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Friday Philosophy – Visiting the Changi Murals by Sue’s Uncle Stan April 29, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Private Life.
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2 comments

No tech or management this week – this Friday Philosophy is about something in my home life.

First Mural,. Image from www.rafchangi.com

First Mural,. Image from http://www.rafchangi.com

This week we are in Singapore, our first ever visit. The main reason that we have come here is to look at some pictures painted by Sue’s Uncle Stan. They are also called the Changi Murals. Stanley Warren painted these murals when he was gravely ill in Changi during World War 2. He was a POW, captured with the taking of Singapore by the Japanese. Conditions were extremely poor in the POW camps, and across Singapore as a whole. During the occupation thousands died from disease and malnutrition.

Stanley had been a graphic artist before the war and he did some painting whilst he was in the camp of what he saw. He was a deeply religious man and when people knew he could draw his fellow POWs asked him to draw murals on the walls of a chapel they’d built at Bukit Batok. Not long after, he was so ill with amoebic dysentery that he was moved to the Roberts Barracks hospital in Changi, block 151. I don’t think he was expected to live. Whilst he was there, he heard a choir singing in the local chapel for the hospital and his talking to the padre after that led to a request for him to paint some murals on the walls there.

Stanley had to paint the first mural bit-by-bit, he was too unwell to work for more than a few minutes at the start. They also had to use material stolen or obtained as they could. In the first mural there are some areas of blue – that came from a few cubes of billiard cue chalk. He had so little that it ran out after the second mural. The first mural was completed just in time for Christmas and he was carried back up to the wards and could only hear the service from there, no one knowing if the latest bout of dysentery would kill him or not. But it didn’t. Over the next few months Stanley drew four more murals as his health waxed and waned. The amazing things it that, despite the condition he was in, under a brutal regime with very little hope for survival, his message was all about reconciliation. The figures in the murals are from all races and the messages of reconciliation are constant through the murals.

Stanley Warren

Stanley Warren

You can read more about Stanley and the Murals at the wikipedia link at the top of this blog, at the RAF Changi association page here or in an excellent book about them by Peter W Stubbs, ISBN 981-3065-84-2

Stanley survived his time as a POW in Singapore and with the end of the war he came home. Stanley is actually Sue’s great uncle – his older sister was Sue’s paternal grandmother. After the war he became an art teacher and had a family. As well as being Sue’s great uncle, He also worked in the same school as Sue’s father and she saw a lot of him, so she knew “Uncle Stan” very well. And, of course, she knew all about the murals.

The story of the murals does not stop with the war as, after the war (during the later part of which the murals were painted over with distemper, when it stopped being a chapel) the murals were re-discovered. They became quite well known and there was a search for the original artist. When Stanley was found they asked him to go back and restore them. He was not keen! He’d spent years trying to forget his time and what he had endured as a POW. But eventually he was persuaded and over 20 or so years made three trips back to restore them. He still did not talk about the war much but the Murals are part of the family history. Stanley died in 1992, having lived a pretty long and happy life given where he was during the 1940’s.

Sue has long wanted to see the Changi Murals and, with the lose of her mother 2 years back, this desire to link back to another part of the family has grown stronger. So we organised this trip out to Asia with the key part being to visit Singapore and the Changi Murals.

There is an excellent museum about the history of Singapore during WWII, especially the area of Changi and the locations which were used to hold POWs and enemy civilians, the Changi Museum. It includes the murals. Only, it does not. This is a new museum which was built a few years back and it has a reproduction of the original Block 151 chapel, with all the murals. The reproductions are very accurate we are told and there is a lot of information in the museum – but they are not the originals as drawn by Uncle Stan.

Mural in the museum

Mural in the museum

We only really realised this a couple of weeks before we were heading out to Thailand (our first stop) but we felt it was not a problem as almost every web site that mentioned the murals said you could organise to see the original murals. Only, you can’t really. Someone at some point said you could, and maybe then it was easier, but none of the current articles tells you how to request to see the originals. They don’t even give a clue who to ask. They just repeat this urban myth that you can organise to see the originals. The only exception to this is the Changi Museum web site that lists an email to send a request to – but the email address is no longer valid! (prb@starnet…).

We managed to contact the museum and Dr Francis Li tried to help us, but he could not find out the proper route to make the request at first and then hit the problem we later hit – not much response.

After hours and hours on the net, failing to find out who to ask, I contacted a couple of people who had something to do with the Murals. One of them was Peter Stubbs, who wrote the book on the Changi Murals that I mentioned earlier. Peter was wonderful, he got in touch with people he knew and they looked into it and after a couple of days he had found out the correct group to approach – MINDEF_Feedback_Unit@defence.gov.sg. You email them and you get an automated response that they will answer your question in 3 days. Or 7-14 days. It’s the latter. We waited the 3 days (if you have dealt with government bureaucracy you will know you can’t side step it unless you know HOW to side step it) but time was now running out and I sent follow up emails to MINDEF and Mr Li.

Mindef did not respond. But Mr Li did – to let us know he had also had no response from MINDEF and had gone as far as to ring up – and no one seemed to know about how to see the original murals.

So we were not going to get to see the originals, which was a real shame, but out first full day we did go up to the Changi Museum. It was a very good, little museum. The museum is free. We took the audio tours which cost a few dollars but to be honest all the information is also on the displays. There was a lot of information about the invasion by Japan and what happened and the reproductions of the Murals were impressive. They also had some duplicates of some of the press stories about the murals, from local papers as well as UK ones. There are a lot more press stories than the museum show, we know this as there is a collection of them somewhere in Sue’s Mum’s stuff that we have not found yet.

It was quite emotional for Sue of course, and something well worth us doing. It really brought home to us an inclination of what he and the other POWs had gone through, and yet Stanley did these murals of reconciliation and belief. Of course we don’t really know what it was like, nothing like that has happened to either of us – we just got a peep into that horror.

IMG_2377

The rules of the museum said “No photographs” – but we ignored this. These murals were the work of Sue’s Uncle Stan! (we noticed several other visitors were also ignoring the rule anyway). Most of the pictures are poor, no where as good as others you can find on the net (most from the originals) but they are important to us. I only include a couple in this blog.

If you wonder what the small picture of a man in a hat is, below the mural, it is one of only two we have by Uncle Stan. He painted this when on a school holiday in Spain with Sue’s dad also. We have no idea who the picture is of!

It is a great shame we did not get to see the original murals in the room in which her great uncle Stanley Warren painted them, as part of the chapel that was so important to people in such awful circumstances. After we got back from the museum we finally received a response from MINDEF. It was a simple refusal to consider granting us permission to see the murals as they only allow it for surviving Singapore POWs (there will be very few of them now) and direct family (whatever that limit is). I can’t help but feel that was a little inflexible of them, even a little heartless, and was applying a blind rule without consideration of the specifics of the situation.

When Sue is next going to Singapore, with me or not, I’ll see if I can make them relent and grant access to Sue to see the originals.

Irrespective, we got to see something of Uncle Stan’s murals, and that was worth all the effort.

Wednesday Philosophy – A Significant Day (but only to me) April 20, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, history, off-topic, Private Life, working.
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3 comments

Today is a significant day. Well, to me it is – to the rest of you it’s just a Wednesday in the latter half of April, in the mid 20-10’s. Because we count in 10s (probably due to the number of flexible pointy bits on our front limbs, but that is a much debated argument) we have “magic” numbers of 10, 100, 1000 and multiples thereof. As geeks we also have 2,4,8,16,32 etc. And as nerds (but nerds who appreciate certain literature) we have 42. But today is not significant to me for any of those magic numbers.

Today I have been classed as an adult for twice as long as I was classed a child. 2/3rds of my life ago I hit 16 (which means I hit 48 today) and I was legally responsible for my own crimes, allowed to have sex as I saw fit & get married (which suggests those 2 options were open to me at that point – but if you were a lady and met me back then, neither was likely!) And I was allowed to smoke cigarettes – though the age limit for that has since changed to 18 in the UK. And drink in a pub – so long as someone else bought the booze and I was having a meal.

I could also leave home, get a job, draw benefits or join a group that was legally allowed to shoot at people, or in turn be shot at (armed forces – and yes, I know they do a lot more than that). But, best of all, I could have ridden a moped, a lawn tractor (oh yes, yes, yes!) or flown a glider.

In reality, many of the above still needed parental consent and you truly become an adult in the UK at 18 (so I could write almost the same stuff as this in 6 years’ time too), but back then it felt like you were stepping out of shorts and into long trousers. Except for girls. They tended to step out of skirts and into shorter skirts, if memory serves. (If anyone thinks I’m being sexist, when I was 16 the girls were half a decade more mature than most of us boys and they *did* all start raising their hem lines). And I still wear short trousers when I can get away with it.

At age 16 I also chose what subjects to study for my “A” levels, the exams we do in the UK which help decide what college courses we can go for. I chose all sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) and threw in maths (not “math” mind you – though I’ve never been able to decide which contraction is more silly; we don’t do “Econ” or “Econs” ,”chem” or “Chemy”). I did the physics just so I did not have to do this waste-of-time subject called “general studies”, that no one could tell me was of any use for anything but seemed almost mandatory. No, I never did find out if “gens” ever helped anyone get a job, career, college course or anything. Anyway, it turns out it was a wise move as I was found to be useless at maths at “A” level but pretty good at physics. Who knew? All I knew was I was going to be a surgeon or a scientist. Or maybe a coroner, I quite fancied being a coroner. Well, that worked out as planned, eh? I’ve never put my hands on a living brain, never extracted a dead brain and never tried to work out how a brain works. I’ve just created a few small brain-replacement tools to allow people to use their brains for more interesting stuff.

A key thing about 16 for me was that most of the people who were not academic or decided they would rather try and earn an income rather than sit in school rooms anymore left school at that age, and that included a large swathe of the floor-knuckle-scraping thugs who had made the last couple of years at school such a deep, deep joy for me. A few of the goons stuck around as there was very little work around back then (thank you Margaret) but the worst of them went off to… oh, I don’t know what they did, but as I did not see them generally around I think a lot of them ended up in prison or in factories where they were kept out of society’s way for 8 or 10 hours a day or something happened to them to stop them being arseholes. For me, 16 was when I started to actually enjoy life more.

I’ve changed a lot since I was 16 and of course the world around me has too. The career I’ve ended up having is nothing like I expected I would back then – and has in fact been, to a large extent, using stuff that did not even exist back then. Computers were around, but they were not common. Relational databases were more theoretical than practical and as for the internet & smart phones, you had to look at Sci Fi to see anything like that. Maybe it is a good thing I never planned a career given how much things have changed. I wonder if we should be teaching today’s 16 year olds to not even think about a career but more think of how they can make the most of whatever comes along. ‘cos it’s all gong to change.

I wonder what the next 1/3rd will bring for me and what I’ll be up to when it has become 1/4th.

Friday Philosophy – Struggling To Learn Something? You Still Rock April 1, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Knowledge, Perceptions, Private Life, working.
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12 comments

When did you last learn something new about the tech you work with? This week? This month? This year? 2003?

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt

I fell off THAT? No wonder it hurt.

{This blog is a bit of a personal story about my own recent career; how I fell off the log and managed to climb back on it – just so you know}.

For me it was (as I type) this week. In fact, it was today! It was in an area of “my tech”, stuff that I know back to front and left to right. I’m an expert in it, I’ve been using this area of Oracle’s tech for two decades and I simply “Rock at this stuff!” I mean, I know quite a bit about it (sorry, went all “USA” on you there for a minute). But still, despite all my experience in it and even teaching others about it, I learnt something new today – And thank the heavens I did.

Why am I so happy about learning something that, really, I perhaps should know already?

About 3 years ago I stepped back from the whole Oracle arena. I’d been struggling with the tech for a while and I was really not enjoying most of the roles I took on. Which is odd, as I was able to choose between roles by this point to some extent, and had no problem saying “no” to a job I did not like the look of. I know, it’s a privileged position to be in – but I pretty much feel it was a position I put myself into by working hard, developing my skills and (which may seem counter-intuitive to some) sharing them.

So, I had finished a job I was enjoying (which had become a rarity) and I had taken on a new role… and I was hating it. And I was especially hating learning stuff. And I had no desire to, once more, pour 10% of my learnt skills down the sink (as they had been superseded) and learn 20% of new stuff. Why do I say once more? Because, as the Oracle tech has rolled on, that is what I and all of you in a band around my age has had to do every few years.

Back in the early 90’s I knew how to get Forms and Reports to work in ways many did not. I would edit the source files for these tools, I could use tricks with the triggers to do stuff and I also knew PL/SQL in a way few people at the time did. But my position as a leading expert went out the window as things progressed and everyone (everyone? OK no, but a good fraction of people) caught up – and then exceeded – my skills in those areas. And some tech was retired. But I had moved onto database skills by then and I knew stuff about segment creation and space management that few others worried about. Which Oracle then made redundant and I had to move on again…

I’m not alone in this, most of you reading this (be you 60, 50, 40 or 30) can relate to this and have your own stories of managing skills and moving on as the skill set you knew evolved.

But as I said, around 3 years ago, for me it ended. I hit a wall. I was simply too tired, cynical and… yeah, pissed off, to keep letting go of some skills and learning new ones. I’d had enough and I stopped learning. Within 12 months I was not pissed off- I was screaming inside to get out of the industry. And I did. If you have followed my blog you might be able to see the pattern if you look back over the posts. I certainly can, looking back over them.

In this industry, if you stop learning you “die”. It might take a while, especially if you are just ticking over in a role where nothing changes and no new features are used. But the nearer you are to the bleeding edge of the tech, the faster you fall off that edge. For 24 years I had either tested the next version of Oracle before it was released or been the person telling (whatever company I was at) how to use (or avoid!) the new features of the latest Oracle release. But now I had stopped learning.

I started having chats with some friends about it and most were sympathetic and understanding and, well, nice. But I still had that wall. My career was based on being near, on or beyond the leading edge. I learnt stuff. I moved with the times. And now I did not as I was… tired. Drained.

But then I had a weekend in America skiing and relaxing after a conference in Colorado and I spent a lot of time with a good friend Frits Hoogland and I told him about where I was. He was also sympathetic – but he also said (and this is not a quotation but a general indication of his intent, as I remember it):

“I can’t tell you how to care about it, it’s up to you. But if you are not driven to learn the tech you won’t learn it. I can’t give you that drive – you have to find it for yourself”.

No one else had said that. Frits had summed up the situation and given it to me straight. You don’t learn by passive osmosis, you need to want to learn. And I’d fallen off the learning log and I didn’t know how to get back on it.

I thought on that for about 12 months. I also hid a little from the Oracle sphere and being “an expert”. And you know what? He was totally right. I needed a reason to learn the latest stuff and keep developing and it had to be something I wanted – be it a career, kudos, being the best I could be, putting kids though college (just checked, I never had kids), anything! But it had to be a drive. Because learning all this stuff is hard work.

It took me 12 months to work it out, but eventually I realised what I did and did not like about my working life. I hated commuting, office politics, dealing with people who were in charge but did not know (and had no desire to know) about tech, seeing the same mistakes repeated – All that stuff we all hate. But for me I was no longer able to balance that with the nice bits. Solving problems, making things work faster, creating programs and tools to help people achieve things and… teaching people.

So I took the decision to spend a year or two doing less work (and not earning much) and being more involved in the UKOUG, technical blogging (I’ve not really done so well on that front), writing articles, doing conferences and smaller user groups.. Basically, doing more in the user community. And I have, even to the extent of being involved in a book.

It took a while but I know it worked. How? I started learning again. I don’t mind if it is stuff that maybe I should already know – if I’m learning I’m not just improving but I am being engaged by my job (whatever my “job” is).

If you are in I.T. and you are still learning stuff, I would suggest that over all, everything is fine. Even if the learning part hurts a little – it does seem to get a bit harder each year to put new stuff into that cerebral cortex- you are not stagnating.

If you are in I.T. and not learning stuff, I’d suggest you might want to think about why – and if you should be changing what you do or where you do it. We spend most of our adult lives working, if there is any way you can make that part of your life more satisfying, I really think you should try and do it. Even if, as in my case, it pays a hell of a lot less!

A Book of Friday Philosophies? February 18, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life, publications, writing.
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10 comments

It has been suggested to me by a friend (not a publisher!) that I should do a book of my “Friday Philosophy” posts. I’m not sure. I’d like to know what people think.

If you read my blog but “Friday Philosophy” has somehow passed you by (how could they, most of my posts now are Friday Philosophies!) they are usually posted at the end of the week and deal with the non-technical side of working in IT. They are my thoughts and experiences on management, development paradigms, things that seem to still be wrong after 2 generations of programmers have painfully learnt the same lessons. Some have nothing to do with IT. The occasional one is about my life. Nearly all have an element of humour in them (even if it is only when I am laughing at myself and my own stupidity).

I’ve never really meant them to be more than a bit of light relief for people to read at the end of the week, but also to make people think.

A few older posts that have stood the test of time (ie people still occasionally look at them) are:

Oracle Performance Silver Bullets
CABs – An Expensive Way to Get Nowhere
Do Good DBAs Need PL/SQL Skills?
The Small Issue of Planes, Trains and Coaches
The worst Thing About Contracting
The Worst Person In IT I Have Ever Met
The Best Person in IT I Have Ever Met

The person suggesting I make them into a book says there is simply nothing else like them out there – Books on IT are about, well, IT. Books on management are about making you a better manager and tend to be very earnest about it. My Friday Philosophies sit in a wilderness between the two, a bit of fun but thought provoking (so I am told).

The thing is, I am not sure there is a market for it. After all, if you have never heard of me (and close to 7 billion people have not) why would you buy a book by me about opinions on the IT industry? If you know me you can just search my blog for “Friday Philosophy” and read them all. As far as traffic to my blog is concerned, with a few exceptions, they are one-shot pieces. Friday Philosophies tend to get a bigger immediate hit than technical posts but within a week most of them are hardly looked at again. Several of the technical ones get a steady trickle of hits that far outweighs their initial popularity. I know that people search for specific technical terms and not “opinionated view of smart phones” and that has an impact, but even so…

In theory it should be a lot less painful than the living hell of writing (only a part!) of a technical book. I have a lot of material, I can review & tweak them, add some new ones, wrap the lot up into areas. It should only take a week… A month… Maybe 2 or 3 months.

Also, I would not be looking to make any money on this. As in, even less then the very little you get per hour’s effort for doing a traditional book. I doubt a professional publisher would be interested in it, due to the lack of an obvious audience. But maybe a self-published tomb for a few pounds/dollars?

What does anyone think? A thunderous silence will tell me what I need to know….

It does not help that I am not sure how to pluralise “Friday Philosophy”.

Friday Philosophy – Be Moral or Be Sacked? October 9, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy.
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8 comments

How far will you bend your moral stance to keep your job?

This post was prompted by a Twitter discussion over the recent VW Emissions scandal development where software engineers are being blamed. Let’s just skip over the rather trite and utterly unbelievable proposition that a couple of rogue software engineers did this “for reasons unknown” – and the fuel engineers, mechanical engineers, and direct managers did not realise “hey, our engines are more efficient than we knew was possible, never mind seen”. Plus the testers, change control, release managers, etc were all circumvented by the rogue software engineers…. It would have to be incompetence of unbelievable levels for the whole stack of management up to the top did not in some way at least know about this – and I personally am sure they condoned or even demanded the results.

What made me think was a comment by a friend that the software engineers must have at least colluded and thus are at least partially responsible – and it struck a chord in me. What constitutes collusion? and would you or I do it? I’ve been in a very similar situation…

Back in my first job I worked for one of the regions of the UK National Health Service, as a programmer. An edict came down from high. Government high. We were to make the waiting list figures look better. “We” being the NHS management initially but, as I guess they were powerless to really do much about the reality of the situation, it come down the levels until it was realised it was the data used to show how the waiting times were doing that could so easily be changed.

I was given the job of altering the Waiting List Reports in a few ways. A key one was how the date you started waiting was measured. No matter how often the hospital cancelled your appointment or sent you home not having done the procedure, the date from which you started waiting remained the same. However, if you were offered an appointment and for any reason you could not attend – ANY reason, be you ill in another way, have a responsibility you could not avoid, were only given a day’s notice – the date you were waiting was reset to the day of the refused appointment. Of course this was utterly unjust and we were told it would not really mean Mrs Smith who had been waiting 3 months would now have to wait another 3 months – “it would be handled”. But it made the figures so much better.

I refused. In the first place it was a con, in the second I doubted all the Mrs Smiths would be handled as the NHS, even back then, was in a right state.

To this day I am proud I refused.

My colleague was given the task instead – and she did it. I asked her how she could do it? We had some shared political and philosophical views. How could she do something she knew was utterly false and misleading? Her answer was simple.

“You’re lucky – you can afford to take the risk. I’ve just got married, we have a mortgage and I have …other responsibilities – I can’t afford to damage my career or get sacked. You can.”

She was right. I did not know it then but she was trying for a baby, so yeah, getting sacked would have been devastating. On the other hand, I had no dependents (no one loved me), no mortgage and I was already muttering about leaving. She had in effect been bullied into doing a task she was morally against. And she knew, if she did not do it someone else would and she would have taken the hit.

And I confess, I did not simply stand up, shout defiance and proudly walk out the room, head held high. I had a long chat with my union rep about what support I could expect if things got bad before I refused. I knew he was ready to support me.

There were repercussions. I already had a poor relationship with my manager. After I refused to do that work I had an even worse relationship with him, and now his boss disliked me quite a lot too. It was a large part of me leaving to join some no-hope database company.

So, I think there is a very large difference in colluding and being coerced.

The same argument goes up the stack too. I can imagine there were lots of people involved in the VW scandal who knew what was going on, did not like it but, “hey, it’s my job I am risking and it’s not as if I’m the one *authorising* this”.

I can’t say I’ve always held to my moral ground so strongly, I’ve done a couple of things professionally I wish now I’d also said no to. But I’ve also said no to a couple more.

{I hope the statute of limitations on mentioning governmental evils is less that 25 years…}

Return from The Temple of Apple June 22, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life, rant.
Tags: , ,
4 comments

I doubt many of you are on tenterhooks as to how I got on with my phone today {after my << rant last Friday}. But I’m going to tell you anyway.

Overall, Apple have gone some way to redeeming themselves.

I got myself down into Cambridge this morning to visit the Apple Store, at my allotted slot of 10:10 {I later witnessed someone attempting to be 15 minutes early for their slot – and they were asked to go and have a coffee and come back. The customer was unimpressed as they had lugged some huge Apple monitor in with them}.

I have to say, walking into the store was somewhat like entering some form of modern temple. The clean lines, the two parallel runs of “desks” with precisely & spaciously laid-out items to worship, lit by discrete banks of lights in the ceiling. Down the center was a clear path to allow you to move deeper into the hallowed space, with a scattering of worshipful believers moving between the icons. And, at the end, a cluster of acolytes in blue tops gathered around and before the “Apple Genius Bar” alter.

I approached the alter…err, service desk… and was very soon approached by an acolyte holding a prayer tablet (iPad mini 3) in front of them. My name was on the list, my time was now. I would be granted an audience. I was directed to a stool to one side to await my turn.

Thankfully, the wait was short and ended when Dave came over, Dave turned out to be a friendly, open and helpful chap who managed to take the edge off what was frankly a bit of an OTT ambiance if you ask me. So far my impression had been that (a) you can see why the kit is so expensive to support this sort of shop frontage and space-to-item ratio, something I had only really come across before in Bose shops & car dealerships and (b) it’s just a shop selling I.T. kit, get over yourselves. Dave (not his real name, I’m afraid I forgot his real name, but he looked like a Dave – and had a great beard) listened to my potted history of the battery woes and upgrade deaths, looked over the phone briefly and then plugged it into one of the banks of MACs. It pulled up the ID of the phone and {Huzzah!!!!} set about blatting everything on it and reloading the OS I think. It took a few minutes (I read my paper magazine – “New Scientist”) and then the phone rebooted…. and put up the Apple icon… and thought about it. I could see Dave thinking “this is taking a bit longer than normal”. Anyway, the thing finally came alive.

We chatted about what the root cause could be as he said he had not heard of anyone having multiple upgrade issues and it just locking like this. He went and asked a more senior acolyte (perhaps already in the priesthood) and his opinion was that it might be a faulty motherboard – in which case all bets were off and I’d have to basically buy a new phone for £200. Dave said I might as well not bother and put the money towards getting a nice, new iPhone 6, as they were only £500 or so. I wonder what the Apple shop staff get paid to think £500 is no big shakes.

Meanwhile, Dave had verified the phone battery was indeed covered by the recall and it would be two hours to complete the work. Was I happy to get that done today? Sure, I’m happy to drink coffee and eat a bun somewhere for 2 hours. So off I went. And came back (witnessing the taking to task of a customer arriving before their time – they did let them leave the monitor behind in the end). My phone was presented back to me, working, and I just had to sign on a tablet. Sorry about using the indelible marker pen, guys. I took a photo of the temple and made a quick test call outside the shop to ensure all was OK – and it was. And apart from the brief suggestion of buying a new iPhone 6, no financial cost had been incurred (except the park & ride in, cost of coffee & bun and a lost morning).

I was soon back home and ready to restore my backup from last week. I plugged in the phone, iTunes recognised it, ran the restore… and the phone is no different – none of my contacts, no change to icons, layout or background, nothing – but now iTunes says it does not recognise the device. Ohhhh shit. Oh, and the photo of the Apple Temple is gone (it was going to be at the start of this update). A couple of hours later and trying many things, I think I know what the issues are and maybe were:

1) The device is just a bit dodgy and sometimes/often the connection with iTunes just ends (I’ve swapped cables, I know it is not that) .
2) It would not restore the backup with “Find My iPhone” running – but due to (1) it usually did not get so far as telling me that. I wonder if updates would fail for the same reason? They were very insistent I turn off the feature before I went into the shop, but of course with a locked up phone I could only do this at the web end.

I turned off the feature on the phone, ran the restore again and this time it completed and left me with a phone that worked and looked like it did a week ago.

So I eventually got the phone restored and it works as well as it did – but hopefully with more battery life. It will be interesting to see if the reception issues are any better. I kind of doubt it. It’s now at iOS 8.3 as well. Deep Joy.

My final conundrum now is that, given that my phone contract that partially paid for the phone in the first place ended a couple of months back, do I stick with this device and hope all is now OK? Or do I spend more money replacing something that is only just over 2 years old? And do I get anything but an iPhone? After all, both my wife’s iPhones have worked OK and they are nice when working. But I’m not a member of the Apple Congregation and have no desire to join.

One thing I do know. I won’t be putting the old Samsung phone I’ve had to fall back on away just yet.

Friday Philosophy – Friday Afternoon Phone June 19, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
6 comments

{<<my earlier attempts to sort out my phone}
{Update on my trip to the Apple Store >>}

There used to be a phrase in the car industry in the UK (I don’t know about elsewhere) a “Friday Afternoon Car“. This is a car which is unusually unreliable, as it was built on Friday afternoon when the workers were tired, the weekend was coming and, heck, they might have been to the pub at lunch. It is occasionally used just to describe something that is a bit crap and unreliable.

I have a Friday Afternoon Phone it would seem. I am fast becoming quite disillusioned with it. You may remember my post about my sitting on said phone to make it work again. It’s an iPhone 5, I bought it as I was finally persuaded that it would be more useful to have a smart phone than the “temporary” cheap Samsung I had bought about 2 years prior to then – as an emergency replacement for my previous web-enabled phone that committed suicide with a jar of pickled onions (it’s a long, hardly believable story). I expected the Samsung to keep me going for a month or two but it was so simple and reliable it just stayed in use for over 2 years.

Your Honour, allow me to present item A and item B

Your Honour, allow me to present evidence item A and item B

Comparison:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Phone A. . . . . . . . . . . . Phone B
Cost. . . . . . . . . . .£400 or so . . . . . . . . . £15 with a free £10 pay-as-you-go top up.
Battery . . . . . . . . New, 8-12 hours. . . . . .New, a week
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Now, 4-5 hours. . . . . . Now, a week!
Reliability . . . . . . Breaks every update . . .No issues ever
Making calls. . . . .6/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9/10
Receiving calls . . .4/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9/10
Plays Angry Birds. Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .No
Taking pictures . . 9/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0/10
Helps me up a . . . Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No
mountain
Connection to web 6/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . .Are you kidding? But I’m mostly sat at a computer anyway
Impresses friends. No. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yes, for all the wrong reasons:-)

{There must be a better way to line up text in this wordpress theme!!!}

The Web Enabled Phone that Does not Like to Connect
In some ways the iPhone has been really good. The screen (at the time I bought it) was very good, apps run nice and fast, way too much software is available for it and it can hold a lot of pictures and videos before running out of space. Its size also suits me. But phone and web reception has always been a bit poor and its ability to hold onto a wireless connection seems to be especially questionable – as soon as a few other devices are contending for a router with my iPhone, my iPhone seems to give up its hold on the connection and sulk. I’ve had this in several places in several countries. I’m the only one up? Phone connects fine. 2 others wake up and connect? I’m off the network. I’ve also often been in a busy place (conference, sports event) and everyone else seems to be on the net but my phone just pretends.

Battery Blues
And of course, there is the issue of the battery becoming very poor. It runs on a full charge for only a few hours and if it gets cold it has a tendency to act like a squirrel and hibernate. I now carry around the spare battery pack my wife got given by her work for her work phone use abroad. The good news is, having been put on to it by Neil Chandler, I am now aware my phone has been recalled for a battery replacement. What I am a little irked about is that Apple have my details and the serial number of the phone but have never contacted me directly to let me know. OK, it is not a car (it’s just like a car – a Friday Afternoon Car) so I am unlikely to die as a result of the fault, but if they know it has a fault and it did cost a good whack of cash to buy, they should be being moral and contacting me.

Upsetting Upgrades
But the thing that utterly hacks me off is how it does not handle upgrading to the next version of iOS. I had an upgrade early on in my relationship with the phone and it blew everything off the phone. Not a big issue then as I had not had it long. But it made me cautious about upgrading. About this time last year the phone was insisting it must be upgraded and things were getting flaky (I suspect software manufacturers do this on purpose – I’ve noticed my PC running Windows can start acting odd when an update is due). Before doing anything, I backed it up. Or tried to. The first attempt said it worked but it was too swift to have backed up anything, let alone back up my photos. After then it just refused to back up. But the phone utterly refused to allow me access to the photos from my PC – it should do of course but no, nothing would pries those images out of the phone. I was particularly concerned as I had lots of snaps from a friend’s wedding. Said friend eventually helped me out by pushing all my photos to an iCloud account (It’s Just A Server On The Net) in a way he could access. I then updated the phone and, yep it failed. And locked the phone and I had to factory reset and lost all the photos. It had also lied about uploading the pictures to the net (which it took hours to not do) so they had gone for good. Grrrrr.

So this time when it started getting dodgy I managed to save all my photos (Huzzah!), backed it up, ran through the update – and it failed and locked up the phone. *sigh!!!!*. Only, this time it won’t respond even after a factory reset. My iTunes is up-to-date, it could see the phone OK at the start of the update (because I was doing it via iTunes!) but now it won’t see the phone and once I try, guess what, iTunes also locks up. So the phone is useless. I can’t help wonder if the battery issue and the failure to ever upgrade smoothly are linked somehow (by eg it being rubbish).

So I pop along to the kitchen drawer with the odds n’ sods in and pull out the old Samsung & charger and plug it in. 20 minutes later, I have a working phone. Turns out I have no credit on it anymore but I can sort that out. It even gets reception in the kitchen (I have to lean out the window of the back bedroom to get the iPhone to pick up a reliable signal at home).

Oh No! I have to Contact Apple!
Now the real fun starts. I contact my local Apple shop. Only I don’t, I access a damned annoying voice system that smugly announces “I understand full sentences” and immediately knows who I am and what my device is and when it was bought (as Apple have my details including home phone) – and it was over 2 years ago and it wants me to agree to a paid support package to go further. Of course it won’t give me options to speak to a human or understand “full sentences” even when I shout “battery issue recall” and “your update killed my phone!” plus various permutations at it. It also did not understand the sentence “I want to speak to a person”.

I eventually trick it by pretending that I will buy a support package. Huzzah, a human to talk to. Said human is helpful, pleasant, a bit hard to understand (usual call center woes of background noise and she has the microphone clipped to her socks). I explain that the phone has a recall on it and I just want that sorted and a proper reset. She’s not sure I can have this without a support package {after all, her job is to sell me some support and I am breaking her script} but she says the battery might be replaced under the recall (she has all my details, she can see the iPhone serial number, she could check!). “So I can drop it off at the store?”.

I expect “yes”. I get “no”. I have to organise an appointment. A 10 minute slot. Why? I want to drop off some kit for you to repair and I’ll come back another day. I am not making an appointment to see a doctor to discuss my piles. No, I have to have an appointment. On Monday at 10:10 or “plrbsburhpcshlurp” as the mike once once slips down the sock. OK, 10:10 Monday, she’s getting tired of me saying “please repeat that”. Then she says what sounded like “and the repair may cost up to £210 if there is a hardware fault”. WHAT?!? I don’t fully understand what she says next – but she understands I am not going to pay £210 to fix a device that has a known fault and has been screwed over again by their software update, so she backs off to “they can look at the device and advise me”.

It’ll be interesting to see how it goes on Monday. At 10:10 am. If they try and charge me hundreds of pounds to reset the damned thing or tell me (after I’ve checked) that they won’t replace the dying battery, I can imagine me becoming one of those ranting, incoherent people you see on YouTube. If they want anything more than the cost of an evening in the pub to get it working, I think it will become a shiny, expensive paperweight.

Meanwhile, welcome back Reliable Samsung Phone. You still seem to make calls just fine. Still not able to play Angry Birds though.

Friday Philosophy – Flippin’ Technology June 5, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, off-topic, Perceptions, rant.
Tags: , ,
5 comments

Sometimes I think I would have been a Luddite or a member of other groups who have trashed new technology in frustration. Some days, I can just scream at it. You would think having worked in Information Technology for so long would make me more of a fan, but it actually makes me worse – as I know there is no need for there to be so much wrong with the electronic dross we all have to deal with day-to-day. And if I, someone who has used (heck, even programmed) computers for 3 decades, have trouble with these damned things, how frustrating must “normal” people find it?

Tesco Challenge - original on RevK Rant's blog

Tesco Challenge – original on RevK Rant’s blog

Take this morning’s source-for-a-rant. Self checkouts in supermarkets. I had popped into Tesco to get the weekend’s rations of baked beans, wine and cat food and there were large queues for all manned (though, I should more correctly say, mostly womanned) tills. And almost no queue for the self-service ones. We all know why almost no queue for the self-service ones, most of us hate them. But I had to get back home for a UKOUG conference call and there was very little chance the three-people-deep queues would be negotiated in time, so I manned up and went to one of the vacant screens.

Have I mentioned I’ve been using computers since before Wayne Rooney, Keira Knightley or Michael Phelps were born? So I have some affinity and experience to navigating screens of information. But, like all of theses devices, using them is painful. Given they are designed to be used by everyone including idiots, why is the “UX” so low? Why does the important information appear at different spots in the screen at different times? Why does there seem to be no button to press for a simple, key-word triggered guide (“How to weigh Veg?” Oh, look up there, press the correct icon, look down there and press another and then finally click over here to say “yes I really did ask you to weigh some bananas” – that would be nice). Why does the Waitrose one make me swipe my card to pull up my scanned items but insist I shove the card up the slot to pay? Plus all the times you have to get some human to come over and confirm you are over 18 (I need to be 18 to buy expanding foam?!?) or don’t look suicidal. I’m not being funny but the age check is just not needed, if I am using a credit card it can know I am 18 or over (you cannot you have a UK credit card under 18, partly as you are not allowed to sign up for a credit agreement below that age and if I am using someone else’s credit card, me buying a bottle of wine is the least of the potential issues). To give them their due, at least our local Tesco (unlike many other stores I have used around here) have someone on hand to constantly swipe, press, tap and harass the machines into playing correctly.

I can’t believe how badly these self service checkouts work. I can’t believe the companies have not tested them extensively with real people (I know, they claim to, but then I’ve seen “user system testing” in big banks and it is shockingly poor). How can they think such terrible systems are good for business? That people still insist on queuing for checkouts with real people rather than use them must tell the companies something! Why can’t these systems be better designed. Why are they so painful to use? It can’t be me. Maybe it is me….

Next rant. My internet & email supplier. Hi BT. BT, you are crap at running your internet & email service. I’ll only mention in passing the regular episodes of slow internet, the times mail seems to struggle to keep moving, the harassing emails to buy more allowance as I am reaching my limit…for the prior month (“HI BT, I think I might pop back in time and download 15 films last March, can I have more allowance for than as I’d used over half my limit”) – but I am going to complain over the fact that for the last 5 weeks now, each weekend you stop accepting valid connection requests from my Laptop – but allow them from my iPhone. So my account/pwd is working fine. But no, from the PC you tell me I have to validate my account. So I log on to the web site and as soon as I put in my details you tell me I have to change my password as there has been too many failed attempts at access my account? Well, if they failed, I chose a decent password maybe? Trying to force me to change it is likely to make me change it to something simpler maybe? Especially as this is the fourth time this month… but then, usually the system fails to actually process my password change and just hangs. My iPhone still keeps working with the old details and, usually by the next day, the errors have gone and I can access my mail with my old details with a real machine again too. My conclusion has been that it’s their software screwing up. Each. And. Every. Weekend.

It’s got worse, it now fouls up some workdays too. And I made an interesting discovery. When I log in to the web site to validate myself, if I put in a password of “scr3wy0uBT” – it accepts it and puts me into the Change Your Password screen exactly the same as before. No, my password is not “scr3wy0uBT” {it rejected it when I tried…}. So top security there. Whatever is happening, it’s just…..pants {UK phrase, it means “utterly rubbish”. Pants are not trousers, they are undergarments, you strange Americans.}

What is BT doing wrong to have this problem keep happening? Is this a good “UX” experience for me and all the other people who seem to have similar issues? Is it so hard to sort this out?

What was the third rant? Oh yes. Windows 8. Too many people before me have vented spleen and given pieces of their mind on Windows 8 for me to be able to add any more to the pile, but what I cannot fathom is, as soon as they got the almighty ass-kicking that they did for ballsing up the Start Button/Menu, why did they not in the next version just put it straight back as it was?. Or put out and advertise a simple “patch” to put back what millions of people were screaming they wanted back? All I can think is someone’s ego was too large to wave their hands in the air and say “Oh boy, did we make a dog’s dinner of that – let us help improve your “UX” and our reputation by fixing that straight away”.

Final rant. Games. Computer Games. I like running around shooting things. It gets rids of some of the IT-In-Daily-Life anger. But I am not very good at it and my broadband connection is slow and a bit laggy, so I am not interested in running around shooting things with friends. The same broadband issues mean I also don’t want to spend 4 hours downloading a game, I want to buy it in a floppy disc…..I mean CD…. Errr, DVD… and play it. So I went to this place called a “shop” and I bought a game on media in a box and checked the packaging. No where did it state I have to have an internet connection. I get the DVD out (hmm, there are actually three), put it in the machine and 30 mins later the software is loaded. And now it FORCES me to register with some crapola online gaming site to register my copy (like, if I had a bootleg version that would not be the first bit they strip out) and that takes an hour to download it’s own shitty software. That done, it will let me fire up the game – that immediately bombs out to download the latest patch (which I think it the crapola online site’s version) and that takes two hours as it is obviously much, much more than a patch. I suspect it is the whole damned game again. This is not a “UX” I wanted and, you can bet, next time I buy a game, crapola online gaming company is one thing I will be looking to avoid. It does not help that said game won’t fire up without logging into said game site or making me watch a minute of adverts about who wrote the game on who’s graphics card using what game engine. Thankfully a few minutes on the net explained how I could avoid all of that. But why do I have to take steps to stop these companies annoying me and, this is the bit that confuses me, what makes these companies think I’ll be impressed by being repeatedly exposed to their adds that I don’t want to see? I’ll just despise them a little bit more each time.

I just don’t get it. The number one thing any IT system needs to achieve is User Acceptance (as I have said before, if you check the link). Why do so many large companies miss this and inflict on the world a seriously sub-standard experience of IT and technology? If someone like me who has driven a screen, a keyboard and a mouse for 3 decades, understands some of the limits to IT and must have at least some brains in his skull, if I get endlessly caught out, befuddled and simply screaming-out-loud-frustrated by crap IT, how is my poor old mum (and everyone’s poor old parents) supposed to cope?

I’m going to become a Lumberjack. Chainsaws do not have screens and keyboards.

No I.T. Hassles Here

No I.T. Hassles Here

Fixing my iPhone with my Backside May 18, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Hardware, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
10 comments

{Things got worse with this phone >>}

iPhone 5 battery getting weak? Damn thing is saying “out of charge” and won’t charge? Read on…

NB a link to the battery recall page is at the end of this post and the eventual “death” of my phone and my subsequent experience of the recall with my local apple store can be found by following the above link…

Working with Oracle often involves fixing things – not because of the Oracle software (well, occasionally it is) but because of how it is used or the tech around it. Sometimes the answer is obvious, sometime you can find help on the web and sometimes you just have to sit on the issue for a while. Very, very occasionally, quite literally.

Dreaded “out of battery” icon

Last week I was in the English Lake District, a wonderful place to walk the hills & valleys and relax your mind, even as you exhaust your body. I may have been on holiday but I did need to try and keep in touch though – and it was proving difficult. No phone reception at the cottage, the internet was a bit slow and pretty random, my brother’s laptop died – and then my iPhone gave up the ghost. Up on the hills, midday, it powers off and any attempt to use it just shows the “feed me” screen. Oh well, annoying but not fatal.

However, I get back to base, plug it in…and it won’t start. I still get the “battery out of charge” image. I leave it an hour, still the same image. Reset does not help, it is an ex-iPhone, it has ceased to be.

My iPhone is version 5 model, black as opposed to the white one shown (picture stolen from “digitaltrends.com” and trimmed), not that the colour matters! I’ve started having issues with the phone’s battery not lasting so well (as, I think, has everyone with the damned thing) and especially with it’s opinion of how much charge is left being inaccurate. As soon as it gets down to 50% it very rapidly drops to under 20%, starts giving me the warnings about low battery and then hits 1%. And sometimes stays at 1% for a good hour or two, even with me taking the odd picture. And then it will shut off. If it is already down at below 20% and I do something demanding like take a picture with flash or use the torch feature, it just switches off and will only give me the “out of charge” image. But before now, it has charge up fine and, oddly enough, when I put it on to charge it immediately shows say 40-50% charge and may run for a few hours again.

So it seemed the battery was dying and had finally expired. I’m annoyed, with the unreliable internet that phone was the only verbal way to keep in touch with my wife, and for that contact I had to leave the cottage and go up the road 200 meters (thankfully, in the direction of a nice pub).

But then I got thinking about my iPhone and it’s symptoms. It’s opinion of it’s charge would drop off quickly, sudden drain had a tendency to kill it and I had noticed it lasting less well if it was cold (one night a couple of months ago it went from 75% to dead in 10, 15 mins when I was in a freezing cold car with, ironically, a dead battery). I strongly suspect the phone detects it’s level of charge by monitoring the amperage drop, or possibly the voltage drop, as the charge is used. And older rechargeable batteries tend to drop in amperage. And so do cold batteries {oddly, fully charged batteries can have a slightly higher voltage as the internal resistance is less, I understand}.

Perhaps my battery is just not kicking out enough amperage for the phone to be able to either run on it or “believe” it can run on it. The damn thing has been charging for 2 or 3 hours now and still is dead. So, let’s warm it up. Nothing too extreme, no putting it in the oven or on top of a radiator. Body temperature should do – We used to do this on scout camps with torches that were almost exhausted. So I took it out of it’s case (I have a stupid, bulky case) so that it’s metal case is uncovered and I, yep, sat on it. And drank some wine and talked balls with my brother.

15 minutes later, it fires up and recons it is 70% charged. Huzzah, it is not dead!

Since then I have kept it out it’s case, well charged and, frankly, warm. If I am out it is in my trouser pocket against my thigh. I know I need to do something more long-term but right now it’s working.

I tend to solve a lot of my IT/Oracle issues like this. I think about the system before the critical issue, was there anything already going awry, what other symptoms were there and can I think of a logical or scientific cause for such a pattern. I can’t remember any other case where chemisty has been the answer to a technology issue I’m having (though a few where physics did, like the limits on IO speed or network latency that simply cannot be exceeded), but maybe others have?

Update: if you have a similar problem with your iPhone5, there is a recall on some iPhone5’s sold between December 2012 and January 2013 – https://www.apple.com/uk/support/iphone5-battery
{thanks for letting me know that, Neil}.

Friday Philosophy – My Introduction To Programming Way Back When March 13, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in history, off-topic, Private Life.
Tags: ,
9 comments

One fortunate thing about me is my age. Or rather, how old I was in the 1980’s. I was at school in the 80’s, I did my ‘O’ Levels (taken at age 16) in 1984. One of my ‘O’ levels was in Computer Studies. This was before Windows and Excel and Word and all that office software, before the internet was in existence (TCP/IP was only standardized in 1982!) and phones were all tethered to the wall with a cable. What were we taught in Computer Studies? Programming. That and a bit about hardware, but mostly it was programming.

This beast had  about 48k of memory and hi-res 320*192 pixels

This beast had about 48k of memory and hi-res 320*192 pixels

In the first year of my two-year course we had just two computers to use between us, both RM 380Z’s I think, so we wrote out our programs by hand and worked through them logically to try and get them as good as we could before our turn came to put them into the computer and run them. This was of course painful, but our programs initially really were of the terrible simple “take in the temperature in Centigrade and convert it to Fahrenheit” scale of things, before we went all crazy with power and wrote a program that would ask you which way you wanted to do the conversion. We all had a 5-1/4 inch floppy to store our programs on but were told to take great care of it as they would not be handing out more! Needless to say, it was not long before most of us were turning up at the “computer room” (the schoolroom with the two machines and the broken lock) at lunch times and after school in order to get more time on the machines. The only problem was that in our first year of ‘O’ level we had to contend with the older kids from the year above us and they did not like us oiks turning up to use “their” computers. At least we were introduced early to a key concept of a career in IT – working outside and beyond the standard office hours.

For some of my class mates, they had other options. The early 80’s were also when home computers burst onto the scene and some friends had ZX81s, Vic 20s, Acorn Atoms, Dragons or, gasp, commodore 64s. My older brother had a ZX Spectrum, with the 48K ram pack.

My brother's spectrum, access denied to little me

My brother’s spectrum, access denied to little me

However, the Spectrum was not available to me as my miserable bastard of a brother would not let me near it. You might think this was reasonable as he was the older brother and it was his computer. But it was plugged into my portable TV and my cassette tape recorder. This was what you had to do with these early home computers as almost none came with a “monitor” and most with no storage device. Certainly no internal hard disc! When you turned off the computer, whatever program you were running immediately evaporated out of memory and you had to load it up from tape next time you turned the computer on – given that you had saved it to tape first. Games came on cassette tapes so before you could play, you had to load it. For. 10. minutes. I think one person had access to a machine that could use our precious single 5-1/4″ floppy but he was not happy as that computer was rubbish for games.

{For anyone reading this who is less than 35 years old, before downloads we had CD’s, which you know about. Before CDs we had vinyl records, which you may or may not know about as they became cool for a while again. Before CDs we also had cassette tapes, which you may not know about, which were about the same size as a credit card but about 1.5* as thick as an iPhone. You could record between 30 (C30) minutes and 2 hours (C120) of music onto them, over and over again, and they would fit in your pocket. But then the tape would either eventually stretch (especially if it was a C120) leading to very waily, odd playback, or your cassette player would “eat” the tape and you would spend 30 minutes with scissors and tweezers pulling it out of the machine. Ahhhh, the memories.}

The joy of pre-recorded and blank cassette tapes

The joy of pre-recorded and blank cassette tapes

Where was I? Oh yes. My brother used my TV and my cassette player which, together, had cost more than his computer. He felt he could just use my stuff as he wanted but I could not use his computer. If I was watching my TV when he wanted to use his spectrum, he would get really obnoxious and aggressive until I “agreed” he could use it. But I was never allowed to use his spectrum (well, not when he was around to know, anyway). You might pick up that this could have led to a little bit of sibling angst and an ongoing feud that continued into adulthood? Too damned right!

RS 480z - we had SIXTEEN of them, and a shared disc

RS 480z – we had SIXTEEN of them, and a shared disc

Getting back to the main thread, unlike most of my class mates I was limited to using the two computers at school. However, when I came back to school after the summer break between my fist and second year of doing my ‘O’ levels I came back to find they had finished building the dedicated computer room. It had air conditioning, a working lock on the door, about 16 RS-480Z computers and a smell something like melted plastic, new carpet and nail varnish – which never went. There was also some sort of shared storage, I think it was another 480z with a hard disc in it that all the other machines could see. So we all had a machine to use during lessons, the ability to save and load the programs all the time and programming really did become the thing we did. Due to the afore mentioned brother issues I still ended up doing some programming at lunch times and after school, fighting off the oiks from the year below…

My first real program that I remember doing, which I felt was more than a glorified calculator or pathetic painting of a house in lines and boxes, was a program that played Naughts and Crosses, or Tic-Tac-Toe as our US friends would (in my opinion, crazily) say. I don’t recall how long it took but I do remember my teacher telling me I was maybe being a bit “optimistic” when I said I wanted the computer to play rather than just letting two humans play against each other. I got it to work. Go Me!

As I said, I can’t really remember much more about what programs I wrote, it is a long time ago and my memory is poor. But I do remember that most of the course was about understanding programming and hardware, such as it was back then. As the years went by into the 90’s and 2000’2 I’m told the programming side first reduced and then almost {if not totally} disappeared to be replaced with being taught how to use computers and packages. ie Windows, Excel, Word and the like. So I grew up and was at the “right” age when home computers came along and schools in the UK taught at least some of us to program.

I still have one of these somewhere...

I still have one of these somewhere…

I got a ‘B’ in the final exam, which was OK. So that set me on the road to programming and my career? Well, no. After my ‘O’ level, I did buy my own computer, an Amstrad CPC 464 (maybe not a great decision!) and I did do a bit of assembler and programming, but mostly to try and hack into the games I was playing. By now I was doing my science ‘A’ levels, there was no option of an ‘A’ level in computing and no computing element to my ‘A’ levels. Then I went on to college to study biology, where computers were not really used much outside of the computer science department. There was a terrible programming course I went on as part of the Zoology half of my degree but it taught us less than my ‘O’ level and computers were just not a part of the Genetics half of the degree I did – which looking back at it, stuns me. We used to work out the general size and layout of plasmid genomes (bits of bacteria) by hand on paper. I got sick of doing it and wrote a program on my CPC 464 to do it and, for a few weeks, academic life was easy. My tutor got really mad when he found out I had written a program to do it. I don’t know why and I don’t think he could tell me why, he just felt I was cheating. Oh well.

Of course, once I left college life took another turn and I landed back in the world of computers {back then they would take people with no programming skills but good logic/maths and train you from zero}. But I already knew how to program and that gave me a bit of help in my first job. I could spend more time than my colleagues could worrying about how to be an adult rather than how to start programming. I might be able to program, I’m still struggling with being an adult.

Update – as Niall points out in his comment, things are now improving at schools AND colleges. What originally prompted this was a discussion I had with a friend who had just finished his computing course at college. The course was about computer games. And had involved no programming elements at all, it was all about design, marketing, testing, running a business… I was stunned. I then made some comment about at least he would have learnt about programming at school, but no, he had not. I was stunned again. But he knew that it was coming back – as covered so well by Niall.

I suspect the Raspberry Pi has helped too, though most people I know who have bought one are, well, mid-40’s people who did programming at school…

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