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Sunday, April 30

Back from the dead

Well, the site went down. Email went to pot and it's all been generally unpleasant. Back online now. Still some work to do, mind.

Tuesday, April 25

The Wiz
On Wednesday 22nd March I went to see a school production of The Wiz. This is a retelling of the story of the wizard of Oz, but done with ostensibly black music. The movie of this musical had Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in it. It's motown-style funky 70's sort of a thing. I don't know the exact name of the style, but you're getting the idea.

Perhaps one question is why I went to see a school play. Have I tired of the production values of the West End and decided to go minimalist? Or maybe my girlfriend's sister is a teacher and had helped with the costumes. I'll let you guess.

Given that I've seen a lot of musicals, have performed in a few, and am generally quite opinionated on what makes a good performance/show/experience, I think a few people in the group of us who went were a bit worried about what I'd make of it all. Unfortunately, I can be judgemental in a way which seems harsh and unfair. However, I'm not a monster (really, I'm not) and I know that a school play is hardly going to be Les Miserables... unless they're doing the Les Miserables schools edition, which they weren't.

Anyway, the evening was spent quite enjoyably. A few highlights:
  • The headset microphones some of the cast were wearing, which made them look like they were working in a call centre while not on stage.
  • The performance of the scarecrow - a lad who is an definite natural and held the room in rapture
  • The band - the music teacher and three lads, who played very well and had a great rapport between them
  • Some witty choreography
  • The little kid who did everything in an adorable way
  • The little kid who looked bewildered and out of time with the steps in the big numbers - every school play needs one
Of course, if there are going to be some highlights, there should also be some low-lights:
  • Next time, pick a leading lady who can sing...
  • ...and act
  • ...and not be so fat
  • Tell some members of the cast the following - "You're a white schoolkid from Reading. You are NOT Maria Carey, and American Accents Don't Have To Sound Black
  • Trying to sell a DVD of the performance breaks more copyright laws than are worth it
I enjoyed the show in context. My expectations were set at a sensible level for a school production. They'd all worked hard. I did go on eBay and buy the DVD of the movie, which I'll watch at some point to see how it should have sounded/looked. I think I was aided in my enjoyment of the performance by the fact that I'd never seen any of the show before or heard any of its music. Had they done something I was familiar with, I might have felt differently.

Mind you, if a school ever decided to put on The Phantom Of The Opera I'd definitely go along and see it!

Chinese Takeaway
As I was leaving the office last night, I found a red Nissan Micra parked on the roundabout at the end of the industrial estate in which my office is situated. The Micra was on the outside edge of the roundabout, which is marginally better than being parked on the roundabouty-bit. I was disturbed by this. The car was being driven by a chinese guy. His passenger was also chinese. Something told me that they were not necessarily long-established residents in the country. Perhaps once upon a time I would have been angered by this, but my first reaction was concern. Driving in this country can be confusing, and perhaps the Micra occupants were suffering a confusion.

Making eye contact with the driver proved to be enough to cause him to come to my car. He pointed to a road on his A-Z which he wanted to go to. Realising that giving him directions wasn't necessarily going to work, and realising that the top priority should be to get them out of everyone's way, I told him that I would drive him there. He understood that he should follow me.

I drove the half mile or so to the street he wanted. I think I was most proud that I knew where it was. Pulling into the street, I pulled over, opened my window and pointed at the floor, the international symbol for "This is your street".

My chinese friends were happy campers. Then I went to Tesco.

Foto Phun
There comes a point in every relationship where it's time to take things to the next level. My girlfriend and I reached that point last night. Yes, it was time for that moment where you "stick the heads of members of her familiy onto a picture of the local football team". It was a tender moment.

We laughed.

Monday, April 24

Car issues
One of the big features of my month off blogging was definitely the car. It featured quite heavily in my life, or at least its absence did. Following the minor road accident, one morning in Februrary (or was it January?), I took my car to have its bodywork sorted out. A company in Bracknell did the work for me. All I had to do was swap my car for their loan car and then wait for them to tell me that it was done. In some ways the accident had been a good thing in that the damage included the wheel-arch, which was rusting quite badly anyway. Unfortunately, it was only damaged on the driver's side, and the passenger's side could have done with repair too.

I ended up driving a fairly new Vauxhall Corsa for about 10 days while my car was being fixed. The Corsa had a steering-wheel mounted controller for its radio, which was undoubtedly its best feature. The performance and drive of the car was distinctly average and uninteresting. The new-car smell, was nice. The size of the interior was less so, given that I'm a large chap and it was not a large interior.

The car came with a 100 mile per day maximum. I was worried about exceeding this, given that I had a gig in Liverpool during the period I was borrowing the car. Somehow, though, the weekend off driving it, in which I got my girlfriend to drive me around, seemed to bring the average back down.

Getting my car back, I discovered that they'd freshly valeted it, which made me feel like I ought to treat it less like my mobile dustbin. If only I'd stuck with that instinct... Maybe I should gut get it valeted every so often. It even had a bit of the new-car-smell thing going on!

Somehow, while fitting a new panel to the car, the repair people had seen fit to put a small dent in that panel (just over the passenger door). They'd also decided to use their special techniques to make the driver's side rear-door stick. Ingenious! However, the service was fine and I don't care enough about these minor details. The car drives, looks fine, and isn't about to rust through in any of the parts where a people carrier clunked into it.

During the process, I kept getting text messages explaining where the car was in the repair cycle. Neat.

The size nazis strike again
Damn them all.

Yesterday, while in town, I got to wondering about how much better my life would be if only I owned a part of mid-brown smart-casual trousers. I know. It's a strange thing to ponder, or at least it would be if I didn't work in an office where jeans are not permitted and where my current trousers - a pair of black cotton smart-casual-thingies (I don't know how to describe them except to say that they stop my legs from being nakes) - are feeling a bit over-used and unseasonal. I want to dress in lighter colours in order to feel more summery.

I was passing M&S when this thought crossed my mind, so I went in. At the top of the escalator was a dummy wearing exactly the sort of trousers I had my eye on. They turned out to be jeans, and I'm not sure whether my employer's dress code would have accepted them, despite the fact that they weren't denim. Still, on my right was a rack with mid-brown chinos on it. Brilliant. Not only that, but the pair at the front was in my size, well it was in the largest possible size that they do, which also happens to be the size I wish I were, so that was good enough for me. I took it as a sign.

Sweating my way into the pair of trousers in the fitting room felt less like a gift from the clothing gods than perhaps I'd hoped. Don't get me wrong, they went on. But "well, they go on" is not a recommendation for a suitable pair of trousers. I imagine that no bespoke tailor in the land would keep business if he used that line often. As is often the case in these situations, I tried to be optimistic. I looked myself up and down, I posed, I looked on the bright side. Then I remembered my girlfriend. If I were to take these trousers back from town, then she'd probably want to see me in them. She'd give advice on how I looked. I tried to look at myself through her eyes.

I decided that she didn't like the trousers, so I didn't buy them. It was the right decision.

"All you want to do is put on your headphones and get on with it"
Such was the somewhat dismissive accusation leveled against me by an ex-colleague. He was describing my ideal work ethic. I'm a loner when it comes to coding. On days where I've produced the most code, and let's assume that this code is good code, rather than nasty hacked-together-nonsense, I've also spent a lot of time with the headphones on and music playing. My body may have been in this world, but I've been somewhere else. It's called the zone. It's a level of concentration where time passes more quickly and lots of information is being juggled in the short-term memory.

Back in the early years of my first proper job (also my previous job), I would find that a stack of CDs soon went from the "to play" pile to the "played" pile. Or I'd find that it was time to start the current disk again. It would appear to happen really quickly. The albums would just pass by. This was because my mind was more occupied with the task in hand. This may seem unsociable, even more so if you happened to disturb me in the middle of a thought - I might emerge from my reverie grumpily, or I might wave at you to give me a minute to finish the thought I was on.

This is no surprise to me. When I was much younger I programmed computers for fun (I still program computers for kicks, if I'm totally honest) and almost always had music playing. It's not uncommon. Lots of people used to use headphones at my last place and there are plenty of them around in my new place. It's a great feeling, and it's nice to be in an environment where people respect the headphones.

The thing is, I'm producing some of my best ever work at the moment. The reason is because I'm being left to get on with it. It's not some selfish thing. I'm not produce the weird and wonderful, nor shunning collaboration. Instead, I'm doing what I do best in little pockets of activity and synchronising with the rest of the team the rest of the time. That, I think, is what good knowledge working is all about. With that in mind, the gung-ho over-enthusiastic efforts of previous team coaches seem to be nothing short of silliness.

I'm not saying that there shouldn't be a time for collaboration. There should be. Collaboration is a good way to iron out odd ideas. It's also a good way to ensure buy in between people who disagree. Stop them from focusing on one solution and get them to focus on the problem, together. So long as they choose a solution which will work, without breaching any fundamental rules, then they should both be happy. I tried this recently with a colleague. We instinctively took opposing views on something and I could detect a tension between us. So, I suggested that we solve the problem working together. We did it pretty much "his" way. However, I went from doubting to believing. If we'd ended up doing it "my" way, then I hope (and I believe) he would have ended up feelingt he same way that I did.

Working for the man
I recall seeing a post on another blog that related to something I'd written on here - the pleasures of googling oneself (I must stop doing that). The post criticised me for my enthusiasm to put the extra effort in to help my employer out. Why should I be enthusiastic about thrashing myself more, if it didn't gain me any extra personal benefit? I don't get paid overtime. I don't directly profit from the extra work, do I?

In fact, the answer I must reprise (I think I've mentioned it before) is that, quite simply, I do benefit from my own increased endeavours. Working for a company with a bonus scheme makes it clearer, mind, but here are the reasons:
  • Sense of personal satisfaction in a job well done
  • Sense of pride in getting recognition for a job well done
  • Bonus payments for achieving a particular bonus target
  • If my employer is more profitable, then my job is safer
  • If my employer is more profitable then I may get a better payrise
  • If I'm working hard and not complaining, then the people around me may feel encouraged to compete with me to do the same - more benefits for everyone
This rationale works well in the sort of environment in which I work - an innovative, reward-based environment, but would it be the same if I, say, worked in Ikea? I think it would. At the end of the day, even if all you do is mop the toilets out in McDonalds, your contribution to your employer's business is there to have some effect on the bottom line. If your employer is doing better, then you will, yourself, be in a better position. The sad thing, I suppose, is that if you're that far down the food chain, you probably won't be able to measure the benefit... so you may as well slack off... which means that you'll be treated as a slacker and stay down the food chain.

I live a privileged life. I know that. I couldn't sit with my headphones and do just any job. I probably couldn't survive if I was on the minimum wage. I probably couldn't do a job which my upbringing defined as "menial". It's a shame. I bet that the person who pushes the trolleys round Tesco's car park has pretty low levels of stress. He or she is probably less impressed by their own ingenuity too!

Sunday, April 23

Mr Kipling
Mr Kipling, was, apparently, a diarist of the highest regard. His adverts always started with something like "Sunday, wrote Mr Kipling, and I invited a swimming pool full of arabian juggling midgets round to sample my apple fancies...". So, today, I shall also write about my Sunday's experiences. Sadly, there were no apple fancies involved, though I sampled both a lemon-curd-style pudding and a couple of fruit allsorts.

When I say sampled, I literally mean that I sampled them, rather than eating enough of them to satisfy my sweet tooth, or fill my stomach.

This morning I slept until this afternoon. I woke up in time to see the end of the London marathon. Last night we'd driven into London and had been along some of the streets that were prepared for the race. The effort of the drive had not been enough to tire me out that much. Indeed, compared with the effort expended by the runners, I feel somewhat ashamed for having slept so much. Well, ashamed is possibly too strong a word for it. I feel... well, not proud.

On the up-side, I got a good rest.

If the world is going to be in balance, then for the large lie-in, there needs to be some sort of activity to balance it. So, I went for a walk this afternoon. I walked into the centre of Reading. I got a Subway salad for lunch. I bought some screwdrivers. I even bought a smoothie, the likes of which I'd not had since the previous day when I drove into town and swapped a birthday present CD for two CDs that I preferred.

Food obsession
The smoothie I had both days was a "Fat burner". The Subway salad was exceedingly healthy and fat-less. Even the evening meal I ate tonight was low in portion-size and carbs. I'm trying to keep my eating under control. It's a nightmare... it's also not that difficult. It does make me think of food a lot more than I would like to, though.

Still, while at Subway I witnessed a bizarreness. One of the other people there was an American woman. She seemed genuinely fazed by the experience of buying Subway food, which is pretty odd, since it's an American company. She chose a 6" honey oat bread - good choice. I was stuck on my low-carb... well no-carb/no-bread option, so my interest was piqued. What did she want in her sandwich? She asked for them to put just some cheese in it. If you've been to Subway, you'll know that their cheese portions are pretty puny and also fairly non-cheesy. It's very thin and fairly tastless. If you've been to Subway, you'll also know that it's something of a production-line system there. They move the sandwich from being given its principal filling to having the salad added.

At the salad adding point, while I was waiting for my sweet onion chicken to finish its stint in the microwave, the salad assistant asked young-miss-stupid-america what salad she wanted. She declined. He got confused. The microwave pinged. He removed the chicken teriyaki. He tried to put it in her sandwich, reasoning, as one might, that perhaps she was having a salad-less sandwich with cheese and a hot filling. She corrected him before I did. He remained unsettled and confused. She asked him to add some BBQ dressing to her sandwich. He wanted to put salad in it. I wanted him to put salad in it. It looked so bare. She really needed to get some salad inside her (she was clearly a bit of a salad dodger). Then she issued the best understatement of the day, perhaps of the week. She said "I don't like too much in a sandwich".

She came from the american city of "Missingthepointsville".

Back to the house
With screwdrivers bought and salad consumed, I walked back to the house, used the screwdrivers to fix the door which needed fixing and then went out for a pub quiz, which turned into a game of pool - well 2.

The evening also featured some watching of Friends and some programming. I'd definitely recommend SharpDevelop for free C# programming at home.

Thursday, April 20

Nurse, the screens
Well, it's been a day of staring at the screen. There's no doubt about that. I spent a good 8 or so hours at work, with a mere 30 minute lunchbreak - time for me to scramble home for my... salad. <sigh>.

After work, to the supermarket. I narrowly avoided getting too enthralled with the radio with the promise of Listen Again. Whether I can be bothered to listen to That Mitchell and Webb Sound again, I don't know. I think I can. It was very good.

Then from the supermarket to the kitchen. Back on the salad. This time with added beans. Hoo-fuckin'-ray.

But, as might be expected, I was straight back in front of a screen. I've been doing some of the preliminary web-digging for my World's Worst 100 Websites article. In some ways there's no chance I can possible unearth the real worst 100 websites from the internet. Even with the help of Google. However, I am finding some archetypes from which to make the point about badness of websites. We'll see if this achieves anything.

Music composer
I don't claim to be a capable composer or arranger of music. I can prove my incapability. I've spent a while struggling with a particular composition and, while it's coming along, it feels like it's lacking something pretty crucial. Talent on my part, probably.

As I speak, I've got chewing gum on the go. It's part of a recent dental health thing. That, coupled with the fact that I want to keep my mouth busy doing things which are not consuming calories, means that there's been a heap of chewing going on lately. My interest in dental health was ignited by a couple of trips to my local dental surgery. The first trip was a check-up - the first of its kind in a good couple of years. There will be another trip to see Marius - the dentist named after a character in Les Mis. He recommends two fillings. Great.

However, the big problem with my mouth, other than the fact that it sometimes opens up in time to spew out unnecessary arrogances, was that the gums were inflamed - a bit of gingivitis (or however you spell that). I knew that I'd probably be sent to the hygienist, so I'd already booked an appointment for the following week. An appointment that day was squeezed in, so I got two hygienist treatments. The first of these was exceedingly painful and involved much scraping and gum-bleeding. The second was quite painful and didn't involve much bleeding.

My mouth is now healthier, apparently, and I've got a special cleaning stick to poke into the gaps between my teeth. If I've been bad I can poke my own gums to punish myself too. The joy!

It's Nicer with Niece
When I decided to leave Newcastle in November, I had a number of justifications. The main cause was that I'd come to feel that my job had run its course and I didn't want to be in that office any more. So, I plotted my way out of it. I tried to be positive. If I could look for a job, where would it be located? Well, it should surely be located in somewhere new. It should be nearer my girlfriend and near my sister and her new daughter. I had a huge geographic area to work with, and it seemed like things would fall into place nicely. I'd make a positive out of my negative feelings at work.

Of course, things are never as easily done as they are theorised. The reality is that this move has been one of the most distruptive events in my recent history and, 4 months later, I'm still reeling a bit. But, the important thing to do is to make the most of the advantages while waiting to get the hang of it all.

So, on 18th March, I went to visit my niece. I'm afraid to say that it was (and still, at the time of writing, is) only the second time I've met this young lady who is new to our family. Still, I'll get the hang of being an uncle in the end.

The opportunity to take the trip kind of jumped in my lap when my girlfriend and her family decided to go to the football that Saturday afternoon. Not being interested in football, and keen to ensure that the football was watched by those who were interested, it seemed that my impending spare time was something which should be used wisely. So, I went off to little-sis's house.

My niece is really still young. At that age, babies are little more than pets. I don't mean that in a derogatory way. I recently had a part in taking care of a young puppy. It's a similar sort of experience. They don't do a huge amount and you have to watch them. They're cute and you keep them on your lap. You just don't stroke children. Anyway, the niece bits of the trip went as might be expected. She's a good-natured baby and sat by while the adults chatted and occasionally wiped bodily fluids off her.

Financial advice
My expectations for the trip were in one place. The reality was in another. I spent much of the time in my sister's company being told by her, and a friend of hers, about what I needed to do to manage my Newcastle property in such a way as would make the most of my tax situation and increase my chances of being able to buy a property in this part of the world. I didn't expect to leave with a head full of figures about mortgaging, remortgaging and equity.

Still, it made me think and I have, subsequently, set the ball rolling to make sure I make the most of my situation.

I went through three stages when I decided to leave Newcastle. The stages were:
  • I'll have to sell the house
  • Okay, I'll rent the house out
  • Now I'll become a property mogul
At first I thought I'd just keep the house on, maybe doing some repairs and then sell it. I had an undefined period of paying the mortgage ahead of me. I didn't want to rent it out. It looked too hard to organise. People suggested I rent it out. I said no. Then I worked out that paying a mortgage on an empty house wouldn't be fun.

When I started renting it out, I did it with no specific long-term plan. Just get the money rolling in. I found three friends who would agree to take it on. I cleared it enough for them to move in. I didn't have to worry about the loft-space, so I could store some of my stuff up there. I'm still storing stuff for a friend there, so this worked out quite well.

Now, I'm serious about making the most of my property "investment" opportunity. I've got some bills to pay and I've got some forms to sign before it all works out, but I'm hoping to buy somewhere for me to live in this part of the world by the end of the year.

I think I'm not good at sharing anything, let alone a house. I don't suit living in a houseshare, though it's going reasonably well. I just don't see it being a long-term arrangement. I spend a fair amount of time (80%+) at my girlfriend's parents' house, and I feel relaxed and welcome there. However, I want the right to pick up a paintbrush, reattach a fitting, or use the washing machine whenever I feel like it. I want to be able to cook and this is either not the done thing (girlfriend's parents') or wildly inconvenient (my place). So I don't.

I will try to get a place that I can live in for a couple of years and then maybe add it to the rental portfolio... or maybe not.

Let's see whether this actually happens. Some things are easier in theory, remember!

In training
This particular story happened on Thursday 16th March. I was finishing work and a friend, who lives in London, suggested that we meet up. I was in the mood for doing something entertaining, so I hurried home, got changed and then hurried to the train. I walked.

This, I think was a clue that I was giving myself about health. I think, about a month ago, I'd realised how unhappy the overeating was making me. I thought that I could maybe guilt myself into sorting it out by doing a bit of exercise. This didn't happen. It took a month before, for no reason I can particularly remember, the switch flipped and I went from salad-dodger to guinea pig.

Anyway, the walk to the railway station was pleasant enough. It's quite a long walk, but I had my mp3 player for company. I arrived about 8 minutes before the train was due to arrive. There was a moderately long queue and it was moving slowly. There are no machines at the station and I don't think you can just get on a train. I stood there, clock watching and getting impatient. It wasn't all that late, but I didn't want to lose any more of my evening than was necessary to the travelling. After much dawdling, the queue eventually moved in time for me to buy my ticket as the train was pulling into the station.

I grabbed my ticket and ran across the footbridge. The train still had 40 seconds before the time it was due to depart and I reached its door while it was still stationary. The whistle had blown 5 seconds previously. Remember, the delay in getting a ticket was not my fault. I'd been there in a reasonable amount of time to buy a ticket, but the queue had moved slowly due to incompetence and a lack of prioritisation of ticket sales. So, I was annoyed to reach the door and find the button did nothing.

I shouted. I waved. Nothing. I had the train in front of me, but nothing.

The train then moved off. I was angry. I ran after it for a bit. Then I realised that that might take me to London, but it would definitely get rocky after the end of the platform and it would probably not be as quick as waiting for the next one. Very very worked up I shouted a hearty "FUCK YOU" at the back of the departing train.

Looking at the departures board I then discovered that the next train (they're about every 20 minutes or so) was cancelled. So the bastard who drove away from me had wasted 40 minutes of my evening. Why don't people who work in the service industry understand that they're there to provide a service?

Writing opportunity
Luckily for me, I had brought a notepad with me. I had walked to the station with ideas going around my head and I now had a chance to note them down. The ideas were for the new adaptation of The Musical! which a couple of lads in Southampton want to put on. Their version needed some tweaking and some deal-with-things-which-are-bigger-than-tweaks-ing. So, I sat down and wrote. I wrote during the train journey and arrived in London calm enough to enjoy the evening.

Havin' a Laugh
Though perhaps something of a busman's holiday for me, my friend took me to a comedy club in London where we watched some acts. Some were good, one was absolutely fantastic. Outstandingly fantastic. I laughed more than I've laughed in a very very very long time.

If I can call Farnborough home, then I went home. I managed to include a chat with a stranger on the train about unspecified things (I can't remember and I'm not sure how much sense I made, being on the outside of a few light-beers). I also gave employment to a taxi. I didn't want to be over-keen with the physical exercise.

Back in the saddle
Well, I'm back at the blogging again, it would appear. So, I can maybe go back and write about some of the things which have happened in the time between I paused the bloggery and resumed it.

Looking at March, I was clearly in an odd mood. On the 8th of March, I hated everyone. On the 16th March, I loved everyone. The mood swings are doing nobody any good.

A quick word of warning, though. I had my writing bug pretty much stamped on by the article I was writing for Micro Mart. That article is out this week (issue 889). I blogged while I was writing Around The World in 80 Websites. The 7000 words of copy are not to be found on the blog, though. They are to be found in 12 pages of Micro Mart. 12 pages! Wow - a personal record. It's also a record for the magazine. They even upped the fee. Bless them.

You'd think that I'd learn my lesson from all of this. It was one of the most demanding home-projects I've taken on (outside of performing). It took many many hours. But, no. Within a day of submitting my final copy, I agreed to another web-trawler of an article - The World's Worst 100 Websites. D'oh!

On the up side, this latter project hasn't got the bizarre arbitrary one-per-country distinction, so I can look for sites of note, rather than just "anything I can get my hands on that's vaguely interesting".

I'd recommend following some of the links (if not all) on my Around The World site. There are some points of interest.

Damn. I broke it. Now I'll have to take it to bits and do something complicated.

Pimp my PMP
Yes. I am a sad geeky individual. I know that. I like toys and gadgets and I like them to suit my purposes. I am not incredibly impressed with things which are beautiful in themselves, but I do like it when things work in an elegant way. That's me.

So, in December 2004, I joined the mp3 player revolution. I bought a Philips HDD-120. I bought it because I wanted a toy. I didn't tell myself this at the time. I told myself that I bought it because I'd just bought a bike, and having music on the move would encourage me to use that bike. It was a compelling argument. And, in fairness to myself, that wee mp3 player accompanied most of my cycle rides, some of which lost me a lot of weight during Christmas 2004.

The HDD-120 had a 20Gb hard drive, a black and white LCD screen, and a somewhat quirky, but friendly user interface. It was fairly painful to copy music to it, as it insisted on using a badly-written music manager tool for the purpose, rather than just let me copy my mp3 files directly onto it (as though it were a portable hard disk). Worse than the fact that the music manager was clunky to use and slow, this same music manager also crashed. Insult to injury was added by the fact that the system was very sensitive about the exact mp3-identity tags (the bit of the file which says the album, trackname, artist, etc) so a lot of the player's search facilities - to help me find the music which had been hidden away on it somewhere - rarely worked. Often albums would be played in the wrong order. It was a bit of a dog's dinner.

On the plus side, the HDD-120 was reasonably small and lightweight, and it had a recording facility, so I could use it to record gigs. When I had it stolen in the great car break-in of August 2005 (it wasn't that great), I reviewed my mp3 player situation. Did I still need one? What were my requirements?
  • Of course I still needed one
  • It needed to record
  • It would be useful if it had a radio
  • I needed a minimum of 20Gb hard disk
  • It would be nice if it could take the files more neatly
So, I went on ebay and bought the iRiver PMP-120. At the time I didn't know whether it had a better method of getting files, but it had 20Gb hard disk, recording facility and radio. It also had a colour screen, movie player and threatened to be able to play games.

So far, no games. I've also not really watched any movies on it - excepting the handful of movie files that came with it. However, it has accompanied me on several car journeys and has recorded a few dozen gigs. The PMP-120 has two problems:
  1. The user interface sucks a big donkey's cock
  2. It has a 20Gb Hard Disk
Hang on a minute? What does sucking a big donkey's cock mean in user interface terms? More importantly, how can the fact that it has a 20Gb Hard Disk be a problem? it was on the wishlist wasn't it? Furthermore, what's with all the rhetorical questions? It's just a device to keep you interested in this dull narrative.

So, the user interface. Well, this is quite simply unpleasant to use. If you don't know what you're doing, the player is virtually unusable. It has been reviewed as a bit of a geek's toy. It's tricky. However, I'm prepared to pay for a hard-to-use interface with the easy-to-use method of transferring my mp3 files. I can keep them on the player in exactly the same form that I keep them on my main computer. They're just some files in some directories - organised by genre, artist (if relevant) and then album. Easy.

The hard disk size? Well, I filled the unit up. 20Gb wasn't enough. Perhaps I should have bought the PMP-140 which has a 40Gb drive? I don't know. Basically, my computer now has more than 20Gb of music on it and the PMP doesn't record reliably with a nearly-full disk, it skips a bit as it tries to put the music in the gaps.

So, what to do? As of November, I'd been pondering the possibility of upgrading the hard disk. I would involve a certain amount of taking the machine to pieces and a cost of buying a very small hard disk, which is not a very small cost. At some point, I snapped and ordered the drive. I forget exactly when. So I was going to Pimp my PMP (hence the title). So far, this process has not been completed. It has been one problem after another. At the moment, I have an mp3 player which doesn't play any music. So, perhaps now is the time to take stock on what has happened so far and see where this "project" is leading me.

Ordering the drive
I ordered a 60Gb Toshiba mini drive. It's tiny. 1.8" wide and only 8mm tall (excuse the mismatched units there). However, it's also the drive they put in iPods and there's a world-shortage. It wasn't incredibly expensive (though you could buy an mp3 player for that price) but it was on a long-delivery time.

A few weeks later the supplier called me to see whether they could talk me out of receiving the drive. Sort of. They confirmed that I really wanted it before sending it. They'd receiving limited supply and wanted to be sure that the drivers were going to a good home. I said I wanted it and then tried to get it delivered to my good home. Farnborough (well, it's not good, or particularly home, but I'm there often). Sadly, my credit card is still registered in Newcastle so they threatened me with a confusing set of steps to convince them to deliver somewhere other than Newcastle. I let them deliver the drive to Newcastle on the basis that I would be able to pick it up the following weekend when I was visiting my house there anyway.

Not receiving the delivery
The drive didn't get through the door in Newcastle. It returned to the post office. One of my friends took the card along to the post office to pick it up but was turned away - the card needed to be signed by me. I gave them a copy of my signature to copy on the card. They went again with my signature reproduced faithfully on the card. No dice. The card needed to be signed and accompanied by an example of my signature on something official. If you think about it, since signatures can be relatively easily copied if you have enough time and nobody watching, there's no need to ask for a signature - they just needed to be certain that whoever was stealing my mail was also able to steal my driving licence.

So, when I went to Newcastle, the box was still in the post office and it was too late (that Saturday) for me to pick it up. D'oh. So, I gave my friend the driving licence. He went along, got the box, put the driving licence in it and then posted it to my Farnborough address.

Not receiving the re-delivery
A couple of days passed and no sign of a box or a card in Farnborough. Then I heard of a box which had no name on it which had been carded for. One of my housemates had the card in case it was for them. The tracking number from Royal Mail said that my box was waiting... of course my proof of ID was in the box, so picking it up might be a problem.

This was getting needlessly complicated.

Then I came back from work to find the box collected and sitting on the kitchen table. My name was on the side - the postman was just a numpty, not spotting the name and sticking it on the card.

So, just stick the drive in, right?
Not really.

I won't go into a huge amount of detail about this. Perhaps I will list the steps to complete the upgrade in my "geek" section, because there need to be more guides on doing this. Anyway, here are some of the things I had to do:
  • Take the device apart
  • Pry the main circuit board out of it
  • Disconnect the existing hard disk
  • Cut the hard disk's rubber encasement up so that some of it could be used to cushion the new drive
  • Put in the new hard drive
  • Put everything back together
  • Try to start up the machine, which immediately went wrong
  • Spend ages on the net looking for ways to fix it
  • Find that the machine would only work if I set the new hard disk to use only 20Gb of its 60Gb
  • Give up for a bit...
Which brings me to where we are at the moment. I've not copied the music back onto this, now blank, machine, as I've not yet completed the process of upgrading it. I thought that the hard bit would be the fiddly electronics-taking-apart-an-expensive-piece-of-equipment thing. It turned out that most of my irritation and fear that it may never work again was caused by software problems.

I have upgraded the firmware, which is the software that is permanently loaded into the memory of the machine and which controls it when it turns on (regardless of the hard disk). Now, I think I might be able to make the hard disk work as a 60Gb drive. Once I've done that I should be able to use it again. It's been the work of maybe 3 or 4 hours and a lot of waiting. When complete, it will be really good, as it will be able to contain a lot more of my music collection (I own a lot of music) and it will also be a bit quicker than it was (according to one person's experience doing the same upgrade).

Why do I need an mp3 player?
After all the effort of buying, replacing, upgrading and generally touching my mp3 player, has it been worth it?

Overall, yes. As a convenient way to record gigs, it's the perfect device (okay, so it could be smaller and less brick-like, but you can't have everything. More importantly, since I spend a lot of time driving and since I currently live 500 miles away from my CD collection (most of which is boxed in the loft in Newcastle), this little device is a portable library of the wide variety of music that I listen to. I'm plugged into music for a lot of the day. It's important to me.

Perhaps my geeky side likes the challenge of the pissing-about-with-hard-disks bit too.

Wednesday, April 19

Competitions and Gigs
Comedy is not a sport. There's absolutely no reason why people should compete in it. Yet comedians do. There's something about being a not-yet-established-act which puts enough desperation into the equation to make it seem like a good idea to go on stage and try to be better than the other comedians on the bill. Worse than that, the definition of "better" is completely arbitrary in the world of comedy.

So, despite the fact that I'd been telling people that I wouldn't get to the final, I went along to the semi-final of the Laughing Horse New Act of the year competition in Wimbledon on Saturday night. Worse than that, I even half-expected to get through to the final. I even had the gaul to be gutted (albeit temporarily) when I didn't even place in the top three.

Overall, the standard was quite disappointing. I wasn't on top form myself, though I got a reasonable response from what was proving to be a relatively hard-to-please audience... and if they were hard to please at the start, the fact that they had to endure 12 different acts (I was 9th) didn't help at all. To make things a little harder, there was no way to plug my guitar in, which meant that the audience probably just heard someone singing to themselves, rather than to the basic backing track I usually provide with the live guitar. I was playing it, but the poor wee bodied-thing is not the most audible of instruments in a big room.

On the up-side, I saw a few acts who made me laugh hard, one of whom I was to meet at a later gig.

On the down-side, where at most gigs it's left ambiguous whether you were really liked by the audience, at this gig, it was very clear.

From the loser to the headliner
I've been having nightmares about stand-up. My confidence has been quite low. This partly comes from the rarity of gigs in my diary at the moment, along with how I think I've been feeling about life in general (out of control). To have the confidence to make the mental journey between driving away from Wimbledon a loser and being the final act of someone's comedy night is a big thing. However, I have, in other aspects of my life, been regaining control, and I am actually quite enthusiastic about comedy. Laughing out loud at other acts at the competition on Saturday was a good combination of being a good sport, enthusiastic about comedy, and not as insecure as perhaps I've been fearing that I was.

So, I shrugged off my defeat and started plotting. Plotting is what I do best. Usually it's quite benign - I architect some software or plan a trip or whatever. I'm not anticipating an explosion under Westminster.

So, my love of comedy, along with one of my head-clearing and fat-expunging walks, put me in a suitable frame of mind for Monday night's trip to Kidderminster. I was looking forward to seeing one of the competitors from Saturday night do a set that didn't require a judgement. I also had the extra responsibility of knowing that my girlfriend's brother and his other half would be in the audience - I'd got them in as guests. So, I had to get myself back into the mindset of being the big comedian-man.

The longest set I've ever done is about 42 minutes. That required me to do everything I could possibly think of doing. Since I did that set, back in August, my stand-up has gone into decline. The longest set I'd done more recently was in Chester at 20 minutes. To headline, you should be able to do a comfy 25 minutes, preferably longer. In some ways, comedianing is a bit like a muscle, in that if you don't exercise it, then you get rusty and lose stamina. So, to do a solid 30 minute set was something which I felt I might need to build up to and I had to go from the 6 minutes on Saturday to the full 30 on Monday without any real opportunity to rehearse.

Well... the stakes were high, but not that high. The audience at Kidderminster are a very nice crowd and I felt like I could easily relax in their presence. Funnily enough, if I'm relaxed, I don't blast through the material so quickly, so it fills more time. Moreover, I don't run out of energy if I'm more relaxed. The fact that my guinea-pig-food diet (salad, not the wee pellets) had detoxed me a bit and made me feel more energetic (or less lethargic) probably helped. I made the time I wanted to, pretty easily. A couple of things got in my way, one of them was the fact that I foolishly did a very energetic bit of material before my preferred ending, which is more subtle, and thus didn't work so well. Secondly, I didn't take to the stage until about ten past eleven, which undoubtedly had some effect on the energy levels in the room - I felt sorry for my guests, who had a long journey back and had witnessed quite a lot of goings-on before they were free to leave.

So, for the second time at that gig, the unofficial feedback from the audience was that the second support act (i.e. the one who was on just before me) was the best act of the night, and for the second time that weekend, the act in question curried more favour with the audience than I did (he had placed in the top 3). However, I had nothing to be ashamed of. I should have been slightly ashamed that I'd used a headline spot to try out some new material, but I wasn't ashamed... because it worked a treat... making some really nice giggly sounds from the room.

I'm happier than I was when I was having the nightmares.

Easter updates
This blog has, as always, been falling into a state of disrepair. However, over the Easter holidays, I did manage to do a few updates. I updated my Ashley Frieze website - for my stand-up comedy and such. I also added updates to both the backlash AND apostrophell sections. I even rewrote my apostrophe test! The full list of new content is:

Fitter than a Butcher's Dog
What exactly does that mean? I ask you. What is it about the dogs of a butcher which make them prone to good health? Does the butcher exercise them regularly? Perhaps after a day of thrusting heavy sharp metal objects into the carcasses of dead animals, the butcher likes to have a life-affirming walk with a live animal that he'd never dismember, even if it died of natural causes. Or perhaps the phrase refers to the idea that the dog, being in the favour of the butcher, might be able to get plenty of good tid-bits to eat. Though wouldn't a butcher prefer to sell the good meat and just give the dog the unpleasant offal and trimmings that are full of nothing good? Unless the butcher is trying to fatten up the dog for later dismemberment.

Come to think of it, butchers are evil.

Or maybe they're not, but they have really healthy dogs.

It's more likely that they have dogs that either eat a lot of shit, in which case they may be happy, but they're remarkably unhealthy.

That's me.

I've been the butcher's dog. In that I've been eating a load of absolute shit, which I'm sure is the equivalent of 9 months' worth of doggy treats. The unrelenting truth, though, is that it's been killing me. I've been feeling fat. Sorry. I've been feeling FAT. I've been out of breath, with straining clothes and a general sense of the imperative of finding the way of conducting myself which involves sweating the least.

This is not good. I don't want to be a butcher's dog. They die young, don't they?

Back on the Wagon, and it's full of hay
So, for the last couple of weeks I've been back on the dieting wagon. I've not been doing any of the habitual bad things which had been getting me fat. It's quite simply an unpleasant thing to be on a diet (and I'm seriously dieting at the moment, rather than just eating a bit more healthily) but if I don't start it the hard way then I probably wouldn't start it at all.

To give you an idea of the sort of stupidity which preceded this diet, here is a list of the things which I have not been eating in the last couple of weeks:
  • Domino's Pizza
  • Domino's Garlic Bread
  • Other takeaway pizza
  • Sugar-laced vending machine drinks
  • Flapjacks from the office cafe - both sorts
  • Cadbury's mini eggs
  • Cadbury's creme eggs
  • Chips
  • Sausages
  • Tuna mayonnaise sandwiches
  • Anything made by Ginsters...
  • ...or Greggs
  • Chocolate brownies (or chocolate any-member-of-the-scouting-movement)
  • Bakewell tarts
  • Sausage rolls
None of those have been consumed in the last couple of weeks. I'll leave it up to you to work out how I've been fuelling my innate weight problem.

So, what have I been eating? What is the antidote to all this shite?
  • Salad
  • Very low fat salad dressing
  • Chicken breast
  • Fruit
  • Black coffee
  • Some milky coffees, skimmed milk where possible
I've cut down on carbs, I've cut down on fat and I'm eating not a huge number of calories each day. In two weeks I can really see a difference - I'm bloody miserable for a start. I'm also finding my shirts less bursting-at-the-seems-y. My trousers seem to fit a bit more and, although I switched to a slightly longer one, I'm no longer afraid of doing my belt up.

It sucks, but it's a necessary evil.

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