Don’t get too comfortable…

An artist's depiction of an extrasolar, Earthl...

An artist’s depiction of an extrasolar, Earthlike planet.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All in all, planet Earth is not a bad place, but one day, no matter how much we like it, we might have to up sticks and leave. Maybe we’ll have polluted the place so much that it’s no longer viable to live here. Perhaps the water level will rise so far that there’s no dry land. Or NASA could detect a large foreign body hurtling towards Earth at an alarming rate and Bruce Willis is not returning their calls. Let’s hope it doesn’t involve mushroom clouds.

Read any science fiction novels or watch any films and it’s almost a given that sooner or later, the human race will colonise other worlds. As worlds go, planet Earth is just about perfect. Unfortunately, it’s in the minority. If we want to be choosy about where to migrate to, we need to travel a very long way before we get there.

Unless someone comes up with technology that can move us many orders of magnitude faster than we can today, the only way to get to our new home will be to launch a ship on which people are born, grow old and die many times before the ship reaches the destination. That’s assuming they make it. Space is a hostile environment and there’s no shortage of cosmic debris moving at frightening speeds. A rogue meteor could be the difference between a nice day’s space flight and hard vacuüm.

Not only that, but they will need to pack for every eventuality. Unlike my wife, I can pack for a couple of weeks away  with a case no bigger than a shoebox. If I forget something, it’s easy enough to go and buy whatever I need. When you’ve been in space for 30 years, nipping back home for a new toothbrush or spare parts is impractical.

The crew need to be entertained too. For a long space voyage, half a dozen DVDs are not going to cut it. What are they going to eat? I can imagine that ration packs washed down with recycled urine gets real old real quick. With people cooped up in close proximity for so long, discipline will become an issue. Someone needs to keep the peace.

Depending on the target planet, the journey might be the easy bit. What if we land on LV426?

I do hope that someone, somewhere is quietly working on all these challenges. The time to start trying to solve them is not 72 hours before the asteroid hits.

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Must focus… Ooh look! A butterfly.

“Facebook notifications iPad UX FAIL” $FB #iOS...

“Facebook notifications iPad UX FAIL” $FB #iOS #opinions / SML.20130111.SC.NET.Facebook.iOS.iPad.Notification.UX.FAIL.Opinions (Photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML)

I don’t know when the rot set in, but I do know it started happening a long time ago. In my first office job, we had two different types of computer. One was a fully fledged PC which sat in the middle of the office. Everyone in the office shared that one PC. When you needed to use it, you took your place, did what you needed to and left it.

You could only do one thing at a time and it was easy to focus.

The other kind of computer wasn’t really a computer at all. It was a dumb terminal, connected by cable to the massive beast of a mainframe in the basement. Again, you could only do one thing at a time and almost everything involved submitting a job that would get executed overnight. In the morning, you received a print out of the results. When things happen that slowly, you make damned sure you don’t make mistakes.

When I started programming, it was a similar story. At first, I wrote Adabas Natural programs on the mainframe. Everything I did took place on a terminal screen. Later, I moved on to program PCs, but they still ran DOS so there was little or no scope for multi-tasking.

Along came Windows with its promise of releasing the shackles of single-threading. When it first came out, it was so unstable that trying to do two things at once was like playing Russian roulette. On an operating system that crashed if you left it alone long enough, let alone loading it up with running applications, saving your work every 10 seconds became second nature.

But slowly and steadily, Windows improved and applications along with it. Instead of Single Document Interfaces (SDIs), now applications could have many windows open. The first web browsers could only show one website at a time. When tabbed browsers came out, you could have loads open.

Somewhere along the way came email. Then social networks. Somewhere in between came notifications. Most applications now have some sort of auto-update feature.

Someone’s sent me an email. Adobe Acrobat needs updating. Auntie Maud has posted on Facebook; she’s lost her cat. Ooh look, Stephen Fry‘s following me on Twitter. Ooh – another email. Windows needs to apply updates. A reminder – I have a meeting to go to. Another email. It’s OK, Auntie Maud’s found her cat.

Modern life can easily turn into a sea of distractions and it builds up over time. To start with, it’s nice to hear about something cool your friend’s found on Kickstarter. It’s great that you can read your email on the train. But it’s also very nice to sit down, relax and read a good book.

What has Hemel Hempstead ever done for us?

Paris has the Eiffel Tower. We have Kodak House.

Paris has the Eiffel Tower. We have Kodak House.

In order to get into Mensa, you need to undergo an intelligence test. If you want to get into Hemel Hempstead you have to negotiate a fiendish traffic management system called the magic roundabout. Somehow, just under 90,000 souls have passed the test and reside in the town.

It is a town of few accolades. Henry VIII granted the town a royal charter, presumably because he conducted his romantic liaisons in the town. It’s not the only time a reigning monarch has found the time to visit. Queen Elizabeth the Second came to Hemel Hempstead to open the appropriately named Queen’s Square shortly after her coronation. Louis Mountbatten went to school here.  Somehow, I think our days of royal interest have long gone.

Now Hemel Hempstead can add another accolade thanks to a recent survey. People voted the town the ugliest in the UK. Beating off stiff opposition from Luton and Slough amongst others, Hemel Hempstead came first with the grand total of 785 votes. Leaving aside the fact that only 3,000 people voted in the survey which is probably less than the number of left handed people with red hair who speak Norwegian, does Hemel Hempstead deserve the title?

Geneva has the lake and the jet d'eau - we have the water gardens

Geneva has the lake and the jet d’eau – we have the water gardens

It does suffer from “New Town Syndrome”.  Among many others, Hemel Hempstead grew very rapidly in the post war years to cope with a population displaced by the blitz. After a flurry of investment and concrete in the early days, it received precious little investment afterwards. This means there are a number of tired 1950s concrete structures which probably looked modern in their day but they are far from easy on the modern eye.

There are some very nice places in the town. We are blessed with a wide range of wide open green spaces in the form of Boxmoor and Gadebridge park. The Grand Union links Hemel Hempstead to Berkhamsted and Kings Langley. Hemel Hempstead has enviable transport links. A train line gets you into London in half an hour or so and the M1 and M25 are near at hand.

But ultimately, it’s an unremarkable town. The crime figures are low. So low in fact, that the Police are looking to close the Police Station in the town. How you can have a town of 90,000 people with no Police Station is beyond me. Mind you, there are plenty of babies around, but that didn’t stop them closing the maternity ward.

The vast majority of housing in the town is ex local authority and much of the housing stock is showing its age. But the thing that probably swung the award for us was the high street. A desolate wasteland of closed down shops, pawnbrokers reborn as chain stores, charity shops and mobile phone shops.

But to us, it’s home and ugly or not, we like it.

Move along now. Nothing to see here.

Censorship

Censorship (Photo credit: IsaacMao)

I love the freedom of the Internet. The idea that any kind of knowledge, any kind of product or service is just a click away still astounds me.

Children born today will find it very difficult to believe that it was ever any different. Unfortunately, not everyone enjoys this freedom. There are those poor souls who have no access to the internet because of lack of means or infrastructure. Then there are those who only have access to a limited subset. They can see what their government wants them to see.

For some reason, I find that really sinister. I abhor the idea of someone in power deciding what I can or cannot see.

Living in the UK, we are lucky to have a press that is the envy of the world. Up until recently, I believed that they operated with no interference. They print what they want, even if it holds the state to account for their behaviour. I can’t imagine the press reports about MP’s expenses would be allowed in China or Burma for example. This was the press at their best.

Not so long ago, the press blotted their copy books by illegally hacking phones to source interesting news copy. This was not their finest hour. In response, the government is introducing a new watchdog backed by legislation to control the worst excesses of the press.

I don’t like it.

David Cameron recently unveiled an agreement with all the main internet service providers in the UK to introduce a “porn filter”. Unless subscribers opt out of the scheme, their internet access will be filtered to exclude adult content. According to the Open Rights Group, as well as sexual content, this will include violence, extremist related content,  eating disorder web sites, suicide related web sites, alcohol and smoking related content and esoteric material (whatever that may be). Who’s going to decide what’s OK and what isn’t?

I really don’t like it.

Anyone who wants to view any kind of adult material will have to opt in. This means that they will be on a list of people who have actively chosen to view such content. I really hope we are not sleepwalking into a world where such a choice has negative consequences for the individual concerned.

The thing I find really sinister is that the infrastructure to block content will exist. Will successive governments resist the temptation to filter anything inconvenient? Can we even believe that we have free access today?

Decisions, decisions…

English: Are you looking at me? Cowshed at Bro...

English: Are you looking at me? Cowshed at Brown Bank Farm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The manager of a large organisation had a heart attack. The doctor told him to go to a farm for several weeks to relax.

At the farm, he became very bored, so he asked the farmer to give him some work to do. The farmer told him to clean out the cow sheds.

The farmer thought that someone used to working behind a desk would take over a week to finish the job, but to his surprise the manager finished the job in less than one day.

The next day the farmer gave the manager a more difficult job: to cut the heads of 500 chickens. The farmer was sure that the manager would not be able to do the job, but at the end of the day the work was done.

Next morning, as most of the jobs in the farm were done, the farmer asked the manager to divide a bag of potatoes in two boxes: one box with small potatoes, and one box with big potatoes. At the end of the day the farmer saw the manager sitting in front of the bag of potatoes, but the two boxes were empty.

The farmer asked “How is that you managed such difficult jobs earlier, and now you can’t do this simple job?”

He answered: “I’ve spent my whole life cutting heads and dealing with shit, but now you ask me to make decisions.”

Human beings make zillions of choices through their lives. What to eat or what to wear. What to read or what to watch. Usually it’s not a problem, but every so often, we have to make a hard decision. I’ve seen people literally paralysed with choice. Sometimes at the sandwich shop or choosing a bottle of wine in the supermarket. It usually happens because they’ve formed an idea of what they want and it’s not available. Maybe the sandwich shop has run out of their favourite sandwiches or there’s nothing they fancy. Maybe they are after a decent bottle of white wine for less than a fiver, but there’s nothing there that fits the bill.

But sometimes in business, leaders have to make really horrible decisions. Usually, they are choosing between a number of terrible options and they are trying to make the least bad choice. They will display the same behaviour as the wine picker or the sandwich muncher bouncing among the options, hoping that an optimal choice will become clear.

So how do you handle them? Firstly, if there is no downside to not making the decision, I would wait. The situation may change over time and the horrible decision may be avoided. Over time, more options may become available or the appeal of one option may change to make it the obvious choice.

If there is a downside to delaying and you really have to bite the bullet and make that decision, the key is to accept that there are no good options. Once you know that no perfect answer exists, it becomes easier to objectively look at the options and choose. Once you make the choice, don’t torture yourself with thoughts of whether you made the right decision or not. Move on and learn from the results.

What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever made?

The games club

Magic: The Gathering card back

Magic: The Gathering card back (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The room was full of people, but eerily quiet. Feet were shuffled and looks were exchanged between everyone in the room.

Eventually… “Why don’t you do it?”

Despite waiting for someone to break the silence, I inadvertently jumped as the question came in my direction. The guy asking currently ran the games club and the pregnant pause came about because he announced that he wasn’t going to do it any more and we needed to find a successor.

“You like games. You’re down here every week. I think you’d do a good job.”

People around the room started nodding their heads, either agreeing or glad that it was me not them. I mentally tried the idea on for size and thought why not. So began my decade long tenure. There wasn’t much to do if I’m honest. Making sure we had a venue, collecting the subs and organising the Christmas raffle was hardly taxing, but technically, it was my first position of responsibility.

We played all sorts of games over the years. I enjoyed a collectible card game called Magic the Gathering for a little while. I used to get some strange looks from my colleagues when I used the free help line to clarify the rules. Well, the conversations must have sounded a bit weird;

“Say I lightning bolt his Hypnotic Spectre, and then he casts Giant growth on it, then I counter spell his Giant Growth and then…”

We got through some roleplaying campaigns too. I remember playing pirates in Freeport, battling drow in Dungeons & Dragons and fencing atop a zeppelin in Castle Falkenstein.

For a while, we played a lot of Formule De. A racing game that simulates Formula One motor races by using different sized dice for each gear. One of the guys bought every single track so we played out a full season timing the races to match the real races that played out on the TV. We played a Subutteo World Cup one year whilst the real one was on. I was amazed at how it brought out the worst in people. I’ve never seen so much cheating!

The really good thing about the club was that members brought down different games every week, so we got to play a huge variety of stuff. The sheer breadth and quality of board games on offer is astonishing, particularly from the Germans. I could never go back to Monopoly and Cluedo.

Often I would get phone calls from people wanting to find out more about the club. One day, a woman phoned. She was about to make a TV program celebrating the anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and wanted to know whether we would be willing to take part. I said I’d put it to the members. They agreed and I phoned her back.

“Can you describe where you play?” she asked.

“A cellar under the Old Town Hall. It’s fairly dark & dingy.”

“Do you dress up to play?”

“No!”

“Will you? We’ll provide the costumes and everything.”

“We might be sad, but we’re not that sad.”