My Blog and Shop

Friday, November 27, 2009

Annual Insurance Renewal

It's the time of year when the house insurance is due for renewal.
A couple of weeks ago the renewal notice dropped onto the mat, and when I opened it, I almost fainted.  OK - that's a little dramatic, but the premium had increased OVER £200 on the previous year!

Shall I tell you who it is?  Mm.... I'll think about it.

Anyway, this got me thinking.  Why?
There has been one claim this year. Maybe that was it - although it seemed a bit steep.

I then remembered the 'trick' I learned, through car insurance renewals. If you re-apply online, as a brand new customer, you'll be offered the 'new customer' price.  Apparently, they're more important than existing customers!

The quote I was given online was £150 cheaper than my renewal.  Scandalous.  Using my loyal business to fund new customers.

Why should I bother to be loyal to them, when they can't show the same loyalty back?

Not to be out-done, I also tried the various comparison websites. 
Then, and this is the magical bit.  I phoned the insurance company.  The conversation went something like this:

"Thank you for calling ....  If your call is regarding your current policy or renewal, please press 1"

I pressed 1.

"Good evening, are you calling about your renewal?"

"Yes, I'd like to discuss the premium"

"One moment sir, I'll put you through to a special team we've set up to handle the hundreds of enquiries we get about renewal premiums.!!!"
OK - not the exact words, but they may as well have been.  There is a department dedicated to deal with the calls from upset, existing, customers regarding their premiums.

No more than 5 minutes later and my renewal was £215 less.  Under £400.

Why oh why Mr and Mrs Insurance Company do you put us through it?

Covered for another year, for less than before!!

The insurance company involved don't advertise via comparison websites.... helps to keep their prices down, apparently!

Who are they?  They have a red telephone, and little red mouse; on wheels!!

Friday, November 20, 2009

LinkedIn - What's The Fuss?

I decided that it's time for another review, and today it's all about LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is a business-orientated social networking site, that was launched in May 2003, and today has over 50 million registered (11 million of which are in Europe).

The purpose of the site is to allow registered users to maintain a list of contact details of people they know and trust in business. The people in the list are called Connections. Users can invite anyone (whether a site user or not) to become a connection.

Once you have established some connections, you can use them in various ways.  A common use is to request recommendations.  A personal recommendation speaks volumes to potential business colleagues.  Potential employers or customers can't argue with it.  It's of mutual benefit, and your network can soon grow.

For example, I have 226 direct connections, which link me to over 1.75million people.  In other words, through people I know, there is a connection already established to an enormous number of contacts.  I can search the database to find potential customers.

There are applications available too, which allow you to add value to your presence on the site.  Things like "Reading List by Amazon" where you can let people know what you're reading.  You can run polls, upload Google presentations, and most recently, it is now possible to tweet updates too.

For the most part, LinkedIn is free to use.  However, for big business user, to advertise jobs, and make extensive use of the messaging facilities, it is possible to upgrade.  It's not cheap though, and, unless it can be justified, is really only for major businesses.

I got my current contract through LinkedIn.  Obviously the quality of my work, and my work ethic was important, but without LinkedIn, I would never have been given the opportunity I have now.

If you've not seen it, take a look.  It costs nothing to look, and there's everything to gain.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Aunty Does It Again

Last weekend I wrote about the BBC bringing a version of its iPlayer to the Nintendo Wii.

It was released yesterday, and last night I installed the BBC iPlayer on the console.  I have to say, it's rather good.

It's extremely usable, and even though it's a wireless connection, the picture and sound quality was superb.  There was no lag, and I didn't experience any buffering problems.  This made for a flawless playback.

The interface is different to that on a PC, mainly because you need to use the Wii Remote to interact; therefore the buttons are large,  but it seems like the complete choice is there.

Obviously, on this version it's not possible to download a programme to watch at a later date; there's no storage facility on the Wii.  This is a small price to pay, and undoubtably, this will bring more viewers to the iPlayer.

For parents, there is also parental controls, so children can be prevented from watching anything they shouldn't.

Well done BBC.

National Freelancers Day

I'm a Freelancer.

The dictionary definition is:
  1. free-lance or free-lancer - a self-employed person working, or available to work, for a number of businesses, rather than be committed to one, and usually hired for a limited period.
  2. free lance or free lancer - a mercenary soldier in medieval Europe.
Now, I certainly don't believe I'm a mercenary soldier, however, I am available to work for a number of businesses, under contract to them.  My contracts are usually 3-monthly; in other words, I am either extended by the company, or my contract may not be renewed.

I work in the I.T. sphere of business, and the terminology commonly refers to us as 'contractors'.  There are many other terms; "interim", "independent worker", "consultant".

Freelancers provide a flexible, scalable workforce that is vital to supporting the fundamental competitiveness of the UK economy, allowing companies to manage risk and changing patterns of work in a fluctuating and often volatile market.

Freelancers come in a variety of guises from ‘sole trader’ to partnership to limited companies.  Most are workers who have chosen to be, ‘in business on their own account’, prepared to take the risks associated with being in business and hoping to enjoy the benefits of success.

You may have noticed the banner on the right-hand side of the page, advertising National Freelancers Day.

To support this, PCG would like to invite you to share your views on the evolving profile of Freelancers, their achievements, their personal experiences and their relationship with business leaders and permanent employees.  To take part in the survey, click the above link.

There will also be events up and down the country, I'll be attending the one in Manchester, to offer my support.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

BBC iPlayer On The Wii

Take two of the most popular entertainment 'channels' and put them together and what have you got?  A box of tricks that really does the job.

Last year, the BBC made their iPlayer available to watch via the internet channel on the Nintendo Wii.
Since its launch on the console, the iPlayer has been a roaring success, with over 900,000 downloads.

From next Wednesday, iPlayer will be available to download as a channel in its own right, on the Nintendo Wii.  With nearly six million Wii consoles throughout the country, that's a lot of extra potential downloads.

So how did they do it?  Pay attention, this is the science part:
The technical challenges were many. The technical teams had to optimise and innovate in every part of the technical chain to make iPlayer work on an embedded device. Due to the limited processing power and memory available on these types of devices, most of the effort went into optimising data requests, minimising client side processing, reducing network traffic and balancing the remaining processing power available for video decoding with interface and interaction features. (extract from BBC Internet Blog)

As a licence payer, I think it's important that the BBC makes it's programmes as accessible as possible, to allow each and everyone to watch.
The full press release can be found here.
Personally, I'm quite excited about this.  I'm easily pleased.
Will you be watching programmes on the Wii?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Remote Control #F1

The season may be over,  but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy some action.  This is one of many viral advertising campaigns, and you'll have to watch to the end to see who it's from.

It doesn't matter - this is a highly entertaining video. (Well, I thought so).

Monday, November 09, 2009

I Love Lunch! The Musical

The guys from Improv Anywhere have done it again.  Recorded inside Trump Tower, New York, this is one of their best yet.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Winter of Discontent

Yesterday I wrote about my experience of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and how I almost self-diagnosed the problem.

I make no apology for extracting the following from the the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association website. They're the professionals, so why re-write the information. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (or S.A.D.)?

SAD is a type of winter depression that affects an estimated 7% of the UK population every winter between September and April, in particular during December, January and February.

It is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter.

For many people SAD is a seriously disabling illness, preventing them from functioning normally without continuous medical treatment.

For others, it is a mild but debilitating condition causing discomfort but not severe suffering. We call this subsyndromal SAD or 'winter blues.' It is estimated that a further 17% of the UK population have this milder form of condition.

Most sufferers show signs of a weakened immune system during the winter, and are more vulnerable to infections and other illnesses.

SAD symptoms disappear in spring, either suddenly with a short period (e.g. four weeks) of hypomania or hyperactivity, or gradually, depending on the intensity of sunlight in the spring and early summer.

In sub-syndromal SAD, symptoms such as tiredness, lethargy, sleep and eating problems occur, but depression and anxiety are absent or mild.
SAD may begin at any age but the main age of onset is between 18 and 30 years.
SAD occurs throughout the northern and southern hemispheres but is extremely rare in those living within 30 degrees of the Equator, where daylight hours are long, constant and extremely bright.

Light Therapy

Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85 per cent of diagnosed cases. That is, exposure, for up to four hours per day (average 1-2 hours) to very bright light, at least ten times the intensity of ordinary domestic lighting.

Ordinary light bulbs and fittings are not strong enough. Average domestic or office lighting emits an intensity of 200-500 lux but the minimum dose necessary to treat SAD is 2500 lux, The intensity of a bright summer day can be 100,000 lux.

Light treatment should be used daily in winter (and dull periods in summer) starting in early autumn when the first symptoms appear. It consists of sitting two to three feet away from a specially designed light box, usually on a table, allowing the light to shine directly through the eyes.

The user can carry out normal activity such as reading, working, eating and knitting while stationary in front of the box. It is not necessary to stare at the light although it has been proved safe.

Treatment is usually effective within three or four days and the effect continues provided it is used every day. Tinted lenses, or any device that blocks the light to the retina of the eye, should not be worn.

Some light boxes emit higher intensity of light, up to 10,000 lux, which can cut treatment time down to half an hour a day.

Anti-Depressant Drugs

Traditional antidepressant drugs such as tricyclics are not usually helpful for SAD as they exacerbate the sleepiness and lethargy that are symptoms of the illness. The non-sedative SSRI drugs such as sertraline (Lustral), paroxetine (Seroxat) and fluoxetine (Prozac) are effective in alleviating the depressive symptoms of SAD and combine well with light therapy.

Other psychotropic drugs e.g. lithium, benzodiazepines have not proved widely useful in the treatment of SAD.

About SADA

The SAD Association is a voluntary organisation and registered charity founded in 1987 to support and advise people with SAD and inform the public and health professionals about the condition.
SADA is self-financing and receives no government funding.

SADA is the world's longest surviving support organisation for SAD. Membership subscriptions form the financial basis of the charity and help to fund the paid administrator. Enquiries are received from individuals with SAD, health professionals and organisations, employers, educational institutions, local authorities and many more. Since it was set up, SADA has dramatically raised the awareness of SAD in the UK.

SADA's aim is to ensure that SAD is recognised and accepted in every part of the UK, and that those with SAD can maintain a productive life with the support of doctors, employers, family and friends.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Winter Blues

I want to tell you a story.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I'll begin....

I have always said that I'm a summer person.  Maybe it's because I was born in July.  I like the bright sunny mornings, late evening sunsets; and, hopefully, the sunshine in-between.

Like most people, I'm not a great fan of winter.  Dark, cold, icy, wet, windy, miserable days.  Oh, sure it's not bad to look at from the warmth of home, watching the trees being blustered about and the rain lashing down against the windows.  The logfire burning in the fireplace, lights turned dow..... oh, please!!
The reality is, it's dark, cold, unpleasant, and no-one enjoys it.

A couple of years ago, around this time, I started feeling down.  I mean really down. I just wanted to curl up and be left alone.  I couldn't concentrate on anything.  Reading a book (something which I love doing) was hard work. Actually going to work was no pleasure.  I also had a constant headache.

I couldn't put it down to anything in particular.  I knew it was happening,  but didn't know why!  I did know that they were the classic symptoms of depression, but I didn't want to take any medication.  This was a sudden onset, and I wanted to see what happened.

I decided to visit the doctor, who was happy enough to sign me off work for 2 weeks; for stress.
I told friends and family I was working from home.  They know me as a happy, cheerful kinda guy, and this would have worried them.

During those two weeks, I had an epiphany.  I was going to give up my job and "go it alone".  I spent the days researching business, speaking to agencies, planning my new start.

With my two weeks almost over, and still feeling depressed, I went back to the doctor, who had no hesitation in prescribing me another fortnight.  That took me to the end of January.  By the end of the month, I had created my business, written my letter of resignation and was all set to go.

Still, I had no idea what was wrong.  Sub-consciously I started to feel brighter, maybe because I had made such a life changing decision.

At the end of February, I left the company I had spent 13 years working for and 3 days later I started life as an independent freelancer.

You'll notice that it's almost springtime.  The mornings were brighter, and so was my mood.

Following those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, we'll now jump forward until the end of 2008.
The beginning of December, in fact.

Once again, my mood deteriorated.  I was cold, wanted to be alone, and at times just wanted to cry.  My headaches had returned.  Now I was stumped.  I recognised this was a repeat of the last year, and I realised that it couldn't be because of my work.  I'm my own boss now, something that I love.

What the hell was it?

I remembered hearing about Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) and did some research into what it is, and how to deal with it.

Another trip to the doctor later (and this time not wanting time off work, or medication) he agreed that it sounded very much like it.  He suggested the use of a light box; to help boost the hormones that keep me 'up'.

The lamps I had seen were big and unwieldy. I wanted something small and unobtrusive.  The lamp I use is shown here, and it's portable enough to fit into a small bag.  It has been a life-changer.

I started to use it again, last week, to combat the dark mornings since the clocks changed.  I can honestly say that I have no feelings of depression.  I'm not curling up, I don't feel chilly and I'm not ready to burst into tears.  No headaches either.

I still don't like winter. But at least I can now get through it with a smile on my face.

Next time, I'll write about S.A.D. in more detail.


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