Mange Tout, Rodney

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What’s in a name? What if mispronouncing it were part of a secret language? Decades ago, I encountered exactly that. It didn’t end well.

Tech background: the Postgres database system was built to replace Ingres. Postgres is portmanteau of Post-Ingres. When SQL support was added, they did it again and we got PostgreSQL. Many people call it Postgress, some add the SQL part in some way.

If there is a pronunciation of PostgreSQL that’s wrong, it’s Postgree. I can understand the confusion, though, so when the management team started saying that I tried to be nice. As the company’s foremost database geek, I figured if I dropped “Postgress” into conversation a few times they’d catch on. After all, if the management of a technical business mispronounces technical words, that doesn’t promote confidence in the business – and we were all pulling in the same direction there, right?

We were not. If anything my “help” made matters worse. I even started to hear the overall technical lead call it Postgree. So I invited him out to the car park for a polite word.

“It’s a management thing,” he told me, “it’s one of the ways they distinguish if you’re one of them.”

Omitting much for the sake of brevity, A them and us culture had developed (or perhaps was deliberately fostered). It included a secret language used by the management team. They were perfectly aware that all the buzzwords they were using were ridiculous and that they were, indeed, mispronouncing PostgreSQL. It was a tool which allowed them to talk openly but still exclude people from the conversation.

It won’t surprise you to know that the business struggled, in many ways.

I met up with someone from there a year or so back, “We’re dead,” he told me, “COVID has killed us.” The company couldn’t recruit technical people, which he firmly blamed on the rise in remote working. What he had wrong was that the company couldn’t afford to pay enough.

It’s true that some people focus only on the wage slip. It was a factor. Most of us are far more complex: we want job security, job satisfaction, camaraderie, things that make the course of the day a more pleasant experience.

That company still had a toxic culture. Nobody wanted to work there, but options in that region – before COVID – were limited. Now tech people had much more choice, they were choosing not to work there.

In a market where good people are excruciatingly difficult to attract, if you want to build a successful business you have to build a positive and progressive culture, make somewhere people want to work. It’s a necessary investment that’s good for all of us.

How To Lose 1.75Kg in an Hour

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Lockdown load? It’s one of the topics of the moment; people talking about their weight. Sure, weight is the most practical way we can measure body fat – but I hear people comparing one day’s figure to the next. That’s pointless, I mean it’s good for conversation, but really nothing else.

About ten years ago I saw something worse: people were weighing themselves before and after a gym session. There’s a good reason to do that, but it’s got nothing to do with fat. So I tried it.

A relative…

Yesterday I repeated that experiment. I grabbed a bottle of water and jumped on the scales. My water and I were 77.5Kg (12st 2, 170lbs) before I started.

At the end, my empty water bottle and I were 75.75Kg (11st 13, 167lbs). Over an hour’s workout 1.75Kg (around 3.5lbs) simply vanished. Miracle weight loss programme!

That echoed the results from ten years ago when I recorded losing 1.5Kg in an hour.

What happened? Annoyingly, calculating fat burn is next to impossible. My spin bike reckons I burnt 1661kcal, but it’s lying. Also, fat is also not the only source of energy when you exercise, so to use the bike’s calorie figure for a calculation would produce a massive overestimate. That massive overestimate would be 184g of fat. We know that’s a massive overestimate (did I mention that enough?) meaning that the amount of fat burnt is way, way under 10% of the weight I lost. I’d be surprised if it was even 2.5% (44g).

Almost all of that missing weight was either in the puddle under the bike or in the atmosphere around me. I lost it in sweat. The only useful information weighing yourself before and after a gym session gives you is a guide to how much water you need to drink to rehydrate properly.

To further prove the point, I rehydrated then cooked some dinner and weighed myself after eating. I was 78Kg (12st 4, 172lbs). In the course of 2 hours I had lost 1.75Kg and gained 2.25Kg, or lost about 3lbs and gained about 4lbs.

There are simply too many variables involved in your weight for it to give any short term indication of your body fat, even if you weigh yourself at precisely the same time every day. If you want to use weight as a measure, you have to look at the trend over several weeks.

I want to make a larger point, however. Us humans have evolved to operate over a pretty wide range of body fat. If you get outside that range, in either direction, it causes problems. We all know this. Built on top of this however is a huge industry constantly pumping out messaging that pressures everyone toward the lowest edge of that healthy range and even beyond it.

The slimmer the accepted, fashionable image of health is, the more people the health and fitness industry can sell their products to. This isn’t a coincidence.

The media also loves this particular train. It’s always full of stories about how this celebrity or that celebrity has gained or lost weight. This idea that people should be way toward the smaller side of the healthy range constantly provides the media with content.

Now, let me show you Steve Backshall‘s Instagram. If you don’t know who he is, he’s a British TV presenter and adventurer with a reputation for fitness. Read what he has to say under the post.

First let me draw attention to the fact that he does have some visible body fat. Not a lot, but if you take a look around his waist it is there. Now let me draw attention to the fact that he trained and dieted for six weeks specifically for this shoot. Yes, that’s really him – but it’s not how he usually looks.

This isn’t real life.

Humans evolved to be able to cope with different and changing circumstances; storing fat in the good times and burning it in the bad. Today’s society where few of us have to worry about where the next meal is coming from is something we didn’t evolve for. If we don’t pay some attention then we can easily end up storing more and more fat for a bad time that’s never going to come.

At the other end, though, it’s still good to have a small amount of fat. It helps us when we’re ill or when we have to deal with other unexpected circumstances. Skinny does not mean healthy.

Being between these extremes matters. The soap opera that is your weight day-to-day does not. The health and fitness industry, the fashion and beauty industries and the media are all trying to manipulate you into feeling that you have a need for their products. Recognise that and always follow your own compass.

It’s not that you shouldn’t lose weight, or that you shouldn’t join a gym, or that you shouldn’t buy the really expensive concealer, but it’s your prerogative; you do it on your terms. Don’t let yourself be defined by people who are trying to take your money.

Health & Fitness: COVID Edition.

Reading Time: 14 minutes

A few weeks into the first COVID-19 lockdown my friend shared this.


We all laughed, because even back then we knew that a lot of truth was being said in jest.

Now it’s a new year, and with COVID-19 vaccinations being rolled out there is a new hope that 2021 won’t be quite as miserable as 2020. With that new mood of optimism a lot of people are looking to make changes to their lifestyle – but right now COVID-19 is no less of a problem.

Ten years ago I moved from a city back to a rural area. I went from having a university gym next door to where I worked and a shop literally across the road to the nearest gym and the nearest large supermarket being a 20 minute drive away.

I had to find a way to make that work – and the upshot is that COVID-19 hasn’t changed those aspects of my life a whole lot. I figured now might be a good time to share some of the things I’ve learnt.

Firstly, Accept Yourself

I really, really don’t want to sound like a self-help book, but it’s important for me to say this before I go any further. I’m a swinging from the chandeliers type of person. Being active is a strong, defining characteristic of my personality. Some day I won’t be able to swing from chandeliers any more, but I do not plan on going gently into that particular good night (to paraphrase Dylan Thomas).

There are strong pressures in our society telling you that you have to be slim and fit, driving you towards the health and fitness industry. But you may not be a swinging from chandeliers type of person. You may not have the same motivations as me.

There is nothing wrong with this.

Humans have evolved to operate within a pretty wide tolerance. A lot of the “slim & fit” pressure is just the health and fitness industry trying to drum up business. If that’s the only reason that you’re unhappy with your body or your level of fitness then accept the commercial reality and accept the fact that you just don’t conform to that model.

Also remember to act proportionately. If you’re not happy, but really you’re just a bit miffed that you can’t walk up the local hill without getting out of breath then going on a crash diet and joining a gym is probably not the best course of action. Try, for a start, taking a walk up that hill as part of your regular routine. You’ll soon find it gets a lot easier.

The key is to understand who you are and what your true, underlying motivations are.

Do Not Yo-Yo Diet

If you were entirely happy with your lifestyle and your body before the first lockdown, but you’re not now, then maybe a strict diet regime could work for you. The problem for most of us is that we follow the programme for a while, we lose weight, then we let old habits creep in and before we know it we’re wanting to go back on a strict diet.

The result is our weight, our body image and dieting are constantly in our minds. We’re either enjoying ourselves, knowing we’re going to have to go back on a diet at some point, or we’re grumbling about being on a diet and not being able to enjoy ourselves.

It’s a recipe for bad mental health, as well as bad physical health.

Make Small, Permanent Changes

It is said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Sometimes that’s not true, but in this case it is perhaps the single most effective piece of advice I can give.

The process is simple, whether in diet or fitness; make a small change, consolidate it. Make another small change, consolidate that. It’s a process that we’re used to already, because we’re constantly changing and adapting as the world around us changes. We’re just adding a few conscious threads to that mechanism.

Every change we make and consolidate takes us another step forward. If we keep taking steps then we keep making progress.

You Are Not “On a Diet”

I don’t like bananas. You could say I’m on a no-banana diet.

Your diet is just the food you eat. If it’s not delivering what you need then you change it. It’s still your diet.

One of the most effective things I’ve ever done was to go through the existing food I was eating, count the calories and work out what I needed to change. It turned out that I didn’t need actually need to change too much.

Learn To Cook

This is a big one. If you can’t cook, then start learning. You don’t have to start big, there are plenty of very easy and healthy recipes you can make. The key is that if you’re not preparing your own food then you’re dependent on the pre-prepared food sector to provide you with suitable products – and it’s not a one size fits all situation.

There are loads of resources out there on how to learn to cook and how to make simple meals. Personally, I find Nat’s what I Reckon rather amusing (he does employ Australian strength swearing, mind).

Your Portion Size is Too Large

I’ll make a bet with you. If you do go through your meals, count up the calories and think about what you’re putting on the plate, there will be a lot of occasions where you can simply cook and serve less and still get all the calories and nutrients you need.

Literally overfeeding yourself is a very common problem. Food packaging often doesn’t help and a lot of recipe books have strange ideas about what will feed one person.

Also, if you’re using a calorie counter like MyFitnessPal, don’t assume that the default servings are what you’re actually eating. One of the key rules of looking at any data is not to make any assumptions. I found, for instance, that I was serving way too much breakfast cereal.

A cunning psychological trick is to use smaller plates. For some reason we like to have full plates, but our brains don’t understand the relationship properly. A 23cm plate is 77% of the width of a 30cm plate, but you can only put 59% of the food on it. What’s more, if you look back in history, you find that dinner plates were smaller. The large plates we tend to use today are a very much a modern thing.

You Don’t Have to Eat Rabbit Food

Our food culture in the UK is improving, but it’s still a little toxic. The meat and two veg concept is still rather strong within us. Go to any building site in the country and you’ll find a portion of the people there complaining that they’re “on a diet” and having to eat “rabbit food”.

The meat isn’t the problem. OK, let me put that differently, eating meat isn’t the problem. It’s the quantity of poor quality, often heavily processed meat, the quantity of carbs that accompany it and the tendency to count tomato sauce as “two veg”.

Britain is fortunate enough to have some very good meat. If you want to eat meat, take advantage of that. Reduce the amount of cheap, processed meat you eat. Substitute vegetarian options, fish or seafood. When you do eat meat, invest in it, make it worthwhile. Buy good meat from a proper butcher or farm shop and enjoy it.

The same principle applies to other foods. For instance, I eat a lot of curry. There are thousands of recipes out there that don’t suffer at all for not being cooked in a pint of clarified butter and served with a double dose of carbohydrates.
A similar thing is true of pizza. It doesn’t have to be soaked in olive oil and buried under a mountain of cheese. You can buy frozen pizza dough and then top it however you like. In fact, I’d argue that if you use good quality (preferably local) ingredients you can make a pizza at home that’s not only healthier but considerably tastier than any pre-prepared pizza you could buy.

Improve your ingredients, make better food and you will feel better for it.

Simple Changes Can Make Big Differences

One meal I analysed was 1500 calories per portion. I changed the sauce from being based on double cream to being milk and cornflour based and replaced the garlic bread with a healthier version. It actually made the dish taste better – oh, and it knocked out 600 calories, making it an everyday dish, not just a weekend treat.

I rather suspect the truth of the matter is that very few people need to “go on a diet”. What most people need to do is get control of their snacks, fizzy drinks and high sugar foods, regulate their portion sizes and make a few basic changes to some recipes and how often they eat some meals.

You don’t need to do all of it as one big batch either. You can keep chipping away at this, making small improvements, as long as you want. It’s an ongoing process, even for me, as I cook new recipes or find different products and integrate them into my diet.

There’s Calories in Booze

I know, it’s unfair.

Broadly speaking beer has a lot more calories than wine and spirits have less than either (but that does depend a lot on mixers).

There’s another problem with the sauce, as chef Tom Kerridge puts it “You pop out for a quiet pint and before you know it you’ve had 12 and you’re ordering chicken jalfrezi and double naan bread.”

You don’t need me to tell you this, though. I’m only doing it to remind you:

  • If you’re worried you might be drinking too much you almost certainly are.
  • Drink wine and spirits over beer and cider.
  • Like with meat, reduce quantity, increase quality and enjoy the experience.

Don’t Get Obsessed by Your Weight

There are two points I’d like to make here.

Firstly, you don’t care about your weight. How heavy you are doesn’t mean anything. How agile you are, how capable you are to do what you want to do, how susceptible you are to certain health complaints, how you look, these things can be important. Your actual weight, not so much.

Weight is just a relative measure of where you once were and where you are now and – my second point – it’s not even that accurate. When I was a proper gym-bunny I used to see people weigh themselves both before and after a gym session. One day I tried it, I was about 1.5Kg (3lbs) lighter when I came out. Almost all of that change was water that I’d lost in sweat, only a few grammes was fat burnt. Our weight can fluctuate naturally over a sufficient range to make it very difficult to measure fat loss this way.

Having said this, weight is a convenient measure, but to eliminate the natural fluctuations we need to look not at the value day-to-day, but the trend over several weeks. In the example below it’s clear that overall weight is dropping, but if you were to focus too much on the day-to-day you’d be putting yourself on rather an emotional roller-coaster.

Fitness Doesn’t Mean Gym

It’s an often repeated trope, “get to a gym” or “I need to go to a gym”. You don’t. Nobody does.

This is particularly true now, with schemes like Couch to 5K and apps such as Strava and MapMyFitness. You need no equipment and no (paid) subscription for these, you can just get out and walk, jog or run, track your progress and see how you’re improving.

If running isn’t your thing, then Strava and MapMyFitness both cover cycling, and cycling is a particularly good way of improving your fitness.

Don’t be afraid of local cycling clubs and running clubs. They’re not all full of super-fit Lycra clad loonies, most of them organise activities for people of all abilities – or will at least be happy to direct you to a club that does. Remember, this is their hobby, they want people to get involved.
If you’re looking to get into cycling, I did a “Let’s Ride” a few years ago – then sponsored by Sky. I was impressed. There were some limited events still being run in the lower tiered areas, so hopefully they’ll return relatively soon.

Similarly you’ll find that the range of local sports clubs is far greater than you might have thought – often organised around municipal leisure centres, which are far cheaper than private gyms.

Clubs are great because they provide a social element – and I don’t mean drinks at the tennis club. You turn up to train with other people and that makes it easier to motivate yourself.

Obviously, at the moment, this option is rather limited, but remember it for when we do get back to a more normal life. In the meantime, make use of the social programmes, the clubs etc. on the likes of Strava. Being in it with other people really does make a big difference.

Whatever you take up, realise that you’re not going to be very good at it to start with. It only takes a few runs, a few rides, a few games however before you feel you’re getting into the swing of things. Never, ever give something up after the first session. Give it at least 5 if not 10 before you decide it’s not for you.

Lastly in this section, fitness magazines will tell you, at length, why this form of exercise is better than that. They need to sell magazines, so they have to fill them with something. When it comes down to it though, some exercise is better then no exercise. Even lawn bowls is better than sitting in front of the telly. Do something.

Your Personal Best Doesn’t Matter

It seems that, at some point in our society, we decided that if you had a hobby then you had to be good at it. This is plainly ridiculous. The only thing that matters about a hobby is that you enjoy it; well, I mean, unless you’re a terrible violinist in a shared house, but I’m sure you get my point.

Whatever activities you choose, it’s entirely up to you whether to pay any attention to anyone else’s performance or even to your own. It doesn’t really matter if you beat your personal best, or if someone else beats your time. What actually matters is that you went and did the activity. Your performance is always secondary to that.

Or, to put it another way, don’t spoil a pleasant summer evening run by wearing a GPS watch. Just get out, run and enjoy the sunshine.

You Do Not Need a Lycra Licence

I get self-conscious wearing Lycra. I suspect most people do, because Lycra barely qualifies as clothing. In our society, particularly in the UK, we’re a bit funny about wandering around naked – and Lycra comes uncomfortably close to that.

Thankfully you don’t have to. I rarely venture outside in just Lycra. The above photo was part of an organised event and it was the uniform and – if I’m honest – I wasn’t terribly happy about it.

I often ride in cargo style shorts and a normal t-shirt. If I’m going on a long ride, I’ll put cycling shorts under my normal shorts. I run in general purpose sports shorts and a lightweight polo shirt.

Don’t get hung up on having all the gear or looking the part. If you do take up cycling, running or any similar activity, don’t let the industry and the magazines influence you too much. Yes, a £5000 bike will allow you to go further and faster than a £300 bike, but really not that much – and what does it matter anyway? What matters is that you are fitter than you were yesterday.

Be Careful of Home Equipment

I’m a huge fan of Peloton, a system that allows you to stream fitness classes directly to a spin bike in your home. It is expensive, however. There’s another system, Echelon, which seems to be cheaper. If you’re already a cyclist, there’s Zwift – although that is more limited.

Before Peloton however, I had a string of home exercise equipment. The cheap stuff is mostly fine at just getting you moving. The problem is that as you get stronger and fitter, the equipment becomes less suitable.

I’ve broken or just plain worn out a string of treadmills, exercise bikes and cross trainers. However, I’m not really the intended market. If you’re starting from somewhere near zero then these home gym machines will probably work just fine for you. Don’t expect them to stay with you long-term however, if you’re successful then you’re likely to outgrow them. I explain more in The Peloton Diaries: Doing the Maths.

The other common problem with home equipment is motivation. It’s a running joke about how quickly this stuff becomes no more than a clothes horse.

If you can, give it its own space, with its own (smart) telly. There are plenty of fitness classes on YouTube.

One alternative that really worked for me is to assign a TV series to workouts. The idea is that you’re not allowed to watch it unless you’re exercising. Sure, some days you just phone it in, but the point is that doing something is always better than doing nothing.

Establishing a routine is also important, especially in the early days. Exercise can’t be something you try to fit into spare time. It has to be something you plan, something you will move other things for, if you need to. Sure, people think you’re crazy if you’re late to Zoom drinks because it clashes with your workout time, but it’s important to set that precedent.

If You’re Stronger, You Can Burn Calories Faster

I’ve talked a lot about fitness, but what about strength? Being strong definitely makes my life easier, particularly core strength, because your core gets used in almost everything you do. There’s no point having iron biceps if you’re all wobbly in the middle.

Strength exercises also burn calories and, unsurprisingly, the stronger you are the faster you burn them. You also burn more calories in other places too – scrubbing the scrambled egg off the pan it seems to have got welded to, that’ll burn more calories. There’s another side effect as well, building and maintaining stronger, larger muscle also burns calories.

Personally, I do very little with weights. I find I don’t need to – I don’t have much use in my life for the kind of strength that gives. I don’t tend to need to dead-lift an engine block much, as long as I can wave a car battery about, I’m fine. So most of my work is core and bodyweight based.

Don’t underestimate Yoga. It might look like glorified contortionism, but getting into and maintaining the poses builds strength not just in the big power muscles, but also in the smaller control muscles. You need both if you want to be able to use your strength as well as look strong.

Remember, Small Steps

I’ve talked about a few different topics. Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas.

If you take nothing else away from this, remember that huge attempts to completely change a lifestyle only work if they’re backed up by huge determination. If you’re not sure about that then the best way to approach it is to make a series of small changes.

If you do feel you have that huge motivation that then go for it, write yourself a new diet, sign yourself up for a fitness programme and have at it. It’s tough, but if you’re motivated enough it will work.

If you’re not quite feeling it at that level then start out small. You make a small change, you get used to it, you make it part of normal. Then you make another small change and then that becomes normal. You just have to make sure that you’re always moving forward.

All are simple changes, small changes that anyone can make. Small changes that you can make. If you want to you can make the first change today. It really is all about you and what you want to achieve.

A Final Note…

I’m very conscious that I’m not a medical professional, dietician or trainer and that some of the above is somewhat different to some of the professional messaging that we receive.

I think the medical profession may, unwittingly, have been responsible for the phenomenon of yo-yo dieting. If you feel you’re too fat and you go to the doctors, they’re likely to want you to lose weight, so they will prescribe a diet and exercise regime to fix your immediate problem. It’s almost like giving you a course of pills for that nasty rash…

You complete the course, just like you would the pills, then go back to doing what you did before, because you’re fixed.

The medical profession isn’t stupid, of course they’re telling you that you need to make permanent changes to your lifestyle and they always did tell you this, but that message doesn’t seem to land with us as well as the idea that you get fat, you diet, repeat.

That messaging problem may be influenced by the health and fitness industry. There’s a galloping stampede of people and businesses pushing the latest diets and exercise regimes at you. There’s a lot of money in getting you signed up to the programme, then when you get bored of that, signed up to the next one.

There’s no money in you making small, permanent changes to your lifestyle.

When I lived in a city, the industry was on my doorstep. It was easier for me to consume from them than it was to beat out my own path. When I moved back to a rural area that reversed and it became abundantly apparent that I didn’t need to consume or subscribe to much at all. With any interaction with other people now being a risk, that’s significant.

What Have We Brits Learnt Through #blacklivesmatter?

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I’m working on some longer stuff, because one thing that has made me realise is that there are a lot of assumptions being made about racism and there’s a lot of bollocks being talked.

In the meantime, a few bullet points:

  • We still have institutions here in the UK that treat people differently according to their race.
  • We still have tropes and stereotypes in our society that disadvantage people of colour.
  • We still have an embarrassing number of actual, conscious racists (and weird conspiracy theorists).
  • A majority group can easily overlook the problems it causes a minority.

For you, personally, not being racist is a good start. If we are to end racism however that is not enough.

You can do more simply by looking within yourself to see if you have unconscious biases. I’ve been an active campaigner against racism for about 25 years and I still find the odd little quirk in me.

You can do more by listening to minority groups when they try to explain ways in which our society discriminates against them.

You can do more by reading, watching documentaries, etc. “Natives” by Akala is a good start. In recent years many good resources have been produced when it comes to the experience of black people in the UK.

Accessible resources about other forms of racism are more difficult. For instance, I learnt about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre when I was stood in Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar). A lot of what I’ve learnt about other forms of racism comes either from visiting other countries or from talking directly to people in the UK. I’m currently trying to collate some resources on this.

You can do more against racism by taking action. These days taking action against racism is not so much facing down neo-Nazis in the street. You can still do that if you want, you can also attend protests, shows us how effective that can be. Fighting against racism is so much more than that, though.

The simplest action you can take is to be overtly against racism. Talk about it, make being against racism normal. The key point to understand and the most difficult to communicate is that conscious racism is really only the tip of the iceberg. A lot of the values, systems, traditions, institutions of our society were formed between 1555 and 1833, when England (latterly Britain) was involved in the slave trade and inherently a white supremacist society. Serious attempts to end racism only started in the 1970s. We’ve made good progress in eliminating active, conscious racism but we still have a very long way to go before we can say that we’ve ended racism.

The ship of state does not turn quickly and one person can only push so hard on the rudder. Some people can push harder than others, of course, but the more hands we have pushing the faster the ship will turn.

It’s a long journey, we know that, but we will get there.

Always Store Dates in UTC

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It all went rather wrong in the early 2000s when we realised that the the last Sunday in October had two hours that both claimed to be 1am.

Willy Lott’s Cottage

In the mid 1990s the company I was working for made an intelligent GPS radio modem. It was a neat little device that you could put in a car and it could do some basic processing, even run a small touch screen, and could communicate remotely with a central server.

We think nothing whatsoever of this today – the smartphone that most of carry all the time is way more capable than anything we were dreaming of then. In the 1990s however the idea that you could communicate with a vehicle and that it could tell you where it was, that was pretty cool.

Government organisations, in particular, were keen on us. There were other solutions on the market that were cheaper to buy, but we had the lowest running costs. Sending data across the airwaves was expensive and we spent a lot of time and effort to make sure that it was done as usefully and efficiently as possible.

For various reasons, some of which were historic, the Product Manager decided that it should operate in local time (including daylight savings time). Unfortunately it was also local time that got send back to the server. To make matters worse, to save on over-air costs, we cut the data right back to just the time. We didn’t include timezone or daylight savings information.

That might sound stupid now, but back then the primary business requirement was very much operational: customers wanted to know where their fleet was at that moment. Historical reporting was distinctly secondary.

My first job at the company was to change that, to develop a historical reporting function. That’s when we started to notice problems.

When British Summer Time switches back to Greenwich Mean Time we say that “the clocks go back”, we get to 2am and then we put the clocks back to 1am. Our intelligent radio modems faithfully did this, when they got to 2am they reset the clock to 1am. The result was that, in our database, we had two sets of records both claiming to be between 1am and 2am and it could be impossible to tell which was which.

If you’re a business this is a pretty irritating, but it’s something you can live with. When your customers are The Police and they need to know for evidential purposes where a vehicle was at any given time, this is a serious problem.

It was an easy enough software fix, to make the device always send the base time, not daylight savings time. Rolling those updates out and dealing with the potential data problems caused by the switch was far from trivial.

Hot on the heels of that problem, we then sold a system to a country that had multiple timezones.

Fortunately we predicted the problem this time. We locked ourselves in a room and went through every scenario we could think of, every way of working it and the conclusion we came to was that the date and time should always be sent and always stored in UTC. That way you know the data is always valid, it’s an absolute, there’s no question.

The situation has changed a little now because data storage and communication is much, much cheaper. There’s no reason for us not to send all the qualifying data. Back then however every single bit mattered.

As a systems integrator however I still run into problems with times quite a lot. Customers often tell me that this system works in UTC whereas some other system works in local time. They’re usually wrong, under the covers most systems either fully qualify the date and time or use UTC and convert for display. It’s not always the case though and APIs are not always explicit about it either.

My advice is simple: never store or transmit (internally) an unqualified time that is not UTC. If you’re using local time always make sure that it is qualified with the timezone information (including any applicable daylight savings). Never let the base time get separated from its qualifying data. This is still an easy mistake to make when writing to a database or transmitting via an API. If, for some reason, you cannot transmit or store the qualifying information, convert to UTC.

In the .NET Framework CLR there are 2 DateTime types that you should be aware of: DateTime and DateTimeOffset. Microsoft have produced some guidance on when to use which, (but basically use DateTimeOffset if you have the qualifying data, use DateTime for UTC).

Racism Is Hard-Baked Into White People

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In fact all the institutions I dealt with were [or claimed to be] against racism. They were however white. Books were white, TV was white, culture was white, science was white, the law was white, power and influence were white. That gets baked into you whether you like it or not.

Why was there a brouhaha when black actress (Noma Dumezweni) was cast as Hermione Granger in The Cursed Child? Because people, many of whom would say they were against racism, just assumed Hermione was white.

Rowling‘s description of her doesn’t specify or even imply: it is distinctly indistinct. Instead it concentrates more on her character and how clever she is. We – me included – just assumed she was white. Why?

Because she’s privileged, because she’s bookish, because she’s clever, because she’s powerful, because she’s a heroine. All these cues refer back to the environment most Westerners grew up in and they all tell us that she’s white. We don’t think about it, we just assume it.

We might not think this matters because we think we make all important decisions consciously where we can weigh up the evidence objectively. That however is far from the whole picture. We make thousands of decisions every day without them ever fully surfacing into our consciousness. Similarly we send out thousands of signals that we’re not consciously aware of.

Those biases that have been baked into us by our upbringing do still have an effect, a very subtle effect, but it’s there nonetheless. If it’s just one person then it’s insignificant, the problem is that we’re not just one person, those of us who grew up in an almost exclusively white environment are a majority. On top of this almost everyone in the UK grew up – and continue to grow up – in an environment where the vast majority of significant institutions are predominantly white.

What can we do about it? We can’t undo decades of programming simply by wishing it away. There is no silver bullet. We have to acknowledge that it’s there, to be aware of it. We have to be aware that no matter how much we believe in equality, we can occasionally be guilty of accidental racism. We have to accept that, for people with my kind of upbringing, just being ideologically opposed to racism is not enough. If we are not actively fighting against racism then we are subconsciously contributing to it.

We have come a long way to eliminate conscious racism from the majority of the Western World. We still have a battle to fight, especially at the moment, but we are making steadily making progress and in the end we will win.

Emergency Calls, Locations and 55: The Truth

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You may well have seen this meme going around Facebook and other places. As a general rule, unless you can trace information like this back to an actual emergency service or other reputable outlet, you should assume that it’s fake.

In this case it’s inaccurate, but it does contain some information that’s true.

The Full Fact article does a reasonably good job of explaining, but I can add little more detail from a different perspective.

When you make a 999 (emergency) call in the UK, the emergency services have access to some extra information about that call that they don’t get for other calls. This happens automatically whether you dial 55 or not.

If you call from a land-line or telephone box, the emergency service has access to the subscriber details for that line. This includes the name of the person that the line is registered to and the address.

If you call from a mobile, the situation is a little more complex. The emergency service can request the location of the mobile phone – and usually does so automatically. That request gets passed to the mobile phone company. Before the days of GPS, the mobile company would return, if it could, an estimate of the location based upon the signal strength and the location of the cell masts nearest to the phone. It can sometimes provide quite accurate results, but other times it’s not so good.

The mast information is still sent to the emergency services. Now however almost every mobile phone has GPS so new methods have been developed so that the phone can also send its location data all the way through to the emergency service control room. Not every phone can do this, so you can’t rely on it, but the more time that passes, the more phones are coming on-board.

It’s worth noting that a mobile phone’s own location data isn’t always accurate. It’s usually pretty good, within a few metres, but there are a number of factors that can throw it off, sometimes by just a few metres, but I’ve seen examples of phones thinking they’re on a different continent.

Again, to be clear, you do not need to dial 55 or perform any secret handshake to make your location available. If your phone can do it, the mobile network can do it and the emergency service can do it, then your phone’s location data gets sent to the control room. It’s all automatic. This is what I think the meme is talking about as “new technology”. Otherwise, the mast data is almost always available.

Where dialling 55 comes in is if you’re in a situation where you can’t talk. If you’re hiding from an attacker for instance you might not want to talk as it may alert the attacker to your location. The mobile operator may well ask you to dial 55 if you’re there and are in danger. That’s the point of dialling 55 – it lets the operator know that, although nobody is speaking, you have not dialled 999 by mistake.

I should point out here that the emergency services do not always respond to silent 999 calls. They have to assess each call individually and decide whether to respond, whether the person talks or not.

Ultimately then there is some truth to the meme and I suspect somewhere, underneath it all, someone knew what they were talking about. It looks however as if it’s been through a few people and by the time the meme was made some of the messages have got a bit mixed up.

To conclude:

  • The emergency services can always get your location and usually do automatically. You do not have to dial 55 to make that happen.
  • The “new” bit is that the emergency services can now get the location data direct from many smartphones, instead of having to rely on mast data.
  • Only dial 55 if you are unable to speak for some reason. The operator may ask you to do this anyway if you don’t speak. If you can speak however, do.

Finally, don’t assume when you call that the emergency services do have your location. Things can go wrong, the more information you can give them over the phone, the better.

Tom Fosdick is a software engineer who is responsible for the system that several UK emergency services use to get 999 call locations.

First Class Post

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Someone recently accused me of replying too slowly on WhatsApp. “First Class post” I replied, “is the most rapid form of communication of which I approve.” I wasn’t joking.

The fact that you’re not going to get a reply for at least 24 hours, if not the best part of a week, tends to rather focus the mind. You have to concentrate on exactly what you want to say, no more, no less and ensure that your communication is complete. There’s no “soz, not what I meant lol” if you botch what you were trying to say.

Writing someone a letter makes you value the communication.

I’ve never been comfortable with the telephone, I consider it a step too far. A letter arrives on your doormat. You might pick it up and open it immediately, or put it aside for later. It’s your choice. You can then think about your reply whilst you’re cooking or re-glazing the east wing.

The telephone however screams “STOP!” when it rings, “whatever you are doing cease it now! Someone wants to talk to you!” It’s just plain rude. On top of that it might not even be a conversation that you wanted to have at that time.

No, the telephone is an abomination and the mobile phone doubly so. There are numerous reasons why one might not answer a house telephone. There is no escape from the mobile, it’s there, in your pocket, constantly buzzing, continually demanding attention.

We now have so many ways of near-instant communication that we have lost all respect for the privilege that technology has brought us. Instead we spend every waking minute in cataclysm of indistinct missives trying to make sense of a world projected into our hands by people who are at best as misinformed as we are.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent the past 20 years delivering ever-improving communication technology into the hands of our emergency services. I’m very much in favour of the technology.

I am more that happy that I have in my pocket a device that lets me communicate in a variety of ways with almost all of my family and friends, with businesses, government and even write articles like this that will be read by complete strangers.

I however respect the fact that I don’t know what the intended recipient of my communication is doing at that moment. I respect the fact that they may not want to reply immediately. I don’t believe it’s asking too much for that respect to be mutual.

Callback Trace Listener

Reading Time: 2 minuteslightSo you know about the Trace facility in System.Diagnostics, right? If not then you should because it’s really rather handy. It provides a set of static methods that you can call to write out trace information to any number of connected “Listeners” which you can define in code or in config.
The default trace listener writes to the Win32 OutputDebugString stream, you can view this in Visual Studio’s “Output” window or using a viewer such as Sysinternals DebugView.

Sure if you need more extensive logging and tracing then you should look to something like log4net, but if your requirements are simple then System.Diagnostics.Trace and System.Diagnostics.Debug are really handy.

Anyway, that’s not the point of this article.

Quite often I end up writing non-production apps – little gizmos for this or that – which could do with informing the user of what’s going on via some sort of rolling log on the UI.

So I wrote this tiny little class to help.

public class CallbackTraceListener : TraceListener
    public event Action<string> WriteToOutput;

    public override void Write(string message)
        if (null != WriteToOutput)

    public override void WriteLine(string message)
        Write(message + Environment.NewLine);

It’s a Trace Listener just like the one that writes to OutputDebugString. You need a little bit more code to make it work, in the initialisation of the your application you need to register an instance of it as a trace listener…

public MainWindow()
    var uiTracer = new CallbackTraceListener();
    uiTracer.WriteToOutput += UiTracer_WriteToOutput;
    uiTracer.Name = "UITraceListener";
    Trace.WriteLine("Debug window initialised");

Now every time you use any of the Trace methods that write output, the UiTracer_WriteToOutput callback will be called with the string that’s written. You can add the strings to a ListBox, or put them through any other kind of processing you want.
It’s a really simple and useful way to subscribe to up your own Debug/Trace stream.

Mirror, mirror on the Pi…

Reading Time: < 1 minutePi2One of the beauties of the Raspberry Pi is that it’s so low power [in comparison to a PC] you can afford to leave one on all the time.  When I got my first Pi I tried using it as a mirror of this blog. It worked, but it was rather slow.

The Raspberry Pi 2B has got a lot more beans that the first version of the Pi. I got one for Xmas, so I thought I’d revisit the mirror idea. Assuming my little script is working properly, there should now be a mirror of this site on my Pi 2B.