Friday, September 30, 2005

Blog templates

Every so often I play with the template on the blog, partly for a change and partly because I want to see if there's anything new blogger can do. I'm always jealous of blogs like John Gotze's or Phil Windley's as they're both cleverer than me with all things technical and seem to have better gadgets to play with in their blogs. This time, though, I've changed the template because I was having problems rendering the site in IE. It worked fine in Firefox, my default browser, but checking it in both Mac and Windows IE, the right hand side-bar appeared beneath all the posts. I think I've fixed it now, but I've had to change the template. And, no, there are no new gagdets in blogger that I could find to make things more interesting.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Payment on Demand

I've tried the web page, I've tried e-mail. I've gone back to paper and a typewriter. Having got nowhere in nearly 12 months with paying my council tax, I've bitten the bullet and written to the Chief Executive of my local council. I'll let you know what the response is. Here's the letter: Dear Mr. Alltimes Over the last few months I have exchanged several emails with your team regarding the payment of council tax. Having moved into a newly-constructed property, I used your website to alert you to my desire to pay the necessary tax. I was initially advised that it wouldn’t be possible as there was no such property where I claimed to live:
“It would appear that we have flats 1-9 but NOT 11 on our data base … I apologise for any inconvenience caused but we are unable to register you until the valuation office contact us and advise that your property exists.”
I checked and rechecked the details and assured your officers that there was indeed a property at the address I claimed to live at – after all, I was standing in it at the time. I was then advised that an inspection was needed to ensure that the property existed or perhaps to give it a reference number – I was never clear which:
“I made a report on this property on 22.11.04 as I recall I contacted the developer direct Your property number is 00018660110041”
Meanwhile, I had successfully added myself to the electoral roll and was even receiving deliveries via the Post Office, increasing my confidence that my address did indeed exist. Eventually, I was advised that it should all be ok:
“I write to confirm that you have now been registered for the payment of council tax. Your new council tax account number is 64583982 and a demand will be issued once the valuation office have contacted us to confirm the banding of this property.
You should receive a letter from the valuation office confirming which council tax band your property is listed as”
Later, I was told that I needed to get my property valued – this despite the fact that it had only recently been built and I was the first occupant. I’ve since tried to get it valued, writing to another part of government, but have yet to receive a response. Perhaps they don’t believe I live here either?
“If you wish to chase up the matter of the banding on your property, you will can do this by contacting the Valuation Office”
Whilst I make little use of council services, as far as I’m aware, I would prefer to pay council tax as I believe I am obliged to. I have no desire, however, to navigate further the bureaucracy of local and central government to do so, given that I have failed to make much of a route map so far. Perhaps you could send a bill based on your estimate of the value of the property and arrange for a valuation to be conducted at a later date that suits, whether by the Valuation Office or by someone who can look at my mortgage statement which clearly states how much I paid. I would be delighted to begin making payments as soon as you are ready to issue a demand.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Great North Run

Two Sundays ago I was up in Newcastle taking part in the Great North Run. I say "taking part" as, whilst I did my best, the time I put in doesn't quite do for the verb "ran". It's not the most visually stunning route, but 50,000-odd people and 25 years of history say far more than the view from the road. Running from roundabout to roundabout before, finally, descending to the beach isn't energising, but then nor was being overtaken by everyone and their dog/banana/sunflower costume for the first 8 miles. It was as the 8 mile point came up that I thought about quitting - that idea never even crossed my mind in the London Marathon, not even at the 18 mile point, but then London is pretty flat. The GNR, on the other hand, climbs 2000' and then loses about the same distance over its length. You really feel those hills, every last bloody yard of them. Finally, after 8 miles, I started to overtake people, even though I was running more slowly than I had in the first part. Maybe everyone else was feeling it more than I was. I'd set myself a goal of 1h 50m and was hoping, really, to do 1h 44m or so. I ran the first 5k in 24 mins, perhaps a little fast; 10k came up in 51m (that was 10k according to my GPS watch - the road marker came up about 30 seconds later). From then on, it was downhill - for my running, but not for the course. The back 11k took 1h 8m - slower than my slowest ever, marathons notwithstanding. I just couldn't make it happen. The stats (from my watch, see below) say it's 37% climbing, 37% descending and the rest on the flat. The bulk of the descent comes right near the end when you think you're done, but you find there's a mile to go still. They make that bit worse by letting you know, when you feel like you've run most of it, that there's still 800m to go, then 400m and then, just as you see the end, they make you turn right and go to a different end (the first one is for the elite runners I guess). As I jogged that last bit, there were many people by the side of the road, clearly suffering - some with O2 masks, some in the recovery position and, possibly, one or two not moving (after the race I heard that at least 4 people didn't make it). Organising 50,000 people is an incredible feat, but there were perhaps some mistakes made - the first water stop was, I think, between 4 and 5 miles. If you were at the back of the line, spent 2 hours waiting to start, 40 mins shuffling forward to get over the start line and then still had to run 5 miles, you were going to suffer, no matter the weather. Given it was 20 degrees, almost no wind and no clouds by 30 mins before the start, it was going to be ugly. Could the organisers have seen that? Probably, but it's a tough call - after all, the Americans didn't see a 400 mile hurricane coming towards New Orleans until it was too late. I think the organisers did a great job herding that many people through a 13 mile course, next year, I imagine they'll take some more steps towards making sure everyone is ok. Odds are, perhaps, that in any crowd of 50,000 people, some will die and if they have to run 13 miles too, then the odds head rapidly towards the reaper winning. Moral, if you're going to go, probably don't do it when you're running, there are far better ways to go. I've been using a new gadget to help with my training - a Garmin Forerunner 301. I've linked it with MotionBased, thanks to an idea from Brad Feld (who founded/worked at the Feld Group with Charlie Feld, who I've met once). Brad's comment below explains how to paste in the run picture and the elevation - Thanks Brad - I've put a photo version in here, but it could just as easily be a street or satellite map. Pretty cool. If you're a runner (or even a cyclist), the 301 is much better than the previous gadget I used, from Timex. Why? Well, the Timex comes in two units (a watch and a GPS tracker - great if you just want to wear the watch sometimes, but I have enough watches and I hated strapping the other thing to my arm and if I put it in a pouch it seemed to lose connection more often); the Garmin unit allows you to load up workouts (e.g. alternate fast/slow or different out and back times), set target pace and heart rate zones and, best of all, use a virtual assistant to track your pace and see how far ahead or behind (in my case in the GNR) you are. MotionBased then lets you port your data into its site so that you can easily compare all runs, get splits by mile or km and even take a look at your run in Google Earth and Google Maps. I haven't beaten the shin splints as 7 days of pain since the GNR have told me, but there must be a way through those if only I can find it. I have a foot doctor appointment in 10 days or so and I'm hoping for some serious illumination. There's no way I'm going to get in shape for a 3h 45m marathon if I can't train more than once every couple of weeks. I've been studying up on shin splints. There's lots of theory but not much solid data. I can't find any studies. In the 70s, if you hurt between the ankle and the hip, you had shin splints. Now, at least, they have compartmentalised the problem and I can see exactly the problem I have described in several books (notably the Lore of Running, which is a great book). There are, it seems, many causes - including that I'm going through the menopause and suffering from low calcium, that I'm wearing the wrong shoes, that I have stiff calves, that I haven't developed my front calves enough, that I've started training too hard without enough build up etc. Whilst there are many causes, there aren't many fixes. I haven't been able to run since the GNR - 8 days now; I've tried ice, pain killers, massage, MBT shoes and pretty much everything else. I'm visiting the foot doctor next week to see if I can get it all fixed. The Lore says that 75-95% of running problems can be fixed with orthotics. For once, I hope I'm in the majority.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Olympic Sailing

Last Tuesday I spent the day in a boat with one or other of the 3 gold medal winners from Athens at the 2004 Olympics. Sarah, Sarah and Shirley (a 2 time gold medal winner - once as a solo racer) taught me how to sail again. Last time I sailed with any degree of seriousness I was around 9 and I'm sure it was a lot easier then - I'm convinced that someone else always hauled the sails up and down so that I didn't have to. This time, we put everything up ourselves - pretty easy on a boat that's no more than 14 feet long I guess. Sailing with people who really know how to do it is a completely different thing - an obvious statement, but until you're up close with professionals, you just don't realise the degree of additional knowledge that they have over you. These three girls are enormously competitive - as you'd expect; you don't win gold without that aspect to your character - and although we were only racing around a couple of markers off the coast at Cowes, we were really flying, with every available tactic put into use. I learnt a huge amount about watching for the wind ahead, using tell-tales, making tiny adjustments to the jib and the main sail, via little ropes that I'd seen on boats before but never touched. The focus and discipline that experts bring means you can get going from scratch with zero knowledge. Around 9 or 10 months ago, I met the two Sarahs - at a big event - and got talking to them about how they were going to go about fund raising for the next couple of Olympics and, for that matter, other competitions. I thought I could help out and so made an offer to get some funding together in return for a day on the water. Seemed a fair exchange - I'd pay better than market rate, they'd teach me and a few others to sail and we'd all have a bit of fun. It turns out that it's tough to get something like this together - multiple diaries, one company or another making a promise and then stepping back from it, but in the end it came together. Over the following months, I put together a programme with Pete Rhodes at the British Olympic Association, for a day out on some boats. It's pretty much a template now that can be used with any set of Olympians from any sport - and the BOA will be happy to talk to you about such an event. It happens that I was sailing, but if you fancied some rowing with Steve Redgrave or curling with Rhona Martin (not my sport, but there are folks who would enjoy it), then the BOA can now put together a package for you, whether it's a personal thing, a corporate marketing event with clients in tow or a team building session with your own folks. I can put you in touch with the right people, so let me know if you're interested. Nine of us went out for the day - 3 boats, each with 3 non-sailors and one Olympian in charge of tuition and important things like avoiding other boats (especially the enormous container ships that move through the channel). The weather moved from a bit grey, cold and cloudy first thing to 25 degrees and no clouds before lunch. Wind was pretty light, but plenty enough for us beginners to get used to tactics in a race. It was a blast. There'll be some photos coming soon and I'll post them here as soon as I have them. Thanks to Microsoft, EMC and Vertex for making it happen and thanks to the BOA, especially Pete and, of course, Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Shirley Robertson for providing so much entertainment and education on the day.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Convergence, standards and crumby thinking

I've had my PSP for 6 weeks or so now, so watching all the excitement in the UK over its launch has been fun. Most stores sold out of the hardware purely through pre-orders, but there were games all over the place. Perhaps a reflection of the poor set of launch titles, despite it having been in the USA for 6 months. It was with some trepidation that I picked up an extra game - I'd bought Lumines and Mercury on day one - as, although I'd been told that games were not region locked, I wasn't sure whether it was going to be true. I bought Wipeout - something I'd never played, even in PS 1 days. I thought back to my first DVD player, bought in 1999 in Paris. I'd picked up a multi-region player from FNAC (there isn't really an English equivalent - they sell books, CDs, DVDs, hardware, software and cameras - usually in huge stores that are elegantly designed with lots of space to move around. Perhaps a Dixons crossed with Virgin with the space of John Lewis) - a multi-region player direct from a store! Imagine that - encouraging breach of licence laws! It was the arrival of Saving Private Ryan on Region 1 disc that persuaded me to make the purchase. For a couple of years I bought nearly all of my discs in Paris, mostly Region 1, because stocks in the UK were poor (I remember HMV in Oxford Street having maybe one shelf row of DVDs - now look at it, there's one row of videos instead). With my latest UK-bought player, I had to stand on one leg, point the remote backwards at the ceiling and type a button combination with the disc try open but sliding back home before I could make it play US discs). That's progress for you - we moved from having to open the box and fiddle with chips (doing god knows what to the warranty) to a strange series of gestures that needed no expertise and no fiddling inside. Given that the video game industry has shipped region locked discs or cartridges (just as the film business has) since the beginning of time (my memory says that would be about 1981 in video game systems), I think I was right to be sceptical. But, it turned out I was wrong, as on so many things (some of you will say). The "region 2" UMD (it's clearly marked as such) worked fine, even offering me the choice of a 1/2 dozen languages; how very European (the US games that I have don't offer that choice) The PSP has landed and it works fine for games - the screen is amazing, the speakers tinny (that's what headphones are for) and it has all the right buttons. It even plays cut-down DVDs. It will be interesting to see Sony's strategy with films. If they release some films on UMD a couple of weeks or a month earlier than the DVD version, I'm pretty sure they could make some interesting waves in the film business (and, given they own a studio, this ought not to be hard). Getting the type of film right seems key - more Hellboy than Pride and Prejudice, more Jennifer Garner than Orson Welles. Fanboys and girls could start to pick up a lot of films and the opportunity for film/movie tie-ins with both one one disc could be huge, if there's space for both. What I don't see, and maybe it's just me, is the whole wider convergence thing. Maybe convergence should just mean it does one thing really well and one thing quite well. Playing games to the highest standard and being ok as a portable film player, for instance? But I'm not going to go through the pain of figuring out how to get an existing video ripped to it, or shifting 1GB of music via USB. And I'm certainly not going to surf the web. Even direct.gov which is supposed to render well on all screens using style sheets, doesn't handle this shaped screen. The wifi connection works fine for downloading software updates, but I don't want to use a mobile phone-style keyboard to enter web addresses thank you. I have enough fun doing that with my Treo - and that's just as crap at rendering most sites, unless they have a specific mobile version (thank you Google, Amazon.com and the Beeb) It's not going to fit in my pocket when I jog. Its battery isn't going to last the duration of a trans-atlantic flight. Or even, probably, a Eurostar trip. Two things good, four things bad, perhaps? My phone can handle MP3 too - but I don't use it for that (when I'm out running, I don't want anyone phoning me - I can barely talk, let alone actually hold a conversation of any importance). Sony will say that it's the future, that this is the way devices are going. They've even called it the PSP 1000, to give room for at least 8 more versions (2000,3000 .... 9000) - doubtless there's a lot more innovation and, god help me, convergence to come. I'll say, for the record, that it reflects crumby thinking. It does convergence because it can. It has a great screen so it plays films and displays photos, it has additional memory (although Sony's own standard and excessively priced) so it can handle MP3s (at least they've moved away from ATRAC), it has wifi so it can surf the web (even if you have to scroll left and right to read the whole text - and you have to manually configure the IP address for each network you use, rather than use DHCP - or, I do anyway). It's primary function - games - it does spectacularly well; it does films pretty well (it's no DVD player and I have no desire to populate two libraries); it does music ok (but it's no ipod); and it does the web not at all (someone's going to point me to a specially formatted for PSP site now, but I bet you it's a site that talks about the PSP, not one that I'd actually want to visit). Games is all I wanted when I anted up, films are an occasional extra. Everything else, they can keep for now. Next up, the ipod phone. Oh.