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Archive for the ‘Geeky stuff’ Category

What do you write about in your 100th blog entry? The easy and clichéd answer is – the previous 99 entries. Easy and clichéd – yes, that appeals to me, but I’m going to broaden out a little and talk about Social Media in general. There are countless blogs about Social Media – some of them are actually quite good – but this is going to be a personal account about my social media journey.

There is a common misconception that Facebook gave birth to “social media”. Not so. In the early days of the internet (before it was called the internet) I dabbled with bulletin boards. Going back to BTBL (Before Tim Berners Lee – the impending replacement for “BC”) I plied the CB radio airwaves under the “handle“ of Pheonix.

Before that grown men with a disproportionately large amount of facial hair sat hunched in garden sheds under the dim light of 60W bulbs talking purist techno-babble with similar souls around the globe via Amateur Radio. Perhaps there was a precursor still to this – maybe in pre-beard days people tapped out morse code to chat to strangers.

A radio ham - yesterday

A radio ham - yesterday

In fact I never owned an amateur radio but I did obtain a licence (G7CQV – missed out on the legacy G1’s by a month – analogous to an old school British black passport) but beyond the academic achievement of the exam success I soon realised that unlike CB where you had a “normal conversation” the strict code of conduct surrounding Ham Radio forbids any form of discussion not centred entirely around the equipment you are operating. Curiously I had assumed Ham was dead ATBL (work it out) until I visited Derby Silk Mill recently and some (bearded) Hams were chatting into the ether for reasons unknown. Needless to say they were describing their equipment to some hirsute listener.

It matters not, the point I have predictably over-laboured is that technology in all of these forms has provided a means to communicating with people you don’t know and may never meet.

So social media has been around in one form or another for a long time. It has just exploded recently because the internet has brought it to the masses and IT students-come billionaires have made the experience a damn sight slicker – ironic given the stereotypical demographic of IT people as being socially inept. I’m a former IT student and… well, anyway….

Returning to internet based Social Media ATBL Friends Reunited was an early personal experiences. Like everyone else I lost interest in the site because it failed to offer a sustained experience (everyone except ITV who bought this former racehorse for £175m after it had bolted and then later sold the decrepit old nag for £25m).

Tom - 1 million friends but no mates

Tom - 1 million friends but no mates

Next I think was MySpace which didn’t seem to make it easy to connect with like-minded people unless your name was Tom in which case you had millions of “friends”. Now MySpace provides a popular focal point for bands and musos which proves that on the internet you can survive and indeed thrive if you are prepared to evolve.

Next I was sucked into the vortex of that ubiquitous tornado known as Facebook, along with every living thing in its path. I still use the site to keep in contact with family and some friends but while it provides an effective means of sharing rich content with trusted friends it does not IMHO lend itself easily to the art of discovery. In other words FB is the site you are more likely to use to communicate with people in your existing social circles. It remains the pre-eminent social media site, yet more and more people are shifting their attention as I have to…

Twitter – a glorious melting pot of all and sundry. It is here that I have been lucky enough to come across some wonderfully talented and genuine people. This is where I have found people who share my interests – real ale, travel, local affairs, food, silliness not to mention people you can’t pigeonhole, such as my kindred spirit truth junkie – resident of a far off desert (you know who you are). In fact I follow a kaleidoscope of disparate individuals whom I find interesting or funny. There is no obligation to follow bores or self publicists (sorry Bill Shatner – you disappoint me). In summary…

Twitter is the global populous rebuilt from scratch in the form of our choosing

You can be the person you want to be, hang out with anybody you like and discard those you don’t. Twitter is a level playing field, ground zero – a new world order.

And then there’s my WordPress Blog. When I penned my first entry in June 2009 it was a leap into the unknown. I knew I enjoyed the process of writing but I had no idea where it would lead – if anywhere. My cousin pointed out that most blogs don’t get beyond 5 posts and it’s true that I have visited many blogs with 2 or 3 submissions.

By whatever means I find myself writing this blog – my 100th – and I can look back and pride myself on having not knowingly imparted any useful information during this time and only on occasion has my writing got “all serious” (sorry). I have never believed in letting facts pollute my flow. If you want facts then the world is already full of them.

Looking back at my blog some subject trends emerge…


38% – Travel


I’ve regaled and embellished my travel encounters with the spirit of Hunter S.Thompson at heart. In Cornwall I was Scott of Arabia. In the Lake District I discovered a night club in the hills. Dorset was Jurassic and New York City – well that’s a story of it’s own. Let’s not forget London such a favourite destination I compiled my own useless tourist guide.


31% – Football


God knows why I thought I could sustain a blog every day for last years month-long World Cup. It almost killed me but despite the workload and threats from a “celebrity” agent I pulled it off, with the help of an unwitting crack panel of pundits. Just. The Golden Mullet competition was a roaring success unless you judge it by the number of entrants.


9% – Kitchen Activity

It’s true, I love to create loads of extra faff by sharing recipes with you. One day I’m going to blog the washing up – see how you like it.


…and the rest

Amidst my subjective social commentaries you will find reportage from a variety of bespoke events that I feel the world needs to know about.

But where are the so called “big issues”? Politics, Religion, Society, Innuendo? Am I as fatuous and featherweight as my subject matter might suggest? The truth is that they are such weighty topics I fear I would struggle to do them justice in a concise form. They are too important to short change but who wants to come here to read a tome any more than they want to read a political manifesto, the 1st testament, the magna carta or Rogers Profanisaurus? That’s not to say I wont turn my hand to such things in due course but in the meantime somebody has to be the standard bearer for piggy whiffle and it might as well be me.

As this post comes to an end conventional editorial wisdom suggests that I neatly wrap things up with a summary and some conclusions. Rules – who needs them? I seem to have largely ignored them to date and I wish to remain an individual. So no tidy ending, no lessons learned and no moral to the story. You are just going to have to keep on re…

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With a title like that I really have set myself up for a fall. Actually this post is really a riposte to my last post because I included an image that provoked a few comments and I just couldn’t let the opportunity pass to talk about the formative days of the computer industry. This is a subject that captivates me and I want to share a few of my thoughts with you.

Point of interest – for me at least: The eagle eyed amongst you might question whether the image in my last post claiming to be my desk is entirely legit. In truth I was looking for a classic console of flashing lights that 70’s sci-fi films would have you believe constitute a computer. Instead I came across a 60s banking computer called ERMA which I decided to use because of its absurdness. There’s plenty more information out there on ERMA but this link is as good as any. My desk probably looks remarkably like your desk – the same PC, slightly more crap over every surface and a plethora of pens, including some of yours. Literally. You wondered where they went…

For those of you who will never see inside a modern computer room I’m afraid I’m going to shatter all your dreams and illusions because the days of white coated bespectacled “scientists” (I love the term “computer science” – it sounds way cooler than it is) fitting tape spools into expansive metal cabinet units, hitting large coloured buttons, flicking switches and scrutinsing punch cards is looong departed. And yes – it was before my time.

IBM 360

IBM 360 - how it used to be

But I feel that this era created a public identity for the industry by providing something visual for all of the periods fanciful and futuristic talk to be anchored to. Computers have always been portrayed in films as glamorous and mysterious monoliths. Powerful, infallible, beyond challenge and at the command of important people. Anything that demands a dedicated and secure room patrolled by boffins and has banks of flashing lights tends to grab the imagination. Our lives are run by them. In the space of a generation computers have become ubiquitous. They have escaped the laboratory and bred wildly with their distant offspring cropping up in every corner of society. A child clutching a handheld game has more computer power in their grubby mits than the combined might of every computer of ERMAs generation. Think about that.

The modern server room still exists, despite the decentralisation of computer systems. I was in one this morning albeit a rather small and unfit for purpose variant. It contained the following:

  • Cardboard boxes
  • Cables
  • Missing floor and ceiling tiles gushing forth more cables
  • Air conditioning controls to prevent technical gubbins from overheating. It was turned off and stuff was overheating.
  • A shelf unit with things that might have been useful 5 years ago
  • Lots more cables
  • A coat stand with somebodys fleece and a pair of shoes on the floor beneath. I think I know whose.
  • Copious quantities of dust. In fact more than can reasonably be explained by science.

Oh, and a rather discrete refrigerator sized metal cabinet containing a series of 2 inch high slabs with a few lights and cables – these are the servers. These are also by far the least interesting things in the room.

But ERMA and its kin were something else. They came from a time when it was all about the hardware and when software didn’t really exist. Computing WAS a science. This was serious kit at the time and yet a mere 35 years after the plug was finally pulled on this behemoth it sits in a museum looking every bit as dated as a spinning jenny or a horse drawn plough. The social transformation brought about by IT over the last 30 years is absolute. Time and distance have been redefined by the modern global IT infrastructure and the world will only continue to get much faster and smaller.

The point to my meandering monologue? A cutting edge computer like the iPhone (because that’s what it is) is a staggering product, combining awesome hardware, a vast array of applications, groundbreaking usability and beautiful ergonomics. But you just have to love and respect its great great great great great great great great grandad. Next time you are in a museum and there’s a hulking old computer sat in some dingy corner of the basement (I can recommend the Science Museum in London) I would implore you to take a few minutes to see it at first hand. In computing terms this is as close to mystery, intrigue or romance that you will get.

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People often ask me what I do. It’s a reasonable question and I don’t draw too much attention to myself on the whole so there is no reason why anybody should know. I’ve been prompted to write a few words on this now because a few recent enquiries have made me smile.

Firstly my sister asked my 10 year old nephew what he thought I did for a living. His answer – offered without any deliberation – was that I was a footballer. I have no idea where he got that from but I love it and when my passport comes up for renewal shortly I might proffer that as an occupation. On another occasion I had posted an entry on twitter about a NewsBiscuit submission of mine that had been published and somebody asked me if that was what I did for a living. A perfectly innocent question but if you have seen my submissions you will know nobody is going to pay me for them.

Most recently one of my work colleagues asked me what I did – again a reasonable question but it is symptomatic of modern office life that you can fail to know what somebody sitting a few yards away does. It was much worse at my previous employers where there were vast tracts of open plan office staffed by transient workers often employed by partner companies. Barely a week would go by without a delivery guy asking me where I could find Person X and when I said I had never heard of them he would trundle off only to be seen getting a signature from said recipient seated a couple of desks away. Somebody I might have been on “nodding terms” with for a year without ever knowing their name or business.

In my defence I’m not a shouty type. I love chatting with people and will field any question but I don’t tend to naturally just talk about my affairs unprompted to all and sundry. Some people are very different – you can know the intimate details of their life story even though they are positioned nowhere near you and may not even be aware of your existence. I remember a visit to Barcelona – I was on the roof of a famous building called Casa Mila styled by local creative genius Antoni Gaudi taking in his incredible chimneys, but I can’t remember much about the building. All I can recall is the infuriatingly omnipresent American lady who had arrived on a cruise ship docked in the harbour and spent 20 minutes bellowing out to her (presumably deaf and/or suicidal) friend the minutiae of her European Tour itinerary plus her dissatisfactions with seemingly everything in her life. I tried to circumnavigate the roof as far away from her as possible but she had the unearthly ability to hijack all of the 5 recognised sense plus a few others yet to be ratified. It was a good job there were anti-jump (or anti-push) fences around the perimeter.

Here is the “man in the street” description of what I do. I develop, enhance and support computer systems at the national charity that I work for. I specialise in data and databases but the beauty of working for an organisation of this size with an entire IT department numbering a couple of dozen staff is that you get involved in a wide range of work streams. Historically I have been a web developer and I still do some of this now albeit playing second fiddle to our resident expert Matt. I particularly enjoy meeting the people who use or commission systems to try and understand what they do and where system related opportunities lie or problems exist. It is greatly rewarding to deliver a new system or enhancement that you know is going to improve daily life for somebody, especially when it means the user will be released to channel their valuable time on the interesting and important things – the primary activities they should be focussed on – rather than tearing their hair out on an awkward system that is unnecessarily demanding.

My desk at work

My desk at work

Unfortunately IT people get a bad press because there is a rather outdated view that they are geeks from another plain who are incapable of communication with normal people. I’ve met a few people like this but they are the exception rather than the norm. In my experience the people who tarnish the image of my industry the most are some of the middle managers in larger IT organisations who create a needlessly complex language to mystify their art and safeguard their jobs by making it appear they know something you don’t. The truth, and I can assure you of this from my experience, is that they are either essentially non-technical people who haven’t a clue about basic hands-on IT or that they have been promoted from a technical background and feel that they have to adopt this mumbo-jumbo to get along.

An IT middle manager yesterday

An IT middle manager yesterday

Having worked in the classic environment where clueless middle managers have been left alone to breed and multiply over time while a threadbare stock of technical specialists have been undermined, overworked and ousted beyond any point of sustainability, I feel so lucky to now work in an organisation exhibiting none of this corporate cholesterol. I appreciate my current job all the more having witnessed at close hand the phenomenon of these self-important middle managers genuinely believing their own hype. These are highly paid influential people that often can’t tie their own shoe laces and would leave Sir John Harvey-Jones speechless were he to improbably rise from the grave again and audit such a workplace. There’s a book in this subject and one day I might just write it. The point I am trying to make is that the modern IT professional typically combines technical ability with good communication skills and business awareness. You can put them in front of a customer or sit them next to the CEO and the conversation will flow, in fact this is what I would advocate.

There is of course a lot of jargon in the business, far too much in fact, but that’s an unavoidable by-product of an industry based around new concepts that you can neither see or touch and as IT professionals we should be pitching our language according to the audience. Here’s a random sample of a few of the things I have been working on recently…

  • Designed a protocol and developed a database toolset for the automated transfer of data payloads from internal servers to our external hosted environment (including a rather cool stored procedure that returns a dataset of a recursive file listing obtained from a remote server via FTP).
    Translation:Developed a solution that means that information entered by staff onto our internal website gets reliably copied over to our national website overnight.

  • Created a database driven job that uses a dotNet assembly to obtain geocodes for our resources via web service calls.
    Translation:Developed a solution that enables website users to view properties found on our database in a Google Maps style window

  • Architecture, physical design and implementation of a central data hub for the organisation.
    Translation:Creation of a means of sharing data between different systems within the organisation using a standard approach.

There’s a lot more going on too but hopefully the above details give you a taste of what I get up to regardless of whether you are an IT person. A lot of it is quite analytical and some days you are in the zone and scorch through your workload while other days you seem to stare at the screen intently hoping in vain that it will all start to fall into place. There’s not much you can do with half an eye while chatting although on some days this would be welcome!

So now you have an inkling of the sort of thing I do please feel free to ask more or ignore it as per your disposition. Just remember, I’m not some guru if you need your PC fixing, printers are a mystery to EVERYBODY – not just you, and offers to sign professional football terms or get paid to write satirical news articles will be gratefully received.

I’m not holding my breath.

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