Category Archives: Life

General life. Things that happen.

Tanya And Tom Do Racing

I have been known to point a camera at a thing – quite often that thing is a racing car. I do it as my own personal challenge but other people seem to like the results, which is one of the reasons behind the TanyaAndTomDoRacing Instagram account.

I do find however that I get asked two questions quite a lot and as Instagram isn’t really the place for a FAQ…

You Must Have Some Really Good Kit?

The direct answer is no, I don’t. In fact this is a pet peeve of mine, not just in photography but in many hobbies.

If you have a good eye, enough knowledge, skill and technique then any entry level major brand Digital SLR camera and many bridge cameras are perfectly capable of taking very good photos – in many cases professional quality photos.

The key about a Digital SLR camera is that it puts control of the optics and the sensor into the hands of the operator, allowing the photographer to make artistic decisions about how the light is captured.

This is one of my favourite (but not technically best) photos, taken at Goodwood Revival in 2015.

It was taken with a Nikon D3000 and a Nikkor AF-S 55-300 F4.5-5.6 D G VR DX lens: entry level kit. What makes the photo is the framing, the choice of subject, the angle to get the reflected sun, the 1/25 shutter speed and a big chunk of luck with the panning.

You can’t compensate for deficiencies in any of those things by throwing more money at it.

Yes, I would have liked a higher resolution sensor and in an ideal world I would probably have used a lower ISO value and larger aperture but I could easily pay 10 times as much for kit to get a photo that is only marginally better.

Digital SLRs are not supposed to be smart, they’re not about image processing and fancy modes to try to make something out of nothing, they’re all about controlling how the light falls on the sensor. There’s only so much that clever electronics and software can help and the best of that is often found not in SLRs – where it might actually degrade the photographic quality – but in compact cameras.

Here’s a case in point:

I like this photo, but it’s not one of my favourites. Taking the standard sharp foreground, blurred background photo is like shooting fish with a Digital SLR.

This photo wasn’t taken with a Digital SLR though, it was taken with a Sony DSC-HX50, a £200 compact camera.

It’s possibly my favourite ever camera, simply because of the amount of power it puts in a genuinely pocket sized piece of equipment.

It does have modes to put optical control in the hands of the user (as seen above), but what you can do is limited – mostly by the physical size of the device. To compensate for the fact that there simply isn’t room for better optics it’s stuffed full of electronics and software.

This shot, for instance, was taken hand-held at a beach cafe somewhere in Indonesia using all the electronic aides available (and needing them).

In an ideal world I would have had a Digital SLR mounted on a tripod and I could have taken a slightly better picture. In an ideal world the person in the picture would be a model who wouldn’t have moved.

The problem is that the person in the picture isn’t a model, she was one of the tour group and I couldn’t really ask her to hang about whilst I set a tripod up or stay still whilst I took the photo. The moment was there, I was able to capture it specifically because I had a compact camera with a night mode that I could select in a second.

The bottom line is this: you can take really good pictures with a sub-£100 camera. The problem is that the capabilities of that camera will be limited, which will limit where, when and the type of picture you can take.

If you spend a bit more, around the £200-£300 bracket you can get cameras that are far more capable and put a good amount of control in the hands of the photographer.

Above that you hit the wall of diminishing returns pretty hard. Between £100 and £200 there’s a huge jump in capability and quality. Between £200 and £300 less so. When you get above that then you can find yourself paying an awful lot of money for very little improvement and you have to ask yourself whether it’s really worth the money.

If you’re thinking of turning professional or if you spend every waking, non-working moment dreaming about photography then fine, maybe it is. For most of us it’s not.

But You Should Sell Your Photos / Turn Professional!

I’m flattered, sincerely and genuinely that some people think my photos are good enough to make money out of, but the reality is that they aren’t.

OK, some of them are and course if people want to pay me to use / print them then we can talk about that… the point is that it’s not worth me actively pursuing trying to sell them.

As I said above, taking the standard “sharp foreground, blurred background” racing car photo is shooting fish in a barrel with a Digital SLR – anyone with any understanding of the principles of photography can do it.

It used to be difficult because with (wet) film you had no idea how good the photo was until you developed it. You can’t do that at the track-side. That means you needed a lot of experience to know exactly what settings and techniques were required because you were shooting blind.

With a Digital SLR you can press the shutter and have the image on a HD tablet within a couple of seconds. You can closely analyse the picture, work out what needs changing and then go again with an improved set up within a few seconds.

At any Formula 1 Grand Prix there must be at least a thousand people doing pretty much that and a good portion of them will be producing shots as good as mine or better. There are only a handful of places you could sell the pictures to and they’re all looking for something that is not just technically good, but has something extra that makes it stand out.

Perhaps something like the first picture in this article, but with a little more sharpness on the helmet and without the smear in the bottom left caused by the head of some bloke who wandered into shot.

I have thousands of photos in and around race tracks and other motorsport events. I have only a handful of photos that I genuinely believe anyone would pay money for.

If you want some idea of the differences then look at the Instagram streams of the professionals:

James Moy @f1photographer
Lollipop Magazine
(Joshua Paul)
@lollipopmagazine (my favourite)
Peter J Fox @peterjfoxy
Sutton Images @suttonimages
Darren Heath @darrenheathphotographer
McLaren @mclaren
Ferrari @scuderiaferrari
Williams @williamsmartiniracing
Red Bull @redbullracing
Toro Rosso @officialtororosso
Force India @forceindiaf1
Renault @renaultsportf1
Sauber @sauberf1team
Haas @haasf1team
Mercedes @mercedesamgf1
Prema @prema_team
Racing Engineering @racingengineering
Russian Time @teamrussiantime
ART @artgp_official
DAMS @damsracing
Campos @camposracing
Trident @trident_team
Rapax @rapaxteam
Arden @ardenmotorsport

 

 

My Favourite Little Friend

Lily Asleep in the garden

[originally written February 9th 2017]

You know before you step out the door. You’re going to the rescue centre, there will be something small and cute there and you will fall in love. You might tell yourself that you’re just going to look, but you’re not. You’re going there because you want to fall in love, you want to share your life.

You also know that one day it will end. The dog that jumps up to greet you after a hard day’s work that somehow makes it all better. The cat that sits and curls up on your lap and just purrs gently when everything seems lost. One day they will die. You know this, but when you’re stood in the rescue centre trying to work out a way of leaving without promising to take all of the animals you don’t accept it. You’re choosing a new life companion and in your head that companionship will last forever.

You know however as time passes that the day it must end is coming closer. When my cat Lily was about 14 I saw her laying motionless on my lawn. I found myself thinking that if she’d passed away I wouldn’t be so upset. 14 is a good age, she’d led a good life and right up until that day she’d been scampering round like a kitten. Yes, this was a good way to die, to find a sunny spot on the lawn on that warm spring day, to curl up and drift off into the big sleep just as she’d drifted off into any other sleep.

I crept closer to see if I could spot any sign of life. As my shadow fell over her I heard the faintest “mip” and she rearranged her paws. She was fine, just far more deeply asleep than usual.

I smiled and carried on walking, but that image stayed in my mind. If that’s how it happened, if one day I just found her curled up having just gone to sleep never to wake up, that would be OK.

Barring a miracle, that is not how it’s going to happen.

Looking back she wasn’t quite right this summer. We used to lose her in the summer, she  rarely came into the house. She’d be out prowling or sleeping either in the garden or in the nearby fields. She’d get sun-bleached, by late August she’d not be a black and white cat, more of a sort of brown stripy cat, not that we really had a cat you understand – she was nature’s child, wild and free.

This summer she spent a lot more time with us. We just put it down to old age and maybe not being as sprightly as she once was. As Autumn became winter however we noticed that she was losing weight fast. We tried a few different foods but none of them seemed to make a difference so we took her to the vet.

Initially all seemed fairly bright, there can be any number of reasons for older cats losing weight and many of them are treatable. As time progressed however there were more test results and we noticed more symptoms and the field of diagnosis narrowed. Sadly it was the benign things that were being eliminated. We’re now in a world where all probability points to her being terminally ill. We’re still not quite sure what the root cause is, but the weight of evidence points in that direction.

I hope that she isn’t in too much pain. Right now she doesn’t seem like she’s in too much pain so I still have that dream, that I walk out into the garden on a warm spring day to find her curled up in the sun, having shuffled off this mortal coil in the gentlest of sun and lightest of breeze.

The reality however is far more brutal. At some point she will be in pain. At some point the pain will be too much. At some point it will be better for my Lily, my dearest companion of the past 16 years if she were no longer here.

And I’m sat here now with tears streaming down my face as she walks all over the keyboard and rubs her cheek against mine.

At some point I will have to kill her.

I am terrified.


I wrote this post a few months ago and I didn’t publish it because at that time I thought it was – well – just too sad. It felt like I was writing her obituary long before she had died.

A few days ago Lily came to see me whilst I was asleep, she curled up and went to sleep next to me. For the first time I can remember when I woke she was still there. I dearly hoped that’s what I’d be able to tell you, that she’d died whilst peacefully asleep next to me. Sadly, as I predicted, that’s not how it was.

She had a brief spell where she seemed to recover a bit, but it soon became clear that it was temporary. She continued to become evermore frail. Over the past 2 weeks however it started to become noticeable that she wasn’t moving or even standing in the same way she used to. Her life seemed to consist of long periods of sitting on her favourite rug staring into space, going to the food bowl, going to the litter tray and coming to us for affection and comfort.

Reluctantly we concluded that by continuing to feed and care for her we were extending her life beyond its natural limit. As it was now clear that she was in pain we decided that to continue to care for her without there being a dramatic medical intervention was unethical.

We visited the vets last Friday and we were not able to come up with any medical solution that would have any reasonable prospect of giving her any further valuable life. We therefore took the decision to end her life in the most peaceful way possible.

We buried her in the garden on Saturday, in one of her favourite spots – almost exactly where the above photo was taken. Currently the spot is marked by a white lily plant. We say hello to her every time we go to work. She’s still with us, still part of our story, still part of who we are.

Rest in peace Lily, 17/04/2001 – 21/04/2017

[original artwork by Emma Green]

Never Work With Scientists or Engineers

Forget never working with children or animals. Never work with Scientists or Engineers.

Picture the scene, dear reader; the air is being turned blue with the kind of language usually reserved for the rugby scrum. Things are being thrown.

A calming voice comes from a distant room enquiring what the problem might be. I respond using “language” that mounting the picture in the frame has not gone as well as I had anticipated, it’s not quite central. I may have used the word “disaster”. I can’t recall what the other words were but I seem to recall them being quite short and decidedly pointy.

“But you can fix it,” comes that calming voice again, “you can fix anything.” I take a deep breath, think for a bit and conclude that yes, I can fix it.

There then follows a few minutes of calm and concentration before once again the demons are unleashed, the air turns blue again and more everyday household objects find themselves travelling at unnatural speeds towards various hard surfaces.

“Problems?” enquires the calming voice.

“Yes, ” I reply. You will understand of course that my actual reply was somewhat longer than this but there are international treatise preventing me from disclosing the full transcript. I then continue to explain the cause of my frustration, “have you ever tried to cut 1/4 of a millimetre off the side of a piece of A4 card? It’s impossible!”

It was at that point it hit me, I had a steel ruler on top of a piece of card, both clamped to a cutting mat and I was using a razor blade to trim off a tiny amount to correct an error that only I was ever going to know was there. It was pointless, I should have just put the card in the frame and forgotten about the tiny mistake.

That 1/4mm level of passion, that level of attention to detail is entirely the sort of thing that’s required if you’re an engineer that is, say, responsible for ensuring that 999 (911 ,112)  calls get dealt with correctly (which I am). When mounting a picture however it’s more like an anti-skill, a trait that does more harm than good.

Let’s Go to the Winchester…

Don't Vote Leave...It hit me about 4pm today that although I’ve done a lot of myth debunking on social media and directed people to well supported articles, I haven’t actually expressed my opinion on the EU Referendum.

It was inevitable.

In the UK we’ve had something like 8 years of economic stagnation. Whenever something like that happens there are certain things that history tells us will follow. People will lose faith in the politicians of the day and start looking for answers elsewhere. New movements will spring up saying that they have the answers. The things they say are always the same, we need to break free of regulation, bureaucracy and red tape, we need to empower the individual, the problems are caused by some external entity (usually immigrants) and most of all we need to take our country back and make it great again.

Right now that’s Farage, Trump, Le Penne, Marusik, etc.

These things are not the answers because the sad, soul crushing reality is that there are no answers right now.

Our problems are not caused by our membership of the EU, Boris Johnson said as much in 2013, I’m paraphrasing but basically “the only thing leaving the EU would achieve is to make Britain face up to the fact that its problems are not caused by the EU.”

Our problems are caused by a combination of the poor performance of the global economy and our own mistakes and inadequacies. We have consistently failed to invest in public services and infrastructure. We have failed to properly regulate the financial sector. Time and time again we have put short term gains before the necessary long term strategy. These things and others are the cause of our current malaise, not our EU membership.

I can’t believe it, but I basically agree with what Boris said in 2013 (I disagree on many of the details, BTW).

Leaving the EU will not bring us any significant gain, even in the areas that the Leave campaign are targeting.

If we stay in the Free Trade Area (like Norway and Switzerland) we will have to accept almost all of the EU’s rules, including the free movement of people.
At the moment we’re one of the big 3, with France and Germany we’re the most influential countries in Europe. We’d lose that so we’d effectively lose sovereignty – because at the moment we have some control.

It would also make democracy worse as at the moment we all have a voice through the UK government and through our MEPs. We’d lose that.

I’m sure I needn’t point out that the proposed points system on immigration is highly unlikely to be acceptable to the EU if we remain in the Free Trade Area.

So we’re talking about a substantial divorce from Brussels, that’s the only way we can get any freedom of movement on immigration. Sovereignty and democracy are more complex arguments but neither would be a cavalcade of success. They’re both pretty minor gains if you analyse them in depth (NATO, WTO, IMF, UN, House of Lords, FPTP etc).

The problem with this is that even the Leave campaign recognise that this would hit our economy hard. Unemployment would rise, the welfare bill would rise and the economy would slow down long term. The slower the economy the less money there is flowing around the less the government gets in tax, the less we can afford to pay out in welfare and services. Even a tiny slowing would eclipse the EU membership fee from the government’s budget so what we’re facing here is not investment in services like the NHS, but even more and ever more severe cuts at a time when we really, really don’t need that because half our problems are caused by our failure to invest in the past.

The numbers can only work if we remain in the Free Trade Area which gains us nothing but a tiny bit of pride. It’s pointless.

There’s no quick fix for the situation we’re in, it’s going to be a long hard slog but there will be an upturn. When there is there’ll be more money flowing in the economy so the government will get more in tax and we can afford to put right some of the mistakes of the past.

If we stay we can hold our heads high, we’ll be at the top table of the EU, the largest market in the world, a major player on the world stage. If we leave we seriously risk becoming an ever more irrelevant and isolated sad little island.

I am proud to be from Suffolk, proud to be English, proud to be British. I care about this country and I care about its place in the world, so I will be voting to remain a member of the European Union.

 

[You will appreciate this is rather a hasty hack of an article, I haven’t really had time to properly reference it and I’ve glossed over a lot of detail that I would have included if I had longer]

I Was Growled at by a Car Lion

Samson Car Lion

Samson the Car Lion

Meet Samson, he’s a Car Lion. His job is protect the car he’s in against any unwanted attention. Currently he lives on the dash of our hauling, ferrying and carrying car – a Honda Jazz (aka Fit) called Delilah.

Samson is a very happy Car Lion, Delilah is very spacious inside, so he has a large territory. The Jazz/Fit also has a considerable amount of glass in the cabin and the cab-forward design means that he has a large and very prominent area to prowl and make sure that all is in order.
He also likes window stickers and we keep him well supplied with them.

Samson's Favourite Snack

Samson’s Favourite Snack

Now let me introduce you to another Car Lion with a less fortunate story. You see it came to pass that we needed to buy a second car. We didn’t really know what we needed or how long we’d need it for so we played it safe and bought a Ford Fiesta. We called the car “Rory” because he didn’t need a name, he was only “tempoRory” [sic].

It may surprise you to learn that Ford Fiestas are often supplied without a Car Lion to protect them. So we went to Africa Alive and came back with this gorgeous little fellow. It was clear that this Car Lion was far too big to live on Rory’s dash though, so we came to an arrangement that he would live on the back seat.

Rory's Car Lion

Rory’s Car Lion

He liked to sleep a lot when he wasn’t on duty so he liked it there – it was warm and soft. Being somewhat larger than Samson he wasn’t too worried about being on higher ground because he could easily jump up and growl at any potential miscreant. It’s true that Rory wasn’t as roomy as Delilah is, but it had some additional creature comforts such climate control and more importantly an MP3 player – because Car Lions have got to have their choonz.

I have to admit that we didn’t really think about the Car Lion in Rory. He was there, doing his job and he seemed to be happy enough. It didn’t occur to me that we might be neglecting him – we had after all given Rory a name and we weren’t intending to keep Rory long. The poor Car Lion didn’t even have a name.

It was when we sold Rory that it finally dawned on me. As I took him from the back seat the full horror hit me – the back seat. The car we replaced Rory with is a much more permanent affair, she’s called Mina and, well, the problem is rather obvious.

Mina

Mina

So there were two things I needed to make up to our sadly anonymous Car Lion. The first was easy for me – although Mina is very snug she’s a convertible which means that she makes an excellent home for a Car Lion. He can stay safe and warm when he needs to or go out and prowl as far as he likes. Being in the front seat however there was a problem – the car only has two seatbelts and he’s too big to have roaming around when we’re both in the car. So I made him a little seatbelt of his own.

Car Lion All Strapped In

Car Lion All Strapped In

The second problem is more difficult – the obvious name for a Car Lion that protects a car called Mina is Jonathan, but Mina wasn’t his first car so I think calling him Jonathan is unfair, we need to respect the very good work he did protecting Rory. So what do we call him?


It was somewhere in the region of 23 minutes before someone suggested Liony McLionface, which was rather longer than I expected. Other suggestions so far include:

  • Cecil (but I’d have to sew a bullet-hole through him somehow)
  • Cedric
  • Clarence (how rude!)
  • Denn (long story)
  • Don / Vito, as in Don Car Lione (badoom-tish!)
  • Kenneth
  • Kieran (another long story)
  • Leo
  • Lionel
  • Liono
  • McGrath
  • Numair  (Arabic – “panther”)
  • Simba
  • Roan Miry
  • Vlad

In the end we decided on a name, so meet Vito Car-Lione… He’d like to be your friend, and that’s an offer you can’t refuse.
Vito Car-Lione

Social Personality

Singapore

Singapore

I made a mistake when I joined The University of Hull back in 2008. I don’t mean that joining university was a mistake, it was one of the best career decisions I’ve made. I made a mistake with the way I used social media.
Part of the role at The University was to be an ambassador, to represent and promote the university and the field of computer science. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just use my existing social media accounts.” That was the mistake.

It led to two problems. The first is that my online persona changed. I suddenly became aware that I used the account for professional purposes. That changed the image of the account, it became my professional persona and it became very difficult for me to be the person that my friends know outside of the professional environment.
The second problem is that I started adding professional “friends” and followers.  That reinforced the first problem.
I went from someone who’d been very active on social media to someone who only posted the most carefully filtered content.

If you are a professional you have to be somewhat circumspect, once you’ve hit the “send” button you’ve lost an element of control – it’s out there. Even friend-locked posts and old blog articles can resurface at inopportune moments.

At the last interview I was at one of the interviewers let slip something that they couldn’t have known unless they’d read my blog – and not only that but it wasn’t in the most prominent article either. As a professional your online presence matters.

Fortunately the Victorian image of professionalism is now fading. I maintain however that a professional image is important. It’s about giving your clients and peers confidence that when you turn up to work you’re going to do a good job. For instance, if your social media streams contain a disproportionate amount of pictures and stories of you partying with your friends to all hours that’s going to damage your professional credibility.
A balance still needs to be maintained.

For myself however I no longer work for The University, in fact being an ambassador for computer science is no longer an official part of my job at all. So you’d think it would be easy for me to rectify those mistakes I made back when I joined The University and revert my social media personas back to being more like the real me. You’d think that. It appears to be proving more difficult than I thought, however.

Because Great Things Grow From Seeds…

Way Back When...

Way Back When…

I’d been working for Seed Software for a few short weeks when the manager announced that he was going snowboarding for a week. “Who’s in charge whilst you’re away?” I inquired, “You are!” came the reply.

Over a year ago I posted the story of how I came to work for Seed Software, but the story didn’t end there. There’s the small matter of what happened between then and me leaving Seed in October 2015. It was quite an experience. I’m not sure if people take me entirely seriously when I say that I learnt as much in Seed as any of the interns or students but it is nevertheless true.

So I’d just about worked out where the stationary cupboard was and suddenly I was being asked to run the business. This was definitely not in the job description for a software developer but before I made that point I took a moment to think about it. I’d spent the past few years in my previous company trying to convince the senior management that some software developers understood more than just matters technical. I’d had some success, but here was an opportunity for me to prove it by stepping right into the front line of running a business, if only for week.

Nothing much happened, it was rather an uneventful week. I don’t know if I was more disappointed or relieved. Nevertheless it cemented my position as being very actively involved in the running of the business of Seed Software.

After that I started getting down to trying to learn WPF and WCF, neither of which I’d used before, and trying to build a Command and Control system. I’d got out on the road a bit too, the C&C was very much developed with the Fire Service which meant frequent visits to site with the latest developments to make sure we were all heading in the same direction. I’d also been to a few of the other sites because although the other products were managed by the Seed Manager there was only one of him and we needed some resilience.

It was that need for resilience that soon bit us, “Tom,” the Seed Manager said, “Erm… I’ve double-booked myself. I don’t suppose you could cover a sales presentation next week? I’ve got the slides and everything.”

This wasn’t entirely unexpected. I’d known before I joined Seed Software that it was just a software development team. There were no sales, marketing or operations staff. A business can’t survive without these functions though which left only one conclusion: the development team were doing them. This is actually one of the things I found exciting about Seed, if the business was going to work and I was going to be successful within it I knew that I was going to have to get involved in these functions to a much greater level than I ever had been before. Sure I’d been to sales presentations, I was actually a bit of a regular, but I’d always been the “technical expert” that answered the questions that the salesperson couldn’t. I’d never actually delivered a sales presentation before.

As it turned out Seed’s presentation was part of a much larger event where several suppliers were pitching their wares at a group of senior fire officers from many services across the country.

This was a great learning opportunity for me – I was on relatively late in the day which meant that I had a lot of time to watch what the others presenters did and tune my own performance. I was expecting swish, professional salespeople to glide in and deliver polished shows that would make mine seem shambolic and amateurish.

That is not what happened. They were all professional enough but there was no performance, no spark, no charisma.

By my slot half the audience had been struck down with a nasty case of…

.

This is where it struck me how just how different Seed Software really was in 2009, there was nobody else like us there. I had some Powerpoint slides, just to get across some of the key information, but most of our sales presentations were live demonstrations of the kit. This, it transpired, was a breath of fresh air. I was able to engage with the audience, sleepy heads popped up and started asking questions. I ran out of business cards and had to start writing my details on the back of potential customers’ ones.

I was beginning to settle in to Seed, I was a lead developer, software architect, product manager, deputy business manager and occasional sales guy. The phrase “can do attitude” crops up in a lot of places and generally it means something it’s not supposed to but in 2009 / 2010 Seed Software embodied it in its true sense. It didn’t seem like there was anything that we couldn’t make work somehow.

2011 was not so kind to us. The business was growing too fast for The University to react and we were all having to put in way too much work just to keep our heads above water. To make matters worse the Seed Manager ran into a spot of bad luck – a couple of serious accidents ruled him out for extended periods of time. I found myself trying to develop the Command and Control, project manage delivery to the first control rooms and the subsequent go-lives and manage the business of Seed itself.

It was insane, one day I looked at my timesheet and I’d accumulated 28 extra days of time-off-in-lieu. I had to offload the management of the business to the department’s Enterprise Director, or I would have burnt out.

Despite the workload Seed was still a hugely positive, exciting place to work. What we’d achieved was pretty amazing too, two industry professionals and a bunch of students had successfully developed and delivered a mobilising system – the single most important computer system in a fire service – into two live control rooms.

The workload however was still out of control. Even with the Seed Manager back full time it was clear that we needed to make big changes. The Seed Manager position was actually a hybrid position, half developer, half manager. It was obvious that managing the business alone had now become a full time job. The role was therefore split into two, a senior developer and a dedicated business manager.

Preferring to retain a technical role, the Seed Manager left. I had also planned to leave – I knew that a chapter in the development of Seed Software was coming to a close. Seed was going to change, it was going to become more established, less dynamic. I also wanted to move back here, to Suffolk.

I did move, but I didn’t leave Seed. The University rather unexpectedly offered me a remote working contract. This threw up a whole myriad of new challenges. When I first became a remote worker I thought I’d be knocking out a steady stream of blog articles on what the problems were and how we were trying to solve them.

That’s a subject for another time however. As for the story, In October 2015 Seed was about 3 times the size it was in 2011, had a lot more products than it did an had begun to offer a support function. Brigid Command and Control is was well established as the primary mobilising system in the control rooms of 3 of the UK’s Fire and Rescue Services.

That just about brings my story at Seed to a close. But what about the future of Seed? The changes I predicted have certainly happened: I believe that Seed Software will become a highly successful business.

 

 

Ipswich Town Centre Blues

Ipswich isn’t the wealthiest large town in the UK but it’s certainly not in line for any EU deprivation grants. It does pretty well, yet there seem to be rather lot of empty shops in the town centre. It’s something I’ve particularly noticed since moving back to Suffolk (from Hull) 3 years ago.

So on a recent visit I thought I’d snap every empty shop I saw. I wasn’t prepared for just how many there were though!

Sure, I know that the effects that The Internet, out of town superstores and the remaining fallout from the global banking crisis have had on all town centres but some are faring better than others. Ipswich seems particularly bad.

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That Sinking Feeling…

Beer!“WE MUST HAVE THIS FIXED ASAP!” yells the customer’s head of ICT. The application stopped working some time last week and your support department haven’t managed to fix it yet.

“OK, OK,” you say, knowing that you will come to regret these words, “I’ll VPN in first thing tomorrow and sort it out. Will you send me the connection details.”

“I’LL SEND THE CONNECTION DETAILS IMMEDIATELY I GET OFF THE PHONE AND YOU CAN CALL WHEN YOU WANT TO CONNECT”, replies their head of ICT, because heads of ICT ALWAYS SPEAK IN CAPITALS.

08:00 the next day, no email. Send an email to the customer’s head of ICT reminding them that you need the VPN details.
No response. OK, fair enough, a lot of people don’t get in ’til 9am.

09:30 still no response. Email a bunch of other guys at the customer’s site asking if anyone knows the VPN details and is actually authorized to give them to you. Get a response saying that only the head of ICT is and he’s in a meeting ’til 10:30.

Wait ’til 10:45, no response. Try to find a phone number for the customer’s head of ICT. Apparently he doesn’t have a phone. Email him again. 11:15 get a rather terse email containing the connection details and the username and password in plain text.

Try them, they don’t work. No phone number in provided in the email. Try to find a phone number of anyone in the organisation who might actually be able to help. Find an old mobile number that now belongs to a photocopier salesperson who can’t really talk because she’s on the motorway, but she could do you a really good deal on a pre-owned Canon IRC3380i if you call back later.

Google the customer to try to find a switchboard number. End up in a multilevel call menu system where the only human option is to speak to a “customer relationship manger” about your account. Try that on the offchance. He thinks you’re from their ICT department and has no idea what you’re talking about.

11:30 Remember that you may have stored some old details for the customer’s other site, log in to the password vault. Find some that are 4 years old. Try them anyway, are genuinely surprised when they work. Make a mental note to inform the customer that they seriously need to do a security review.

Connect to the server the head of ICT said was the right one. Credentials don’t work. Neither do the stored ones. Email the head of ICT and everyone else you can think of who might possibly know how to log on to the server. Get no response.

12:00 Remember somewhere in the back of your mind that you once configured SQL Server authentication for one of their systems and there’s just a chance that they re-used the username and password from a domain account.

Log into the secure store and search the archived configs. Find a likely candidate and try the connectionstring details.

12:15 Scratch the head of ICT’s name into the side of a giant security rocket and direct it at his arse when said credentials actually work.

Spend half an hour setting up the diagnostics. Scratch head as to why nothing’s happening.

13:00 deduce that it’s the wrong server. Email the head of ICT and go for lunch.

13:30 return to an email from the head of ICT who is now working from home and doesn’t have the details to hand but has emailed an unnamed member of his team asking them to send them on.

Log back in to the wrong server. Expand the network section and have a look at the machines listed there to see if any of them look likely. No, but it does spawn an idea. Look back at the connectionstring from earlier and note that the Data Source is a name that ends -SQL try connecting to the same name with -GW on the end.
No dice. Try various combinations.

13:47 Eventually try -SVR4 and it works. Try the credentials from the connectionstring, they don’t work. Try the original details the head of ICT sent in the email, they work, but Remote Desktop is not enabled for that user. Try VNC with the same credentials, just in case. Nope.

Email the one person who responded earlier, carefully include a request for a phone number.

14:15 Get a response that contains no phone number but which politely explains that although the person can’t make the change Jack will when he gets back from lunch at 14:30.

14:45 Try logging in again. Still not enabled. Take 6 guesses at what Jack’s email address might be and email them all.

14:53 Field a call from the Customer’s Operations Director who is extremely angry that the system is still not working and your bungling incompetence at not being able to sort out your own software. Explain that there are some technical problems with the VPN connection that you’re trying to resolve right now. Try to persuade him that half hourly updates are not going to help anything and in fact are only going to slow things down.

15:07 Get an email from Jack confirming that he’s enabled the user for Remote Desktop. Log in to the server. Go to the application directory under Program Files and check the version numbers. Not only are they wrong they’re actually a mixture of the past 3 releases. Take a backup and install the latest versions.

Try to start the service. No dice. Scratch head. Just double-check the service executable location. Find it’s actually in “C:\Temp\Barry’s Memory Stick\From Old Server”. Start to get rather concerned that the customer’s assurances that “No we haven’t changed anything” omitted one small detail – the fact that they installed the app on a totally different server.

Look in the event log at the error that’s actually being reported – it transpires that none of the well documented pre-requisites for installing your application have actually been installed. Attempt to download them only to find that the server can’t connect to the Internet.

Start downloading them locally instead and pushing them one-by-one to the remote server.

15:35 Field another call from the Customer’s Operations Director who is extremely angry that he hasn’t got the half-hourly update that you talked him out of and that the system still isn’t working. Explain to him that escalating this won’t help because you are the most senior person that could possibly work on this and it’s your number 1 priority, the only thing it will do is create more admin load for everyone including him. Pretend to try transferring the call to your own CTO’s phone, pretend she’s not answering.

15:55 Ring your own CTO to let her know the situation and to expect an angry call imminently.

16:03 Final prerequisite installed; the service now starts, but it can’t connect to the database. Check the connection string. Note that it’s trying to connect to your own testing server – this is clearly the default config that someone has carelessly copied over the site config. Look at the other copy of the software and find a comment in the config that say’s it’s from Barry’s test system. There appear to be no backups of any version of the config.
Search the entire filesystem for anything that might be a past version of a valid config whilst taking a few random guesses at what the SQL Server might be called.
Email Jack asking if he knows what the configuration should be or at least where the old server is.

16:19 Answer a call from your own CTO who would just like to confirm that you really are doing everything you can. She tells you not to worry about “that email”.

16:21 Receive email from your CTO to their Operations Director into which you’re Bcc’d assuring him that his problem is “our top priority” and that disciplinary proceedings have been started against the employee he spoke to earlier for his “bad attitude” and that the situation is now being dealt with by “someone more senior”.

16:27 Get a call from a random junior techie at the customer’s site who has no idea what you’re talking about but has been told to sort it out because the Operations Director is very angry and wants something done. Note the phone number he’s called from. He promises to find the information you need, ensure you get his name.

16:47 No emails or phone calls, so call the number back. The person answering the phone is not the person you spoke to earlier and doesn’t know who he is, but thinks he may be “that new guy from ICT who was here earlier”. Try to get anyone’s actual phone number out of the person you’re speaking to who says he’d gladly give them out if he actually knew any of them. He transfers you to the Helpdesk, however. The guy you spoke to isn’t in the office and it’s a Thursday so Jack has gone to pick his kids up, but Barry’s about if you wanted to talk to him.

16:52 Barry sheepishly explains that it is actually the same server but that it’s got an entirely new RAID array because nobody noticed when the first disk in the previous array died, but they noticed really rather a lot when the second one did and they were hoping that they could get it fixed before anyone – especially the head of ICT – noticed. They did find a backup, but after the last security scare the Operations Director hired an external security consultant to come in and do an audit and he said that this server should be firewalled from the main network and nobody realised that this would mean that the backups stopped working and nobody noticed that either. So the backup was from just after the OS was installed and they tried to work out how the app should be configured.

Barry is fairly sure which server the database is on, but he doesn’t know which actual database because they’re all looked after by Dave who’s the DBA and he’s on long term sick leave with a major case of stress.

16:57 Talk Barry through SQL Server Management studio and find a database that looks like a good candidate and has recent entries.

16:59 Log on to the remote server and enter the connection string into the config. Start the Services snap-in and try to click the start button. No reaction. A few seconds later Remote Desktop says the connection is lost and it’s trying to reconnect. Realise that it’s exactly 17:00 and vaguely remember something about “office hours only” in the support agreement. Check the VPN, it’s down and wont reconnect.

17:03 Email your CTO with a progress update, casually scan Jobserve.

17:10 attempt to shut down laptop to find 12 Windows Updates waiting.

17:13 ignore the incoming call from their Operations Director, leave the laptop where it is and go to the pub.

At The End of the Day

Fortunately this wasn’t a real day, rather it’s an amalgamation of things that have genuinely happened to me either trying to work on a remote site or in some cases when I’ve actually been there.

My favourite example of a customer having “not changed anything” is in here but it’s somewhat watered down from the reality. They’d had a security audit and much like the story had added a firewall between two parts of their network. They’d also deleted a bunch of users from the database where they didn’t know what those users were for.

What they’d done was to revoke the server’s access to its database and put in place a firewall that not only prevented the clients from accessing the server but stopped the server accessing the external web service that it needed.

Apparently they definitely hadn’t changed anything and the application suddenly stopped working so therefore it couldn’t have been their fault.

Oracle: Stop Trying To Trick Me With Ask Toolbar

Ask Toolbar: Nothing to do With Java

Ask Toolbar: Nothing to do With Java

I’m calling Oracle out on this.

I spent the first 5 years of my career working with Oracle and I used to like them. Now though the only regular interaction I have with them is unticking the “would you like to install the Ask toolbar?” box every time there’s a Java update.

It does not give a good impression. Installing software isn’t something that’s particularly well understood by the man on the Clapham Omnibus. There is a certain fear that if you don’t do what you’re told then the software might not work properly. So most people just accept the defaults on the basis that this should work.
There is also the factor that software updates often ping onto your screen when you’re in the middle of something else. So you want to get it out of the way quickly. Again this tends to make people just click the defaults.

If you do that here you end up installing a piece of extra software that has nothing really to do with Java other than it being owned by Oracle. What’s more it’s something you almost certainly don’t want.

I have no problem with vendors advertising their other products in an install sequence and I don’t have any problem actually with them offering to install it.

There are two things that I do consider bad practice.

  1. Failing to clearly distinguish that you would be installing something other than (or as well as) the product you initially intended.
  2. Installing the software by default. The default should be not to.

Oracle isn’t particularly bad on the first one, one could say that the dialog looks like you’re accepting the licence agreement for Java but actually it’s reasonably clear. Oracle are a little marginal here for me. There are far, far worse offenders out there.

The second however is a straight red card. No way should an installer by default install something that the user didn’t ask for.

Please tidy your act up, Oracle.