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Linkblog – November 10th to December 6th

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Linkblog between November 10th and December 6th:

Just so you know, this is an automated recent overview of the Linkblog, a collection of interesting links I find on my travels. The archives are here: http://www.wibbler.com/tag/linkblog/

Suits and Housewarmings

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Saturday was a busy day which rolled into a drunken night. My best man duties entailed me driving to Epsom with Nick, his brother and dad for suit fittings. Handily, it proved a good opportunity to test out the Lexus. We discovered that rear leg room was an issue (“I can’t feel my legs anymore”, Nick’s dad exclaimed halfway through the journey) and that most of the controls were unnecessarily complicated. And I can certainly vouch for the build quality of the rear bumper, which was tested to destruction by a Ford Fiesta that missed my plethora of brakelights and plowed into the back of me. Epsom is not a place I’d recommend driving round on a Saturday afternoon…
Nick had a set idea of the kind of get-up he’d be wearing at his wedding. A red waistcoat, apparently, was a must – and there was a red and gold theme that had to considered. I never knew weddings were so complicated. After a good hour and a half choosing the waistcoats (eventually settling on one that has to be ordered in, bless him) and half an hour verifying the choices with the wife-to-be, we burst out into the dazzling sunlight of the unseasonally warm weather.
Sadly, I was expecting to be back about an hour earlier to plan for the first party in our new house – it was more of an apology party for not organising a housewarming sooner. Michelle and I had prepared the legendary party bags earlier in the week, and she and Sarah had gone shopping in the early afternoon for food-based essentials. Jac and Shaun had turned up early to watch the Grand National. Jac had managed to win money for the last four years, and he wasn’t going to miss this one. News filtered through while we were suit fitting that his horse had fallen, much to the secret joy of everyone around. When I arrived back at the house the food had been lovingly prepared and they were all playing cricket in the garden. The garden, however, isn’t quite as big as a cricket pitch. Jac and Shaun’s competitive edge saw the softball regularly ending up in both neighbours’ gardens, with one of them eventually offering to leave their garden gate open so we could pop over whenever the ball strayed. “Can we put a fielder in there too?” Nick enquired, pushing the boundaries of neighbourly conduct.
As the sun set, 20 people came through the front door and joined in the revelry. We’d decided on a barbeque, but forgot that fact that I’m useless at them. Nick and Sarah eventually had to take over as the arrival of guests and drinking eventually took its toll on my concentration. Shaun and Michelle found some strings for my guitar and managed to plug away at it through the drunken haze for a good hour or so. The newly-installed Nintendo Wii and Xbox360 were put to full use (an enthusiastic punch from Shunta on Wii Boxing managed to break a ceiling light) and a lot of us managed to stay up until the early hours drinking, laughing and strumming.
The next morning, however, was not so enjoyable…

Online food shopping – why on earth not?

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foodshopping.jpgI’ve just completed our once-monthly online food shop, and it it reminded me of someone the other day complaining that they couldn’t afford the delivery charges. But there really is no reason not to do it. We live on the second floor of a place with no lift, and every time we shop online at Tesco we get the added bonus of seeing the exasperated face of a bloke lugging four of five crates of food up two flights of stairs. It’s fun, I assure you.
So, in a moment of full-on philanthropy, here are the arguments against online shopping – and the answers to knock ’em down.

1. They can’t usually deliver when I want.
Far be it for me to promote someone who’s already the top of the grocery pack, but Tesco are the way forward. They have two hour slots for delivery (if that’s not enough, Ocado from Waitrose do one hour slots) and can usually deliver within a day.

2. You have to pay for delivery.
True, you do. But with a little knowhow, you can cancel out the charge. You can get £5, £10 and £15 off your shopping total by using the codes listed on the Tesco Voucher Codes website, or reading the Voucher Forum on MoneySavingExpert.com.

3. It’s not secure.
It’s as secure as going into any shop. In fact, it’s more secure than that, as all the transactions are done by computers rather than people. So if you buy anything anywhere with a credit card, there’s no reason not to shop online for food.

4. You can’t potter around picking up other things you might like.
No you can’t – and this is surely a good thing, no? You don’t spend money on things you didn’t need in the first place, you don’t add more inches to your waistline, and you don’t add more pennies to Tesco’s bulging moneybags.

So what’s not to love about online food shopping?

New Year, New Shock

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Happy New Year! Time is cracking on and no mistake. 27 years old, and my close friends and I have all decided a night in with drink, food and games is a better and cheaper alternative than going to a crowded, high-charging pub or nightclub. Actually, the “cheaper” part was a false dawn – Michelle and I invited people round and then proceded to stock up with food and drink until the fridge overflowed. Jac, Debbie, Nick and Sarah popped round, and together we eat, drank, played Buzz and sped our way into 2005. Selfishly, Nick and Sarah stole the show. They announced that they were now officially engaged – a fact I’d almost ruined earlier in the day when I spied them looking furtive in a Guildford jewellers. This is a big moment, Ladies and Gentleman – Nick and I used to trawl Guildford nightly for about a year back in my Sun Microsystem-employed days, and the final marital nail and been planted in that coffin.
(pause for sigh)
So congratulations to both of them, and for goodness sake don’t let any more of you get engaged…

Africa – answers on a postcard…

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The recent Live8 concerts and the G8 conference in Edinburgh have focused the mind on overseas aid – in particular in Africa. As I write, BBC News24 are showing the ubiquitous Bono of U2 telling us that they are “the saleman of aid in the world.”
Now, obviously saving lives is a good thing, as Michelle and I were discussing last night. There are plenty of naysayers, but I’m reserving judgement. I have a few questions for Bob and Bono before I get behind the whole movement.

One. A whole load of finger-clicking from those Live8 adverts has shown that a child dies every three seconds. How can I check this is correct?
Two. If a child dies every three seconds, and the yearly growth of Africa’s population is rising to 20% a year by 2050 at current rates (source), does that mean that a child is born more rapidly than every three seconds? If so, there’s an awful lot of spare time and carnal knowledge floating around over there…
Three. If there is a child born more rapidly than every three seconds, shouldn’t we be working to lower that birthrate at least as vigorously – if not more urgently – than stopping early death? Lower birth rates would mean food is not dispersed and stretched as much as it is currently.
Four. If we give a load more aid, and a load less people die, won’t the population of Africa grow exponentially (way, way more than the 20% predicted) until there is a population and resourcing crisis?

I’m not a naysayer. I know that there are other countries with higher population growth in other countries – but this demographic-changing aid isn’t going to those countries. I’m just asking for a few answers so I can be entirely happy with the cause. Answers on a postcard please…

Boris, Blogs and a Chinese…

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Behind me, as I stood gawping at the diminutive man behind a ticket kiosk in Guildford Station, was a brightening summer’s day. True, it was only March, but the temparature had ramped up, the air was breezy and so far everything had gone to plan. I’d breezed into the station at 9am and worked my way to the front of a small queue for tickets. I asked for a Travelcard. The man asked for ?22.50.
I spluttered. I gubbled. I feebly protested. But it seems, at 9.15am, a Travelcard costs ?22.50 from Guildford. Still, I thought, hang the cost, I’m not missing today’s action.

hocpass.jpg

I was due to be in the Houses of Parliament for a meeting in Boris Johnson’s office, a quick tour around the House of Commons and House of Lords, followed by lunch in Portcullis House and, later on, a much sought after invitation to a weblogging conference in South Kensington. This, I surmised, was not to be missed.
As it turned out, I arrived in Westminster an hour early. On the way, I discovered why visiting political bigwigs cannot understand the fuss about the London Underground – because from Waterloo station to Westminster, the tube system is immaculate. Free from dirt and litter, with everything working perfectly and impressive designed to boot.
I emerged just in front of the Houses of Parliament and sauntered round the corner. Before me stood several political hacks, including the ever-present Andrew Marr, whom I nearly knocked flying. He’s much smaller than he appears on television.
After a walk along the Thames, I decided I may as well try and find Melissa, Boris’s right-hand woman. Once again, like my visit a couple of months ago, a quick frisk and I was in the Central Lobby of the building. It’s deceptively easy to get in, something that unnerves me every time. I asked a loitering policeman to call ahead for Melissa, and within minutes she breezed through one of the countless doors leading from the lobby. “Simon!” she exclaimed, as several looked round in surprise, “great to see you. Come this way.”
And so it was that at 11am I was sitting in Boris’s office, taking in thegreen furniture and Boris’s enormous desk. I even took a few photos while I sat, waiting for my cue to visit the House of Commons
chamber.
The House of Commons is much smaller that it looks on television. So is Robin Cook, unbelievably. And after getting a little bored in the House of Lords – most of the Lords were either asleep or too old to speak coherently – the Boris posse (myself, Melissa and Boris’s reseacher Olly) sat down for a taxpayer-subsidised lunch in Portcullis House, a huge and impressive building accessed from theHouses of Parliament through bunker-style tunnels.
And then, after helping Melissa with some website-related revelations, we were on our way to the second event of the day – the “Blogs in Action” Conference at the Polish Club. I was originally expecting a club full of shiny surfaces, but it turns out it was a club exclusively for VIPs from Poland, and it was a huge building. There was eventually around 70 attendees, and after a chinwag in the bar we headed upstairs for two hours of discussion on weblogs. Nokia were there; Vnunet were there; academics, famous bloggers and blogging companies were all there to hear the gems from the panel of five. It turned out to be thoroughly interesting, with Nokia evangelising about blogging through their new Lifeblog application and Tom Coates (of Plasticbag fame and winner of many website awards) telling us his views on where the whole thing is going.
Even for me, it was amazing how mainstream blogging is becoming. Newspapers like The Guardian (whose blogging supremo Neil McIntosh was also speaking) have their own Online and Observer blogs, and Vnunet have developed not only their own blogs but their own weblogging system for visitors to use.
By far the most interesting speakers was John Dale, who heads the IT Development at Warwick University. He and his team have created warwickblogs, a facility for university students and staff to get their own blogs simply and easily. It has been a huge success, and his combination of clever advertising, great webpage design and homegrown coding is possibly the best implementation of blogging I’ve seen so far. The general theme of the evening was that blogs are transcending geekery, and becoming useful tools for people and companies alike.
By 9pm, the presentations were complete, the wine and nibbles were run dry and Melissa, Dennis and I pitched up at an “All You Can Eat For ?4.95” chinese near South Kensignton tube station. “that sounds like a challenge” I remarked, and within twenty minutes I could barely move, such was the amount of food on offer. An excellent end to the day, we all agreed in the taxi to Kings Cross station…
UPDATE: A full commentary of the conference here, and a full transcript here. Also, pictures of the speakers here.

Nuts

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Astoundingly comical revelation from work colleague while discussing food: “My brother is allergic to peanuts. We used to make him play russian roulette with Revels.”

One Day in Ireland – a step back in time

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I’d only been to Ireland once, and most of that was a haze. My 25th birthday had been marked by a celebratory visit to Dublin, but I was conscious that i wasn’t seeing the real Ireland, but rather a commercialised, but highly enjoyable, version of it.
The real Ireland finally greeted me with open fields early last week on a hastily arranged business trip. I landed at Shannon Airport late on Monday night, on instruction to go and fix some issues at a client of ours in a ominously sounding place called Aughinish Island. A surprise booking in the Club Class section of the aircraft soothed my brow as turbulence hit with unnerving frequency. Being in club Class, I noted, didn’t improve the food – I finally managed to digest the in-flight meal as we were coming in to land. The airport was modern, and the Hertz Car Rental helpdesk assistant was surprisingly cheery as the clock suggested I was probably keeping him from a warm cup of cocoa and an early night. “Oooh, nice,” he said, “A Hyundai Getz…”. I realised as I approached the car that his comment may have been sarcasm. Before me was one of the smallest cars I’d ever seen. I managed to spoon myself into the drivers’ seat, pushed the chair back as far as it could go, and set off into the night with my head planted on the ceiling.
Whenever I set off in a new car, I find the clutch almost impossible to control. I’ve no idea whether this is an affliction that affects all car drivers or whether its just my own personal driving dyslexia, but everyone on the exit road from Limerick Airport at 9pm last Monday will remember a large man in a tiny car bunnyhopping down the road for many weeks, i suspect.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before the police stopped me. In fact, I was only 400 metres away from my parking space when I was flagged down by a stern officer, who insinuated I was driving “erratically”. Nonsense, I declared, but the officer proceeded with his questioning. It turned out the airport was on high alert for a car thief that had just stolen a number of cars and, relieved, I sped away once the officer was satisfied I was mostly innocent, save for my “suspicious English accent”.
Well, “sped”. Southern Ireland have recently introduced speeding fines, and as a result the usual high speed traffic had reduced to a snails pace, leaving yours truly with the tricky task of overtaking in a car that barely touched 70mph. My confidence grew with every overtaking move and I was making blistering progress as both the light and my patience dimmed.
The progress was certainly blistering, but sadly it was in the wrong direction. I was looking for the Ennis Road Roundabout, which I assumed would be in Ennis. Sadly, the Ennis Road is a long one, and I’d been going the wrong way. A short, fifteen minute journey to the hotel had become an hours long trek, and the fading light hurried me on, ever faster.
I got to the hotel at 10.30pm, completely bushed. I fell asleep within seconds.
The following day started early, and I attempted to eat breakfast in the worst Little Chef I have ever found… to date. And then, Aughinish Island. It was a short trek from the hotel, and I took in the sights and sounds of the countryside. There was a distinct lack of development anywhere but the most established towns – the roads, the hotel and its restaurant, even the cars themselves, had clearly never been refurbished since it was built. In fact that was true of most of the places I found during my one day stay – the lack of development, the lack of technology, the lack of pace – it’s all a world away from back home. Even the inhabitants were unaware of any place over 20 miles from their home, which made for interesting directions the night before.
And finally, Aughinish loomed on the horizon. The entire island was taken up by one huge structure, held together with a network of tubes and a maze of roads. I was instructed to wear goggles at the security gate for fear of comtamination – of what I don’t know – but my embarrassment was softened when I saw that the entire 600-strong workforce at the plant were all similarly goggled.
I won’t bore you with my work there – save to say that I managed to fix the bugger 5 minutes before I was due to leave for the airport, and the thrashing the little Getz got in my hurried trip back has probably rendered the gearbox completely limp. I made it onto the plane with moments to spare – and after an uneventful trip back home managed to hit the sack at around 10pm.
The overall impression of Southern Ireland? Well, for what it’s worth, here’s my advice – take a book.

The Corporate Event

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Work is going well, there’s no doubt about it. I’ve been in my new post for two and a half months, and suddenly Michelle and I are whisked up to The Belfry for a weekend of revelry – all paid by the company. How could we say no?
It was knocking on the door of eight o’clock on a sunny Saturday morning, and Michelle and I were struggling to rise. The Company Weekend was starting in 5 hours – and the general idea was to turn up at a hotel, listen to the obligatory presentation, before setting about demolishing entirely free drink and food for the rest of the night. The thought if the upcoming fun spurred us on, and we arrived 200 miles away within 4 and a half hours. Speeding – us? The hotel is set in spectacular grounds, regularly used for the Ryder Cup, and we swung past the security into the hotel complex, suitably impressed. After mistaking the in-grounds nightclub for the hotel reception, we eventually booked in and made for the designated conference room.
I’ve learned two things about corporate events. One is that they usually involve a bit of teamwork – and this was no exception. Split into our “teams”, we were told that for the next 2 hours we were to build and market a breakfast cereal, which we would present at dinner. This required unusally high brainpower for a Saturday afternoon, especially with the Managing Director on our team, but we eventually cobbled together a cereal (“Crackawhack”), a marketing strategy – revolving around pimps in playgrounds selling our highly addictive cereal – and a few posters. Oh, and a jingle, which I was informed I would sing later on that night. Oh joy.
We retired, knackered, to our rooms a couple of hours later and waited for dinner. Little did I know how debauched the evening would turn.
The clock struck six thirty, and we sat down to be met with wine. Well, it would be rude to resist, and the entire room was fairly sozzled by the time were due to conduct our presentation. Things degenerated into hazy chaos, as each team tried, and failed, to present their ideas. At one point, two managers managed to lose their inhibitions and most of their clothes as they danced around the tables.
Michelle and Mark, my manager, decided to top off the night at the local nightclub, which was surprisingly impressive. Sloaney types strutted around, cheesy music blared out, and I managed to get away without buying a round for the rest of the night. At around 1am, we stumbled back to our room, leaving Mark and the rest of the funsters to dance into the night.

Chester Drawers

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Chester. The only thing I knew about Chester before my trip up on was
that it was a bloody long way away. And getting up at four thirty that
morning, with the night still in full flow, didn’t make the trip any
more welcoming. My task for this trip was to find an office (needle) in
Chester (haystack), diagnose the computer’s “issues”, give it a couple
of kicks, and – job done – retire mid afternoon to the luxurious Travel
Inn down the road.
I left at the ungodly hour of 4.30am. Nothing stirred as I left my house
– so quiet that you might hear a pin drop on a leather banquette a goodly mile away. I’d clambered into the
car, banana in hand in case hunger struck, and off I went.
4 hours later, I was still driving. Chester, as I’ve said, is not near
to my neck of the woods, and only a brief visit to the little boy’s room
broke the monotony of the M3/M25/M40/M42/M6 trudge. The beauty of
morning travel though, it’s one saving grace, is that there is barely a
soul on the road. The only car I remember seeing on the M40 was freshly
embedded in the back of a large parked truck – the driver, I surmised,
was probably well on the way down the M99 to heaven.
I reached the outskirts of Chester as the rush hour was in full flow,
and cursed the sleepy, non-indicating drivers in their BMWs. My trusty
AA directions in my sweaty palm, I negotiated several hundred
roundabouts and many old-age pensioners before I found the office at
8:55am. I was brimming with pleasure – 5 hours of driving to a place
I’ve never been, and just look at my timekeeping…
The task was simple. Rebuild the computer, make sure the battered thing
was still working, and leave. And sure enough, in between several trips
to the coffee shop and a deep discussion about fishing, the job was done
by midday. Just in time for lunch, my stomach told me, and a quick
baguette later I was released into Chester. Just for completeness, I can
confirm that it’s a goodlooking place, with rivers, trees and some sort
of northern architecture. However, I was bushed after my early morning,
and I made straight for the Travel Inn.
Well, “straight”. I managed 4 wrong turnings before eventually giving in
and stopping at a local hotel for directions. It turned out to be just
round the corner and I arrived pleasantly surprised. New building, and a
pub just next door. I was blessed with an enormous room too, with a food
and drink machine just outside. And the ‘piece de resistance’ for the
true geek in me – wireless broadband internet access. In a year I may
look back and wonder what the fuss was about, but my virgin experience
sealed my passion for Travel Inns. I shall now request them at every
opportunity.
So, that was Chester. I could take you through my evening meal; the screaming
bores that were sat next to me discussing the pros and cons of the new
Intel microchip; I could even detail the trip down the M40 and on to the
horror of the M25 – but that’ll just bore you. Instead, I shall leave
you with this piece of advice: never try to fob off your spare Euro
change on a British food and drink machine with a queue of people
standing behind you. It gets stuck.