2020 Vision

I’ve been working in this industry for a long time – over thirty years. For most of that time, I’ve been working as a freelancer, but it’s always been working for someone else. When I set up Magnum Solutions (my freelancing company) in 1995 I always had a vague desire to grow it into a company that wasn’t just me selling my time and skills to other companies. But I’ve never really known how I wanted to do that.

On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot of those thirty years building web sites in my spare time. Whether it’s my (now, long defunct) BBC Streams project or current sites like Line of Succession or TwittElection, there’s always something that I’m tinkering with. Some of them get some small level of popularity. None of them has ever made me enough money that I could consider giving up the freelancer life in order to spend more time on one of these projects.

This year has been slightly different. This was the year that the market for Perl freelancers in London finally hit the level at which I decided to take a permanent job. So I’ve been working for Equals (formerly FairFX) as a senior developer since February. But even that didn’t feel quite right. It felt a bit like a step backwards to go back to being an employee.

And then, while on holiday a month ago, something crystalised for me during a conversation with a friend. She asked how I’d really like to spend my time and I replied that I’d like to take time off from working nine to five and spent it trying to turn one or more of my side-projects into a real business. She asked what was stopping me from doing that and I replied that I didn’t have enough money. She laughed and asked me what the money in the ISA that I’ve been paying into on and off for the last decade was for. I’d always vaguely assumed it was for “the future” (whatever that means) but I realised that she was right. There was no reason at all why I shouldn’t use some of that money to support myself while I took time off work to do what I really wanted.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve given notice at Equals and I’m leaving just before Christmas. And for the first six months of 2020, I’ll be living off my savings while I try to find some way to make a living from the various business ideas I’ve been doing almost nothing with for the last thirty years.

I’m going to be structured about it. I plan to try six things for a month each. I have an idea what the first two or three things will be but I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t go into any detail right now. I do want to be very open about what I’m doing while I’m doing it – I’ve set up a new web site at and I’ll be writing about my projects there. Hey, even if nothing takes off, perhaps there’s a book in the reports of all my failures.

At the end of June, I’ll take stock and decide whether it’s worth continuing the experiment.

And that’s what I’m calling my “2020 Vision”. Because bad puns are the basis of good marketing – or something like that.


Insurance Update

Regular readers will know that two and a half weeks ago, my kitchen ceiling collapsed. A few people have asked me how things are going. Here’s an update. It’s not a happy story.

I’ve been talking to Aviva to work out what needs to be done. I took out my buildings insurance through my bank, First Direct, but apparently they farm all of their insurance out to Aviva. On the day that it happened I made an appointment for Aviva’s surveyor to come round and look at the damage. It happened on Wednesday and I was given an appointment on the following Tuesday. Six days seemed a long time to wait, but there didn’t seem to be any alternative.

So I took Tuesday off work and waited for the surveyor. Twenty minutes before the end of the eight to one window that I had been given he called me to cancel the appointment. His car had broken down. Of course, I can’t blame him for that, but a good company is one that can deal with unexpected problems like this. He told me that someone would call me and make alternative arrangements.

I stayed at home for the afternoon, but no-one called me.

Two days later (Thursday 25th) I tried to call them to find out what was going on. But I called after 5pm which is apparently when all their customer support people got home. Frustrated I did what anyone would do and tweeted my anger.

Those tweets were noticed by someone in Aviva’s social media group who replied, sending me his email and asking me to send him full details. Which I did.

The following day I got an apologetic-sounding phone call from an Aviva customer support agent.  He claimed that the original surveyor hadn’t told anyone that the appointment had been cancelled and offered to set up another appointment. Having already taken three days off work for this (two to deal with the emergency and one to wait for the Aviva surveyor) I was loathe to take more time off (I’m freelance and every day off is a day I don’t get paid for).

My wife was out of the country so we set a provisional date for this coming week, after she gets back. But I said that what I’d really like was for them to find someone who could see come round out of normal office hours. The agent said that he would see what they could do and that someone would call me back. I bet you can guess what is coming.

And you’d be right, of course. Another week has passed and no-one bothered to call me back. So it looks like my wife will be dealing with this in a few days time. At one point I optimistically hoped that the work might all be done by the time she got back. How naive was I?

So it’s two and a half weeks since the ceiling collapsed. I still have  huge hole in my kitchen ceiling and a shower that I can’t use for fear of it leaking again. And I have no idea when anything will move forward. Right now I wouldn’t be surprised if nothing was fixed by the end of summer.

The worst thing is the impression I get from Aviva that no-one there has the slightest interest in helping to fix this problem. I’ve never had to call on them before and, based on this experience, I hope I never have to again. I really couldn’t recommend them at all.


An Interesting Evening

(But the “Chinese curse” kind of interesting)

This evening I got home at my usual time, picked up my post from the doormat and was sitting on the sofa reading it. Suddenly I heard an almighty crash followed by the sound of running water. It was coming from the kitchen. I ran in and found this.


And this.


The ceiling had collapsed, scattering rubble and water everywhere. And water was still pouring out of the hole. Looking up into the hole, I saw this.


It seems that something had been leaking into the lagging for a long time. The lagging had been soaking up the water, getting heavier and heavier, until today was the day it got too heavy for the ceiling to support it any more.

I got on the phone to our buildings insurance people. They have registered my claim and are sending a surveyor round next Tuesday (six days seems rather a long time to wait). Then I got in touch with Aspect to get a plumber round to see if he could work out what was going on. While I was waiting for him, I cleared up the most important bits of the mess – cleaning and drying the chairs and moving the table out from under the drips. The plumber arrived about an hour later and started to investigate.

What he found seemed to bear out my theory. But the question was, where was the water coming from. The bathroom is directly above the hole, so there were plenty of suspects. But he soon tracked it down to the shower and fixed it. Then, before he left, he ripped out the wet lagging so that there was no water left to drip on the floor.

So everything seems to work properly again. I haven’t had to turn the water off and there’s no longer water dripping into the kitchen. There’s just rubble and water all over the the kitchen floor and a big hole in the ceiling. The insurance company will pay for someone to fix the hole, but I’m going to have to do as much as I can to tidy up. I’ve done some this evening but I’m bored and going to bed now. I’ll do some more tomorrow.

But this certainly hasn’t been the evening I had planned.

Some of you will remember that we had a lot of work done in the house in 2010. The leaky shower was fitted as part of that work. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the shower has been slowly filling the ceiling with water since then. Bloody builders.


Not Dead

I know it’s been very quiet round here, but I’m still here. I’ve just been off on holiday for a couple of weeks. I was cruising around the Baltic. There will be stories and photos arriving soon. I just need a couple of days to get a bit more organised.


A Life Well Documented

Recently I realised that two seemingly completely different projects were, in fact, both facets of the same project. They both led me to putting more detail about my history into web sites and (once they are complete) this will mean that my life will become far better documented.

The first project started when I dug out an old box of photographs. I was relatively late into digital photography so I have huge numbers of photos which just linger in boxes and albums instead of being enjoyed on Flickr. Also in the box I found the negatives for most of the films so I decided to start getting the negatives scanned in and put on CDs (if anyone is interested, it looks like Boots are the cheapest place to get this done).

This scanning is still in progress, but when I got the first few CDs back I realised that there were lots of photos of holidays and that I only had the vaguest of ideas when some of these holidays took place. So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve done pretty much all I can to tie down the dates of all of the holidays I’ve taken in the last fifteen years. I’ve gone through old passports looking for stamps. I’ve searched for email confirmations of flight bookings. I’ve even gone through my invoicing records to see which days I didn’t invoice clients for (an unexpected advantage of being a freelancer). As I’ve been going through this process, I’ve been adding the trips to my Dopplr account.

The project has expanded from just covering holidays. I’ve been to a lot of conferences in that time and I’ve also added those details to Dopplr. I don’t think I’m very far from having a complete record of every conference and meeting that I’ve ever spoken at.

The other project which eventually led in the same direction was my discovery of Songkick. Songkick aims to produce a complete directory of gigs. Users can add details of gigs they attended and mark themselves as having been at gigs added by other people. Trying to track down the dates of obscure gigs you attended in the late 1980s turns out to be a surprisingly addictive pastime. I’m sure I’ll never get everything into my account, but it’s certainly fun trying. I don’t even mind that the first gig I ever attended was supremely embarrassing.

Songkick currently has one obvious omission. It would be great if they would publish a users list of gigs (or “gigography” as they call it) as an iCal feed so that I could subscribe to it in Google Calendar. I’m sure that something like that will be added to the site soon.

There’s an obvious crossover between these two projects of course. Some gigs (more usually, festivals) can also count as holidays. Every time I went to Glastonbury or the Cambridge Folk Festival, that’s going to need to be listed in both Dopplr and Songkick.

Two interesting projects. Neither of them will ever be 100% complete, but it’s fun trying to get as close as you can. Of course, they both appeal to the “High Fidelity” style list geek in me. If these tools had been available thirty years ago I would certainly have been using them. And that would have given me an incredibly rich set of data about how I spent my time. One that I’m now painfully trying to piece together a bit at a time.

I’m fast coming to the conclusion that you can’t ever have enough data about your life. I’m now looking for new data sets that I could add to my life history.



It’s been a week of anniversaries. Wednesday was the tenth anniversary of the first meeting. And last night we had our tenth anniversary meeting. But for me personally, today is an even bigger anniversary. It was twenty years ago today that I started my first “real” job. I hope you won’t be too bored if I spend a few paragraphs reflecting on my career so far.

My degree from South Bank Poly (remember polys?) was in computer studies. This was very much aimed at people who were going to work in large data processing departments. We studied COBOL and CODASYL databases. SQL and C were seen as the cutting edge technologies. Interestingly I spent my sandwich year working on PC product releases for IBM. The documentation for these was in an obscure format called SGML – the weirdest things turn out to be useful in the future.

So I left South Bank with my degree in computer studies and got a job working for a company called Learmonth and Burchett Management Systems (LBMS). LBMS were big on structured development methodologies. They apparently had a big hand in the design of SSADM. They did consultancy and training, but they also had a CASE tool. That was where I came in. I was part of a team who was reimplementing their CASE tool. It was to be a Windows application (which in 1988 was a rather brave step to take). Over the next four years I became pretty proficient at Windows programming in C (Visual C++ wasn’t around in those days). I also, probably more usefully, learnt a lot about data modelling and databases as that was the part of the tool which I worked on. LBMS no longer exists. They went out of business soon after structured methodologies and CASE tools went out of fashion.

I left them before that though. In 1992 I decided to move to pastures new. I got a job working for a company called Comtext. They specialised in communications tools like telex. I was there to give their tools a nice Windows front-end. I was only there for six months. By then I had a CompuServe account and I could tell that email was going to kill off their business. I don’t know what happened to them. There’s no evidence of them on the internet now.

Early in 1993 I got a job working with Walt Disney. Actually it was with Buena Vista Home Video – their home video group. We were building a system to report on European video sales. I got the job on the basis of my Windows and SQL experience, but whilst I was there I moved to working exclusively on Unix. We implemented our system in a number of European offices and as part of the project I spent a few months working in Madrid.

Unfortunately for Disney, the technologies they were using (Sybase, C, Unix) were exactly the set of skills that were becoming popular in the City of London. And the City was crying out for contractors with that skillset. So in April 1995 I set up Magnum Solutions and went off to start contracting in the City.

For four years I worked for various banks in the City doing Bank-type stuff. I was during this time that I picked up my knowledge of Perl. In fact, by 1999 I was getting work purely on the basis of my Perl expertise. I was getting a little bored by banking though so I decided to try working for dotcoms for a while. Actually, it took a while for the change to take place and I spent eighteen months alternating companies like QXL and Sportal with financial work.

2002 started badly. I spent all of 2001 working for a single client but the contract finished at the start of 2002 and the jobs market had collapsed. I spent five months out of work before taking a permanent job with Bibliotech (now known as Spider Networks). That didn’t last long though. In November they went through a bit of a cash crisis and made a lot of staff redundant. Including me. Luckily the market seemed to have picked up a bit and I found a new contract within a week or so.

Following that contract, at the end of 2003 I made one of best connections that I’ve ever made when I spend a few months working on the Guardian web site. I’ve been able to return there a couple of times since.

2004 was another bad year. I was unable to find a contract to follow the Guardian so I ended up designing and building a new web site for Karma Download – a site for musicians to sell MP3s of their music. They didn’t make any money and closed down a couple of years later. In May of that year I took another permanent job, working for Outcome Technologies. I lasted until the end of the year before the call of freelancing became too strong and I left them.

Since then, things have been going pretty well. I’ve bounced between three different clients. Two of them are media organisations and the other is a bank. So I’m getting plenty of variety in my work.

It’s been an interesting twenty years. It hasn’t gone in the way I planned it at all. I was a Windows programmer. And now I’m a reasonably well-known expert in a language that I hadn’t even heard of when I started out.

I wonder what the next twenty years will bring. Retirement, with any luck.


Britons Unconvinced on Evolution

Feeling smug about not being American is, of course, practically a national sport her in the UK. And one of the best things to be smug about is ridiculously high percentage of Americans who think that creationism (or “intelligent design”) is a reasonable way to explain the creation of the universe. People in the UK have moved far beyond those medieval beliefs – or so we like to think.

But where the US goes, the UK is bound to follow. And the BBC is reporting a survey that MORI have recently undertaken for the BBC’s programme Horizon. The results make grim reading.

Over 2000 participants took part in the survey, and were asked what best described their view of the origin and development of life:

  • 22% chose creationism
  • 17% opted for intelligent design
  • 48% selected evolution theory
  • and the rest did not know

39% of people believe in creationsism in one of its forms and only 48% of people believe in evolution. Those are very worrying numbers.

And one less reason for feeling smug about not being an American.

Update: Smylers rightfully points out some loose thinking on my part – which actually stmes from some loose questions on MORI’s part (or maybe loose reporting of the questions on the BBC’s part). The point is that evolution does nothing to explain the origin of life. It only considers the development of life. So if you’re asked what best describes your view of the origin and development of life then evolution shouldn’t really be considered a possible answer.

Personally I don’t think that most people would have considered the question that deeply. And most people see it as a binary choice – evolution or creationism. So I’m still very surprised and worried by the data.


New Social Networking Site

O’Reilly have launched their new social networking site Connection. I seem to spend a lot of my time recreating my social network on whatever is the current trendy social networking site. In the last couple of years I’ve been on Ecademy, Orkut, Friendster, LinkedIn and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten.

Anyway, I’ve signed up to Connection. If you’re also there and you know me, then let’s link up.

Update: I’ve just noticed that a number of my contacts on Connection have “speaking” listed as one of their skills. Maybe I should add “breathing” and “walking” to my list.



Neil Gaiman on OBEs (it’s at the bottom of the piece)

An OBE, for those of you in places that aren’t British, is the Order of the British Empire, which seems rather sweet, considering there isn’t a British Empire any longer. It’s like being made a lord of the manor of a village that was long ago taken by the sea.



Dinner last night was a trip to one of my favourite London restaurants – the Sugar Club. It’s been a couple of years since I could afford to go there so it was a nice treat. The food was as good as it ever was (particularly the tandoori rabbit that I had for a starter and the passion fruit sorbet and white chocolate ice cream that I had for dessert). Only slight downer was that the clientele seem to be a bit more noisy that they used to be.

If you fancy a really good meal in central London and you don’t mind paying in the region of £60/head (including drinks) then I can’t recommend it highly enough.