Category Archives: Life

General life. Things that happen.

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.

Continue reading

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.

Tarmac and Tempe

It could happen to anyone, you’re sat in a great little restaurant in Indonesia and someone suggests that you do a cycle tour of local home industry.

Naturally what I should have said is, “You must be joking! This is Java’s second largest city, the roads have at least 6 times the amount of traffic they can cope with, lane discipline is non-existent, thousands of motorbikes zoom in all over the place at random, I’ve not found a single working seatbelt since I arrived and I’m pretty sure that every single one of the myriad of trucks is on Euro NCAP‘s top 10 blacklist of cycling death-traps”.

 Jl. Prawirotaman and The Grand Rosela Hotel

Jl. Prawirotaman and The Grand Rosela Hotel

That’s what I should have said. I have however been to India and I still have the image of a very brightly coloured but nonetheless very heavily built truck burnt on my retinas from when my tuk-tuk driver went through the central reservation into the fast lane of the opposite carriageway. Apparently it was “less busy”, apart from the enormous pile of steel hurtling towards us at 50mph, that is.
I have no idea how we got back on the right side of the road – either my brain has chosen not to remember or my peril sensitive sunglasses went blacker than a priest’s socks.

After that I figured that a cycle ride around Yogyakarta was small beer so I put my name down immediately. The trip was actually organised by one of the travel agents on Jl. Prawirotaman – I’m just not sure which one it was because it was ultimately Intrepid Travel that it was done through.

Anyway, at 8am our steeds were ready to collect. There was some degree of choice – although I’m not quite sure how I ended up with the little purple number. Unsurprisingly it was exactly like riding a mid range 1990s mountain bike that’s slightly too small. It was the “too small” element that I found irritating, if it wasn’t for that I might have been tempted to try to sneak off with it…

Purple!

Purple!

My partner however selected one of a number of more traditional looking bikes. This was a decent piece of equipment – complete with V-Brakes!

DSC00784

Despite the variable age of the bikes they were all well looked after; there were no nasty noises, no frayed cables, the gears functioned without a hitch and the brakes were well adjusted and keen.

Now, you will have to excuse the lack of any real action photographs. You will understand that photography was rather low on my agenda for most of this trip – somewhat below not being run over by a truck, side-swiped by a motorbike or blundering into a drainage ditch full of monitor lizards.

Predictably, just about as soon as we set off there was a mountain of traffic on our tails waiting to get past. That was the strange thing though, it was waiting to get past. It wasn’t nibbling at our back wheels as if our presence on the road was an offence to the gods of motoring. It actually felt strangely safe – each vehicle waited until it was safe (well, safe for Indonesia) then gave a quick “pip” of the horn to warn that it was overtaking. It was all rather civilised and not at all the chaos I was expecting to have to deal with.

The fact is that in Indonesia the roads are full of all types of vehicles that travel at different speeds. In a modern car you’re perpetually behind something slower. So this is what road users in Indonesia expect – they don’t get frustrated with slower moving traffic because even if they can blast past this one they’ll only get a few yards before they come up behind something else slow moving.

In the West we seem to think that we have some sort of right to drive at – or slightly above – the speed limit. As a cyclist the fact that this is not the philosophy of Indonesian road users at all was really very refreshing indeed.

The other refreshing thing about the traffic is that the flows move and change, adapting organically to changing circumstances. Throw out a signal and you can feel the traffic start to adapt, sometimes to the extent that a space appears for you to move into. Road users in Indonesia cooperate with each-other because that way everyone gets to their destination faster.

I was genuinely surprised, I would definitely cycle in Indonesia again, in fact I’d rather cycle in Indonesia than in some European locations and certainly more than in the USA.

So in between marvelling at the road systems we dropped in on a few home industries – this model is big in Indonesia. Small, generally family run concerns just big enough to buy machinery and make some use of economies of scale.

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First we discovered how tofu is made – in an anonymous looking farm building all of about 15m square. It was mighty hot in there though – not a job I think I’d have much stamina for. Nevertheless it transpires that making tofu is really quite simple. I may have to try it at some point!

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It was on the way to the rice fields when I noticed just how easily I’d dropped back from my modern disk / v-brake “3 fingers round the bar, 1 finger round the brake lever” to the old “3 fingers round the brake lever, one round the bar” that was needed with cantilevers. The importance of this fact is almost entirely due to chickens. In Indonesia it appears they have taken the place of the pheasant as the creature most likely to hurl itself under you wheels for no good reason whatsoever.

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Then our guide started complaining about his tan lines. I’m not quite sure who wins, I think we’re about even…

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So I now know a lot more about the production of rice and it’s labour intensive stuff, lots of people working long hours in heat that never really drops below 30 Celsius.

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Cohabiting with the rice fields are people making bricks. There doesn’t seem to be much set-up as it were, just a couple of buckets and a frame. The bricks are left to dry out in the sun before being “burnt” as our guide described it.

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The final home stop of our trip was at Kwt Rahayu‘s modest home, for a lesson about tempeh. Soya beans are wrapped in banana leaves and left in the sun to ferment naturally. The result is partially fermented soya cake – it’s still got some crunch left to it and the fermentation process develops a wonderful flavour.

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Kwt Rahayu has a lot of trophies and some of them at a national level – “almost all”, explains our host, “for tempeh”.

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We then dropped in on a batik “factory”. Actually it was a showroom and this always makes me a little suspicious about the finances and the working conditions. They weren’t at all pushy however, a fact that gives a certain amount of confidence.

By now it was late morning and it was beginning to get hot so we headed back into the city. On the way though we spotted another of Indonesia’s home industries…

DSC00773OK, so they’re not actually building planes in small commercial shelters, this is actually for training. But it’s still rather a strange thing to come across on the outskirts of Yogyakarta!

By the end of it all I was really quite fond of my little purple mountain bike, I really didn’t want to have to give it back. I didn’t want to get on the plane back home either – Indonesia is a spell-binding country, I could have easily spent a couple of months there, not just a couple of weeks.

The Corsa SRI

We use hire (rental) cars at The University a lot which gives me the chance to drive a range of different cars. Today the hire car fairy brought me a Vauxhall (aka Opel) Corsa SRI. In yellow.

Yellow Peril!

Yellow Peril!

I was quite looking forward to driving it because it’s really popular with car modders, so presumably there’s something a bit special about it, right?

Err, yeah. I found that out really rather quickly, but first let me tell you what’s good about it.

It feels like good value for money. I’ve driven a few cars that feel like pieces of agricultural machinery with a few pieces of friendly plastic Blu-Tacked to them. The Corsa is pretty solid, well put together. Obviously there have been compromises but there’s nothing that rings out as glaringly cheap. Nothing agricultural.

The equipment is clearly a bit of a compromise. Boxes have been ticked, but the features are often difficult to use. Cruise control for instance, it’s there but it’s a bit of a battle compared to more upmarket Vauxhalls.

Nevertheless on the road the car is direct and feels very well connected to the road, you can throw it into a corner with confidence and know that you’re not going to be constantly fighting understeer.

It’s clearly relatively cheap and if you’re not expecting top class then it’s relatively well equipped.

But Where’s the Engine?

Thanks I suspect largely to the gearing the car is very nippy around town. I don’t live in a town, I live in the middle of nowhere. Sure it’s pretty nippy on narrow country lanes too but as soon as you get out onto wider roads you realise that only the first two inches of throttle pedal travel actually makes any difference.
I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much of a journey at 4500rpm trying to smash my foot through the bulkhead screaming “MORE POWER! MORE POWER!”
I can accept peaky small engines that have no guts outside the power band – I drive a Japanese car after all – but this engine has nothing in the power band either.

The Stereo is Woeful

Precisely No Features

Precisely No Features


A new car that doesn’t have DAB, USB or Bluetooth. Really? Just a CD player and AM / FM radio. Surely there are laws against this kind of cruelty. I wasn’t in the mood for Radio 4 and I’m not old enough to listen to Radio 2 so I whipped out my hand AUX cable and plugged the phone in. No matter how I tweaked the settings though I couldn’t get it to sound good. So when I stopped for a cuppa I tried tweaking the considerably more extensive graphic equaliser on my phone. Nope, the speakers are clearly made of cheese.

Clearly a Good Candidate for Modification

So to summarise, we have a car that handles well, is comfortable, is of generally good quality and comes with a good basic level of equipment. There’s a lot of potential for improvement however, almost everything could use a step up to the next level but I’ll single out the stereo (woeful) and the engine (was there one?) for particular attention. Coincidentally these happen to be the first two items that modders seem to want start tweaking…

The Road To Hull…

I rather suspect that I was not the one person that James thought would be reading his blog article, but nevertheless I did and with some interest. There are many routes to and indeed through university and it struck me just how different my story is to his.

Sadly this tale takes place before the prevalence of digital photography so it’s a little light on images. In fact it really begins at a time when photography itself was in its infancy, paint was the order of the day.

John Constable: The Wheat Field

John Constable: The Wheat Field

Never Destined for University

My ancestors didn’t go to university. Most of them barely went to school. They were farm hands and factory workers with the odd miller and dressmaker thrown in just to add spice. In 1944 however there were significant changes to the state education system – changes that meant that both my parents were able to get a far better education that their predecessors.

I was born into what was very definitely a white collar family. I would argue that we were working class – even though my parents made their living with the pen and not the plough we had no central heating, double glazing, car or telephone.

I was a normal child, I loved sport and playing outside, building dens and generally acting like I was a character from a Just William book, or more likely from the Beano. I quickly noticed though that my interest in science and maths was a little more keen than most of the kids around me. The roofs of my dens stayed up and it wasn’t my aerial runway that snapped, dropping Craig derrière-first into some very uncomfortable looking brambles.

In the early 1980s home computing was taking off and my elder brother wanted to be right at the cutting edge. We couldn’t afford that, but we had a steady stream of second hand equipment that he’d push to its absolute limit. I was a bit young for this but I tried to join in, I think I annoyed him quite a bit but these were valuable lessons to me. I learnt to program a computer when I was about 8 years old, about the time I learnt the offside rule.

I found school frustrating. I had trouble concentrating in the classes I wasn’t interested in and trouble coping with how slow the ones I was interested in moved. Nevertheless I did quite well, but I’m sure there were a few teachers tearing their hair out in the full knowledge that if I actually applied myself in their classes I could have done so much better.

I knew what I wanted to be though. I knew at 8 years old that I wanted to be a computer programmer. These were exciting times and the more and more I heard in the media and the more equipment I managed to get on the bench in front of me the more I was sure. Studying history was just not where it was at. Who learned anything from history anyway? Computing, that was where you had to be. Computing was going to be increasingly important in society and it was going to be where I made my career.

There was a problem however. My parents were quite remarkable simply because they had both stayed on at school to get O Levels and not left to find work at 14 (or even 11). A Levels? University? It wasn’t something that was in my culture. Besides, by age 16 I felt that I’d had just about enough of formal education, I felt I was being babied by the system, it was channelling me down a very generic route and actually preventing me from studying the things that would be best for my future.

British Telecom Research Laboratories

Fortunately for me, British Telecom’s world renowned research facility at Martlesham was a comfortable cycle ride from where we lived and at 16 I joined their Trainee Technician Apprentice scheme to train to be an electronic research technician. I never had any intention of actually working as an electronic technician though, by that point it was clear that electronics research in the UK was all but dead. If BT were going to continue with research it was going to be in software, not electronics.

The training group had tried their best to alter the apprenticeship to reflect this, but in reality they hadn’t gone anywhere near far enough.

BTRL - Now Called Adastral Park

BTRL – Now Called Adastral Park

I was young and rather petulant, the course wasn’t what any of us needed and I was – on reflection – rather obnoxious about this. I almost got fired. Several times. They really weren’t happy with me doing just enough to scrape through the electronics stuff and using the time and facilities to learn more the kind of computing that I thought I was going to need. To them I was pig-headed and insubordinate. To me they were irretrievably mired in the dogma of a dying industry. I was just – but only just – smart enough to toe-the-line enough not to actually get fired, even so I sailed pretty close to the wind a few times. I even wrote a farce called “BT Terminated” which loosely chronicled the battles I had with the Training Division. They found a copy of it and did not see the funny side. I almost got fired for it.
Nevertheless I did actually enjoy my time as an apprentice and the TTA scheme was hugely important to me, a lot of the skills that I still use today were learnt on that programme.

Somehow I made it through

For some reason I thought a purple silk shirt and braces was a good idea.

BT’s Operations and Maintenance Centre

I graduated from the training scheme and went into the OMC team. At that time the Operations and Maintenance Centre was a network of computers that controlled the vast majority of telephone exchanges in the UK. This was very different to the systems I’d been working on as a trainee which were generally small experimental developments.

The OMC team wasn’t really my first choice, the problem was that I was very conscious of what the training division thought of me and there was no guarantee of a job at the end of the apprenticeship, so I thought any job in software development was a good outcome.

Unfortunately I walked straight into the same kind of problems that I’d battled throughout my apprenticeship: the OMC used some rather dated technology and methods and wasn’t really compatible with my enthusiasm for being on the front-line of technology.
They viewed me as a having a dangerous obsession with the cutting edge that was putting the UK’s telephony infrastructure at risk and I viewed them as dangerous Luddites whose desperation to cling on to the 1970s, use defunct and irrelevant methodologies and archaic technology was putting the UK’s telephony infrastructure at risk. The truth of course, was somewhere in the middle and if we hadn’t all been quite so pig-headed I think we could have achieved something rather significant.

It was in the OMC team though that I first learnt the realities of trying to build and maintain a large mission critical system that required extraordinary resilience. A lot of the lessons I learnt then are very much still with me today.

I was conscious though that my technical skills were falling behind the curve and that was going to make it difficult for me to find a more suitable position. I needed to get out of there or my career would suffer. Unfortunately at the time the OMC team was deemed to be under-performing which made it very difficult for anyone to transfer out. If I was going to get out, it was almost certainly going to be out of BT.

Then a few things kind of happened at once. Firstly, a new boss arrived – he’d come through the graduate programme which wasn’t unfamiliar to me, I’d worked with graduates during my training programme and these were some of my favourite times, their theories and my practical ability were a good combination in the research environment. We made some pretty remarkable stuff happen.

That did not happen here.

The new boss was a nice guy and he was doing his best, but he was a new graduate trying to deal with an embittered and demotivated team and he wasn’t shining. To me it was really obvious: he had no special ability, no great knowledge of how to develop software that had been imparted to him in the hallowed halls of some arcane seat of learning. He was now just like I was when I was 16, starting out learning his trade, it’s just that he was doing it as a manager not as a technician.

Some time around then, one night in the darkest corner of the dingiest nightclub in town a girl I’d met a few weeks before said something that would change my life forever.

She said “You must meet my friend, I think you’ll like each other”.

Some Kind of Stranger

You know those things that really only ever happen in films? Your eyes meet across a crowded room, you tip your hat, smile and calmly wander over to where she’s stood. Something witty immediately springs into your mind and everyone lives happily ever after. Yeah, it didn’t go anything like that.

I’d never been formally introduced to a girl who I was supposed to like before and it was all a little awkward. We both – almost immediately – pursued relationships with other people. Nevertheless I couldn’t get the girl out of my head so I was glad that we started turning up in the same place a lot of the time. I was more glad that I wasn’t the only one doing it deliberately. With the pressure off we’d chat a lot and, well nobody was surprised when those other relationships didn’t last so long.

One of the first things she told me however is that she was going to University next year. I knew that almost all long distance University relationships fail – and fail quickly. I didn’t want to lose her.

I’d long held the idea that when I was a bit older I’d take what amounted to a career break and go to University. It was a target that I’d chalked onto the wall of things that I’d like to achieve at some unspecified point in the future.

Right now I was going nowhere in my job. I knew that this was the kick up the arse that I actually needed.

I looked at the new boss’s salary and mine. I looked at the progress that I could possibly make in 3 years if I stayed. I did the sums, I calculated the opportunity cost. It was clear that getting a degree for me at that time was a good investment.

At the time the web was taking off and the opportunities for software developers were rapidly increasing. I thought it highly unlikely that I would struggle to find a job even if university didn’t work out. The girl however, she was definitely for keeping.

BT did sponsor people to go university but they only allowed the cream of the crop to apply and not only did I have a the under-performance of the OMC team to contend with but the fact I’d narked off pretty much everyone in my command chain throughout my entire career up to that point.
BT were however offering voluntary redundancy which, if used wisely, might just see someone through 3 years of study.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Unfortunately the redundancy scheme was closing and it would leave me with a 9 month gap until until the start of the next academic year. So I took a career break and I actually ended up working for Suffolk Wildlife Trust. They needed IT skills which I could provide, at the same time I was able to get out into the meadows and woodlands of Suffolk as part of their habitat management function. Spending 9 months of my life not chained behind a desk was just the sort of break I needed.

A lot of this work actually meant leading teams of volunteers and this was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. These people wanted to work, but a lot of them – for a variety of reasons – had been tossed onto the scrapheap of life. Many of the people had learning difficulties and this is one of the times I remember my perspective on the world suddenly whirling round to a totally different angle. I had to find a new way to lead because what worked in the lab and on the sports field wasn’t going to work here. I learned compassion, patience, understanding. I learnt to lead by not just giving orders but also by supporting people and enabling them to get the job done. Mostly it was simple things like not sighing when I had to explain for the 19th time that day how to use a brush saw. Seeing someone’s expression turn from sadness to joy just with the simple words “You’re doing a good job!” is a powerful thing indeed.

The skills I learned at SWT have helped me in so many ways in so many different parts of my life I can’t even begin to try to quantify. I was genuinely sad when my time with them came to an end.

Going to University

...from my student card

…from my student card

Hull got short-listed almost by default, it was one of only six universities that offered both the degrees we wanted. Outside of Oxbridge it was the second highest rated. We also both knew people at Hull and it came with good personal recommendations.
It’s worth mentioning that I was 21 at the time which meant that I counted as a mature student and the fact that I didn’t have A levels or equivalent academic qualifications was therefore not an automatic bar to my acceptance onto a course. Having said this I did still have problems getting traction with quite a few places. I realise it was easy to overlook my application, I’d done an apprenticeship in electronics but that probably just meant that I was just really good at soldering. Similarly I’d worked for a software house as a software technician but that could mean that I was just loading copies of Word onto people’s PCs. Hull was one of very few establishments that I believe properly considered the detail of my application rather than simply dismissing it on face value.

I wasn’t exactly the normal first year student. I’d already been through the phase of being young and away from home. I’d also come from an environment where not turning up in the morning because I’d overdone it the night before wasn’t an option. I went out a lot, but I knew when to call it a night. Having said that there are plenty of weekends that I plainly don’t remember.

So in a remarkable turn-up for the books I turned out to be a model student. I’d finally got myself into the environment that I wanted, actually studying the subject I wanted. Sure there were aspects of the course that I didn’t agree with but I’d grown up a lot since leaving BT. Yes I was still annoyed because I believed my time could be better spent in some areas but I’d gained a sense of perspective, the problems really weren’t that bad and the overall result was very much for the better.

At the time the big software corporations hadn’t got involved as much with student activity. There were a few events, notably The British Computer Society Challenge which is the reason you’ll find my name etched into one of the plaques on the wall in the department.
The department itself also ran a number of challenges which I always seemed to manage to unintentionally avoid, usually through strange coincidences such as them happening to book the closing date on the same day as a major music festival.

I had fleeting involvement in Freeside. When it started the main aim was to explore free, open source software and to get such operating systems (not just Linux) running on any hardware it could get its hands on (not just PCs). I would have liked to have spent more time on/in Freeside but it just didn’t happen, by the time I really became aware of it I was moving into my third year and a lot of extra-curricular activity was dropped so I could concentrate on the important things.

I don’t remember much about the third year, I don’t remember a single exam and I only have the vaguest memories of graduation.

Graduate Life

Apart from a brief sortie into the world of database middleware development I stayed in the area of communications and large public safety systems. Something had changed though, I was no longer that petulant child trying to fight against everything I saw as wrong. All that natural drive and energy were now being used in a positive direction, they were making a huge difference in my career and were really helping the businesses that I worked for.

The Seed Office at about 8am...

The Seed Office at about 8am…

In 2008 however I was ready for a new challenge, something that I knew was going to be different and take me to places I’d not been before. So 8 years after graduating I rejoined the University of Hull, this time not as a student but to lead the development of the Brigid Command and Control system. Seed Software has undergone a few changes since then and my role has changed and developed. Being a student at Hull was the first time I really felt at home with my career in computing. Being there as a leader and a mentor is an immensely fulfilling role and one I hope to be able to continue for some time to come.

If you’re wondering what became of the girl, I saw her recently. She’s doing well, has a very successful career. She lives in a little Georgian Cottage in Suffolk with a small black and white cat and her husband, who just happens to be a certain Computer Programmer.