Getting Knitted

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So it's been an interesting couple of weeks. I've been enthralled by some ancient mechanical technology, discovered that I can no longer buy a very ordinary item of computing equipment, pondered on the business logic inside foreign ATM cash dispensers, and become very familiar with ladies stockings.

OK, so maybe I should start by explaining the last of these to head off any rumors. Some friends of ours run a company that manufactures high quality fully fashioned nylon stockings for sale all over the world. It's a fairly specialist product and so volumes are small, and they only employ a few people. However, a recent minor disaster in their factory meant that they were way behind with dispatching orders. So they called in favors from friends, which is why we spent a weekend helping to pack stockings for a major customer of theirs in the US. It certainly made playing with computers seem a much more attractive career. Mind you, my code often morphs into equally complex tangled heaps; though thankfully it doesn't usually, like 15 dernier nylons, stubbornly adhere to the desk, the walls, my gloves and tee-shirt, and every other faintly static-charged surface.

But what really fascinated me about their factory was the knitting machines. If, in the improbable case that you venture into the vaguarities of my blog on a regular basis, you'll know that I'm a devotee of historical mechanical engineering technologies. So being able to watch a 10 ton, 60 foot long machine concurrently knitting 30 stockings to some incredibly complex pattern without any input from computers (or, in fact, any source of control other than an experienced operator and a huge variety of cogs, chains, pulleys, and levers) was absolutely fascinating. More than 10,000 miniature needles moving in unison, some 100 reels of yarn steadily unwinding, dozens of shafts and cogs spinning, the delightful aroma of hot oil and ancient machinery, and more noise than a road repair gang at work. Amazing.

If you want to see a picture of knitting machines similar to these, check out this page.

So what has all this to do with our hi-tech industry? Well, how about this: I'm reasonably sure that the ATM machine I used while in Cyprus doesn't depend for its logic or programming on a series of cogs, levers, and chains. It's all some very clever computerized mechanism that is obviously more reliable and less prone to weird behavior than a 60-year old mechanical knitting machine. So why, when I wanted to withdraw some Eurothings in cash, did it execute the following process:

  1. Select a display language. Makes sense - I select English.
  2. Select an account. Again a sensible step, even though the only available option is "checking", which I select.
  3. Select an amount. The options are (strangely) 22.46, 67.39, 112.32, and 224.62. I actually wanted 100, so I select 112.32.
  4. Display an error message "The amount you have chosen cannot be dispensed". Well I'm not really surprised ... I've yet to see an ATM that gives out loose change. I press "OK".
  5. Display a message "Do you want to select a different amount?". I press "OK" again.
  6. Display a message "Enter the amount". I type 100 and press "OK" for the third time.
  7. The machine rumbles and groans for a few seconds (obviously there are some cogs, levers, and chains inside) and finally ejects five crisp new 20 Euronote things.

I'm going to take an educated guess that it figured I was English from my language selection, assumed that all English people come from England, and that they all use real money (Pounds sterling). So it helpfully converted the usual nominal dispensing amounts from Pounds to Euros - even though it knows that it can dispense only 20 and 10 Euro notes. An interesting usability feature they probably paid some developer thousands of Pounds (or Euros) to implement within the software...

And then, arriving home from our holiday, I discover that the 15" LCD monitor in my server cabinet has decided that displaying stuff (other than as a blurry mass of colors) is no longer part of its remit. So I pop over to the website of one of my regular suppliers to order a replacement. Have you tried to buy a 15" monitor lately? Probably not, but I can tell you that you needn't bother. They're even rarer than hen's teeth. None of the numerous sites I tried, including several of those annoying shopping comparison sites, could locate one. But nothing larger will fit inside my server cabinet unless I chuck out most of the servers first.

And this is where I have to issue an apology to Amazon.co.uk. I've moaned in the past that they are damaging their brand visibility by allowing people who work from their spare bedroom to get equal prominence on the Amazon site, when I really only want to buy stuff from Amazon themselves. But now they do allow you to filter out merchant associates when showing products. And, better than that, one of their associates sold me a reconditioned 15" monitor at very reasonable price. Perhaps I should buy three so I have plenty of spares.

Or maybe I could just ask our hosiery friends to knit me a picture of the Windows Server 2008 desktop...

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Getting Knitted