Ode to VB3

Custom controls on a Visual Basic form.

Custom controls on a Visual Basic form. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It became the norm’,
to fill up one’s form

With tons of controls
to avoid any holes

Add in some sex
with a VBX

Inside a frame,
controls all the same

The user went click.
The cursor would stick

An hourglass appeases,
as the progress bar wheezes

Although coding was sloppy,
it all fit on a floppy

How I miss thee, VB3,


Look and feel

English: This is a general-purpose alphanumeri...

English: This is a general-purpose alphanumeric LCD 한국어: 범용 액정 디스플레이 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The device itself was rudimentary. Nothing more than a cheap metal casing which housed a small two-line LCD display and a flat ZX81 style keyboard.

“Can you make it look exactly like that?”

The assignment was for a large national breakdown operator and the devices lived in drivers’ cabs. They allowed simple communication between the drivers and the operators in headquarters. The original manufacturers of the units was now bankrupt and the customer wanted to replace them with cheaper modern commodity hardware. Ultimately, they wanted to enhance the units to offer much more functionality, but for phase 1, they didn’t want to scare the horses. After all, training a huge fleet of breakdown truck drivers would take some time.

My colleague studied the unit whilst mentally appraising the effort involved in replicating the look and feel of the user interface.

“As long as you leave one with us.”

So how hard would it be? Seeing as the hardware dictated that the only realistic programming language was Microsoft Visual C++, the answer was very hard indeed. Almost everything in C++ takes a surprising amount of code but if my colleague stood any chance of replicating the finer nuances of the device, he would have to resort to the dreaded owner-draw control. For ordinary controls which come as part of the operating system, Windows does all the hard work of drawing them every time something on the screen changes. For an owner-draw control, you have to write code. Reams and reams of it.

He took ages on those buttons. Firstly he studied the original, taking measurements and looking at everything through a magnifying glass to make sure he had the finer detail. The text on the buttons was not a standard Windows font either so on top of everything, he would have to create a custom font.

More than once I heard an “Aaaaaaaarrrgggh” from over the cubicle partition as he fought with the inner nuances of operating system libraries. After a month or so, he was ready for the first customer demonstration. I checked out his handiwork. It was an impeccable replica of the crude user interface. When the customer came in to see it, his brow wrinkled.

“Is there something wrong?”

“I was hoping you might smarten up the buttons to make them a bit more standard. You know, like the 3D look and feel you get with a Windows button?”

A quick look at my colleague’s face told me he was mentally counting to ten. A few moments clarifying what “exactly like” meant would have saved weeks of effort and considerable angst. Unfortunately, people specify things like this all the time and are usually disappointed with the result for some reason.

So why do they do it? They do it because it’s easy and requires little or no effort. Care and attention spent on requirements is seldom wasted.

Camber Sands

English: Camber Sands

English: Camber Sands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I think I’ve found it!” she cried exultantly. When my wife looks for kind of trip or holiday, it becomes an all consuming quest. She sits with the laptop for hours searching for exactly the right deal.

The object of this particular quest was a long weekend break in order to get away from it all after sustaining a nasty injury at work.

“Great! Where are we going?”

Camber Sands.”

My heart sank. I’d been to Camber Sands a few times. The first was on a family holiday. Just before the halfway point in the holiday, myself and my brother nagged mum and dad so much, they allowed us to go home early on the train.

Subsequent visits were for a games convention. The South coast of England in January is not a very hospitable place, particularly if your accommodation is made of a material flimsier than cardboard. One year, I slept in my car. At least it had a heater that worked.

So I didn’t have high hopes for the upcoming trip. Julie’s disabled mother came with us so we put in a special request to be on the ground floor close to the main centre. When we arrived, our chalet allocation was on the other side of the park and on the first floor.

We complained and were given a different chalet, still on the other side of the park, but at least it was on the ground floor. We opened the door, to be hit by a waft of stench and a sea of filth. Back we went and swapped again. The third chalet had an ant infestation.

We agreed that I should go back to the centre this time. Julie had a murderous look in her eye, so if she went, our new accommodation would probably be at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Part of me thought the comfort level might improve.

After explaining the problem, the lady behind the counter told me with a smile on her face that I was in the wrong place. I needed to report the problem to the estates hut on the other side of the camp. Off I trudged and joined the long queue outside the aforementioned hut.

As we got closer to the front of the queue, I leaned over to see what was happening. There was a man behind the desk with an enormous ledger. There was a big list of chalet numbers and against every single one appeared the word “ants”. I looked behind me. About 50 people were in the queue

Eventually, someone turned up with a canister of ant powder. We had to laugh. There was probably one grain of ant powder for every ant in the chalet!

We still had a good time, but I am never, ever going there again!


Walk a mile in my shoes

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we learnt about the birds and the bees in biology at school, our teacher explained one of the reasons that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. In the quest for love, there are stages, milestones almost, by which human beings judge their progress in a relationship and whether they are happy to make the next step.

The cause of much angst is that the number of steps for men is far fewer than the number for women. So, if a man has 3 romantic milestones hard-wired into his psyche, he’s thinking it’s only a couple of short steps to Nirvana. If the woman he is trying to woo has 11 such romantic milestones – he has a long way to go to win her heart. Both are likely to be frustrated by the other because of the difference in pace.

I faced a similar conundrum this week when I faced my first contract negotiation. To me, this was just another item on my to-do list. Something to get crossed off by lunchtime and I move onto the next item. However, our legal counsel had other ideas. The documents in question formed the last line of defence should something go wrong. I tried to get through it as quickly as possible. She went through in meticulous detail, questioning just about everything.

At first I was as frustrated as that man was in his courtship. Well – probably not that frustrated if I’m honest, but at first I thought she was being overly pernickety (or is it pedantic?)

When I sat back and reconsidered though, I realised it was me being difficult. If this contract was the suit of armour that was going to protect the company when things went wrong, it makes sense to craft the finest suit of armour we can. Also, this was my first contract negotiation. In her career, she has undoubtedly drafted a huge number. She’s undoubtedly been there in the thick of things when they had to be used in anger to protect the company.

I realised my mistake and adjusted my expectations of just how long this process would take.

When you’re at loggerheads with someone, it pays to take a moment to try to see things from their point of view. What’s important to you might be completely different to what’s important to them. Understanding that difference can be the key to resolving the dispute and moving on.



Diagram showing the major parts of a modern in...

Diagram showing the major parts of a modern incandescent light bulb. Glass bulb Inert gas Tungsten filament Contact wire (goes to foot) Contact wire (goes to base) Support wires Glass mount/support Base contact wire Screw threads Insulation Electrical foot contact (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lighting up your life used to be fairly simple. There was a ceiling rose in every room into which you plugged a standard incandescent bulb. You only really had two choices. Firstly, the brightness, so wherever you wanted a lot of light, you would go for a 100 watt bulb. If you wanted more subdued lighting, a 40 watt bulb would do. If you were looking for a halfway house between the two, there was always the 60 watt bulb. The only other choice you had was either a bayonet or a screw fitting.

Unless you lived in a chaotic household, the fitting was always the same so a stash of bulbs of various wattage beneath the sink was enough to keep the lights glowing.

Things have changed. The incandescent bulb is woefully inefficient, so greener bulbs are now in vogue. These come in a myriad of sizes, from the ones that are so tiny you almost need tweezers to get them into place right up to fairly butch bulbs with industrial fittings. Fashion has also changed. The single dangling rose from the ceiling has been replaced with lamps made up of a multiplicity of light sockets.

We have one in our hallway with 12 bulbs. In an idle moment in our local DIY store, I read the outside of the box containing the bulbs. A quick bit of mental arithmetic told me that I would be up on a ladder changing a bulb in that particular fitting every month. We only have a handful of bedrooms and yet, there are 40 or so bulbs in our property.

Who thought this would be a good idea? I can imagine that the lightbulb industry loves it. Buying a bulb used to be like buying a commodity. Buying a bulb now is a bit like buying a water filter for a 1940 Traction Avant. There are only so many places you can get them and there is a hefty price to pay.

All of the packaging of these bulbs screams out how energy-efficient they are, but I can’t help thinking that there is an awful lot more waste. Although each individual bulb is more energy-efficient than an equivalent incandescent bulb, we now have so many more of them, which means we throw many more away. Surely that has an environment impact. Not to mention the packaging and the transport costs.

Maybe we’ll go back to candles.


Schoolchildren eating hot school lunches made ...

Schoolchildren eating hot school lunches made up primarily of food from the surplus commodities program. Taken at a school in Penasco, New Mexico, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The gleaming gold and metal badge on the outside of my school jumper said “PREFECT”. It was my first taste of responsibility.

My duties were legion and included such things as enforcing the “no running” rule in the corridors, making sure people went the right direction on the stairs, lining up the first years for assembly.

Heady stuff for someone who was only just a teenager. Even though we used to mock prefects behind our hands, I instantly thought respect came with the badge.

Rank was not without its privileges. One of them was the ability to get into lunch early. This was not to be sniffed at. The quality of the school meals degraded significantly the longer time went on and all the popular choices quickly disappear. It was during one of these lunch hours when I met my downfall.

I sat down for dinner with my school friends as usual. It was towards the end of term before the long Summer break and we all felt demob happy. We happily joked and told funny stories until our sides ached.

Unbeknownst to us, over at the next table, there were a bunch of first years. They were also feeling demob happy. However, instead of telling jokes and reminiscing like us, they chose to have a water fight. And after that a food fight.

A passing dinner lady spotted the two tables and came to the incorrect conclusion that the cause of our table’s mirth was the tomfoolery of the first years. She summoned a teacher and told him. Next thing we were in the headmaster’s office looking sheepishly at our shoes. I tried to defend us by protesting our innocence. It was no use. Detentions all round and as we filed out of the office feeling hard done by, the headmaster called me back.

“Badge please”

With a tear in my eye, I handed it over. It was all so unjust, but it didn’t seem to matter. It was a good job the dinner lady didn’t think I’d murdered someone.

It taught me a valuable lesson. Whenever you accept a new role, particularly one with some degree of responsibility, you need to look beyond the tasks and think about what’s really expected of you. If it’s not clear then ask. Then make sure you live up to that expectation. And avoid dinner ladies and first years like the plague!

Ever been scared out of your wits? Yes and no…

English: Pizza slicer or cutter

English: Pizza slicer or cutter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever known sheer terror? That heart-stopping feeling where you know there is a high likelihood of shuffling off this mortal coil? I know of one time when I felt that fear and another when I should have, but didn’t. In general, I am a stranger to fear. Sure, I get nervous before I give a big presentation or just before I do something which is important to me, but that’s not true fear. That’s its close cousin, known in this country as the collywobble or the heebie-jeebies.

In hindsight, the time when I should have felt fear was on an aeroplane. Myself and a colleague were on the way back from a regular trip to India. We left it too late to book a direct flight, so the plane was on final approach into Dubai. Everything seemed normal. The seatbelt signs were on and we descended nicely towards the airport. The flight was only half full and everyone had plenty of room.

All of a sudden, the plane violently climbed and veered left.

From the galley, we could hear the sound of something crashing to the floor. An overhead locker burst open and a bag flew out. I looked at the aircrew strapped into the jump seat in front of us. One of them looked very nervous indeed. The other was in frantic conversation on the phone to someone (maybe the cockpit). She put the phone down, signalled to her colleague and they both made their way to the galley.

The plane shook violently now and descended again. A man released himself from his seat, clutched his chest and screamed for help in a language I didn’t understand. The stewardess told him to get back to his seat. He promptly collapsed in the aisle and they dragged him into the galley. I should have been scared out of my wits, but wasn’t. I felt cool as a cucumber and turned to my colleague and made a joke about whether this was it. Were we about to meet our respective makers.

It was almost as if I knew that this wasn’t the time.

The time I came face to face with fear and looked him right in the eye, was on another trip. Maybe I should stop flying. Myself and a colleague were in an airport waiting for the flight home. We ordered a pizza whilst we waited for the plane. At some point whilst eating this pizza, a tiny piece of crust broke off and lodged itself in my airway. I couldn’t breathe. At first I thought it was temporary, but after a minute or so of not being able to catch a breath, I started to think I might die.

My colleague stood up and looked around the place. He had purpose in his eyes, like he knew exactly what to do. Just at the moment he leapt into action, my airway cleared. I could breathe once more. We both relaxed as I slowly caught my breath. Once I felt almost normal, I asked my colleague in a croak what he planned to do in that instant before I stopped choking.

He told me he was looking around for a sharp knife with which to slit my throat open so I could breathe. It was then I felt true terror.

You can count on my support


As any engineer worth their salt will tell you, the right support can prevent untold damage. Although even the ancient Greeks had worn simple garments to cover and support the breast, it was only 100 years ago when a German by the name of Sigmund Lindauer patented the idea of a mass manufactured brassière. Thanks to him, ladies blessed with an ample dairy shelf can comfortably support their assets providing they have picked one out of the right size. Providing such support is big business and the brassière market is worth a staggering $16 billion worldwide.

Since Sigmund’s invention 100 years ago, we’ve seen bras to enhance, bras to reduce and pointy conical bras. We’ve seen a frequent flyer bra which eliminates all the metal so women can pass through airport metal detectors without inadvertently setting them off.

As fashions come and go, bras change to match. Backless dresses brought along the strapless bra. With one shoulder dresses came one shoulder bras. In case you don’t fancy carrying your mobile phone, there are bras with a perfect pocket built-in. For ladies who work in the espionage industry, there are bras with a built-in holster for your Walther PPK.

What will the next 100 years bring?

Certainly more wearable technology. We’ve already seen bras that deliver a taser-like shock to would be attackers, which sounds a bit scary if your wife develops Alzheimer’s and forgets to switch it off one day.

I imagine there will be bras that change colour and texture on demand. One day, you could be scanned by a 3D scanner and print your perfect bra on a 3D printer all from the comfort of your own home. It can only be a matter of time before someone comes up with a virtual reality bra for long distance lovers.

With breast cancer one of the most prevalent causes of death among women, I like the idea of a bra which constantly monitors the shape and consistency of the wearer’s breasts. Using tiny sensors, they could detect the slightest change long before it became detectable by touch alone. Maybe such a garment could transmit the data to your doctor so that he could look for any danger signs. Not only that, but it could monitor your heart rate and rhythm at the same time. it would only take a slight tweak to the taser bra and it could become an on demand defibrillator.