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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Troubles in PC Printer Land

As someone who counts himself as reasonably computer literate, and one who spends much of his life sat in front of a screen trying to bend computers to his will (with mixed success), I am constantly staggered by how difficult even fairly straightforward problems on a home computer can be to sort out. Always the same thought occurs: if it's this hard for me, what must it be like for the layperson?

A couple of days ago I experienced a perfect example of just how far personal computers still have to go. A relative of mine has a laptop, and was trying to print off a PDF file. "It just comes out blank," she said. That rang a bell, so I started the machine up, reasonably confident of a quick fix.

On opening the file, Adobe Reader 8 informed me that it had an 8.1 update ready. Why not? Who knows, it might even fix the problem. While it got to work on that, I noticed that Windows wanted to do an update too. Odd that, because the machine was configured to install Windows updates automatically. (Yes, I know the downsides of that, but I still think it's the best option for users who don't really understand what updates even mean.) Hmm... Windows Vista SP2! I could see why it hadn't just ploughed ahead without permission, but I also noticed that the updater didn't think it worth mentioning that it was now going to take the next half hour to download everything, install it, shut down and restart. I left it running in the background.

It soon became obvious that the Adobe updater was in trouble (unless it really did need ten minutes to delete temporary files), so I cancelled. With a bit of luck the update would have completed anyway. No. In fact, now we no longer had Adobe Reader at all. So, off to Google to find out how to download it from Adobe. Now this is interesting: there's a version 9 available. Why didn't Adobe Reader 8 tell me about that? It downloaded and installed very easily, far faster than the 8.1 update, even before it reached the tidying up stage and jammed.

I say 'easily'. That means ignoring all the shortcuts, quick starts and menu options that Adobe like to pollute your machine with. I can only think of one reason why you might want to start up Adobe Reader, and that's to read a PDF file. The natural way to do that is to just open the PDF. Not so for Adobe: their preferred mode of operation is apparently to launch Reader first, which is why they stick shortcuts to it on the desktop, in the start menu, in the Explorer context menu, and in the Explorer toolbars. For good measure, they also put a quick start program into your startup options so that, on those rare occasions when you need to open up a PDF file, it's slightly faster than it would otherwise have been. On the downside, your PC now takes that little bit longer to start up every single time you switch it on, regardless of whether you plan to look at PDFs at all. I've had enough experience with this arrogance from Adobe to know how to remove it all, but it's still infuriating. Not as infuriating, though, as when you do the next update, and Adobe cheerfully reinstall all the crap again, ignoring the fact that you must surely have deliberately taken it all out, presumably on the assumption that you're too stupid to know what's best for you.

I seem to have drifted a bit from my original topic. If you detect a hint of bitterness here, it's the result of many years' miserable experience of this company's attitude to its users. And don't get me started on their web sites.

So, back to the non-printing PDF. By now I've upgraded Adobe Reader, and rebooted the newly service-packed Vista. Time to open the file again. Sure enough, it won't print--nothing at all comes out. Off to the Control Panel to look at the printer. Here I see that there are several print jobs queued up, dating back six weeks or so. The earliest one is marked as 'Deleting'.

Although I can cancel all the subsequent jobs, the 'Deleting' one stubbornly refuses to go. This is a state I've been in on more than one occasion. What you want is to tell the printer to completely forget about everything it's been told to print, but for some reason it can't. My guess is it needs to confirm with the actual device that all printing has ceased, which should have given me a clue. Instead I decided to delete the printer and reinstall from CD. That didn't take long, and it did clear the print queue, but I couldn't get a test page out. Now it occurs to me that maybe there's a connection problem. And yet, there's the printer cable sticking out of the side of the laptop, and there's the other end going into the printer, which is switched on, with no error lights showing. Try pushing in the connection at the printer: fine. What about the one at the laptop? Well, it's definitely in, but suspiciously loose. Is it really supposed to be able to wobble like that? Come to think about it, since when do USB sockets go into network ports?

Mystery finally solved.

It would have been really nice if the Control Panel hadn't listed the printer as being 'Ready', just as it would have been nice if Adobe Reader had updated correctly, and to the latest version. But I got there in the end. Nevertheless, the printer had been out of action for weeks, and only got fixed because of a relative coming round with enough computer literacy to fix the problem (though, sadly, not enough to fix it quickly). So I'm left wondering how many other home computers around the world have components and programs that have stopped working because of easily solved issues like this.

There will be a day when your computer will sort out stuff like this for you itself, in language that even the layest of lay users can follow, and that's the day when the computer can finally be labelled as 'an appliance'.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Special Friend

Starting work on a bottle of real ale a few evenings ago, I was struck by how particularly pleasant it tasted. Not that surprising perhaps, as the label boasted the title,"Young's Special London Ale". Ah, yes. Young's Special, an old friend from many years back. I noticed something else on the label: Alcohol Content 6.4%.

Ohhhkay. That would work out as 3.2 units of alcohol (I know I've had enough to drink when I can no longer calculate alcohol units in my head), or roughly what the Government thinks I should drink no more than per day. Maybe I should leave a bit for tomorrow?

6.4% was rather higher than I remembered. A bit of research (read 'Google') revealed the truth. "Young's Special London Ale", which comes in bottles, isn't the same as "Young's Special", that comes on draught and is only 4.5% alcohol. Not a huge amount of imagination shown there by the Young's beer naming department, and a potential source of catastrophe for bottled beer drinkers like me.

Which brings my memories round to the first time I tried Young's Special. A party in London with a bunch of dental students, thirty years or so ago. A pub beforehand, where a friend introduced me to the brew and I polished off two pints of it. A foolish decision later that evening at the party to move onto cider. And finally, an indeterminate time staring into porcelain wishing my life was over so I could stop being sick for a bit.

Ever since my dramatic discovery that beer and cider don't go well together, I have had very mixed feelings about cider. Yes, I do drink it occasionally, but my heart is never in it. Real ale, on the other hand, has never left me with any sort of lasting aversion. And yet it wasn't just the cider that wasted me that night, so why does my body remember that cider isn't good for it while ignoring the effects of the beer? My tentative theory: cider is usually well stronger than 4.5%, so maybe my body only paid attention to the strongest drink involved.

As corroborative evidence, I would cite the fact that I haven't been able to drink Pernod since my 20th birthday when I overindulged on Pernod & Orange, but I still like orange juice.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Word Puzzles

While writing my last post I noticed that the spellchecker didn't recognise the word 'aerogramme', which is fair enough, as the whole point of the post was that aerogrammes are no longer really needed. But just now I was writing a letter in Google Docs, and it put the red, wiggly lines under 'blogging' and 'Google', both words you'd think it might have heard of.

I don't know where Google Docs keeps its dictionary. Maybe it piggybacks on one that's already on my PC,  though Blogger, in which I'm writing this and which is also owned by Google, is quite happy with both words. (But not with 'Blogger'! The plot thickens.)

Perhaps this reflects some streak of self-effacement among Google developers. I don't know. I was also intrigued a few years back when I spotted that Microsoft Word didn't recognise the word 'Dilbert', but was quite happy with 'Dogbert'. Presumably someone on the Word team was a member of Dogbert's New Ruling Class, and snuck that one in. Considering that the Excel team once hid a flight simulator in their program, one extra line in a dictionary file wouldn't have been too hard to manage.

And now it's time to check again whether Haxby has had its water supply reconnected, following the 'incident' (as Yorkshire Water usefully describe it on their web site) earlier today. I do miss the 21st century.

Another Superseded Technology

Rummaging through our stationery drawer this morning, looking for a suitably sized envelope, it occurred to me that most of the difference between a tidy drawer and what we actually have was the pile of old aerogrammes at the back. Actually two piles, I suppose: the one that I'd bought to our marriage, and the one that Julie had. We've been living together for over 15 years now, but I doubt if we've used a single aerogramme in all that time.

For those of you too young to remember aerogrammes (which seems to include the Blogger spellchecker), they are (were?) very thin pieces of blue letter paper, carefully shaped with gummed edges that allowed the aerogramme to be folded in three to form its own envelope, which would then be posted to exotic destinations around the world. The light weight of the paper, and the prohibition on any enclosures, made them ideal for air mail.

I do have friends in foreign parts, but, apart from the annual Xmas card, anything I send to them goes over the internet nowadays. I don't even know how well an aerogramme would go through a laser printer (okay, I do now: not too badly, except you need a larger top margin).

Most of our aerogrammes are postage prepaid, which will make parting with them a little painful, but the hard truth is that we'll get more utility out of them by freeing up some space in a drawer than by leaving them there untouched for another fifteen years.

Putting them into the recycling bin (where else?), I notice that on one of the packs there's a 50th Anniversary message (1943 - 1993): "50 years ago, when Churchill was Prime Minister, Aerogrammes took off as a vital means of communication." It finishes off with, "Aerogrammes - still the easy way to keep in touch."

Sunday, 22 November 2009

How difficult is is to sync a phone and a PC?

As I've mentioned before, my mobile is a Nokia N85 smartphone. This is a good device, though I wish I'd known how limiting texting was before I bought something that didn't have either a keyboard or a stylus. Where it falls down is in its communication with my PC. The Nokia software that comes with the phone allows you to synchronise contacts and calendar data with Outlook, Outlook Express, and Lotus Notes. I use Mozilla Thunderbird.

Not to worry. There's a program you can buy called Mobile Master, which lets you synchronise various mobile phones with sundry mail clients. Problem solved.

Well, not quite. Right from the start I've been suffering all sorts of glitches with the data transfer. Some events that recur every fortnight in Thunderbird show up every week on the phone, others shift by a day sometimes, and the 'Other data' field in the Contacts gets strangely mangled when sent back from phone to PC. All that was insignificant compared to the way that the entire calendar got downloaded to the phone twice (most times; tantalisingly, it would work occasionally).

There are fairly frequent updates to Mobile Master, which I would install hopefully, and a few months after I'd bought the phone, suddenly the transfer started to work every time. Events would get sent down just the once, and the other misbehaviour I fixed by deleting the affected items in Thunderbird and recreating them. (No idea why this was necessary, as they were fine when I used to synchronise with an iPaq.)

I stopped updating Mobile Master then. The newer versions were mostly concerned with supporting the latest models of mobile phone. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I took leave of my senses and upgraded to 7.5.5.

It was mostly okay, if you weren't bothered about not having any calendar items on your phone any more.

I raised a bug report, which had as much effect as the one I'd raised about getting stuff sent down twice. As before, I got back an automated reply with the ambiguous message:

We have received the following message and will answer as soon as possible.

Sorry, but we can no longer answer questions whether this or that phone is supported.

Had they written off my query as a question about support for the n85, or was that just a standard line added to every reply? As I've never received a further reply, the question will remain open.

Luckily I still had an earlier version of their installer on my hard drive, so I was able to go back to that. A bit too early, unfortunately, as I'm back to having two copies of the calendar again.

Some time soon we are promised Thunderbird 3.0 will be released. Unlike Thunderbird 2, this will have a calendar system in-built, instead of as one of two possible add-ins. Perhaps it will build up enough market share then to make Nokia think it's worth supporting. (A quick web search suggests that Thunderbird 2 only has 1.12% market share at the moment, so I might be whistling in the dark on this. On the other hand, Lotus Notes only has 1.72%.)

In the meantime, I wait for another update to Mobile Master, and remind myself more often not to bother updating something that already works perfectly well.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Thirty Years of Experience - A Perspective, part 3

I think it's time to finish off this set of posts before the title has to change to 'Thirty-One Years of Experience'.

I started off trying to work out how much use thirty years of programming experience was really worth, given that so much of it was in technologies that are no longer extant. I've come, sadly, to the conclusion that much of the first fifteen years or so can be safely skimmed through by anyone reading my CV. In the field of Software, specific knowledge of languages, libraries and operating systems dates all too quickly. If you're not constantly learning new technologies, you can end up fit only for maintaining legacy code.

And yet I still hold that I've gained something from having programmed since 1980 that I wouldn't have now if I'd only started in 2000. Thirty years of debugging have given me an intuition for tracking down bugs, to the extent that sometimes I can't even explain to myself afterwards how I got to the solution. I believe this is because debugging is quite often a logic problem, and practice makes you better at it irrespective of what language or platform you're using.

Over thirty years I've seen trends come and go, supposedly 'killer' languages have their day and then fall away (Ada, you promised so much!). It would be nice to say that my experience lets me spot which upcoming technologies are the ones to follow, and which are going to fail, but that would be untrue. I write as someone who once learned Forth.

In the end, it's not so important how much my experience is worth. The bottom line is that, after nearly three decades in the field, I still feel as I did when I received my first pay packet back in 1980: that it's a nice life when you get paid to do something you'd willingly do for a hobby.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

More lessons in XHTML

So, following on from my last blog, I've now done the research I mentioned, and found out that the way to deal with ampersands in URLs is to write them as XML entities, i.e. '&', which is slightly embarrassing, as that should have occurred to me given that I've been using XML for nearly a decade.

And the XHTML-approved way of making a hyperlink open a new window is to replace the 'target' attribute with an 'onclick' attribute which calls the relevant JavaScript function to do it.

Something else I've just learned, having just previewed this blog, is that typing '&' out in full is more than a bit dumb, as the browser, of course, renders it as '&'; time for a sneaky trick to fool the browser. One last question: how can a modern browser possibly not know that 'blog' is a proper word?

The Quest for XHTML Perfection

This afternoon I remembered the existence of the W3C Markup Validation Service,, and decided to submit the web sites I maintain. As usual I was appalled by the number of omissions, typing errors, and plain mistakes that your average browser will quite happily work round without telling you. Unterminated paragraph blocks, lists inside blocks, attribute values with a quote at one end but not the other, to name just three blunders which now no longer afflict my HTML.

The ideal is to press the Validate button and get back the message, "This document was successfully checked as XHTML 1.0 Strict!" Once you've got that, you're allowed to put a W3C badge on the page to tell the world how compliant you are, or at least the 0.1% or less of the world who've ever even heard of the W3C, or XHTML. Rather than confuse the other 99.9% of the world, I have decided not to use this badge. Also, I would then live in fear of inadvertently invalidating the page through some stupid edit, and incurring the wrath of the W3C.

Another reason for not boasting of my pages' compliance is that not all of them are, and there doesn't seem to be much I can do about it. At one of my sites, gratuitous link to encourage Google to notice it, I include a link to a specific page at the UK Charity Commission's web site. Even though I'm quoting their URL exactly, the W3C is flagging up errors in the URL and blaming me. This seems a mite pedantic of them. Am I supposed to tidy up someone else's web site?

The link in question is, and the presence of the ampersand near the end causes W3C to kick out four errors and three warnings. And now, by putting that link into this blog, I've managed to make this page non-compliant too!

Footnote: thinking about my question above, I wondered if I could tidy up the URL. Turns out I can leave the part from the ampersand onwards! I got lucky there, but I think my point still stands.

Now my only non-compliance is the use of the 'target' attribute in hrefs. Need to do a bit of research about why that's not valid XHTML.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Farewell then, GeoCities

So GeoCities is no more.

When I first got access to the web (around 1995), you used to bump into GeoCities sites all over the place. I would look at my web browser (good old Netscape), and wonder what to go looking for. "How about my favourite bands?" And at the other side of the web there was some adolescent setting up their GeoCities web site, wondering what to put onto their home page. "How about a list of my all my CDs? Yes, that will be interesting." In the days before Google and relevant web searches, Lycos or Alta Vista would happily bring up such sites in response to a query for Genesis or Pink Floyd.

Web sites like that are now either long gone, or on page 945 of my Google results and so, effectively, equally non-existent. Lycos is still around (much to my surprise--what market share can they have?), but nowadays puts the Pink Floyd official web site at the top of its search results.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


I can't remember where I found out about Nakashima Tomoaki's CLCL, but I do remember that I was sufficiently taken by the idea of a program that remembers a list of everything I copy onto the clipboard, whether it be snippets of text or whole files, that I downloaded and installed it straight away, and I've been using it every day since. A few months later I was able to get it set up to act as a quick launcher too, and I use that every day as well.

Despite being so useful, some of the installation instructions took me a while to work out (which explains the few months gap I just mentioned), so I thought I'd lay out here what I did to get this excellent program working.

First, and unsurprisingly, you need to download it. I got my copy at Download clcl112_eng.exe (or one of the other language variants, if they're a better match for you than English). While you're there, also download the two tool plug-ins, tool_text and tool_utl, and the three format plug-ins.

Now run clcl112_eng.exe. It's an installer, and by default unpacks into C:\Program Files\CLCL. You should find you've now got four new files: readme.txt, CLCL.exe, CLCLHook.dll, and CLCLSetup.exe.

CLCL.exe is the clipboard program. It needs to be manually launched, so I put a link to it into my Startup folder under the Start menu. If you run it now, you should notice a paperclip icon appearing in the taskbar. This is a shortcut to CLCLSet.exe.

CLCLSet.exe is a bit confusing. If you double click on the file icon in C:\Program Files\CLCL, it will bring up the CLCL Options dialog. However, if you click on it in the taskbar, you get the CLCL viewer instead. Also, if you right click on the paperclip icon, you get a pop-up menu containing the clipboard history, the Options dialog, and the viewer.

There are endless ways of configuring CLCL, so I will only describe what I've done with it. I find this works flawlessly (for me), so hopefully it will for you too.

Setting up the clipboard history
  1. Run CLCLSet.exe to get into the Options dialog.
  2. Choose the Action tab.
  3. Click on Add...
  4. Set 'Action' to 'Menu' and 'Call type' to 'Alt + Alt'.
  5. In the 'Menu' area, click on the line marked '(New content)'. Don't be put off by it being greyed out.
  6. Now click on the 'Content' dropdown, and select 'History(Ascending)'.
  7. Hit OK.
You should now find that pressing ALT twice in quick succession will bring up a menu containing a history of everything you've put onto the clipboard since CLCL started running (and this history is retained from session to session).

Setting up the Quick Launcher
  1. Run CLCLSet.exe to get into the Options dialog.
  2. Choose the Action tab.
  3. Click on Add...
  4. Set 'Action' to 'Menu' and 'Call type' to 'Shift + Shift'.
  5. In the 'Menu' area, click on the line marked '(New content)'. Don't be put off by it being greyed out.
  6. Now click on the 'Content' dropdown, and select 'External Application'.
  7. Fill out 'Title' and 'Path' for an application of your choice; e.g. 'Python 2.5' and 'C:\Python25\python.exe'.
  8. Pick the executable for 'Icon path' too.
  9. Hit OK.
You have now added a quick launch for Python 2.5. Pressing Shift twice in quick succession should bring up a menu containing 'Python 2.5'.

Clicking on '(New content)' also allow you to add several other useful features, such as 'Options', 'Cancel', or sub-menus (via 'Pop-up menu').

The CLCL Viewer

I mentioned the CLCL viewer, that comes up when you left click on the paperclip icon in the task bar. The main use I make of this is to edit the contents of the clipboard.

CLCL Tools

Earlier on I said to download two tool plug-ins, tool_text and tool_utl. The tools inside them let you perform a variety of actions on selected text, such as wrapping in quotes, changing case, etc. I will now explain how to install these tools.

The download will give you two zip files. Unzip these and you should find a DLL in each one. There is also the source code and a text file, but these can be ignored. Move the DLLs to a sensible location, such as under C:\Program Files\CLCL.

Now bring up the CLCL options dialog again. Pick the Tools tab. Click on the Browse button and select one of the DLLs. Then select the first tool in the list that appears. Click OK twice to get back to the main dialog.

Repeat this until you have added all the tools in both DLLs. I'm afraid that I have not found a way to import all the tools in a DLL in one go.

To use these tools, go back to the instructions for setting up a quick launcher. Where it asks you to select 'External Application', select 'Tool' instead. In this way you can add the tools to your menus.

CLCL Formats

As well as the tool plug-ins, there were three format plug-ins. These will extend the range of formats available to CLCL, and to install them you have to perform these steps.

Unzip the downloads. Take the DLL in each one and move it to a suitable folder, such as the same one you put the tool DLLs into.
Bring up the CLCL options dialog. Pick the Format tab and click on the Add button. Now click on the Browse button and select one of the DLLs. This will bring up another dialog containing a list with one item in it. Select that item and then press OK twice to get back to the main dialog.


I hope these instructions prove useful to someone one day. Looking through the options dialog, I realise that there is plenty of stuff I still don't understand. The Window tab in the options dialog is a complete mystery, for instance. If anyone can illuminate that, or any of the other bits I've left out, please let me know and I'll add them to this guide.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Milestones for Spotify and this Blog

I've had my first comment, maybe even my first reader, as a result of my last posting on Spotify ads! Seems that if I write about something topical, people might want to read it. Who'd have thought?

I'm please to find out, after a week's holiday, that the anti-cannabis ads seem to have finished (taking the 'pot' out of 'Spotify'?). I wait with baited breath to hear if cannabis use has slumped as a result of the Government's information campaign.

In related news, Spotify is now available on the iPhone and Android mobile phones, though not my Nokia as yet. I tend to listen to podcasts on my N85 (commuting or at the gym), and only use Spotify at work to drown out noisy co-workers and the printer/copier that for some reason is sited near my desk instead of out in the corridor where it belongs. So I'm not inclined to become a premium Spotify subscriber just yet. However, it's good to see Spotify still moving forward. Napster has provided me with a competent service, but it's far from ideal, and I'd happily transfer my allegiance to a better alternative. Maybe when Spotify's catalogue matches Napster's; at the moment there are too many albums I'd lose access to.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Spotify Ads Up the Annoyance Factor

The Spotify inline adverts hadn't been particularly intrusive until today. Although none of them made me want to purchase their products, they weren't unpleasant to listen to, so I could easily mentally blank them out.

This afternoon I've heard three brand new ones from Her Majesty's Government warning me about the side effects of cannabis (the bad ones, that is). Irritating the first time, I dread to think how I'm going to feel about them if I have to listen to them repeatedly.

The sound effects of a cannabis user repeatedly throwing up are offputting enough, but what really annoys me is wondering exactly what the government thinks they're going to achieve. Most alcohol users very quickly discover that drinking makes you talk too loudly, gives you a hangover, and can lead to serial vomitting, and yet these obvious downsides don't stop many people from over-indulging on the booze. Presumably the learning curve for cannabis is just as rapid. Still, it's nice to see the government supporting the music download business, with taxpayers' money, of course.

In one way this is the sort of ad that Spotify could really do with, as I'm immediately more tempted to upgrade to the premium, ad-free service. On the other hand, they're so annoying, I could just decide to give Spotify a miss for a couple of weeks in the hope the cannabis campaign is over by then.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Thirty Years of Experience - A Perspective, part 2

Even if the languages I wrote in are dead, the knowledge of how to write good software is timeless.

There are some problems with this, though. Many of the techniques for good coding that I was taught, I no longer agree with. Sometimes I completely disagree with them. At university I was taught that there should be as many lines of comment as there are of code, which led to absurdities like:
C    Increment counter
I = I + 1
In my code nowadays, comments are the technique of last resort for explaining what's going on. I much prefer to use plentiful, sensibly named functions to express my intent.

Nor do I any longer believe that every function should have only one return statement. Maybe that made sense once, but modern compilers are quite capable of coping with multiple return points. The emphasis on speed of execution and compactness that I learned at University also looks quaint. For most of my work, the most important quality that software can have, after correctness of course, is readability, so that the poor git who has to debug it three months later (quite often me) has a sporting chance of understanding it. Speed and size optimisation almost always reduce comprehensibility.

Another point that occurs to me is that I'd been programming for 16 years before I came upon Object-Oriented Design, and 25 before I had a chance to try Test Driven Development. I don't have any of my code from 16 years ago (what with it being the intellectual property of my former employers and all), but I rather suspect that most of the good practices I was using then haven't proved portable to the current day.

This isn't looking too good for the usefulness of my 30 years of experience. Let's look at my second argument instead.

I have acquired a sense of perspective, useful in a field like software engineering where the landscape changes at exponential rates.

As many others have already noted, IT is a field that undergoes exponential change. Processor speeds, memory size, disc capacity, etc. are all doubling every year or two. We all experience this; however, you have to be a certain age for the full magnitude of what's going on to sink in.

From this side of 50, I have a sense of perspective that younger (more energetic, faster learning, possibly more talented, not that I feel in any way threatened) programmers still lack. A good example of this involves the prefixes we use for size and speed. G for Giga is typical nowadays. When I started my professional career in 1980 though, memory size was typically measured in Kilobytes, and disc space in Megabytes. The HP1000 I worked on in 1980 had just 128K of RAM (and you could only address 32K of that at once). Three or four years later when my department was buying a Comart Communicator, my boss had to weigh up the pros and cons of getting one with a 10 or 20 Megabyte hard drive (in those days referred to as a Winchester drive).

My favourite example: in the mid-eighties Cambridge University was upgrading its mainframe system. I forget what computer exactly they were buying (though I remember it was replacing an IBM 3081), but I listened in stunned silence when a friend told me that it would have 50 Gigabytes of online hard drive. 'Giga' was new then, so I had to take a second to work out that that meant an astounding fifty thousand
Megabytes! And that was to service a whole University. I have three times that much space in my Western Digital Passport external hard drive now, and I've nearly filled it up. Also, I've just noticed that, for the price I paid for it less than two years ago, Amazon are now selling the 500Gb version. And there's also a 1 terabyte version! Tera is coming to personal computing. That's a million-fold increase in disc space in a couple of decades. Also, what used to need its own air-conditioned room now fits comfortably in your pocket.

All this is starting to make me sound like some boring old f**t, going on and on about what things were like when he was your age. I will therefore stop now, and try to salvage my argument in part 3.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Thirty Years of Experience - A Perspective, part 1

Having recently felt the need to update my CV, which now lists nearly thirty years of computing experience, I couldn't help noticing that quite a few of the skills I list are somewhat out of date. Fortran IV, Algol68, DEC VMS--who uses these any more? (More to the point, would I want a job using them anyway?) In fact, for most of my first decade in employment I was working on computers, operating systems, and languages that have all but vanished. Much of my second decade has already gone the same way. (Now that I think about it, most of the companies I've worked for no longer exist either. I'm pretty sure that's not my fault, though there does seems to be a pattern there.) So what use then, is thirty years of experience?

Does our field change so fast that there's a maximum amount of useful experience that you can acquire? After which, your total experience is being rendered redundant at one end as fast as you can add to it at the other?

Not liking the way this argument was going, I came up with two counter-arguments that show why it is still useful to have a many years of experience in computing.

Firstly, even if the languages I wrote in are dead, the knowledge of how to write good software is timeless. I've spent thirty years learning how to program.

Secondly, I have acquired a sense of perspective, useful in a field like software engineering where the landscape changes at exponential rates.

It's been three days since I started writing this entry (work, chores and childcare not being conducive to creativity), so I'll get back to these points in my next blog.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

A Napster User's First Thoughts on Spotify

A couple of weeks ago I read an article at The Register or somewhere about 'Spotify', and how it was going from strength to strength as a music download service, despite offering its basic service for free. Now I've been paying Napster £15 a month for the last few years to download their music, so this piquéd my interest enough to make me decide to give it a go.

I'm a bit cautious about these sites after my bad experience with iTunes. All I wanted to do was look at their catalogue to see if they were worth signing up to. However, to do that you first had to run their PC client. Only when I'd downloaded it, installed it, and started it up did I get told that iTunes wasn't yet available in the UK! (Yes, this was a while ago.) Like they couldn't have told me that to begin with? Spotify, however, is extremely quick to get going. My only complaint is that they ask for your date of birth. Why? A lot of banks and the like also use that particular piece of information for their security checks, so I don't like giving it out for no good reason.

So on to the Spotify experience. Well, the program is very fast, and downloads start almost instantaneously. Both these are unfamiliar experiences to a Napster user: napster.exe is a horribly slow program, that frequently hogs my CPU even when I'm not listening to anything. In terms of music availabity, Napster seems to have many more tracks that Spotify doesn't than the other way round. Why this is baffles me: you'd think that all the music labels that were prepared to let their music be downloaded would sign deals with the same download services. Anyway, the bottom line is that there are enough albums that I'd lose by moving to Spotify to keep me from leaving Napster. For the moment.

On the other hand, Spotify's basic service is, as I've mentioned, free, so there's nothing to stop me from using it as a supplementary service. I say 'free': there are adverts, which initially were about twice an hour, but seem to be picking up in frequency the more I listen. I guess they're aiming to be unobtrusive to start with while they're getting you hooked, before picking up in intensity in the hope of so annoying you that you sign up for the premium service. Apart from that though, the service is generally pleasant.

There are a few annoyances I've encountered.
  1. Spotify can't spot your existing music libraries. Napster, on the other hand, will quite happily integrate your ripped CDs (not surprising, as it uses Windows Media Player under the cover).

  2. The queueing mechanism in Spotify is highly unintuitive. Gary Fleming has provided a very good summary of its vagaries here, but suffice it to say that, if you queue up three albums in quick order, you'll get to listen to the first track of the first album, followed by all of the third album, followed by the second album, followed by the rest of the first. It gets worse: if you search for all the music of a particular artist and then queue up one of their albums, you effectively queue up all their music below that album in the search results as well.

  3. Spotify won't let me play music on my mobile phone; Napster will.

  4. If I close Spotify by clicking on the top right X icon, Spotify disappears, but the music continues to play.
The last one, of course, is a bug, and will disappear in due course. The first one is such a blatant shortcoming I can't believe they haven't fixed it yet. Number 3 is allegedly on the way. The second one is a pain for someone coming from Napster or Windows Media Player, and takes a little while to get used to. The trick is to put the music you want to listen to into a new playlist, and then queue that. After that you can add more music to the playlist, and it gets queued up in the way you'd expect. (You can also drag playlists out of Spotify and into Explorer or onto the desktop, letting you organise them into folders or mail them to other people.)

In summary, Spotify seems highly promising. It's faster than Napster, and, if you listen to your music on more than one machine, it's more convenient than Napster, which stores music tracks on the hard drive (you can just stream them, but that's much slower than Spotify). Spotify is available on MacOS X too, which Napster isn't. If it can just catch up in size with its catalogue and go mobile, I can see myself spending the £10 a month they ask for the ad-free service and kissing Napster goodbye.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Now I can send Texts

I've already mentioned my Nokia N85, which is quite a powerful machine, but with just a few annoyances that I've yet to sort out. The largest of these was the discovery that it had a problem sending sms text messages: it couldn't.

I found out about this four weeks after purchasing the phone, which gives you some idea of how important texting is in my life. Initial research suggested that this is an uncommon, but not unheard of, problem. Fellow sufferers were to be found on Symbian and Nokia forums. Seemed the only solution was to reformat the phone, and risk the problem reoccurring as I put all the settings back to my preferred values. I decided not to bother.

Then last week I was idly exploring some of the phone's lesser used utilities when I found some settings I'd never noticed before. I toggled one of them that looked a likely candidate and tried to send a text. It worked! To prove I'd found the key setting I went back and toggled to the original setting; however, I could still send texts.

So whether changing this setting is the once and for all way of letting me send texts, or whether the problem had fixed itself, I cannot say. But for posterity, here is what I changed:

Go into the Utilities folder and open the Device Manager. Select Options, then Settings. This should show you the 'Default server profile', which for me was 'Nokia'. I changed this to 'Orange', my network provider. That's all there is to it.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

And now for something vaguely useful

The principal reason I had for starting a blog (apart from having somewhere to sound off) was to be able to give back a little bit of knowledge to this amazing repository that the internet has become. Now comes my first chance.

I switched to using Mozilla Firefox for web-browsing when it first came out, and haven't regretted it. Apart from its own rich set of features, the add-ons you can download give it a real edge over its competitors. Firebug and Hyperwords are both amazing, when you consider how much functionality they give you, for free.

Last week I upgraded to the latest version: Firefox 3.5. Not a great deal to see in terms of extra features, but the start up time was remarkable, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. It was literally taking several minutes to load. Firefox 3.5 was really slow.

I hoped it might be a glitch, or it might recover by itself. No such luck. So I did the natural thing and asked Google. Bingo!

I started to follow the instructions, but when I went to the Temp folder like they said, there were so many files in there that Explorer just showed the torchlight icon for a couple of minutes, before I gave up. In the end I had to delete the files from the command line. It freed up over 5Gbytes of disc space, and Firefox now loads really quickly again.

I have a suspicion that more than one program is going to be running a bit faster now. The annoying thing is that I've bumped into this sort of issue before, a while back. These Temp folders fill up. It would be nice if the applications that put the files there had the courtesy to get rid of them when they'd finished, but clearly many of them don't. So it's left to the users, and how many of them know to look in their application data folders? I'm one that does, which is why it's annoying.

Monday, 29 June 2009

A Vast Torrent of Wisdom

Google reckon (in the sense of knowing for sure) that every minute of every day, 270,000 words are written on Blogger. That's a remarkable figure. It would be interesting to find out how much of that gets read every minute-substantially less, I'm sure. This blog can't be helping the averages, for a start.

To get some readers it would help if I told my friends I'd started blogging. However, I'm reluctant to do that until I've got a reasonable body of work here. Readers I don't know would be okay, except that the chance of anyone finding this blog is almost infinitesimal at the moment. It takes a very specific Google search for even me to find it, and that's only when I include my name, at that.

Unvisited blogs like this do have one purpose though: people with nothing useful to say, but a strong urge to say it anyway, now have a good place to vent steam harmlessly, and nobody need ever listen to them. Just like this blog, at the moment.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Nobody Rings

My first mobile phone was a sort of family heirloom; I inherited it from my mother when she died six years ago. It had a pay as you go account, still with all of the original money credited to it from when she'd bought it. I'm not surprised, as it was an ungainly model, difficult to navigate through. I kept it with me for emergencies, switched off as the battery discharged at a prodigious rate.

A couple of years later I bought a more up to date model from Nokia. Much easier to use, lightweight, and kept its charge. (In fact I've just turned it on successfully after it's spent the last five months in a drawer.) I still kept it switched off though, using it just for emergencies.

You see, I had never felt the need to be constantly connected with the phone network. I get few enough calls on the landline, so what was the point in handing out my mobile number, and incidentally losing my peace and quiet? That feature of today's technology I was quite happy to miss out on.

But last year I realised that the newer 'smartphones' pack a considerable amount of processing power. For many years I've lived out of a PDA (first a Palm m105, then an HP iPaq), and couldn't do without their built-in calendar and address book, not to mention the task list, calculator, music player, etc. One thing about the set up bothered me: when I did have to make a phone call on the mobile, I had to first look up the phone number on my iPaq, then key it into the phone. But if I had a smartphone, the two would be combined, and I could just dial straight away.

And so, even though I barely used my existing mobile, I began to condition myself to realising I 'needed' a smartphone costing £300 or more.

Fortunately, deciding what model to buy was sufficiently confusing to stop me just leaping in and spending my money. It had to be able to play the music I download on my 'Napster to go' subscription (and try getting a definitive list of devices that can do that, even from Napster!). It had to synchronise with the Mozilla Thunderbird mail client on my PC (same problem). It took months of umming and ahhing before I finally settled on a Nokia N85. It can play my music, and it does sync with my PC, though not without several annoyances (I shall have words to say about the Mobile Master software in a future blog). It can pick up FM radio, download the web, take photos, play games. And it can make phone calls directly from my address book.

I set about telling all my friends my new mobile number, and waited for the calls to come flooding in. And waited, and waited. Turns out my friends have as much need to ring me as I have to ring them.

There have been moments of excitement. Early on a couple of times at work the mobile went off in my pocket (both times making me start), but it was just Orange trying to sell me extra features. And just last night it rang again, but it was a wrong number. "Is that H?" "No." "Are you sure?" "Quite sure?" "So ... you're not H who lives opposite the shop on whatsit street?" There was a time when a display of stupidity like that would have received some choice remarks about the caller's probable IQ range. Sadly, nowadays he'd be able to get my number from his phone's list of dialled numbers, and then maybe one day find out who I was via a Google search, so I just had to reassure him that, yes, I was quite sure of my own name thank you.

Meanwhile I continue to carry my mobile with me at all times. It's fun being connected.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Birthday Greetings

Thought I'd post again before I run out of steam. Still no followers, I notice, despite having had this blog up for two whole hours. Maybe a tad over-optimistic there. However, since I set up a Twitter account I've picked up three followers, despite never having yet posted a tweet.

On the day of my 50th birthday I received an e-mail birthday greeting from, the Urban Legend site. What does this mean? And how did they get my birthday? Sure, I have visited them, but why did I supply my birth date? Maybe an urban legend in the making...

I also got the usual selection of cards, mostly with a '50' theme. One stood out: a fluffy teddy bear opening a present. Very nice, but about 42 years too late. Perhaps somewhere a small child is receiving a card with the words "You're never too old to be naughty!" on the front.

Going back now ten years, the day after my 40th I got a card signed by all the nurses at the local Health Clinic, asking me to come in for a Well Man Check. I dutifully went along, looking forward to the battery of high tech tests that would assess my life chances. They did a blood pressure test and a questionnaire. Although I wad doing no sports or exercise, the fact that I cycled the two miles to work apparently pushed me well into the safety zone, and I've never heard from them since.

Into the Blogosphere

It was my fiftieth birthday a few days ago.

Reaching 20 was no big deal. I was still at University, with few things worse than exams to worry about, and the rest of my life ahead of me.

Getting to 30 did cause me some soul-searching; it's harder to still think of yourself as young once you've left your twenties behind. But, I had my health, I was married now, and owned my own house. Life seemed on track, and the future still beckoned.

Arriving at 40 I was surprisingly comfortable about. Different house by then, and different wife, but the imminent prospect of starting a family kept me feeling young inside, so I could cope with having reached 'middle age'.

50, though, is much tougher to laugh off. For a start, if I'm still middle-aged, that means I'll have to make it to 100.

There's more: up to now I've thought of Saga holidays as an activity exclusively for a person's sunset years; now I'm allowed to go on them.

Worst of all, I've been officially reclassified as an ('older citizen'), with my own Assembly, and even my own festival, where presumably I can meet other 'old' people!

Well, stuff all that! I've still got the rest of my life ahead of me (albeit thirty years less of it now), plus most of my health, and I'm not going to start feeling old just because it's expected of me.

Chewing my muesli that morning, I decided it was time to start some new interests. And then, in a flash, I finally thought of a snappy title for this blog I'd been toying with starting. So here I am, taking my tentative first steps as a Blogger. I only hope I'll be able to live up to the high standards that implies.