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PersonalGetting a mortgage was fun and games for the coach house...

Before searching for a house, I decided to get an agreement in principle for a home costing 140,000 GBP with a 25% deposit. My rationale was that this would be the upper price limit of a home for me and I could use it to show the seller that I was serious. With my savings and credit history, I sailed through the application. However, upon finding the coach house, I needed to revise my application as the value of the property was higher...

The problem arose when I discovered it would actually be quite hard to get a mortgage for the coach house. The lender I chose initially (The One Account) declined my revision as they did not want to issue a mortgage this type of property. The reason being that I own the land (freehold), but two of the three garages are leased out to other people living on the site for a "peppercorn" per year. I still don't know the value of the peppercorn (it could actually, legally, be a peppercorn for all I know, but usually it'll be a fair amount to go towards the building insurance). For whatever reason, this was a situation that the lender was not comfortable with.

I made several more phone calls, but most lenders I spoke with said they would not be able to lend for such a property. I decided to withdraw my offer for the coach house as it seemed the only lenders that would lend against the coach house didn't have favourable rates. No later than 30 minutes after doing so, I received a call from the development manager saying he would put me in touch with the mortgage broker that usually deals with properties on the site to see if something could be arranged. An hour later I received a phone call from the broker and was informed that my wording is what was causing me issues. I was telling lenders that it was a "freehold apartment over garages", something that they apparently don't like to hear. It's hard to get a mortgage on a freehold apartment. Instead, he agreed to submit my application for me to Santander (he gets his commission that way) and called it a "Coach House". My application went through successfully and now I'm waiting for the paperwork.

Initially, the broker suggested I ask for the 5% discount to be discounted from the price of the property, however, by getting it as a "gifted deposit", I was able to get my Loan To Value (LTV) ratio down to 70%. This means that for the 3 year tracker mortgage that I've applied for, I'll pay 2.17% over Bank of England rates. Had I gone for the discount and a 75% LTV, I'd be paying 2.69% over Bank of England rates! Something to take into consideration if anyone reading this is in a similar position.

I'm now waiting for the paperwork to come through...

Next step: Finding a solicitor!
Coach House
PersonalAfter 2.5 years of saving every penny, I've built up enough of a deposit to comfortably buy a house. After months of casual searching for properties (well before I committed to looking seriously), I realised that I'd need to look at about 150,000 GBP for my first home. Anything below this was either in a bad area, needed a lot of work doing or was mid-terrace - none of these appealed.

The area I decided upon was anywhere along the A1 north of Stevenage. As my job is based in Stevenage, this provides me with the best access to work (either by road or train). I looked around Sandy and found that most affordable houses were backed on to the A1, which was very noisy indeed. Other houses were in undesirable areas (such as right next to convenience stores).

In a three hour gap between viewings in Sandy, I decided to head to Biggleswade and enter a random estate agent. At the time, I hadn't considered "New Build" homes as friends had warned me of horror stories involving such houses (mostly concerning shoddy workmanship, but also smaller rooms than older houses). However, the estate agent informed me of a new development nearby that had a "Coach House" for sale. He gave me the directions to the site and off I went.

Upon arriving, I learned that the last plot had been sold, but a plot reserved for "affordable housing" would probably be converted into another of these plots. It sounded great, until they told me that construction wouldn't be complete until Spring 2011! Not only this, but they couldn't guarantee that the plot would be used for a coach house. I still put down a reservation as I was quite taken by the property design.

The next day I started searching specifically for new build properties and found that just 5 minutes down the road was another development site with the same style of property... only this one was still available and actually built! The drawback is that this one doesn't have a garden, however it's still a fully detached Flat Over Garage (FOG). The completion date is scheduled for December 2010 and the price is the same. Better still, the developer has agreed to give me 5% of the value of the home to add to my deposit so that I can get a Loan To Value (LTV) rate of 70%, giving me access to much more favourable interest rates.

So, without further ado, here are some videos of my chosen house!

Walking Down the Street


And here are some photos:
Dining Room 1
Dining Room 2
Brochure Front Rendering

Finally, the house plan.

Next step: Getting a mortgage!
Great Customer Support from Apple
PersonalYesterday, my MacBook Air's left hinge sheared off. This was not a happy event. It turns out that this has been happening for a while to many people. While it's disappointing that there is an apparent design flaw relating to the hinges, it's encouraging that Apple has acknowledged the problem and offers free repairs (subject to an Apple "Genius'" inspection) even if the laptop is out of warranty!

I took mine in today, which is 4 months out of warranty. After a quick check with a manager, the Genius informed me that the repair would be carried out free of charge. The entire lid needs to be changed (aluminium casing, screen, hinges, backlight, clutch - the lot!) I only hope that there is a new hinge design or I'll be back in another 16 months with the same problem (the same thing began to happen on my previous MacBook air). It's a bit annoying that Apple wouldn't do anything until it finally broke - I had been in before complaining that the lid was gradually getting slacker with a huge amount of backlash, but I had been told to come back if it got worse.

Anyway, thanks Apple for keeping customers happy!
Award-winning Work
WorkI was quite happy today to find out that the project that I'm working on with IBM (M-PESA) has won the GSMA "Best Mobile Money Service" award for its third consecutive year. What makes it extra special for me this year is that out of the two new features that earned it this prestigious award, one of them was developed by me (bulk payments)! This new feature was used to pay the Safaricom shareholders their dividends through the M-PESA service.

More details here.
SlXSLChat (Whisper)
SoftwareI've been working on a new project! A Second Life chat client called SlXSLChat. If you use Second Life, do you ever get fed up of having to log in to the really heavy-weight and resource intensive client just to be able to talk with friends? Well, I do, so I wrote my own. More details Here.
WorkAfter quite a long journey with my employer, I'm now officially an IBM employee! I was transferred under the TUPE regulations, which state that if a client changes a contract so that a service transitions to a new provider then the new provider must take on the staff from the original provider. Simply put, Vodafone decided to change suppliers from Sagentia (my ex-employer) to IBM (my new employer)... and all the staff on the project moved over to IBM! For now we're all still working on the same project (M-PESA) - it's very nice moving to a new company and not being surrounded by complete strangers and having to start on an entirely new project right away.

It's quite a change going from a company with about 150 people (30 in my office) to a company with about 400,000 employees globally! Also, I'm in a company that supports open source and UNIX systems more than Microsoft systems, which is a refreshing change.

Is there anyone else from IBM that reads this? If so, look me up on BluePages! ;)
Weight Loss
PersonalToday is a pretty special day for me. After a lifetime of being overweight and unhealthy, I've finally reached my target weight of 75kg - actually, I overshot a bit down to 74.3kg (11st10lbs or 164lbs). When I first started dieting and being more active 18 months ago, I weighed in at 114.5kg (18st or 252lbs) meaning that I've lost a whopping 40.2kg (6st5lbs or 89lbs). This puts my BMI right in the middle of the "normal" band (21.7, where normal is defined as 18.5..24.9). Basically, I did it in 6 month stints of dieting where I'd eat no more than 1000kcal a day. I know that many will consider this unhealthy, but I never felt lethargic or malnourished. My meals would consist of the following:

Breakfast: Banana (90kcal)
Lunch: Ginsters Chicken and Mushroom Slice (439kcal)
Snack: Apple (72kcal)
Dinner: Heinz Chilli and Tomato Soup (146kcal)
Snack: Tomatoes/Cucumber/Oatibix cereal/Celery/Beetroot/Grapes to top-up to 1000kcal
(Yes, I know those caloric values off by heart!)

It's a fairly boring (yes, no alcohol, but plenty of water) and repetitive diet, but it works! Dieting alone isn't enough to be healthy, though. So I gave up driving to get my lunch every day at work, instead I now walk 2 miles every day to the local BP garage (one of the guys there thinks I'm a bit strange always buying the same Ginsters slice every day). I also walk 6-14 miles every weekend. All of my walking is done at ~4mph. Thanks to my iPhone and TrailGuru, I've been able to track my walks. There have been some days where I've been unable to complete my exercises due to being out on business, but those have generally been few and far between! Also, believe it or not, playing guitar burns a fair few calories, so I've tried to play for at least 30 minutes a day (though often quite a bit more).

After the first 6 months, I pretty much stopped dieting for 8 months after losing 20kg (3st2lbs or 44lbs). Then in April of this year I started again and managed to lose the same amount of weight in 4 months.

I expect to carry on with this diet until September, when I head out to Las Vegas for my annual vacation, where I plan on "relaxing" the diet quite a bit ;). Hopefully, with a bit of self control, I'll be able to maintain around 70-75kg.

Anyway, as they say... "A picture is worth a thousand words" so here is a collage of before/after shots. Hopefully you'll be able to tell which ones are which!

A very helpful tool that I discovered during my second dieting stint has been Calorie Count. This free (usually you find people trying to make quick money off of dieting schemes!) website allows you to keep track of your caloric intake and expenditure. The great thing about calorie counting is that you get to choose what you eat. You could trade a few low calorie foodstuffs for some more rich treats, just so long as you don't go over your daily limit.

One thing that I found quite important was to treat myself once a week (but without going over my calorie limit). On Sundays, I normally have 3 slices of eggy bread (French toast) with a scrambled egg and a pint of Jelly (Jello) for dinner. This alone is about 600kcal, which means eating lightly throughout the rest of the day. In addition to this, I found it bad going to bed hungry (it'd keep me from falling asleep, so I'd usually save about 100kcal until 30 minutes before bed time. People often say that eating after 6pm is a bad thing to do, but I disagree. It means you're not hungry through the night (so are likely to get a decent night's sleep) and it keeps your digestive system going, thus keeps your metabolism working. I'm not suggesting a three course meal right before bed, that'd probably keep you awake from having to digest the meal and from all of the energy being consumed... but just something to keep you from feeling hungry.

Of course, don't take anything I say as a proper "diet plan". I'm not a qualified dietician at all and I make no guarantees that what I've been doing is at all safe.
New Guitar

It's been a while since I updated this site, but I figured I'd post about a new guitar that I have. It's an Ibanez Talman (Electro-Acoustic). This by no means replaces my Gibson Les Paul, but it's nice just being able to reach for a guitar and play without having to amp-up!

It provides a very nice blues sound and works well as a slide guitar (since the action is pretty high compared to my gibson). There isn't much treble when it's not amped, however when it's plugged in it sounds great!

I'm really amazed at the build quality, for just 169.99 GBP it features a mahogany body, an ash top and a rosewood finger board and bridge. The build quality feels better than my Gibson and a quick look in the sound hole shows extremely good craftsmanship both inside and out.

My only complaint is that it's a little hard to play with the fairly high action, but I'm sure I'll get used to it!

Full specs can be seen here.
New Guitar
PersonalWith it being my birthday today, I decided to spoil myself and get a new Guitar. I got the Gibson Robot Guitar in Manhattan Midnight blue. For those who don't know, this guitar tunes itself. No, I don't suck at tuning and can tune by ear to some degree... I would just rather play something than spend 5-10 minutes tuning (tuning with a tremolo takes a long time). As with my last guitar, it arrived broken. This time, rather than a snapped neck, one of the "Powerhead" machine heads didn't work (I could tune it manually, but it wouldn't turn automatically). I managed to prove it was receiving power by shorting two of the guitar strings together - when this is done, a white LED flashes to warn you that there is a short. I then tried swapping two Powerheads over, and even when swapped to a new place on the headstock, it didn't turn. The only option left was to open the defective Powerhead. Upon inspecting the innards, it was obvious immediately what the problem was - there was barely any solder on the motor contacts AND the contacts that make contact with the PCB on the headstock were too recessed to do so properly. After 5 minutes with a soldering iron and a flat-bladed screwdriver (to push the contact further out) I'd fixed both problems. When I reassembled everything, it worked perfectly!

I'm not that impressed with the Powerhead design; the contacts aren't springloaded, which could lead to problems down the line if there isn't enough pressure between them and the PCB on the headstock. I'm also not too impressed with Gibson as when I opened the guitar case, I noticed there was no mains adaptor for the charger. I assumed this was a packing mistake and called up the shop and told them about the missing mains adaptor and the broken Powerhead. However, upon doing some research, I found that everyone in Europe was missing the mains adaptor. Gibson, apparently, decided not to include one in Europe as, according to them, we all use different voltages, which just isn't true (we all use 230v). To make things worse, the charging unit had no specifications on it as to the input voltage, current or polarity. Thankfully, someone from America was nice enough to post the details displayed on his mains adaptor on a forum and I was able to find an old mains adaptor that worked perfectly.

Anyway, problems aside, it's a really nice guitar. It sounds really crunchy and full. The sustain goes on forever compared to my Ibanez and the sound feels much tighter and cleaner.

So without further ado, here is a photo of it:

Apple's Shady Selling Practices [Resolved]
MiscAbout 3 months ago, a couple of days after the launch of the 2008 MacBook Pros, I went into an Apple store and decided to take the plunge and get a shiny new MacBook. Just before I handed my credit card over to the sales person, I was informed that as I was buying a MacBook, I was entitled to a heavily discounted iPod. With Christmas just around the corner, I jumped at the offer as it'd make a cheap Christmas present. The catch? The discount had to be claimed as a rebate, which means paying the full price up front and then claiming the money back via post.

Before I even unpacked my MacBook, I went online and filled out and printed the rebate form, stapled my receipt and barcode label to the form, put it in an envelope and stuck the envelope in the post. One thing I noticed was that the offer was called the "Back to School" offer. I thought to myself "Is this offer for students only?". To put my mind to rest, I returned to the Apple store and asked for clarification from a sales person. They assured me that I was still eligible despite not being in education.

Christmas came and went, my mother was very grateful for her gift of an 8GB iPod Touch. Another month passed, and I suddenly recalled the rebate and the lack of communication regarding it for 3 months. The very next day, I received an email from Apple's promotions department stating that the offer was intended for students only and that I'd need to provide some form of identification proving that I was in full time education. Rather than getting out my old student ID and photoshopping the dates, I decided to be honest and explain exactly what had happened. The promotions department representative told me that I had to take this up with the manager of the store where the device was purchased from.

During a lunch break, I headed into Cambridge and stated my case. The staff, to their credit, were understanding, but said that the Apple store and the promotions department are separate companies with different tax codes and couldn't authorise the rebate. They did, however, offer me a refund. This was not the option I was looking for as it would mean taking my mother's gift back. I was told to contact the promotions department once again to explain that the device had been mis-sold and to see whether that would change anything.

After emailing the promotions department for one last time, I was told to contact customer service - there was no information about whether my case had been closed or whether it would be processed.

Today, I phoned customer services and was greeted by an extremely unhelpful person who explained, once again, that the Apple store, the online store and the promotions department are all actually separate companies and that had I bought the device from the online store, it would be within his remit to make right the situation, but as I had bought from a retail store, there was nothing he could do. He explained that the onus was on the store manager to remedy the complaint.

So, in summary:

1) Apple mis-sold me the iPod device. If I was a student, would I not have claimed a discount on the MacBook itself too? I made no false pretences about being in education.
2) Apple lied to me when I enquired about the offer upon returning to the store.
3) Apple's customer service is terrible. Everyone passes the buck and hides behind the excuse of each department being a different company. This really isn't the way to keep customers happy.
4) The Apple representative offering phone support claimed that as the device was 3 months old, it was outside of its return period. So by taking 3 months to query my rebate, Apple had effectively stripped me of my statutory rights. Apple's only saving grace is that they did offer me a refund, despite what I was told over the phone.

I believe I shall go back to the Apple store with my mother, iPod in hand, and ask the store manager to explain to her why he's taking her Christmas present back. If Apple is cold hearted enough to go through with the refund, I'll then purchase a brand new iPod (for the same price) from the same store to prove that money was never the issue and that it's the principle of the matter that counts.

I've been a faithful Apple customer for a good few years and have given them much business, but at the end of the day, it seems that the customer comes second.

* Update 02/02/2009 *
It pays to complain. The Apple promo status website now says:

"Thank you. Your record has been located. Details below:-

Your claim has been approved on 30.01.09 and is scheduled for immediate payment.

Payment will be issued in the amount of 95 GBP by cheque."

I'll take this as a quiet admission of fault. Thank you Apple for keeping your customers happy.

* Update 07/02/2009 *
I have, in my hands, a nice cheque from Apple.

PersonalThis is something I probably should have posted up here a while ago... I decided to buy a guitar! I kinda got fed up with having programming as both a hobby and a profession (well, not fed up as such... but you know, variety is nice), so I figured learning the guitar would be a good distraction, and I wasn't wrong.

I bought an Ibanez RG370DX. It cost me 270GBP ($400), which is as much as my new server cost! It's pretty nice to play, though the locking tremolo makes it a pain to change tuning. I've had the guitar for about a month now - I'm still pretty bad at playing it, though not nearly as bad as when I first started (I couldn't even hit a chord without taking about 30 seconds to position my fingers).

There's a great sense of achievement when you manage to play a song that you know. I can play "Doesn't Remind Me - Audioslave" and "Seven Nation Army - The White Stripes" (both badly ;)) at the moment along with various other chords and scales.

To make sure I don't annoy people with my playing, I got a Behringer UCG102 USB Guitar Link. It lets me plug my guitar straight into my MacBook Air and I can play away and record with any piece of audio software. I find that Garageband is by far the best - it lets me add effects, choose from different amplifiers and add other computer-generated instruments, all without having to rerecord the track!

If anyone else out there wants to learn an instrument but is too worried about being bad at it, seriously... just do it. Yes, you'll suck when you start out, but so does everyone! Practise makes perfect. It's amazing how muscle memory works, I can go to bed not being able to play something without thinking about where my hand is. The next morning, it instinctively comes to me. The more you do the same thing over and over, the easier it becomes.

Playing an instrument is great fun if you don't take it too seriously. The worst thing you can do is get frustrated at yourself for not being able to play something immediately (I know this from playing the recorder and the violin). Just relax and keep at it, you'll eventually get it.
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