June 27, 2014

Has Microsoft lost the plot?

I’ve had to bite the bullet and make the switch from Microsoft XP to Windows 7 knowing that based on previous experience, it would be a bumpy ride due to what I think are incompatibility problems with my hardware. However, after a week of anguish, I’d managed to end up with a system that was reasonably stable, so much so that I’d even managed to run my Microsoft FSX flight simulator software on it several times. Anyone who has experience of this will know that that’s not to be sneezed at, as it’s notoriously buggy, unstable and demanding of any computer processor and system. However, last night while I was working on my blog, installing and trying out new types of photo gallery plugins, things began to get very choppy. My graphics began to get unstable, my browser (Chrome) kept hanging and my internet connection became so slow as to be almost unusable. Eventually I threw my hand in and decided to shut down and when I did so, I found the reason for all of the above – the system had downloaded and was trying to install 94 updates!

At this rate Microsoft are getting more use out of my computer than I am. Can their software be so buggy when they release it to market that it has to be constantly ‘updated’ to this extent? I had to wait around for over half-an-hour before I could switch my machine off last night, and when you add the unproductive time during which it was effectively unusable while the updates were being downloaded, that must equate to well over an hour last night alone. And that’s not counting the time I’ve wasted during the week for the same reason, which must now add up to several more hours, with no end in sight, apparently. Already I’ve had my machine switched on for well over an hour this morning without getting anything done, aside from this post, while another 13 ‘updates’ have been downloaded and installed.

So it now looks as though I’m facing an all-or-nothing dilemma. I can’t face much more of this as when I switch my machine on, it’s to use it for some purpose other than to have Microsoft install more updates on it, so it looks as though the only way I’m going to be able to get it back under control again is to switch automatic updates off. At the moment I can’t see any other alternative. Are other people having the same problems as me?

Out of curiosity, I’ve just tried to run Microsoft FSX again and found that it won’t start because of a ‘fatal error’. This proves that MS really have lost the plot. I went through this ‘update’ thing earlier in the week and found then that FSX had stopped running for the same reason. A quick internet search found that I was not alone in this and that people were suspecting that a ‘rogue update’ was responsible. I tended to agree, so did a system restore. This itself caused yet more problems which I won’t bother going into, but it had the desired result and FSX started working again, thus supporting the ‘rogue update’ theory. Now that the same updates have been installed all over again, I’ve got the same outcome. So it would appear that Microsoft is now busily installing updates will-nilly for some of their software which cause other paid-for Microsoft programs to stop running. Where on earth is all this going to end? Surely it is almost time for them to consider packing up their tent and departing this place as the time must be approaching when, like much of their software, they will truly become not fit for purpose.

June 24, 2014

Back and rarin’ to go!

It’s not gone unnoticed in certain quarters (thanks, Val…) that it’s been quite a while since I put up a new post here on My Trike. There have been one or two reasons for this state of affairs, which I’ll come back to in a moment, but I’m now about to remedy all that! It’s not that I’ve had nothing to post about – far from it actually, because I’ve got loads of photographs from the week that I spent with Val at the end of May, when I picked up my new car, plus a flight that I did with Wim to talk about and more photographs and a video that I shot at the time. So where to begin?

Easy things first. A few weeks ago, I had a computer crash and BSOD (blue screen of death) and afterwards my computer refused to boot up at all for a while. I was still running Windows XP even though I’d bought Windows 7 and tried to install it on several occasions but ultimately found each time that it and my computer just didn’t get on together. I’ll explain. My PC has a Core 2 Quad 6600 CPU which is basically one of the last Intel processors that were intended for Windows XP. I installed a reasonable graphics card (Nvidia GTX560) which worked fine with XP but it was becoming more and more obvious that with XP, it didn’t have the legs that it ought to have done. So that’s when I ‘upgraded’ to Windows 7, with disastrous results. I had to go with the 32 bit system because of the processor that I was still using but somewhere in the whole kettle of fish, there was an incompatibility that meant that sooner or later the system would just freeze, crash or just stop running certain programs, usually Microsoft ones, which made it even more infuriating. So I always ended up going back to good old Windows XP that was maybe a bit slower, but rock-solid nevertheless.

All that began to change in April, when Microsoft withdrew their support for XP, but I took my crash and refusal of my system to boot as a warning shot. It’s happened to me before – you ignore the signs and pretty soon you end up with a system that’s totally FUBAR that you have to completely reinstall from scratch. So this time I had no choice but to persist with Windows 7. And it’s been a painful week or so. I’ve had all of the same old problems that I experienced before but I’ve managed to get a system together that runs sufficiently well for me to work with – for now. I’m typing this post on it, but I can’t say that I’m not holding my breath while I’m doing so. But this time I’ve bitten the bullet and even though it’s an expense that I’d rather have avoided, I’m investing in a new processor and motherboard. And this time I’m kicking Intel into touch. I don’t now need, and in any case can’t afford, the latest, fastest CPU around. And because AMD own Nvidia, so if they can’t make one of their processors play nicely with my graphics card nobody can, I’ve gone for an AMD FX-8350 4GHz processor with an Asus motherboard. I’ll let you know how I get on when they’ve both arrived.

OK, next subject, lawn mowers, another rather prickly one for me. In the just-over two years that I’ve been here, I’ve totally destroyed two of them. The reason was the same for both – hitting hidden stones and rocks in my grass and the areas that border it, resulting in bent blades and, ultimately, bent shafts for both of them. My first mower I bought new, but after the rocks had bent the blade and shaft and smashed the front wheels off it, I soon learnt the folly of doing that again. So the next one I bought second-hand, as I mentioned in a post on here a few weeks ago. Well, already it’s died a death and when I took both mowers off to the ‘décheterie’ to clear a space in my ‘cave’ for the next one, I found that they were by no means alone. The mowing season had obviously arrived here in the Dordogne, because the skip was already half-full of mowers that were just like my two, with bent shafts and other terminal damage 🙂

So before I went off and bought another, I had to try and do something about the source of my problem, which I did by spending the best part of a whole day ferreting out and digging up all the rocks, stones and other rubbish that I could find in my grass. And at the end of it, I was amazed to find that I’d taken out 5 barrow-loads of the wretched things. If you don’t believe me, here’s a picture of them all piled up under one of the trees in my back garden.

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A few of the bits that you can see were rubbish left over from jobs that I’ve done, such as my lounge floor and fireplace and my roof, but they don’t account for very much. I felt much better for having done the job at last, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve had no ‘mowing incidents’ since, thank goodness. Then I had to go out and find myself my third mower, and I think that I did really well. The last second-hand one that I bought turned out to be very disappointing because it was in worse condition than I’d thought. I’d trusted the (British) seller a bit too much, because when I’d viewed it, it was pouring down with rain and I took him very much at his word, mistakenly as it turned out. The ‘tractée’ (self-drive) system didn’t work properly and there were too many plastic bits underneath that just couldn’t take the punishment meted out by my garden. But this time it was ‘third-time-lucky’.

I came across a mower on Le Bon Coin not that far away to the west of Brive and was pleasantly surprised when I went to see it. It had a 50cm cut, a Briggs and Stratton engine with auto-start and a fully working ‘tractée’ system. And the best part was that the (French) seller only wanted 80€ for it, so I ended up taking it off his hands straight away. Here are some shots I took of it after I’d finished mowing my grass earlier this evening.

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The ‘auto-start’ system uses a recoil spring that winds itself up when you release the throttle to stop the engine. When you next open the throttle, the spring automatically engages and the engine bursts into life without any effort on your part. It doesn’t always work and then you have to use the normal pull-cord starter, but it works pretty well and I’m very satisfied with it, especially at the price I paid. Another advantage is that it doesn’t have a grass bag but has a ‘mulching’ system instead. I think that that just means that it smashes the cut grass up into much smaller particles than usual, but whatever it is, my grass looks better afterwards than either of my other two mowers succeeded in doing.

Regular readers of My Trike will know that I’m working on a tight budget for all of the changes and improvements that I’m making in my house and garden and am therefore always on the look-out for a bargain. It’s an ill wind, but it’s a fact unfortunately that there are quite a few British ex-pats who are having to sell up in France for whatever reason and move back to the UK. They frequently have to dispose of stuff for quite low prices and I was fortunate to buy my bedroom furniture from one such. It was on the way back from the Gironde with the wardrobe on my old Astra’s roof, a chest of drawers in the back and another in my trailer behind, when the alternator belt snapped and the whole shebang had to be recovered to a garage on the back of a large vehicle transporter.

I recently came across another ad for some lounge furniture that I dropped in to see on my way back from Val’s after picking up my new car at the end of May. As soon as I saw it I said that I’d buy it and handed over the… wait for it… princely sum of 50€. I couldn’t pick it up until last weekend and fortunately my good friend Victor was able to take me across in Madeleine’s new Yeti towing his enormous 4-wheel trailer, which swallowed the whole lot in one go. Here’s a pic that I took of it all set out in my lounge.

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I love it. It’s in fabulous condition and means that I now have comfortable seating for 6 people. And it also came with a complete set of spare loose-covers. I’m sorry for Jane who had to sell it at such a low price just to clear it out of her house, that has now been sold, but if I hadn’t bought it, I’m sure that someone else would have 😉

Next post, catching up on my week away with Val in the Languedoc at the end of May, with photographs of some great places that we visited.

June 11, 2014

Go Wim!

As I type this, my friend Wim is on the road to Strasbourg in his battered Ford Ka. If I know him, I bet he was off well before 6.00 am, so he’ll have been travelling now for something like five hours. The reason for his journey is his next adventure.

Over the winter, Wim built a boat about 5 metres in length, a rowing boat to be precise and to his own design. A few weeks ago he successfully tested it on local lakes and rivers and when Victor and I met up with him and Sophie for drinks on Monday evening, he’d already got it fitted out with most of the stuff he thought he’d need to row the length of the river Rhine, from Strasbourg to Rotterdam. He thought he wouldn’t need much, his much loved folding bike, an inflated air mattress in the bottom of the boat to sleep on and a cover to keep the rain off should it be needed, plus a few other bits and pieces and some spare clothes that he had put by ready to put in this morning. We spent an amusing couple of hours a few days ago sorting out the lights on one of his old trailers, which he’d modified by lengthening the towing arm to take his boat and which were flashing all over the place and at the wrong time, and although Wim said that he didn’t trust my test meter, we managed to sort them out in the end 🙂

I know he’ll be successful but I wished him good luck in any case in an email last night at around 10.00 pm when I’m sure he’d already have been tucked up in bed. He’s due to arrive in Rotterdam on about 1st August after which he’ll be spending some time there with friends and family. So ‘Go Wim!’, but it’ll be good to know that you’re back safe again here in the Dordogne when you’re done.

June 7, 2014

Another catch-up

I’ve not been able to post for ages, mainly because since returning from Val’s, I haven’t had either phone or internet in my house. I’ll explain why in a moment, but I’ve just sat down in front of my computer having been out cutting my grass for the past hour or so. The reason I’ve come in is because at the time of typing this (around 4.30 pm) the temperature in the shade under my ’tilleuil’ is 28 degrees Celsius and in the direct sunlight it is 42 degrees. The late afternoon is when things are at their hottest here, so I’ll get back to my grass cutting a bit later on when it’s a bit cooler, and in the meantime I’ll make a start on this post.

First, the phone and internet situation. These I regard as essential services nowadays and in my opinion, no provider worth their salt should have any problem dealing with issues of any kind to do with the initial supply of the services or taking them over from a previous provider. But this is France and as I have come to find with almost all of the services, nationalised companies still predominate. As a result, there is very little competition and little incentive for them to do things efficiently and well, let alone ‘go the extra mile’ when inevitably, as it seems, there are problems. So things here take 3-times as long to happen compared to the UK and you only succeed in getting things done at all in a reasonable time-scale by investing an inordinately high level of personal involvement in the process.

I originally signed up for telephone and internet with SFR when I came to France two years ago but unfortunately the ‘boxes’ they use have proven to be increasingly unreliable. They have always been quick to offer me a new replacement but I’ve better things to do with my time than keep driving off to Perigueux or Sarlat to pick them up just because every time a small rodent within 5 kms of my house has broken wind and has knocked the SFR Neufbox out again. So about three weeks ago I cancelled my SFR contract and signed up with Orange, part of the nationalised telephone company, France Telecom. I thought that moving to an organisation with such experience would ensure a quick, smooth change-over but as usual, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I expected to have a few days without any service at all and warned my friends and family that I’d probably be incommunicado for a while. I didn’t mind, because it coincided with my going down to Val’s to pick up my new car and I’d decided to stay over for a week or so during which time I’d be able to log on using her internet connection. So I was delighted while I was there that I received several SMS’s from Orange telling me that my line was in place and that I could now connect up my new Live Box, and I looked forward to doing so when I returned home. Val and I had a great week visiting some lovely places, which I’ll come onto in another post, after which Val left for a short visit to the UK and I returned home eagerly anticipating launching my new telephone and internet service. I might as well not have bothered.

The first thing I found was that the Live Box stubbornly refused to connect and as the old SFR box that I still had was defunct, I couldn’t even find out if that would either. So I had to fume a bit over the week-end before going off to Perigueux to confront both providers. I started with the SFR shop where I explained to the assistant that I was an old SFR client. He checked on their system and showed me that far from it, as I was still connected to their service and suggested that their ‘client service’ (same words in French and English) department needed to deal with it. I’ve found on several occasions that the words ‘client service’ in French are a total oxymoron and so it was on this occasion. He dialled them up, gave me the phone and walked off, so they had to live with the consequences when I began to berate the person on the line quite loudly for their appalling lack of response and poor service with several other clients in the shop. Consequently the voice at the other end said it would terminate my service immediately, at which point I hung up, left and made my way to the Orange boutique in Trelissac.

There I was approached by a young woman who had about as much of a clue as a French poodle and the intention to do as little as possible to actually resolve any problems that might exist. She had no idea why I had received SMS’s from Orange telling me to connect my Live Box and said that I should talk to Orange ‘client service’, those dreaded words again. True to form, she dialled them and handed the phone over. I got another young lady who also couldn’t be bothered and said that I should just go away and wait for two or three days for things to sort themselves out. I was flabbergasted as the first woman had shown me a screen saying that my new Orange system was already alive and working, despite the original target date being the next day. So I decided that for the sake of another day, I’d do just that, although really I suspected that actually nothing would change in the meantime.

And I wasn’t disappointed, so off I went back to Trelissac. It was just my luck to get the same young woman who did the same as before, so this time after she’d walked off while the phone was ringing, I just placed it on the desk and walked out. I’d tried several times before to manually connect my Live Box using the user name and password provided by Orange but purely by chance, I decided to try it again, but this time using the ‘idiot’s CD’ that came with it. And lucky I did, because the installation system included diagnostics that reported that either my user name or password (or both) were not recognised. So clearly either the box itself was faulty or my account had been incorrectly set up.

So the next day it was time to go back with it to Trelissac. On this occasion I was lucky to get the same young man who’d signed me up a few weeks before and unlike the lazy young woman who I’d seen previously, he was prepared to actually do something. First he called up Orange Technical and explained the problems and then he set to to test my box. Initially, he found as I had that it wouldn’t connect with the user name and password that I’d put into it but then, as if by magic, it suddenly did. I suspect that as a result of his earlier call, Technical had indeed found a fault and rectified it while he was doing his stuff because neither of us could otherwise explain why a ‘faulty’ box would, or could, suddenly heal itself.

But to make certain, the young man then did something for which he deserves much credit – he gave me a second, more valuable, Live Box to take home with me just in case the original one stopped working again. I thanked him for his efforts and went off clutching both boxes and couldn’t wait to get home to try my original one out. Sure enough, it connected and I had internet. But what about phone? The green VOIP phone light came on and I dialled my mobile which rang! I could hardly believe it – were all my problems over at last? Well, no actually. When I dialled my new home number, I could hear the ringing tone on my mobile but my home phone system remained stubbornly silent. Was I surprised? Well, no, not really, because this is France after all. Sure, when I logged into my Live Box and clicked ‘test phone’, it rang, but the second box that I’d been loaned behaved in the same way, so I knew things were hopeless for the time being.

I somehow knew all along that it would be too much to hope after everything that I’d already been put through that the system would work properly without a little bit more agony and so yesterday, a full five days after all this stuff had started, I called up Orange ‘client service’ myself. Except this time I was able to use my own home phone. After an hour talking on it and my mobile we had got no further forward, and as I had to go to Angouleme later in the day, I told them that I had to leave them to it. I dropped into the Orange boutique and dropped the spare box off with the same young man, who couldn’t believe it as much as me, but I had to go so I just thanked him for the help he’d provided me with and went off.

I got home from Angouleme late yesterday afternoon and the first thing I did, of course, was ring my home phone from my mobile. To my complete and utter surprise, it rang. I suppose I shouldn’t really have been surprised, but I was. After all, it had only taken the best part of three weeks for this little miracle to happen down here in sunny south-west France. I love the French to bits but I’m afraid that when it comes to technology, they do seem to get a bit flummoxed. I have to admit that I’m beginning to wonder whether flying in an Airbus really is such a good idea… 😐

Oh yes, just one last bit of news. On Monday, as my grass is now so long, it not having been cut for several weeks, I thought that it would be a good idea to go around digging out and picking up as many of the stones that have been doing so much damage to my mowers as I could. I was amazed that it took me most of the day and that I ended up collecting five barrow-loads of the damn things which I’ve now piled up in a corner of my back garden to be used in the future as hard-core. So I thought that mowing my lawn would be transformed into a new, possibly almost pleasurable, experience. But sadly, it was not to be. After typing the first few paragraphs of this post, I returned to my mowing later in the afternoon, which went well until I mowed over a lump of old metal that I think is the metal ‘tyre’ of an old-fashioned tractor, that is half-submerged under the ’tilleuil’ in my front garden. I’ve mowed over it many times in the past but this time the blade of the mower caught it and stopped instantly with a loud bang. When I pulled the starter rope, the engine wouldn’t budge and when I looked underneath, expecting to see a bent blade, in fact I found that the shaft carrying the blade was even more bent than that of the new mower that I bought when I first came here, that suffered the same fate. So once again, I am now left with no mower. I’ll have to take the two damaged ones that I have to the ‘décheterie’ to dispose of them as it would be a waste of time trying to sell them on Le Bon Coin as some locals try to do. And then I’ll have to find another – my third. The last one, which I talked about on My Trike when I acquired it, has only lasted a few months. I just hope that the next one lasts a little bit longer 🙁