting out. We all stand in a circle and go round answering the three questions above. If this prompts need for discussion, that should happen outside the meeting. It is good to need to discuss. It is not good to drag out the stand-up. At the end of this session, we come out knowing more than we did about what people are up to, what problems are ongoing, and what we're all planning to do for the day.

The frustrations came from the rest of the day. I didn't really get my teeth into anything and I couldn't really call anything complete. I was working on some bitty tasks and I wasn't feeling particularly cheerful. Still, things were looking good for communication.

Food and fun
Back at my girlfriend's place, there was food and a couple of birthday cards to open. A good combination. I relaxed, a tricky week over. I could have done without much of the day's trials, but things were looking up.

Lucky number Slevin
Indeed looking up was the order of the evening. We decided to try to catch a showing of Lucky number Slevin at the local movie house. Though we arrived after the billed show-time on the day of this movie's release, we managed to strike it lucky and get tickets and get into seats before the actual movie started. The bad news was that we were quite close to the front. However, looking up at a big screen is not all that bad a thing to do and the movie was truly excellent.

One of the highlights of this particular showing for me was the fact that it was a funny movie (it's not a comedy, but some of it is very very funny) and the audience in the cinema felt that they could laugh out loud. I've not been in a cinema with people laughing heartily in recent memory. As a comedian, the sound of laughter is a like a joyful shower. I've been keen to find an opportunity to see a movie with laughs in it to see how it compares to the sound of a live comedy audience. Now I've been in a live laughing movie audience. A good way to end a birthday.

32. Shit.

So, I'm bored and Google-ing myself and I found this site, which appears to be quoting a haiku I wrote a few years ago. It's still true for me today:

My admiration
makes my own feeble efforts
seem barely worthwhile

Ashley Frieze: 30 January 2001

Wednesday, February 22

Camera fun
This is a cracker of a story about a lost camera. It was found by some good samaritans who left their details for the owner... and then decided to keep the camera for their 9 year old son.

Car news
Well, I've decided to spend the money on my car. Brakes to be sorted out and new HT leads which should help the running. Whether it will burn oil anymore is anyone's guess!

Tuesday, February 21

Agility vs Indecision
I remember a low point in my previous leadership experience. I was in an awkward position. I had to lead someone who
  • Didn't want to be lead
  • Couldn't lead themselves
  • Couldn't really do their job
  • Didn't respect me
  • Didn't understand much of what was going on around them
I had to apply management impetus (pressure?) at a much lower level than I like to. At high points in my leadership experience, I've had a team of people whom I trust, like, and can ask to do something high, medium or low-level and they'll just do it. I quite like taking some control over fine details, but I don't like to have to do that. Anyway, back to the problem. I'm having to intensively drag this person along the path to achieving something. I would give a task, get the results, not like, them, make suggestions for change, not like the results of that, and so on. On top of all of that there was huge uncertainty in my own mind about the required direction. In truth, I got a different answer from management every time I asked. I did my best to keep my underling pointed in what I believed to be the right direction, but I was constantly having to stop, bin most of what we'd done and start again. This was frustrating for me, so I imagine that it must have been almost crushing to the person I was leading. I was doing my best to keep them happy and focused, but it was a losing battle.

I complained to my management, but it did little to help. I likened the feeling to that of an indecisive scout leader with a gang of scouts following them on some sort of walking trail. It would be like this:

Come on kids. It's this way. Hurry up. Right, just over the brow of this hill... wait. Sorry, it's this way. Come on. Hurry up. There we go. Just round this corn... ah... right, back the way we came. Come on slow-coaches, here we go. Past the farm, there should be a barn... let's try this other farm...

And so on. Not very encouraging. The leader develops a healthy lack of credibility and the gang of scouts come to hate every move along the way.

Now, that's what happens when you dither about with your underlings. It's no good. However, you have to face the possibility that you don't really know what you should do, where you should go, or how things should be done. So, there is the more agile approach, which is to say that we'll do this thing, then see where we are, then decide what to do next and so on. This can actually work. It's a bit like the way that they assemble odd contraptions on Scrapheap Challenge. They envision what they need, start to build its infrastructure and keep in touch with what's going on along the way. If they hit any problems, they do what they can to change direction - subtley, or in a worse-case-scenario, grandly. Then, they deliver.

Naturally, we do this when doing a series of tasks alone under some sort of pressure. Or at least, I think we do. I certainly do. You do the best you can. You adjust your expectations for when things don't work and you try to get things actually done. So, I realised that I couldn't pack up all my books and put them in the loft, so I put them all on the one shelf, taking out the few I wanted to take away with me. I realised that I couldn't completely empty my garage, so I left it in a reasonable state, but not the one I planned. And so on.

Along the way, I had a series of successes. I didn't just dither. My requirements and my understanding of the problems changed as I went along. Had next-door had a fire during my garage packing, I would have gone next door and helped them put it out. I would have understood why I was doing that.

I've gotten lost a bit. What I'm saying is that one can embrace change while doing something, without dithering. You have to focus on delivery, though. The scout-leader above might have had a better trip with his scouts if he'd said something like this:

Okay gang, we're going to look for the treasure. Now, I know it's near a farm with a barn. We're going to first investigate a series of destinations until we find it. The first destination is just over the brow of that hill. Let's all go there and see what we find...

In the second scenario, the gang wouldn't feel messed about with the changes of direction. They would actually be achieving a series of goals - reaching each investigation point. So they would, at least, get the sense of closure that the dithering pack didn't get.

In production?
Ah yes. Where am I going with this as far as production is concerned? Well, let's move the scenario to a group of people trying to cure diseases. These people are probably producing a series of drugs for a series of diseases. They can't realistically work on them all at the same time, so should focus their efforts on one or two.

So, they start work on a few drugs and should be aiming to get testable drugs quite often - they need to track the progress of their research. They may not cure anything, but at least they should get many intermediate waypoints so see how they're doing. Meanwhile, during their work, a particular disease might become more urgent. So, they might need to change direction. When should they do it? Should they all just stop and move to something else?

Here's where you might think that they should just stop, turn on their heels and jump onto the biggest problem. I don't think that that will ever work. If they do that in such a way as they don't complete anything ever (or over any mid-term period) then they're not actually achieving anything, nor are they getting any sense of satisfaction. So, my feeling is that a team working to cure a disease should, at least, continue until they find a drug that makes life measurably better for that disease. They might not cure it first time, but they should still make their drug available (to testing and FDA approval etc) once they have something. This gives them a moment of closure and a chance to take stock.

If, during the development process, some other disease becomes a huge issue, there are three ways of looking at it:
  • We can look at it in due course as we're going to reach an interim way-point soon
  • Oh my god - this is a global emergency, all hands on deck
  • This is important, let me get some people to volunteer to leave the one team to join the other
I don't believe that you can afford to stop work on problems you've started solving unless those problems turn out to be intractable (in which case, don't throw good money after bad). You need to release inventory, or it's all been a waste of time. So, unless it's a huge global emergency, don't stop the team. The alternative suggestion of increasing production capacity on another problem with volunteers makes a lot of sense (see below). The idea that we can start work on something else at a natural interim way-point is the most attractive.

We can make the interim way-point thing even more attractive by scheduling many of these way-points in our project plan and making them worthwhile way-points. Each way-point, in my drug analogy, will be a non-poisonous pill-shaped (or whatever) commodity which gives improved performance over anything we made so far (by some sort of amount, though perhaps not as much as we ultimately aim to achieve).

People work best when they think that they've chosen to work in that way and they're rewarded. Reward should come in two forms. Firstly people want recognition for what they've achieved. Secondly, people want money. Money is secondary, because a shit job is still a shit job, even if you're paid a lot to do it. Reward in terms of praise is the most beneficial - it contributes to satisfaction, self-esteem and motivates further work. Money reward comes into praise too. If someone sees that they're paid less than someone else, it suggests that there's less confidence in their abilities than that other person. If they think that their pay is especially low, then they feel like they're not necessarily worth as much as they would like, or that they're not necessarily thought to be worth as much as they should be. Finally, if someone is actually unable to lead the lifestyle that they aspire to, or has to spend their out-of-work time scraping money together, then it can have a negative effect on their sense of achievement in life.

If someone is in a job which cannot afford to pay them much, then they should at least feel that they're doing well, which is where praise-reward comes in. Even if someone can be paid a lot, good praise/reward/leadership can mean the world.

My last recent experience of management was in a voluntary organisation. There, nobody was paid. My role came down more to being a consistent voice of leadership, asking people to do things, balancing a series of ongoing requirements, all of which were important, some of which were temporarily more urgent. People had to opt-in to everything we needed of them. I refused to give commands, I asked for everything. As a result, the team self-organised around the problem. I constantly polled them for feedback and gave them praise. My team worked well.

Summarise that!?
So, in summary.
  • Don't mess people about.
  • Don't shit on them from a height.
  • Be reasonable about changing direction.
  • Give people their success.
  • Involve people in the uncertainties if there are some.
  • Try to have a plan.
  • Try to give them consistent leadership.
  • Don't stop people mid-flow.
  • Give people nearby waypoints if there's a chance of change.
  • Make the waypoints have a sense of closure about them.
  • Treat people with respect.
  • A voluntary force always get more satisfaction - so get people to choose their own fate.
Above all, remember that respect is hard won and easily lost.

Well, I got up this morning sometime between 7 and 8. I don't like setting the alarm too near to 7am. I certainly don't like setting it for before 7, as I had to last week in order to catch the train to London for my course. Anyway, I managed to raise myself out of bed quickly enough to drive across Reading to the Mazda specialist garage. If I'm honest, I'm a bit worried about their hourly rate - it's quite high. However, the fact that they had a yard full of Mazdas and a 25 year history of working on that brand gave me some sort of confidence that if anyone knew why my car was misbehaving, it would be them.

They even had a cross-sectioned rotary engine sitting on the desk as I reached reception.

I don't know if it's more normal in this part of the world, but these guys were the second localish garage to offer me a courtesy car while mine was being looked at. The other garage is the one who will be fixing my crash damage next month. Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that a lot of people in this part of the world commute some distance to work and have no use of public transport. Perhaps not? Anyway, after filling in a form, I became the proud temporary driver of a Nissan Micra. Woohoo! It's M-reg, has done 103,000 miles and has a 1.3 litre engine. It's small. It's very small.

The person who was dealing with me probably had a few loan cars to choose from. He appeared to be deliberating over which one to loan me. When I asked him what the problem was, he said "I'm just wondering whether to loan you the Micra". I immediately pointed out that, though the Micra is not a car I would ever particularly want to be associated with, my other experience of driving one was entirely positive. I reckoned it would be worth a go.

I hadn't factored in my aching body. While I'd woken yesterday feeling slightly sluggish, after a weekend's heavy lifting, the aches had worn off over the course of the day. I forgot that it's often a full 24 hour gap that's needed to get the full effect of physical straining. So, I got the post-lifting pain this morning. Cramming myself into a Micra was possibly the best way to exaggerate it. However, I was determined to make this wee car the drive of my life.

I should compare the car to others I've driven recently, which are:
  • My own, knackered, car - Mazda 626
  • A hire van - Peugot Expert, Diesel
  • My girlfriend's - Peugot 306
How did the Micra do? Well, it was probably the most fun of them all. It felt like it was blasting along. Being a small car, it had a high impression of speed at under 40 mph. However, it ran really well and felt like it was going when I put my foot down. My girlfriend's car felt fine, the van felt sluggish, my own car has issues, and this Micra simply felt like a bit of fun. That's a nice drive in my book.

The radio didn't work.

My Sat Nav was my only company - that and my own thoughts. I drove to my house in Farnborough.

A change is as good as a rest
I'm the sort of idiot who forgets to pick up a change of clothes. I dropped into my room in Farnborough to pick up a change of clothes for tomorrow and to change my underwear. Yuck. Then I went to work.

Failing to build
I may as well not have bothered going to work. My computer there is not working properly. Things changed enough during my absence last week that my computer wasn't properly up to date. Sadly, after yesterday's tinkering, things just still were not working. Then after this morning's tinkering, nothing felt like it had really progressed anywhere! Very very frustrating!

I took lunch more as a way of escaping the confines of my desk, where I had achieved sweet FA in the last day and a half's employment. On the up side, I still get paid. On the down side, I've no idea how I'm going to be able to do anything useful/interesting in the next few days unless I get things sorted. I've not given up. I needed a break though.

Hail to the grief
Lunch was a baked potato. I've not mentioned the contents of my lunch in a while on this blog, so I thought I'd release that fascinating fact. A baked potato with tuna and sweetcorn and a side salad. It wasn't a huge potato. The tuna wasn't in huge quantity. The woman who served me used tongs to administer the tuna mix. I've never seen that done before. Innovative.

Then, on returning to the office for another afternoon's frustration, I was hailed upon. Just briefly. My only thought was - ah well, at least it won't soak in.

I rang the garage to find out what's going on with my car. I always think of it as a bit of a battle of nerves when I take a car into the garage. I don't want to call them before they call me. If I do that, it feels like I'm being pushy. However, if I don't, then they may be waiting for me to approve some work and may not be able to get the car back to me in time, or may declare it ready at a time of day when it is too late for me to return to the garage to pick the car up. Given that I current have one of their cars, it's even more important that I didn't mess things up. So, I rang up to find out what was going wrong. Given that they're charging for their "investigation time" by the hour, I reckoned that they'd probably done the one hour that I'd agreed to pay for.

Apparently, the reason that my car isn't running well and is making a burning smell is because half the brakes are jammed on. They're jammed on on the passenger's side. I guess that would account for much of the problem. They mentioned a bunch of components that were to blame. Some of these components were recently replaced - some of them were replaced at my expense. I'm not best pleased. The running of the car is still a problem, but the constant braking can't be helping. They're going to look into it some more.

The good news is that I get to keep the Micra overnight.

The bad news is that my car may be expensively broken.

I've considered the possibility of asking my insurance company to go for a write-off on the car and calling it quits. If there's £1000+ worth of damage to the car then it might actually be cheaper for me to get £1000 from the insurance, write the car off and buy another one. I like Mazda and I don't think my car is a typical example of that sort of car. But, if there's more than a few hundred pounds' worth of repairs, then I might be better off taking the money, paying another £1400 on top and getting a newer car.

Sad isn't it? I only got the car in September. Since then I've spent a fair bit on it, had 20,000 miles out of it and now feel like getting rid.

We'll see. Mr Mazda in Reading may be able to rescue it for me.

Getting grumpy
So, my car's screwed, my computer's configuration is screwed (and every step to repair it seems to take forever), I ache all over, I'm tired and feeling overweight.

So, I'm not in the best of moods today. I'm also getting grumpy with the people around me. I think I'm managing to keep my grumpiness in check as a sort of deliberately calm voiced objection to my problems, but I'm not impressed with my state of mind. I need to return to being a joyous love-bunny.

Other people's grief
I'm not the only person in the world of computers who is having grief. Other people are suffering too. People don't like to be messed about. In some ways, my problems come down to feeling messed about. The car should work, but is refusing to behave, despite the effort put in. Also the computer stuff should be simpler than it is. When you invest time in something, you expect that thing to play ball and reach a state of success. If the problems arise because things are just harder than you thought, then fair enough. If, however, problems arise through other people making life difficult (poor mechanics, perhaps, or an overly complicated build process) then it's not nice.

Some friends of mine found themselves in a situation where it's the being-messed-about-factor that's the biggest threat to their wellbeing and chances of any sort of success. Oddly, though, there's huge value in being able to react quickly. There's an important lesson to be learned about the difference between being able to turn on your heels and just fannying about. I'll try to summarise my thoughts on this. See the next post.

Monday, February 20

Wake up call
Having had an action packed weekend, I really needed a lie-in to sleep it all off. However, that's not how life works. In my view, no sooner had I fallen asleep than the alarm was going off. In reality, some 5 and a half hours had gone past (people who get 8+ hours sleep, you are SO lucky!).

I was exceedingly slow and sluggish getting up, but get up I did. And, to avoid dragging out the story, I shall let it be known that I wasn't late for work.

Bumbling to work
The drive from Reading to my office in Farnborough can be a stressful one. Usually it an array of sluggish commuters who cause the stress. Today, the stress was caused by the performance of the car. On Friday afternoon, I'd spotted a Mazda specialist garage advertised at the railway station. I rang them and arranged for the car to go in for inspection/fixing on Wednesday. However, the car is not a happy car and it was making this clear during the journey today.

I'm not sure which I enjoyed least - the dodgy running, or the curious smell of burning that may or may not have been emanating from my car.

Parking the car, I couldn't help but notice some sort of whitish mist emerging from the bonnet, accompanying the smell of burning. Great. My car's on fire. Well, it wasn't. I opened the bonnet to look. No apparent signs of fire. However, the car is not happy and there are still a couple of days before it gets to go into the service place. This may be down to wear and tear, or maybe the car was abused by its previous owner. Alternatively, the garage I used, from the end of my street in Farnborough, are a pair of cowboys who have broken my car. I'm not putting good money after bad by having them look at it again - not until I've established what's wrong now and whether they could have caused it.

What do we organise?
Adults tend to have a bunch of things to organise in their lives. Bills, mainly. My bills seem to come from rental of things - mobile, telephone (no longer), cable/broadband (I'm now paying a little toward someone else's at my shared house), mortgage/gas/electricity/water/TV licence/insurance (all now part of my being a landlord and I don't personally see the benefits of them), car (knackered).

In some ways, I feel a bit like I'm going backwards. On the one hand, I've moved towards being a landlord, with a whole bunch of responsibilities. On the other hand, I don't live in my own home anymore. This is probably a big deal, considering I had 7 years of that. I don't really live in the home I rent either. I don't know why that is. Whatever used to be my sense of normality pretty much disappeared when I resigned from my last job.

I don't think I have regrets about anything that happened since mid-November of last year. However, I am still adjusting. A broken car and a room, in which I don't live, currently in a huge mess full of packing boxes... well, they're not adding to my sense of stability. Note to self: try to get it all sorted out before turning 33 in Feb 2007!

Sunday, February 19

Late to bed, early to rise
Despite my exhausting late night, I managed to get into the shower by 8.30. I think the weight of what was still to do was playing on my mind. So, I had my last shower at my house as its owner/occupier. Sounds a bit final. Then, after a few swigs of diet coke, I set to work. I didn't get anything to eat for some time after that. Probably not sensible.

Running round the house
I needed to have completed rooms. Loads of incomplete rooms were not going to do anybody any good. Stripping the bed and putting some odds and ends in the drawers of the two bedside units I was taking away with me gave me a complete bedroom.

Emptying the airing cupboard and medicine cabinet gave me a complete bathroom.

Rescuing some things from the kitchen gave me a complete one of those. The utility room had also been done.

The front room needed its DVD stripping and then it was done. I'm leaving it furnished and with TV.

And so, I kept going like this. My big black spots became the back bedroom - a bunch of clothes that needed sorting, the study - a shed-load of paperwork and books that needed sorting, the cloakroom (some coats - actually less of a problem than I thought).

Just as I was flagging, came the mid-morning delivery.

The cavalry - filled the loft
The other two tenants arrived to check the place out. After an inspection, they set about helping me. I had a bunch of boxes ready to go up into the loft. So, as I frantically sorted through cupboards, books and paperwork, they started to load things up into the loft.

I had run out of boxes for books that I wanted to keep but didn't want to take away with me. They proposed a cool solution. There are loads of shelves in the study - they reckoned that my books would be a welcome addition to these shelves. On loan to act as shelf-filler/something to read. If I want them back, they're mine, and if they turn out to get in the way, then they can be boxed and lofted. That probably saved me an hour or so. Well, either that, or it saved the effort of trying to find cardboard boxes on a Sunday.

Still, the books weren't the principal problem. I didn't want to lose any important paperwork, but I didn't have a huge box to just dump everything into. So, I had to sort through all the papers quickly and select what I needed.

I wasted some of the guys' time, though they seemed not to be too put out. I was the slow-link in our production line. However, I wanted to take enough control over what we were doing to be able to make sure that I knew where everything would be once they'd left.

They were able to sort out the loading of the bikes into the van and help me with the piano.

The piano - part 1
The piano is quite heavy. Its an electric piano with weighted keys. As a result, the actual electric piano bit (a keyboard unit with a wooden-effect box on it) is pretty heavy. The base is large and not light. Two of us made a fairly challenging job of getting the piano into the van. The piano was so heavy that it had to go on the floor of the van. It was also so large that it took up a fair bit of floor space. I was worried about fitting the boxes and bedside tables into the van. I didn't want to put anything on top of the piano as it was coming out first. Also, I didn't like the idea of any weight on top of it - it wasn't build as the foundations for a stack of stuff.

The piano was covered in a dust sheet and laid on top of a carpet in the van. The carpet was an offcut from the huge piece I used as the set of The Musical! - a lot of the rest of the stuff from that show was preserved in some way too. The more portable piano I bought from that is now in Farnborough, as would be the bass guitar shortly. Other props, including "Mildred", the styrofoam head and wif, were in the bin. "That dress" went into the bin too. The bookshelf, painstakingly made with piano hinges, went into the skip.

Anyway, the piano was going to provide me with some cause for concern, as I was due to arrive at my sister's house to leave it there while everyone was out. I want the piano to be looked after. Storing it in the loft or my garage wasn't an option. More importantly, I wanted my sister and her new daughter to have home-made music to look forward to. It was clear that sis wasn't going to sort herself out with a piano anytime soon, so I got to force the issue with the combined loan/storage agreement.

The cavalry leave - still stuff to do
With the lads gone, there was finishing off stuff to do. The van had yet to be packed with everything except the piano/bikes. I'd chosen to pack it myself so that I knew how it came apart for unpacking. Plus, I could have nobody to blame except myself if something fell, knocked into something else or otherwise caused breakage.

I tackled the loose ends with urgency and managed to get the van packed. It was with deep regret that I ended up having to pack things on top of the piano. Then I started to panic as the pile of boxes never seemed to get any smaller in the house, despite the fact that I had run out of spaces (not space - the volume of the van was fine - this was a tesselation issue) to put things. I just kept going and created a reasonable set of inter-balanced items.

I think the big lesson I've learved is to use boxes bigger than their contents which are definitely stackable or are sealed in cuboids. I hadn't done that. So nothing appeared to want to go on top of anything else. This was a problem.

Clean up
I'm leaving my trusty Dyson for the guys. I couldn't resist one last run through the house with it. I wasn't desperately thorough, but the place was in reasonable condition when I'd finished. I think I did that because people sometimes do clean up a house before leaving it (some sort of instinct there) and because it was partly a sense of responsibility on my part for taking away some of the mess I'd made. I had a skip full of stuff and 15 blag bags on the drive to bear witness to my sense of clearing up my own mess. I think I also did it because there's a sort of "broken windows" effect. If the place was a huge mess when the guys moved in, then it would seem less noticeable if they contributed to that mess.

Hopefully, I've left something of a good template for them to follow. Be messy, but hoover once in a while.

Driving south
So, onto the motorways again. I had to stop for food, well Burger King, at Scotch Corner. It was 4.30 and I was tired and very very hungry. It was not a pleasant experience. The food was badly cooked and there were some unpleasant chavvy-types in there.

The journey wasn't as relaxing as the previous day's. The roads were busier, the van was fuller and more sluggish and the start-stop traffic was challenging its brakes, and also the balance of the stuff precariously stacked in the back. I had to work harder to keep it all under control. Time was also running through my fingers, like sand over the toes of a camel in the Sahara (sorry - just trying to spice up the boring text).

The piano - part 2: One man and his piano
I got to my sister's nearer to 10pm than I would have liked. I had hoped to be there nearer to 5pm in the original plan!

I picked up her keys and went in to have a look at what I had to do. I simply had to get the piano in the front door, through the lounge and into the dining room, without dirtying the brand-new-newly-fitted-carpet, or chipping the freshly painted walls. No pressure, then.

I had to first unpack the van. My original plan of dumping the stuff in her hallway seemed a bad idea. It was wet outside (not raining, thankfully) and all the traipsing in and out was going to create a muddy footprint somewhere. So, I lay a dust-sheet on her driveway (I'd come prepared) and unloaded all my on-the-top-of-the-piano stuff on top of that (in front of the van, so not in easy sight of many passers by). Some precious items went into the driver's seat of the van. I didn't get chance to lock it, though. But they were comfortable, at least.

Then, I tried to remove the base of the piano. I managed to swing it out of the van single-handed. This encouraged me. A lot of what was required here was balance. Balance and grip.

The base went into the house no problem. The stool was a doddle. The suitcase of lego (which had been ours as children and which my neice will grow to enjoy before I get the chance to have children who will want to steal it from her) barely even registered on the scale of difficulty.

Then came the main part of the piano. I'd been given the address of a neighbour who knows my sister and might be prepared and able-bodied enough to help. I thought that I'd see if I could do the job alone. Balance again proved the key. I managed to get the piano into the house where I rested it on the hallway mat. Somehow I managed to get it from there into the dining room and onto its stand in a matter of a further 2 minutes. You don't know high pressure until you have tried to wipe your feet while swinging a piano round a corner in someone else's house.

Still, job done, I had time to play one little bit of tune - the one which had been going round my head since 12th Feb (on and off - one of my own creations) - and then I was into the van.

Oh yeah, I remembered to lock up, return the keys and repack the van. I'd been there about 30 minutes in total. Not bad.

Running late - the North Circular's solution - Virgin FM
I set the Sat Nav for Farnborough and braved London's roads. The North Circular was reduced to 1 lane from 3, causing a huge tailback. The reason for this was some maintenance or other - the guys supposedly doing this maintenance were just standing around chatting. Clearly no respect for the fact that constricting a road is akin to strangling someone. If you have to strangle me, do it quickly so I don't die!

Anyway, my mood was descending, so I radio channel hopped and found Virgin FM. It was playing nothing less than fantastic tunes. I sang alond and avoided caring for a bit. It helped a lot.

Unloading in Farnborough - on the quiet
I spent about 45 minutes emptying the van in Farnborough. This process was further complicated when one of my flatmates admonished me to do it quietly as it was late and some people might want to sleep. In some ways I understood, but in others, I was in a spot - it had to be done and he could have simply offered to help, rather than make it harder. Still, it was my problem. As was the fact that each trip up the stairs was getting harder.

No steam left
Somehow I kept it all going. I was getting very weary and light headed. I'd been up for a long time and done a lot of heavy lifting. You can tell by the length of this post and the one from yesterday that I'd done tons. I'm summarising what I did and there's loads to say.

I only stayed in Farnborough long enough to get clothes together for the following day and set out for the van hire place. I had to return the van before 8am the following day. There was no chance I'd wake before 8am the following day, so returning it late at night was a good move.

Back at the yard - losing it at the last minute
I had my girlfriend's bike in the van, due to be returned to her in Reading. So, I drove to the van place, moved my car, discovered that it felt jet-propelled compared to the van (that was to be short-lived) and then transferred my stuff and the bike into my car.

I was nearly there. Just need to return the key into the slot. Where is the key? NO, NOT NOW? Did I put it in the pocket with a hole in? Oh god!

I'd thrown it into the boot of my car, absent mindedly! Idiot!

So, I filled out the form, which gave me a chance to report the odd flickering of the battery light on the van during cruising on the motorway (dodgy alternator, perhaps). Then, I dropped form and key off and headed to Reading to spend the night.

Reading, bedding and exhaustion
I needed cleaning and a trip to the facilities. I needed sleep. All of these were found in the relative sanctity of my girlfriend's place in Reading. I was exhausted, but managed to stay up for a bit with my girlfriend.

One year on
Despite the fact that I'd spent the weekend swanning around Newcastle and tearing my muscles to shreds lifting heavy things, this weekend commemorated the anniversary of the start of my relationship with my girlfriend - or at least our first date. It's been a hell of a year!

Saturday, February 18

Ah, the night before
Last night, I came back from London early. The course had pretty much fizzled out, so I took an early train. I arrived in Reading before my girlfriend, who was on her way back from Southampton (it's complicated). As such, I managed to spend some time hanging around the railway station - I noticed an advert for a local Madza repair specialist and contacted them, as I reckoned they may be able to make some sense of my poorly-running car.

After being picked up, we all went out for something to eat. A good meal can make a big difference. It was a reasonable meal, so it made a reasonable difference. An early evening out, was followed by a night in, in which we watched some TV. In particular, we watched the movie Sliding Doors. I quite enjoyed it. It shows two parallel versions of the same story, depending on whether a character managed to get a train. The message, I think, is that fate will play its hand eventually. Also, I think the message is that "If you go blonde, you're going to die".

Bed was required as I had a busy weekend ahead. I was going back to Newcastle to sort out my house.

Sorting it out
The original plan for sorting out the house was to do it at a leisurely pace in the spare time between quitting my job in Newcastle and starting in Farnborough. I left the place in December, expecting to go back for a few days in December and about a week in January. During that time, I'd empty out the garage, box all my stuff. Pack some of it away in the loft, give some away and work out what I needed to take to Farnborough.

Some of this was contingent on getting a place in Farnborough. The size of the place and sort of place would dictate what I needed/would be able to take with me.

In reality, I spent a couple of hours in the house in December, getting the stuff I needed for Christmas away from Newcastle. Then I spent about 2 hours in the house in January, picking up essential items for my move to Farnborough. That time was enough to give me a car full of stuff. No particular advance was made on the packing, though.

I had gone through some of the rooms in the weeks before I left work. I'd given away an amount of stuff that I couldn't envisage ever using again. I'd even ebayed some of the stuff. Overall, though, the week or so I needed to spend just didn't materialise. It was partly down to a lack of motivation on my part and largely down to circumstance. The urgency of other matters was greater.

However, I have tenants due to take possession of the house in about 4 weeks. There is no room for hanging about. That house won't clear itself out. In addition, I'm missing some vital ingredients for my bedroom/office/recording studio in Farnborough!

What do you need to move
My weapons of choice were, a small-ish van and a skip. The van from was SIXT and the skip was from (or something like that), but was subcontracted to the amusingly titled local company - Barney Rubble.

Assuminge each would be where I'd planned it to be, then the weekend would have a chance of working out. This was also contingent on me finding the energy to get up early for a couple of mornings and drive/sort/carry/lift my heart out.

Running late
Typical! I wanted to be at the hire place at 9am and I woke up at 8.30. I wasn't running to time at all. However, I was only a little way out. My original hope was to get to Newcastle at around 2 or 3pm. This later-than-planned wake up would seriously challenge that. In fairness, I think 2 would have been out of the question anyway. I zoomed from my bed (well, my girlfriend's bed) in Reading and tried to make up for lost time.

Let's all hire a van
The van hire place was a little tricky to find, even with Sat Nav, as it was from a different company to the one I'd hired through. SIXT use local agencies and this one was not mentioned on the paperwork. Still, I was only delayed a few minutes working it all out. Then, an insurance form delayed me a bit further. Still, I eventually got my van.

I moved my sat-nav equipment into the van. I hate disconnecting it from my car as it's just a faff to undo the wires and the rubber-suckery thing from the windscreen. However, not having the device would be fatal, given that I'm not that good with the local geography in Farnborough or, indeed, London where I'd be visiting on Sunday.

After some messing about, I was ready to get to my place in Farnborough. I had to pick up some ladders, along with some clothes for the trip, some empty boxes and also my tools, in case anything in Newcastle needed electric disassembly. (Good phrase.)

Down the road with Radio 2
So, I eventually got to pootle up the motorways of our great land. I had our nation's best radio station - Radio 2 - playing on the, er, radio. It had a CD function, but I didn't get to use that. The time passed by reasonably enough. I managed to buy something to eat as I left Farnborough at 10.30ish. I was running later than planned, but would still have some daylight in Newcastle to work with.

Ikea fun
First stop: Ikea. I had to buy a double bed for one of the soon-to-be tenants. Ikea do reasonable furniture. I didn't buy the cheapest possible option. bought the bog-standard one, which is fair enough. Sadly, it was complicated to buy. I had to speak to a member of staff, who gave me two sheets. One was a pick-list from the self-serve warehouse, the other was instructions to the till person to get the warehouse in Blaydon to prepare me the non-self-serve items. Eh? Ok. I'd run with it.

So, I paid at the till and then asked for the address of the wareshouse. I got directions - there were about 12 steps in the directions. That wasn't helping much. I went to the customer services. They had printed instructions. I took this, assuming it would have the address on. I have a sat nav. I just want to know where I'm supposed to end up - the machine can do the rest. With instructions, if you miss a bit, then things go wrong.

Ikea fun 2 - and Blaydon's one-way system
I missed a bit. Ended up driving past the warehouse - at least, I could see the warehouse from the road I was on. But there was no means of connecting from it to the kooky one-way system that got you there. Aaagh. I got angry and resentful. It had been a long day already, what with some 300+ miles of travelling, and visits to various places in the South and North before this irritation set in.

I swore a bit while simultaneously using a reasonable level of local-knowledge/sense of direction to have a second go. I got there in the end.

The van seemed barely big enough to fit the mattress. Good job I wasn't trying to do it in my car!

Home on the strange
So, I eventually arrived back at the house in which I lived for over 7 years. I moved in there while I was still engaged. I went through the DIY years, the breaking-up weeks, the slimming year, the stand-up comedy and musical years, the birth of The Musical!, the loss of my hair and the realisation that it was time to move on - all in that one house. Quite a formative place. A lot of hours spent doing a lot of things in those walls.

It felt familiar and yet estranged. It was rather odd. The purpose of the visit was to further disconnect myself from the place. In some ways I wanted to bemoan the loss of an old friend, but it's just a house and I am moving on. People do that all the time. Perhaps the hard part is the elongation of the process. There would still be some of my stuff stored in the place after this trip, but the house would be in a state where my tenants can take over and call it their home. They're not going to be just visitors or guests - they're going to be tenants. So, this was the swansong of my relationship with this building as a home.

Things to achieve. Empty the garage and fill the skip. Pack up clothes, books, CDs, videos, electrical equipment, kitchen items and paperwork.

The skip was smaller than I imagined it would be. It filled up quickly. The garage had a whole bunch of things in it that belonged in the skip. The wheelie bin also filled up with junk. Full!

I threw out my first computer.

I threw out a few other computers too. And a monitor. And bricks. Wood. How much chipboard did I own!?

When I'd finished, I even swept the garage. It was still not empty. A huge box of wood offcuts will have to be disposed of by the tenants. The fridge can be freecycled. The tools are on loan to the next folks. And so the list continues. If it looks like I copped out, bear in mind that I filled a large skip and left nothing in the garage which had no purpose to it (off-cuts excepted).

We're on a break
I spent a bit of time inside the house, where the tea-towels (to be left) were on a wash-cycle in the washing machine (where else?) and the heating was on. This time was spent either boxing things up or moving between rooms, throwing my hands up in dismay at how much there was to do. I'd been at the house since about 5ish. The garage took about 3 hours.

At about 9pm, Mal came around. He'll be one of the tenants. He'd come to bring me chocolate. Perhaps that wasn't his principal reason. He came to look around to get an idea of how the place would be when he moved in, and what the rules would be. He also was able to help me unload the van of the bed.

The house was in a bit of a mess. While I'd thrown a load of stuff away from the garage, I'd, rather bizarrely, chosen to keep the boxes that these things were in. Odd, isn't it. I paid so much attention to keeping these things safe in boxes and then, a few years down the line, it was the boxes which were the more valuable entities.

Mal left me to my mess and I got back to work. First, though, I took a refuelling trip to the nearby Tesco petrol station/express. I needed diesel for the van, food for me, and black bags for the house. All three were purchased.

Warmth made me ill - running out of steam
So, back at the house and back on the job. I was feeling quite light-headed. The cold of the garage was quite bracing. Conversely the warmth of the house was making me feel a bit buzzy. I was doing the best I could to separate things into the 4 categories - bin, take, store or give-away.

I was working more and more slowly. I tried to do things a room at a time. Then, I gave that up and started doing things an opportunity at a time. So, I'd work on something in the room I was in. If that required me to change room, I'd complete the room change and then work on something in that room until it required me to move around the house again. That's more variety, but no more effective, and harder to keep track of.

It all needed doing.

I couldn't do it all in 7 hours. So, at 12.30, I went to bed. Perchance to wake up early. I was very overfaced by how much there was still to do.

I didn't mention that I had a visit to the toilet in which I managed to sort all the incoming post into 3 categories. Important, bin and newspapers. The important category was quite small. The bin was quite full. The newspapers would serve as protection from dust for the tops of my boxes for loft-bound items.

Couldn't come quickly enough. I slept deeply.

Friday, February 17

Some help required
I'm going to be writing an article for a computer magazine, called Around the World in 80 Websites (that's the article, not the magazine). To help me find the right sites, I've set up a blog, upon which I hope to list my travels, stock up my list of 80, and get feedback and recommendations. If you regularly surf a "good" website that is not hosted (nominally) in the UK or US, then get onto the other site and leave me a comment.

Thursday, February 16

The trains, they suck
Nightmare of a journey this morning. While the first leg of it was great - a lift at 7.15 from the delightful lady in my life to the railway station - the rest was very poor. Tickets were no great problem - one two three, £25 comes out of my credit car and three slips appear from the belly of the machine. Even getting to the train was easy. Platform 5. Bosh!

The problem arose when the train had to go the slow route to London (from Reading - should be 25 minutes, but proved to be nearer an hour). This was due to some sort of failure. At least we got there, I suppose. The next problem occurred when I moved to let someone pass (I had a standing-up journey) and discovered that they didn't want to pass, they just wanted to stand where I had been standing. So I then had to spend the next 20 or so minutes standing in an aisle next to a table, holding onto the baggage rack, as there was nowhere I could reasonably lean. The passenger ultimately moved past and down the carriage somewhere.

Getting to Paddington, I thought my troubles would be over. Oh no. The tube was a long time coming and then it too seemed to stop more often than it went. I guess that makes no sense. For every stop, there would have to be a partnering go, or the next stop couldn't occur, or, at the very least, I'd still be trapped on the train. However, it felt like being stopped was more common than moving.

My day had started at about 6.45 when the alarm started to bother me. Come 9, I was just emerging from the Farringdon tube station, now late for my 9am start.

Luckily, the course wasn't going to be too challenging. I suppose the hard part is meant to be the "getting to and from London" bit.

Wednesday, February 15

More course-like fun
3rd day of the course. Is it getting harder? Well, not really. I'll admit that one particular exercise somewhat confused me, but only because I couldn't be bothered to delve through the blether too much to work out exactly what was needed to fit my 1 single line of code into their nonsense.

Overall, the day was productive, but only because I sorted out some things related to managing my life, while the other guys slowly worked through the exercises. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I'm going over 10 times the speed they are at the exercises. I'm finding it a bit embarrassing when I ask questions too. I am fascinated by the non-run-of-the-mill, since I want to be able to use this stuff properly. The other guys seem to be largely silent. If they can't eat through these exercises quickly, then perhaps their background knowledge is significantly different to mine.

Still, I've got to keep myself interested somehow.

Lunch, as always, was nice. The last couple of days we went out. First to an Italian restaurant, then to a Chinese. Today's was just sandwiches, but they were still very pleasant. I got to sort things out online. I've hired a skip. The hire company is Barney Rubble. Brilliant!

OBE one
On the train home, I got talking to a woman who had been to London to see her brother get an OBE. I was telling her about the course and she asked if the lunches were ok. I think she must know a lot about courses - ultimately, the lunch is a large part of the course. They were certainly the highlight of the courses I did in Washington, Tyne and Wear, where the local pub - the Waggon Inn, provided some of the most hearty and delicious food I ever recall eating. The mixed grill came with a plate piled high with meat. High. With a fried egg on top. Just as you were marveling over that, they brought the second plate with the chips!

Anyway, I whiled away the train journey in conversation (I was on an earlier train, having left the course early as we finished on an exercise and I ran out of things to do after about 10 minutes). We talked about education and the Queen. I think it's a shame that the Queen will never be able to stop being royal. I think she's got a cracking sense of humour and, if she weren't the Queen, I reckon she'd be the sort of person you'd want to go to the pub with. She's too royal and too ensconced in being regal to break with politeness and say what she really thinks. I bet the jokes she shares in secret are evil!

A trip to Newcastle
Over the course of the day, I planned my weekend. On Saturday morning, first thing. I'm picking up a van. I'll be driving this van, along with a ladder and a few tools, to Newcastle where I have to pack up the contents of my house. The purpose is to pack up everything that I plan to either store for my own use later, or take down south and use in the short term. Everything else is either going to stay there for possible use by my tenants (who start next month), or is going in the skip which I hired too.

I'll have about 24 hours to do all of this in. That's not very long. It should probably be enough. I need to get some boxes from somewhere, though. I have a loft in which to store anything I don't immediately need, which should do the job ok. I also have a bed to buy, on the way to the house, from IKEA.

If I'm honest, I think that this weekend is going to be a whole heap of work and I'm not looking forward to it. However, it's planned now and I'm just going to have to get on with it!

But first a trip to Farnborough
My last trip to Farnborough was on Monday night, where I got a couple of nights' clothing and put some washing in my washing basket. I was due another Farnborough trip - for the purposes of clean clothes at least. I also needed to unpack the last of my boxes, readying them for reuse back in Newcastle. So, I spent the evening in my Farnborough residence. I am still staying in Reading at the moment - it's a lot easier for commuting to London for this course (among other things).

I had planned a quick-in, quick-out trip to Farnborough, with a quick run of some shirts through the machine. A couple of things got in the way of this. Firstly, the machine's "D" cycle takes 115 minutes (apparently!) which meant that I was there for about that amount of time. Secondly, I think some socks sneaked into the wash, so my quick run through the wash of some shirts may have turned into a quick "ruin in the wash" for those self-same shirts. I'm not sure. They may have looked darker because they were damp and it was dark. We'll see.

Anyway, I had spare time enough for unpacking boxes, chatting with my housemates and even restringing my guitar, which, thinking about it, hasn't been restrung in all the time I've had it (coming up to a year, I think - actually, it was April 5t last year that I got it. I looked back).

With the shirts hung up to dry, I zoomed back to Reading in my car, which is, quite frankly, misbehaving itself completely. Its revs don't seem to come down in between gear changes. Its running is ropey, especially at low revs and high-torque (e.g. driving at low speeds in 2nd gear) its acceleration is rubbish. This is not a happy car. It stalled as I reached the parking space. Luckily, I was about to stop it anyway.

Freedom! - ability vs management
Apparently, I caused a bit of a fracas with an earlier post about idiots, management and freedom. Let me add a little more to this idea. At the moment, I am on a course where IT people learn new things. Everyone's friendly enough, but it's clear that I've taught myself more about this from a few days' using a text book, than this entire course can teach me in a week. Not only that, but I've been able to assimilate the information quickly and can rip through exercises. In short, I'm not bad at this computing malarkey.

I used to be in a job where I would use my skills and make stuff. Over time, it got harder and harder to achieve this. Partly through my own laziness, and partly through a general loss of drive around me. At one point, my boss took me aside and make it clear that I should get my arse into gear. There followed a good couple of months where I put my ship in order. The team noticed that I'd gone from the back seat to the front. Where I'd been in a position to encourage the talented people to get on with the work, I was now trying to get alongside them at the front line and get my hands dirty. All in all, I enjoyed that the most. I learned a lot from a few of those guys and I still have a load of respect for them. They could easily double their salary working where I am now and still be head and shoulders above some of the more senior staff. I have profound respect for "them what do" back at my last place.

Meanwhile, my life at my last job simply flushed its way down the toilet, as management seemed intent on shaking things up and putting on pressure, rather than creating an environment in which talented people get to make good stuff. I want to think that I have some talent. I want to think that I'm good (to some degree or other) at what I do. I know, by comparison, that I'm not the lest capable person in existence. In fact, moving to a new environment has pretty much forced me to reevaluate what I can and can't do. Do my ideas cut it in the big wide world? I think that they do. Yet, I feel like I was pretty much undervalued and considered a problem at my last place.

The reason I was a problem is because I'm not afraid to be outspoken and I'm not afraid to disagree. Moreover, the reason I was a problem is because the whole management approach was riddled with holes and I was one of the people who could see them and couldn't ignore them. I know that things change and that the place I left has changed its management structure recently. The bottom line, though, is that a team needs constructive and consistent leadership. It should be lead from within by peers/seniors, but it needs a sensible and thoughtful leadership from above. If there is discord within leadership, then people don't know what the hell they're supposed to be doing. If leadership comes in the form of dogma, rather than pragmatism, then nothing realistic can be achieved, since life invariably doesn't come in neat pure samples to which dogma can be effectively applied.

In a challenging environment with multiple, disagreeing views on what's right, people latch on to what they want to believe in. So, process junkies latch onto process, hackers latch onto delivery and pragmatics contact the recruitment agencies.

Bizarrely, I'm more idealistic now than I've ever been! I can afford to be, I'm working in an environment where there are serious commercial pressures and everyone's focusing on delivery. So, now my idealism makes sense. If I worked in a purely idealistic environment, I guess I'd aim for pragmatism, as idealism alone will only lead to failure.

Tuesday, February 14

The course
The first day of my course had passed without much excitement. I arrived a little late, having slightly miscalculated how slow the tube would be, and how long a walk it would be from the tube station to the training centre. Just as I arrived at the tube stop, a strange man in the carriage started eyeing me up... and eyeing up my map... then he admitted that he was doing a course at the same place.

We journeyed together from the tube to the venue. We got lost together. We found our way together, but we started different courses. That was yesterday and there were few challenges to be found in the Microsoft .NET course. But first days are just that - the beginning, the easy stuff. It promises to get harder. Right?

Well, it's day 2 and I've woken up at 6.45am, taken a taxi to the railway station, taken a train to London and a tube to Farringdon, where the course is. I'm using my newly bought Oyster card, which, for some reason, excites me as I touch it on the yellow pad to magically open the doors into, or out of, the tube station. The course is getting no more challenging, and I'm wondering whether I've really taken a week out of my work schedule, as well as a commitment to stay at my employer's for a year (or pay back some of the course fees) to do this. The lecturer knows his stuff. The course content is straightforward, filling in a few gaps here and there... but largely the course is simplistic. The exercises are, to me, nothing more than a typing game. We get 60 minutes. I take 6 and then have plenty of time for coffee and web browsing.

My two other course-mates take their full time.

They must be slower at the typing.

Chip and PIN day
Never mind the course. It's Chip and PIN day. The most romantic day of the year, where one should treat one's other half to the most intimate of secrets - what is the 4 digit number that unlocks your credit card? It will, ultimately, save them a lot of time in learning to fake your signature.

Sunday, February 12

A Londres
It is my friend's birthday on 14th Feb. He suggested that I go out for a few drinks with him to celebrate, but on the 12th, instead of the 14th. One assumes that Valentine's day (or Chip and PIN day to give it its proper name) could be used by each of us for more female-related activity.

So, I took a train to London. I had a training course starting in London the following day, so this all seemed to fit together. I could go to my course from within London on its first day and get there with less to worry about. I could also spend some time with an old friend, with whom I'd not managed to spend time for ages. Such is the consequence of having a very busy life.

Bach to basics
My friend's flat, which had had an electric piano last time I sojourned there now had an additional baby grand piano. He was cleaning the flat when I arrived, so I set about playing his piano. The previous day, I'd finally unpacked my own stage piano (as used in The Musical!) but I'd not actually been able to have a play, as I had no means of connecting it to any speakers or headphones (I have all the kit I need in Newcastle, and will collect it soon). So, I was truly out of practice, not having played a keyboarded instrument in a couple of months.

Despite being out of practice, I soon established my usual piano-playing form. I'm naturally very bad at playing that instrument and soon filled the flat with my stuttered, occasionally toneless key-stabbing, punctuated by the occasional swear-word as I miss an important note or lose my train of thought.

As a bit of fun, we decided, the pair of us, to make a duet out of Bach's Prelude Number 1 in C major. Being in C major and also being his first prelude, this has the advantage of being one of the few pieces of music in the world that I could pretty much sight-read from the first time I saw it. I could never play it well, but that was fine. I took the lower register of the piano and played pub-piano (or Chas n Dave styled) chords while my friend took the upper register and played the piece pretty much as written. The result sounds like it owes a lot to the ragtime tradition and is truly silly.

We laughed heartily at our musical amusement.

I doubt we'll ever meet anyone who finds it as funny as we did.

On the town with the lads
After the playing had reached its unnatural climax, we headed over to Angel for some food. A very good evening's eating, drinking and chatting was accomplished. I got to bed many hours after returning to the flat, which was not entirely early already. The camomile tea may have rested me, or it may have kept me awake wondering what camomile is and why it smells of hay. More likely, I was kept awake by the two tunes I'd played on the piano earlier in the evening - not the Bach, but two tunes that I'd never really heard played. I'd only ever sung them to myself in my head and, unusually for me, both of them sounded, when played on a real instrument, pretty much exactly as I'd imagined them.

A good night was not followed by a good night's sleep. No matter. It was still a good night.

Saturday, February 11

A whole lot of tasks to be done, to be done
Setting myself up in a different part of the country has not been going exactly to plan. I have managed to secure myself a room, but I feel like I need some sort of sovereignty - a little piece of the world I can call my own. The room has to be in some sort of a state as truly suits my needs for it.

So, I woke up in Reading with a series of tasks to achieve to take a little control over life - at least as much as one can when living between a variety of addresses, none of which you own.

First things first. I needed to take the car to be looked at. Mechanically? No. This is a shame, as it's running like a dog at the moment. The last service (Thursday) appeared to achieve very little. The front headlight was not replaced - I forgot to mention it, and they most certainly didn't even bother to look. The oil-burning problem was described as worthy of over £1000 spending on rebuilding the engine... er... let me see... no. The running problem was attributed to the oil-leak. I have hydraulic tappets, which will not work properly with low oil. So the fact that the car is still bubbling along, occasionally refusing to accelerate in higher gears, and doing so with a full complement of oil... well, it smashes that theory.

However, on top of £1000 worth of engine shiteness, I also have the damage caused when a dozy driver (being distracted by her children) ran a junction and hit my car. This too, according to the repair company I drove to this morning, will cost £1000. However, it's £1000 I don't have to pay. The purpose of bringing the car to these people was for them to estimate the damage and then contact my insurance company, who will, in turn, contact her insurance company and someone, other than me, gets to pay for it all. I get to pay an excess to the repair company, but I get to claim that back at some point.

So it's all very convenient.


After this trip to Bracknell, I continued on to Farnborough. Now, this was going to get complicated. I wanted to set up wireless on my girlfriend's computer back in Reading. She has a desktop PC. I had already set up wireless on the laptop of a house-mate's computer in Farnborough. This wireless connection had a problem - it defaulted to connecting to a completely different wireless network than the one it was sitting next to (literally less than 10 inches away from). So, every time he restarted his computer, it required about 2 minutes worth of intelligent reconfiguration before the network connection worked again. Not good enough.

So, here was the plan. Remove the wireless card from the laptop. Replace it with a wired card (I had one which I happened to have bought on ebay for £10). Take the wireless laptop card back and replace it with a wireless desktop card, that would then go into the computer in Reading and bingo. Only one de-installation and 2 installations to make all that shit work.

The swap from wireless to wired was remarkably painless (in fact, it was no more painful than unplugging one card and inserting another - the hard part was finding my spare network lead). I then measured the alcove by my bedroom door for shelves.

Heading to B&Q and Maplin involves going to the same business park. At Maplin, I swapped the annoying wireless card for what proved to be a different annoying wireless card. I got £5 back for my efforts, which was nice. At B&Q, I bought shelving stuff and then went to the wood-cutting bit. The woodcutter was out to lunch. I don't mean that in a derogatory sense, like he was a bit mental. I mean he was literally out to lunch. I had to hang around the store for 30 minutes until his return.

I got a coffee and managed to stop myself buying anything that wasn't on my original shelving shopping list. I nearly bought a drill... well, 2. But I didn't.

I also drew a cut-diagram. This broke my piece of MDF down into the exact cuts and dimensions I needed for my shelves. I wanted 4 shelves. I ended up with 6 and an off-cut. The whole trip cost me £20 for materials and a couple of quid for the coffee and muffin. I didn't need them, but I truly enjoyed them.

Then, back to the house. Lots of drilling. I didn't need to buy a new drill. My existing drill did a smashing job without running out of battery power. I saved on some battery power by putting the screws in manually. Such was my commitment to getting the shelves up. I only made 2 mistakes. Each of these caused me huge grief.

The first mistake was to totally mis-measure the gap between the first two shelves. I managed to get a gap approximately twice the height of a DVD, when I wanted one approximately 1.2 times the height. After careful remeasuring, I discovered that a shelf placed exactly between the first two would have exactly the right dimensions to fit DVDs/books/CDs. A couple of MM either way, however, would mean that the shelf would be obstructed by the brackets of the shelf above or below. The intermediate shelf went in with total precision.

The top shelf was decidedly lop-sided when it went in. I must have been cock-eyed when I put the right-hand bracket up. Luckily, a second set of bracket holes, exactly one plug's height below the original plugs, and my top shelf was dead centre on the spirit level again.

I think the purpose of my mistakes is to give the fucking-it-all-up gods their dues, but without giving me anything more than irritation. The end result is always fine, but I just have to endure some unnecessary effort and extra holes to get there. All the extra holes are not even visible, except by x-ray!

I populated my shelves and returned to Reading.

The wireless network worked pretty much first time.

It had been a day of random tasks and they all seemed to be successful.

Friday, February 10

Working late
Things at my new job must be going well. I found myself in the office still at 7pm. I was just completing something which I hope will be useful to my colleagues during the week-long absence next week, when I attend a course on C# and .NET.

Today was also my first opportunity to demonstrate the fruits of my labour (and that of some of my colleagues). We scheduled a demo for 3.30. At 3.29, the software build had only just stopped the 40 minutes of errors that had set it. They set in pretty much the minute after I sent an email round inviting people to see the demo.

So, despite the fact that I had a bunch of automated tests telling me that everything should probably work. I hadn't actually seen the end result working myself when I set out to demo it. I was quite confident. I had seen it working with some of the missing bits "mocked up". But the reason for the 40 minutes' worth of errors was that we realised that we could attach the real things. The re-integration wasn't as simple as it should have been. It wasn't my fault. I re-integrate frequently to avoid such huge problems.

Anyway, I managed to make the demo as convincing as it wasn't slick. I thrive under performance pressure.

Despite the fact that we were meant to have 4 weeks to do the work, lost one week to design overruns and then subsequently lost another week to this forthcoming course, I think that over 80% of what I personally set out to achieve has already been achieved. When I get back from my course, I'll have some loose ends to pick up, but that's all it should be. Just loose ends.

Unless I'm wrong.

I've been wrong before.

Not as wrong as I could have been. I'm not, for instance, the sort of moron who puts their most talented colleagues into the corner and watches them rot.


Wednesday, February 8

Two weeks ago, I went to see a gig in Reading. Run by "Big Jack", Jack Lin (whose name isn't even Jack), this was an intimate venue. The crowd were pleasant and it seemed like the sort of gig I might like to play. The reason I'd gone along was that Jack had, when I'd approached him earlier in the day, asking about gigs, he had suggested I go along and see what it was like. I had planned to do it incognito. Just turn up, watch the show, and leave. However, in such an intimate surrounding, the compere is bound to want to know all of his audience members personally. So, I ended up admitting who I was. It looked a bit like I'd turned up to the gig to ensure that I got booked by the chap. It wasn't meant to be that way.

The show was good fun and my girlfriend and I sat and enjoyed it. It was the first time I'd sat and watched a comedy show without being in it for some time. Given that I knew none of the performers, it was even more like just turning up to watch a show.

Anyway, despite my protestations that I wasn't gunning for a gig anytime soon, though "at some point" would be nice, I found myself being booked for the next one.

That was tonight - 8th February.

I turned up to the gig, alone this time, and prepared for the show. I had my trusty guitar - the one which wasn't stolen (obviously) and which I'd taken to the Edinburgh festival this year. It was also not the replacement to the stolen one, which seems a bit unfamiliar still and is a lot heavier. Show time came, and I was first on the bill. The plan was for me to do 20 minutes or so of my usual shite and then be off.

In some ways that gig was me at my best. In other ways things went completely awry. I have had the misfortune to snap a guitar string during a set before. It's happened on maybe half a dozen separate occasions. First time it happened, I found a joke to cover it, from that point onwards, I've never felt too bad, and just struggled on. Dependand on which string snaps, it's never that big a deal to the overall ability to perform. However, if a tricky string goes, relatively early on in the set... then it becomes a bit of an impediment.

A tricky (but not the trickiest) string went and sent the guitar subtley out of tune. It was about 7 minutes into the set. Never mind. The audience had been laughing from the off and it didn't have to make a big difference.

I've never had two strings bust in the same gig before.

I have now.

Luckily the 2nd string bust in the last song - on one of the very last notes. I managed to make a joke of it.

So, things had slipped through my fingers a few times during the set as the guitar seemed to be an obstacle, rather than a conduit for my particular brand of cheerful jolliness. However, in other ways it was one of my better performances. I remained totally cheery and relaxed. I felt at liberty to play things loose and I even managed to improvise in a bit of material which was really quite funny. I didn't even know I was going to do it - I just sort of channeled it. I like it when that happens. It's even possible that I may be able to put that bit of material into the set in future gigs.

So, all-in-all, I was glad that I'd done the gig. I can now add Reading to the list of towns I've played in.

Tuesday, February 7

Following on from Mal's post, I've found out which sports car I am.

Lamborghini Murcielago!

Not subtle, but don't want to be. Fast, loud, and dramatic, wanting to be noticed by people, who then get out of the way. In a world full of sheep, a raging bull.

If you want, you can take the Which Sports Car Are You? quiz.

Please note: I reworded the description a little to put it in the third person.

A van driver pulled out behind me this morning and appeared to be giving me the "wanker" sign. I wondered what I'd done wrong. Then he did it again. Then I realised that he was actually shaking a pen. The pen he was using to do the crossword puzzle/sudoku in his newspaper.

At 80.

In the outside lane of a 3 lane motorway.

I don't agree with such behaviour, but what a dude!

Monday, February 6

This is ridiculous. I've got "Look at me, I'm Sandra D" from Grease running round my head.

I don't even like that song!

Not a great start to the day:
  • I woke later than planned
  • As I was leaving the house I was diverted into fixing our internal wireless network, which seems to fail on the machine of its other user EVERY TIME he starts up
  • Leaving just in time to walk to work, I realised I couldn't as I have someone coming to look at my car's bump today, so need the car nearby
  • They had no milk in the cafe, so my cappuccino become a black coffee
  • I found a monkey sitting in my seat when I got to my desk - signifying that I'd broken the build with my last check-in

I hope this week doesn't all go like this.

On the up-side my thumb doesn't hurt so much.

If you don't understand words like "check-in" and "build", then don't worry. "Them as do" are not necessarily the sort of people you want to become.

Sunday, February 5

Overall, I think today was the day of the near misses. So many things threatened to go wrong but didn't. It was weird. The only near miss that wasn't a near miss was when I burned my thumb on the iron. This was my own stupidity and serves me right. It hurt though.

Sorting out the net
I set myself the target of getting my internet connection working. I say my connection. It actually belongs to one of the housemates. He has broadband in his room - directly connected to his laptop. I decided that I wanted to share it with him and so, after consulting with NTL, the provider, bought a device which enables me to do so - using wireless. After borrowing his key to enable me to get into his room to set this up, I prepared to go to Maplin to buy an extra cable that wasn't provided in the box, in which the device arrived the previous day.

The near miss? Well, I assumed that the housemate's computer would, being a laptop, have a network socket. It didn't. Good job I found out. Had I not, then I wouldn't have been able to connect his computer into the network when I'd finished setting it up. Not a good result. As it was, I bought him a wireless card at Maplin.

Then there was the actual set up. There were so many things that could have gone wrong. They didn't. It pretty much worked first time. The signal even works in my room - hence my ability to sit here and write about it and put it on my blog.

Once I had working internet, I felt a lot better.

Sorting out the pad
No near miss with sorting the room out. More vacuuming. Amusement as the vacuum cleaner "ate" one of my dusters. It sucked it all the way into its belly. Hungry Henry!

I moved things here and there and I now have a room which is still largely in boxes, but the boxes are not blocking the key things like a desk on which to have my computer, a bed and a wardrobe and drawers with many of my clothes in - ready to use. Brilliant.

I don't plan to spend a huge amount of time in this room in Farnborough, but I have a base here now, and I have somewhere to do all the things I do. Yay!

Nearly missing the train
Chatting with one of my housemates, I suddenly discovered that I was due to miss the train I'd planned to take to my gig. The idea was to walk from the house to the railway station in time for the 6.05 train to London. That train time was essential as I wanted to be at the gig before the audience for my soundcheck.

Discovering that it was 5.35 and that the station was 30 minutes' walk from the house, I decided to drop any thoughts of getting a crafty beer at the gig and drive to the station. I nearly missed the train (in the parallel universe where I walked, I did miss it). However, I was, in fact early.

Nearly being delayed
So, off the train went, at the allotted time, heading for London. We stopped at a station at 6.15 and the guard said (over the tannoy) that, owing to a delay, we wouldn't be arriving at that station until 6.30. We were confused. We're here. What's the problem. The problem was that we were on the middle track of three and the platform was not near enough to the train. Apparently, they don't make passengers cross the tracks.

So we had to wait to be shunted between tracks. Weird!

However, the shunt happened and then we were off. I rang the organiser to confirm that I was definitely coming. There had been some confusion over email. He said he definitely had me down, but that I should try to be there at the gig in time for its start. I promised to do my best.

Nearly being delayed 2 - the sequel
Actually, we arrived in Waterloo pretty much on time. It just goes to show - trains aren't putting in the effort normally. We made up 15 minutes... so they can normally go faster than they're scheduled to. No wonder this country's a mess.

Actually, it probably makes more sense that they don't go everywhere at top speed as then a small delay would put them beyond getting back on time. But I digress.

So, we arrived on time and I went from the rail service to the tube. It's a simple case of taking the Northern Line from Waterloo to Camden Town - the tube station within 1 minute's walk of the venue I was due to arrive at within one hour of arriving in London.

The words "severe delays" on the Northern Line's chart should have given me a clue. We were delayed... severely...

At one point, the driver came over the tannoy to explain that he had no idea which branch of the line the train was actually going to end up on - it had Edgware on the front, but it could be 50/50. Apparently things had gone all screwy at Camden Town, which is where the branching occurs, and it was luck of the draw. I didn't care - so long as we got to Camden Town.

As with all of the events of the day (except the ultimate burn of the thumb). The threat of failure loomed but didn't strike. I was at the gig in enough time to enter a room with no audience in it - yet.

Nearly not on the bill
Despite the fuss of getting onto the bill with the organiser, my name wasn't on the list of comedians. Did I mention that this was a competition? No? Well, I was probably frightened to. Competitions scare me. If I do a gig, then I get laughs and go home. If I do a competition, then I get laughs, spend the rest of the night trying to tell myself that I'm at least as good as the other acts, while secretly hoping that they're shit, and then get a judgement at the end about whether I'm good enough. I usually take failure quite hard and so I don't see why I want to put myself through it all.

However, I'd put myself down for this competition. Actually, I'd originally planned to do it in Edinburgh, but got myself rescheduled for a London heat. Except that I wasn't on the list. Would I have to walk away ungigged? Could I escape the ultimate judgement of whether I was any good? No. They just added me to the list. D'oh!

Checking the sound
The sound check was quick. We checked to see where I could plug in. I couldn't. There were no facilities except a microphone. So we checked that my guitar could be heard "enough" from a few rows back. It would do. I redesigned my set to avoid the bits where the guitar is quietly played. It didn't take too much doing. So, I was nearly not going to be able to play the guitar to the audience, but we sorted it out.

Going on first
We had a draw for the running order and I picked first. This was bad for many reasons and good for one. It was good as I wouldn't have to sit through anybody else's act and get nervous with them as they did the competition. It was bad because they'd be a cold audience and because I'd have to warm them up. Statistically it's as unlikely to win a competition from going on first as it is to win a debate by going as first proposition. In other words, it's very unlikely.

Still, I didn't care a great deal. I was there to do my thing and to get the message to the promoter that my thing could be done. So, I'd go on first, take one for the team and see what happened.

Other acts
I should have hated every other act. I think I satisfied myself with the fact that I'd given a reasonable show of myself and that there was nothing I could do to change the judges' opinion of me. So, I generally enjoyed the other acts. Ok, I can't deny that I occasionally pondered their merits, relative to my own self-regard. This is human nature and I am but human. Overall, I laughed when I thought they were funny and forgave any quirks or groaners.

There are some interesting new acts out there.

The result
I listened to the names of the runners up, hoping that I'd at least have gotten a place. I had little to gain from getting through the heat, as I don't honestly believe that I'm competition-winning material. However, given that the average experience for the majority of the competitors was under 10 gigs, and given than I've done significantly more than 10... well, it would be a kick in the teeth not even to place among them.

I won.

The walk of shame
I used to talk about the walk of shame after a bad gig. I think tonight I had a bit of a walk of shame after my, apparently (according to judges) good gig. When they called out my name, I stepped forward, as though to collect a prize. I stopped myself, as there was no prize, just the chance to go through to another round of this madness. The room was applauding me, and I felt rather odd. Generally I don't win things. I think my main feeling was relief. I think I secretly expected to win... in much the same way as your lottery-playing friend secretly expects to win this week... but perhaps with a more irrational edge.

Leaving the gig, I texted my girlfriend and told her the good news and how I imagined it might make me intolerable. Then I thought it through. The majority of those people were newcomers - just like I had been when I did my first ever gig at the 2003 North East heat of that very same competition. I have been given paid work. I've done a lot of gigs. I have no reason to feel satisfied with myself for beating people with less experience by the degrees that separate us. It's "beating your toddler brother at scrabble" sort of territory here.

I'm not going to let it change me.

Home for the early bath
The gig finished at 10.45, so I traded my 1.05am train ticket for a 11.35pm one. I didn't have to trade anything. I just found an earlier train at Waterloo and came home.

Back home, I seemed to fritter away some time. I did some laundry, burned my thumb and pondered what I've learned today.

Not much.

A sore thumb hurts more than winning a heat of a competition feels good.

There's a message there for us all.

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