Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Top secret drummers?

I've just had my attention drawn to this remarkable video of a Swiss bunch of lads known as the Top Secret Drummers.  This clip is a real treat and showcases just how much can be done with a snare.  The tightness of these drummers should put every person in a band in this country into a spiral of shame.  And to think, it wasn't that long ago I was blown away with the two Melvins drummers, pah, just two?  Must try harder!

A couple of questions spring to mind though; just how secret can that many men banging drums hope to remain, and would a gun be a more effective battlefield weapon?

Monday, April 27, 2009

The idiocy of blocking social sites in a corporate environment, and why it's damaging your business.

I'm getting increasingly irritated with companies that block useful websites on their corporate networks.  Several times a day the solution to one of my contact’s problem can be found on either a blog, a social networking site or a media content site; all of which are often blocked by corporate networks.  I’m getting increasingly frustrated when I get email replies telling me the URL I have suggested to a contact is banned.  Just because the occasional bad egg might waste company time on a social networking site it’s unfair to ban all staff from using such sites.  If you caught one of your staff staring out of the window caught in the private reverie of a daydream would you brick up every window in your premises?

Blocking access to social sites shows an appalling lack of faith in your staff, and speaks to me of deeper problems within your organisation.  I would never work for an employer that made its contempt for my professional work ethic so blatant.  While some types of website are quite rightly blocked on corporate networks (porn/ warez for example) the blanket banning of social and media content websites is a malevolent sledgehammer being used to crack a small nut of a problem that would be better dealt with in a staff handbook rather than on a computer network.  Here’s a short list of frequently banned websites that can greatly benefit your business;

The banning of Twitter from corporate networks is a classic kneejerk reaction; it’s popular so it must be bad.  There is growing evidence that Twitter is being used to streamline corporate activities within companies, if you post a quick update to let people know you are working on a certain project it may well spawn immediate co-operation from colleagues elsewhere in the company.  We’ve known for years that knowledge of what ones colleagues are working on greatly greases the wheels, and greased wheels mean greater productivity, and ultimately greater profits.  When the Web Care Takers hosting arm is experiencing server issues we post updates on our Twitter account, these updates take seconds to post and keep our clients up to date on our progress.  We found that most frustrations for our clients during technical problems are caused by a lack of knowledge, they know we’re doing all we can to fix a problem but the lack of communication from our end leaves them wonder just what we’re up to.  During our last outage we posted many technical notes related to the server rebuild that we knew would mean nothing to our customers, but the lack of frantic phone calls we received from them proved that they were content that we were doing something.  Block Twitter.com and you are depriving your staff potential vital little nuggets of information, checking a Twitter page takes around three seconds, surely your staff can spare a few seconds?  Chris Brogan has written a list of fifty business uses for Twitter here – 

Although seen by many as a vacuous waste of pixels FaceBook (if used correctly) can be a very empowering tool indeed.  Increasingly FaceBook users are connecting to professional contacts as well as friends and family.  One word of warning though, if you use FaceBook for business as well as pleasure remember that your professional contacts may not be as amused as your friends are by your tales (and photos) of drunken adventures!  To be on the safe side imagine you have your Grandma as a contact, would you be happy for her to see what you’ve been up to at the weekend?  Through applications like the remarkably useful Doodle we’ve recently been using Facebook to organise meetings.  Doodle allows you to suggest a range of possible times and dates for meetings, then have your invited contacts declare which they are available for.  When the short Doodle process is complete the system shows you the best time and date for the meeting.  Surely anyone can see just how useful that is, and what’s more it’s FREE!  There’s an article that explores the professional uses of Facebook over here – 

You may not have heard of the Yahoo owned photo website Flickr but I can guarantee you’ve seen images facilitated by this site.  Flickr is also an awesome site for creative inspiration, research and even image purchasing.  Blocking Flickr is nearly as ludicrous as blocking stock image sites like iStockPhoto; banning the use of stock sites deprives your staff of extremely cheap (or even free) images to augment presentations or sales literature.  Word to the wise, we’ll all sick of seeing Microsoft clipart, why not let your staff spread their creative wings a little; it could well give you the edge over your competitors!

It’s not just videos of people having near fatal accidents, YouTube is also littered with useful instructional and professional development videos.  Block video sites like YouTube and you could be shutting off a stream of staff development training that’s not going to cost your company a penny.

As Risk Management professionals know, risks can empower your business and give you the edge in a tight and competitive market, just as long as you know how to manage them.  So maybe it’s time to rethink your policy on blocking websites, after all, it could be seriously damaging the health of your business!  It is our opinion that managing internet usage in a business environment is as much a Human Resources (HR) issue as it is an IT issue.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Falafel Failure

It has come to my attention that some folk think Emma and I live some sort of charmed life, they are of the opinion that we drift around wearing serene expressions attending to creations that create themselves like something out of a Disney cartoon.

The truth of the matter is that we work pretty hard to make most of this stuff happen; in my experience living the ‘good life’ is 90% preparation and planning and about 10% sitting back and idly scratching parts of your body. There is also a lot of trial and error, and of course we only tend to post the positive results on our blog.
So here’s a little something else…

Whenever I go to music festivals or anywhere else that happens to sell food from old trailers I click my elbows with glee if I see a Falafel seller. There’s something so tasty about eating something Vegan and nutritious when surrounded by the filth and urine streaked squalor of a proper rock festival, you’re also a lot less likely to get a dicky tummy, something you REALLY don’t want at a festival! I became such a fan of this chick pea based snack I went through a phase of buying the fantastic Leonora frozen mail order Falafel to gorge on after pub gigs. I’d sit there smugly stuffing my cake hole with these healthy treats, feeling a little morally superior to my friends who were no doubt slouched against a wall in the town centre choking down a kebab.

However, as we’ve been cutting back our cash flow buying Leonora’s treats (as reasonable as they are) ceased to be a viable option. The packet falafel never quite hit the spot so I decided to have a crack at making them from scratch, in the spirit of self sufficiency. I’ll be honest with you here; Emma is the real chef in this house, over the years her passion for cooking has developed at exactly the same rate as my passion for letting her cook. It’s not that I can’t cook; it’s more that I’m just extremely out of practice. If remembering how to cook is like remembering how to ride a bike then my cycle might as well be tireless and in one of the self storage places that seem to be springing up everywhere. I’m not so proud that I can’t ask my wife for help in the kitchen, but in this instance her tutoring was less an answer to a cry for help as a humanitarian intervention. After quitting her job to work for herself Emma has quite naturally found herself in the house on weekdays during office hours, a time I had gotten quite used to sharing only with myself and the cats. I had no wish to start using my wife as a full time cook so insisted on continuing to cook for myself during the day. It may seem odd to you that I make such a big deal out of lunch, but when you work for yourself the welcome distraction of the intake of food becomes most important. One day while Emma was watching me destroy an omelette I swear I saw her jaw drop, it was the moment she realised I am from the ‘crank it up and get it done’ school of cookery. My method for an omelette consisted of putting an empty omelette pan on on the stove set to full tilt, banging a couple of eggs around for a few seconds then slinging the half mixed mess into the pan. I could knock up an omelette in about sixty seconds from ambling from my desk to the kitchen next door, to eating. I had cooked so many of these minute omelettes that when I was served a perfect breakfast omelette in a nice London hotel I was genuinely confused that it wasn’t burnt on both sides and still raw in the middle. On that occasion Emma swore to give me a cooking refresher course, a bit like the Delia Smith ‘How to Cook’ course, only without the need to feather that particular Norwich City fan’s nest any further. Time slipped by and the occasional glorious culinary failure caused Emma to reassert her vow to reform my ways, but somehow we never got around to pencilling in a date. The intakes of breath and furrowing of brows at my failures were made all the more intense by episodes like the ‘meatball debacle’: on deciding to experiment with New York deli type sandwiches I bought half a dozen meatballs from our fantastic local butcher. All I needed to do was shallow fry them and eat them, and yet somehow I managed to transform them from plump juicy lumps of loveliness into something you might find in a bucket at the end of a vets operating table after a long day demasculinizing Tom Cats, only with a lot more charcoal. So last night while Emma was preparing an evening meal I decided it was the ideal time to try and make my own falafel.

My first attempt at falafel (the night before) failed within seconds; before I could even start to make a heinous mess of the kitchen I found out I had to soak the chickpeas overnight before starting. The next evening, fighting for elbow room with Emma in our tiny kitchen I was somewhat alarmed to discover the reason I had to boil the chickpeas for over an hour, apparently it’s to get out all the poisons; this cooking lark is more hazardous than I thought! I decided that (at least to start with) I would try my usual cooking methods, assuming that should I be about to make a catastrophic error Emma would leap to my aid and straighten my direction on the culinary path (so to speak). Intervention was more forthcoming that I could have anticipated, the catalyst of which was me cramming all the ingredients in the food processor at once, and without so much as a gossamer thin suggestion of irony I reached for the power switch. Several stern warnings from my Tutor later I had twelve curiously green dollops that I stood over like a proud father, even although they looked like the nasal excavations of Sasquatch.

Emma was eventually suitably convinced that I wouldn’t destroy her kitchen, and went off for a bath leaving me to shallow fry the falafel balls. I chuckled nervously to myself as I heard her mount the stairs, I felt much like I did after taking my first trip in a car without an instructor after passing my driving test. I followed Emma’s instructions carefully and gently lowered the first of the snot balls into the frying pan of oil. Resisting the strong urge to crank the hob up to maximum I stood waiting patiently for these odd looking dollops to transform themselves into delicious snacks. Then I waited for a while longer. Then I went off and checked my emails. After what seemed like hours later I gingerly tipped up one of the balls to see if the underside was cooked yet, and it collapsed in much the same fashion as a wave-struck sandcastle.

I was SO glad we bottled some brilliant blackberry wine last night!

After a short while spent mumbling rude words I decided not to be disheartened and checked the next still raw looking falafel. I gently poked the side of it with my spatula only for it to smear across the pan as if it were made of toothpaste. Showing reserves of calm that surprised even me I tested the third lump with my finger. I’d love to say at this point that it was a firm, well formed perfect falafel, but sadly I can’t. I lifted my finger off the green lump and peered under my hand, falafel number three looked a punched cabbage. Resisting the strong urge to chuck the whole lot in the bin I stuck with it, encouraging each falafel around the pan so gently even a brain surgeon would have been impressed. You can probably guess how much difference that made. In the end I was left with a drying rack full of the most unappetising things I’ve made since I accidently incorporated some dog dirt in a mud pie at the age of five.

In the photo above you can see a sort of charming 'before and after' setup!

Poets and great authors throughout the ages have expended phenomenal efforts trying to pinpoint and elucidate the meaning of love, I can save creative sorts of the future the bother, I have a perfect example of true love, Emma ate one of my falafel and said she liked it. In fact hidden in a burrito and slathered with crème fresh my bastard creation sits just the ride side of palatable on the digestible solids scale.

On the top, a falafel burrito with tons of cremé fresh, on the bottom one with hot sauce.

The moral of this story is vague to say the least, and not the most encouraging; if your wife is good at cooking try not to be a modern man for the sake of it, let her cook. You need to find other ways to show her how much you love her, burnt offerings are only cute for so long!

The final moral is to make sure you read the ingredients list properly, I left out flour…

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Best error message ever!

I was just checking my online banking to see how little money I had and it crashed on me, giving me this error;

An error occured while processing your request. Please contact your support representative.
Support Information
Error Number: 8516
Severity: E_MT_ERROR
Message: org.omg.CORBA.NO_RESOURCES: vmcid: 0x0 minor code: 0 completed: No
Browser: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 6.0; en-GB; rv: Gecko/2009032609 Firefox/3.0.8

This is pretty geeky humour I'll grant you, but if I'd seen a cobra and had no resources to fight it off I'd run off too!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Night Owls and Constipated Cavemen

In the interests of marital bliss I continually try and see the world through the eyes of an early bird like my wife, but sadly cohesive intelligent, even vaguely logical thought doesn't commence in my world until at least noon. Only after a decent luncheon will my faculties shift into a higher gear, only to stall a little just before afternoon coffee.

I used to think I was a lone owl, but I now realise there are others like me, other folk that hit their prime time around 9pm, when most wives, partners and employers are winding down their synaptic activity. It may or may not surprise you to know that most night owls work in IT/ Internet related vocations, a category I fall into myself.

This catatonic early morning zombfication is something that has dogged me throughout my professional life and is a part of the reason I now work for myself. Every job I ever had from paper boy, right up to the last time I had a job commuting to London I've had to get up early, and have failed spectacularly at even coming close to managing such a simple task. Most people that did paper rounds have fond memories of generous Christmas tips and the wonder of catching a glimpse of a world before others woke. My memories of my three years as a paperboy consist mostly of my poor father putting the boot into the end of my bed after yet another phone call from the owner of the newsagents, wanting to know why I had failed again to acquiesce to his request to deliver newspapers before 8am. Several times the manager of the newsagents would think he was belittling me by asking if I thought I was worth the £6 a week he paid me, I could always appear the bootlicker by agreeing that I was not. Nobody ever considers themselves well enough paid, and rising in the middle of the night to carry a sack of papers heavier than a pot bellied pig wasn't worth £6, it was worth more like £10,000!

One aspect of working for ones self that most people don't appreciate is that us homeworkers put in longer hours than office staff. While my friends consider me the epitome of sloth for laying in my filthy pit till around 10am I can guarantee you that none of them will still be toiling at their keyboards the many hours past 5pm I put in every day. While you're reading this I'm sure some of you are probably sniffing the air and quietly enquiring whether that strange odour is in fact the smell of burning martyr. You are quite wrong; I am happy I have found a way of keeping the wolves at bay that suits me perfectly. I may not answer my phone at 7am, I may have the telephone charisma of constipated caveman undergoing a self inflicted twig enema at any time up to lunch, but I can promise you I'll still be working at 7pm most nights, and the job will be done well. Unless I fancy making a short film of the cats, or taking photos of clouds or something else utterly unrelated to the office work, in which case I'll get back to you within an hour or so!