New connections

Back in Cardiff we’d been using NTL ever since cable TV appeared. We picked up phone and TV services from them, and later a broadband internet connection. They’re not a terrible company, and their services were good, but now we’ve moved we get to review the marketplace.
So phone service went to BT, because you have to. It’s still a monopoly. TV will go to Sky, purely for Sky+. A hard disk recorder with two tuners? That’s major hassle for any other network right now, but Sky have got it sewn up. I’m still sad that Tivo left our shores though.
Broadband internet connection was not so easy. If you hunt around, it’s actually very difficult to get a fast broadband connection at a sensible price that isn’t limited to just a few GB transfer each month (OK, so BT don’t have the monopoly here). I can use up 3GB on a weekend easily, gaming, downloading bittorrents, patches and demos, so unlimited access is crucial to me, but I’m not going to spend £30/month for it. Tiscali seemed to be the best value, but the web-based setup told me they couldn’t provide service to my area. Further searching found Demon. Just seeing the red logo again gave me a wave of nostalgia – this was my first internet service provider, back in the early 90’s. In those days they were an industry leader, so it’s both a shame to find them so hidden away and a joy to see that they still exist. They were a great company then, and they offer broadband connections at sensible prices, so I jumped on their offer.
It’s funny how a few companies, when you’ve had great experiences with them, make you feel good just by showing you their logo.

The stomach for it

I forgot to mention the other day, but since reducing work related stress and my blood pressure began to fall, my indigestion irks have also dropped off. I seem to be able to drink red wine again, something I haven’t been able to do for ages. Sunday lunches with beer are no longer painful. Relaaaaax.

Comment Spam on the Up?

When I sit down to write a short blog entry, a list and number of recently posted comments is included in the login page. Usually I don’t have any comments (poor me and lazy you), but recently the comment spam has been on the increase. Comment spamming is the use of automated programs on some evil spammer’s computer to search the web for blogs and to post comments that include the spammer’s advertiser’s web page and keywords. The aim of the game for the money grabbing scum of the internet here is to increase page rankings within major search engines for their clients. You see, the search engines have their own automated programs (bots, spiders) that crawl the web searching for all those keywords that you’re going to tap into your search bar sometime in the future. When the search engine’s bots read those keywords and web addresses, that website’s ranking will go up in the search engine’s list. Of course the spam ruins the feel of the person’s blog, filling its pages with adverts to enlarge your penis or reduce your mortgage.
Tossers.
Anyhoo, most modern blogs, including the engine I use to run my website, allow the blogger to review all submitted comments before they are posted. I can easily delete all comment spam before it appears on the web, and that makes me feel kind of good inside. Like I got one over on the spammer. The truth is, they don’t care. Their bots hit so many blogs that the payoff is likely to be positive for them, and they can make a lot of money. However, if we all delete comment spam then they’ll have to look elsewhere.
Usually I get a few spammy comments a week. The last week or so I’ve been getting maybe a dozen every other day. Today I had 186. What’s going on? Is comment spam rapidly on the increase or have I just been “found” by a particularly persistent bot? It’s a little worrying.
On the flipside, I think the amount of email spam I’ve been getting has been going down. Has yours?

BP

We’ve been moved in for a week now, and it’s feeling pretty good. So good that I thought I’d check my blood pressure.
Before I started work at Swansea University my blood pressure had always been normal. My physical check up before starting measured it at 120/60, and why not? I’ve always been fit and healthy. Usually very or extremely fit, depending upon what sport I was into at the time.
So I was surprised when in the summer this year a regular checkup showed my BP to have risen to around 145/85. One measurement is never enough for this type of thing, so I had a handful of measurements taken over the next few weeks, and my BP was averaging around 148/88. This isn’t “high blood pressure”. Not yet. It’s an indicator that if you keep on doing whatever you’re doing, you’re going to develop high blood pressure. It’s commonly assumed that once you’re on the slippery slope, there’s little you can do to completely avoid high BP. So I wasn’t very happy, particularly as someone that always used to be fit, and owns the domain name www.dontbeasalmon.net to remind himself of the damaging side effects of long term exposure to “stress hormones”.
I hadn’t changed my diet, I don’t eat much salt, and I hadn’t changed my levels of exercise much (I was cycling to work at about 70 miles per week and running weekly). The only significant change was my change in working habits. I had begun an arguably more stressful job, with a long daily commute by bike and train. The commute is said by many in the South East to be the most tiring and stressful part of their week. OK, I thought, let’s look at trying to change some of this. It was only then that I really thought about the knot of stress in the pit of my stomach that I’d just got used to. Let’s try and remove that.
What do you do? You’ve still got deadlines to meet, challenges to puzzle, problems to solve. It’s not like you can just drop it, because if you take time away it’ll still be sat there when you return, but more will have piled on top of it, creating more worry.
One good bit of advice I took was about attitude. Where does the stress come from? In the past it had largely been self-imposed: the science had to get done, but mostly so I could publish and move on to a new contract. Now, as a lecturer, the pressure comes from the requirements to do the best for the students, to teach effectively and examine honestly and rigorously. It comes from research requirements to secure funding, to be sure that PhD students or post-docs are getting what they need to do their best work. And it comes from the myriad other things that fit into the daily tasks of trying to both set up, configure and run part of a modern medical school. But take a step back – is it all up to you?
Well, no. How well the students do is largely up to them. You’ll never present the information in the best way for all of them, so the most you can hope for is that most of them will understand what the hell you’re on about and then go and read about it and pass their exams. There’s nothing I can do about my teaching except practice, make improvements and repeat, and I’m doing that anyway. Likewise with exams – it’s not just me writing the questions, and there’s plenty of support, so don’t worry about it.
Again, in research the people working in your group are competent and intelligent – that’s why they’re working for you, right? So it’s largely up to them as to how well they’ll do. At this level you must be highly motivated to succeed. So hands off a bit there too.
And so on down the list. The point was that the outcomes of all of the things that were subconciously causing my stress levels to rise were not things that were solely under my control. So don’t worry so much. Just do what you can, be as effective as you can and relax a bit more. Not so much just “delegate” but “sit back and monitor”.
On top of this, my usual methods of combatting and balancing stress at work were gone because of my long commute. Climbing used to be my main method, but any sport gets you thinking in earnest about something that’s not work, and helps. So I planned to race in triathlons again next year. That helped a bit mentally.
The commute was causing a lot of stress, both in time and finance, so working at home an extra day a week helped a lot. Not having to worry about getting up early and getting everything ready in time for the train was really helpful. I had been trying to move house since October 2004, so there were already plans in place to remove the commute. House buying is one of the most stressful things most people do, of course, but to be honest it wasn’t high on my list of stress-causers.
Anyway, before we moved I had my BP remeasured, and it was coming down to about 137/80. Much better. That’s “normal”. After my move I’ve measured it at 127/65. How’s that? So all of these things are working, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep them working. I have much more time now, and plenty of new things to do. I’ve just got to worry about how to pay for all these damned carpets!

Moved

We’ve moved. We’re now residents of Gowerton.
It was a pain shifting all our stuff, especially as one after another we all picked up diarrhoea and nausea. Nice. Massive thanks to everyone that helped us move – we couldn’t have done it alone.
We’re surrounded by boxes, but the piles are getting shorter. We have no carpets or curtains, but we do have lots of room and a superb heating system (& luckily a toilet on every floor). It’ll feel like home soon, but it’s a little sad to leave our house & Cardiff.

Here’s Jack opening his advent calendar.

Utility Companies

One of those moving house jobs is ringing around all of your utility companies to let them know you’re moving. There’s gas, electricity, phone, cable TV, TV license, broadband, council tax, banks, credit cards, mobile phones, etc. It’s a long list, and it must be one of the major enquiries that companies receive. So you’d expect them to make it easy for you right?
The worst was probably NTL. You ring the number advertised on the website as the one to use for moving home, but of course it’s just one of their standard numbers. Next, spend 5 minutes answering the automated questions to filter you towards the appropriate department, or so you might think. The guy I spoke to took my details and I explained that I wanted a disconnection. So he had to forward me to someone else. Who then had to send me on to another department. 28 minute phone call. Efficient? No.
The best are the banks and mobile phone companies. It’s dead easy – you just log on to your online account, which is usually a weekly task anyway. Change your personal details, and you’re done. Takes about 5 minutes. Efficient? Yes.
The most innovative was a surprise. I was hunting around the Cardiff County Council website for the most appropriate phone number, and found an online chat interface. So I gave it a go. It connected me directly to a council “agent”, who took my details and gave me all the advice I needed. There was a slight glitch, and I had to reconnect at one stage, but there was no wait involved. Efficient? Not quite as efficient as changing your details directly on the website, but it was very nice to speak immediately and directly to someone knowledgeable.
Most companies have phone queueing systems, and most are similarly annoying. The best was actually Welsh Water. A real live person answered the phone in about 3 rings, and was the only one that didn’t need me to spell out my very Welshy new address.
So NTL are cutting me off tomorrow. My internet connectivity will be limited to work and my mobile phone, because BT can’t connect up the new house until the end of December. How will I cope? No internet, no Sky TV? I’m sure Kim will give me plenty to do.