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2006 Notebook

From the late 90s I blogged frequently with various random observations and things I wanted to record. Pre-2003 material seems to have been lost on various early web platforms, and this sort of stuff went over to Twitter eventually, but I’ve gathered together the shorter WordPress blog posts in these annual roundups…


Best Educational Items for Toddlers …Ever!

Saturday 7 January 2006

Alex (aged 4 and three-quarters) got given a game for Christmas from his Godfather Paul which becomes an immediate new entry in my list of “Best Educational Items for Toddlers …Ever!” It’s called Rush Hour and it’s a logic puzzle which is apparently for eight-year-olds and upwards (certainly all grownups love it), but it hasn’t so far proved insurmountable for a four-year-old, and I’d thoroughly recommend it. In fact, you can “try before you buy” because there are online (Flash) versions such as this one: Online Version of Rush Hour
So here is my current list of “Best Educational Items for Toddlers …Ever!”:
1. Google Earth – should be compulsory in reception years in schools. Watch in amazement as it suddenly all falls into place inside their minds: “So that’s my house, and zoom out, and that’s my town …wow! My house is in my town! And zoom out, and that’s my country …wow! My town is in my country! And zoom out, and that’s the Earth …wow! My country is on the Earth! So wait a bit… zoom back in… my house is on the Earth! In space!”
2. Print out a calendar as a linear strip of 365 days, on 12 sheets of A4, and stick it on their bedroom wall. Mark on birthdays, Christmas etc with pictures. And make a little Blu-Tack pointer they can move along each day. Then marvel as they realise how time goes along in a straight line, how one event comes before another, and the speed at which it all operates. Fantastic.
3. Rush Hour. “Dad, I’m stuck on this one, can you help?” Hmm, the lesson to be learned here may well be that Dads aren’t perfect and can’t do everything. Oh dear…

Baby Tips are back!

Monday 9 January 2006

Big thanks to Jon Severn, who’d squirrelled away a copy of our Tips for Prospective New Parents which we’d written soon after Alex was born. It’s just a braindump of all the advice we wanted to give other new parents following our own experiences – stuff which you just knew you’d forget forever if you didn’t commit it to print. We sent it to a few other people, but lost it. However, one of those people (Jon) thought it was so useful, they’d kept a copy. And now I’ve done what I should have done way back then, and posted it here on the website.

Cambridge Folk Festival on Google Earth!

Wednesday 11 January 2006

Wow! Two great discoveries today. Not only is Google Earth available for the Mac now, but the aerial shots of Cambridge were taken while the last Cambridge Folk Festival was on. Look! That’s me and me mates on that rug, no really! Type in something like “walpole road cb1 uk” to get close. Yes – the Folk Festival and My House …together at last!. And another shot at a nice angle captured for posterity.

Sky+ …too noisy for the bedroom?

Sunday 26 February 2006

Well, we thought so. Full marks to Sky for agreeing to exchange our new Sky+ unit for a coventional Digibox, but really, they should warn you about this in the first place. For a start, the more recent Sky+ 40Mb boxes, made by Thomson, are really noisy compared to the old ones, both in terms of their fans and a real problem with loudly accessing the hard drive almost continually (this latter “feature” is supposedly being cured by a software upgrade soon). That would be bad enough in a living room, but it’s impossible to live with in a bedroom, where you have to sleep a few feet from the box. Why not put the thing into “standby” every bedtime? We tried that. It goes quiet after a few minutes. Bliss. Then in the middle of the night, the thing suddenly comes alive (I reckon it’s phoning home to see if there are any software updates, but that’s just a guess). You want to throw your teddy at the thing for waking you up before the birds are singing, really you do. (And I did.) The conventional Digibox, now safely installed in place of the Sky+, is silent. I don’t half miss Live Pause though.

More British than a British thing

Saturday 4 March 2006

There’s a half-decent, half-British, half-American Half Man Half Biscuit interview on Popmatters today. It says: “A big part of America’s problem, of course, is that Half Man Half Biscuit (HMHB to their friends) are so very British that, to a lazy listener, they must sound positively alien.” Count the missus in on that one, and she’s an Essex gel.

Real-life Simpsons intro

Thursday 9 March 2006

Just how long did this take to do? Utterly fantastic.

Cambridge Folk Festival 2006 lineup announced

Friday 24 March 2006

They’ve announced the lineup for this year’s Folk Festival which takes place in my back garden (-ish) and it’s an intriguing one. Nice to see they’ve continued the trend of the last few years by avoiding the pop acts (it hasn’t hurt the ticket sales, so why not?) Headlining is “a rare and exclusive UK festival appearance from the legendary Emmylou Harris” which should be interesting, and there’ll be plenty of people wanting to see the first appearance here in over 20 years of The Chieftains. I’ll be fascinated to hear if Cerys Matthews has gone folk, and artists returning who I’ve enjoyed in the past include Eddi Reader, Cara Dillon, Seth Lakeman and local faves Ezio. Also, when was the last time the Folk Festival had the previous Christmas’ chart topping act performing? I suspect Nizlopi will surprise a few people who think they’re a one-song outfit.

She will put us all to shame…

Tuesday 25 April 2006

Mrs R is doing the Race For Life in June, committing herself to running 5km for charidee. Doesn’t sound much, 5 kilometres, but then I think: “Hang on – I’m really proud of myself for being able to run for 20 minutes on the treadmill at 10km an hour”. And by my calculations, that’s only three and a bit kilometres. So big respect to Dawn, who’s training steadily and seems very confident she’ll have it all in hand by June. I’ll report back on the big day, but in the meantime, if you know us and want to sponsor Dawn, please do so. It all goes to Cancer Research UK, and you’ll make Dawn very proud.

Restaurant 22, Cambridge has a website!

Friday 5 May 2006

Last night we ate at Restaurant 22 at 22 Chesterton Lane, Cambridge. I wouldn’t normally think this worthy of a blog entry, but there seemed to be no record of the restaurant having a website when I scoured the search engines the day before. However, when we got there, its website was mentioned on its cards and menus, and indeed it most certainly has one. So I thought a quick link might get the Googlebot visiting it ASAP! Otherwise, if this entry is still the top one on Google, here’s the Restaurant 22 website. (Oh yes, and the food is very good indeed, but I’m sure you know that. Bill for two with a pretty decent bottle of wine: £80).

Joe Royle leaves Ipswich.

Friday 12 May 2006

I’m delighted that Royle has gone. I didn’t want him in the first place, along with all those in the North Stand who were chanting “Royle out” before he’d even been appointed nearly four long seasons ago. In all that time, I think we’d agree he really didn’t win over many of the sceptics either. A few, maybe, and I’ll admit at times in the second and third seasons here, his gung-ho tactics were so entertaining that I wasn’t complaining. But Royle should not be blamed for being himself. He came along as Joe Royle, and he managed as Joe Royle. Good for him. The board got what they asked for. And there’s the problem, of course. It was the 2002/03 season board who appointed the wrong manager, and it’s those people who we should be saying good riddance to now, much more than Royle, who simply did what he was paid to do. The board were so seduced by the pre-match canapes at Old Trafford and Highbury in 2000-2002 that an immediate return to the Premiership was simply the only thing they could contemplate. They needed a manager who could happily think short-term, one season at a time, with promotion the only objective. Royle was a decent choice. The fact that the supporters clearly would have preferred to see a new squad develop, even if it delayed promotion for a year or two, was just ignored. What do we know? Well, maybe not much. But what we want shouldn’t be ignored, because in the Championship, we represent the club’s main source of income. We knew what Royle was being brought in to do, and we didn’t want that. We wanted another “five-year plan” (or maybe two or three, given that we’d done it once already). Instead, four years have been wasted. Nowadays, of course, executive management which makes a mistake never falls on its sword, as Mr Blair exemplifies. They just say “this has been valuable experience” and that it “makes us even better qualified for the job” and anyway, “who is there who could do it better?” I think we’re about to see if this is true. Let’s see if we get a promising manager appointed, with a couple of years to get results. It’s a fantastic time for that, if we can keep the youngsters. The supporters have the patience. Can the board stop acting like junkies desperate for another fix of the high life, and join us?

Eurovision, so much to answer for

Monday 22 May 2006

Just when you think the Eurovision Song Contest is past its sell-by date, like every year, it comes back and provides you with some unmissable entertainment once more. Now, the idea of getting the public to vote, which has been running these past few years, is obviously stupid; if there was a slight regional bias in the voting before, now it’s set in stone. There’s simply no chance of anyone outside Scandinavia or the Balkans winning now, thanks to all the “and the 12 points goes to our lovely neighbours” stuff. But – and here’s a big but – the public are prepared to do something which the old “juries” never were: and that’s to vote for the nonsensical entries. This comes a few years too late for Germany, which had made the tongue-in-cheek stuff an art form, but never mind: the two countries which
put in very silly songs indeed were handsomely rewarded, much to the delight of everyone in countries like the UK which stand no chance of winning any more (because everyone hates us). Lithuania’s song, which consisted of a bunch of blokes shouting “Vote for the winners, of Eurovision!” for three minutes, was nothing short of genius, and for a while looked like it might even get second place. But of course Finland’s “death metal” act swept all before it. It was more a less funny Spinal Tap than Bolt Thrower, but we loved it. The British public voted Finland 1 and Lithuania 2, as did at least one other country with no particular affiliations to either state, and the big question is: just how silly can it all get next year? Now we’ll find out which nationalities haven’t got a sense of humour. Eurovision could be about to go mental. I can’t wait.

Gigfest!

Wednesday 24 May 2006

Three gigs on consecutive weekdays – something of a record, methinks. Friday, and to the Cambridge Corn Exchange for a token dose of modern pop’n’roll, with The Zutons. Their selling point is more than just the originality of a female sax player at the forefront: they’ve cracked the formula of the singalong quite comfortably, although after two albums’ worth, they may have to find a different approach to repeating the chorus several times with full backing, then stopping the music to chant the chorus (along with the audience) before crashing back in with the music again. Terrible sound (in a venue where I’ve heard good sound before) which meant that only the familiar songs were worth the admission fee. And yes, I did feel old.
Monday, and to the Albert Hall to catch one night of Eric Clapton’s annual residency there. When you play like EC, and have the quality of material, you can’t go wrong, although I felt eleven band members made it all just too complicated. But hey, I’m not complaining. How could you with a gig that finishes with Wonderful Tonight, Layla, Cocaine and Crossroads? Wow. Another “must-do” event ticked off life’s list
And finally, to The Junction in Cambridge on Tuesday for another act which was at its peak when I was in short trousers: the Average White Band. There may only be two of the original members left, but these guys can still really cut it. Long before Level 42 made white boys playing jazz-funk mainstream, AWB – from Scotland – had proved it’s all in the groove, not in your background. Rather neatly, they first came to prominence as support for Eric Clapton in his famous 1973 comeback gig. “Pick up the Pieces” sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday, the sign of a true classic.

The Blog is Back!

Friday 11 August 2006

You’ll notice there’s a 10-week gap between this entry and the previous one. You may think the reason is probably because I couldn’t be a**ed to write anything while the sun was out. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I haven’t been able to publish anything, because as with a lot of other users, Blogger has been having problems publishing to my non-Blogspot site. I realised some weeks back that the way ahead would be to move to a better blogging platform, so I firstly had to research which one (WordPress didn’t take long to push itself to the fore) and then I had to move the whole web site away from the server of some business associates (where I’d been blagging free space for ten years) to a proper, paid-for web host which could provide WordPress. More on where I went, and how it’s turned out, over the next few days. In the meantime, to everyone at Blogger, thanks for the free service for all these years, and I leave you amicably.

Why WordPress?

Friday 11 August 2006

So, why did I go for WordPress as my blogging software? Remember: application first, platform second. Zeldman.com puts it well: easy writing facilities, easy design facilities, standards compliant, and as the leading open-source application, you know that there’s plenty more development left in the tank. I’m not fussed that it’s free, although that’s a nice extra. And once I’d had a look, and realised WordPress did everything I needed well, I could see that there was a lot, lot more for me to play with in the future.
The clincher was that I quickly discovered that WordPress comes with built-in facilities for importing an existing Blogger blog (amongst others). This turned out to be so smooth I wondered if it had actually worked properly. It had. As standard, it assumes you have a Blogspot-hosted blog, which I didn’t, but there are plenty of workarounds if your Blogger blog is hosted on your own web site. The most obvious, which I used, was to republish your entire blog on Blogspot (it takes a minute or two, that’s all), then import it from there. Finally, delete the blog from Blogspot. Easy!
I’m looking forward to using WordPress, which is more than I can say for a lot of new software I’ve tackled.

A New Web Site Host

Friday 11 August 2006

Next job was to choose someone new to host my web site. As previously noted, I’d kindly been allowed some spare space on the server of some business associates for many years, but I couldn’t bank on their hospitality forever, and they weren’t able to host WordPress. So it was time to move on, with grateful thanks. Having chosen WordPress, and not having any unusual requirements, the choice of host was fairly open. US-based ones seemed cheaper, but somehow I feel more comfortable knowing my web site is spinning around in a UK-based server. Also, I have a page about UK-based services which ranks really well on Google, and people would argue that having this on a UK-based server helps with that ranking.
I searched for a few websites which might have reviewed web hosts, and indeed there were many. But more than a few looked suspiciously non-independent to me: either favourable to their advertisers, or worse, perhaps even (cleverly) set up by the web hosts themselves. I saw a few recommendations in forums, but again, wasn’t inspired to immediately sign up with one. What I did learn, however, is that I should look for a host offering good control over setting up the web sites, email, statistics and more, and that this could be done quite easily: look for a host offering CPanel. This is a simple interface to a massive range of capabilities, widely sold to hosting companies. And it does turn out to be excellent. The host should also offer Fantastico, which can be accessed through CPanel. Fantastico is a collection of third party scripts and applications, and an easy installer. The applications include WordPress.
So now I had something to look for, and it didn’t take long to find some hosts offering this. I wasn’t too hung up on pricing but found one host quite quickly (thanks AdWords!) which was very competitive and offered all of the above. The company appears to be based in Hebden Bridge, which is a lovely part of the country, and also passed my final test, by offering a company web site which was usable by Mac owners. That really shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for anyone in the IT business, surely, but it is. Sites tested only on IE and Windows with stupid javascript menus that don’t pull down, tiny text, and buttons which don’t work: we Mac owners have seen them all, and guess what? We walk away from doing business with you.
Fortunately for Nativespace, signing up with them wasn’t a challenge, so they got the business. Beware that the multiple site packages they offer only really give you multiple subdomains of the first one you set up with them; it doesn’t really matter, because you just alias the domain to that subdomain, but if you have one important one, set that up first. I didn’t: in fact, I set up my least important one first, www.therandfamily.com, as a test. That means although you appear to be looking at http://chrisrand.com now, you’re actually looking at http://chrisrand.therandfamily.com which I hope doesn’t turn out to be a problem.
I’ll report back on the Nativespace experience if there’s anything to report on!

Put yourself on a plinth yeah?

Monday 14 August 2006

Unquestionably the thing on TV at the moment which makes me laugh the most is Modern Toss. Indeed it’s the only TV for a long time which has made me giggle out loud, so much so that Mrs R came down to find out what it was all about. And it just got better, because she denounced it as “simply not that funny” and “just a load of swearing. That’s all. Just a load of swearing”. Which just made it funnier. “It’s the stink of excellence in a world gone tits up”, as Doon Mackichan (for it is she) says every programme. Help Desk and Drive-By Abuser are the highlights. No question. It’s on for about one more week on Channel Four, then will be repeated seventeen times a year on More4, E4, Kiddie4 and 4play, no doubt.

My new favourite online game ever

Friday 18 August 2006

Thanks to Gibbo for alerting me to something really special. Geosense says it’s been around since 2003 so I’m gutted that I’d never seen it before. It’s a “point to where the place is” quiz with a world map, and to add interest, you can play against other people online. How cool is that? Very.

HD = Highly Desirable

Tuesday 22 August 2006

Lots of things to catch up on from the several weeks when I wasn’t posting in May, June and July. One of the things I would have blogged about on a daily basis would have been assembling a new AV system for the living room. So much research to do! So much shopping! So much fun!
I’ll do a short review of most of the components I ended up with in separate entries here, but the inspiration for the whole change was the launch of HD TV here in the UK, which the geek in me couldn’t resist, naturally. That meant a new screen, and repositioning everything in the room meant the old sound system wouldn’t fit, and… you get the rest. Naturally I wanted everything in place for the World Cup in June, during which I expected to have a house full of people regularly, but – like many people – I didn’t anticipate the demand for Sky HD boxes. Sky started taking orders in mid-May, with the World Cup four weeks away, but by the time I ordered mine, delivery date was some time in August. Disaster. The good folks at Sevenoaks Sound + Vision would have no trouble delivering the new screen in time, but I assumed, glumly, that I’d be watching in glorious, old-school, lo-def.
I was wrong. The Sevenoaks lads suggested I ordered Sky HD through them, rather than directly from Sky. They only make a fiver from the deal, but they did say there was a chance Sky might get them some kit more quickly than they would Joe Ordinary Subscriber. And they turned out to be right. Whilst I didn’t have the HD box for the opening ceremony, we were taking the pictures for granted by the time England got knocked out. One-nil to a decent, High Street dealer.
So, what’s it like? Is High Definition TV worth all the fuss? In a word, yes. It’s been variable though. The BBC “test channel” is uniformly fantastic. What a picture. Sky’s stuff, especially Sky One, seemed relatively disappointing at first, but I’m sure the picture quality on the general programming has been getting better over the past few weeks. Watching Brainiac last night, it struck me just what an advance HD is. The sport has been pretty good too, and I’m looking forward to the Premiership stuff; I’m under no illusions that the Championship games I love will be in HD! True, if you’re used to watching high-quality downloads on a computer screen (exemplified by the HD versions of the Apple vs PC ads), you won’t be blown away by the quality per se, but I guarantee seeing programmes you’re used to seeing in lo-def suddenly get 100% sharper will impress you.
As for the Sky HD box itself, it works as advertised, and the tremendous Sky remote control hasn’t been ruined at all. The internal drive is much larger than the old Sky boxes (our original one was always filling up, yet this one seldom goes past 50%), but the responsiveness on fast forward and rewind is not brilliant, sometimes irritatingly slow. Sky have referred to this on the web site and have suggested software improvements may be on the way.

JCB Dieselmax: a landmark for new media

Friday 25 August 2006

Firstly, the breaking of the diesel-powered land speed record this week by the JCB team: brilliant. But something interesting occurred to me yesterday, whilst I listened to a caller on Five Live berating the BBC and other mass media for neglecting what for many people has been the only noteworthy thing in a quiet news week. Whilst an avid web surfer, I’m usually someone who doesn’t consider something to be a genuine event unless it’s been on the BBC Six O’Clock News, front page of the dailies, etc. So I was surprised to hear from the caller that the coverage of the JCB Dieselmax had been so low-key.
Hang on a minute: I hadn’t even realised that the coverage had been so low-key. I had simply, and without thinking, been following it all on the JCB team’s web site, and hadn’t even thought of getting my media coverage anywhere else. In fact, I’d read so much latest news there and watched so much video, that I’d probably passed saturation point for one news story; and although I can’t remember whether or not I watched the Six O’Clock News any night this week, even if I did, I didn’t notice that they omitted to cover it. For me then, this week was a landmark, when new media finally became mainstream for the news. I was bypassing TV and the newspapers without even thinking about it.

Andy Green: Sports Personality of the Year!

Friday 25 August 2006

Which one of these looks more like the Sports Personality of the Year to you? OK, probably neither. In a conventional, sane world, Nicole Cooke or Monty Panesar would be shoo-ins for their achievements and entertainment. Proper sports, proper accomplishments on and off the field or track. But in this celebrity-obsessed world, it’s being suggested that comedian David Walliams should get’s this year’s BBC-organised gong, for his – admittedly impressive – feat of swimming the Channel for charity. That’s not a sport. It’s an achievement …but it’s not a sport. If we’re going to open it up to achievements which are vaguely related to real sports, then forget David Walliams; it’s the RAF’s Andy Green for me. The driver of the world land speed record holding car has now driven the JCB-powered JCB Dieselmax to the diesel land speed record, and I’m going to suggest that not only is land speed record breaking as close to a proper sport (motor racing) as cross-Channel swimming is to one, but that Green’s feat was even more impressive than Walliams’. And anyway, have you watched Andy Green being interviewed? Now there’s an old-school hero.

Disneyland: still the best

Thursday 31 August 2006

So we came into a bit of money earlier in the year, and decided we’d each have a treat. Mrs R got her new kitchen (report follows), I got my big telly (report follows), and Alex got his return trip to Disneyland Paris. Here’s the trip report!

I actually like Disneyland, and I like myself for liking it. Dismissing it as some sort of chav nightmare is the easy middle-class thing to do. Coming out of the closet and saying it’s actually great fun is far cooler, IMHO. Firstly, plaudits to Short Breaks for seamless organisation of the trip; I picked them off the web because I liked their web site and because it had some credible testimonials, and the company was efficient and friendly. What’s more, when I needed to be a pain and rearrange the train time back, they were there on Sunday morning when most travel agents would be in bed. Secondly, three cheers for Eurostar once more; the journeys were comfortable and on time, and the service impeccable (yes, we did go Leisure Select, but it wasn’t that much more expensive than “standard” class, and is easily worth the money).
We took the plunge this time, as it was a special treat, and stayed in the Disneyland Hotel, the gaudy pink creation straddling the entrance to the main park. Having now stayed in a selection of hotels on three trips to Disneyland Paris, I’d thoroughly recommend either shelling out for this hotel, or going for something much cheaper, off-site. Ignore the other “on-site” Disney hotels. For us, it’s all about location. The Disneyland Hotel is almost within the park, so you can pop back to your room during the day and it makes all the difference. If you don’t have this convenience, and have to make a trip to the park, you won’t return to your room during the day; so whether you’re a 15-minute walk from the park (the other Disney hotels) or a 15-minute bus ride (the cheaper, off-site hotels) doesn’t really matter.
The hotel was also very pleasant to stay in, as you’d expect. Service was excellent, and some effort was clearly being put in to give it a refined, relaxing air, quite different to the lively holiday atmosphere of other hotels. The standard food (i.e breakfast) was very good, although the expensive evening buffet was rather disappointing for the price.
As for the park, well, it’s Disneyland! All the rides were present and correct, and Alex has definitely progressed from “It’s a Small World” being his favourite (when he was three and a half) to Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Tours (two years on). More interesting for the parents too! I can’t believe we’d never been to see the “Moteurs…” stunt show before – it was great fun – and the new Lion King show was a tremendous spectacle too. We thought two-and-a-half days was about right for us; we did just over half a day in the Studio park, and the rest in the main one, with most time spent in Discoveryland and Fantasyland. The other two are really in need of a bit of livening up. We also caught the last occurrence of the night-time parade and fireworks over the castle before it closed for the winter, which was a bit of a result (although a planned one!).
Overall then, a great holiday, if you take it for what it is. Sure, there are loads of improvements they could make, starting with the admission that the incongruous theming (a “future world” which seems to have been deliberately set in the fifties anyone?) means nothing to the kids and has had its day. Several of the attractions are well past their sell-by date in an age of video gaming. But the good bits are very good, the organisation is impeccable, and the smile on the face of our five year old said it all.

43 inches – I think I got away with it

Tuesday 5 September 2006

As promised, a review of my new AV setup. Well, partially new. I decided to retain the old Denon DVD Receiver just as a DVD player for now, and there certainly isn’t any point in updating the indestructible Panasonic VCR. But I wanted a new screen, an internet source, and (after much nagging from Mrs R, once she’d seen what was available) a speaker set which didn’t involve five boxes and a lot of cable.
For the screen, the forums told me that I could probably get away with something as large as a 43-inch, but that anything larger in a room four or five metres across would run the risk of being too large (in that you’d start to see the imperfections in the picture). When I started to do the research, the same product came up again and again and again: the Pioneer PDP-436, and in particular, the Pioneer PDP-436XDE version. It had everything: top performance, the ability to have it without useless speakers spoiling its lines, and a separate control box, reducing the cabling which would have to go to the screen.
In review, I’d say the screen totally lives up to its billing. It took a bit of setting up, and I was totally indebted to the fantastic Pioneer PDP Plasma Frequently Asked Questions at AVforums thread, contributors to which I will gladly buy a beer anytime. From there I learned of the importance of running it in (not mentioned by the manufacturer or the dealer), and the compatibility problems with the Sky HD box (only since acknowledged by Pioneer, and apparently unknown to the dealer at the time). All problems were solved, and after mounting the panel at the correct height (eye level when you’re sitting down, people!), it has a resounding wow factor. We got the electrician to put a power socket on the wall behind the screen, leaving just a single HDMI cable to bury in the plasterboard. Look Mum, no wires!
As mentioned earlier, the new AV setup meant that it was out with my treasured Mission 5-speaker system, and in with a more suitable “one box” alternative: the Yamaha YSP-1000. I needed some convincing, even after reading the reviews, but it didn’t take long to realise that this is the way ahead. The technology involved in simulating rear speakers is fascinating (it was developed here in Cambridge!) and more to the point, it works. People turn to face the rear wall and look puzzled: just where are those hidden speakers? You don’t get a better sound from the one box than you would from a 5-speaker system, but you do get a level of neatness which I’d never have expected to see – very important in a domestic environment!
Two more items to mention: I added a Mac Mini to give us internet access. It’s rather cool to have DVD on input 1, Sky TV on input 2, VCR on input 3, and the internet on input 4. It’s probably been more of a talking point than any other part of the system really, and I’ll do a separate blog entry about this. Finally, I managed to keep the enthusiasm going for one last piece of research: a universal remote control. I’ve not always been sold on these, because you end up pressing so many buttons changing them from acting as one remote control to another, it’s easier to use the pile of dedicated devices. But the Logitech Harmony 880 takes a different approach, where you set soft buttons to represent “activities”, such as “turn the TV on” …which would turn on the screen, the speaker/amp and the Sky box all in one. It isn’t perfect, but you can gradually tweak the settings, and after a few iterations I’m nearly there. It’s definitely an improvement on several remote controls, although not perfect.
And Mrs R did make a contribution to the system, to ensure it wasn’t an all-boys’ affair: the rather nice black acrylic unit, which came from John Lewis. Perfect in every way, I’d say. Typical.

MisGuided Bus: a sad day for democracy

Thursday 7 September 2006

The commencement of buying up of land between Cambridge and St.Ives for the ridiculous “Guided Bus” scheme has brought home the fact that, incredibly, this absurd creation really is going ahead. Powered by the unstoppable combination of governmental ignorance and county councillors’ vanity, the “misGuided Bus” is set to plonk the most enormous concrete white elephant on our county, and cause irreparable damage to our local transport infrastructure at the same time.
The most progressive way of taking traffic off the A14 would have been to have rebuilt the railway line to Huntingdon and connect it up fully to the East Coast Main Line there. But proponents of that option didn’t dare campaign for such a scheme, because the estimated £100million cost would never have stood a chance of being approved. Instead, rail enthusiasts devised a commendable community-operated scheme which would cost less than half of that, but which would terminate at St.Ives for now. This sensible plan was felt to be far more likely to get governmental approval.
But up against this came the bizarre idea of a “Guided Bus” running on a concrete road over the old railway track – a technology dismissed by its creator as inappropriate for the area, and which would achieve nothing other than taking a few buses off the A14 – big deal. Somehow, the idea gathered momentum – a councillor became enthusiastic about it (you have to ask questions why) and then became defensive when it was criticised – always a dangerous thing. After that, possibly for no better reason than “avoiding loss of face”, the plan began to be promoted aggressively at county council level, and astonishingly, it became a genuine possibility.
Hang on, said the rail enthusiasts, this technically and strategically daft scheme will cost over £100million, but would achieve less than the community rail link. And if that sort of money really was available, we could have the proper, joined-up rail alternative after all, which would actually get freight off the roads too. But the councillors, their taxpayer-funded consultants and other vested interests insisted the misGuided bus would cost half of this amount, and pushed it through a mysterious public enquiry where the results were “accidentally deleted” at the last moment and had to be rewritten.
Guess what? The current estimated cost of the Cambridge Guided Bus is now £116million and work hasn’t even begun. All this to give buses their own road from St Ives to Cambridge, after which they get stuck in Cambridge traffic as normal, and then apparently out to Trumpington. Of course, businesspeople working on the Science Park are going to flock to leave their cars at home and jump on a bus just because it’s got a road of its own, aren’t they? A quick back-of-a-fag-packet calculation suggests that if the Guided Bus carried 50 people in and out of Cambridge every 10 minutes (yeah, right), for 15 hours a day, 365 days a year, (I know, I know), it would carry 16 million people in ten years. Yes folks, that a cost to the taxpayer of seven pounds a journey.
There is so much talent and knowledge amongst the public in this country, and yet we leave the decisions to enthusiastic amateurs more concerned with their own self-image in the community. Yes, I know it’s called local democracy. But while the party-based system and public inertia makes local democracy not worth participating in, local democracy does not serve us well, my friends.

Don’t take Google for granted.

Tuesday 19 September 2006

Whilst Google is not my favourite search engine at the moment, having applied an arbitrary penalty to my business web sites this summer, I’ll forgive the folks there for today at least. I do enjoy it when summary justice is delivered to people who just want to punch a gift horse in the face. I get very irritated by people who consider it a right to be given masses of traffic or masses of AdSense revenue by Google, completely free of charge. If that free gift then gets withdrawn, they start talking about legal action, or “fighting back” against Google (ha ha). Get over it. Almost by definition, free gifts are privileges, not rights.
Whilst I’m at it, anyone who gets straight on the phone to lawyers in business, rather than trying to resolve their differences the human way, should also get all the misfortune which the gods of a more civilised society can muster. Few things in my working life have given me more pleasure than exploiting my own position to cause what little hurt I can – for years after the event – to the handful of companies who’ve ever waved their lawyers’ names in my direction.
Anyway, what this is all leading towards is the extremely amusing news this morning concerning Belgium taking on the modern world, and losing. A newspaper association in Belgium objected to Google featuring its publications in Google News results and storing the pages; never mind the free traffic which the search engine consequently sent the newspapers’ web sites. Do I detect the hand of management which doesn’t quite “get it” here? They actually got a court order requiring Google to stop featuring the newspapers or be fined large amounts of money. So Google has – brilliantly – done just that. Not only has it removed the newspapers from Google News (which is what this was all about), but it’s taken them out of the index completely. This will presumably decimate their web site traffic, and I can only imagine the reaction from the people who really matter in newspapers: the commercial department and the advertisers.
Good write-up here.

Healthy Start

Monday 25 September 2006

Our new health service equipment news web site has launched, edited by Paul Buckley. It’s been most of the year in preparation, and it deserves to do really well.

We have to hear that question from them, now

Thursday 28 September 2006

Rarely has a movie had as strong an impact on me as An Inconvenient Truth. Rarely have I seen a movie get as many good reviews as this one. All the more remarkable then that it’s just a relatively low-budget film of a guy giving a lecture.
I don’t want to focus on the climate change message of the movie though. I want to comment on Al Gore’s optimism in the face of the evidence he presents. This truly is a man who comes over as a glass-half-full kinda guy. I brought away two revelations from the film: firstly, that whilst the economic system that created climate change might be flawed, and perhaps the corporations which support that system, the people who work for those corporations aren’t evil. He quotes Upton Sinclair (although I thought he said Mark Twain): “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”.
Secondly, he says there is no point in going “straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of actually doing something about the problem”. And he’s right. He says: “Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves. “What were our parents thinking? Why didn’t they wake up when they had a chance?”We have to hear that question from them, now.
The film is, of course, totally one-sided. But it has a right to be. I’ve searched around the internet looking for a seriously constructive poor review of the film, but nearly every criticism I can find is little more than kneejerk ranting from those opposed to Gore’s party in his political career. I still feel uncomfortable with the fact that an environmental activist held the No.2 position in the US Government for eight years and yet the country is still way ahead of anyone else in killing off the planet, but my American friends patiently explain that it takes more than one man to move political sentiment in the USA. You certainly get the impression from the film that Gore has exhausted that avenue and is now trying another way to get his message across.
Like many people, if I had the money, I’d buy the DVD of this and post it through every letterbox in the world. In the meantime, there’s a full transcript here.

What is Magilton putting in their half-time cuppa?

Friday 29 September 2006

It’s extraordinary enough that we’ve scored two goals or more in each of the last six games, but even more so that Currie’s free kick on Saturday was our first goal in the first half since the opening day of the season. I was quite aware of how rarely we score in the first half at home, because all the blummin’ goals there seem to hit the net in front of the North Stand, but I’ve only just realised our first half goal drought extended to away games too.
This season, time of Ipswich goals (league):
01-15 mins: 0 16-30 mins: 1 31-45 mins: 1 FIRST HALF TOTAL: 2 46-60 mins: 2 61-75 mins: 5 76-90 mins: 5 SECOND HALF TOTAL: 12
(…that’s 10 goals out of 14 in the last half hour, and I haven’t included the Peterborough game, where we didn’t start scoring until the 90th minute, f’rgoodnessake)
A statistical freak? Or a direct result of the way the team’s playing? Or just something to do with Billy Clarke?

Wow. A quote from my publication by Charlotte Green.

Wednesday 11 October 2006

I can probably go to heaven happily now. Anyway, thanks to “Steve Yates” (whoever he is) for sending in one our stories to BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz because of its innuendo-laden content, and if you’ve got your speakers on, off you go and listen to Charlotte Green reading out words from Engineeringtalk (above). Sorry about the low-quality, B3ta-styleee video wot I made for it, but the pizza was coming out of the oven in 15 minutes. I’d also like to thank my agent, the blokes who developed iMovie, the BBC’s “listen again” feature, Roger from Adept who dropped his bacon sarnie when hearing this clip on air, God, anyone else who knows me (continues until closedown…)

Spamalot London Review*

Saturday 14 October 2006

Whatever Eric Idle did with this show, he was going to be in for some easy criticism: too many lifts from the Python catalogue, too few, shouldn’t have done it at all, etc. Well, all I can say is, Spamalot was one of the most memorably funny evenings out I’ve had for years. I think they got it just right: not a straight run-through of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but not an incessant stream of nudge-nudge wink-wink references to other Python material either, just a bunch of in-yer-face addons to keep everyone happy (Finland, Bright Side of Life, etc).
And let’s face it, whilst I can understand the show having been a hit on Broadway, the West End in London is its real home. Only two of the cast have transferred, from what I’ve read: the magnificent Tim Curry as King Arthur, and Chris Sieber as Sir Dennis Galahad. But the star of the show is – unquestionably – the statuesque Hannah Waddingham as The Lady of the Lake. Apparently she’s only two inches taller than Tim Curry (hmmm…), but she dominated the stage just as the writer and director presumably intended. Fabulous.
Is it worth going? If you’re even a minor Monty Python fan, no question: it’d have been a great night out for you even if the production values hadn’t been so high, but given the full West End treatment, you’ll spend the evening thinking this is something you never thought you’d see. There were a few people around me who clearly didn’t know any Python past Always Look on the Bright Side of Life though, and they seemed to be having just as good a time, thanks to the incessant and hilarious parodies of other musicals, slapstick which anyone would love, and terrific singing and choreography. It’s a Big West End Production in every respect, and a marvellous night out. I’d also thoroughly recommend the CD of the original Broadway show

* Yes, I know it’s not the most exciting title for a post. But for some reason, at the time of writing, a web search on this fairly basic phrase (“Spamalot London Review”) produced not a single decent hit, so I thought I’d use it and get the traffic. That’s all.

You have reached the end of iTunes.

Monday 16 October 2006

I have a “smart playlist” in iTunes which only includes tracks I’ve never played before. So the playlist slowly gets smaller (do you see what I did here?). Today it stopped. Looks like I’ve reached the end. Twenty days’ worth of music. Now I’ve had to re-set it to “tracks I’ve only played once before”. The last track, by the way, was Cortez The Killer by Neil Young.
While we’re on the subject of iTunes, you’re probably aware of the old LTBSD (Length of Time Before Steely Dan) Factor in iTunes’ shuffle mode. Anyway, in earnest discussion with the good Dr Bragg about this the other day, he mentioned that there is a flaw in this well-known phenomenon, which is that for him, it’s the LTBB (Length of Time Before Bowie) Factor. And he has a point, as I realised when I looked at last week’s chart here.
Except as we discussed this, in the space of just 10 minutes, iTunes promptly played Aja and King of the World by – you guessed it – Steely Dan. So it is indeed a conspiracy by Apple’s software engineers to get the world listening to the music of the band which my younger brother Tony (who hated them) christened “Steeleye Spam” as long ago as 1981. And that’s final.

Anderson and Wakeman: an odd couple

Saturday 21 October 2006

The eBay effect on ticket prices is well established (the artists may as well charge double what they used to, because if they sell the tickets more affordably, scumbags will hoover them up and sell them on eBay), so thanks to that, we have to pay over thirty quid (face value) now to see a low-key, every-expense-spared stage show at a provincial theatre by artists who are trading on former glories, however amicably. It’s ridiculous, but hey, we paid, so don’t blame the artists. That said, the Cambridge Corn Exchange was disappointingly only two-thirds full for prog rock legends Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, even if they were performing with just acoustic guitar, piano and a couple of banners draped from the ceiling. Still, the two guys managed to create a fairly intimate and relaxed atmosphere, and it was a pleasant, if hardly life-changing, evening. During an hour or so either side of an interval (necessitated by prostate demands at their age of course, quipped Rick), they played a mixture of some new songs they’ve written, pared-down Yes “classics”, and some slightly indulgent but (in Rick’s case) entertaining solo stuff.
Maybe Anderson and Wakeman once had more in common, but now they appear to be from different planets. Nowadays, Rick is the amusing chap who appears on TV and radio regularly, and whilst his piano playing is beautiful, he appeared to be trying to entertain the audience as much with his humour, and may have succeeded. Meanwhile, Jon seems like a mad old uncle, forgetting the lyrics, completely missing the meaning of Rick’s asides, and you suspect that in life as much as in art, he now just lets everything float over his head. The lyrics of Anderson’s recent material are sub-sixth-form poetry, and no impeccable piano accompaniment can redeem them, but the old stuff was, of course, hard to do badly. That said, it was obvious which of the Yes songs they’d really put the effort in to rearrange for piano, acoustic guitar and voice – Awaken was worth the price of admission for me – because when they just ran through a piece, it showed. And they needed some quality control: a cod-reggae version of Time and a Word might have sounded like it was worth a try, but should probably have been filed under “er, perhaps not”. I wouldn’t class this gig as a bad one, but it’s really just a curiosity for the Yes fans.

The Man from the Council he say …no.

Monday 30 October 2006

Well it looked pretty substantial to me, but the building inspector measured the trench for our foundations, whistled through his teeth slightly, looked at the nearby growth and said: “Oh dear no, those are cherry trees. You’ll need to dig 1.4m deep, not 1.2m”. The builders were most polite (“You have to treat him like God, because, basically, he is”) and promised to get it done straight away. Well, straight away in builders’ terms, which is tomorrow. Then we can get the cement in, so long as The Man doesn’t find anything else wrong. One week into the build and we’re already half a week late. It’s a whole new world for me.

Cherry Hinton at War: brilliant!

Tuesday 31 October 2006

This is fantastic. Apparently the greatest war of prehistory, the Trojan War, didn’t take place in Turkey, but in Cherry Hinton. No, really. According to Where Troy Once Stood, it all happened
on the hills over by the golf club (it must have spoiled the greens a bit). Then apparently, the survivors drifted away and ended up in Turkey, and the memory of their original home (although not the War) was lost over time. When the Greeks who documented the events came along, they just assumed it all happened locally. Brilliant.

Quick. Fill in the hole while nobody’s looking.

Thursday 2 November 2006

So when the neighbours were out at work, we blocked up the road for an hour with this huge great cement mixer, which discharged about fifty wheelbarrowloads (is that an imperial or metric unit?) of wet concrete and they went straight into our footings. All that digging, and the whole thing got filled up in 45 minutes. Great fun for five year olds to watch. Alex got all the builders a beer from the fridge afterwards.

Where’s the grass gone?

Wednesday 8 November 2006

It was quite nice turf, really. But you’ll have to take our word for it. Or, if it hasn’t been updated, the evidence is at Google Maps. Now there’s just mud, glorious mud. And some nice footings. And of course “the most difficult bit of drain to move I’ve ever, ever come across in all my years”. Why of course!

Webmasterworld Pubcon Las Vegas 2006: a strange world

Saturday 18 November 2006

So, back from Webmasterworld Pubcon Las Vegas 2006, and my introduction to a very strange little world. A great conference, and almost certainly worth the time and expense flying across the Atlantic (and then some), if only for Guy Kawasaki‘s amusing and inspiring presentation.
But a lot of people in this world of webmastering need to get out more. The cliques which exist, and the attempts to build a cult of personality, are risible. Brett Tabke, the organiser, introduced one of the keynote speakers, Danny Sullivan, in quite cringeworthy fashion: like Brett, Danny runs a search engine related online forum and offline conference series, although Danny recently sold his operation, and subsequently announced he would be leaving. In his preamble, Brett told us about the day he heard Danny was resigning. It was made out to be something like a JFK or death-of-Diana moment, and clearly he knows exactly what he was doing when he heard the news. But it didn’t seem to me like anyone else in the audience could remember being particularly interested in the “bloke gives up editorship of newsletter to spend more time with his money” story. And even after listening to Danny, who seems like an interesting guy, I don’t suppose anyone really cared that much about what he’s going to be doing for a living this time next year.
Then there was the socialising. Whilst there were events to which everyone was invited, such as Ask.com’s and Google’s, there were (apparently) others to which Joe Public was not welcome, and Brett kept reminding everyone about this, suggesting that you could get a ticket if you were anyone important and if you knew who to ask, but he wasn’t going to tell you how. Most people’s response was along the lines that they wouldn’t want to join a club which would have them as a member anyway. The “would-be reporter” type of bloggers breathlessly let everyone know the next day that although they themselves “couldn’t make it” to Yahoo (or whoever)’s party, they heard that it was a cool event, and eagerly listed all the superstars of the webmaster world who were there. Like me, the bloggers probably had a more important appointment being assimilated by the Borg at the Star Trek experience.
Matt Cutts of Google was probably the only person at the event who genuinely is important outside this little world, if only because he can make or break so many businesses at a stroke. I met more than one delegate who’d found their web sites mysteriously removed from the Google index this summer through no obvious fault of their own, in one case resulting in multiple layoffs. I’m sure Matt is quite aware of the power he has to destroy livelihoods, but he does seem very laid back about it all. I had a brief chat with him, and listened to him addressing the conference, and his approachability is impressive. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
Who did I enjoy listening to at the conference? Guy Kawasaki was the undoubted star for everyone. But Wednesday’s keynote speaker John Battelle, who managed to be inspirational whilst still plugging his business venture, was excellent value too. I got a lot of what they call “takeaways” from listening to Roger Montii (“martinibuster”), Ted Ulle (“tedster”) of The MEWS Group, and the fantastic Jeff Libert.
In fact, some of the lowest-key sessions, like the ones on CSS and one-page sites, were the most useful of all. Conversely, only the Google party which followed the huge so-called “Super Session” on research stopped everyone from making their excuses and leaving the conference early that day. The meaningless business jargon which overwhelmed this session only served to highlight how practical most of the other sessions were.

Sweetest. Note. Ever.

Saturday 25 November 2006

Half man, half robot

Friday 1 December 2006

It’s been an odd week for Alex. After the triumph of Emma’s birthday party at the weekend, where he won a certificate for his full-on, virtuoso air guitar performance (not to mention a lorryload of fatherly pride), yesterday he had to go in to Addenbrooke’s to have both his legs plastered up for a fortnight. This is in an attempt to correct a slight muscular deficiency in the lower legs which has been leading to his feet progressively turning over more. Apparently they’ve had some success with this treatment, so fingers crossed. Meanwhile, he’s being spoiled rotten by everyone, of course.

All the way from Tuam

Friday 1 December 2006

The Saw Doctors returned here to Cambridge last night, where I imagine they have a particularly strong following, thanks to their regular appearances at the Cambridge Folk Festival over the past ten years. These guys really know how to put on a good show. And the funny thing is, you seem to be able to sing along with all of their songs, even if you don’t know them. How do they do that? “It’s pop music scored for a rock band, isn’t it?”, said Paul. They played my favourite song – To Win Just Once – so how can I say anything except …great gig, guys.

Up, up and away

Friday 1 December 2006

Yay. The extension continues to soar skywards. The builders seem to be doing a great job (yeah, like I’m some sort of expert who’s qualified to judge) and they hope to be starting on the roof this weekend. Now we can see the size of the extremely large windows we specified, they’re admittedly huge, but it’ll allow us to see “through” the corner of the extension from the dining room, and I think it’ll work.

It’d never happen in Milton Keynes

Saturday 9 December 2006

A few years ago, just before the UEFA Cup draw, a fellow Ipswich supporter said “you do know we could get Dukla Prague, don’t you?”. I couldn’t see them in the list of remaining teams, which is how I found out that the former Czech army side, immortalised by Half Man Half Biscuit, had long since disappeared off the scene and been merged into another club. Years later, Biscuit gigs are still full of fans in Dukla Prague away shirts, and there’s a roaring trade in them from replica kit manufacturers.
But it looks like Dukla Prague are returning. The whole thing turns out to be a bit of a Wimbledon/Franchise FC situation, with Dukla Prague having been bought, moved away from the city and turned into another club completely, leaving just a fans’ team to carry on the tradition …and it’s the fans’ team which is now looking to merge with a second division team and leapfrog its way back into the league. They could even play the Franchise FC equivalent, whose club owner has been arrested on abduction and robbery charges.

Google does not want structured points of reference on the web

Thursday 14 December 2006

I just had a rant on Webmasterworld. Someone asked if it was a good idea to publish press releases – would Google index them? Don’t get me started. OK, do get me started:
As someone whose sites contain tens of thousands of press releases, painstakingly compiled over seven years, who then found some of the sites unceremoniously dumped from Google this summer, for a while at least, I’d say …there’s no point any more.
Never mind that all of the press releases we’d brought together and categorised in one place had become an essential industry resource. Never mind that we’d hired some of the best-known editors in our sectors to put these resources together. Google decided, in its infinite wisdom, that because we just published the unvarnished facts (i.e the original press releases, modestly edited into house style), we weren’t deserving of a place in its index any longer.
Had we added inane comments all over them, we would have met with Google’s approval, because we’d be creating original content. But we thought serious business professionals just wanted the facts.
What you have to remember is that Google does not want structured points of reference on the web. These serve to undermine the importance of a search engine. What Google wants is to encourage pages to be published in the most unstructured manner possible, so that only search engine technology can be used to find content.
To return to the original question, you can indeed re-publish news stories, but even if you’re bringing the press releases together with the aim of creating a genuinely useful resource, you will not get any help from Google, as what you’re doing undermines its aim to control the web. Write any old stuff, as long as it’s so-called original content.

I’m not sure this guy understands the rules

Thursday 21 December 2006

Look carefully. It’s a builder working …at five o’clock. See, I told you these guys were good. Even if this guy (who will have to remain anonymous in case he gets thrown out of the builders’ union) missed the first day of college where they teach you that the number one rule of construction is that you have to leave at three o’clock “to go and, er, pick some stuff up”. Haha! We’ve got the best builders in the world and you can’t have them!

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