2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,400 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Bad news should travel FAST

ablaze

ablaze (Photo credit: zachstern)

One of the biggest man-made disasters I can remember is Chernobyl. I once read a book called “Ablaze” which told the story of the meltdown. The thing that shocked me to my core was how eager the protagonists were to cover things up. You’d think that when an alarm sounds at one of your biggest nuclear power stations, the temptation would be to err on the side of caution.

Instead, they called out the local fire brigade. They were equipped as you might imagine a 1980s Soviet fire crew would be. They had little or nothing in the way of protective clothing and the equivalent of a large tank of water on wheels. When they arrived, they did what they could. They pulled out their hoses and sprayed water on the exposed radioactive core. It was only when the brave firemen started keeling over that the men in charge thought to escalate things.

They called in helicopters to drop water and sand on the exposed core. Again, only when they started dropping like flies did the men in charge raise the alert level. I fully believe that they would have covered the whole thing up. It was only when a Scandinavian monitoring station picked up the elevated levels of radioactivity in the atmosphere did the Soviet authorities reluctantly come clean.

The temptation with any bad news is to suppress it. The fact is that bad news needs to be handled very carefully. You need to act F.A.S.T.

Firstly, get the (F)acts straight. What has gone wrong? Why did it go wrong? How will it be fixed? How long will it take? How can we be sure it won’t happen again?

Secondly, think about the (A)udience. Who are you going to tell about the situation? If you fart in church, you apologise to the man next door. You don’t stand up and announce it to the entire congregation. Nor do you take out an advert in the local paper.

The first person I would include in the audience is  your boss. Many would instinctively shy away from this, but the chances are, he’s either going to smell the shit on the fan or someone is going to point it out to him. The news is better coming from you. The other people I would include in the audience are any stakeholders who are about to be affected by the bad news.

Thirdly, (S)it down and take a deep breath. Things are going to get ugly. There will be a lot of emotion flying around. The best thing to do is make sure you keep coming back to the facts.

Lastly, (T)ell people what’s going on. Tell them early and tell them often. No communication is much, much worse than a short note to say we realise how serious things are and we are still working hard on the problem. They want to know you are treating it seriously and that they are in safe hands. Keep encouraging your team. They will be facing the pressure too. As much as possible, shield them from it. They will be the ones that get you through it.

And when it’s all over, take a moment to relax. You’ve earned it.

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Siblings

Cherub

Cherub (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We were born in exactly the same place by exactly the same parents almost exactly three years apart and yet you’d never know by observation that we are brothers. We don’t share the same temperament, the same mannerisms or the same taste in clothes or music. He considers himself Irish whereas I consider myself English. We have completely different vocations. Most people’s reaction when they find out we are siblings is surprise.

You’d never guess my nieces were siblings either. Sophie is Maisie’s younger sister. Whereas Sophie has blonde hair and fair skin, Maisie has a Mediterranean look to her with olive skin and dark hair. Maisie is the eldest so it’s no surprise that her vocal skills came to her earlier in life, but as much as Maisie found her voice early, Sophie struggles to find her words. Because she struggles to make herself understood, she gets frustrated. Maisie had her moments but was in general well-behaved. Sophie’s frustration boils over into naughtiness.

She has her moments of cuteness. She will give you this cherubic smile usually a split second before you realise that her finger is reaching for an electrical socket or just as she has your car keys dangled over the toilet bowl. She is good at getting her own way and when she does, she shoots off this look of utter smugness that would make a saint swear.

They say that little girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. I’m not sure they followed the recipe to the letter with Sophie. She’s more a dash of rock and roll with one part toad to two parts imp. I get the impression that she’s going to lead an exciting life. In the very rare moments when she’s not terrorising the cat or deleting the entire contents of my iTunes library, I contemplate examining her scalp for demonic markings.

She still has the power to melt my heart. When she arrives and comes running towards me arms outstretched shouting “Mart Mart”, all is forgiven.

A few days ago, Maisie and Sophie were joined by another sibling. Eva Louisa was born shortly after Christmas and although she is supposedly the largest at birth of the three, it’s hard to believe. She’s doll-like in size. On first inspection, she seems to be a carbon copy of Maisie. So it seems that the larder has been successfully restocked with sugar and spice and all things nice. Time will tell…

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Well? What’s it to be, punk!

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Espera...

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Esperanto: Patro Kristnasko kaj malgranda knabino Suomi: Joulupukki ja pieni tyttö (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As is traditional at this time of year, we took our nieces to see Santa Claus. The eldest enjoyed it and the youngest is just about over the trauma now. The elf at the front gate confessed to us that more children hated Santa than liked him. Thank Goodness we didn’t go to a Winter Wonderland attraction that recently had to shut down. The attraction sounded great in the promotional material. Reindeer, sleigh rides with real huskies and Santa’s grotto. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s as if the organisers had a checklist. Working to a tight immovable deadline (i.e. Christmas), they just about managed to tick everything off. But because they were running out of time, they had to cut corners. They only had two Reindeer and they managed to look suspiciously like cows with stuck on antlers. The sleigh rides had some real huskies (well 2 to be precise). For some reason, the Santas weren’t available until late in the day. Even when they did turn up, they were thin not fat and their outfits were the cheap see-through plastic kind you get from pound land. The ice rink had no ice. The magic tunnel of ice was a few fairy lights dangled among the trees.

A funny thing happens when you are running out of time and still try to squeeze everything in. Because there isn’t enough time, corners get cut and quality slowly starts its inexorable slide downhill. In this example, the collateral damage was mainly financial, but there will be many children out there for whom the magic of Christmas has been tainted somewhat. But when the same thing happens with software, it can be catastrophic.

When a software project starts to overrun, you have a number of choices. You can slip the deadline (i.e. just accept that delivery will take longer than originally thought). You can slip the budget by putting more people on the project but there is a point where this just makes things worse (read the mythical man month by Fred Brooks). You can slip function (by accepting that you won’t deliver as much). For those who think they can deliver despite the overrun by questioning every estimate and applying pressure, then you end up in Winter Wonderland with only one reindeer and an anorexic Santa.

The default option if you try not to slip anything is quality. And poor quality in software means bugs, glitches & crashes. It also means unhappy clients and unlike Winter Wonderland, most software is around for a very long time.

So what’s it to be?

Roleplaying. It’s kind of like sex. Sort of. Except it isn’t…

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La ori...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no way anyone could get a good idea of what sex is like from reading a written description. I’m sure they could understand the mechanics of insert tab A into slot B, but I doubt they could understand the all consuming compulsion or the nuances of the experience.

I’ve never found a truly satisfying written description of roleplaying games either. The experience is very difficult to capture. It’s a bit like the childhood game “let’s pretend” with rules. Maybe it’s more like an interactive movie. But it’s not like a movie at all – because no-one knows beforehand what’s going to happen. It’s almost impossible to define.

Whatever it is – I like it.

The most satisfying way to play is in an extended campaign in which the story unfolds during many sessions over a long period. Everyone at the table contributes, but one more than the rest. Someone needs to have an idea of the general scheme of things. Preparing for such a campaign is almost all-consuming.

First you need to understand the game system you plan to use. They all have their own rules and milieu Then you need to think about the story. The best way to prepare is to immerse yourself into everything you can think of from the genre of the game you want to run; music, books, films etc.

I’ve run some really satisfying campaigns that lasted for a long time. I ran a fantasy game where all the gods were based on the periodic table (with heavy metals as the bad guys and precious metals as the good guys). Another involved the players as spirits in the afterlife investigating hauntings and releasing ghosts from the ties that bind so that they can move on.

We’ve played in World War II, the Wild West with Zombies, the nautical world of Patrick O’ Brien, the post apocalyptic world of Mad Max, the time travelling pulp world of caddish archeologists and many others.

Right now, I’m preparing a game of hard science fiction. The players will crew a starship around a far future cluster of systems, trying to make a few credits without getting blasted out of the cosmos. I’ve hungrily devoured as many science fiction novels as I can. My choice in films has driven my wife mad. I’ve filled my iPhone with Holst‘s Planets as well as a number of  favourite movie themes.

I do all this because the more you put in, the more enjoyable the campaign will be. The build up is like foreplay.

The Warsaw Anagrams

Warsaw Ghetto: Construction of Ghetto wall acr...

Warsaw Ghetto: Construction of Ghetto wall across Świętokrzyska street near intersection with Marszałkowska street. In the back “Magazyn Bławatny” store of Jan Tarnowski & Co. at Marszałkowska 133 street. This is not the final location of the wall on Świętokrzyska street, according to book “Getto Warszawskie” in 1941 the wall was a block farther between Zielona and Bagno streets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend the enormity of some of the stuff that happened during Word War II. The conflict itself was horrific in its scale with fighting taking place across much of the globe. Countries routinely sent dozens of aeroplanes filled to the brim with explosives across the sea to drop on population centres. But beyond the death and destruction at the front line, on the home front as we now know, something awful took place.

The Warsaw ghetto was the largest of all Jewish ghettos in Nazi occupied Europe during the war. The Nazis corralled 400,000 Jews into a tiny section of the city separated by huge barbed wire topped walls. There are various estimates as to how many of the ghetto dwellers lost their lives and how many survived. The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler tells the story of one those ghetto dwellers.

I don’t know what made me pick up this book. I played a game called Last Train Out of Warsaw, which follows a train full of Polish fleeing from the German invasion and I read a game book called Grey Ranks which portrays children of the resistance inside the ghetto walls. If you can ignore the inherent misery and despair, these games give a fascinating insight into the world of wartime Warsaw. Besides which, I fancied a change from my regular diet of science fiction.

At the start of the book, we know the protagonist is dead because he returns to Warsaw as a ghost. Once there, he relates his story to the only man who can see him and a fascinating tale unfolds. Erik is a psychologist. He can see the writing on the wall so he decides to move to the ghetto on his terms before everyone else is rounded up. He moves in with his sister and her 9-year-old son. Initially, he is resentful of the son as he has to share his bed. In time they become much closer as they come to terms with their forced confinement.

Unfortunately, just when they are getting close, Adam is murdered and Erik sets out to discover who killed him and dumped his mutilated body. Along the way he discovers things he didn’t know about Adam and other children who suffered the same fate. It is an easy read and a cracking mystery. I like the way that the essence of the Jewish culture is interwoven with the story. The odd Jewish word here and the odd reference to a Jewish custom really help to make the story authentic.

So is it miserable? Yes the despair is there, but there’s so much more. I can’t believe how much the ghetto is brought to life. There’s love, hope, ambition and people helping other people. There is smuggling, murder and suicide. There is coldness, hunger and disease. Read this if you want to know what happened and if you want to understand the pride of the people it happened to.

Happy Birthday sir. You’re under arrest!

Police car emergency lighting fixtures switche...

Police car emergency lighting fixtures switched on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My wages didn’t quite cover my outgoings at the time, so part-time work was the order of the day. I liked working behind a bar because it gave me the social contact I craved as a young guy. It earned me money and whilst I did it, I couldn’t spend any either. A triple whammy. The Kings Arms in Berkhamsted, an old medieval coaching inn in the high street had an eclectic clientele and the money was good. The only drawback was the adjoining nightclub which I found strangely magnetic at the end of a weekend shift, not conducive to saving money.

During one of my shifts, some of the regulars got wind of the fact that it was my birthday and bought me a drink. Drinking behind the bar was tolerated providing you followed the rules; only halves allowed and not too many at that. I enjoyed a few halves before I had to decline the rest because I had to drive home. Later in the shift, my brother turned up. He worked at the hospital at the time. He came in with two nurses and a crate of beer. I finished my shift as quickly as possible and we set off towards his flat.

As we drove home, I noticed some dazzling lights in my rear view mirror. After a while, they became really annoying. I tried taking a different route, they followed. I decided, with all the foolishness granted by youth, that putting my foot down was the best thing to do. The headlights still followed. As we came into the outskirts of town where the streetlights illuminated my pursuer, I suddenly realised it was a police car.

I slowed right down and straight away, the car raced around me with lights flashing and pulled me over. I won’t say they manhandled me, but I nearly fell over as they pulled me from the car. They demanded my name, which I gave. Once I did, they seemed to relax. I had a nice car at the time. Too nice for someone my age and one of the reasons I was permanently penniless. As they chased me, they obviously thought the car might be stolen.

They asked if I’d been drinking. I nodded. They produced a box and told me to blow into it. The lights on the box indicated alcohol on my breath so they arrested me.

Down at the station, there was a queue for the calibrated breathalyser machine. The man in front of me was plastered. He could hardly stand up but loudly protested to his arresting officers that he’d only had one pint. As he queued up, he was obviously mentally totting them up in his head.

“I might have had two… Or maybe it was three.” By the time he got to the machine, he’d owned up to drinking five.

In the intervening period, I started to chat to my arresting officers. I joked about not having a great birthday and explained about working at the pub. I think they warmed to me because I overheard one of them speaking to the stony faced desk sergeant and asking if I could be treated leniently. The Sargent waved him away and said that I would be treated according to the result from the machine.

As the desk sergeant booked me in, he asked me my date of birth, which I supplied.

“It’s his birthday” said the arresting officer who’d appealed for clemency on my behalf.

The stony faced desk sergeant looked up at the clock which now showed a couple of minutes past midnight. “Not any more it’s not!”

My breathalyser test revealed that I was well below the legal limit and they let me go. My legs felt like jelly as we walked back to my brother’s flat, but I enjoyed the sympathy from the nurses.

How temporary is your temporary solution?

English: A roll of silver, Scotch brand duct tape.

English: A roll of silver, Scotch brand duct tape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To say that ending up with wet feet was a surprise is a bit of an understatement. On the first day in our new place, I did the washing up. When I emptied the bowl down the plughole, I expected the water to disappear, not to suddenly reappear at ankle level. A quick check under the sink revealed the issue. The previous owners had a dishwasher (which they took with them). The drainage from the dishwasher connected to the down pipe.

Now it wasn’t there, a gaping hole stood where the join was. To remedy the situation, we either needed a dishwasher, the right sort of plumbing doohickey to cap the pipe or a plastic bag and a hairband. Guess which of the three we had? The temporary repair did a sterling job of keeping my feet dry and was still there 4 years later when we finally bought a dishwasher.

When I joined BP, there was a carbuncle on the side of the office at ground level. It was one of those temporary portacabin type affairs. I asked someone how long it had been there. 10 years! A whole decade. My school had 2 temporary classrooms when I left 27 years ago. They have 4 now. IBM moved into Hursley in 1958 as a temporary measure. They are still there today.

A temporary solution or workaround can be a Godsend. When you’re about to go live with a big system and horror of horrors, you find a problem. You don’t want to accept the risk of taking a new release where new problems might be lurking. But temporary solutions have a nasty habit of becoming permanent. When you come up with a temporary solution, it’s important to understand the inherent drawbacks of not doing it properly. It’s also good to think about when (or if) it might be replaced. If the permanent solution is not under construction or at least in the planning stages right now, the chances are that workaround could last for a very long time.

If that’s the case, it might well be worth putting in a little extra effort to do a good job. Maybe go the whole hog and fix it properly.

Sometimes permanence is a good thing. The Eiffel Tower was originally built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle but caused such a stir they decided to keep it. Sometimes it’s not. Never believe a politician when they tell you a tax is temporary. As Craig Bruce once said; Temporary solutions often become permanent problems.

An Englishman’s home is his castle

Bart Simpson

Bart Simpson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t stamp my feet or hold my breath, but the petulance was unmistakable. In a way I could understand my partner’s exasperation but the terms of the accord were set earlier in the day. We could plod around estate agents until exactly 3PM when the England game started.

It was Euro ’96 and against all the odds, it looked good for the national team. Of course it all ended in tears but I wasn’t to know that at the time.

I never appreciated how many estate agents there were in Hemel Hempstead. All morning and early afternoon, we traipsed from one to the other looking at the house summaries and booking appointments for the following day. Only one remained. But we had an agreement and I was adamant I wouldn’t miss the kickoff. It was a good game. A lot of drama (as you would expect in an England game) but the boys did well and we won. I saw it as an omen.

The next day, we had just enough time to visit the sole remaining estate agent before our first appointment. We were in luck. A repossession came in as we stood in the branch. It was the right price, in the right area with the right amount of room. As it was just around the corner, we went there first.

We didn’t have a huge budget. We were not perhaps as fiscally solvent as we made out to the bank manager. The deposit consisted of a combination of a short-term loan from work coupled with a small amount of savings. The balance was made up by not paying a couple of bills that month. We certainly couldn’t afford stamp duty which kicked in at a certain threshold.

The repossession was comfortably below our ceiling but as it was the first house we saw, we were ultra critical. It was only later in the day when we plodded around some of the other horrors on our list that we realised how good that first house was. Nothing else was as big nor were they in such a good location. All of them cost a lot more money. I still have nightmares about the house with the bright green kitchen and the 10 foot Bart Simpson painted on the wall.

As we looked around at one more place that could have been the home of the Adams Family, we looked at each other and after a very short exchange we both agreed. We would rush down and put in an offer on the first house. The estate agent explained the special situation regarding repossessions in this country. Our offer had to be published in the local paper and everyone else had a week to put in a higher offer. It was a very stressful week. Luckily, the newspaper had a printing error which made it look like our offer was bigger than it really was.

And we’re still here. The wisest purchase we ever made. And if I hadn’t dug my heels in on that fateful Saturday, who knows where we would have ended up!

Are you sure?

Cover of the 1972 Sphere Books English transla...

Cover of the 1972 Sphere Books English translation of the novella and Matryona’s Place (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“How do you get rid of a database table?” said the disembodied voice of my colleague from beyond the partition.

“DROP TABLE <tablename>” I replied.

“What about if you want to get rid of a whole database?” came the response.

“DROP DATABASE <databasename>” I replied.

After a short pause, my colleague said “Just supposing you’d dropped the wrong database – how do you get it back?”

“You can’t – unless you have a backup.”

“Oh!” he said. “It’s very easy to do isn’t it?”

The thing is, he probably saw a dialog box pop up instantly after he entered the command with those three little words; “Are you sure?” The trouble is, it only takes a heartbeat to read those words and in that brief instant, you are totally sure. After all, you just typed the command. It takes a full 5-6 seconds before you get that “Oh my God!”, heart stopping, toe-curling moment where you realise the size of your monumental cock-up. And by that time, the dialog box is long gone and the machine is busy munching its way through your hard drive.

I don’t know how many dialog boxes we see during a typical working day, but it must be a lot. 99.9% of these dialog boxes will be for something whimsical. Only so often are we doing something of such magnitude that we should pay attention to those three little words. But the trouble is, the dialog looks the same regardless of the consequences.

About to nuke your hard disk with everything on it – “Are you sure?” Of course I’m sure, do it already… Oh shit!

Also – you never get those dialog boxes when you really need them, like when you are about to send a career defining email to far too many people or when you are about to spend a load of money on a present for your wife that she’s going to hate. Or you’re about to wash some white stuff and a sneaky brightly coloured sock has sneaked in.

It would help if these dialog boxes were different in some way. Maybe they could be colour coded to indicate the scale of the consequences. Deleting a single file – no problem, you get a green dialog box. If you are about to recursively delete everything in the root directory, you get a flashing red and yellow dialog accompanied by a suitable sound – like  a klaxon.

Or maybe we could vary the text on the dialog box. We could use lines from famous films. “Go ahead punk, do you feel lucky?” or “I’ll put that down to shock, but only once. Only once can or will I let you get away with that.”

We’d probably still make the same cock-ups, but at least it would be more interesting.