One thing I never expected to develop was a love of walking. For me this began in two separate places during my childhood. One was the walks that I used to take with my family at the weekends and during the holidays, and the other was my daily walk to school.
One thing I never expected to develop was a love of walking. For me this began in two separate places during my childhood. One was the walks that I used to take with my family at the weekends and during the holidays, and the other was my daily walk to school.
Without really meaning to, we've fallen into something of a routine at the weekends. It's perhaps not very exciting by most people's standards, but if you're going to keep costs low and have nothing urgent to do, it's quite a nice way to spend one's time.
It starts at about 6 on a Friday evening, when L and I have finished working for the week. I run her a candle lit bath so that she can soak out all the stress of a week of teaching and then stick on some jazz whilst I cook dinner. Dinner on a Friday could be anything: the only requirements are that it's a little bit posher than what we eat the rest of the week and it's either something we've never cooked before, or something we've not had for a very long time.
Friday night is girlie movie night and also wine night. By girlie movie night, I mean a film chosen by L that typically falls into either the romantic, romantic comedy or drama genres from our DVD collection. In an organised week we tend to eat dinner at the table as we have time to watch television afterwards, and in a disorganised one, the two activities are combined, with the aid of our lap trays.
We tend to wake fairly early on Saturday morning, thanks to the weekday affect on our body clocks. Unlike weekdays, we always eat breakfast on the sofa at the weekend, unless we fancy it in bed. We also have nicer cereal than on a week day, and croissants rather than toast. It's these little differences that make the weekend so scrummy.
After breakfast we quickly clean the flat - not very pleasurable in itself, but worth it for the feeling of a lovely clean home that we get afterwards - and then go out. We are both keen walkers and Saturday invariably involves a walk on Dartmoor, along the coast path or through some woods somewhere. For lunch we tend to pack a sandwich or, better still a ciabatta roll. I like ciabatta so much that my mouth is watering at the very thought of the one I ate earlier.
We arrive home feeling a little knackered and settle in for the evening. Jogging bottoms, thick jumpers and slippers are the name of the game, and with a hot chocolate each to refresh us, we pass a happy hour or two on the sofa, jazz or classical on the radio depending on our mood, and take to our laptops. If I ever write a blog post here, this is when I do it, and L kindly proof reads for me when I'm done.
Saturday night dinner is junk food night. It'd be a takeaway if we did takeaways, but over the years, financial necessity has forced us to do things ourselves. There are very few popular takeaway items now that I can't recreate from scratch at home. Pizza, burgers, fish and chips, fajitas, I can do them all and I love the challenge of recreating the takeaway experience at home. Tonight I'm doing chicken nuggets and chips, all homemade of course!
Just as Friday night was girlie movie night, Saturday night is man film night! If it involves guns, explosions, action, violence or anything else that we wouldn't watch on a Friday it can go on whilst we tuck into the fruits of my kitchen labours.
Sundays are a little bit more variable as we gear back up for the week ahead. L often has school work to do, but if she doesn't, we might find ourselves at a National Trust property, or occasionally playing Scrabble in Seco Lounge.
Roasts aren't obligatory, but sometimes I just can't help myself. My biggest challenge though on a Sunday is getting in front of the TV in time for Country File at 7, even if that means watching whilst doing the ironing.
So, there you have it, a little taster of how we make the most of the little things in life to bring pleasure to our free time. It may sound boring to you, I don't know, but if you're feeling a lack of excitement tonight, perhaps this post will inspire you to make your weekend a little bit special. I hope so.
As a child, I have clear memories of that feeling of post Christmas deflation. For me it tended to start pretty much as soon as the last present was unwrapped. It wasn't that I didn't get what I wanted or was ungrateful, it was just that the waiting and surprise were both over and real life was gradually resuming. In more recent years, Christmas has been less about the presents and more about the whole day, so I no longer find my excitement ebbing away as the wrapping paper gets cleared up.
However, the more able I am at coping with the Christmas anti-climax, the more I seem to notice it's bigger meaner cousin, the January Blues. I don't really remember them in my childhood at all, but with every year that goes passed, I dread the period between Christmas and Easter more and more. I know lots of people who find it a depressing time, but, aside from those who have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), why is this the case, and what can we do about it?
Most people blame it on the weather, and why not? After all, it's not a pretty picture. Wind, rain, storms, snow (if you're lucky) and never ending coldness. Hang on a minute though? Don't we all live in heated houses these days? And drive heated cars? And wear thick, warm clothes that protect us from the weather? In fact, now that I think about it, because I work at home, the only time I actually go out is on days like today, when I chose to spend a few hours hiking across Dartmoor, loving the feel of the bitterly cold wind making my face go numb.
Ok, so what about daylight levels? True, our body clocks are controlled by light levels and nothing puts a smile on our faces like bright sunshine, but we do have electric lights these days, and actually, the sun shines almost as much during the Winter as during the Summer, here in Plymouth. Admittedly that isn't a lot, but the change surely isn't dramatic enough to cause this much moodiness?
Another theory is that it's the lack of anything much to look forward to for those few months. Well, I'm not sure I do less of anything now than I do during the Summer. In fact, I usually do exactly the same sorts of things as I would in the Summer, so no change there. Besides, I like working. I like it enough to find distractions like good weather and social activities in the Summer rather annoying. I like being able to get my head down and work uninterrupted for a few months of the year.
I don't know what the answer is, I really don't. I don't make New Year Resolutions, so have no reason to be disappointed when I fail to keep them. I'm less fat than I expected to be after Christmas, my bills are all monthly direct debits, so no massive January utility bill shocks, my car tax isn't due for another month and petrol has come down recently. The fact is that life is bleeding well exactly the same as it was last month, but with lots of space in my living room where there was once a ridiculous tree.
Am I just pathetic, or is there a reason for the January Depression? Do you have a way of dealing with it? Should I just decide it's the weather and go on holiday to somewhere sunny til April?
If I'm honest, I'm not exactly where I thought I'd be this time last year. Actually, that's not entirely true. I'm in a StarBucks in Bristol a couple of days after New Year, which isn't that much of a surprise to anyone, as I often find myself in such a place at this time of year. What is more of a surprise is that I still live in Plymouth, and not through choice.
A year ago, I was growing rather fond of Plym, as my networking efforts appeared to be paying off. I had met a good many people over the past few months and was about to embark on 3 months of frantic planning in order to pull off 24 hours of fund raising, part of the global Twestival movement.
The fondness hasn't really stuck though. There are good things about Plymouth, of course there are, and I'm sure when we eventually pack up and move on I shall miss the sea, the views, the people and the close proximity of so many fantastic natural wonders. But, more than 3 years after I first visited the city, the overwhelming impression I have of it is still one of depression, deprivation and an intense feeling of being horribly cut off from the rest of the world at a time in my life when I'm not quite ready to get away from it all.
The frustrating thing about being young is that everything keeps changing - especially my views on things - so I'm aware that I can't judge myself, my situation or my place of residence in an even handed way. In all likelihood, by the time I move on (probably this summer) I shall have changed again my view on the subject, and may well miss the backwater aspect of Plymouth more than I can currently appreciate. The Grass is Always Greener, of course.
For all the frustration it causes, remaining Plymouth passed my planned departure date has at least allowed me to cement my business a little more. MRG Web Development has jumped from infancy to late childhood, if not adolescence, and although there is a way to go before I can honestly describe it as mature, or even recession proof, it is finally growing in a stable fashion, and beginning to cover my living costs.
I've learnt a lot of very harsh business lessons in the last 12 months. I now have client contracts and a content management system, and 14 months of professional experience under my belt, rather than the 2 months I hard a year ago. I don't doubt that I'll learn a great deal more over the next year too, though I hope the lessons will be a little easier and less critical to my success than those which have come my way so far.
My finances, though far from ideal, are also more stable than previously, and over the next year I hope to steadily improve the situation still further, not least by bringing my prices in line with the average for my industry, and building on the considerable coding knowledge and experience I have learned recently. I work a lot faster than I once did, and, thanks to the structure of my CMS, I'm able to deliver tried, tested and refined code for most aspects of any project I develop, and I already have plans for further development.
Several personal web projects lie in wait for the coming weeks. First and foremost I need to finish developing my business website, over at mrgwebdev.com. This is proving harder than any website I've ever developed for a client, as I'm responsible for writing business winning content, as well as designing and building the thing. Still, it needs to be done, and soon, as I shall need to up my marketing efforts this spring, in order to ensure that I am working at maximum capacity as often as possible.
Next up, I'm planning to build myself an invoicing system. This may not exactly sound revolutionary, and it isn't, but so far I've not yet been able to find an existing system that I'm entirely happy with and would therefore be willing to pay for. It may sound counter-intuitive to spend many hours building a tool from scratch when so many exist already, but there are few things more annoying than trying to use something that doesn't work the way you do, and paying lots of money for the privilege.
Last, but by no means least, I'm planning to build a website for my brother, to support his career as a racing driver. He is currently trying to attract sponsorship, and we both hope that a professional looking website that properly communicates his attitude to racing will help potential sponsors to see how serious he is.
On top of all this, the next few months are going to be a busy time away from work, with L enrolling on her final teaching practice before she becomes a qualified teacher. It's going to be a stressful time for both of us, as I'll be doing everything I can to support her through the most trying phase of her professional development so far. I know she will get through it ok, but nothing is ever worth achieving unless it is challenging, so we must prepare for it to be thus.
Despite the last 12 months being harder than they've been fun, I'm beginning to feel optimistic about those yet to come. It isn't going to be easy, I know that now, but with every month that passes I'll gain the upper hand a little more and begin to really succeed at least.
Happy New Year
Those who were reading this blog over at Ignorminious.co.uk in the early days may remember that I regularly made reference in my posts to one of my favourite films of all time, You've Got Mail. Why yes, I do mean the 1998 chick flick in which Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks email each other until they fall in love. No, I'm not ashamed to say I love it. The story line is all well and good, but the aspects of it that inspired me to blog in the past were more to do with the New York lifestyle portrayed in the film, which has appealed to me for as long as I can remember.
Today though, I'm referencing this particular film (which I just happened to watch last night) because of a different element of the story that I think is oddly relevant at the moment.
One of the themes that runs through the whole film is that of creative destruction. The most obvious example is that of the larger, newer bookshop arriving at the beginning of the film and gradually driving the more traditional bookshop out of business. But there are other, less obvious examples too, such as email replacing the need for letter writing, the laptop replacing the typewriter and the blossoming online romance between the two central characters causing both of their existing relationships to come to an end.
The ultimate irony of You've Got Mail, which we can only now see with hindsight, is that at the very time that a film came out depicting the supremacy of a large bookshop selling cheap books over a smaller, more expensive one, the online retailer Amazon was beginning to flex its muscles in a way that would cause even the largest real world book stores to go into terminal decline in the years that followed. And how did they manage it? By following the exact same principles of the fictional Fox Books, but taking economies of scale to their only logical conclusion.
Like The Shop Around the Corner in the film, shops like HMV and Waterstones are learning some unhappy facts about the market. In real life, as in the film, shoppers may love everything about going to a physical store, handling books (or DVDs) and interacting with the staff, but ultimately none of these are things that they are willing to pay for, and the cheaper price offered online almost always wins out.
We've all known this to be true for at least the last decade now, but what I've never been able to make up my mind about is whether or not this is a good thing or bad? I am a technology enthusiast and am entirely comfortable with online shopping, but I also love book shops. In fact, unless I'm being forced to buy, out of necessity, I rather enjoy shopping in general. It's the reward for working hard to earn that money, and buying online just doesn't give you the same buzz as walking out of a store, clutching your latest purchase, ready to take home and enjoy.
True, not all things are determined by price. The cost of a coffee from Starbucks is infinitely more expensive than getting the same coffee from a vending machine, but I'd always choose the coffee house, because there I'm willing to pay for the extra benefits of sitting in a cosy room, watching the world go buy, reading a book, chatting to friends, or even blogging.
It seems that the constantly shifting economic realities of the 21
Like most people, I find advertising and selling really, really annoying. As a young boy I received a Disney scratch card advertisement through the post, promising a free trip to Disneyland if I chose the right scratch off panels for the answers they wanted. I scratched away and, lo and behold, got it right every time.
My excitement at "winning" was short lived when an argument with my parents about whether I'd actually won anything or not resulted in me scratching off all the remaining panels. Needless to say, as my parents had told me, I couldn't possibly have lost, and the whole thing was nothing more than a cheap marketing con.
Ever since then, I like to think I've been pretty switched on to the tricks that companies use to try and get us to buy what they are selling. I steer well clear of any sort of promotional material and always follow the old saying "if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is".
For this reason I'm always intrigued when a company, brand or product actually draws my interest, and even more so when, as in this case, it is something that I have absolutely no need for and would never use. I was shopping earlier, and for purely idealistic lifestyle reasons, I went into book store Waterstones. I say idealistic lifestyle reasons because I had absolutely no intention to buy anything (I have no money) but a desire to satisfy two of my interests, coffee and reading.
I love the idea of buying books from a physical shop and then sitting down in the Costa Coffee they have in there and reading for an hour or two, but I had no intention of doing it. As much as I dearly, dearly love being in a book store, I can't justify buying a book from one that I could get for half the price from Amazon. And if I'm not going to buy a book then what would I go into Costa to read?
There is another reason why I wanted to go in there: Moleskine notebooks. I first heard of these fantastic items of stationary a few years ago when somebody blogged about how much they love them. On the face of it there is nothing special about them. They are plain looking and fairly ordinary, with a range of choices of size and whether or not to have any lines etc printed in them and whether to go for hard or soft covers. But that is it. Nothing particularly special and nothing to justify the £14 price tag for the size I most fancy.
But it's the idea that they are selling you! For me it's this: instead of buying a book to read in Costa, I buy a plain, empty Moleskine notebook and go and sit down with my coffee. I then pull out my finest Parker pen and begin to write. I don't know what I would write. It might be a novel, or a draft of a blog post, or a diary, or an essay on what we can learn from the News of the World scandal. I don't know. What's important is that I'm writing beautiful things in my beautiful notebook with beautiful handwriting and sitting and watching the world around me as I sip my coffee and continue to write.
The idea is so compelling that I'm standing by the modest display of these notepads and flicking through them to find the one I'd like, completely ignoring all the books I could be reading. And I know that the idea is impractical. For one thing, I'm not a writer, have very little time for writing and have virtually no use for a notebook of any kind. For another thing, my Parker pen is out of ink, but even if it wasn't, I have the worst handwriting in the World. I'd never spoil such a notebook by actually writing in it, it'd be a crime to fill it with my scrawl.
And yet, and yet I want to, and I want to buy one anyway. Without any pushy sales people and without ever having seen a single advert for one, but simply knowing, through word of mouth, what they are and how I could imagine using one, I'm sorely tempted to pay more for this thing than I know it is worth, knowing that I'd never actually use it.
And that is good marketing. Well played Moleskine, well played.
Over the last few years, we've all started to take our websites for granted. That's because a lull in the browser wars during the first half of the last decade resulted in a slowdown in standards development. Now things are speeding up and you are in danger of being left behind. Here are 3 very good reasons to ensure that your website is future proof right now.
1. Changes in browser market share
According to the latest browser usage reports the user bases of each of the leading browsers is currently changing. Microsoft's Internet Explorer - the market leader for a decade - is seeing a steady decline in users, with many people (now 10% of the total market share) switching to Google Chrome. Likewise, Mozilla Firefox continues to be a strong contender, and Opera and Apple's Safari are more popular now than ever before (in the case of Safari, mostly due to the popularity of the iPhone). Given that each browser displays websites in a slightly different (sometimes very different) way, you simply can't afford to let your website go untested in any of the leading browsers, for fear of alienating a lot of your visitors. The days of "Best Viewed in Internet Explorer" are long gone.
2. Changes in browsers themselves
Speak to any web developer and they will tell you there is a set of web standards on which the internet is based, set out by the W3C. They'll also tell you that different browsers comply with the standards to different degrees (they'll usually cite Internet Explorer as the worst offender). As time goes on, all of the major browsers are competing to improve the degree of their compliance to the standards, and this means that there are significant new versions of almost all of them due to be released in 2011. If your site is a few years old, chances are it was designed to work with the browsers of the day. Even if it still works properly now, the chances are it will stop working very soon indeed.
3. Changes in the World Wide Web
For many years, the web has run on a standard known as HTML 4.01. This standard is now being replaced by a new version known as HTML5. Whilst a lot of the code is the same, many advances have been made in the new standard, which makes websites work better and faster for the people who view them. Similarly a new version of the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) standard, CSS3, is now being integrated into browsers. This will greatly enhance the cosmetic abilities of your pages, as well as making them a little easier to create for your web master. Unfortunately, even where backwards compatibility is maintained, any website that doesn't make the most of the new features is going to look out of date soon.
Another change worth noting is to the Internet's IP address system. Since the beginning of the internet, all computers and web servers have used an address book called IPv4, containing a possible 4 billion addresses. Unfortunately this is now almost depleted and the internet will soon switch to a new address book called IPv6. This will require every server to be switched over, so if someone manages your website for you, make sure you ask them whether or not they're ready for IPv6 yet.
So there you have it, 3 excellent reasons to make sure you future proof your website. If you want to find out more, or if you are considering a site upgrade, drop me a comment and I'll be happy to get back to you :-)
In September 2010 my contract of employment ended and, due to financial restrictions, wasn't renewed. Having already changed jobs 3 times in the preceding year, I sighed, and began to cast around for what to do next. I'd previously been working in marketing, and had been pretty miserable with it. Now I wanted to try something new, and that was web development, which I'd been doing as a hobby for several years. There weren't very many jobs available at the time, and as the weeks passed I got more and more demotivated about the whole job hunting experience.
On the side I'd started doing a little development project for a friend of mine, as I often had before, and this gradually began to take up more and more of my time. The friend in question suggested that I might like to go to the St Mellion Business Show for a day and do a little networking. I began the day with the intention of finding someone who was looking to employ a developer. By the end of the day however, I'd been convinced by all the people I spoke to, that what I really wanted to do was to freelance. This was a pretty big decision to make and not one that I had planned for, and as a consequence I've had to learn some pretty harsh lessons, which I thought I'd share with you today
1. Look before you leap
I'm putting this one first, because it is the most important. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you shouldn't go freelance or follow your dreams. You should. If you are brave enough to actually take the chance, you definitely should. I'm saying plan. The hardest lesson I learnt, and am still learning, is that it takes a very long time indeed to build up a client base. Far longer than you expect or can possibly plan for. During that time you will almost certainly not earn enough to buy bread at the supermarket, and you can pretty much forget paying your rent or bills.
You've got two options open to you: The first, and to my mind, best option, is to keep working. If you can, try and build up your client base before you chuck in the towel. If you have the energy to freelance work whilst holding down a full time job then do so, though this will be more exhausting than most people can handle. Alternatively, work part time at a job that will definitely cover your expenses. The second option is to have at least 6 months, ideally 12 months, worth of savings from which to pay your rent. It will probably take at least this long to be consistently earning enough to be comfortable, and, in case you were wondering, not being able to afford your rent is a pretty miserable way to live. Don't try it.
2. Get your house in order
This is a step that most people seem to overlook when it comes to freelancing. Unless you are becoming a freelance banker, pop star or film actor, chances are your finances will restrict you to working at home. That doesn't mean sitting on the sofa or in bed with your laptop, it means having a designated, appropriate place to call work. I've read a lot of articles on home working from people who've tried it, and it seems that requirements vary from person to person. For me, the spare bedroom has made the perfect office, and has everything I need. My girlfriend has a desk in there as well, but when we are both in there we are there to work, not chat. At the end of the day, we leave the office and shut the door on our work.
Others have taken a different approach. One gentleman in the US found that the spare room didn't work for him, as he found it difficult be left in peace by his young children, so he build an office shed to allow greater separation from family life. Another man had his office at the opposite end of the house from the family. Whatever method works for you is the best, but working on your lap in the lounge, or at the family PC in the kitchen is not the way to get work done, especially if you have kids.
Work spaces can be virtual as well as physical. One of the first things I did when I became a freelancer was tidy up the file structure on my computer, so as to keep work and personal files separate. As a web developer, I also started using a development environment, and this is an important point, if you are doing the same. Many amateur coders take great pride in writing their code in Notepad or similar, because it is "proper coding", rather than relying on a program. I used to think it was cheating if I used anything else. It isn't. If you don't have the skills and know-how to write scripts, no amount of software will help you. But when you are coding against the clock and on a budget, you have to save as much time as possible, and a professional developing tool will help.
Simple things like colour coding of various code elements, on the fly syntax debugging and auto fill of the commands you type will not take away the feeling of being a "real coder" but they will make the job quicker and easier to complete. Incidentally, for a light-weight code writing program I can highly recommend Notepad++, or for a complete IDE package including full project management and versioning integration, Netbeans IDE is well worth installing.
3. Keep costs down
As Jason Fried has pointed out, businesses that spend money get really good at spending money. Those that make money get really good at making it. In short, most people when they start out make the mistake of splashing out on as much "professional" equipment as they can and spending a lot on it. Sure, you need the tools to do the job, of course you do, but don't spend money if you don't need to, especially not when you aren't earning it. My computer is 6 years old and, frankly, so slow I'm worried it might get overtaken by continental drift. But it works, and it doesn't cost me anything.
Over the last few months I've made very little money indeed from my freelancing work. It's put an incredible squeeze on my finances, far worse than I could have imagined, but freelancing isn't costing me anything. Ok, I pay a little more in electricity than I did before as I have my computer on all day, but that's it. In all other respects I pay nothing more for freelancing than I did when I was employed. In fact, since I no longer have to drive to work, I actually spend less than I was before. The up shot of this is that I've managed to stick with my low income for longer without going bust, and when I do start making money, I won't have to spend it on any increased costs or paying back a business loan, it'll be all mine.
4. Work as hard as you can for your client, but not for free
This may sound obvious, but many people, in my industry at least, seem to ignore it. If your client asks you to do something and you possibly can do it for them, do it. The last thing a client wants to hear, after being persuaded to employ you, is that you can't do what they want. If you don't know how to do it then learn. If you're good at what you do, it shouldn't take that long, but don't be afraid to tell them that you'll have to learn how to do it, this'll help them to manage their expectations regarding deadlines.
Charging for what a client wants can be tricky. It took me about 5 minutes to realise that most clients want to pay a flat project fee. They don't want to be charged by the hour for an unknown number of hours work and they don't want to be charged by the feature. If what your client is asking to be added or changed is small, take the hit and do the work for no extra charge. The opinion they will have of your service will be worth far more in the long term than the money you would have made. If, on the other hand, what they are asking for is a large job and will take you a long time, tell them it is a lot of work and quote them for it. If you carry out a lot of work for free, you will only come to resent the project and the client, and the work you produce will be lower in quality, which is never a good thing.
5. Don't Undercharge
When I worked for other companies, I used to scoff at the way they would constantly reduce their prices because they felt bad about the amount they were asking their clients for. But when I came to work for myself, I found that asking other people for money, even though you know it to be a fair amount, is possibly the hardest thing you will ever do. If you are at all modest, admitting to yourself that you are worth several hundred or thousand pounds is very difficult. But you are worth it, and as such, you must bill for it.
In the past, I've found myself making wildly optimistic predictions about how long a project will take me to complete, in the hope of reducing my costs to levels that sound reasonable. All that this will achieve is to leave you out of pocket and working for free to finish projects that are worth a lot more money, both to yourself and your client. The longer term consequence is that your clients will come to expect your fees to be low, making it harder to raise them in the future.
I thought I'd end on another really important point. So far, I could count the number of clients I've had on the fingers of one hand. But all those I have had, I've gained through networking. All of them. I've never advertised, not even in the local paper, and I've never set up a stand at a business show with a glossy logo and a laptop (although I might try that one day). What I have done is spent a lot of time building relationships with interesting and intelligent people on Twitter, as well as making use of Facebook and Linkedin and letting it be known that I am a freelance web developer who is seeking new clients. Not only has this strategy worked well for me so far, but it seems to work for everyone I've discussed the issue with, all of whom tell me that networking is the easiest, cheapest and most effective way of getting known. Remember, everyone knows someone, and you never know who might know your next client.
So, those are 6 things I've learnt since becoming a freelancer, and if you are considering freelancing yourself, I hope that the advice I've given will help you in your chosen field. If you are about to go freelance, or are just considering it, or already have done so, I would love the opportunity to network with you and to hear your story. Please leave a comment below, this could be the beginning of a marvellous working relationship!
Moaning about Microsoft's Windows family of operating systems seems almost as popular a pastime these days as moaning about the snow (if you have it) or lack of it (if you live in Plymouth). Indeed, to those, like myself, who were growing up during the 90s, when Windows PCs made the leap from the office to the home and became a truly household name, it seems that people have been moaning about the various bugs, compatibility issues and unexplained crashes forever.
Now, I'm not going to start making rash claims that Windows is the only system that has bugs in it. They all do, of course they do. Computers are simply too complicated to be able to test for, identify and solve every bug that there is, and that is unlikely to ever change. There are other issues though. One complaint I frequently hear from users is that their computers run very slowly when running Windows, seemly irrespective of how powerful their computer actual is. Not only do they run slowly in the end, but once you've installed the critical updates, the anti-virus software, the firewall and the anti-spyware tools, your computer has a pretty good chance of running slowly right from Day One. So why do we keep using Windows?
Well, in the past, you could have been forgiven for thinking that you didn't have a choice. An oft quoted statistic is that one version or another of Windows is installed on 90% of computers worldwide, and, with virtually all manufacturers of PCs choosing to ship their products with Windows pre-installed, most users, whether personal or business, find themselves sticking with what they have. After all, if your copy of Windows is legal (or genuine, as Microsoft so sweetly put it) you'll have paid through the nose for that software, whether you realise it or not. Things are changing though.
5 years ago, very few of us, if asked which web browser we use, would have said anything other than Internet Explorer, the default browser installed on all copies of Windows. Today though, all the versions of IE put together only account for something like 54% of the browser market. First Firefox, then Chrome came along and showed ordinary web surfers that browsing the internet didn't have to be slow and irritating. It could be fast, sleek, easy to use. And many of us, probably the majority outside of the work place, now use one or other of those two choices. It was easy to switch, and our web browsing experiences have been greatly enriched for doing so. Now is the time for us to take the same leap of faith with our operating systems.
I first began to consider using Linux in 2008 when the Netbook craze was just taking off. I was working in my university's bar at the time when an elderly customer came in to show me her netbook, which she had recently bought. To my surprise, it wasn't running Windows, but had come with Linux pre-installed instead and she was actually using it.
"How do you find using Linux on that when the uni computers run Windows?" I asked her. She replied that she found using both surprisingly easy and had no problem with learning her way around the new system at all.
A little while later I decided to give it a try myself. The most popular Linux distribution at the time was called Ubuntu, and since it was completely free to download and use, I thought I'd give it a try. To be honest, I was disappointed with the result. My first impressions were very favourable. It loaded quickly, didn't seem to have obvious bugs or compatibility issues and looked rather nice. It was when I came to try and use all my favourite software that I ran into difficulties. At first I couldn't work out how to install anything. Once I'd figured that out, I couldn't find any of the programs I wanted. It seemed that none of the software manufacturers whose products I use were creating Linux versions of their software, and so I was forced to make do with rather less good alternatives. In the end I got so annoyed that I went out and bought Windows 7 instead.
I'd assumed from that point forward that my brief fling with Ubuntu was nothing more than that, a fling. Having just paid £150 for Windows, I rather hoped I wouldn't switch to anything again. The months went on and my level of PC use waxed and waned until October this year, when I found myself starting out as a full time freelance web developer, working from home on my battered old PC. It soon became apparent that the crawling speed my operating system was going at simply wasn't viable for a working computer, and I was making this point to a friend, when he suggested I try Ubuntu.
"Been there, done that", said I, "I didn't get on with it."
"Give it another try" he replied, "it has changed a lot recently, you'll be surprised."
I didn't believe him, but a few Blue Screen of Death attacks whilst I was in the middle of working convinced me to download the latest version and give it a try. And he was right, it has changed.
One of the biggest gripes amongst people switching to Linux from Windows has always been that it was very difficult to install any software, at least compared to installing on Windows, where you simply have to click on a .exe file to run the setup. Ubuntu have solved this problem in spectacular fashion with their own equivalent of the Apple App store. It is called the Ubuntu Software Centre, and it has been designed to make searching for and installing software pretty damn easy. Not only did I find it easy to use, but I was also impressed with the range of programs available. It seems that in the two years since I tried it last, a lot of software companies have woken up to Linux in a big way. For starters, any program that uses Adobe Air will work on it, so that's your TweetDeck sorted. Microsoft Office can likewise be made to run, albeit with a little help from a Windows emulator called Wine. Skype is there, as is Chrome and Firefox (and lets be honest, how much of what we do actually requires programs that aren't inside the browser), though not Internet Explorer, again, unless you use Wine. Most pleasingly of all, Dropbox is present and correct, and as easy to use as its opposite number in Windows.
Two notable exceptions are Adobe Photoshop and Apple iTunes, neither of which have yet decided to join the party. This may be a deal breaker for many people, and indeed I thought it would be for me too. However, it seems that neither of those apps are quite so irreplaceable as you would think. It didn't take me long to discover that when I plugged in my iPod, I was presented with a native Ubuntu program called Rhythmbox. This lightweight and speedy application not only recognised my entire music collection and my iPod without any help, but was even able to sync the two, just as well as iTunes ever did. As for Photoshop, I've recently discovered that they aren't the only ones who can edit images in a sophisticated and powerful way. The picture at the top of this post was created (on my Netbook) using a Chrome app I discovered the other day call Aviary. I've not had time to explore it in depth yet, so can't really say how closely it compares to my old favourite, but so far it seems pretty well suited to my mid-range needs.
By switching to Ubuntu whilst relying on my computer for my income, I was taking quite a risk. I was extremely worried that I wouldn't get on with my new operating system and that it'd cause me lots of headaches, but this simply hasn't been the case. Not only did I find myself able to quickly adapt to a slightly different (but far easier) way of working, but I then installed the Netbook version onto my portable machine, and have virtually never needed to boot my old Windows operating system on either machine since (I set mine up as a dual boot system as a precaution).
I'm not going to pretend that switching operating system is the best option for everyone. There are still a few pieces of software that you do need Windows to use, and I doubt anyone's workplace is going to allow them to install it there any time soon. But if you are a little sick and tired of Windows, or are feeling inclined to try a new way of working in the New Year, I'd be doing you a disservice if I suggested any option other than trying Ubuntu.
And the best bit? Unlike super expensive Windows, Ubuntu, and all other Linux distributions, is completely free.
P.S. I'm aware that I've said nothing about Macs or Mac OS in this article. This is for two reasons: Firstly, I don't have any direct experience of either, and so any comparisons I make would be pure conjecture. Secondly, I understand that Linux and Mac OS have similar genetic history, and are thus far more similar to each other than either is to Windows.
I read an article the other day (which I've forgotten the title of and so can't find it for you) on the future of the PC and whether it would soon disappear altogether - over taken by the rise of smart phones and other connected devices. Whilst the author seemed to think this a quite likely outcome, they did make one very interesting point, right at the end: as good as iPhones, Kindles, iPads, netbooks and so on are at consuming content (or rather, allowing us to consume it), they remain pretty dreadful when it comes to actually creating content in the first place.
It occurred to me a few months ago that I'm rather rubbish when it comes to Web 2.0. Although I understand Web 2.0, like it, support it and encourage its use by others, I actually fail to engage in the one thing that makes it different from what came before: user generated content.
Yes, yes, I know I'm writing this on a blog post, which is by definition user generated and therefore rather disproves my own arguments, but this really is my limit. If you see a picture anywhere in this post (I've not looked for one yet) you can be sure that it isn't my own work. In fact, I probably got it from Google images.
And that is my point really. Aside from the odd rambling blog post, I do absolutely nothing with this new found Internet that I didn't do with the old mediums of television and newspapers. I read lots of stuff, sure I do. Sometimes it feels like I'm forever reading articles on one website or another. But I don't create them. I don't even create comments to write on them most of the time.
I rarely "like" things on Facebook, I don't update my Flickr with a series of beautifully refined photos and create albums to publicize to anyone with common interests. I don't create music, write reviews, draw cartoons, share jokes, or shoot videos for YouTube.
I'm on Web 2.0 but I'm still a consumer, not a creator.
I originally planned to write this post simply to say that, and to bemoan the fact that once again I fail to live up to my own exacting standards of the perfect human being, but then I read that article I mentioned, and it got me thinking.
Like most people these days, I have a pocket sized gadget on which I can access the internet. No, it's not an iPhone - I can't afford one - it's an iPod Touch. And, like most people, I find increasingly that virtually all my internet based activity has gradually shifted from the computer to the aforementioned pocket sized gadget (still not an iPhone). Yes, I do spend my week days in front of a computer, but that is work not play (I'm a freelance web developer, don't ya know) and so can be disregarded.
So, the question I'm asking you all tonight, is do you think your choice of internet browsing device (i.e. not a computer) puts you off engaging in Web 2.0 as much as you might on the computer?
Or is it the other way round? You have to admit that sites such as TwitPic wouldn't have a purpose if it wasn't for the use of camera phones to upload the images. Do you actually prefer commenting on Facebook messages or blog posts on something you can hold in the palm of your hand?
Keyboards on handheld devices are much more usable than they used to be, and site browsing isn't that bad. Ok, creating videos or editing images might be a bit much, but perhaps I'm not working my iPod as hard as I could? Hell, I read emails on my iPod but then refuse to reply to them until I'm on the computer. Why?
What's the verdict, oh wonderful blog reader? Is the proliferation of mobile devices for Internet access killing Web creativity (and if so, how do we stop it), or am I just a lazy arse who should put more effort into contributing to this, humanity's greatest collaborative creation?
(Oh, and I did actually create the image at the top of this post. And no, it wasn't because I couldn't find anything on the net, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could.)
And yes, I am blogging about Twitter again. I'm sorry about that. I know for those of you who aren't interested in technology, two posts in a row about social media is probably about as much as you can take, but I've had this one brewing inside my head for some time now, and it needs to get written down.
I've called this post "Request for Comments" after the now forgotten system that was used in the early days of the internet, whenever anyone wished to propose a new protocol, standard or feature. I've done so because that is what I will be doing here, once I've given you a little background.
I am talking today about retweeting, or the act of sending out a message that you have read in your timeline, either to echo the sentiment, or to share it with followers of yours who may not be following the original author. Unlike Follow Fridays, which I find a trifle annoying, I actually love retweets, and I'll tell you why in a minute.
As with Follow Friday, and indeed virtually every other successful quirk of Twitter, the idea originally came from users themselves, as a way of sharing tweets that they particularly liked.
In the old days you retweeted someone by highlighting and copying their tweet into the tweet box and prefixing it with the letters RT and then the username of the original writer, so as to make it clear where the tweet was coming from. So far so simple.
The problem with this little set up was that if the tweeter had written a particularly long tweet, there often wouldn't be the space within the allotted 140 characters to recreate the message and the prefix, meaning that users who favoured using their full 140 characters, such as myself, virtually never got retweeted.
Well, the nice people at Twitter started to take a look at this, and eventually launched an official system for retweeting, commonly known as New Style retweeting. And this is where things got a bit controversial.
The New Style retweet had a lot of advantages over the old. For starters, there was no more copying and pasting, just the click of a button (something many Twitter apps had been doing for a while). Also, the old character limit problem had been removed, as Twitter now stored the retweet information elsewhere, meaning that the full 140 characters were available for the original tweet - with the tweeter showing up in your timeline as though you followed them - and a small message informing you who had done the retweeting. It was neat and tidy, easy to read and easy to see where tweets had originated from.
Great we said, now we can keep track of popular tweets and make sure even the longest tweets get forwarded on across the Twittersphere!
There was, however, a small problem.
In the time that Old Style retweeting had been growing in popularity, a new trend had appeared. Wherever there were remaining free characters at the end of a tweet, the person retweeting would often tack on their own comment, allowing them to either reply to the original tweeter at the same time as sharing the message, or throw in a helpful comment for their own followers.
New Style retweeting doesn't allow this. Quite why I'm not sure. My guess is that the clever people at Twitter began working on their clever system for New Style retweets before they realised that people were adding comments.
So, when the feature launched, some people refused to use it.
As a result, Twitter's dream of a single, consistent system for sharing tweets has shattered into a two tier mess, comprised of those who are in the Old Style camp, and those who are in the New. And all our timelines look messier than ever before!
Which camp am I in?
Well, to be honest, one foot in each really. I like New Style retweets. I like the fact that if someone you follow retweets someone else that you follow, that you only see the tweet once. Even more useful if lots of people retweet it. I like that you can retweet a message that is 140 characters long without having to cut it down, and that it is possible to see all of the people who have retweeted a particular message, to see how popular it is. I especially like that they are easy to read, without having to process usernames and RTs all over the place.
But losing comments is a bad thing. The busier Twitter gets, the harder it becomes to keep track of everything. Seeing comments on tweets is an excellent way of remembering what a particular user is referring to. It is good that you can forward and reply at the same time. It is good that you can edit the tweet, if you are only replying to one part of the message.
And this problem needs to be resolved, because, in my opinion at least, it is limiting the greatest power that Twitter has - to allow people to hear messages from outside their own circle and contact new people. Many of the best people I follow, especially the comic ones, came into my sphere of conciousness through other people's retweets, not because I went looking for them. Many of the people who follow me probably did the same.
So why can't we look at this again?
I'd like to propose a new system of threaded retweets. We keep the New Style retweet, with its tracking and simplicity, but we allow people who wish to comment, their own 140 characters in which to write a reply, and then tack it to the original tweet, so that it shows up attached to it, for followers to see.
This would give us all the best of both worlds. No more messy Old Style retweeting, with characters wasted on usernames and no one knowing which part of the message to read. No more New Style forwarding, without the ability to enhance a tweet with one's own thoughts.
I know threading isn't the simplicity that the founders of Twitter aimed for when they designed the system. They deliberately tried to make it as basic as possible, and they succeeded, for a time at least. But Twitter is too big and too noisy for that level of simplicity now.
Tweets are already being threaded with the in reply to... option. How much more complex would it be to thread retweets as well? I want to see the original retweeted tweet, and underneath it, all the tweets written in reply by those of my followers responsible for the retweeting. Much like I look forward to seeing this post with all your comments written underneath it in the very near future. So, without further a do...
I respectfully request your comments.
Back when I joined Twitter in July 2007, very few people had heard of the service that was to dominate our online lives from about 2009 onwards. These were the days when "Facebook" still drew puzzled expressions from all but the most forward facing, and as for that obscure little site named after the sound a bird makes, and which seemed to be expecting you to reveal the most personal, least interesting aspects on your day at least once every 24 hours - early users used to receive a text reminding them to tweet if they left it that long - the whole thing was madness and never likely to take off.
I heard of Twitter, and with it the whole concept of microblogging, from the many interneters of the day with whom I was in contact through macroblogging. Or blogging, as it was called back then. In those long gone early days, you were doing well if you could find 20 users with a common interest who you might like to follow. At the time, even the earliest celebrity adopters such as Stephen Fry hadn't arrived, and it really was just a select band of techy individuals. My timeline was so quiet, that I could afford to have each and every tweet by those I followed sent to me by text message, without it being even slightly intrusive.
But, things were sure to change, and indeed they did. Twitter was such an incredibly odd concept to try to explain to anyone that those who used the service felt duty bound to convince anyone they met to try it out, if only so that they themselves could receive some sort of social acceptance for their unfathomable habit. And yes, I was as bad as any of them. I used to debate it for hours at uni in my marketing seminars. Only myself and my incredibly forward thinking tutor seemed to have any idea of the potential of the service, although even we had no idea how big it would become, and continue to grow.
When I first started to see the tell-tale twin Fs of what was soon to become Follow Friday, I was delighted by the idea. Here, at last, was a way for users to recommend to each other people who they enjoy following! It was early 2009 by this point, and Twitter had finally reached critical mass. So many users were on there that even companies had started to get in on the act, by making their first brave attempts at what you might now call Social Media Marketing.
At the time, the trend was towards personal Follow Fridays. You would @ a user with suggestions of one or two people who you thought they might personally follow, and would include the now infamous hash tag in order to bring the message to the attention of any other users who might be looking to follow new people. No. Actually, I don't think it was even for that. I think it may have just been a shorthand way of explaining why you were sending them such a message out of the blue.
This was all fine and good as long as it continued, but after a time, people started to make Follow Friday suggestions to their entire following, regardless of whether they'd be interested or not. Not only that, but because it was now public, those users who were recommended felt bound by good manors to instantly return the favour. Twitter apps were in full bloom by this point, and there were very few which didn't highlight messages in which you were mentioned, regardless of who sent them, meaning that it was now easier than ever to tell if someone had recommended you or not.
And this changed the dynamic completely! Whereas originally, Follow Friday had been for the benefit of the person receiving a recommendation, it suddenly became a way of scoring points with the person who was being recommended, a completely different thing altogether. For the first time, people started taking note of their follower counts and sending encouraging messages into the ether to try and boost it, egged on by celebrities who'd made headlines with their seven figure follower counts.
As if to compound the problem, users started to retweet messages recommending them, as if to prove to those who already did that it was somehow worth it. Rather than recommending one or two people as they had done before, most users were now sending messages containing hundreds of names, virtually everyone on their follow list, every single Friday. All of these messages would then be retweeted again, in addition to each user recommending everyone who'd recommended them.
And so we arrive at the present, and what a present it is for those of us who wish to read everything. Once a week, my (already overcrowded) timeline is buffeted with tweet after tweet containing nothing but lists of user names. Hundreds of them. Some people I know, most I've never heard of. Names racing across the screen, all competing with each other to gain the most virtual acceptance, or love, or whatever they think it is they are getting.
And you know what the worst thing about it is? I don't follow any of them. Not one. I genuinely don't think I've ever started following a single person because they were recommended in a Follow Friday. Not once. I'm not suggesting that they aren't worth following, I'm sure many of them are. Perhaps they all are, who knows? But I'm not interested in following hundreds of random people, because I am genuinely interested in taking an interest in those that I do follow, and I do that by reading their tweets
Which, after all, is what Twitter is for, isn't it? It was designed as a virtual conversation. A way for like minded people to share a little of their lives and hear a little about other people. But what we have now isn't a conversation, it's a shouting match. It's millions of people stood in the same room bawling their lungs out in the hope that other people will stop and listen to them.
And in such a room, following people has become as pointless and as futile as "liking" things on Facebook, or joining groups was prior to that. Or sewing badges onto your school rucksack to show how individual you were.
Are we really all so small and pathetic that we need to be defined by how many people add us to a list that none of them read?
Here's an idea. How about we ditch Follow Friday, and everything that goes with it? How about we stop following people to try and score points with them, and only if we want to read what they have to say? How about we stop seeking approval like a bunch of insecure teenagers and start acting like the mature, intelligent and interesting adults that we all thought ourselves to be when we first joined Twitter.
Oh, and next time I want to get some ideas for new followers, I'll either ask you in person, or better still, just look at your follow list and see if anyone sounds interesting, like I was doing perfectly well before Follow Friday came along.
And no, I doubt most of the people who "Follow" me will actually bother clicking to Twitter link to get to this post.
What's going on?
Well, up until now, this site has been a weird and uneasy mixture of my own code (all the pages of the main site) and a WordPress installation (this blog). I've had it that way because I've been unable to decide whether the convenience and security of WordPress makes up for the fact that it isn't my own code, which for a developer is a tiny bit shameful. It does. I like writing my own code, I really do, and I've no intention of stopping any time soon, but I have a few reasons for not doing so here any more:
- This site exists so that other people can find out about me and what I do, quickly and easily. It isn't exactly a portfolio site, but it is intended to show off my professional skills in a good light, and this won't happen if the site is full of glitches.
- Lack of time. I'm really keen to keep markglover.co.uk as up to date as possible. No one wants to hear my news if it is 6 months old and says I'm working for a company I actually left 3 jobs ago. WordPress allows me to add and alter content far more quickly than I can when doing everything by hand. I don't have time to write database updating scripts just now, so everything on the site is hard coded, and that just isn't sustainable.
- Security/compatibility. Making a site fully compliant with W3 standards and making it look good in every browser is a really time consuming task. I can do it once (and did), but I can't spend several hours checking everything after every last update or change to the site, it just isn't practical.
What changes am I making?
I shall be moving all of the non-WordPress content into WordPress, so that it is easy to update and keep an eye on. Once I've done that, I'll be building an entire WordPress theme for the site, which will hopefully make it look inspirational and worthy of someone who claims to be good at this kind of thing. This bit will probably take me a really, really long time, so don't hold your breath, but when I finally finish it, it'll be super amazingly cool.
Any changes to the blog?
This post is my first attempt at using Posterous (http://posterous.com) to post to the blog via email. I'm hoping that this will somehow prove to be quicker than writing in the normal WordPress interface, and that I might, therefore, update more often. This remains to be seen. Other than that, no, it should be business as usual on the blog, and as usual, I expect business will be very quiet indeed.
Yes, yes, I know, I know! The other lakes are better, cheaper, less touristy etc, etc. I know that! And, in time, I hope to spend a great deal of time exploring the less well known parts of the Lake District, and getting to know the real place. But I still had to do Windermere, just once.
The problem with it as a lake, being long and thin (a ribbon lake, I think they call it) is that there is no one place you can stand to get a good idea of the size of the thing, it is just too long. The only way to experience it properly is by boat. So that is what we did.
In order to combine things and save some cash, we decided to go with a combined steam train and boat ride ticket, allowing us to tick two things off our list of planned activities for the week, and so free up yet more time for stuff that is perhaps a little more worthy.
We settled on the Lakeside & Haverthwaite railway to take us as far as the boat; a pleasant enough ride on an attractive little steam train (with an unattractive name: Repulse) at speeds so slow you would half expect to be overtaken by continental drift. The boat we boarded was the MV Swan, the youngest of the three boats on the route at only 72 years of age. We elected to sit outside at the front, as it would afford us the best view of the lake, a smart decision whilst in port, but one that we would soon come to regret, once we felt the full force and chill of the wind upon the open lake.
Indeed, it was only bloody minded stubbornness on both our parts that had us sit there, frozen and huddling each other for warmth, all the way to Ambleside, where we disembarked.
We had around an hour before the return boat, and so elected to look around Amberside itself, a pretty town with a frankly astounding number of outdoor clothing shops. Amongst these was the first ever actual branch of Cotton Traders that I've ever seen, and, much to my delight, they had a 50% off sale, just as I was finding my existing pair of black Cotton Traders shoes in need of replacement. Perfect timing.
Upon our return to the water, we discovered that we'd be travelling on the MV Tern, a Victorian steam ship built in 1891 that had since been converted to diesel (sadly), but was nonetheless comfortable and roomy inside and a massive improvement on the previous boat.
Whilst on board I sampled the hot chocolate (not bad) and bought a postcard for my mum!
This evening we made an effort to eat as early as possible once we arrived home. The reason for this is that the sun was shining, and we just couldn't resist an opportunity to go for a walk round the village of Morland once again. As we walked we amused ourselves by making bets about the number of cars we'd see on our walk (6 out, 6 back) and chatted about how pleasant the countryside is during the summer. We were passed repeatedly by a tractor that was conveying covered hay bales from a field to a barn a little way down the road.
The short walk we had planned ended up being somewhat longer, since once we got going we just didn't want to stop! In the end we were forced to turn back by concerns that it might be dark soon, and neither of us were carrying torches with us.
Tomorrow we are thinking of walking a little in Coniston and seeing the sculpture walk at Grizedale. The weather looks like it may not make up its mind, so we are thinking sunny thoughts.
I've seen my fair share of fabulous landscapes before. I live almost in sight of Dartmoor, and I have travelled across Kenya in a jeep, but I've never seen anything quite like this place. Whoever put in the hills didn't seem to realise that hills are meant to sit side by side, not one on top of another, so the result is that each general rise has odd smaller hills all over it, making it impossible to get any real idea of where the hill begins and ends.
I could explain this much better with photos, but the effect is really most obvious as you drive along the roads, and as the sole driver, I can't take photos at that time.
It was raining when we set out, raining hard. Cumbria is a beautiful, wild county, and no more so than when wind and rain are pounding on your windscreen and the marvellous hilly scenery is virtually obscured by the spray on the fast, windy road along which you travel.
We decided, since it was too wet for a long walk whilst L's cold was in full flow, to visit Hill Top, the famous home of children's author Beatrix Potter. Getting there required a long drive along small, winding roads, and then a trip on the car ferry. Through the water that poured onto the windscreen, and the glare of headlights, we could just make out the choppy water in front of us, our first look at Windermere, the largest lake in England!
Shortly afterwards we arrived at Hill Top. It was still pouring down with rain, and I congratulated myself on wearing light weight, quick drying linen trousers rather than jeans, which would have been wet for a month after just two minutes outside.
Fortunately we were amongst a fairly small number of people who weren't put off by the weather, and so our wait outside the house was just a couple of minutes. Some would suggest that the house is prettier in sunshine, and maybe it is, but I wouldn't have swapped the weather for anything.
Like most people growing up in the 90s, my first experiences of Beatrix Potter's work were through the excellent BBC animated series. The start of each episode showed Potter returning to her home through a heavy rain storm before beginning her latest story. And it was just like that, down to the water gushing down the drain pipe.
Despite being a good 300 years old, the house was sturdy, warm and comfortable throughout. I especially liked the roaring coal fire in the front room; far hotter, brighter and more inviting than any wood one I've ever seen.
The rain was easing off by the time we returned to the car for our lunch, and as we entered the ticket office of the Beatrix Potter gallery to declare our intention to join the National Trust, the rain was all but gone. Seeing the original paintings that adorned the Peter Rabbit books was a magical experience, even for someone, such as myself, who rarely appreciates art of any kind. The brush work, the colour and the detail is quite mind boggling. How did she do it? I will never know how anyone can possess such a level of skill and patience for what was, after all, a hobby originally.
Our morning soaking had convinced L and I that the one thing we needed most in life was a pair of waterproof over-trousers. Fortunately these, and virtually any other items of outdoor clothing you can imagine, can be bought at any of at least 100 shops in the Lake District, desperate to tempt in budding walkers with heavy discounting and large ranges. We each found an excellent pair that can be stored in a small bag when not in use; perfect for carrying around with us wherever we go.
At this point we had run out of planned activities for the day, and started flicking through leaflets for some ideas of what to do, as it was still a little early for our return home. We eventually settled on Tarn Hows, a lake so small and insignificant it hardly appears on most maps. Nonetheless it is extremely picturesque and an ideal size for a short walk, being around a mile and a half in circumference.
One curiosity that we could not explain: As we walked around the lake we happened across a fallen tree. Around part of the the trunk, the bark had been removed, and into its place someone had inserted dozens of copper coins. The tree was still hard, and they could not have been buried as they were without the use of some considerable force. Yet there was no indication of how or why this had happened, nor who was responsible.
Back home, we discovered that our landlords, who live in the main property to which our cottage is attached, have returned home and that the sound proofing between our properties is minimal. Not a problem, unless you are watching the rather noisy sex scenes in Four Weddings and a Funeral (we were watching the rest of the film as well, I hasten to add) and suddenly realise you have the volume up quite high. Did they hear us? I don't know, but they've not yet dropped in to say hello, so either they are busy, or they think we are.
Anyway, we are now in the Lake District, or rather, just outside it, in our small cottage, The Bower House, on the edge of the quaint Cumbria village of Morland. It is a beautiful spot, in an area known, I believe, as the Eden Valley. Our humble abode is a tiny, but well fitted out little cottage that started life as a barn of some description, but is now so luxuriously furnished that I have to confess it puts our flat in Plymouth to some shame.
Amongst other features, we find ourselves, most welcomely, in the company of a Grandfather Clock, which, though silent when we first arrived, is now ticking merrily away to itself, albeit with a slowness of pace that could only seem fitting in the middle of the countryside.
We awoke this morning in Bristol and, having decided not to rush on account of the expected journey time being less than originally anticipated, we found that it was nearly lunch time when we finally dragged the suitcases to the car. Our journey was fast and problem free, and within a couple of hours we were sitting on the bonnet of the car at a nameless service station just north of Birmingham, eating our lunch and chatting about cars, a subject that L has taken an increased interest in, now that she is planning to learn to drive later in the summer.
We were both mildly appalled by a 4x4 driver who, having driven his over sized Planet Killing car into the bay next to ours, got out and wandered off without bothering to switch off the engine! We can only assume that the passenger who remained in the car was dependent on the air con for basic survival, but when we left, a quarter of an hour later, the driver had not returned and that blasted engine was still ticking over.
We were well past Manchester and St Helens (the birth and final resting place of my late grand parents) when I happened to glance down at the fuel gauge and discovered that we were virtually out of petrol. A moment later, a sign confirmed that the next service station was 18 miles on, a little too far to want to take any changes. I had the Sat-Nav (a TomTom One, not my nickname for L) look up the nearest petrol station, and it took us straight off the M6 and along a winding road into a nearby town. Sadly, the stupid thing was not set to impress today, and far from taking us to the promised service station, it dumped us halfway along a quiet residential street with those words I so dread it saying on occasions like this:
You have reached your destination!
Swearing and muttering under my breath, I then told the bloody contraption to take me to the next nearest one, which was an Asda, thinking it should be pretty easy to find. Half way there, the Sat Nav runs out of battery as we are going round a bend, and L has to find the lead, plug it in and switch it on before we reach the next junction, so we can find out where we are going.
By this point I am more or less expecting the engine to stall at any minute, so you can imagine my annoyance when once again it smugly informs us that our destination is on the left, whilst we travel along a road with no left turns and no Asda.
Having eventually found a Shell garage in the town, we returned to the motorway and on with our journey, which took us through some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. I would have taken a picture, but I was driving so couldn't.
We arrived at the cottage, unloaded the car and headed straight out to the supermarket, which we assumed would be in a building in a town. It wasn't. Ok, yes technically it was in a town, Penrith in fact, but it wasn't in a building. Instead, erected in front of the still being built supermarket was a giant gazebo, the local branch of Morrisons. Very surreal, I can tell you.
We ate on the terrace later, and with the exception of some rather pesky flies, everything was perfect. I'd cooked quiche and chips, and in doing so had happily discovered of an extremely impressive set of kitchen knives.
Afterwards we went out for a walk around the village, as the daylight faded away. It seems like a pleasant little place, with a cheerful looking pub, a few converted barns that are now holiday cottages, and a 1950s style garage.
Tomorrow we hope to do some site seeing, as we are still a little worn out from our journey, and the cold which has emerged from L's sore throat of yesterday and which I am fast on the way to beginning , if my nose is anything to go by. It all hangs on the weather at the moment though, and the forecast is for heavy rain. We shall just have to wait and see what comes our way.
The original plan, back in April or May had been to go to Paris for the weekend to celebrate our 2 year anniversary, which is coming up soon, but that wasn't to be. A mixture of ash clouds, lack of availability and a general desire by the Great British Public to head south and escape the cold weather had pushed prices on Eurostar and ferries alike to well above affordable prices.
"Crikey, we could almost holiday for a week in the UK for what a weekend abroad would cost us" I remarked. So we started looking at that.
L and I had talked about going to the Lake District for a week almost as soon as we got together, so it didn't take us long to settle on it as our chosen destination and find a cottage to rent. So, that is where we are going and what we are doing, and the next few blog posts will be chronicling our adventures on what is to be our first couple holiday for a whole week.
Our story begins earlier this afternoon, or yesterday, as it more or less now is and certainly will be by the time anyone sits down to read it. How about we call it even and say Friday, just to clarify things. The plan, earlier in the week had been to pack everything on Thursday and leave as soon as I got home from work at 6pm on Friday.
In the event, things took a slightly more leisurely start than that. I arrived home at 7, having felt morally obliged to actually finish the work I said I'd finish, even if it meant staying back an extra hour, and found that L had just about started packing. To be fair to her, she had got a lot of things into piles, but since I had neglected to get the suitcases down from the top of the wardrobes, that was as far as things had got.
L has, rather unfortunately, been struck down with a sore throat today, and is therefore unable to shout at me for being slow. I put this down (along with our good holiday moods) as the probable cause of us getting things done rather well, without the usual snapping, sarcastic comments and general abuse that so often pass between us on occasions when we are either running late, have a lot to do, or are hungry. Or both. Or all three in fact.
Instead we were able to dodge round the ridiculous number of items that are still waiting to find a home after the move, computer problems, each other and a phone call from my mother wishing us a happy holiday, to finally be packed and ready by about 8:30pm.
The Plan, as we shall continue to call it, had been to set off immediately and drive as far as Exeter before stopping at Harvester for dinner, a strategy we have used before when driving to Bristol on a Friday night. It was getting rather late for that by this point however, so we elected to try our luck (in a not gambling with money sense) with one of the many Fish and Chip shops dotted around the Barbican and only a few minutes walk from the flat.
The shop was open, much to our delight, and the service friendly in the extreme. We sat on a bench beside Sutton Harbour and ate very well indeed, before returning to the flat to finish packing. It was a little after 10pm by the time we finally hit the road, but late evenings in summer are a pleasant time for a drive, and with the audiobook version of Time Traveller's Wife to keep me company as L slept, I found the journey passed speedily and without incident.
We are kindly being put up by L's mum tonight, in the house in Bristol where L grew up and, until recently, called home, and that is where I am writing to you from now, in a completely dark room, save from the light of my laptop screen.
About this time in a normal one of these holiday blog posts, I plan to offer you a photo taken during the day of our adventures. But, it being the first night, and with the camera buried at the bottom of a suitcase somewhere, I hope you'll accept this stock image of the M5 that I
Woman#1: Hello I'm Random-Babbling-Blonde-With-A-Forgettable-Name from Current-Letting-Agency.
Me: Hi there.
Woman#1: The landlord has asked to have a look round the property on Saturday morning, is that convenient?
Me: I guess we could be in, why does he wish to see it?
Woman#1: .....he...just...hasn't seen it in a while...
So Saturday morning arrived and no one showed up. I eventually received a phone call at around 1pm.
Woman#2: Hello I'm another Random-Babbling-Blonde-With-A-Forgettable-Name from Current-Letting-Agency.
Me: Hi there.
Woman#2: We've arranged for you to have a visit of your property today, is that still convenient?
Me: It was, this morning, when no one turned up.
Woman#2: Yes, he's been held up viewing another property but should be with you at 2pm. His name is Forgettable-Name-That-Isn't-My-Landlord's
At 2pm we get a knock on the door and outside are a man, a woman and a youth.
Me: Hi, come in.
Man: Hi, sorry we are late, were you expecting us?
Me: We were expecting...someone.
Man: Thank you for agreeing to let us look round.
Me: Umm...no problem.
Woman: So when are you planning to move out?
Man: When are you leaving? Has the landlord said when he is selling yet?
Me: Umm...we aren't planning to move out at all. Are you looking to buy this place?
Man: Yes. You didn't know your landlord is selling?
Man: Oh.*embarrassed pause*
Woman: So, what is your landlord like?
Me: We've never met him.
Me: So, shall we give you the tour?
The tour continued and they left, clearly feeling embarrassed. And that was how we found out that the flat we'd planned to rent for 2 years, and which was a fantastic find, was now going to be snatched from us after just 9 months, thanks to the greed/financial problems/greed of our landlord.
It wasn't until several weeks later that we actually got a call from the Current-Letting-Agent to inform us that we were being given notice that notice would be given. In other words, the landlord had informed them that they were planning to serve notice, which they felt we should be notified about. Only because they needed to give access to the estate agents of course. Not because they felt that being thrown out of your home is something that most tenants would want to know about in advance or anything.
L and I decided that it was a good thing, as we'd have two months to find somewhere new before the notice expired. We could really take our time to look around and find somewhere new.
All this talk of finding a new home got me in the mood for property searching, and so I began trawling through Right Move. Just out of curiosity you understand. 10 minutes later I found out that the flat immediately above ours - identical, save for a much bigger balcony - was available to rent for exactly the same rate that we were already paying. 10 minutes after that, I'd emailed the New-Letting-Agent to express our interest in seeing the property, and by 9 the next morning I'd arranged a viewing for the following day.
And so we are to move. Not today, but at the beginning of June, all being well. We shall move ourselves, our possessions and our furniture, out of the flat, up a flight of stairs and into the new flat, to be put in exactly the same place as they are in now.
It doesn't feel like moving home. Not really. It feels like....a balcony upgrade.
That is all.
Today is the first full day of the Conservative/ Lib-Dem coalition government, and it seems to me like a good day to express my thoughts on what has happened and what may happen now.
...in 15 minutes, as that is all I have left of my lunch break. *ahem*
In the past I've always voted Tory (yes I'm posh and snobby, get over it), but this time round I found myself curiously torn between Tory and Lib-Dem policies. Each side seemed to present ideas that excited me, and others that seemed like terrifying suggestions.
A few weeks ago I was chatting to a colleague and felt obliged to point out that the ideal government for me would be one that I could customise by stealing bits from the existing ones, but not having to fully subscribe to any of them.
When the result came in, I didn't really know what to make of it. A weak and ineffectual Tory government? The threat of a lib/lab pact and the looming specter of Brown remaining in power? Political and economic chaos for months or years to come? The only thing I was certain about is that we'd be seeing another election before long.
Now though, I don't think we will be. Far from attempting a lukewarm, vague agreement to sometimes not stab each other in the backs, the Tories and Lib-Dems have gone the whole hog and entered a genuine coalition and majority government. In a few days they managed to thrash out all the differences in policy and who said what to who, and managed to agree to stick with each other on everything for the next 5 years.
If they can do that in a week, what can they do together in a month? Or a year? Or 5?
The way the policies have worked out has also been very favorable. The influences of each party on the other has caused both to drop their scarier ideas and stick with the ones that make sense.
This might be a big flop, like every hung parliament has been before. Or it might not be. This could be the first day of a whole new chapter in British Democratic History, where coalitions are the norm, the standard. The trusted option.
I can't claim to know how things will pan out, no one can these days, but if ever a government was formed to suit me and what I want to see happening over the course of the next parliament, this could well be it.
The next few years will be very interesting indeed!
...and that is my 15 minutes! Go back to your lives people :-)