tenpastmidnight blog

Making hay while the sun shines

Trip back from L Spa

I got the train back from Leamington Spa last night. There's a Virgin train from Birmingham that goes all the way down to Brighton - lovely, I only need to get one train for the whole way back. Shame it was 25 minutes or so late, but the driver caught up with most of that in the 140 mile remainder of the trip.

I was so tired I could hardly read properly and spent half the trip listening to Bill Hicks 'Shock and Awe.' There's nothing like some condensed laughter and boiling anger to help a trip go quickly. With a second Bush in the US Presidency it's surprising how many of the jokes still work without remembering that they're about George Bush senior, and were told over ten years ago. Surprising, and a little depressing.

It was extremely nice to collapse in to my own, non-creaky, bed last night and get some solid sleep, making me feel a lot more human today. I'm hoping I might be able to ask for some work from home for part of my Leamington Spa contract, if things keep going well. I like working in the company offices, and there are nice people there, but the evenings and not getting proper sleep are a real drag. Hopefully we'll be able to come to some sort of agreement about it.

One thing I didn't expect about getting back was a difference in smell. Living here all the time I forget that Brighton smells like the sea, fresh air blowing in all of the time from the Channel. It was a pleasent little surprise and I'm looking forward to it again next time I come back.

Leamington Spa day five

My contracting work continues and is going pretty well. I felt very rough and tired this morning and while I think I've tracked down the PHP commands I need to wrangle, I'm leaving the actual coding until tomorrow. Instead I concentrated on churning out the more basic form-handling ColdFusion code needed for user account handling. Necessary but uninspiring stuff, at least with the spec. I wrote it's relatively quick to write. If things keep going well I should be able to finish this module faster than I thought it would take, which is always good.

Walking back to the hotel tonight I saw my first Big Issue sellers. Being away from home, I'm noticing the many differences between where I'm working, Royal Leamington Spa, and where my home is, Brighton. I must admit, I hadn't noticed the lack of homeless people around, although I did last time I went to London, but I think it is one of the things that I'd noticed subconsciously and has been reminding me that I'm not where I'm used to being.

In Brighton there is a large homeless problem, one of the worst in the country. I couldn't go to the shops at lunch time in town without being asked for money, passing at least one Big Issue seller, and probably have a fundraiser try and sign me up for a regular donation by direct debit (these people have now picked up the slang term of 'chuggers' or charity-muggers and I personally find them a lot more annoying than homeless people asking me for money.)

There are so many people taking up pavement space that there are special spots given over to Big Issue sellers, their small patches marked out in a white spray of stencilled Big Issue logo. They have to be a certain distance apart, so an area doesn't feel swamped, but in Brighton, especially in the summer, this makes little difference as someone else is asking you for money in the gaps, they're just not trying to sell you a magazine.

In Leamington Spa I haven't seen any particularly homeless-looking people, until today, and even then the woman I saw looked well dressed, so hopefully she's in a hostel somewhere rather than sleeping rough. Even though I've been out to the shops in the middle of town every day and evening for lunch and dinner, I haven't had anyone ask me for money at all. This is a pleasant change from my normal life, but lends a kind of unreality to the place, like it's just not normal for there not to be people begging for money on every street corner.

Another slightly subtle difference is the amount of traffic. Brighton is very congested, almost constantly, and has very busy but slow moving traffic. Leamington Spa has very broad roads, and although it has a lot of traffic lights, the cars do seem to have a chance to move much faster, partly because there are less of them. This means I do have to look out a little more when crossing the roads near the shops, as I'm just not used to cars being able to travel more than about eight miles an hours in town, and they can bear down on me from quite a long way away by the time I've crossed the much broader roads.

Still, tomorrow I head back home for a few days, and I'll be very glad to. My cold is staying at a low level, making me tired and slightly croaky, but at least I'm not streaming at the moment. I'll be glad to get back to my own flat, in a bigger bed that doesn't creak when I move around in it. And I'll be glad to get back to cooking for myself. I'd forgotten how I actually like the habit of getting home after a hard day of concentrating on solving niggling problems and having the simple break of cooking some things.

On the thoughts of flats, I went past some local estate agents last night and discovered that for the cost of my flat (about £140,000 give or take a few Pounds, or at least that's what another in my building cost) I could buy a three bedroom house up here, at least a small one. Still, Matt, a chap I'm working with, assures me there are stupid house prices around and someone near him recently spent £300,000 to buy a house on a corner plot that they're knocking down, so it appears people up here are just as silly as they are on the south coast.

Leamington Spa day 3

Today I've finished speccing and tomorrow I should start building. Excellent. I'm feeling a bit better, potentially because of some Actimel bio-active stuff I got from Tesco before work which seems to have helped my stomach settle down. Now I have a sore throat, but hopefully that won't be as bad has my stomach has been for the last week.

I've discovered Leamington Spa has a cinema, so that might give me something to do for a few evenings over the weeks ahead. I had a wander around one of the nice parks nearby tonight before eating, but the groundsman wanted to shut it which cut things a little short. This turned out to be a good thing because I got to the restaurant before the rain started pouring down. This is a general problem with being in a quiet area - everything shuts down about the time I leave work. In a way this is giving me a greater appreciation of how spoilt I am for things to do in Brighton in the evening when I'm bored, and what I potentially don't take advantage of.

OS X terminal command memory

OS X note: I've discovered the history of what I've done in a terminal window (if you press the up arrow it shows you the last command you typed, keep pressing it and it goes through the previous commands) gets saved between uses, so even though I can shutdown and re-open terminal several days later, it will remember my most recent commands. Very handy, especially as I've been using command line FTP recently and aren't very good at remembering IP addresses.

Leamington Spa day 2

I've now met the people I'll be working with over the next few weeks. They seem nice, although very busy, which is after all why they need some freelancers in. I'm still rather worried about going out of my mind with boredom, but that might also be part of feeling rough as I still haven't managed to shake off the cold I've had for the last week.

My hotel landlord, Pandi, is a very nice chap and has been helping keep me cheerful. He's very in to cars, which gives us plenty to talk about.


I have a contracting job, which is great, and it's in Leamington Spa, which is not, being 145 miles away from Brighton.

The trip wasn't too bad, considering it involved a train, tube, another train, then a bus. At London Euston a guard advised me to wait for the Virgin Train to Coventry rather than go on the Silverlink, which stopped many more places and was an older train. There was a Virgin train at the station, but only a few minutes to get it and I opted to go for the next one, which was a mistake because it meant I missed the bus service operating between Coventry and Leamington Spa and had a 40-odd minute wait for the next bus. Unfortunately, I exhausted Coventry Station's delights about two minutes after getting there.

I've been to places let down by their train station before. The area around Brighton Station is the worst looking part of the centre of town. Coventry also seems to be one of those places. The station is pretty grim, the views out of it being of 70s industrial-style blocks of flats of aging poured concrete and glass. I got a very bad first impression of the place, but when the bus took us around the corner, within a hundred yards we were in a very pretty little English town, then chugged out in to the country and along to Leamington Spa. Whoever ruined the area around Coventry Station really needs to be dragged through the town so the locals can rightfully flog them for bringing such an eyesore to their lovely area.

All in, the journey up here took about five hours and once I was in to the hotel, or rather, another hotel owned by the same landlord, I went for a look around. Once I'd found where I'll be working, which seems to be on the main high street, I had a wander about and seem to have now seen most of Leamington Spa. I found the Town Hall, the old Spa building, some of the bit of greenery (rather dark) and... well... that seems to be about it. I checked the tourist map by the Spa building and I've been almost everywhere on it, although some of it will undoubtedly look better with more daylight.

On the positive side, there is a selection of different places to eat. On the negative side, I may die of boredom by the end of the contract... or indeed the end of the week.

(I'm using my mobile and BlueTooth adaptor to access the web from my laptop... and grief it feels slow. Broadband... you can never go back!)

BNM meetup

Last night was the first proper Brighton New Media meet up for a while, and a very good one it was too.

Nice to see some people I haven't met for ages, and quite a few fellow freelancers as well. Cheers to Mat for letting me compare his iPod to someone's iPod Mini (which truely is very small and neat indeed.)

Link-fest shout outs to Mat, Andy, Jeremy, Nathan, Lloyd, Tom (C), Richard, Jon, Paul (P), James, Dave, Paul (D), Tom (H), Nick, Jay, and a few people who's names I didn't manage to catch, and that was only about half the crowd.

Hopefully the next one will get as many people, whenever we get around to having it.

How the internet has changed trip planning

Yesterday I drove my parents to a small village in Somerset for the retirement party of one of my Dad's friends from his national service days. We had a large, spiral bound map, which had the usual problems of trying to work through several non-consecutive pages to work out where you are and where you are going. This was the same problem we had when I was a kid, except with the change that now I'm behind the wheel and listening to the navigator instead of in the back, bored.

But now, thanks to what is available through the internet, we have lots more pieces of paper. Instructions posted to us, taken from Multimap (or it may have been Streetmap, I'm not quite sure.) We also had several maps of various detail level that I'd printed out, care of Multimap, after some Google and All the Web searches for the pub to find it's phone number and post code.

Now, not only did these help greatly in making for a smooth journey: the written instructions were spot on, even the milage was almost exactly right, and the extra maps were a handy enhancement over our bound volume; but it was all essentially free. Sure, I have to pay for my internet connection, and look at a few adverts on the websites I used, but I found some information about this little pub in the middle of no-where, got a route there, right from my house, and maps of various details to help us on our way, all for free.


Even more: I could have opted to take my laptop and Bluetooth adaptor and used them with my mobile phone to update our journey when we diverted a bit on the way back. And indeed published the digital photos my Mum took while we were there. All pretty much instantly.

Sometimes when you're hurrying around and just worrying about when you're going to fit in the shopping and whether the cats have got a route to the flap if they need to get out, it's difficult to remember that you're living in a science fiction future, but we are, and bits of it are fantastic.

(NB: No rampaging killer robots yet, may have to wait a while longer for those to turn up, but in the meantime does a mildly annoying noisy PC count instead?)


There was a voluntary three minute silence at 11.00 today to commemorate the loss of life in Spain last week due to terrorist attacks on their trains.

While it is very important to remember these things, and mark the event and show how much it has affected us, I feel the gradually increases in silence time is irritating and rather missing the point of the event. It used to be one minute of silence, for instance on Remembrance day we remember those who died in the World Wars because their sacrifice lets us life the rather content and marvellous lives we have in Britain. Over recent years it's seemed to be stretched to two minutes, and now three. I think this started with the death of Princess Diana, and has been used for large events since by an increasingly lazy media.

One minute, two, three, ten, the actual amount of time rather misses the point. The point is to remember, to reflect on something extremely bad that has happened. There is no amount of time that is right in these situations. It's about a symbolic pause to our daily lives. Making some silences longer than others just starts to bring competition in to it: our disaster was worse than yours, so our silence is going to be longer. You can't quantify disasters that way, they are not an event to be measured and marketed as one worse than the other, they are all bad, that's why we have the moments of reflection at all.

So please, can we stop this increasing of time and just come together to say: this was terrible, we remember this fact and think about it. This is not a competition to point out whose disaster was the worst.

Macromedia training day in Brighton

Today Macromedia had a training day in Brighton today, and I was along for all three talks.

The three sessions, presented by John Harris and Steve Burnard, covered Breeze, a corporate-level training and communications tool, using Flash for 'rich internet applications,' Dreamweaver MX 2004 and some concepts behind building dynamic websites via Dreamweaver, Flash and ColdFusion. (Macromedia Products page)

I've been using Macromedia products for a while. I received some training on Dreamweaver v3 about four years ago when I worked for Eurolink, and have used Ultradev/v4 on and off over the last couple of years. However, I've generally found hand-coding pages to be better, although DW is great for mocking up pages and layouts.

DW has 'Behaviours' - pieces of pre-built code to let DW create pages that can access databases and return what you want. They have improved a great deal over the versions I knew of, I can see that it's actually become a very useful tool that will let you build basic dynamic websites without needing to know all of the server-side code to do the database access. Seeing someone who knew the package well demonstrate by putting together a basic application revealed how powerful DW now is as a website building tool.

Breeze was very impressive, a training system delivered to the client through the practically-ubiquitous Flash player. Breeze integrates with Powerpoint to help create training documents, and as it works through Flash player can integrate audio, video and streamed media. It can add quizzes to the documents so the creator can tell who has responded and how well the training has gone. It even has built-in hassling to e-mail people who should be using the training regularly until they have completed it.

The corporate-level pricing - hosted by Macromedia for about £10,000, brought me down to earth a little, but overall Breeze looks very good and I can see a lot of high-medium to large enterprises using as soon as they see how useful it will be to them.

Also demonstrated was the new version of Flash: MX 2004. It now has Behaviours as well, and we saw a quick web service built using Flash and ColdFusion. Very neat. The accessibility of Flash was covered in it's own sub-segment, with a demonstration showing how Flash content is read via the screen reader Windows Eyes.

Various 'rich internet applications' were demonstrated, all showing how Flash can be used to make dynamic parts of a website, some within HTML pages, others as the whole application. As you'd expect from the people who sell Flash, they had some extremely good sites to show us. John seemed particularly keen to point out how well video through Flash is now doing - smaller for the same good quality, and Flash player has a higher installed base than any other video player. Expect more and more video to be in Flash format in the coming months as the bandwidth advantages can be seen by people who adopt it.

As an aside, Steve demonstrated two other products from Macromedia - Flash Paper, which publishes any document in to Flash .swf format and comes as part of Contribute 2. Robodemo 5 is a development of a product/company Macromedia bought which effectively videos what you do inside any application and lets you set up the video as a training document with captions and voice over. All delivered through... Flash player, of course. The only bad thing about Robodemo is it's Windows-only, and they couldn't give any information about that changing in the future.

All in all, a very interesting day. The talks were full of useful information, and gave a very good indicator of where Macromedia is going with their products. They have a set of products that can cover every angle of creating content for the web and for web-based delivery, and they look really good.

The Hobbit Name Generator

The Hobbit Name Generator

Hmm... Hambut Sandybanks... could have been worse.

Open source CMS

I've been fiddling with Mambo Server today. It's an Open Source content management system which seems to be great for running websites through, and I have several recommendations for it, but it's a bit confusing to use at the moment. Plenty of document / tutorial reading to be fit in over the next few days, I think.

Along with learning a bit of Mambo, I had to learn how to use SSH to remote login to the server I'm using (provided by Paul's hosting service.) During this I found an OpenSSH tutorial handy, and a reminder of some Unix commands, along with some help for the ever-present Vi when editing configuration files.

OS X comes with OpenSSH all ready installed, so it's just a matter of opening terminal and typing 'ssh username@servername' to get going, but being faced with a command line 'shell' the other end brought back to me why it's nice to have graphical interfaces to everything, and install packages that just put everything where it wants to be. Still, with a bit of poking around and some pointers from Paul it wasn't too bad. The nice thing about Unix is the number of help files around for it!

Remains of an early business

I visited my parents house yesterday to help finish fitting a new worktop in the kitchen and do some lugging around of rubbish. A cardboard box appeared which turned out to have folders and paper from the first time I tried freelancing back in 1996.

The box had been in the shed, after an odd decision by my Dad not to leave it in the house where it was buried and safe and in to the garden with the local wildlife. Away from the direct protection of my parent's cats a mouse had got in and had a good gnaw around, but a great deal of it was recoverable.

The first website I ever created was for the Better Accommodation Guide, converting their review guide of small hotels and B&Bs across Britain in to a website. Well, first it was helping them sort it out in to an FTP version as the web wasn't popular (this was late 1995) and then converting it in to HTML in very late 1995 and 1996. I also found files relating to the website I'd made for a department of Leeds university, which I'd forgotten doing.

In with the files and invoices I found the old NCSA Beginner's Guide to HTML, which I'd learnt HTML from. The version I've linked to has changed quite a bit, my old version didn't know about these newfangled 'table' things.

I remembered my first business foray failing because of a lack of marketing, partly through having too little experience, and partly because of lack of funds. Finding some of the leaflets I'd sent out, they weren't as bad as I'd remembered, although rather amateur by today's standards. Part of the problem I'd had before was that very few people knew what the internet was, let alone saw that it could be great for their business.

Fast-forward eight years, and everyone and their dog have a website. Now the problem is convincing them that they could put it together better, and make it more appealing to the search engines. Still, at least they don't think you're mad for saying that people might want to look at their business on a computer screen.

New article - requested pop-up

I was in the WebmasterWorld forums last week and trying to help someone who had a problem with pop-up blockers - his legitimate application was being blocked internally because they had installed the Google toolbar in to Internet Explorer everywhere in the company. The toolbar's blocking isn't as good as Mozilla's native blocking, which allows through requested pop-ups - ones that you click on a link to launch - it blocks all pop-ups.

So I came up with a way of launching the window in an old-fashioned way using target="_new" and re-sizing the window once it has been spawned. It's not quite as elegant as creating the window at the right size, but it does work even if you have the Google toolbar installed. The write up on the method is here.

Firefox OS X extensions problem & fixed

I'd forgotten that I was having problems installing extensions in to Firefox. Extensions are extra bits of code which give you all sorts of handy new features, like tools for web developers, or stop Flash from loading, which sounds annoying, but is great for stopping all the Flash adverts that are around at the moment.

It turns out Extensions have a problem with Firefox 0.8 on OS X, but if you install a nightly build, it's fixed in the lastest versions. I found this out here (including nightly builds link) on the Mozillazine forums. Installing the latest nightly fixed the problem and Extensions work find now.

Firefox graphics

Reading up on potential future Mozilla changes, I read a comment by Jon Hicks, who has some lovely FireFox wallpapers on his website.

It turns out Jon was part of the team who created the logo in the first place, and he talks a little about it here.

If you haven't all ready come across it, Firefox is the new name for the open source web browser Mozilla Firebird. Basically you can use this instead of Internet Explorer for looking at websites, and it has some nifty extra features like blocking pop-up adverts and tabbed browsing, which you'll either not care about or love.

It's free and available for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X, so why not give it a go:

Get Firefox browser

Moving again

My landlord has decided to boot me out. This has happened everywhere I've lived in Brighton and Hove, although at least it's been almost two years this time, rather than five and six months, as it was for my two places in Hove.

Happily, a friend on the BNM list has a flat for rent coming up, which is a great relief. Trawling through agencies and around town with the usual missed appointments, waiting around, and parking costs isn't my favourite activity.

I'll be sad to leave Hanover, even though I'll only be up the road, and I'll lose the car park from near my flat and be back to fighting over a small number of spaces on the street. That said, the flat I've seen is very nice (or will be once the decoration is finished) and I'll know one set of neighbours when I first move in, which will make a nice change.

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