Solving the World's problems with common sense and a flamethrower.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Back in the UK

So - I'm back.

And off sick.

Thankfully the tonsillitis symptoms eased on the Friday night while I was still in Romania, but I've been left with Laryngitis and still feel pretty awful - as well as sounding like a cross between Frank Butcher and Stephen Hawking.

On the advice of the GP, I'm actually going to do what I'm told and take a good few days off, probably returning with my next morning shift on Saturday. I've been told to take complete physical and vocal rest - which even gives me an opportunity to turn my phone off!

The team in Romania were lovely, and very understanding - to the point of even stopping by my hotel on Friday night (while I was working the night shift) bringing a bag of sweets, chocolate, Coke and Strepsils to make the night go more smoothly. They're great people and I'm sure they're going to do their new job well for us.

It's great to be home. It's not often I'm homesick, but being poorly while away doesn't make for an enjoyable visit, and I really didn't get to see enough of Cluj - which is actually a pretty city with a very Italian feel to it.

It doesn't look like I've missed a great deal on my trip - no major political upheavals, sadly, though it looks like there's been yet more data protection idiocy going on.

Time to relax and take the doctor's advice!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

That Would Explain It!

Still in Romania.

The tiredness and lethargy I've been suffering from, which I put down to travelling and night shifts - is actually Tonsillitis.

These next couple of days are going to be pleasurable as a result.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bună Ziua from Romania

So this week, the Dungeekin Show is in Cluj, Romania, helping train a new support team.

I'm sure it's a lovely place - in the heart of Transylvania, a heart-stirring mix of old gothic architecture and communist-era prestressed concrete.

The lights of the city's main square certainly look beautiful.

Only problem is - I'm working night shifts the whole time I'm here, so I get about 1 hour per day to see Cluj in daylight on my way home from the office.

I normally love travelling to new places - but this time I'm tired, grumpy, and I want to go home.

Roll on Sunday.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Please Contact Me if you're Frustrated with the CSA

I've held this one in for long enough.

Today's rant has but one topic - the appalling, inefficient and inaptly-titled Child Support Agency.

those who know me know that I'm divorced and that I have a little boy, who I love and don't see often enough. So, obviously, I'm obligated to support him - which I do gladly.

However, for my ex-wife to qualify for the benefits to which she is entitled, my support payment has to go through the Child Support Agency. They won't permit a private arrangement. In the early days, this wasn't a problem - the case was handled through the Plymouth CSA office, who were polite, friendly, efficient and, most of all, quick. If you had a query you could speak to your caseworker by phone, and your caseworker would come back to you with answers quickly. It was easy and all went smoothly.

Until April of this year, when they moved me to Bolton.

The people who work at CSA Bolton are the most useless, disinterested, lazy, ill-informed, dishonest and incompetent excuses for humans it's ever been my displeasure to deal with. In the 8 months - check that, 8 MONTHS - it's taken to do a simple salary reassessment, I've had the dubious honour of calling them regularly - monthly at first, then weekly from about July, and daily since November.

Every call gives different, conflicting information. I'm told a different 'caseworker' name every single time I phone, and every time I try to speak to the 'caseworker' concerned, they're either not in, at lunch, off sick, planning a Mars expedition or any one of a million other reasons why they can't come to the phone.

Quite frankly, I believe the real reason is they're swinging around in their tyres flinging their faeces at each other - it's all they're fit for.

I've been promised a call-back 16 times in the last month - and how many have I received?

None. Not one. Zilch. Zip. Nada.

Try to speak to a 'Manager'? No chance. They're somewhere in the back of the Monkey House and, in the amusing words of one callcentre cretin 'don't have to speak to the general public'.

And the crowning glory of this pustule upon the anus of efficiency - my ex-wife has received no payment from the CSA since the beginning of October, and is suffering the same indignities when she calls them trying to get an answer.

So - 8 months on, I'm still paying 30% more than I'm supposed to be paying, I'm owed over £500 in back payments, my ex-wife is owed a total of 4 months payments and neither of us can get any sense from the CSA.

Enough is enough.

The CSA was established for a good reason - to ensure that absent parents made financial provision for their offspring. However, what's come out is a Frankenstein's Monster - a bloated, inefficient Civil Service calamity that is singularly unable to perform the duties it was incepted to do.

If they can't even deal with someone who IS paying regularly - how on earth do those parents waiting for fathers who don't pay fare?

I believe that I'm not alone in my suffering when dealing with this bunch of moronic dung-flingers. So I ask you this. If you are having problems with CSA Bolton, either as a parent with care or an absent parent - or if you know someone who's reached the same levels of frustration I have, and who are facing either insanity or aneurysm - please contact me or get them to contact me. I will respond to all the contacts I get.

I have already written to Lord McKenzie of Luton with regard to my specific issue, and am sufficiently driven by anger that I want to start a campaign of emails, letters and phone calls to the DWP to force some efficiency into the system.

Please contact me and let's start getting some changes and answers.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

And it's gone....

The little Advent lasted just 3 days since its visit to PC World - and is now gone.

I came downstairs on Friday morning to discover a shut-down box. Again.

This time, a bit of Googling garnered me some evidence that I wasn't alone in experiencing problems with this box. This link is just ONE of the mentions of the problem I found.

I called PC World, who (at first) asked me to bring it in for further tests. However, I explained the evidence, pointed their Tech Guys team leader at the relevant pages....and got a callback an hour later confirming that they would simply take a return for a full store credit.

So the Advent went back, and has been replaced by a Compaq C757EA, as the price for a dual-core with 2GB RAM was just too good to miss. I also treated myself to an Archos 504 80GB PMP, which will be useful for my trip to Romania this month.

(For those who are shocked at my choosing Archos - I looked at the iPod Touch, but for £20 more than the Archos it's a tenth of the storage and, according to the owner of the one I was fiddling with, won't play Divx - which would make it completely useless for my purposes.)

Overall, then, I have to say I'm not displeased with the service and response from PC World on this. And I feel like I've got a heck of a lot more for my money than I had originally!

So to those who asked for my opinions or advice on the Advent 8212 - my advice is just DON'T. It's not DSG's fault - but the components and the mainboard appear to have known issues and, quite frankly, it's not worth the money you'll pay for it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

No Fault Found

I'm completely unsurprised.

I now have my little lappy back from the clutches of PC Worst - and they say that after two days of tests, they weren't able to find any fault with the box.

In their defence, however, they've agreed (in writing) to replace it immediately if it shuts down unexpectedly once more. So I don't suppose I can complain too much.

So....because I say there's a fault and they say there isn't, the plan is simple. The laptop will stay powered on (with the power management set to never turn off either monitor or PC) for a few days, and we'll see if it manages to stay upright.

If it does - great. If not....well, you can guess the outcome.

In other news, I'm soon to be the proud owner of an iMac. Only an old one, I grant you, but it's been upgraded and runs OSX so it'll be a good learning box for me. I'm looking forward to collecting it!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Two Months old, and it's already FSCKED

Bloody, sodding, pile 'o' junk PC World crap.

My blasted laptop - as purchased just two months ago and lauded by me in an earlier Blog post is currently sitting in the Oxford PC world while I fight for a replacement.

Leaving aside the problems with some of the software - most notably the integrated webcam, which doesn't actually integrate with any known application AT ALL - the laptop's developed an annoying tendency to shut down, with no warning whatsoever.

Imagine - working away, laptop on power and fully charged - and then *click*. Nothing.

So...Saturday saw me dragging myself into PC World, laptop and receipt in hand.

Explain situation to droid on 'Tech Guys' helldesk. "OK", says he. "We'll need to do some diagnostics - leave it with us for ten minutes".

"OK - given that I've told you the symptoms, and that it's manifesting as an intermittent hardware problem, what is a 10-minute diagnostic check going to prove?"

"Well, " the droid replies. "It's probably just a virus so it'll show up on our basic tests".

I resist the urge to batter the droid's head against the counter repeatedly, and Gerry and I head off to do other things for a while.

One hour later, we're back. And nothing AT ALL has been done.

Thankfully, G steps in at this point as I'm looking to maim someone.

So.....trip forward to this morning, and I call the Tech Guys.

They're still doing tests (thankfully now the ones I originally requested) and the box is in a thermal test now. Interestingly, it actually DID what I said it was doing - though there's much wriggling going on to try and say it isn't the laptop.

Tomorrow a decision will be made - and I'm pushing for replacement or refund. We shall see.

But so far, I have to say I'm not impressed with PC World's warranty support!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New Site Motto

OK, so I've come up with a new motto for the site/blog:

humanus est causa , non apparatus

Translation is left as an exercise for the reader. Now all I need to to is design myself a funky coat of arms - which will be fun to do!

For those who speak Latin - if it's grammatically/syntactically incorrect, I used an online Latin translation so don't know how accurate it was in picking up tenses and context. So tough - I like it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dumbshield Redux

Came in this morning to the email below:

From: Orrible DBA (the same one as yesterday)
Sent: 15 October 2007 14:57
To: IT
Subject: RE: Your call is now resolved

Please can you reset password for $secondaryVPNaccount as this has also been reset somehow.
(Italics are mine)


Orrible DBA
Oracle Conslutant

Er, right. A vitriolic VPN with a personal grudge against you decided to reset both the passwords for your account.

There's no way it could be that you, oh, I don't know - FORGOT YOUR PASSWORD!

My VPNs are fine, thank you very much. Go blame something more likely.

Sheesh - not even 0800 and my Dumbshield levels are already falling.

< clickety *change password to "donotforgetmeagain" and remove password change facility* click >

That should get the message across!

Monday, October 15, 2007

In Praise of the Dumbshield

Boxers and rugby players - in fact, anyone taking part in an active pursuit - wears a gumshield to protect their teeth.

Those of us in the IT Support business, though, have no need to protect our pearly gnashers. Rather, it's our poor battered brain cells that suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous lusers.

So - I'm sure you can agree that we all wear our very own mental Dumbshield.

As we work our way through the day's idiocies, our Dumbshield effortlessly counteracts the stupidity of those with which we wrestle. It is the Dumbshield that insulates us against the excesses of users and inures us to their cretinous witterings.

Were it not for our Dumbshields - well, let's just say that there'd be a waiting list for water towers. And rifles.

So it was unfortunate today that my Dumbshield was almost defeated - by a series of heinous attacks not by the Generally Clueless, from whom I expect nothing more, but by those in our own rarefied profession.

Part One - On the difference between inside and out
So our largest client does a great deal of work for a Major Computer Company. To protect the guilty, I will call them Halfwit Packrats. In order to facilitate the work done for Halfwit Packrats, $CLIENT has a VPN. Supplied by Halfwit Packrats, and 'supported' by them too.

Anyhoo - overnight Halfwit Packrats update the VPN client. Without telling $CLIENT, who suddenly discover a marked inability to connect to the VPN. Call us. We troubleshoot, and I end up talking to a Helldesk Drone from Sector 7G (VPNs) of Halfwit Packrats.

  • Me: "Have you changed the VPN gateway?"
  • HD: "Yes, it's".
  • Me: < fx="clickety-click">"No, it isn't"
  • HD: "You also need to add this IP to your outbound ACL -"
  • Me: *sigh* "Nope - that's an internal address."
  • HD: "Add this one too! blah.blah.blah.blah"
  • Me: < whimper > "So you've gone from one gateway to three - two of which are internal, all of which are to be used simultaneously? Why - and how?"
  • HD: "Well if you want to access the Halfwit Packrats VPN, you'll actually need to open the following address range - outbound"
  • HD: "Durrrr...well you need to permit that address range on the firewall"
  • Me: "OK, pretend I have no Clue and that you understand what you just said - then explain to me how my lusers connect to every single internal address on your network, including how doing that would, in any way, relate the the concept of Virtual Private Network. Oh, and don't forget to add in how they would actually reach your INTERNAL addresses across the Internet."
  • HD: "Oh, they can reach them easily through the VPN Concentrator".
I could almost hear his personal lightbulb come on as he spoke.
  • Me: < mode="sweetness & light"> "Ooo, a VPN Concentrator! You don't think I might have the address of it, do you?"
  • HD: "It's blah.blah.blah.blah".
One < fiddle > in the ACL later, and LO, the VPN did arise again, and packets did move on the face of the ethernets.

Dumbshield Status: 60%

Anyway, I cheered myself up by resolving a couple of easy calls and slurping vast vats of coffee - and just as my mood was brightening, An Email hit my Inbox.

Part Two - On Fault Reporting
This was a good email. This email came from our support colleagues in Eastern Europe, who are supposed to be our opposite numbers in both role and skillset.
The Email Said Thusly:

"We are having problems connecting to $DATACENTRE. Please resolve"

Well, let's see, you Euro-Plonker.

"Can't connect to $foo" is most assuredly NOT a valid fault report. I'd expect that sort of muppetry from a Common-or-Garden Luser, but another Helldesk? Where's the screenshot of the error message? A traceroute? Basic stuff, chaps. Perhaps the mental torture of drafting a 9-word fucking email forced a temporary neural shutdown. Or perhaps you're just cretins. I remain undecided.

One brief email ensues, explaining that the (non-specific) outage was caused by a transient network error, now resolved. Of course. Call closed.

Dumbshield Status: 30% - Warning, Dumbshield Levels low, Luser penetration possible

More coffee ensues, and I while a few happy minutes trying to work out why $SENIOR_PERSON had a spam hit her Inbox suggesting that she might like ejaculate on her face. Then - the grand finale.

Part 3 - On the Difference between My Problem and Your Screwup
Another email hits - this time from one of our Oracle DBAs - again, someone we could reasonably expect to have at least a basic degree of Clue.

My faith in humanity - or at least, Orrible DBAs - takes another beating as I read the HTML dribble in front of me:

"The VPN is broken. I can't connect."

Oh, my VPN is broken, is it? Is it really? Then what, precisely < checks > in the name of ARSE am I connected to?

A few more < clickety-clicks > and I start to wonder.....

...Reset user password. Wander over to Orrible DBA's desk.

  • Me: "Would you try logging in with this new password?"
  • ODBA: "Well that won't work, the VPN's broken"
  • Me: "Humour me - please"
  • ODBA: "OK then" < fx="clickety">
  • ODBA: "Hey, it works! You fixed the VPN!"

< gibber > Shield Down! Shield Down! Dumbshield has Failed!

So I'm slowly bouncing back now - but I need to get a new Dumbshield.

Lusers, lusers everywhere, even where you'd expect Clue. My cynicism meter needs recalibration.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Today I have been mostly....

...messing about with video compression.

I do like my days off - I can spend a whole day geeking out, using my machines to do stuff I've been meaning to do (interspersed with household chores, of course - got to keep the Darling G happy).

Tonight is the third week of my photography course, which I'm really looking forward to. It'll be a shame when it ends next week.

Didn't manage Judo last night. I was feeling too tired and groggy, and it's really not a good idea to do an intense contact sport unless feeling 100%. Unless you like Casualty wards, that is.

I am still suspenseful.

Gerry's away again tonight - Yorkshire last night, and Worcestershire tonight. Even though I'm used to her being away - and sometimes extended absences - I still miss her terribly. I never sleep well when she's not there, which made last nights' bout of insomnia even worse.

I finally dozed off at about 0200, having actually gone to bed at 2100. Being woken by $mother-in-law at 2200 was, as it happens, not helpful.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Insomnia... a Bitch.

I spend all day feeling worn out and knackered, fall asleep at quarter to nine...and am woken at 2145 by $mother-in-law.

Now I can't get back to sleep.

Insomnia is a Bitch.

In suspense....

I am. . . suspenseful.

I can't say more than that.

There are things which might be occurring, possibilities which may become probabilities, chances which have the outside potential to be certainties.

Cryptic I know, but I need to be cryptic as these things are for me and me alone.

As these things change state, perhaps I can write about them and how they makeme feel.

More to follow. . . . ?

WTF. I mean, seriously, WTF???

I'm frequently accused of 'ranting' when it comes to the inequities of our current Government.

But yesterday's Pre-Budget Report - and the BBC's coverage of same - can lead me to only one question:


I know that we are living in a 'fake' democracy. I know that our politicians view us as farm animals, milked of our resources and kept in an information-free pasture.

But come on, Mr Darling. Do you seriously, seriously believe that anyone with an IQ above room temperature couldn't see straight through the poorly spun, plagiaristic BOLLOCKS you spouted in the Commons?

It's sad enough that you think you can get away with it. Even sadder that Auntie Beeb make it sound like you're not talking arrant tosh.

Given that you are clearly unable to do basic mathematics - or to understand the essential difference between 'new policy' and 'rehashed announcement in a desperate and ultimately failed bid to regain the political initiative', perhaps you might like to consider the information below:

You did not Increase the Inheritance Tax threshold
I'm sorry to break it to you, Darling, but you didn't. You see, the current limit is £300k. Per person. You announced, in the Commons, that the limit would be 'increased' to £600k. Per couple.

Basic Arithmetic 101: 300 + 300 = 600

Google has a calculator function if you are that unable to fucking add up.

So just to clarify - you took something that was already in place and which could already be achieved with a simple legal document - and made it sound like you were doing something more.

And what's this - taxing non-domiciles? Hang on, this sounds familiar! Would that be because it's the SAME policy announced by George Osborne at the Tory Party Conference?

So - what we see here is a strategic masterstroke, therefore, by Gordon Brown.

Make noises about an Election, make sure your minions are poking the right people - even Nick Robinson thought it was going to happen - and force your opponents to publicise their policies.

Then steal them, and say 'no, of course we're not going to have an election'.

Next, announce those fiscal policies as your own. For bonus points, and to show your complete contempt for the British people, announce these 'new' policies just 1 WEEK after your opponents went public with them.

We're all too stupid to notice, right?


Monday, October 08, 2007


Oh well. The QVC Presenter Search Final was won, in the end, by Craig.

Sam was tremendous and did her best, and we're proud of her - I doubt it's the last we'll see of Sam on our screens!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Shout Out to My Sis - Good Luck!

Those of you who follow my myriad ramblings on Twitter will know that Sunday is a Very Important Day.

This Sunday my sister - the lovely, gorgeous and exuberantly talented Sam - is in the Final of the QVC Presenter Search competition - an X-Factor stylee contest with a years' presenting Contract at stake for the lucky winner.

Sam has worked tirelessly since graduating University to get into presenting - from working with Aardman Animation, working as the Production Assistant on Bargain Hunt, presenting small, international programmes on cable - but this is a big chance.

From over 20,000 potential hopefuls, the field was thinned...and thinned...and thinned...until as of a few weeks ago, just 8 remained, and they had to endure 'trial by TV Vote' each week, along with the pointed comments of judges, to get to where we are now.

........We interrupt this program, as the author wishes to make some personal observations regarding Guest Judge Vanessa Feltz...
Vanessa, FOAD you fat, snide, cretinous, miserable excuse for a human. Please slink into the obscurity you so richly deserve.
................Thankyou, we now return you to our scheduled programming...

The Final.

So now it all comes down to this. 3 Contenders, 1 Show. 6pm Sunday, QVC.

We're all going to be there - all her friends and family, which is a big crowd - all wearing our 'Vote Super Sam' t-shirts and green afro wigs in her honour. Cheering, shouting and supporting her with all our hearts for her to achieve what she wants and deserves so much.

Please, if you can spare an hour, tune in and watch Sam on QVC Presenter Search, 6pm Sunday on the QVC Channel, and give her your support too.

Go Sam!!
Text 'VOTE SAM' to 80782 on Sunday Night!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

On the failings of the Human Memory in Politics

I believe in Conviction Politics, whatever colour your rosette. To this end, I've created a Pledge to that effect. Please Pledge your support by agreeing to turn out and Vote with your conscience at the next General Election. Thank you.

You know, for the longest time I've tried to avoid venting my opinions about the current political situation. Improvements in my life have meant that the rage, which previously drove me to comment on any and all political pronouncements or events, is no longer part of my life, and is not missed in the slightest.

All that aside, sometimes I'm still struck by the urge to write - when the news just gets too much, and Gerry can't handle me griping at the TV any more. And now, I'm filled with the desire to ask just one simple question:


I've been watching coverage of the Conferences over the last couple of weeks, and it appears that we're driving headlong toward a much-needed snap Election. Yet unbelievably, the general opinion is that the 'new' Prime Minister should be 'given a chance' and that 'things might change'.

I can only assume from this that the average British voter is so dulled, so inured to spin, lies and misleading statistics that they cannot see the facts for what they are.

For the record - Gordon Brown is not some new rescuer, parachuted in from nowhere to save British politics.

Gordon Brown was, for ten years, the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the very Government that has caused the problems we all suffer with now.

- It was this Labour Government which increased the Tax burden through rises in stealth taxation (99 tax rises between 1997 and 2006) - recommended in the Chancellor's Budgets. By Gordon Brown.

- It was this Labour Government which raided UK Pension funds by scrapping Dividend tax relief - recommended in the Chancellor's Budget. By Gordon Bown.

- It was this Labour Government that raised £22.5bn with the sale of 3G licenses, yet we now have a massive budget deficit of £7bn. And who was the Chancellor presiding over this mammoth wastage? Yep. Gordon Brown.

- Iraq and the WMD lies. The Cabinet voted (with notable exceptions) for military action in Iraq, and to stand by the 'Dodgy Dossier'. Who was the second-most senior member of the Cabinet? Any guesses? Anyone? Well done. Gordon again.

Then - as if that lot isn't enough, look at the policy 'promises':

Violent crime is up. Gun crime has risen fourfold since 1998. Antisocial behaviour complaints have risen massively. Oh, and we've run out of prison places.

Incidence of MRSA infections in UK hospitals has risen 31.5% since 1998. The NHS has been suffering a budget crisis since 2006. There's a huge problem with NHS dentistry, and problems with the GP service both during working hours and out-of-hours despite the much-vaunted - and wrong - new GP Contracts.

So despite ten years of increased taxation and ever-better promises, we are in fact worse off and worse served than we were in 1997.

Yet Labour still scream "remember the Tories! Remember how bad it was!". And, dutifully, the general populace believes them.

Yes, the Tories made mistakes in their 18 years. But as I recall, the last Labour administration nearly destroyed the country - anyone care to recall the Winter of Discontent? Or what the higher rate of income tax was? (83% - yes, 83%). Or, for that matter, what the BASIC rate of Income Tax was prior to 1979? (33%).

The other commonly-raised spin is that the Tories were the party of 'sleaze'. Yeah, right. Remember how Bliar said that his New Labour Government would be 'whiter than white'?

Are we supposed, therefore, to ignore David Blunkett? There's 2 incidences of sleaze right there. Or Peter Mandelson? Another two. Or Keith Vaz. Or Tessa Jowell and the mystery mortgage. And let's not forget the sitting Prime Minister being interviewed by Police in connection with 'Cash-For-Peerages'.

You may think, after seeing all that, that I'm going to try and persuade you to vote Conservative. But I'm not. Neither am I going attempt to sway you to Lib-Dem, Plaid Cymru, SNP or even Monster Raving Looney.

It's not my job to persuade people how to vote. A vote is a precious thing, and something we're lucky to have.

What I want to do, more than anything else, is persuade you to THINK.

Please, don't be swayed by biased reporting (you'll see that the links above aren't just from right-wing publications, there are independent and left-wing sources in there too). Don't be led by spin, or promises from any side.

Read. Get your political information from multiple sources. Make your mind up with the care and consideration suffrage deserves.

But please, please PLEASE - Use your MEMORY. Just because there's a new face at the helm, don't believe it's a new start, especially when that 'new face' has been a senior member of Cabinet for the last decade.

Whoever leads this Government today, they need to answer for the actions and errors of the last 10 years.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

New Shiny Toy - Early Impressions

I've been intending to do it for a while, but yesterday I finally bought myself a new laptop.

I marched into PC World in Oxford, credit card in hand, fully intending to purchase a Samsung Q35 - and ended up walking out with an Advent 8212.

Some may ask - why buy a much lesser-known brand laptop? Well, the spec was pretty irresistible - a considerably higher spec than the Samsung - yet the price was the same. Additionally, when I did a side-by-side comparison of the two machines, the display quality was actually higher than the Samsung, and I even get the same warranty.

So - I have the laptop, it's fully charged and I've had a day to play with it so far. These are my initial opinions on the box, and I'll post more once I've lived with it for a while.

One of the first things that attracted me to the Advent was the spec, which is as follows:

- Intel Core Duo T7100 @ 1.8GHz;
- 2048MB DDRII 667 RAM;
- 120GB HDD;
- Shared graphics (it says up to 128MB, but is actually taking 448MB for VRAM!)
- Integrated 1.3MP webcam;
- 12.1" Widescreen TFT @1280 x 800 pixels
- Vista Home Premium.

Compare that to the spec of the Samsung - T5200 @1.6GHz, 1GB RAM, 100GB HDD, 128MB graphics, no webcam - and consider that this was the same price - £599. So you can see there that with the Samsung, there's an immediate cost based upon the brand.

First Impressions
Once I got the laptop home, and left it to charge up for a while (probably the hardest part of the whole thing was resisting the temptation to play with it), I settled in for my first experience of Windows Vista.

The first thing I noticed was the keyboard. I'm a touch-typist, and often find that laptop keyboards are a little small for doing that comfortably. However, despite its diminutive size, the keyboard works well, with a positive reaction from the keys and a 'desktop' feel. If I'm being really picky, I'd complain that the shift keys are a little small - but I'm already adapting to that.

Vista itself is certainly pretty - it defaulted into a dark taskbar and desktop, which was great for me as I would have set it to that anyway. The default sidebar is useful and easy to configure - more on that later.

As for the eye-candy - well, I have to say that I love it. I could spend hours playing with te window animation when I press 'Win+Alt'. I know it's similar to the Expose feature in Mac OSX, but it's done well. The additional Aero feature of showing a teensy window - with animation - on the taskbar when you hover over it is also impressive!

One of the features I was delighted to find in Vista Home Premium was the Terminal Server Client. I use RDP a lot, connecting to other machines on the home network, and was expecting it to be absent as it was in XP Home. To have the client as standard on Home Premium has saved me a lot of hassle.

Firefox and AVG Free both installed with no problems or incidents, and Windows didn't baulk at having Firefox set as the default browser.

VMWare Player also installed with no issues, giving me a virtual Ubuntu Linux desktop if I need it. I may dual-boot in the future - as yet I'm undecided.

The Sidebar has already turned out to be a useful tool.

Once I'd removed the useless gadgets I didn't need - like a weather report, RSS reader and (for some reason) a picture slideshow, I was left with just a clock. I prefer analogue, so this is nicer for me than the standard digital clock on the taskbar. I then downloaded and installed a couple of other gadgets from the Microsoft Gallery, including an RDP shortcut and a CPU/RAM meter. Both were quick and easy to install, and just work.

The Sidebar does take up some screen estate, but I've intentionally got mine set up to always be available. Obviously that's my choice, if you change the properties you can use the full widescreen and just see the Sidebar on the Desktop.

Performance & Battery Life
After such a short time with the laptop, I can't give definitive answers yet - but my initial impressions are good.

I went into this with some concerns, as I've read all the stories about how resource-hungry Vista is and wasn't expecting miracles. And it's true that Vista takes a LOT of memory. Running with just RDP and Firefox open (5 tabs), memory usage is at 43% - that's 880MB! I think we can safely say that 2GB is necessary.

The fan isn't hugely quiet, but it only runs for a couple of seconds at a time unless under heavy load, and even if running constantly it's not overly intrusive.

As an experiment last night, I decided to do a lot more and run the machine down from fully-charged to zero as quickly as possible.

So....I opened Firefox and IE7, opened some pages including some Flash animations and Windows Update, connected to my server via RDP, started copying files from there to the laptop, and dug out my 'guilty pleasure' - the 'Hackers' DVD, popping that into the DVD-RW drive on the right side of the laptop.

Then I took out the power cable, and sat down to watch the movie!

With all of that running, CPU usage climbed to between 60% and 80%, as did RAM usage. Battery charge dropped fast - yet I was still able to see the plucky, innocent hackers beat the big, bad villians and Dade Murphy get the girl.

There were no hangs or stutters from Media Player either.

First Impressions
Overall, my first impressions of this laptop have been overwhelmingly positive. I've tried it doing more than I would normally do with a lappy, and so far it's met every one of my challenges without breaking a sweat.

I'm delighted with my purchase, and would recommend this Advent model to anyone looking for a decent-spec subnotebook under £700.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Experience of a Lifetime, or Wot I Done on My Holidays


Well, we're back, having just had the most amazing holiday I've ever experienced.

We flew to Tanzania and spent 5 days on safari, followed by three days in the old Stone Town of Zanzibar and finishing with 6 days on the paradise of Pongwe Beach Resort in Zanzibar.

Well, that's the basic description - but the reality was just incredible....

So on 18 August we grabbed our backpacks and lugged them to Heathrow, flying to Dar Es Salaam by way of a stop in Doha in Qatar, and after 26 hours finally pitched up at our hotel in Arusha. Arusha isn't the nicest of towns, and I have to say it was a little unnerving to find our hotel protected by an armed guard!

A Shaky Start

We were awoken early on the Monday morning by the building shaking. I'm not joking - a stressed-concrete building shaking like an alcoholic with the DT's. It turns out that we were 85km from the epicentre of an earthquake registering 5.2 on the Richter Scale - an interesting alarm call, and one I've no desire to repeat! The earthquake even made the news.

Oh, and it was no warmer than the UK, and it was raining. Hard. Not the most auspicious start to our trip!

After an 'interesting' breakfast - scrambled eggs, tinned mushrooms (with mixed veg), baked beans with garlic and something that was almost, but not quite, a frankfurter - we were picked up by our safari guide Hussein, introduced to our camp cook Ema and we were off, with a 2-hour drive through the rain to Tarangire National Park.

After setting up our little tent in the campsite, off we went into the park, the weather clearing above us - and within minutes we'd come face to face with our first animal - a giraffe, about 20 feet from us and totally unconcerned by the excited humans in the white Land Cruiser snapping away at him!

From that point on, the wonder started. We were lucky enough to come across a family of elephant with a calf, and we sat there for easily 20 minutes, watching the calf suckling from its mother as the herd lazily grazed on the acacia bushes.

Seeing this - sat no more than 15 feet from a herd of grazing elephant, barely daring to breathe loudly - I finally realised how incredible this was going to be. Part of me had expected the safari to be almost like a trip to a safari park, with us in a vehicle looking at animals. But the reality is totally different - I felt like I was in their space. Those elephants knew we were there, and we were watching them because they chose to allow us to do so. These weren't transplanted animals - we were the ones transplanted to their place.

After our first overnight stay, when I learned just how unnerving it is to go to the toilet at night on a campsite in an African national park, we were off again, heading up to the Serengeti National Park.

It's at this point I should mention the roads.

The Road Less Travelled

The trip to Serengeti is about 250km - 155 miles. Not that far, really, and about the same distance as I travel to visit my parents, a journey which takes about3-4 hours.

In Tanzania, it took almost 7.

There is a road between Tarangire and Serengeti - note that, one road - and it travels through the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area then winds on into the Serengeti National Park. The road through Ngorongoro is managed by the Conservation Area, and the part through Serengeti by the National Park. There's no central funding.

None of it is paved.

This means that the Ngorongoro stretch is a winding dirt track climbing into the clouds which permanently surround the Ngorongoro Crater Rim - where it becomes a mud track - then down onto the Serengeti plain, where the heat has created a lunar landscape and a track of rocks and dust. We slipped and slithered our way up, picking our way around broken-down and crashed lorries (and trying not to think of the 600m drop the other side of us), and then we were heading on, in dust so thick you sometimes couldn't see ahead of you, jolting and bumping and rarely exceeding 50km/h, using whichever side of the road was smoothest at the time.

Gerry and I silently blessed the bandanas we'd bought as last-minute purchases as we juddered along, hair and clothes thick with dust, mouths and noses covered like Mexican bandits, nothing in sight for mile after mile other than twisted acacia and the odd Maasai farmer.

Finally, after a late meal stop, we were in Serengeti National Park, we saw our first lion and every bone-jarring second of our drive was worthwhile.


I think that everyone has their own mental image of what Africa 'is' - it might be the endless sands of the Sahara, or tribal violence in the Congo, or even the soukh in Tangiers. But for me, when we pitched our camp in the Serengeti National Park, I was in the Africa I'd always imagined. Childhood images, created and shaped by wildlife documentaries, were made absolutely real.

From the door of our tent, we could gaze out over a vast panorama of dried grasses, twisted and flat-top acacia, puncuated by giraffes ambling past in the distance with their long, swinging gait and small herds of Thompson Gazelles. Mongooses and Bush Hyrax scuttled around near the camp kitchen searching for small insects and scraps of food. We ate our evening meal in the Serengeti sunset, and went to sleep early lulled by the night sounds - the incessant chirp of cicadas and the occasional lonely whooping call of a spotted hyena wandering past the campsite.

Facilities in the campsite were primitive indeed. The toilets were simple squats or, amazingly, a concrete dais with a toilet seat over the top, all above deep pits. The only water supply came from an almost-empty plastic tank. There was a bucket shower, and Gerry gratefully used it, only to find that it belonged to an enterprising local who wanted to charge $5 for the privilege! A quick word with our guide, and he was gone the next morning - sadly along with his shower, which meant that we had to wash in about an inch of water in a bucket.

Despite the presence of toilets, though, we were strongly advised by our guide not to use them after dark, as it was impossible to know what would be coming through the camp by night. This stern warning was reinforced the first morning, when we found out that two lions had come through at 5am, getting a drink from the water supply! We'd slept through it, but our cook Ema had been up and about in the camp kitchen with his colleagues, and they'd had a scary few moments.

Serengeti was our first real exposure to the awesome power of the African sun. On our arrival, I took my shirt off for just 15 minutes while pitching the tent, and ended up with sunburned shoulders!

But it was the wildlife in Serengeti National Park that really blew us away. While it could be quite a time between sightings, simply because of the sheer size of the Park, when Hussein found something it was normally something special.

A quick Stat-Spot: Serengeti National Park covers an area of almost 15,000sq km. That's 6,000sq miles. For perspective, that's an area the size of Yorkshire.

An amazing highlight of the first full day was seeing a lioness plodding along the side of the road, closely followed by her cub, who couldn't have been more than a month or two old. We were so close we could almost have touched him - though that would not have been sensible - and we watched her pad off to wherever she was going, with him jogging along behind trying to keep up.

We saw leopards, lazily sprawled in the branches of their favourite trees watching the world pass by. Ostrich couples striding along (and in one instance mating - the ridiculous dance the male ostrich does before 'performing' made me wish I'd had a video camera!). A Cheetah with her cubs, hiding in the long grass of the plain. A trio of older lion cubs, sunning themselves on a kopje while they waited for their mother to return with food. Ox-Pecker birds, with their brightly-coloured beaks, feeding on the ticks in the skin of Giraffes. Herds of Hippos wallowing contentedly in their pool while basking crocodiles looked on.

The sights seemed never-ending, and every time we thought we'd seen the most unexpected or beautiful image, something else would come along to surprise us. Hussein was fantastic, glued to his radio as we drove along, listening to what other guides were finding as he looked out for memorable sights for us.

A Memorable Finale to Serengeti

Our second (and final) full day in Serengeti produced two of the most amazing, rare and memorable sights of the whole safari.

About 30 minutes into our morning game drive, there was a sudden burst of excited Swahili over the radio, and Hussein immediately turned the vehicle around and sprinted back the way we'd come. Believe me, it was as fast as he could go - and 50km/h on a dirt track is plenty fast enough! All he'd say was it was 'something special' - and the last time he'd said that was for the lioness and her cub, so we knew we were in for a treat.

We certainly were. There, just a few feet from the road, was a pride of over 20 lions with a fresh kill - a buffalo that we'd photographed just the night before. To see a pride with a kill is rare, and if it is seen it's normally at quite a distance. Here, though, we were so close to the action that we could hear the purrs of the lions as they ate, hear as well as see their teeth tearing the flesh. We were awe-struck, and we watched in wonder, ignoring the traffic jam of safari vehicles as more and more viewers rushed to the scene. The lions were totally unfazed by our presence, feasting on their prize and, as they ate their fill, strolling off to bask in the grass.

It was a jaw-dropping piece of wildlife reality, and something that I'll remember for a very long time.

Then, just to round off our time in Serengeti, as we drove along Hussein caught a glimpse of something moving in long-grass off to our left, some distance away. We stopped, grabbing the binoculars - and we were lucky enough to see a Serval - a small African wildcat, rare and difficult to see. I grabbed a photo, but even with a 300mm lens on the camera, it was hard to see.

Finally, we broke camp and headed off, again looking like Mexican bandits, back into the dust for the 5-hour drive to our next stop - the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.

The Crater and the Buffalo

After juddering and bouncing our way along the dirt road, we finally reached our campsite on the Ngorongoro Crater Rim in the early evening, and wrenched our battered and dust-caked bodies out of the Land Cruiser in a place so different from the Serengeti we might have been in another country.

We were on a hillside in crystal-clear air, about 2600m (1.6 miles) above sea level and with a view that took in almost all of the Crater below. Though the toilets were just as primitive as the Serengeti campsite, this time they had electricity - which meant hot showers, and we gratefully took the chance to get properly clean for the first time in three days.

While we waited for dinner, we walked down the hill a couple of hundred metres to the bottom of the campsite to look at the view - and came face to face with a buffalo in the camp!

I immediately started taking photos of him, moving closer - and when I got within about 3m of him he raised his huge horned head, and stared straight at me, giving me the most amazing photo opportunity of this huge member of the 'Big 5'.

It was only as we walked away that a somewhat nervous South African guy approached me and asked what I'd been doing - then explained that I'd been 10 feet from an animal considered to be one of the most dangerous in Africa!

As the evening went on, it got colder and colder - at the altitude of the Rim, it's frequently below zero - so we tucked ourselves up in our sleeping bags and settled down for the night...only to be woken not long after midnight by an odd sound....which when we checked turned out to be zebra, grazing right outside the tent. They were so close that their every sound was audible, a cacophony of munching right by our ears.

The Big 5

With the sunrise, it was time to climb back into the vehicle and descend the precarious access road into the Crater itself.

With its steep sides, the Ngorongoro Crater keeps most of its wildlife in, meaning that there's plenty to see packed into just 264 sq km (101 sq miles).

Our first glimpse of something new came quickly, with a Spotted Hyena - the first time we'd seen one reasonably close - and then, as we rounded a corner in a wooded area, we came face to face with a huge old bull elephant. The safe environment of the Ngorongoro Crater means that the elephants tend to live longer and this old boy showed every year, with the longest tusks I've ever seen except on pictures of prehistoric mammoths!

Immediately after him, though, came the crowning moment of the trip to the Crater - if not the whole safari - as another call came through on the radio and off we dashed again.

This time, it was something not just special but incredible. Black Rhino - and not just one, but two together! There are just 23 Black Rhino in the entire Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and only 11 in the whole of the Serengeti, so to see one at all is a rare privilege.

They were too far away for a decent photo, even with a 300mm lens, but they were easy to see with our binoculars, and we were grinning like kids at Christmas as we realised that we'd seen the complete Big 5 - Lion, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, Elephant and now Black Rhino.

We drove on, with the weak morning sun meaning we had a rare chance to see hippos out of the water. For 3-tonne leviathans, they have an odd grace when moving, and we watched one with her calf as they grazed before returning to the cool of their waterhole.

Throughout the Crater were herds of Wildebeest, with Zebra intermingling with them, moving in seemingly never-ending single file from one apparently featureless point to another. We would stop to allow some to cross our path, then drive round a corner and find the head of the herd crossing again - animal after animal in single file, a column stretching for thousands of metres. While we didn't see the actual Wildebeest Migration - at this time of year the Wildebeest are well north in the Maasai Mara - just seeing these herds moving around gave us a small idea of how the full Migration must look when it's millions of animals moving as one.

All too soon it was time to move, and we wound up the even more precarious Ascent Road with me gripping the armrests, grey-faced with fear, and headed away from the Crater to our last safari stop - Lake Manyara National Park.

Manyara was, in some ways, a bit of an anti-climax - though we did get to see some fantastic sights, culminating in a troop of baboons relaxing together, grooming and playing in the gathering dusk. By the time we got there, we were tired, dirty and in all honesty looking forward to spending a night in a proper bed.

Manyara done, we took the drive back to Arusha, and collapsed into a proper bed for the first time in what felt like years.

After that - well, what can I say? A short hop to Zanzibar, and there we were in a tropical paradise. We spent our first three days in Stone Town, the oldest part of Zanzibar Town, and relished a soft mattress, before being picked up and chauffeured to our final destination for the remaining week - the Pongwe Beach Resort.

Paradise Found

Pongwe was, quite simply, the absolute image of a desert island, beachside resort.

With just 16 2-person bungalows, it takes a maximum of 32 guests, who are cared for by an incredible 67 staff! From the moment we arrived we were in the lap of luxury, with our every need catered to by smiling waiters.

Our bungalow was right on the beach, looking out over white sand and the vivid blue of the Indian Ocean. We could (and did) walk straight out of the front door and, holding hands, run straight into the warmest outdoor water I've ever swum in.

We were lulled to sleep each night by the gentle sound of the waves against the shore - and, actually, brutally woken by the screeching yells of bush-babies in the early parts of the night!

All too soon, reality beckoned and we were back in a taxi...then a plane...then another plane...then another plane...then a bus...then another taxi...and home, 26 hours after leaving Paradise.

As I finish writing this now, 2 weeks after our return, it seems magically distant, like a place I read about rather than experienced. Thankfully we have the photographs (see them all here and here), and each one evokes the memories - the sights, feelings and smells of Africa brought back to life through an image on a laptop screen.

Oh well - now it's back to the 'Lonely Planet' guides, so we can plan the next holiday of a lifetime - in 2009!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Aha, so THERE'S the problem!

Simple - my elderly PCMCIA wireless card isn't supported under Linux.

I think a trip to PC world looms....

Linux at last

So I finally have Ubuntu installed on my Thinkpad X30.

It's only taken me 5 months to get around to it!

Of course, WLAN doesn't work (can't find a correct driver for the wireless card) so I have a strand of Cat5 stretching across the living room, but it's a start.

Once again, when I finally have it installed, I'm struck by its speed and simplicity. It's clean, simple and easy on the eye, and It Just Works.

Except wireless. Which Just Doesn't Work.

But the rest does.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Hooray! Promotion!

I can't believe I've done it.

So as of Monday, I'll be a Second-Line Engineer at $WEMANAGESTUFF, having only started as a 1st-line Bob 5 months ago.

The new role was advertised Thursday night and I applied Friday morning, thinking I'd have a week or two to get my snout in the books and make sure I passed the tech interview....then Monday afternoon I get an email with an interview date - Tuesday at 3. Less than 24 hours notice!

Anyway, the night and following morning was spent cramming - 20 out of 23 hours were spent either delving in textbooks, making notes from Wikipedia and and asking questions of anyone who came within range.

By yesterday afternoon I was knackered and ready to either puke or collapse with nerves when my name was called. . .


There was only one technical question I couldn't answer, and only one procedural one I got wrong, which I'm dead chuffed about.

So - as of next Monday, I'm Second Line.

The great thing is that here at $WEMANAGESTUFF, Second Line is a huge leap away from First in terms of activity. While First Line does a lot of problem resolution, the majority of it is directly customer-facing (resetting passwords, setting up Exchange distribution lists, editing AD accounts, that sort of thing). Second Line barely do any of that, instead focusing on our security, switching and mail systems.

So it's no more lusers for me, and fun with Checkpoint, Cisco and Sendmail into the future!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A return to normality. . . .

It's been a crazy couple of months...

The lovely G had to change jobs due to redundancy, and I've now moved onto the shift pattern (a week of 7-3 followed by a week of 3-11), and I'm still getting used to it.

What makes it a bit odd for me is that G's new job means stacks of travelling, and at the moment she's kinda on the opposite cycle to me - so she's at home when I'm on lates (meaning I don't see her as she's off to work before I wake up, and I'm gone before she gets back), and she's travelling when I'm on earlies - meaning I just don't see her!

In other news, I'm now the proud owner (finally) of a subnotebook - an IBM X30. It's great, but it would be even better if I could get Ubuntu installed on the bloody thing!

Order a USB CD-ROM drive: check.
Download and burn a bootable ISO of 6.10: check.
Test booting from USB with a 'doze recovery disk: check.
Test booting into Linux on my big laptop: check.

Insert Ubuntu boot CD into USB CD-ROM and reboot. Into Windows.

Ctrl-alt-del. Try again. Check BIOS again. Reboot. Into Windows.

So at the moment, until I can work out why the damn thing won't boot from two different Linux CDs, I'm stuck with XP Pro, heavily stripped and running ObjectDock.

If anyone can offer any suggestions as to a way round this, I'd love to hear them!