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I mostly had a day off today. Perhaps it was the conclusion of some previously unfinished business, hitting 100% on my monster Magento spreadsheet, the gorgeous September sunshine or my housemate being a few hundred miles away — whatever, today wasn’t a day for staring at code or fixing computers. I went out. And had fun. My regular reader may recall that I’ve found it incredibly hard to have fun in recent years. I am all about work, mostly because I see the transactional process as a form of personal validation, however misguided that might be, but also because it’s nice to pay the rent on time and have a roof over my head.

I went to Saltash today. Saltash is a town on the outskirts of Plymouth, which is in Devon. Saltash is about 50 minutes away from here in a car. Saltash is also the nearest Manheim vehicle auction to me. At 8:45am this morning I decided that I would fulfil a bucket list item and attend a live auction. By 9:00am I had scarfed down a toast-based breakfast and was on my way to Manheim Saltash. The aforementioned housemate is, by her own admission, sick of me talking about car auctions and today was as good a time as any to scratch the itch.

I had some thinking time on the way. What if I saw my ideal next car? Would I have the cojones to bid and buy? How would I get it back home? Hmm. I decided to watch and learn for the first time, and if all went to plan I’d be back for a return visit with a pile of cash. I figured that these twice-weekly auctions were full of professionals and regular buyers, and perhaps I’d have to identify myself as a newbie when I got there, with some special dispensation that I could be safely ignored as a non-buyer. Would I have to pay to get in if I wasn’t a buyer? So many questions.

I was thinking all this as a trio of warning lights lit up my VW Polo dash. My lambda sensor needs replacing, and I’ve let it slip because of work commitments. This has a knock-on effect with my diesel particulate filter, which in turn has sent the engine management system into a tailspin. Upshot: I’m using more fuel per mile than a car on a track day. Not good. I’m getting it sorted this week. Probably.

My thought process extended to cars in general. Down in the south west of the UK, certainly in the more rural parts, there’s much less status attached to car makes, models and marques. I will stop short of saying cars are disposable down here, but seeing a 10-year old car on the road is far more common than the south east of the UK. Saltash isn’t rural as such, but it serves an area of the UK which is rural.

I arrived shortly after 10am for a 10:30am start. There were 150+ cars parked under cover and a handful of valet dudes keeping them in a saleable condition. Before the auction started, I estimate 40 or people were milling around, chowing burgers from a truck and coffee from polystyrene cups. I didn’t need to register, I didn’t need to say hello to explain I was here to watch and learn, and no money changed hands — not even for a double bacon and cheese burger from the truck.

In the time betwixt arrival and auction commencement, I wandered around the neatly-arranged cars. It was like a big car sales lot minus the pushy dealers. The cars are, understandably, locked and secure in the pre-sale window. You can look around and gauge the condition, but not open the doors/boot/bonnet or get inside. Tyre kicking is, I assume, not looked on favourably; the valet team did a pretty good job of making them look smart for sale, which was good to see.

As the auction started promptly at 1030, the the auctioneer — Malcolm, I think — introduced himself and covered the ground rules. Fairly self-explanatory stuff: VAT is paid on commercial vehicles, some indemnity is available at a price, don’t bid if you can’t pay, that kind of thing. I sat down, kept quiet, and avoided eye contact with the auctioneer for the most part; not for any rude or impersonal reason, I just know that attracting attention was not my aim. I didn’t want an itchy nose to be mistaken for YES PLEASE I WILL BID EIGHT GRAND ON THAT MINI THANKS MATE. Armed with a compact printout of all the scheduled lots to be sold as of 9am, I found a seat on the bleachers and settled in, watched and listened intently.

What followed was 3+ hours of vehicles parading through, two auctioneers on their own public address systems alternating between the lots, a bunch of regular buyers/dealers poking and prodding cars as they proceeded down the catwalk, wandering round the cars and placing bids. Most people bought nothing, a few people bought upwards of 5 or so lots, one dealer bought more than ten vehicles. Internet bidders were also involved, with auction room screens indicating the in-room bids compared to the website.

Some of the vehicles went for seemingly very low prices. The cheapest overall was a ’96 Vauxhall Astra, which was snapped up for £90. The most expensive was a ’13 Toyota GT-86 for £14100. That’s a £25000 car brand new. A year and a bit later, it’s been resold at 40% off. Astonishing. A tidy ’02 Range Rover V8 Vogue with 112000 miles on the clock? £2700.

I made a decision that I’d log all the sale prices for reference so I could refer back to them for this post. Right now, I’m not buying, and frankly there came a point about an hour or so in where it became difficult to concentrate with the amount of noise and number of people milling around in the auction hall. I will also admit to feeling the pain of the drivers of the lots as they paraded through the hall. The hazards on, the windows down, they were asked to rev engines, had strangers unceremoniously poking their heads in to examine the dashboard.

The whole operation was a well-oiled machine and worked really well. Everyone knew what they were doing, and the process was efficient. Next time I go, I’ll know what I’m doing. I will be going again. I don’t know if there’ll be a stack of 20s in my back pocket, but I’ll certainly be heading to Saltash again.

Bucket list update: attend a live auction — done

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I watched Breaking Bad from start to finish on Netflix. Every episode. People have variously described it as groundbreaking, the best TV ever, and all manner of other positive things. A 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes of the final episode was clearly no fluke. After all the good things bandied around about it, I wanted to watch it. Now, 62 episodes later, it’s made me feel something of a cultural pariah: it wasn’t for me.

I don’t have a TV in the traditional sense. Rather, the TV I own is connected to a Playstation 3 games console. There’s no antenna or dish connection, and I don’t have a TV licence. That lack of licence puts me in the minority of people in the UK. I occasionally dabble with pre-recorded shows on the various iPlayer-esque, on-demand services and come away feeling a bit dazed. This, perhaps, should’ve been a warning that I don’t ‘do’ TV.

I like a good story, but I’m so out of practise with both creating and/or consuming stories that I just didn’t gel with Breaking Bad at all. There was clever writing, callbacks, good acting and all the ingredients for a great TV show. I wanted to like it, I really did, but there came a point when I was trying so hard to like it and figuring out what part of it I was missing that made virtually every other person that watched it say all those great things, instead of just accepting it for what it was.

I wasn’t able to watch more than two or three episodes in a row because my brain couldn’t digest it. It’s not like I’m a complete newcomer to TV show marathons, either. I watched The Sopranos from start to finish in 3 sittings. Loved it. The same goes for Oz, though I think that was 5 or so sessions. Great show. They were both five or so years ago, and I think that’s the explanation for the change in my habits.

There was no obligation for me to watch Breaking Bad, I didn’t do it out of moral duty or some twisted point-proving mentality. I’ve come away from it feeling like a cultural outcast, something which I’ve been working on lessening for a few years already, with some success. My formerly-held cynicism towards many things has been let go, and maybe I’ll be part of an upcoming ‘thing’ that I’m a better fit for; or perhaps not.

The belief and acceptance that I’m not like most other people is not something I wear as a badge of honour, and in many situations I’d prefer to just go with the mainstream flow instead of paddling in a rock pool. Water-based analogies aside, I think it’s time for me to stop trying to integrate and just get on with what feels right or best.

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Following my decision to go it alone and eschew the hosted e-commerce service, I’ve been reminiscing with Magento about old times. All things considered, we’ve been civil; I’ve changed, Magento has changed — but we’re making it work.

I told you a little bit about Pragmatika Data Security previously, and the size of the task is becoming much more clear. When I worked at Sophos, I was employee number 59 in the UK operation. I was interviewed, hired and started in 1998. I spent some hours in the technical support test network learning how Sophos Anti-Virus worked, how to break it and how to fix it. Sophos Anti-Virus was the flagship product, and it ran on about a dozen or so different computer systems.

As a Sophos partner, I have a price list. This spreadsheet is well-presented and has clearly been written by someone who knows what they’re doing. It has dynamic calculations, drop downs and explanatory notes. It even has its own version number and change log. This is a useful spreadsheet, and I like spreadsheets.

The front-of-house parts of this spreadsheet cleverly shield the monster SKU list behind the scenes. Seriously, it’s vast. Back in the day when Sophos Anti-Virus was the mainstay, I can’t imagine the part number/SKU list was even into triple figures long – perhaps 80 to 100 items tops. Now, it’s into 5 figures. Over ten thousand SKUs

I am not allowed to go into too much detail as the price list is confidential, but imagine there’s a software product that runs on an organisation’s computers:

  • there are 10 tiers of pricing; the more you buy, the cheaper the unit price
  • each has 3 sector tiers; there are discounts available
  • each of those has 4 subscription lengths; they range from a short time to a long time
  • and each of those can be a new purchase or a renewals; each has its own SKU

One software product now has 200+ different SKUs, and each has unique attributes. Each one takes a row on a spreadsheet and when all is said and done, Magento has to chomp through this beast of a file to popular the innards. If that goes well, I’ll be baking a celebration cake.

I’ll spare you all the gory details, suffice to say that I’m slowly killing my computer building a spreadsheet that’s already extended to 4,500 lines. Apple Numbers is a train wreck with datasets of this size, but is streets ahead of the abomination that is Excel. The last time I did this spreadsheet construction malarkey I used Bento, but that’s been discontinued. Bento just worked, but doesn’t play well for me on Mavericks.

I called it a day at 830pm when the memory usage of Numbers hit 1GB. It’s been creeping up all day, and scrolling is becoming unpleasantly slow. This is the first time I’ve had annoying slowness from my 4-year old laptop. It’s petty to think that that’s reason enough to upgrade it, but a new computer has been moved up the list if this project turns out to be a success that needs more spreadsheet finagling on a regular basis.

By the time I’ve finished it, I will likely have about 90% of the products on the SKU list in a Magento-friendly format. There will be errors in the many thousands of rows, but I don’t know where they are. Human nature is such that these things go wrong, but I’m not wigging out over it. I’ll be going through an extensive test period to try and weed out snags, and I’m sort of looking forward to an incident where someone gets charged a billion quid for a replacement power lead, or something equally ridiculous.

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It’s been weeks since I restarted my morning walks, and while I still can’t say I enjoy walking, I find the rest of my day sort of makes up for it. What used to be an 8am alarm with a plan to be at my desk for 9am has gradually turned into a 6am alarm and an expectation that I’ll be working by 730am, shortly after a walk and a shower.

I rarely, if ever, have any epiphanies on my 2km morning stomp. I have a brief to-and-fro with Jen over iMessage to confirm that a) we’re both awake and b) we will be walking this morning and occasionally c) if it’s raining hard, Jen does yoga instead; I don’t care about that kind of thing, so I walk in the rain, too.

Two side-effects of my walking over the last month or so are weight gain and longer working hours. I’ve gained a couple of kilos, and I’ve upped my work hours by a noticeable chunk. Before, I’d be at my desk by 9am and be done by about 6pm or so, with perhaps 30 minutes for lunch and breaks, which works out to about 40 hours from Monday to Friday. That might be extended to 45 hours including the weekend. Now, it’s 730am to about 630pm for 5 or 6 days a week, again with about an hour off overall. That’s 50 to 60 hours a week, give or take.

These extended work periods are, right now, working out fine for me. I’m getting things done, making progress and seeing forward motion on things I’ve been wanting to progress for years. The downside to this arrangement are that I’m taking longer to adjust to the new food regimen than I’d expected. I’m eating less processed food than I used to, and this reduction is from an already lower-than-average baseline. My relationship with food is one of fuel and nutrients, rather than a social experience. Living alone does this. It also means my food bills are way, way lower than they were in a previous life.

I have resorted to occasional Monster energy drinks to pep me up in the mornings when I’m flagging. What began as occasional (1 per week) turned into 3 or 4 a week, and that had consequences. My moods changed and a slight mania developed. I don’t recall any obvious impact on sleeping, which is great, but my daytime hours became a bit blurred and hazy. These sporadic mood changes came to a head on Sunday when I felt very disconnected from everything. I was very quiet, a bit sad and lost.

That was two days ago. That was the day I knew I’d overstepped the mark with the Monster and the chemicals had done a number on me. For the most part, I don’t drink alcoholic drinks. It’s rare for me to be a social drinker, mostly because I know about the calories in booze and prefer to have something tastier if I’m going to be extravagant. I flipped that guideline on its head two days ago and chugged most of a bottle of apple sour to try and rewire my broken chemistry.

Yesterday, Monday, I woke as normal and went for a walk. I was at my desk by 730am and had no ill-effects from either the booze or any Monster chemical hangover. I did, however, have a thumping headache all day. Lunch yesterday was a big pile of long-grain rice with a little soy sauce. I drank about 3 litres of water to start a detox. I was in bed by 8pm and slept right through.

Today, Tuesday, I woke at 6am and went for a 2km walk. I felt much better. My body didn’t hate me as much, and I just walked. I got back home, weighed myself (gained a kilo), had a shower and got ready for work. By 735am I was at my desk with a full Nalgene of water. No headache. No anxiety. No sadness.

I could murder a cheese toastie, though. Gosh.

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Yesterday’s diatribe on cart software trials was written first thing in the morning after I got to my desk. I used the hour-long process of writing 1,600 words as cathartic closure on my failed experiment with a paid-for e-commerce platform. The grapes weren’t sour, and mid-way through writing I was 50/50 whether I was going to continue with the Pragmatika Data Security project at all. I deliberately omitted this, but if you were reading between the lines then you likely picked up on it. Today, Wednesday, I have renewed vim and vigour. I’ll tell you why.

More potted history

The précis of yesterday is that I was not happy with the solutions I’d found for my cart, and that was a Bad Thing. I’ve used Magento in the past, and been a grumpy curmudgeon in the process. It’s slow, lumbering, hungry for resources and needs a chunk of tweaking to get it to be even bearable. I know this, because I’ve had to do a bunch of technical tweaking to every single Magento I’ve been involved in.

Yesterday morning, shortly after I hit publish on my last post, I installed Magento 1.9.0.1 to my holding server. I use my holding server, as the name suggests, to house websites that comprise a ‘coming soon’ holding page. There are a bunch, but the number is dropping. My rationale behind the holding server is that I have another server instance to pay for each month instead of dumping everything into one server, so my to-do list has an inherent cost to maintain. I had set Pragmatika Data Security to live on that server while I selected an appropriate cart, with a view to it having its own secure server in future if I ended up running my own cart software instead of a pay-for hosted solution.

Bracing for pain

So yeah, I installed Magento, fully prepared to have to optimise, cajole, grumble, strip out, reinstall a bunch of times, eke half a second or so back on each page load, and other fun tasks for a Tuesday morning.

Oh, how wrong I was. So wrong. Magento 1.9 flies along on DigitalOcean, even on the el cheapo 5USD a month server. Page loads are quick, the server load graphs don’t spike or wig out in normal use and I was genuinely shocked at how straightforward Magento on DigitalOcean is so far.

Sure, it’s an empty site with no content, but it’s leaps and bounds ahead of previous Magento incarnations I’ve used. Maybe it’s the fast drives that DigitalOcean use, but the setup process was a cinch. The front-end theme is far, far better than it used to be and — crucially — ready for use with comparatively little tweaking.

This all makes for a happy Pete, is what you need to know.

And so, to spreadsheets. I have thousands of product variants to construct and import into the Master CSV Of Doom. The last time I did a Magento build I used Bento to build the data because Numbers just couldn’t cope. Don’t even start me on Excel for Mac, son. Bento has been discontinued for some time and Numbers has evolved into an Adderall-fuelled simpleton, so I need to find a suitable CSV builder. The main difference is that today I don’t feel so damned crabby about the whole process. Which is nice.

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