Thursday, 18 December 2008

Two Reasons Why I'm Going Nowhere

With another year set to draw to a close I have once again not left the country for foreign shores this year. Here are two pretty good reasons, brought to you by Travelex's rates today*:

1 Pound = 1.0765 Euros
1 Pound = 1.506 Dollars

(*I used Travelex's site as I've always found their online rate to be the most competitive for me as a customer. You're probably not seeing a rate much better than this anywhere else.)

At around this time last year you the £/$ rate was flirting with the $2. I was tempted to pick some dollars up, just on the off chance that I could use them, all because the rate was that good. I didn't, more's the pity.

While the Euro rate hasn't been as good I remember colleagues late last year saying about it being in the 1.40 region, and even in the summer you could get approximately 1.25 for every pound. Now it isn't far off being an even swap.

So before you even begin to think of things like dog-sitting, insurance costs and all the other extras that come with going on holiday, the exchange rate situation doesn't exactly make going overseas appealing right now. Call me choosy, but I like to get a bit of bang for my buck.

(And no, Turkey and Egypt don't appeal to me, but thanks for asking.)

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

MP3s Come to

Remember a while ago when I sang the praises of's download service? Well Amazon have joined the party in the UK and have dropped pricing and increased range even further. Prices for single tracks start at 59p and while the selection isn't that extensive at the moment I would imagine that will be changing. All tracks are DRM free.

Your move, iTunes.

Amazon launches music downloads [BBC News]

Friday, 7 November 2008

Some Thoughts on the US Election

Thought I ought to post something here, given that I studied American Studies at University and it was the politics that most interested me.

It seems to me that Barack Obama's victory in the Presidential election was a classic example of Populism. In other words drawing together many different interests for a common goal. It probably helped him that the economic woes of the past few months affected so many people, leading to a greater desire for change.

However I'm somewhat of the opinion that John McCain was a dead duck from the beginning. There was too much anger towards Bush and the Republicans for him to fight against. I actually think McCain is a decent man, who took defeat gracefully and seems keen to work towards a better future for his nation regardless of who is leading it.

In saying that though some of the opinions of the American right did him no favours. I had one friend in California who kept posting anti-Obama links from Fox News on Facebook at every opportunity. It smacked of grasping at straws, just because Obama is a Democrat. Honestly, I can't understand seemingly smart people being so blindly partisan.

All the talk of change does make me laugh a bit. At the moment Obama clearly has a mandate to work with, and after his inauguration will be his best opportunity to push forward with his own legislation. After that if mid-terms don't go his way it gets harder, and if he wins a second term he is likely to finish it with just about no power at all. By that point the title of "Most Powerful Man In The World" is very misleading.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

What I'm Watching: Deceiving Innocence

In 1992 issues of Time were still dropping through my parents' letterbox, as the subscription my recently deceaed Grandmother had taken out was still active. On the cover of one issue was a man in chains and the grim headline: "This man might be innocent. This man is due to die." And so I was introduced to the story of Roger Coleman.

Despite a mass media campaign and apparent doubts about the case Coleman went to Virginia's electric chair on the 20th May 1992, declaring his innocence right to the end. For people who don't agree with capital punishment - myself included - his story was a cause, a reason to show that innocent people can be executed by flawed human beings.

There was one small problem with that. In 2006, nearly 14 years after his execution and 25 years after the murder of Wanda McCoy, DNA evidence showed that Coleman was the killer. Or if you're really sceptical the chances were 1:19,000,000 that someone else did it.

This Friday on the Crime and Investigation Channel (that's channel 553 if you have a Sky dish) they are showing a documentary called Deceiving Innocence which looks into Coleman's case and quite why so many people felt - wrongly - that Coleman was innocent. I think it is going to be pretty interesting.

Deceiving Innocence is being shown at 4pm on 10th October 2008 on the Crime and Investigation Channel.

Roger Coleman - Time Cover [TIME]
Roger Keith Coleman [Wikipedia]
Crime and Investigation Channel [Official Website]

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

What I'm Running

Somewhat inspired by this Lifehacker post I thought I'd have a run-down on what I'm running at the moment. Now that I'm back online at home (hurrah!) everything is back up and running at full speed, and I'm back working as I should be.


N.B. I install and check out loads of programs. Rather than give you a full and boring comprehensive list I've decided to cut this down to the programs I use most.

Firefox - My web browser of choice, mainly because it is so easy to customise it with extensions and themes.

Thunderbird - The Mozilla e-mail program, which finally saw me move away from trusty old Pegasus Mail. Again easy to customise and with superb support for multiple mailboxes, including access to Gmail though IMAP, which is fantastic (and somewhere where Yahoo! Mail lags well behind - they presently don't even offer this to paid customers).

Filezilla - Free and it works. Absolutely doddle to use for FTP. Love it.

Adobe Photoshop - I'm still learning with this really, but I love the power of it and the results it can produce. At the moment it is proving useful for things like birthday presents, re-touching photos and basic web work, but I want to extend my knowledge far beyond that.

Wikidpad - I'll admit, I'm a compulsive note-taker. However too often when I started taking notes in notepad I wouldn't save it, and then I'd lose my notes thanks to the beast that is Windows Automatic Update restarting my machine while I sleep (thanks for that, Mr Gates).

And so I tried Wikidpad, found it automatically saved what you typed effectively as you went along, and have used it happily ever since.

iTunes - I fought this for a long time, then gave in and began to use the Apple application. And to be fair I've come to love it. Plays music, check. Can be a one-stop shop to buy music, check. Has the power to generate playlists automatically, check. Downloads my podcasts while I'm asleep, check. Makes a cup of tea when I get up... oh, it can't do that.

PHP Designer - Ok, I should probably re-think this as although it is free the version I am using is two years old. However when it comes to editing PHP files I find this the easiest program to work with (at least among those I've tried to date). I periodically look for something better, but to date I've yet to find something I think I would prefer.

Microsoft Excel - I'm laughing a bit to myself in typing this, because when I first used Microsoft Office I probably used everything but Excel. I typed letters in Word, stored addresses in Outlook and went "Ooh!" at the catalogue of effects you could put in Powerpoint.

Then I moved away from home and real life took over. Excel has been vital for years, from wedding costs, to nursery plans and even Fantasy Baseball draft lists (there's the reason I learnt to develop outputting PHP to a .csv file!). I have my day-to-day expenses held in a password-protected Excel file. On an everyday basis I couldn't be without a program like Excel (and don't recommend Open Office, because I've seen people use it at work and to put it mildly, I'm not a fan).


Office PC
- PC, built from barebone unit bought from Novatech. Runs Windows XP Home. 1 x 80Gb hard drive + 1 x 20Gb hard drive, backed up via SyncBack to a 500Gb external hard drive. 1 x CD writer drive and 1 x DVD dual layer writer. Five USB ports, two in the front and three in the back (insert your own Hector Brocklebank impression here).
- 1 standard keyboard, 1 Microsoft optical mouse (had for five years - never had a problem with it).
- 1 Kyocera 3600+ printer (still going!) & 1 HP printer/scanner.
- 1 x LG 17" LCD monitor.

- Toshiba Satellite Pro. Runs Windows XP Professional. As a matter of personal preference I also bought a small optical mouse to use with it, as I'm not a fan of touchpads.

I sync my e-mail in what most people would say is a pretty odd way. I setup Thunderbird on both my laptop and desktop, and on my laptop I set the accounts up to leave messages on the server. I setup the same accounts on the desktop and set the accounts up to leave messages on the server for a day before deleting them. To date this has worked pretty well.

I also run all my e-mail accounts through Gmail, so I hopefully don't miss anything important if I'm away from either my laptop or desktop.

Monday, 1 September 2008

New Feed Address

Just a little note for anyone who subscribes to this blog's rss feed. You can now find the feed at Feedburner.

Apparently I've got three subscribers already. One is a bot, but the other two appear to be actual people (I'm borderline shocked). Please feel free to say hi in the comments, just in case you're a member of my employer's HR department an old friend I've lost touch with.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

"That's Mao Tse-Tung, not a mouse's tongue."

Old Shooting Stars joke there. And while I'm at it, here's another: "Sorry Don, no gin."

Anyway, the point of this post (if I can remember it amid the stupidity) was to post something cheerful for a change. On Saturday night a few of us went out to celebrate my wife's birthday and that of a friend of ours'. We went to Cafe Mao in Glasgow (which hopefully explains the title of this post), and despite Lorraine and I having reservations about the menu (which is what happens when you have two fussy people recovering from stomach bugs) but in the end we enjoyed ourselves.

That wasn't the main reason we enjoyed ourselves though. No, that was because of the company. Out with probably my three best friends up here, relaxing, chatting, having fun. The location was secondary (probably just as well given the service, which didn't match the food).

It felt a bit weird being somewhere like that again. Somewhere a bit upmarket, somewhere a bit more expensive than we'd normally go. Anyhow, for the time spent with friends it was worth every penny.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Quick hello

Hi, just a quick hello to anyone popping by. I'm currently without internet at home (no, I'm not pleased, to put it mildly), so am in a library to say hi.

Hopefully normal service will be resumed shortly.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

The Trouble With Being Married

Is that you end up caring about rubbish reality TV shows and caring about the results of them.

And before you wonder if I've lost my mind, this was the performance that made me a fan of Samantha Barks. It isn't the voice so much (she'd probably admit she's done better herself), but there's something about the way she conveys the emotion in the song. Spine-tingling.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

To Return A Mockingbird

After talking about it and thinking about it for a while I finally got round to reading To Kill a Mockingbird. More than that, I did the smart thing and borrowed it from my local library instead of blindly spending money on it.

As it turned out, I loved it, and at some point I probably will add it to my book collection (Lorraine will be delighted). It is possibly the most enjoyable piece of fiction I've ever read. I especially loved the perspective of the story, what a child told and what you could read between the lines yourself. Pretty smart.

Now here's the weird part, I went to return the book last Saturday. Small problem - the library was shut. Bank Holiday weekend, and so they were shut on the Saturday. Huh? If it was the Monday I would fully understand it, but not on the Saturday. I still think it is a bit perplexing.

I was able to return the books before they were due, thanks to the usual late opening hours on Tuesday. The disappointing thing for me was that because I had gone straight from work I wasn't able to go to the library with Chloe. She loves the childrens' books, and that makes it a lot of fun going with her. Another time I guess.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Nurses and Seemingly Random Pay

Tomorrow is the day my wife gets paid and the uncertainty about how much she'll be paid this month comes to an end.

Lorraine's payslips are a mass of complexity, and as a result of this (along with queries about what you get paid for in what month) it makes figuring out what she'll be paid a nightmare. Mine is pretty simple to calculate each month, Lorraine's is not. And it can really fluctuate, as much as 17% from month to month, and there doesn't appear to be much rhyme or reason behind it. I've never considered nursing myself, but if I had then the varying payments would be enough to knock the idea on the head.

Is anyone else in this situation? If so how do you deal with it? Let us know in the comments.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Film Review: Capote

Had a bit of spare annual leave which I had to take last week, so I used a half-day and while I had some rare peace and quiet at home I took the chance to see the film Capote.

This was a film I'd been meaning to see for a while. I read (and loved) In Cold Blood for my A levels, and given that the film looks at that book from a different perspective I was interested to see it.

Things I liked:
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. Masterful.
  • The ways Capote was shown as manipulative and conniving to get his story. If the whole story took place forty years later you suspect it couldn't happen, no writer would get that kind of access to a major investigation.
  • The hint of Capote's slide into alcoholism. If you haven't watched it but plan to keep an eye on how often Capote has a drink in his hand while doing something.
  • The 1950s/60s settings. They appear to have worked really hard on this. It looks pretty authentic (not that I'm an expert on these things, but I was impressed).
  • Catherine Keener as Harper Lee. Understated, but excellent.
  • Chris Cooper as Alvin Dewey. Smart, yet compassionate but also capable of anger when he thinks the conflicted Capote might somehow get Hickock and Smith free.
  • Mark Pellegrino as Dick Hickock. I've seen three different actors play Hickock now. Scott Wilson in the original 1960s film struck me as not menacing enough. Anthony Edwards in the 1990s mini-series kept me think of Goose from Top Gun (sorry, can't help it). It's a pity there isn't more of Pellegrino in this film, as for some reason he comes over as the Hickock I'd read in the book.
  • Perry Smith watching the warehouse while Lowell Lee Andrews is being executed. I liked the way they left this to the imagination, and the thought of what was facing Smith himself.

Things I didn't like:
  • The scene where Capote brings in a photographer from New York to get photos of Hickock and Smith. What?! Would the KBI really approve of that? I've always looked out for information on the web to do with In Cold Blood and have never seen these pictures. I can't believe they exist and can't understand why if this didn't happen the scene is included in the film.
  • The closure of the Smith peeking through his cell during Andrews' execution. Andrews' body leaves the warehouse uncerimonisouly on some kind of farm equipment. It just doesn't fit. Also the book well documents that it was raining heavily when Andrews was executed, yet there's not a drop of rain in any of those shots.
  • The changing of some names. I know there's probably all sorts of legalities that go with filming a true story, but it annoys me when names get changed and you have to think "Oh, that's actually such and such". There aren't many instances of this, but there are enough to bother you.

As always you wonder exactly what Hollywood has done to the story, what is true and what isn't. For the most part though it's pretty good. I don't think I'd buy it as a DVD though, it's not really light and easy viewing.

For anyone else who is an In Cold Blood fan there's a great feature here at

Odd footnote: I love the Southern US and love In Cold Blood, yet I've never read To Kill a Mockingbird. I think I need to fix that at some point in the near future.

Thursday, 21 February 2008 enters the download market

And I'm a fan. Consider some of the differences with iTunes:

Price: iTunes, 79p per track., prices start from 65p. Most tracks seem to be 70p.

Quality: iTunes, 192Kbps standard., 320Kbps standard.

Format: iTunes, own m4p format, nightmare in terms of compatibility., .mp3, works with just about everything (including my CD/mp3 player in the car).

DRM: iTunes, tracks are DRM protected., no DRM protection.

I think it will be interesting to see how Apple responds to this.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

My Work Colleagues, They Know How I Feel

Got a cough that won't clear up, they know how I feel.
Think I've got a sty, they know how I feel.
And my neck is sore, they know how I feel.

It's the same place, sucks to work here,
Need a new job...

(And I'm feeeeeeeling GOOOOD!)

Sorry, January blues.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Remembering my step-grandfather

My step-grandfather died last month. He was 95, and due to the passing of my paternal and maternal grandfathers in my infancy effectively the only grandfather I ever knew.

He was a smart guy, and was capable of being captivating and personable. My guess is that I must have been six when I met him, and got to know him through an range of magic tricks.

As I got older I came to know him more as an educated reader, with a pretty substantial library. Our conversations became more complicated - not to mention more interesting - as time went by.

Just before his wife passed away I noticed a different side to him, one of a loving, caring husband. After she passed away he kept photos of her prominently where he lived. He clearly missed her. It was quite touching.

He was also a published author. Nothing major, just a small book about the history of a village where he lived. I need to get a copy of this somewhere, and somehow I think that a fitting tribute would be to make it into print myself. That's a matter for another time though.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Broadband Speed at Home

We got an invitation out for dinner last night. One of our hosts told us that they'd just had broadband installed. I asked what speed he had, and he told me it would initially be 1Mb, before going up to 4Mb.

According to various speed tests I can only get 0.5Mb. Still! It's the 21st century people, work on it!