tenpastmidnight blog

Making hay while the sun shines


Freelancing work has been a little flat this month, but I've applied for various contracts, and managed to pick up some consultancy / training work for an American company via a forum where I was answering coding questions.

It's interesting work as I get to do the awkward problem-solving without the general HTML coding, but the time difference means I've been putting in some very long days as I keep working in to the evening while the time-zone I'm working for are in the office. Still, international contracting, I believe I'm now one of the outsourced foreign workers I see lots of Slashdotters complaining about.

SpiderTest well received

My web page testing site has been well received on Ecademy, the usenet newsgroup alt.internet.search-engines and the few forums I've mentioned it on. I've had some good suggestions for enhancements, and as the errors that have been reported have all been due to people not reading their own code properly, I feel I can try and push it a little more now.

I really need to get a better usenet access than the NTL service I use at the moment - it will show me posts, but I can't send anything via Mozilla on my Mac. Free Agent on my PC can't even get access to the server. I'd be happy using Google Groups, but you have to give it a legitimate e-mail address to register, which it them puts on your posts, which get spidered by spammers, so you get more spam. Last time I posted there using a Hotmail account I started getting e-mailed viruses almost immediately, which continued for two weeks, filling up my account every night.

I managed to make the post to the search-engines group from my old office after I was there doing some freelance work, but now I can't easily reply to the responses to my message. Maybe I'll have to run the spam-gauntlet again, or sort out a disposable account I can use for a while.

1 new regulator = fixed Beetle

The chaps on the Volkszone forums were right, a new voltage regulator has sorted out my charging problem and finally the little red light on my dashboard has gone out.


Clothes drop-off

I finally got around to dropping off my old clothes at the First Base Day Centre on the border of Brighton and Hove. They have a 'clothes store' for the homeless people who use their services, and hopefully some of them will put my clothes to good use, most of them were extra large or double extra large, so they could be a handy extra layer in the current cold weather.

(Normally I wouldn't blog this, but I'm going to need to remember where I gave them next time I have some. Kind of an external mental note.)

Beetle and B&Q

I finally got around to driving my Beetle around tonight. Cleaning the contacts hasn't been any help, so it looks like I will need a new voltage regulator.

I ended up in Brighton's B&Q during the test run and they've recently re-fitted it in to one of their superstore-style shops - i.e. very high industrial racking. There's lots more fitted in, but it looks rather more oppressive inside now. They're painting the second half of the floor tonight, that'll be a nice job for some poor buggers!

More birthdays

It seems like birthday season... my friend Alex yesterday, my grandmother tomorrow, a mere 86 years old. I drove my parents up to see her today, age has mellowed my grandmother somewhat, but there's still the gleam of something of a battleaxe in her eyes, in the nicest possible way, of course.

Your brain - use it or lose it

The BBC news article Juggling 'can boost brain power' reminded me of a neuropsychology lecture by Alan Parkin while I was at Sussex University. It was about aging and he was saying people have the idea of not being too active and not 'wearing out' their brain, but that people who are active, both physically and mentally, tend to have less problems as they age. It's a case of 'use it or lose it' when it comes to brain power.

The BBC article reports on how a thickening of brain matter is found in areas related to juggling (i.e. handling particular spatial tasks) when adults learn the skill from scratch. This would be good support for the 'use it or lose it' - the thickening seen when learning a new skill and continuing it's practise would suggest that people who are not using their brain will gradually lose some of their connections, and therefore have a thinning of brain matter in more general areas.

It's difficult to show something like this without a long-term study, and the sort of tests that can discover this have only become available in recent years, so it will be a long time before it can be shown or not.

St. James St. convenience store

My world turned upside-down last night stumbling back from Dave's leaving drink-up. I cut up St. James Street to go to the open-late-night Convenience Store to get some sobering-up juice and... it wasn't open!

Not open! That place is always open, at least during the evening and early night. That's it's whole reason for being!

I expect to see rains of fire, cats and dogs living together, and other signs of the now-obvious apocalypse on it's way.

Mr Andrew has left the building

My mate and fellow first employee at G2Blue, David Andrew, web designer and Cornwall ambassador, has got a new job in Cornwall so is moving back there. That'll mean ever so slightly less fun happening in Brighton, and I'll miss that.

Tracking down Beetle problem

The nice folks at the Volkszone forums have been helping me track down my electrical/charging problem. It looks like it might be the voltage regulator, which is a little silver box under the back seat. I've cleaned all the contacts but haven't had a chance to give the car a run yet to find out whether it's made any difference.

Something tells me I'll be making another call to Megabug for parts.

My freelance services

I've finally finished the text for my new website: Paul Silver Web Services advertising my freelance services.

All I have to do now is finish the graphics (those big black blocks aren't supposed to be there) and fix a little layout issue in Internet Explorer 6. I'm still not sure about the colour scheme, but I really need to get some information out there and get some more work, so that will have to be fixed later if I decide I really don't like it.


One of the things computers, especially internet-connected computers, have made easier is prevarication. There's always something to do rather than, say, finishing the content for my new website showing off my freelance work: mailing lists to read, websites to check, blogs to write...

damn. Back to work.

Beetle brushes

Last night my Beetle only just got to my parents, who I was dropping in to see before going to a pub quiz with my friends (came third - woo, chocolate prize!)

The Beetle's battery was flat, after driving over with the headlights on. This galvanised me in to replacing the generator brushes earlier than I was planning and I went over this morning to do them. The brushes themselves weren't too difficult to replace, if a bit fiddly, but I'm not sure they've solved the problem - the red light was still on a bit, which means generator / electrical problems. I'll charge the battery up tonight and see if that fixes it.

I'm also still getting interference from something electrical over the stereo speakers. Before I'd thought it was the generator. As it was still happening on the way home, I thought it might be the 'sparkfire' widget that sits between the coil and distributor cap that I bought at the Volksworld show a few years back. I replaced that with a standard HT lead but haven't been out for a run to see if that's fixed it yet because the battery really needs charging. Hopefully, that'll be it, otherwise I'll be on a search for a loose connection - not easy. While I was waiting for the battery to charge earlier I cleaned all the electrical contacts I could see in the engine bay, so I can be pretty sure it's not any of those.

Robots reading

I've been adding code to read robots.txt files to my new website - SpiderTest. It's been one of those classic coding days where you're tapping away for hours and at the end of the day there's only a hundred lines of code, whereas other times the code's jumping out of your fingertips like it's no effort at all.

Still, the robots.txt support is in there for all robots, so it can tell if the page is spiderable at all, which is great. I just have to go and soothe my melting brain now.

OS X uncompressing problems

I've got a file with a .ace extension. After a bit of digging around I found (or rather, re-found) The File Extension Source, which is great for looking up files that have a suffix that you don't know. The file is likely to be something compressed by WinAce and rather than getting my PC wound up I thought I'd try and find something to uncompress it for OS X.

Fortunately WinAce have an uncompressing program for Apples: unace 2.5 for OS X, available through their News page. It's a command line utility, but that's not really a problem, and it comes in a package so it should be easy to install. Unfortunately there's something wrong with the installation package which wants to put a file in /usr/local/bin, which OS X doesn't like. Normally, I'm asked for my password when software installs, but this doesn't happen with the package. Hopefully it's something easily fixed and I've used the contact form on the WinAce website to ask for some help about it.

Tools and Beetle work

I've finally got around to buying myself a trolley jack, that's one of the big jacks on wheels for lifting my car up rather than relying on the little jack that comes with it. All I have to do now is find somewhere to put it.

Normally, I'd borrow my dad's jack if I needed to do a lot of work, or indeed do it at my parents house as I don't have a garage or driveway. But I need to fiddle with some small things and as my dad's one is falling apart it seemed time to get a new one.

I did a quick oil change today (no filter change, naughty) to try and get some fresh oil in that hasn't been contaminated by water. I'm still trying to track down where the water pollution has come from, it's not like it has any water cooling for it to leak from.

I was poking around looking for loose connections in the engine bay while the oil drained out and although I didn't find any, I did discover the air filter was low on oil and took the chance to top that up. As where I was parked was on a slight slope I had to guess the amount to put in a little. However, when I sort out the generator I'll have a chance to take off the air filter and replace the oil in it completely with some of the fresh stuff.

More Beetle woes

I've ordered some generator brushes from Megabug, which will hopefully turn up early next week. Today on the way back from my parents my indicators stopped working, fortunately only a couple of turns from home. When I tested them they're trying to flash, and the indicator is lighting a bit, but not flashing. Hopefully it's just because the battery has got quite flat and charging it up will solve the problem, because I could really do without anything else going wrong with it at the moment.

Cat tongue research

Research in to the length of cat tongues has been carried out. Very innovative methods, scarily long results.

New websites, PHP and ColdFusion

I've been working on two personal PHP projects recently, one for a website I should be launching soon, and another for a local events announcement system which I should be open-sourcing once I've finished it.

As usual when I'm learning a new programming language, something works a bit differently and I end up writing far too much code, then going back to re-write it more simply once I've got myself in a corner. Fortunately, I've had some great help from fellow Farmies Alex, Matt and Tolan on the coding side, and several more Farm members with testing. My main website is almost ready. Before I launch I'd also like to get my new website for my freelance work pretty much complete, or at least a little less embarrassingly incomplete than it is now.

While I'm a big ColdFusion fan and wrote the early version of one of my projects in it, the high cost of hosting meant I looked to PHP for cheaper hosting and just as reliable a product. I won't be deserting CF completely, a recent memory upgrade to my iBook means it now runs happily under OS X via Macromedia Jrun.

However, at the moment I'm putting a lot of work in to getting better at PHP, which will be helped by the latest version of Matt's book: PHP in 24 Hours. He brought some to the pub last night, which were fallen upon so fast by fellow Farmies that I didn't manage to nab one, but have been promised a chance to grab one later. This latest version is very significant because it introduces the new object oriented code in PHP 5, which can be a very efficient way of coding, if you know how to do it right. So: ignore the little 'PHP 4.3' on the cover, the good stuff is PHP 5, and you're going to want to know all about it.

Films that didn't need a sequel

I taped Highlander: Endgame the other night and finished watching it this morning. The Highlander films are a great demonstration of something Hollywood forgot years ago: some films don't need a sequel. Highlander is the best example of this. It had internal consistency, a beginning, middle, definitive end and there was absolutely no scope for a sequel. Now we've had three of them, because the original film was successful, and in each of the sequels they get further and further away from the events of the original, and none of them are as good.

Other films that didn't need a sequel? For me, The Matrix was a film that stood better on it's own than it does now as the start of a trilogy. Police Academy, but only because the quality of the writing dropped even further than the original as the series went on. The Fast and the Furious - the second film could have been written slightly differently and launched under another name, they were just cashing in on the TFaTF doing well... Oh, there must be dozens. Then again, Hollywood is producing lots of tripe at the moment without them all being sequels, bad writing doesn't have to be restricted to having a number at the end of the film title.

Of Beetles and birthdays

Yesterday I fell back in love with my car. I was driving back from the supermarket, the sky was blue (against forecasts) the air was clear and I was thinking "what would be better than driving around in a Beetle today?", not a lot, of course, apart from the same trip in a Karmann Ghia.

Also definitely better was meeting up with friends in the evening and celebrating Alex's 30th birthday, involving drinking, bowling and good food. Oh yes, and a touch more drinking. We thought the bowling at Brighton Marina was a bit expensive (£4.50 each for only one round) but at least I got to see Phil win a game, which is something I thought impossible and would never have believed if I hadn't seen it myself!

Alex - I say again: welcome to Old Gitsville, population: You.

Slashdot Journal

I've finally posted something in my Slashdot Journal.

I've been reading Slashdot for years, although it was at least a couple before I bothered signing up for an account. Since then another half million or so people have signed up, which means I suppose I'm becoming one of the old guard.

Why blog there rather than here? It's about Bluetooth, which comes up a lot in the comment areas of Slashdot as a dead or dying technology, so I thought my comments about how much I see it being used were more relevant local to the other comments than just here.

IT people, redundancies and outsourcing

It was the first Farm meeting of the new year yesterday, and many of us turned out to meet up in Lewes, at a pub just down the road from Crosbie's house. It seems only fair that it was so close to him, considering he's been known to walk from Lewes to Brighton for our normal meetings at the Lord Nelson pub.

Two new people turned up, who had recently been made redundant from the local branch of an international testing company when their department was outsourced to India. In a way it was just a change of outsourcing, because the company is American, so in a way they were just shifting from one outsourced place to another.

There is a lot of muttering and moaning going on in the posts on Slashdot about IT jobs being shifted to India and other countries. There doesn't seem to be quite as much about it in the UK, but that might just be because effectively my age group is 'Thatcher's Children' and we expect to be put out of work for 'economic' reasons.

The problem of IT work going abroad has come up many times in the Farm over the last year, it's a general worry to everyone in IT, but perhaps especially to freelancers, who can be in a much more precarious position in that there's no real warning before work dries up. You can see on websites like Freelancers.net that the piece-work on offer is now dominated by labour in places where the cost of living is extremely low compared to Europe or the States. Posters expect to get three days work for £20-50. For that kind of money I'd be better off going back to working in a shop.

From the various people I've talked to about it, there seems to be a feeling that software design and planning will still be required in this country, and client-facing tasks like investigating and writing specifications. Generally there is a feel that most of the 'grunt work' tasks have either gone abroad all ready or will do soon. There is some disagreement over the quality of the work that might be done in some of the places used for doing the work cheaply, but there are good and bad departments in large companies, and I think there are bound to be a lot of good programmers in India. It's not like the West has a monopoly on bright people.

So... where does that leave us programmers who have large rents to pay in expensive areas of our country? Well, there's a chance to increase your skills and move up to the more 'management' levels of coding - the design and upper-level project management jobs. Or there's the very low-end stuff, putting together very small amounts of coding, which the client wants quickly and don't understand how to describe it. This is the sort of programming where you have to see the client and what they do to really understand what they're on about, which takes us back to software design. Then there's becoming the middle-man, being the interface between the Western clients and the outsourced programming company. Or there's always... doing something else.

It's generally difficult to give up what you've been doing for several or many years, but you can always do something else. After all, that's what we expected the miners to do when the pits were closed down because it was cheaper to buy the coal elsewhere. It's what happened to a lot of jewellers, including my dad, when the public decided they'd rather buy cheap crap from Ratners than decent jewellery. It happened to the car factories, although some of them have now survived, owned by non-UK companies.

I might potentially be a little more ready to be flexible about what I do. I saw my father have to do several jobs after the bottom fell out of the jewellery trade, and eventually re-train to work on cars, which had always been his great love as a hobby. I did a degree in Psychology, I now work programming, which are closer than you might think, but I've also done fund raising, tech support, and plenty of low-level jobs working in shops, typing for people and building PCs. Doing something different isn't so bad, as long as you can take something from what you've done before and try and ensure you're not starting completely from scratch. Everyone has lots of experience they don't realise they have, and that doesn't go away even if what you do as a job changes.

I'd imagine it's a surprise to people in whatever group when their jobs start disappearing, but at least in IT we can see it happening - there's plenty of news about it on this here interweb thingy. Personally, I don't think there's a way of stopping the outsourcing, although I'm sure there will be many mistakes and failed projects along the way. That has more to do with management than exactly who is typing odd commands in to a keyboard. I think to be successful in the programming end of IT in the future of Europe and the States, now is the time to increase your skills and make sure you stand out from everyone else. Even if your current job gets outsourced, you'll have a better chance of getting another, potentially better job when it comes to the recruitment merry-go-round.

<div id="bloody_annoying">CSS Woes</div>

I've been working on a new website for my freelancing work, so I can separate it from my ten past midnight site, which is more for the random stuff I think of and am building up in to more solid content.

I'd forgotten how annoying CSS can be. The content has been relatively fine, especially as I'm just transferring at lot of it from my current site. But writing the website using one browser - Safari - then testing it in Internet Explorer 5.2 (Mac), then moving across to test it on the PC (Internet Explorer 6), then discovering that the colours aren't right on the CRT and having to change then (nothing to do with CSS.) Then trying to set the design elements properly so I have little curves at the end of things, realising I can't get that working in CSS without lots of hacking. Doing it another way, then finally working it by just making a large block and setting it as a background image for certain divs.

It all reminds me why I went in to server-side development: you know what platform you're writing for, and you're using something relatively straightforward to create the HTML for you. You don't have to worry about what browser people are using, what each one supports, whether they have Javascript or Java turned on, if they have Flash installed, and which version. You do all the cool stuff in the background and serve up something created particularly for that person.

Unfortunately, design is another matter entirely, and it's back to the frustrations tomorrow. Joy!

Latest client

The website for my latest client: G2 Search Recruitment Consultancy, went on-line yesterday.

I did the back-end coding for the website, based largely on code for another website within the same group which I wrote two years ago, and have added a little to since.

Looking at the website, I realise that although it all works fine, I'm not happy with some of the usability of it. I really need to search out contracts where I have more say in the design side of the project. I know my own graphic design talents are not particularly strong, which is part of the reason I became a developer when I realised I wanted to stay in this wonderful world of web several years ago, but I do know about site construction and usability, and I keep getting involved with projects where this side of my knowledge is ignored, just because I can't make a website look pretty. Logically, these are two different areas of design, but getting through to clients that this is the case is something I am going to have to work on as I'm not doing it well enough at the moment, which means a client's website is potentially not all it could be.

Vans as storage space

Several people who live near me in Brighton own vans, including a chap who parks annoyingly close to my window so I don't get any daylight (cheers mate.) One of the guys tends to go back and forth from his van a lot, it's got an alarm which chirps off and on in a cheerful way like a mechanised terrier yipping to it's master. As he doesn't move the van very often, I've started wondering what he's using it for that needs visiting all the time.

Now, given how expensive housing is in Brighton, and how small a lot of the flats here are, I've started to think that maybe people are using these vans as an extra room. Perhaps he's keeping a small library in there, or hamsters, a larder, a sofa and television? Maybe he's nipping downstairs to get some cutlery for dinner. This will be the new way of gaining an extra room in a tiny flat - have one on wheels!

Heck, a transit van is bigger than some of the bedrooms I've seen in Brighton. At least you've got a chance of actually fitting a bed in one.

I can see the letting agents getting in on this: "A fine top floor, spacious studio in pastels with a 3x5 extension parked outside, in a fine white & chipboard combination." and "A two bedroom lower ground floor flat, with extra 3.5x6 room with the potential for sea views, and 12 months tax."

Hmm, I never seem to have enough space for my stuff. Perhaps it's time to look at a VW van to compliment my Beetle... "retro-chic 5x2.5 room in two-tone pastels, built in mid-60s. Slightly odd placement of certain amenities to rear."

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