It’s Old And Clunky, But It Works

Some time back a customer was surprised to see some software we use which is clearly, based on its buttons and layouts, from the days of Windows 95. He was even more surprised by our MS-DOS based booking and diary system. Old it may be but I can tell you it’s much more efficient than Windows software.

Everything is done with the keyboard and once you get used to it it’s lightning-quick – use the page up and down keys to select the week, then the arrow keys to select the day, while seeing a complete overview of current bookings, then hit enter, hit insert, hit enter a few times to move to the time fields and enter them, hit F1 to go into the customers list, just start typing the name until it finds the right one, or hit insert to enter a new one. Once the customers details are in use the left and right keys to go to the notes section or the phone numbers section end enter those, select File to save it, hit Escape to go back to the diary. Everything done in seconds without even moving your hands away from the keyboard.

I’ve used Windows booking systems and the ones I’ve seen involve clicking on different tabs, moving to the right button to save, etc, etc. Like so many things the more modern (the more “feature” filled) is also less efficient.

For those of us of the DOS generation it’s perhaps why websites and apps are frustrating, because of their multitude of buttons and tabs, replacing the keyboard combinations that we used to know by heart – including the ones used in Windows such as CTRL+B for bold text, CTRL+C and CTRL+V for copy and paste, automatically hitting CTRL+S to save the document while in the middle of typing and so on, actions that became second nature, reflex actions. Admittedly many, if not most of these shortcuts still exist in modern software but so many functions require the hunting and pecking actions of mouse or touchscreen. One example in Windows is when I upload photos to Flickr I append an ” f” to the filenames and it’s much quicker than clicking each file to highlight it and then click again to put the cursor at the end to just press F2 to edit the filename, END to go to the end and then CTRL+V to paste the pre copied ” f” to the end, then hit ENTER and DOWN ARROW to the next file.

My first book was written in Protext on my old IBM 486DX PC, the one with the perfect clicky keyboard I wrote about a while back. I learned word processing using Microsoft Works on things like Amstrad 1512 PCs and similar, and indeed taught people to use these same systems later. Protext 4 was a freebie on a computer magazine in the late nineties, Works tended to be bundled with PCs back then the way a trial of Office 365 is today. It was basic in todays terms but like the appointment system it was quick and easy to use for getting words into some semblance of order. Formatting it was a different matter but as this was still the era when most choices of typefaces and emphasis (bold, italic etc) were down to what the particular printer you were using has installed it wasn’t really much of a consideration – generally the aesthetics of word-processed documents were secondary to the words.

As with so many things which become rediscovered this simplicity and efficiency in software has now, of course, become the latest big new idea in the form of distraction-free text editors that have simple, uncluttered interfaces that allow you to type words and nothing else, some even have aped the interface of old that we oh so gratefully, naively, ditched as soon as WYSIWYG appeared and even have monospaced text.

The other advantage is that simpler software has, in theory, like a basic car with less gadgets, less to go wrong or slow you down.

So, in essence, though we didn’t know it at the time, us children of the seventies were, in terms of productivity, ahead of our time, no?

Bored On The Fourth Of July?

Beach

Image by Terri Cnudde from Pixabay

Not really. I actually wrote this a few summers ago while I was on holiday and pretty much disconnected from the internet, something that many people can’t deal with anymore, as evidenced by people I see leaving shops or the Royal Mail parcel collection point and immediately reaching for their smartphones.

Instead I was using an energy efficient, wireless information transmission media to give me something to do when not watching ships go by, fishermen fishing or birds swooping around – reading books and magazines. It was great, relaxing, not feeling that I should be doing anything else. I did even less in the afternoon after arriving – simply sitting in the sun watching the occasional boat go by and listening to the waves and birds. Me and my folks had walked into the nearby town, eaten fish and chips by the sea and done some shopping.

I wasn’t completely electronics-free, I had access to a digital TV to watch Antiques Roadtrip and thousands of songs stored on my phone to listen to but mostly I was only doing these things later in the evening, after Cider-O’Clock, when the sun was setting and, to paraphrase the cricket, bad light stops reading. If I’d relied on internet streaming services I’d have no music or TV.

If I stood in the right place I could get a faint 4G signal and my phone beeped a few urgent notifications at me but I didn’t feel the need to leap on them like my life depended on them, like they were some kind of life-sustaining manna from the cloud. For many today though the lack of connection would be unbearable – no way to know what everyone else is doing, no way of telling anyone what they’re doing – OMG people will think I’ve disappeared, or that I’m upset with them, I’ll lose their interest, or worst of all, I’ll fall off their news feeds, arghh. Some people would even worry that they’d miss something important from their work, that they should be available, just in case.

People who spend too much time online call this a digital detox but for me it wasn’t too different from being at home really, though it was refreshing to be away from the lure of Ebay – bargain hunter that I am it’s easy to just sit looking for stuff I don’t really need or in the end never actually buy. As it was the holiday was timed perfectly as at home I was still sorting out and reducing unnecessary stuff following my house move so if I’d been at home I’d have spent every spare moment digitising paperwork to then recycle.

So as the Americans celebrated their independence day (no comment) I celebrated my independence from their digital monoliths with a cider by the sea and sunset.

Bunker Mentality

“…they shall beat their swords into plowshares” Isaiah 2:3-4

During the Cold War many nations dug holes into their lands, even tunnelling into mountains like frightened moles, to find safe places for their generals and governments to hide if the worst happened, the buttons were pushed and the general populations were unceremoniously fried. Who they thought they would have left to govern is anybody’s guess.

These “secret” bunkers are dotted around the country, often disguised – like the famous one, now open to the public, at Kelvedon Hatch which I thought was an appropriate name for the local village, which had as its entrance not a hatch but what was supposed to look like a farmhouse but most resembled… a standard MOD gatehouse. They have for the most part been abandoned now and sold off to any member of the public or bond villain in need of a secret lair.

Many have been turned into museums to educate future generations about the fear and madness we lived through, others have become homes, movie or game sets or glorified adventure playgrounds for grown-ups to play real-life versions of their video games.

Others have a new use that they seem pretty much designed for. Originally they were built to withstand both an explosive detonation, hence they’re physically strong; they were intended to support living humans so had electrical cabling, air conditioning and filtration and other utilities such as water supplies; then they had to withstand a by-product of a nuclear blast which is an electromagnetic pulse or EMP which tends to disagree with electrical equipment, especially computers. This was done by incorporating a metal cage into the outer structure, a Faraday Cage, which channels electrical energy around what’s inside it, like a car struck by lightning, protecting the occupants.

Theorists of future warfare have predicted that the best way to destabilise or even paralyse a country in the future would be to detonate a nuclear weapon above their enemy and simply wipe out their means of planning and communication – the computers and internet, basically. But it’s not just humans who can generate such destructive events, so can nature.

The sun ejects massive amounts of charged particles into space and we orbit through this flow, the solar wind, and it interacts with our planet, the particles are redirected around us and to the poles, causing aurorae in polar regions. These beautiful displays are also a hint of the destruction that can be caused when the Sun throws a tantrum, or perhaps burps more violently in our direction. A coronal mass ejection aimed at us throws an even larger amount of energetic particles at us and that can also affect electrical equipment – it knocks out satellites, overloads power grids and so on.

With all this in mind the organisations who operate the banks of server computers that store all our online data and channel it around the world have started reusing many of these old bunkers to house their equipment and they’re perfect for the job. Mostly underground, kept cool, shielded from electromagnetic interference and even secure from intruders. The internet itself grew from a military project, and now even much of The Cloud’s physical home will do too.

The Psycho Path Test

…or how to restrain yourself after being nearly barged into the path of a speeding van.

Street

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

There are “Rages” for everything these days so I feel justified in adding another here – Pavement Rage. It’s not new but I’ll elaborate anyway. Some months ago I suffered yet another example of pedestrian selfishness. There is a road in the town centre which has pavements either side of a single traffic lane, the pavements used to be about one person wide but have been widened to accommodate two people side-by-side, which is fine until you get a couple walking along and you’re walking towards them and when you meet neither of them wants to move either in front of or behind their partner and you end up getting forced to step into the road, hopefully avoiding any traffic. You can’t even stand still as you’ll just get barged aside without so much as an excuse me. I don’t mind if the people are unable to step aside easily, such as the elderly or disabled but for two able-bodied people to refuse to give way to another person is just ignorant and it makes you want to scream sometimes. Hence the pavement rage.

Some other choice examples…

I was walking along a wide pavement when a family group was walking towards me, not one of them moved aside and I ended up stood in a flower bed as they sauntered past. Then a chap in Lycra leaving a shop gets on his bike on the pavement, starts pedalling and swerves right across in front of me, nearly knocking me over – without even the slightest acknowledgement or apology, he hadn’t looked before setting off so was probably oblivious to my presence anyway. Another evening while walking home in the dark I saw a light on the path ahead of me, hovering silently, moving rhythmically side to side, was it an alien presence? No, it was a woman on a bike, I stepped into a driveway to let her go past, nearly twisting my ankle and falling over in the process, and she rode past without so much as a “thank you”.

On a Saturday morning, walking along a wide pavement carrying two heavy bags of shopping I was approaching a woman with a pushchair and two kids, one on either side of her, taking up the whole width of the path, seeing that she had no intention of getting either of her kids to move out of the way I considerately stepped off the pavement and stood in front of a parked car – she then strode past again without so much as a thank you; because obviously she was entitled to take up the whole path and I was obliged to move out of her way so therefore she had no need to be grateful, how selfish I am.

The worst was when I was walking along the same narrow road mentioned above, eating a bag of chips and a couple were approaching from the other direction, they looked well-off from the way they were dressed and as they reached me the man, who was on my side of the pavement, nearest the buildings, had no intention of moving out of the way, having that typical modern arrogance and sense of expectation that other people should get out of his way, because he’s important. To avoid losing my dinner I had to swerve closer to the building and nearly fell against the window of a pancake shop. I immediately turned and shouted after them “well don’t mind me” but they ignored me, the look on the face of the woman who was sat just inside the same window told me she couldn’t believe the other man’s behaviour either.

These are all examples of how much of our society has become so self-obsessed, so arrogant and aggressive, that people have the expectation that other people should stop for them, or stand aside for them, that they’re sense of self-importance is so strong that they feel that they can just do whatever they want to and sod anyone else. Has it really become wrong to be considerate and polite?  I hope not.

[The title was of course inspired by that of Jon Ronson’s excellent and fascinating book, The Psychopath Test]

The Cycle Path Test

 

Cycle Path

Image by Pam Patterson from Pixabay

Near where I live runs a path along the former trackbed of the closed railway line from Newark to Nottingham. There are many old lines like this across the country – I’ve also walked on the path at Threlkeld in the Lake District and part of the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire. They are wonderful places to visit to experience the outdoors – mostly surfaced, level and easy to walk on for everyone, many like ours here are designated cycle paths as part of the Sustrans network that since the seventies has made at least something good from the Beeching annihilation of the railway network of the sixties.

I am quite happy to use cycle paths whether they’re in the countryside or in the town, though it seems many people don’t seem to agree with cyclists using them. I have seen on so many occasions cars parked on cycle lanes and on the railway path I encounter people walking dogs or otherwise exercising who rather than returning my friendly “morning” and smile just scowl at me, I know what they’re thinking – I’m one of these annoying cyclists who rides on their footpath and integral dog toilet.

Even the ones who don’t think the place belongs solely to them seem oblivious to the fact that there might just be the odd bike rider around at some point.

One day I saw a man who had walked down one of the entrance ramps to the path, he hesitated at the edge of the path with his back to me and then just as I reached where he was he took two steps to his right, without looking behind him, straight into my way – I swerved round him while shouting “whoa”… and only narrowly missed ending up amongst the nettles.

Last Sunday I approached a group of four women taking up the whole width of the path, I rang my bell a number of times until one of them looked round and said “oh, sorry we didn’t see you there” or hear me, presumably. Then, as I passed between them she said “you’ll have to negotiate them now” – the ‘them’ in question being six big dogs, running free on the path ahead, without leads and quite a way away. As they tend to do the women called their respective pets’ names and I then suddenly had a group of dogs running in my direction and one heading straight for me, I had to stop completely, expecting it to actually collide with me. “You’d never think this was a CYCLE PATH” I muttered, audibly, as I set off again.

Ruined my Strava time on that segment too.

Further along at regular intervals were a number of small tied-up blue bags left on either side of the path, no doubt waiting for the dog-mess fairy to pick up later, as someone else will always clear things up won’t they… But that’s a whole other blog post right there.

[I’m all for recycling, hence the title’s unmistakable similarity to today’s other, related, post]

 

Of Stars & Smartphones

Stars

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have been interested in Astronomy and space in general for a long time, I remember the first Space Shuttle launch, watching Space 1999 and Blake’s 7, and Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night. I have only briefly owned a basic telescope but still like looking at the stars, especially now as where I live, on the edge of the countryside, has the advantage of darker skies at night away from streetlights. I find it very relaxing.

Recently I found that a moving light in the sky was the International Space Station – I felt I should have waved – and just the other night I looked out of the front window and saw the moon accompanied by two “stars” which turned out to be Jupiter and Saturn – the thought that these two bright points of light in the sky were two massive planets millions of miles away is still awe inspiring to me.

How do you find out what these points of light are though?

I still own two plastic discs which would be called old tech now called Planispheres which consist of a movable oval shaped window over a map of all the stars visible in the night sky from my latitude, you rotate the window round to match the date and time and it shows what stars can be seen then and where they are in the sky. Useful and non-dependant on batteries, it was still supplemented with technology.

In the nineties I received, attached to a computer magazine, a small program called Skyglobe. It was a pre-Windows program running in MS-DOS and gave a full, interactive view of the night sky on the computer, it could update in real time, showed the planets and the moon, the shapes of the constellations and you could even speed up time to see how the stars changed in the sky over the course of the year, all thanks to the wholly predictable nature of the motion of the Earth against the stars and planets. It was a fantastic piece of software, it had an elegant, uncluttered user interface that could be almost entirely hidden to just show the stars, operated via the keyboard, and it fitted on a single floppy disk. I still have a copy today that can be made to work, once you convince Windows to run it.

Even Skyglobe though has been superseded. On my tablet I now have a program (sorry, app) called Stellarium that looks fundamentally the same except that it has fancier graphics with a landscape rather than just a horizon line. This app can update in real time too, but to change the direction you’re viewing you can, of course, swipe and drag the image around rather than using arrow keys, it’s also just a little bit more portable than a PC with a CRT screen was before. One major change though is its ability to use the tablet (or phone’s) sensors to detect where you’re pointing it and show the same region of sky on the screen so you don’t even need to know which way’s north anymore.

Combined with telescopes that have been able to know where they are and point to any star you choose since the early 2000s amateur astronomy has embraced the digital – the old technology of mirrors and glass guided by new technology of GPS, smartphones and tablets and all driven by our fascination with knowing what’s out there.

This Is A Blog Post… With A Twist

Gourmet Burger

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Some things are fine as they are yet people think that they’ve got to be reinvented, altered, made edgier, to be trendy, to appeal to the “modern consumer” who wants new experiences, blah, blah, blah. So we end up with food with unusual ingredients – Salted Caramel, Salted Chocolate, Chilli Chocolate – when I was growing up that would be the description of a Choc Ice. If there’s a left-field ingredient and especially if there’s a high-end price tag then it’ll be popular, just as if you call a coffee with milk an “Americano” or a “Flat White” then those people who consider themselves cooler than everyone else will flock to have their branded wax cups with their names scrawled on the side visible for all to witness. I’m avoiding the word “hipster” here but, they know who they are.

I particularly dislike the phrase “with a twist“. I enjoy Fish and Chips, I like them with Mushy Peas (not a pea crush, or puree), or curry sauce (not a spicy jus, thankyou), what I really don’t want is a twist, as in “Fish and Chips with a twist” or a “Bakewell Tart with a twist” – which will again indicate some odd ingredient has been used, like chocolate in a Spaghetti Bolognese. Conversely though the same phrase has now become so fashionable amongst the media that even just having different normal flavours are described as being “a twist” such as the Lemon Bakewell, which isn’t really a Bakewell but I like them anyway – this shows that some variations can work, as long as they’re in harmony with the original, a pickled onion Bakewell would be diabolical.

The “re-imagined classics” though are made all the worse when you see the portion sizes – a tiny piece of battered cod sat on top of a log-cabin shaped pile of ten chips, chunky of course, with a small ramekin of pea puree and whatever makes the twist, a tiny piece of “Beef in Artisan Ale Gravy Pie” floating on a smear of mashed potato, or a handful of chips sprinkled with chunky sea salt in a miniature galvanised bucket with fake newspaper round the edge, to look “authentic“.

Some of the best food is simple, tasty and satisfyingly filling. There’s no “twist” that can make a tray of chips, smothered in curry sauce with a battered sausage perched precariously on the top after an evening of beverages at the local pub any better than it is.

And the twist is… no twist. Not even a slice of lemon.