Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Why Doesn't Stuff Go Bang Any More?


    We had one of those disastrous spells here at chez Derbyshire a couple of weeks back. It started with trying to switch our mobile phone contracts from one supplier to another, and ended with what seems like half of the hi-tech equipment in our house deciding it had, with disappointing lack of excitement, reached the end of its useful working life.

    On the Thursday, I had already spent yet another wasted hour on the phone to an incompetent customer disservice department trying to get two SIM cards to work in our phones with the numbers transferred from our previous supplier. I guess it didn't help that the previous supplier seems to have given me transfer authorization codes for somebody else's numbers, or that the new supplier's sales department had made up some non-existent email address for me and then emailed my user name and password to it.

    So, in a somewhat grumpy mood, I tossed the ingredients for a nice soothing milky coffee into the microwave and pressed "Go". Except nothing happened. No flashing lights, no whirring noises, no turntabular revolution. Not even a flash or loud bang to provide a satisfying indication that the twelve year old contraption we bought second hand from a friend was ready to go and meet the God Of Recycling.

    Then in the evening of the same day that the microwave waved goodbye to the world, and after spending fruitless hours at work trying to log onto our Azure test account, I moodily flopped down in front of the TV and pressed the big red button. And was greeted by a screen full of wavy lines. It seems that the video card in the Media Center box had had enough and was no longer going to translate the ones and zeros coming from the hard disk into anything resembling a TV picture. Yet there was no satisfying puff of blue smoke, or crackling noise from incinerated components, or even a faint smell of burning.

    It never used to be like that. I remember as a kid being in my Dad's Morris Minor on the way to Gloucester when it reached its MTBF and exploded with a very loud bang, emitting clouds of oily smoke and depositing an assortment of pieces of former engine all over the road. Yet when my wife's car broke down some months ago, all that happened was a light came on the dashboard and it gently cruised to a halt.

    And if your washing machine broke in those days, it was accompanied by the sounds of somebody bashing saucepans together and a rapidly expanding pool of soapy water on the floor. Now it just displays some indecipherable "Error Code" in the display and grumpily sits looking at you with no intention of doing anything until you phone an approved (quoting from the manual) "domestic appliance maintenance and repair operative".

    This is a worrying trend. If you opened the bonnet/hood of your car and discovered a molten mass of connecting rods and melted spark plugs, you could take an educated guess that something was wrong with the engine. Now you have to get a (very expensive) specialist in vehicle electronics to connect your car to a computer in some foreign country to discover that the fuel stabilization flutter compensation valve needs replacing.

    And it's interesting that, even though we are surrounded by stuff that is supposed to free us from the drudgery of all those day-to-day tasks, we seem to have even less free time than our parents and grandparents. Is it because we spend so much time trying to figure out which hi-tech devices have decided to break down this week, and getting them fixed or replaced? It says something for adopting an Amish lifestyle.

    Meanwhile, perhaps manufacturers should be compelled include a small firework in every electrical device that is ignited when any of the warning lights come on so you know that something has definitely gone wrong. And maybe a short audio file of clanging and grinding noises. It would certainly make having to have stuff mended (or, more likely, replaced with a new one) a bit less dull.

    Of course, this would also apply to computers. Your laptop would satisfyingly dissolve in a cloud of black smoke when the hard disk died, or your server would produce an acrid smell of burning and light up the server room with exploding stars that would make it easy to track down the faulty one. We could even extend it to software. Instead of a boring error dialog, how about a very loud siren and flashing "DANGER" in big red letters all over the screen like you see in the movies. Maybe even an on-screen countdown to self destruct. It would certainly make being a computer programmer seem like a lot more interesting job.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    How To Build A Website For Less Than Three Million Dollars


    If you have a few minutes to spare, why not pay a visit to the UK Advisory Network website? How could you resist reading about how it is "promoting closer working between Government and the private sector", and "consists of members with essential knowledge and invaluable expertise who have completed a robust application process"? Oh, and by the way, that click just cost £11.78 (around $15).

    Yes, you'll probably be amazed to learn it cost the UK Government that much for every visitor. And you thought using the Web was a way to reduce costs! They could probably have photo-copied the list of members who have completed a robust application process and sent it by snail mail for less. Or, and here's a shocking thought, got the robust members to set up their own website and pay for it. No doubt they charge an admirable fee for their expert advice that would easily cover it.

    And here's a much more exciting site for you to try: http://www.lovechips.co.uk/. Check out the Chip-O-Vision video, or read the Chip Papers. Yes, a whole site devoted to how wonderful chips (as in fish 'n' chips, not flat things that come in bags) are. Then scroll to the bottom to discover that the site is run by "The Potato Council" - what used to be the Potato Marketing Board until then realized they needed a fancy new name - which is "a division of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHBD)". In other words, the Government.

    There are plenty more as well. In fact, according to a recent newspaper report, there are 820 of them. And a review of 46 out of the 820 revealed that the cost of building just these was £94 million ($140 million), plus staff costs of another £32 million ($48 million). Mind you, according to the report they plan to close down around 600 of the so called "vanity sites" to save money and help balance the national budget. But what's even more amazing is that they already closed down 907 - there used to be over 1,700 of them! I wonder if they'll publish a full list of the ones that are left so I can go and see what else they've been spending our tax on before they all disappear. Is it any wonder that the country has run out of money?

    Maybe I need to give up my job and go back to building websites. I reckon I could knock up a site like Love Chips for that money, and still turn a reasonable profit. Or perhaps I can persuade my bosses here at p&p that the next project should be a White Paper on "How To Build A Website For Less Than Three Million Dollars"...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    More Railway Stuff


    One of my previous jobs involved travelling to a variety of locations selling things. Amongst those locations was the British Rail Engineering works (BREL, more familiarly known as just "The Plant Works") in Doncaster, South Yorkshire. It was one of those amazing old Victorian factories where you felt like you had stepped back 100 years as soon as you walked into one of the huge old brick buildings. It reeked of history and those wonderful engineering aromas of cutting fluid, oil, engines, and ancient machinery.

    But getting inside was, to a geek or trainspotter, like finding the Holy Grail. And I was lucky, one day in April 1979, to be taken - complete with camera - on a private guided tour. So, if you are interested in railways, you may just find the following photos and notes interesting...

    At the time, the works was building the Class 56 freight locos. Here you can see the assembly line, the power plant, the assembled loco, and the finished result:

    The works also refurbished diesel multiple units. Here are before and after views:

    BREL maintained the Deltic fleet. Unfortunately, they were short of one engine so there was always one Deltic sitting forlornly in the yard - in April 1979 in was 55 020 "Nimbus". In the photo here, 55 015 "Tulyar" is undergoing refurbishment.

    Another section of the works was, during 1979, refurbishing the "Hoover" class 50 locos, which operated mainly on the Western Region at that time. The photo shows 50 043 "Eagle" ready to go back to work, with Class 31/1 number 31 301 alongside in for running repairs:

    Some of the class 50s managed to bring forward their planned refurbishment. This is 50 003 "Temeraire" awaiting some serious attention after a collision:

    And, of course, more than a few locos ended their life as spare part donors:

     And that's enough railways. Next week look out for (as Monty Python always used to say) something completely different... 

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Artist or Artisan?


    Let's face it, those of us who work in the hi-tech world of computing tend to think of ourselves as being - well, not to put too fine a point on it - intellectual; even skilled artisans of our trade. We string lumps of extremely complex hardware together so they can talk to each other, write clever code that executes mind-boggling tasks in the blink of an eye, and build wonderfully intuitive and interactive interfaces for our applications. And all before lunch some days.

    Yet once you step outside of our world of information technology to accomplish something far more down to earth, such as a task that is practical in terms of most people's day to day lives, you suddenly realize just how little our skills have in common with the real tradesmen (and women) of this world. How something that seems like it should be really simple, compared to software design patterns and administering enterprise systems, is really much harder to do well than firing up Visual Studio and tossing it some code, or plugging network cables into a server and setting up the DNS.

    OK, so I'm no great programmer. My IT skills tend to come into play further down the line, after some of the really clever people around here write the code. But, as I discovered, I'm not much of a carpenter or plasterer either. When you watch real skilled artisans at work, it seems like what they do is simple - until you try it yourself. I reckon these people are really artists rather than just artisans. They apply the techniques of their trade with an artistic flourish that belies the skills, years of practice, and experience required.

    Like most DIYers, I realize that it's reasonably easy to achieve a semi-professional outcome with some jobs. I can paint a door so there are no drips, blobs, or patches. I can do plumbing and house wiring with a confidence that it will work afterwards. I've even done gas fitting when we fitted out a kitchen some years ago, though I did get that tested by a professional afterwards. And I can usually mend simple stuff that breaks. I can even cut glass and do glazing work (after spending several years working with greenhouses for a garden supplier).

    So when we took the old gas fire out a few weeks ago (see Firing Up the Imagination) and it left a two foot square hole right through the wall to the outside, I reckoned I could do most of the work to put it right. OK, so I have a pal who is a builder and I let him brick up the hole (I know for a fact that the art of bricklaying is not one of my proficiencies). But surely plastering up the remaining bit and putting on some new skirting board can't be that hard?

    Oh yes it is. Even after three attempts and half a roll of sandpaper to try and get rid of the bumps and rough edges, it still looks like someone threw a rice pudding at the wall. Luckily the new fire covers most of it. And simply fitting a new chunk of skirting board into the gap between the existing pieces took hours of work. Mind you, it didn't help that the new piece has a slightly different profile to the existing stuff. But even careful shaping, delicate lining up, and half a tub of filler (plus, of course, the rest of the roll of sandpaper) couldn't make it blend in.

    The trouble is; what else do you do? Have you ever tried to find a plasterer who will come out and plaster a hole two feet square? Or a carpenter who will pop in and fit three feet of skirting board? Usually all you get is laughter at the other end of the phone. I suppose it's like asking a developer to come round just to rename a couple of variables in your code, or calling out an admin guy in the middle of the night just to reboot your laptop. Or even getting your tame documentation engineer to change the formatting of two words in the middle of a huge help file. Err... just a minute - I have to do that all the time. So maybe I'm an artist after all...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    How to Avoid a Speeding Ticket


    I was reading a story (a.k.a. urban myth) this week about an eminent quantum physicist who was stopped for speeding in his car. When told by the traffic cop that he was doing 63 miles per hour, he responded by asking if this was an accurate measurement. Being told that it was he explained that, therefore, they could not definitely determine if he was inside the 35 miles per hour zone at the time. Alternatively, if they were sure that he was within the zone, it was physically impossible - due to the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics - for the speed measurement to be accurate.

    OK, so the story was phrased a little more colloquially that this. When asked if he knew how fast he was travelling, the eminent physicist replied "No, but I know where I am". Of course, our eminent physicist was simply explaining that, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it is impossible to simultaneously determine the precise values of certain pairs of physical properties, such as position and momentum, of an object.

    It's an interesting theory; and you may want to ponder if, when you measure the transfer rate of your high speed Internet connection or the performance of a new super fast hard disk, the results actually apply to your neighbor's DSL line or your wife's laptop instead. Although in reality this effect only reveals itself where you are dealing with very small or very fast things. Perhaps if I write this blog post using 6 point Arial, and type fast, there's a danger that the text might end up in a different paragraph, or even a different document.

    And as for really small and fast things, you don't get much better than the electrons that make up the ones and zeros of your latest and greatest computer programs. So there's definitely a danger that, if you make your new enterprise application run too quickly, you won't be able to tell which server it's running on when you come to do performance testing.  Probably a good argument for installing a server farm.

    And does this uncertainty extend to other pairs of physical properties? Can I argue that my spelling is so bad because it's impossible to determine the actual alphabetic letter and its position within a word at the same time? Or insist that my BMI must be around 25 because it's impossible to simultaneously measure my weight and height? Perhaps if I was also running very fast at the time it would work.

    However, what's really disappointing is that Heisenberg's principle also puts paid to my idea for becoming a millionaire by patenting a device for removing the space junk that I keep reading is increasingly endangering satellites and space craft in Earth orbit. I'd just finished the design for a rocket fitted with a large magnet when I read that most of the junk is travelling at six miles per second - which probably means that I can't determine how big the chunks are. So how would I know what size magnet I'd need?

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    "Trainspotting" ... the Photos


    A holiday weekend, and it rained. What a surprise. Still, it meant I actually got round to fulfilling a promise from a few weeks ago about firing up the film scanner and digitalizing some of the better ones of my collection of old railway slides. So, if you are not a railway fanatic maybe should stop reading now and find some other technical blog about computers (or play another game of FreeCell). The rest of this post is just pictures of old trains...

    By way of some background to my pre-computing geekiness, my trainspotting episode started in around 1965 when steam was in the last stages of giving way to diesel. Most of my memories of steam engines are seeing them passing through Gloucestershire on their sad and final trip to the scrap yard in Barry, South Wales. However, my real passion in those days was for the gleaming new diesel hydraulic Western and Hymek locos that thundered past our house. Though travelling the world and the UK with parents serving the Royal Air Force meant that I lived (and trainspotted) in a variety of locations. Unfortunately, it was only in the late 70's that I owned a good enough camera to start recording what I saw.

    Since then, trains have become a minor peripheral part of my life as marriage and work (and growing up) took over. So I can't actually provide a detailed history or record of any one period. Though occasional day trips to preserved railways and (now derelict) railway infrastructure and installations does provide the occasional fix. Still, here's a selection of the resulting digitalized memories:

    British Rail Class 9F 92220 "Evening Star". The last steam loco built by BR (in 1960), and now preserved as part of the National Collection.

    GWR 7812 "Erlestoke Manor" built at Swindon works around 1938, seen here in 1980 approaching Highley on the Severn Valley Railway.

    LMS "Black Five" 5305 leaving York with a steam special in around 1980. Now refurbished and running on the Great Central Railway.

    British Railways 73050 "City of Peterborough" built in Derby in 1954 and seen here in 1987 at the Nene Valley Railway.

    Class EM1 76007 and 76008 built in 1953 and seen near Woodhead Tunnel on the Manchester-Sheffield route around 1978, shortly before the line was closed.

    Diesel Hydraulic "Western" class D1062 "Western Courier", built at Crewe in 1963 and seen here on the Severn Valley Railway in 1980.

    An unidentified "Brush" class 47 leaving Peascliffe Tunnel on the East Coast Main Line in 1979 before electrification of the route.

    The "Deltic" Class 55, the most powerful of the mainline passenger diesels and my personal favorite of all diesels. This is 55 003 "Meld" built in 1961 at the Vulcan works in Newton-Le-Willows and named after a famous racehorse. Seen here at Doncaster in 1979.

    British Rail adapted some of the 08 class shunters to work as tandem units in Tinsley Yard, Sheffield. This is 13 001 seen in 1979 on the yard hump.

    An unusual visitor to Doncaster, having just left the BREL works after refurbishment. Originally built in 1968 at the Vulcan works, this is class 50 007 "Hercules" (later renamed "Sir Edward Elgar"). The locos were often known as "Hoovers" due to the sound of the large engine room fans.

    And finally, for U.S. readers and tram fans, New York Third Avenue Transit number 674 seen here on a rainy day in June 1990 at Crich Tramway Museum in Derbyshire (just a few miles from where I live).

    I also found a selection of slides taken inside the British Railways Engineering (BREL) works at Doncaster in 1979. After I sort them out, I'll post a few of the more unusual ones...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    On Cloud Ten


    Two thousand and ten is, they say, the year of the Cloud. Yes, I know they've been saying that for a few years, but it really does seem to be a technology that is heading skywards (ouch, sorry) this year. And I'm about to climb on board. Though, hopefully, not equipped with pan pipes or tendering my CV to St. Peter. I've finally managed to dig an escape tunnel and flee the clutches of Enterprise Library 5.0 now we've got the Hands On Labs done, and before they think of anything else I need to write about.

    And just to prove that this is the start of something big, all the global sales teams here at Microsoft were treated to a special presentation and training event about how it changes the whole technology business paradigm (or something marketing-speak like that). Meanwhile, I'm just starting to catch up on the Windows Azure Guidance (WAG) project here at p&p. A project that I should have been working on for the last three months. So I need to do some serious "accelerated learning", as they call it in the trade.

    However, even though I work for p&p in Redmond, I live in England and am employed by Microsoft UK. Which is functionally part of the sales and marketing group (SMG). And, therefore, the exciting Cloud Training event is mandatory for all staff. OK, so usually I just keep my head down when SMG stuff is floating around, but this time they are monitoring take-up (and there is a test at the end) so I did the online version of the training this week. And I'm still recovering. Normally, training for my role involves placid activities such as reading books about software architecture and code languages. But that's not the way they do it in SMG.

    It's odd because I spent 20 years pretending to be a salesman for a variety of different manufacturers and wholesalers, so I should be hardened to this stuff. But it's a good thing I was debugging some sample apps at the same time or I reckon I'd have been chewing lumps out of the edge of the desk. Not only was there a weather report by an unbelievably excitable young lady about "increasing cloud across all areas", but even an American Football match between all of the rival vendors with an excruciatingly over-the-top commentary. Though I guess these were only the light-hearted fillings between the hard sell and marketing penetration stuff.

    Still, I passed the test and got my course credit, so I should be safe for a few months. And I actually did learn quite a bit about the market that Cloud targets, and its relevance from a business point of view. I guess it will be useful as we document the technical scenarios and provide implementation guidance through our WAG project. I just need to be really careful to avoid any obvious (but oh so tempting) puns around the project name. And just when the World Cup is starting...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    The Soundtrack for Our Lives


    Watching a rock music documentary on TV the other day, I heard one of my favorite presenters, Mark Radcliffe, utter the wonderful phrase "Lead guitarists are people who create the soundtrack for our lives". Maybe you have to be of the right generation (it's probably less relevant if your music tastes are limited to folk music, garage, or grunge) but to me it really, if you'll pardon the pun, struck a chord. It requires only the first few bars of a classic rock track, or a snippet of a well-known and much loved guitar solo, to switch my brain into neutral and instantly block any capability for logical thought. Somewhat worrying when I'm trying to write technical guidance while Media Player is tuned to the random music stream exposed by my file server.

    I suppose it's partly because I spent my formative years in the period that is now associated with classic rock, that so many of the legends and their music are woven into my consciousness. Yes there are bands around today still creating that magical aura, though even the young kids seem to have a passion that's hard to understand for music that is, in many cases, 30 or even 40 years old. It's odd that rock music has that effect. I can't say I know of many young people who have anything like the same passion for swing, jazz, big band; or for the crooners and songstresses that were the "in thing" of my parents' generation. What is it about classic rock that has radio stations all over the world playing it 24 hours a day, bands where the members should long ago have retired still selling out stadium tours, and endless documentaries and concerts on TV?

    And by some odd coincidence, last Sunday I went to see a rock tribute band at a local club - mainly because my wife's cousin plays bass guitar for them. The band, Floydian Slip, perform a range of classic Pink Floyd tracks from Dark Side and The Wall. Unfortunately none of Syd Barrett's earlier work that I remember so well (think "See Emily Play" and "Piper at the Gates of Dawn"). But they are extremely good. The technical accuracy is amazing, and the atmosphere they generate is incredible. Music originally written in 1973, yet some 37 years later is still magical, innovative, relevant, strange, and yet wonderful.

    It's hard to think of anything in our industry that you could say the same about after 7 years, never mind 37 years. OK, so I know there are people who still play Space Invaders and Aliens in DOS mode, and there's bound to be somebody somewhere who can't bear to be parted from Windows 3.1. But even XP and Windows 2000, which are barely 10 years old, now somehow seem dated, old fashioned, and unexciting. How is it that a few assorted sound waves generated by amplifying the noise of some pieces of vibrating wire can still create such emotional and magical effect, compared to the way that the full-featured multi-media capability of computer programs seems passé after only a fraction of that time?

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