Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Boeing, Boeing, Gone to Seattle


    Travel, they say, broadens your mind and narrows your arteries. Now back home in wonderfully green and Springing England after a couple of weeks in downtown Redmond, it looks like I survived the combined effects of altitude sickness, jet lag, and airport aggravation. Perhaps I'm becoming a "seasoned traveler". Especially as the dictionary definitions of "seasoned" include "hardened", "tested", and "weathered". I probably fit into all of those categories; and probably "soaked in alcohol" as well, though probably not "rubbed with herbs".

    Perhaps it's also the reason that my weekly rants regularly seem to include airports. Mind you, I am rapidly becoming a fan of Schipol airport in Amsterdam (which, I'm reliably informed, is the is the only international airport located below sea level. That must be scary for pilots when their altimeter starts to go negative...). Unlike most airports, Schipol seems to have been designed especially so that people can use it to get on and off 'planes; without having to take a train or bus trip, or go through three security barriers.

    Talking of airports, I really like the quote from Terry Pratchett who says "It's no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase 'As pretty as an airport' appear." Likewise the comments I heard from one of our local comedians this week. He asked why we say "I'm going to the airport", like there is actually only one. He pointed out that this would make traveling somewhat boring. The only flights available would start and end in the same place, but they'd probably still be able to lose your luggage.

    However, what I really wanted to talk about this week was not airports, but airplanes (see how I cover a broad range of topics each week). When I was growing up, we lived on air bases all around the world and so I'm a long time fanatic of all things connected with planes, especially military ones. Therefore, two of the highlights of my recent trip to Seattle, other than a visit to Archie McPhee as described last week, were visits to the Boeing Museum of Flight and the Boeing Factory Tour.

    The Museum of Flight is quite amazing. As well as loads of planes (including an SR-71 Blackbird hanging from the ceiling in the main hall), they have displays and memorabilia commemorating space flights, and whole halls devoted to WWI and WWII planes and events. Outside, you can wander through the cabins of Concorde and an old "Air Force One" 707 from 1959. I liked the way that there are little signs pointing out the features of the presidential airliner, including one in front of the mass of extremely ancient communication gear that says "The fact that it never worked very well was only revealed after the aircraft was decommissioned". That could have been a little worrying. Imagine if, when deciding whether to start a nuclear war, all that Eisenhower or Kennedy could hear was whistling noises and odd chunks of broken speech... There is also a little label on the president's desk pointing to a hole in the table that says "Cup-holder". Shows you how old the plane must be if it only has one cup-holder. I've seen baby buggies fitted with two.

    Saturday morning was the trip to the Boeing Factory. This tour, called the Future of Flight takes you round the factory where they build the 747, 767, 777, and the new 787. After a half-mile walk through a tunnel full of pipes and cables that reminds you of some futuristic science fiction movie, you pop out onto a balcony overlooking a production floor so large that I didn't actually notice a Jumbo jet parked in one corner (probably back for its annual service and oil change) until the guide pointed it out. I wonder if they get delivery pilots wandering around asking if anyone had seen their 747? "Hmmm, I'm sure I left it over by that pile of tail fins..."

    But it really is stunning to see six airliners lined up in a row still under construction. You almost can't appreciate how big the place is. Even if you are not wildly passionate about aircraft, it's worth going just to marvel at the size and the technology. Best of all is the facility where they're assembling the new all-plastic 787 "Dreamliner". It seems that they make the parts all over the world, and fly them in using a fleet of strangely modified 747s that look like they're pregnant (they call these "Dreamlifters"). Then they just have to glue all the bits together in the main hall, and nail on the engines and wheels. It all sounds like those model airplane kits I used to build when I was a kid. Except they seem to make a lot neater job of painting theirs.

    There's also some nice displays of associated technologies. I especially enjoyed seeing the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines they offer as an optional extra when you order a new 'plane. They make these engines in a factory only a few miles from where I live. One of my friends who works there likes to tell everyone about how they test them by firing fresh chickens into them with a special compressed air cannon while the engine is running at full speed. I wonder who gets the job of cleaning them afterwards - I can't see Boeing being terribly pleased if they drip blood all over their nice clean factory floor when they unpack them.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Snake Oil Salesmen


    I reckon that, last week, I broke a World record. I managed to cycle through 38 TV channels in turn that were all showing commercials. OK, so I was in a hotel in the U.S. and maybe that's to be expected. And some of the commercials are more interesting than the programs. Of course, it's probably the same here in England now that we have "digital choice", but I just don't notice 'cos we let Media Center record anything we want to watch and then skip over the commercials. Mind you, we need some serious practice to make commercials that are as blatantly misleading as those I've been watching.

    I mean, here in the People's Republic of Europe, the concept of "caveat emptor" (buyer beware) is pretty much obsolete because trading laws are so strict that you almost have to refund people's money before they buy stuff. We have a whole Government department whose entire job is to guard the population against misleading advertisements. Yet, surely the whole point of advertising is to be misleading. I wouldn't be tempted to buy a car they described as "fairly good except when going round corners, and bits of the fascia come loose after a while." Or a new flavor of yoghurt where the actor says "we use fresh ingredients when we can get them, they don't taste too bad, and we very rarely send them out with dead insects inside".

    Yet, last week I was offered a new type of super high quality cleaning duster that magically cleans everything twice as fast as a "normal" duster, comes with an unbreakable handle, a replaceable head, lasts forever, and leaves all other dusters standing. And it was worth $40 but I was lucky because that week they were offering them at only $9.95. And for that price they would actually send you two! And not only that, but they'd also include two packs of replacement heads and a mini duster and free shipping worth a total of $70! I don't know why, but somehow I got the impression that they were being a little economical with the truth somewhere along the line.

    Even better, there was a famous actor (who I didn't actually recognize) explaining that - in his 25 years on TV - he'd never seen an easier way to make "hundreds of thousands of dollars" than the new "cash flow notes" program. No investment, guaranteed money back, and only $159 to "start earning". And if you order in the next 18 minutes "while stocks last", he said, you get the whole package at a one-time special rate. And there are two free gifts as well that make it a "total $295 value" - all for just $39. No wonder we have a financial crisis...

    And then there are the 20 second ones that flash past so fast it takes a while to catch on. Like the commercial for "top-up medical insurance" that covers you for stuff your existing medical insurance doesn't. Or the guy who says you can phone him now and get any three of his computer training DVDs completely free. Learn how to make money on EBay, or master Windows Vista. And, this week, he'll even allow you to order three extra completely free DVDs. You only pay $6.95 each for shipping. OK, so I'm not an expert in this area, but last time I had bulk DVDs made they cost less than two dollars each, and I'm sure it can't cost more than a couple of dollars to send a DVD by post in a padded bag. So their business model really consists of selling post and packing.

    More worrying, however, is the weirdness of some of the programs. Last time I was there I inadvertently watched, while eating breakfast, a program about the top ten retail stores in the U.S. One of them was a place called Archie McPhee, which is actually in Seattle! They sell novelties and daft stuff, and I just had to pay them a visit this time. I found some useful things such as an emergency reflective jacket and a brush for cleaning my fishpond filter. However, it's probably a good thing they didn't search my case at customs on the way home as it might have been difficult to explain why I needed several packs of plasters (bandages) with toast and ninjas on, some plastic model office cubicles (plus additional figures), a bag of Mini Devil Duckies, a roll of "Crime Scene Keep Out" tape, and a shopping bag that says "My wife said I had to bring this bag with me".

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Are You Offset Early Yet?


    I watched a program on TV the other night about how your body clock works. It seems that when you are young, your body clock is "offset late" so you are useless in the mornings and tend to be a bit of a night owl. I guess this is useful so you can go to those all-night parties and clubs. When you get old your body clock is "offset early", so you have to go to bed at 6:30 PM and get up in time to watch breakfast TV and those weird quiz shows that nobody has heard of. I suppose this means that there are only a couple of weeks around the age of 35 when your life is actually aligned with the world around you. That's going to be my excuse in future, anyway.

    And it seems that all this is the result of strict scientific investigation, and not just some university student making stuff up for his final exam dissertation. It's supposed to explain why extricating a teenager from their bed before lunchtime is about as easy as folding custard (or herding cats). In fact, there is a school in the North East of England where they are experimenting with delaying the start of lessons that require anything more than desultory half-awakeness until after 11:00 AM. Maybe this is a way to reduce traffic congestion - send kids to school for 10:30 in the morning so we can all get to work without being buried by a flock of 4x4s on the school run, and keep them there until we've had a chance to sit down after work and read the paper in peace.

    They also say that "body clock research" (which surely has to be a made-up science) can predict the best time of day to have a heart attack or stroke, provide the reason why you feel tired after a beer at lunchtime, and tell you when to have sex. Now, I'm no expert, but I reckon I could figure that the best time to have a heart attack or stroke is never, the reason you feel tired is because that's what beer does, and - well - I'll refrain from comment on the remaining point.

    Strange thing is that, in my advancing years, I should now be well into the "offset early" camp. According to a rough calculation on the back of a Notepad document, I should be drifting off to sleep at seventeen minutes past nine all this week. And be wide awake and furiously typing guidance and documentation by around ten to seven in the morning. I'd have to say that his doesn't bear comparison with reality. If I go to bed much before midnight I can't drop off to sleep, and I don't remember when I last saw any time prior to 8:00 AM on the bedside alarm clock. I've even tried following my wife's sage advice that "...it's about time you had an early night", but it seems to make little difference. Me and a zombie exhibit remarkably similar traits (and appearance, according to my wife) any time before about 9:00 AM and the second cup of coffee.

    I put it down to the fact that I live on GMT and work on PCT (Pacific Coast Time). So being a night owl is useful because I'm generally still around in the evenings trying to catch up on work while my colleagues are yawning and scratching their way into the office. As long as it's before lunch time their time, I'm generally around to answer panic emails, ignore desperate pleas for completion of the latest important document, and attend conference meeting calls where all I can hear is distant mumblings and trans-Atlantic crosstalk on the line. On one occasion last week, I think I was in three meetings at the same time. I remember agreeing to a new wholesale price for bulk crayfish shipments, and an updated schedule for delivery of some pork bellies to Nebraska. I think we agreed on the appropriate terminology for describing presentation layer components as well, but I can’t be sure about that part.

    Maybe your body clock influences your choice of employment. Or maybe it’s the other way round - your choice of career actually changes your body clock schedule. I mean, you'd have to assume that postmen (sorry, postal delivery workers) are offset early, and that night-club bouncers are offset late. So what about us in the IT world? I've noticed that the p&p office is not exactly bursting with activity at 8:00 AM, or even 9:00 AM, most days. Yet there are still plenty of people hunched over keyboards late into the evenings. Do you actually know any "offset-early" IT people?

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Miss Spellings and Bad Grandma


    I suspect that there is a crisis at our local council offices at the moment. They've obviously run out of things to waste taxpayer's money on, so they decided to publish a ten page full-color pamphlet containing really useful information about our local community. On page three, it says that - in case we hadn't noticed - work is underway on the open-cast coal mine just across the fields from where I live. Really? I would never have guessed that the brand new railway, dozens of huge trucks, and a hole half a mile wide and a hundred feet deep were connected with that.

    Of course, there is some less-blindingly-obvious information in there as well. Like the fact that the local post office has had to close because the postmaster is in prison (we live in an exciting area); and news that in the village next to us they are going to concrete over the field where all the kids play, then spend thousands of pounds making it into a kids' play area. But what struck me most was the incredible number of misspellings and serious grammar errors in the ten pages that - in total - hold no more than about 30 complete sentences. Does nobody read this stuff before they send it out? Or is it some covert scheme to try and make everybody think our local district is run by idiots? As if we needed convincing...

    Still, at least they put a nondescript photo of some unidentifiable area of countryside covered in snow on the cover to cheer us all up. Obviously they were ensuring they didn't fall into the "wrong city" trap like the council that runs the second largest city here in England did a while ago. Maybe you saw it in the papers - it even made it into the US Today newspaper (which they deliver to all hotel rooms in the US - whether you want it or not). Somebody probably asked a junior editor in the "community communication" department to search the Web for a picture of Birmingham. When the thousands of leaflets were distributed across the city, several people remarked that they never realized there were so many skyscrapers in Birmingham. Of course, there aren't. They'd put a photo of Birmingham Alabama on the cover (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_midlands/7560392.stm and http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2008/08/birmingham_england_officials_c.html).

    Anyway, coming back to the topic of this post (spelling and grammar in case you've forgotten), maybe it's the fact that I work with words and documents that means I tend to spot mistakes, and that they annoy me so much. But the best ones are often amusing in a silly kind of way. For example, I got very nervous reading about how you create Office Business Applications (OBAs) when I found a note in the documentation about how they are really useful "...when you have a rage of documents to handle". Now I have to keep checking if there are any angry spreadsheets on my computer, and I wonder if my virus checker will detect furious Word documents. Maybe there is an irateness rating for emails that my spam filter can use? On a scale of one to ten, move anything over 4.5 into the Junk Mail folder.

    I also came across an article by somebody who writes data access code the same way as I do - just gather together some keywords that sound like they might be appropriate, add a few randomly named variables, and mix it all up until it does something useful. At least that's what I assumed they meant when they said that "...the best approach is to use a stired procedure." But I reckon the best of all was the article that described how "Exception management and logging are often not sufficient in enterprise applications, and you should consider complimenting them with notifications". I tried this - but after half an hour, I ran out of accolades and flattering remarks without seeming to achieve any positive effect on the application.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Going to the Dogs


    I'm starting to worry that I can’t cope with the frantic releases of operating system versions. I just got settled with a couple of Vista machines and, more recently, two Server 2008 boxes, and now I'm being pushed to "dogfood" Windows 7. I wonder if I should install it on the machine I use for all my important work, or on the laptop I depend on when travelling. I know I tend to be somewhat conservative in terms of upgrading to the latest cool software, but neither of these options seems like a really good idea with a beta operating system.

    I guess it's OK if you work onsite - you can just throw the machine at the local systems admin guy if it toasts itself, and pick up another from the stores in the meantime. Mind you, I've seen a few of my colleagues using it and they seem happy enough that it does what it says on the Start button. Maybe I should install it in a VPC, or on a machine I don't use for anything important. But what good would that be, unless I also install all the tools and software I use every day, configure everything to work like it needs to, and then put up with using a machine that I had sidelined because it was too old or slow to be practicable? So I'm probably not much help as a dogfooder.

    Hmmm... I wanted to write "dogfeeder" there, but that sounds like someone who works in a kennels. Perhaps it should be "...not much help with dogfooding" (but not "dogfeeding"). Is there a conjugation (or declension) for the verb "dogfood"? Something like "I dogfood, you dogfood, he dogfeeds, we dogfed". Probably it’s the same as the one for the verb "impact". And people accuse me of making up words...

    Anyway, I'm not sure yet I've even got the knack of the "version 6" stuff. One of my Vista laptops decided to display two account icons on the startup screen when I changed my account password last time, and I haven't managed - despite a great deal of poking and swearing - to get rid of either of them. When it boots, it immediately displays the message "Incorrect password", but then logs in without prompting for a password when I click either of the icons. Despite endless fiddling with account management dialogs and saved password configurations, I can’t resolve it. Maybe I should install Windows 7 on this machine just out of spite.

    Though I did solve (partially) a Windows Server 2008 issue this week. Since I moved over to Server 2008, I've had endless problems with batch files and scheduled tasks. I have a series of batch files that use XCOPY to duplicate and mirror data around my network and onto various backup stores. Everything worked fine with Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 Server, but there seem to be some weird things with Server 2008.

    For example, my XCOPY batch file uses the /m switch to copy only files with the archive attribute set, and turn off this attribute after copying. But when run from Task Scheduler (either as a timed event or started manually) it copied the files but did not clear the archive bit. The result was that every night when it ran, it copied all the files again. I tried the /d switch, but it still copied files even when they exist on the target drive. I guessed it was because I was using the NET USE command in the batch file to get access to the NAS drive (see my previous blog post "Herding Buffalo" for an explanation). So I created a new separate batch file that just contained the command to clear the archive attributes on the source files:

    attrib -a d:\myfiles\backup\*.* /s

    When I ran this by double-clicking on it in Explorer, it worked fine. So I created a new scheduled task to execute this batch file a couple of hours after the XCOPY batch file had finished. But, even though I set up the scheduled task to run under a domain admin account, it simply reported "Access denied" for every file. So the fact that the XCOPY command does not work properly is obviously nothing to do with NET USE, or the fact I am accessing a Linux-based NAS drive as the target for the copy. It simply doesn't have permission to update the archive bit on the source files.

    Now, I kind of suspected that a domain admin account would be a good choice for doing domain administration stuff. Obviously that's not the case in Windows 2008. So I did what every amateur part-time administrator does in these circumstances - wandered across to TechNet and asked them the question of life, the universe, and why on earth I don't have permission to update files on my own computer. After some exploration, and fortunate choice of keywords (and swear words) I tracked it down to the User Access Control (UAC) feature.

    I know I'm a bit vague at the best of times, but I never knew that Windows 2008 had UAC built in. I know that it's been the bane of many people's lives on Vista, but it's not something you'd expect to find lurking in a box where the guy on the keyboard is most likely to be the administrator for most of the time. And it seems that there is a new Admin Approval Mode (AAM) configuration mode as well. If you go off and read the TechNet page "User Account Control" (it's OK to pretend that you understand most of it), you will probably grasp as I did that administrator accounts in Server 2008 get two security tokens. One is a low-trust token used for most activities to help protect against malicious code having full access to the machine. The other token is a full-trust one that is used, according to TechNet, "...when the user attempts to perform an administrative task." It doesn't say when or how the system knows which token to use, or how it knows if the request is a malicious one... but I'll accept that all this just works like it should.

    So maybe this is why I don't have permission to update my own files? Does Task Scheduler use the low-trust token for the administrator account I specify to run the task? Or does all this apply to just local administrator accounts and not to domain admin accounts? In fact, AAM is disabled for the built-in Administrator account in Server 2008, but not for other accounts. So Task Scheduler is probably starting all the backup scripts in low trust mode even though its using a domain admin account.

    How do I get round this? I did start reading about the Group Policy settings to manage it, and the Registry entries involved, but then noticed the checkbox marked "Run with highest privileges" in the General tab of each scheduled task. I figured it couldn't do that much harm (and I have a recent backup), so I tried it. And, as you probably guessed, it solves the problem. It forces Task Scheduler to start the task using the full-trust token instead. My backup script now works like it should.

    Except now I just noticed that the mouse pointer on my Hyper-V VPC has gone back to that stupid "thin up arrow" cursor again (see "Cursory Distractions" ). Oh well, I guess optimism and computers never did mix that well.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Cursory Distractions


    First off, I need to apologize to all those people who have been reduced to reading my previous "Hyper-Ventilating" posts hoping to find some crumb of comfort to alleviate their crippling medical condition. It seems from the analysis of Web search requests for those posts that more people are ill than are using Hyper-V. I suppose that's reasonable, and will perhaps teach me to stop using misleading (and often incomprehensible) titles for my posts. A bit like this one, I guess.

    Ah, but no, this week's title is actually highly accurate! Because, despite endlessly installing and re-installing the Hyper-V integration components in my Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 virtual machines, Hyper-V seems totally incapable of displaying the appropriate cursor or mouse pointer. It always starts off OK, leading me to believe that it was just some intermittent aberration last time, and from now on I'll be able to see the pointer wherever it gaily wanders across the multiple windows and icons of the vast 800 x 600 pixel screen estate it has to play in.

    And then it changes to a thin black "up arrow", or an hourglass, or even the tiny little square that's supposed to indicate that Hyper-V is letting you see the virtual machine even though you haven't clicked on it yet. But I'll say one thing - it's certainly making me learn where the "hotspot" is on each of the multitude of pointer and cursor shapes. No doubt that will be useful in some future life after the Government of the People's Republic of Europe bans all pointer shapes except "East-West-Arrow" or "No Drop". Maybe Microsoft should be planning their court appeal now, along with the one where the EU decide that MS has to take keyboard support out of the operating system in order to "level the playing field for competitors" (OK, so I made that one up).

    Anyway, I know I'm not alone on this one. There are literally several people complaining on the Web about the same problem. Of course, I was quietly confident that they would fix it in this month's Patch Tuesday selection, but it seems not. Although, so far, the pointer appears to be firmly jammed in "standard arrow pointer" mode now, which isn't so bad. I can probably risk changing the desktop background back from sky blue into something that doesn't require me to wear sunglasses, and still be able to find the pointer on the screen. Before you ask, yes I did try changing the mouse pointer scheme in the virtual machine to one that's easier to see, but it's obvious after doing that (with its total lack of effect) that it is the Hyper-V runtime that's actually generating and managing the mouse pointer. So perhaps I should be grateful I actually get a pointer at all. I suppose I could try changing the mouse scheme in the base O\S instead...

    And, while I'm ranting about Hyper-V, can we have some absolute guidance on how to do time synchronization please? After the aforementioned medical condition, this seems to be the second most popular search that finds my posts. Despite the fix I put in place some weeks ago, I was still getting a raft of errors in the Event Logs. Some helpful feedback from Virtual PC Guy and his colleagues suggested that there is a delay in the time synchronization from the Hyper-V base O/S, and that can cause synchronization failures against external time providers or domain controllers.

    The problem I found is that, even if I remove all time provider details from domain member virtual machines, they insist on searching for a time provider and inevitably end up snuggling up to the domain controller (as you'd expect). I did wonder about disabling the Windows Time service on virtual machines and just allowing the base O\S to set the time - I reckon I can live with being half a second adrift from the rest of the world. But I have no idea if that would break anything else, and nobody seems able to tell me. And other than disabling the service, I can't see how else you can prevent it from searching for time providers. The other alternative, and the one I've now settled with, is to set up the domain controller(s) as reliable time servers and turn off the Hyper-V "VM IC Time Synchronization Provider" to prevent time synchronization from the base O\S.

    Start by opening the Hyper-V Manager and select the virtual machine - it doesn't matter if it's running or not. Open the Settings dialog and click on the Integration Services section near the bottom. Then simply uncheck the setting for Time Synchronization. Now go to Configure the Windows Time Service and follow the instructions. To find an NTP server to use, check out the NTP Pool Project. A bathing costume is not required.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Unit Protesting


    Before we start, I want to make it clear that - although I often use US spelling in stuff I write - I refuse to accept that "tire" is a way of spelling the round black things that you put on a car. I'm English, and tired (sorry) of seeing that weird spelling, so from here on in we'll be using the proper spelling: "tyre". And, annoyingly, Word has just red-wigglyed that now I've typed it. I guess an indication of how I have to produce most of my verbiage with Word set to US English. And this post is not even about spelling or languages. What is it about? I suppose it's kind of another grumble about technology in general. And about measuring stuff. So, if you are already in a bad mood, this might be a good place to stop reading and go off and do some yoga or listen to a Coldplay album.

    It all started when my wife came home with a gleaming new set of bathroom scales (though, as there was only one of them, maybe it should be "a bathroom scale"). Like most gadgets and appliances these days, it proudly proclaims that it has a "bright and easy-to-read" digital display. And, more than that, it can tell you all about your health - things like your body mass index, water retention rate, and overall wellbeing. And probably your shoe size as well. "Amazing!" I thought, "I wonder how it knows all that".

    The answer is, of course, that when you first put the batteries in, it asks you loads of questions such as your height, age, body shape (you get five choices for this one), exercise regime (four choices), and sex (you only get two choices for this one). This would be OK, but we unfortunately fell at the first hurdle. Despite wiggling the switch underneath to tell it to display in stones and pounds, it insisted my wife enter her height in centimetres. We are both of that lost generation who learned imperial measures at school, and now find ourselves cast adrift into a whole new world of metric things. It's like going in to work one day to find the management has ruled that everyone and everything will now be spoken/read/written in a foreign language. One you don't understand.

    I know that a foot is around 300 millimetres, or 30 centimetres, or 0.3 metres (see how complicated it is already), and a metre is a bit over a yard. So I can do mental calculations such as converting "it's about 300 metres on the left" into roughly 325 yards or nearly 1000 feet. Of course, everyone in England blames the French for us losing our proper system of measures (it must be their fault because the letters in "meter" are the wrong way round). Just because they think it's easier than remembering that there are 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 5.5 yards in a perch, 4 perches in a chain, 10 chains in a furlong, and 8 furlongs in a mile. I mean, what's complicated about that?

    So I used a calculator on the Web to do the conversion, and we finally got to the bit where it said "setting saved". Except that, when you stand on it, all it does for 10 seconds is display a fascinating series of flashing light trails across the "bright and easy-to-read" digital display, followed by "Error". We're nearly an hour in and still no sign of being able to find out our weights. Not even in some funny unit like kilograms. I know how to convert those into proper weights because I remember the mnemonic "One and three-quarter pounds of jam weighs about a kilogram". Except that, as someone pointed out a few weeks ago, it's not a very good memory aid because the important bit ("one and three-quarter") doesn't actually rhyme with anything. So it could just as easily be "one and a quarter", or "two and a half", or "one hundred and seventy three".

    Anyway, having dispatched my wife to the store where she bought the scale to exchange it for a new one, we started the process again. At the end, when it came to the "stand on it and see what you weigh" moment, we got a different result this time. It said "Err-374". Thing is, we weren't interested in it telling us our BMI, liquidity ratio, or some meaningless number that relates to our wellbeing. Certainly, by now, my wellbeing was not what it was two hours ago. Why can't it just tell you your weight? Maybe even, and here's a shocking thought, by using a big calibrated spring with a pointer on the end that goes round a dial covered in numbers. After all, inside there's probably just a big spring connected to sensor that sends signals to the chip that converts them into numbers (or not in our case). So it's not like it's any more accurate or reliable.

    This worrying advance in digital displays is not confined to bathroom scales either. I splashed out a noticeable volume of cash some while ago on a digital tyre pressure gauge because all the old-fashioned ones I have give slightly different readings, and I thought it would be a good idea to get a proper accurate and reliable one to replace them. No chance. Not only does it decide at random what units to display the result in, but consecutive readings seem to vary by 20%. And none are near to the average of my old-fashioned manual ones. The one that seems to be most accurate is the "looks like a pen and the inside pops up" kind like my Dad used to use when I was a kid. In fact, it's probably the same one.

    And here we come up against another unit protest. Tyre pressures have always been measured in pounds per square inch, which seems innately sensible because the common range goes from about 30 to near 60 so it's easy to read and adjust the pressure. Get within a couple of p.s.i and its fine. But my new car handbook has all the tyre pressures in BARs. Not even in a semi-believable foreign measure like millimetres per second or kilograms per hectare. Can you imagine the people who invented this in some design meeting?

    Marketing guy: "We need a new way to measure the pressure in car tyres."
    Engineer: "OK, how about we use a scale that starts at one and nearly goes up to three?"
    Accountant: "Sounds great - that will save on printing costs and we'll need less numbers on the dial."
    Manager: "That's a wrap, do it!"

    OK, so I know that BAR is connected with atmospheric pressure, but now instead of "36 p.s.i. all round" I have to figure out where 2.18 is on the tiny dial of one of my other old-fashioned gauges that only has a marking every half a BAR. I suppose it's something to do with the European Union - most everything else is their fault. Just think how easy it would be if our global society could actually get to grips with using some standard measures and units for things. Starting, please, with time zones. I'm time shifted by 8 hours from my work colleagues, though for a couple of weeks of the year it's actually 7 hours or 9 hours because we can't even agree when daylight saving time starts and ends. Wouldn't it be easy if we all just switched to a single World time, like the Swatch Internet time that's been around for ages.

    Except that we'd need to make sure it didn't change our four o'clock teatime here in England, when we all stop for cucumber sandwiches and a pot of Earl Grey.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    A Categorical Approach To Compatibility Theory


    I read in the newspaper this week that scientists have discovered why men are better at reading maps, while women are more able to find things like car keys. It seems that it all goes back to pre-history behavioral patterns and responsibilities. Men had to travel long distances hunting, and so had to be able to navigate. Women foraged locally for food, so needed a keen eye for detail. Now I don't want to appear sexist, but I have to say that, at least in our house, reality tends the match that assertion. Mind you, one guy wrote in to the paper to say that his wife was really good at map reading - as long as they were heading north.

    Even more interesting, I've come to the conclusion that, for some indeterminable reason probably long lost in the mists of time, women who like cats tend to marry men who work with computers. It's kind of hard to justify this on a "back at the dawn of time" basis, or in terms of a theory based on studies of Stone Age cave paintings. Mainly, I suspect, because there was a noticeable scarcity of computers in those days. And it's probably a long shot to try and find some comparison between map reading abilities and an innate ability to absorb computer language syntax and structured architectural design patterns. Other, of course, than using a sat-nav.

    Not being one to jump to wild conclusions, I have obtained solid statistical evidence of the marital preference assertion. My wife is a cat-lover, and does a lot of work raising money for our local cat sanctuary. The lady who runs the sanctuary is married to a guy who writes medical software for hospitals. One of the ladies who help to run the money-raising jumble (rummage) sales is married to a guy who works for a well-known manufacturer of routers and switches. And her friend is married to a guy who runs a business doing computerized accounting systems.

    And what's really weird about the cat rule is that, when I first met my wife, I didn’t actually work with computers. I was a salesman. OK, so I was selling windows at the time, but they were ones you put into buses, trains, and office blocks - not the one I spend my days fighting with now. So obviously the theory extends to future employment prospects as well.

    Perhaps this could be adapted into some kind of suitability test for prospective employees. Instead of all those long and complicated interviews, psychological profiles, and adaptability tests, you just need to ask the geek the other side of the desk how many cats they've got. It would work on a sliding scale: one moggy, suitable for general development tasks. Two Seal-point Persians, obviously a prime candidate for program manager. A British Blue and a Cornish Rex, would do well in technical support and systems administration.

    Of course, what would be really useful would be to establish if there is some reason for this amazing compatibility situation. While avoiding any puerile reference to mice, what subtle traits do cats and computer programmers share that attracts a woman to both? Is it the inscrutable independence, the haughty view of the world as being there only to satisfy their whims, or the fact that - despite giving every outward appearance of being asleep for 23 hours a day - they are actually alert to everything going on around them? Or maybe it's just that both have an inbuilt sense of independence. I suspect that the term used to describe some hopeless task as being "...as easy as herding cats" might work just as well as "...as easy as herding computers". I mean, how often does your computer do exactly what you expect...?

    Meanwhile, I've also discovered that women who like dogs tend to marry plumbers or policemen. OK, so I only know one plumber and one policeman, but we're getting 100% compliance to the rule here as they both have very large dogs.

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