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Life

Favourite Photo

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “What is your favourite photo you’ve ever taken?”


About fourteen hours ago now our long journey towards adoption was completed, and we went from a family of two to a family of five overnight.

In the weeks and months that followed we were repeatedly asked by family and friends for photos. One day – in-between watching Dora the Explorer, doing jigsaws, running around the garden, and completing the endless chores that children bring about, I managed to sit the children down for long enough to take a half-decent photo.

It’s always been a favourite.

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Life

Something Mysterious

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “Write about something mysterious.”


Many years ago – back when I was an impressionable young man, and the internet was still in it’s youth, there was a thing called “Usenet”, that latterly became known as “Newsgroups”. Although they still exist, most people forgot about them long ago – they were the predecessor of the social communities we now find on the world wide web (and far better in many respects).

If you started digging through the posts in particular usenet discussion groups, you would turn up all sorts of outlandish tales about lizard men, caves connecting various countries, the Vernian “Hollow Earth” concept, and even the “Flat Earth Society”. You would also read about crashed flying saucers, secret government projects, and encounters with the little grey men with almond shape eyes that have entered modern folklore.

Here’s the thing – there’s no smoke without fire.

In the years since reading the almost certainly fabricated usenet hyperbole, bits and pieces of it have become factual. Townsend Brown really did work on magnetic propulsion, and his work really was classified above top secret – as was much of the work of Nicola Tesla. Jessie Marcel really did talk about the child sized coffins at Roswell when he was terminally ill with cancer. Why did a weather balloon need coffins?

Perhaps the most amusing story in recent times surrounds the moment when Jessie Marcel was thrown under the bus by his superiors at Roswell – forced to show newspaper reporters the remains of a weather balloon. His superior officer sits in the background of the photograph with a folded teletypewriter printout in his hand. In the same way that government ministers are often caught with paperwork by long lenses, the tin-hat brigade of conspiracy theorists have had a good go at figuring out what was written on the piece of paper in his hand. It makes very interesting reading.

I’ve probably forgotten more than I ever knew about this whole subject. I guess like most people, I got older, and more cynical about everything. Given that a huge proportion of the planet now have mobile phones with excellent cameras, you might imagine something would have been recorded by now – and yet the more surveillance technology we have, the more scarce stories become of lights in the sky.

I’ll end this post with an entirely coincidental story – did you know the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was given a private screening at the White House ?

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Life

Next on my Reading List

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “What book is next on your reading list?”


The next book on my reading list is “The Friendly Orange Glow” – a book I discovered by chance in the lead up to Christmas, and that made it onto my Amazon wish list after several relatives asked me to add some things so they might know what to get me for Christmas.

Here’s what the synopsis says about it:

At a time when Steve Jobs was only a teenager and Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t even born, a group of visionary engineers and designers – some of them only high school students – in the late 1960s and 1970s created a computer system called PLATO, which was light-years ahead in experimenting with how people would learn, engage, communicate, and play through connected computers.

Not only did PLATO engineers make significant hardware breakthroughs with plasma displays and touch screens but PLATO programmers also came up with a long list of software innovations: chat rooms, instant messaging, message boards, screen savers, multiplayer games, online newspapers, interactive fiction, and emoticons.

Together, the PLATO community pioneered what we now collectively engage in as cyberculture. They were among the first to identify and also realize the potential and scope of the social interconnectivity of computers, well before the creation of the internet. PLATO was the foundational model for every online community that was to follow in its footsteps.

The Friendly Orange Glow is the first history to recount in fascinating detail the remarkable accomplishments and inspiring personal stories of the PLATO community. The addictive nature of PLATO both ruined many a college career and launched pathbreaking multimillion-dollar software products. Its development, impact, and eventual disappearance provides an instructive case study of technological innovation and disruption, project management, and missed opportunities. Above all, The Friendly Orange Glow at last reveals new perspectives on the origins of social computing and our internet-infatuated world.

I’m looking forward to reading it enormously.

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Life

Superpowers

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “What is a superpower you’d love to have?”


It says something about the workings of my mind that as soon as I saw today’s writing prompt, I started to wonder what the most ridiculous super-power you could have might be. A google search quickly discovered that the writers of comic-books have already come up with just about every superpower imaginable, and quite a few that nobody imagined.

Who knew about “Chlorophyll Kid”, and his ability to grow plants? How about “Eye Boy”, who was covered in eyes? Or “Ruby Thursday” and her transforming head? We shouldn’t forget “Shatterstar” who could rearrange his organs. “Matter Eater Lad” is self explanatory.

I’m tempted to suggest a ridiculous superpower just for the fun of it – but would of course then feel guilty because most superheroes are afforded the opportunity to benefit the world in some way. Being “Good at emptying the Dishwasher Man” isn’t going to save the planet, is it.

While trawling through the idiotic superheros of times past, I came upon “Cypher”, who could understand every language, and thought that actually that might be quite wonderful. Imagine being able to communicate with anybody, in their own language. Imagine how fascinating it would be to hear stories of everyday folk from different cultures all over the world.

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Life

Choosing Linux

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “What is a cause you are passionate about, and why?”


I read a book several years ago called “Just for Fun”, by Linus Torvalds – the creator of the Linux kernel. It charts the history of the project, from it’s earliest beginnings in a back bedroom, through to it’s accidental entry onto the world stage. I thought it might be interesting to relate my own interactions with Linux, and to perhaps reflect a little on the other operating systems I have used too.

My relationship with Linux begins with the first laptop I owned – a Toshiba, in about 2000. After playing around with the pre-installed copy of Windows 98 it came with for a few weeks, I read a magazine article about the latest release of “Redhat Linux”, and ordered a shrink-wrapped copy that was delivered by the postman a few days later.

My laptop was never the same again.

A year or so later I became interested in web development, and decided to turn my long-suffering home computer into a web server – running Linux rather than Windows. I can’t imagine my other half can have been too pleased with me.

I read the now famous O’Reilly books from cover to cover, and proceeded to build one of the first blogging platforms. I released it as open source because one of my co-workers thought it would be a good idea, and quickly moved on to building what I had really intended to build all along – a content management system. In the meantime, the blogging script got downloaded somewhere in the region of a quarter of a million times.

Thankfully Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little then forked a much better blogging script, and renamed it “WordPress”. I wasn’t bitter – I never set out to manage a project after all – and I switched to WordPress almost overnight.

I suppose it’s important to note that I never used Linux “because it was Linux”. Linux wasn’t “the thing”. Linux was “the thing that got me to the thing” – a phrase that I believe lots of people have used over the years, and that fits my story well.

While it’s true that the various things I have done outside of work could have been done on any operating system, I chose to do them in Linux mostly because it was free, and it almost worked as a turn-key solution – providing a platform on which I could tinker with the things I was interested in. Linux came with a great webserver (Apache), a great database (MySQL), and a simple web scripting language (PHP).

That I have ended up using Linux as a desktop operating system at home has happened mostly by accident. I will happily use anything that “just works” – and by-and-large the more well known Linux distributions do just that – they “just work” – without endless updates, drivers, security patches, reboots, and so on.

Anyway.

Having messed around with Windows, OSX, and Linux over the last twenty five years, you would think I have formed some opinions about them. A few come to mind.

Windows is ubiquitous – there is almost no learning curve, because everybody is familiar with how the user interface works. Because of it’s ubiquity, Windows won the battle for hearts and minds of businesses decades ago. There are signs this might change soon, but don’t hold your breath. Because of its ubiquity, hardware device drivers are widely available for most recent versions of Windows. You can almost always get any piece of hardware to work with Windows.

Unfortunately the core security of Windows is, and has always been pretty awful – with the continual need to run firewalls and virus killers to protect every single Windows machine from outside influence. Perhaps more worryingly, due to poor design the performance of all computers running Windows reduces over time – registry bloat, DLL hell, and wreckage from past updates are a continual source of frustration for home users and system administrators.

MacOS benefits from Apple both creating hardware and software – meaning the performance of the user interface in relation to the hardware is very good. You might also claim however that Apple are more concerned with how things look, than how well they work. Unfortunately MacOS only runs (reliably) on Apple hardware – while you can build a “Hackintosh”, you will face numerous problems with device drivers and core operating system stability. The software is driven – by design – by the Apple hardware renewal cycle. It’s easy to forget that Apple are a hardware company – it’s in their interest to obsolete existing hardware over time in order to sell it to you again, and again – and to discourage you from trying to run their software on anybody else’s hardware.

At a lower level, it’s perhaps worth noting that MacOS/OSX was originally based on Mach – a micro-kernel – the polar opposite of Linux. Micro kernel operating systems work by reducing core operating system functionality to control of messaging between services that do all the real work – which makes each service simple, but makes management of messaging enormously complicated, and causes all manner of design, functionality, and stability trade-offs.

Linux differs from both Windows and MacOS in that it’s a constellation of software development projects built by a vast community, rather than a commercial product developed by one entity. Books have been written about this arrangement – perhaps the most famous being “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”. If Tim Berners Lee’s “World Wide Web” was “for everybody”, then the same is probably true of Linux. The source code of every part of the core operating system and it’s supporting applications is freely available to copy, re-use, extend, enhance, and adapt – leading to ports for just about every hardware platform imaginable.

Linux originally borrowed the design of Unix, which set out some simple but powerful underlying concepts around the treatment of all applications as processes – with standard input and output streams. It’s a game changing design that’s beyond the scope of this post, and not followed by either Windows or MacOS.

Linux famously has no central control over future direction – it has been, and always will be designed and developed by a disparate community. This can be seen as both a good, and a bad thing – good because the system is not forced in a direction by external actors, and bad because it causes fragmentation. The fragmentation also causes duplication of effort – with different teams building alternative versions of the same core functionality – everything from window managers, to text editors. This of course means more choice though, and a properly functioning ecosystem of sorts – with evolution, and natural selection in play.

I need to draw this to a close somehow.

I titled this post “Choosing Linux”, and have sat on the fence throughout the entire monologue so far – being annoyingly even handed. I suppose when it comes down to it, the main reason I choose to use Linux outside of work is because I have to use Windows at work. The anarchic voice that occasionally whispers in my ear and causes me to walk to my own beat tells me that Linux is a good idea. It’s really that simple, and that illogical.

Not only do I get to “choose Linux”, I get to choose the distribution of Linux I use – and that has changed over time. Last week I ran “Manjaro”, the week before that “Elementary OS”, and before that “Ubuntu”. I’m back using Ubuntu this week. I may change again next week – it’s a little like re-building your house again and again, with no appreciable loss or gain in core functionality. Of course, you get nothing done, but that’s not the point.

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Life

A Life Lesson

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “What is a life lesson you feel everyone can benefit from learning?”


While writing this the clock is ticking towards 1am on Sunday morning, so I suppose technically I missed the Saturday writing prompt. Let’s pretend that Saturday extends until you fall into bed, then we’re good.

So. What life lesson do I think everyone can benefit from? Maybe that you should find time earlier in the day to write, rather than burning the midnight oil and throwing out a post in the early hours?

Being half serious, I do have a life lesson to share. Hard work pays off.

I’ve always been a believer in the maxim “the harder you work, the luckier you get”. The same sentiment extends into many facets of daily life, and is described by numerous inspirational quotes. The root of it all though is hard work.

When faced with difficult or even seemingly impossible situations, often the only answer is to look for something productive to do, and do it. And when you’ve done that thing, find the next thing, and do it.

A couple of years ago I was working on a software development project where a significant flaw was discovered in the source code – meaning several months work would have to be re-written almost line-by-line in order to fix the problem. I stayed up all night, and methodically worked through the problem. By the morning the code not only worked, but was in a much better place than it had been the day before. I pulled the project out of the fire – not by talent, or ingenuity, or a magical lightbulb moment – by plain old hard work.

Doggedness and determination are worth far more than brilliance in the long run. While a moment of genius solves one problem, determination and resolve help solve many problems, every day.

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Life

A Challenge Faced

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “Write about a challenge you faced and overcame.”.


I’m coming up with very little for today’s writing prompt. Perhaps this is some kind of mid-month malaise – the result of having answered all the various “Bloganuary” writing prompts so far, and slowly depleting the energy devoted to scribbling half-sensible words.

(frowns for a few moments)

I think I’ve got something worth writing about. Does running count?

In the months before the first lockdown I took part in a “Couch to 5K” programme at the local running club – mostly to support my daughter. It’s worth noting that I didn’t sign up for the programme – my other half volunteered me. That kind of thing happens a lot around here.

Anyway.

After running with a rag-tag group of non-runners for a couple of months, we eventually “graduated” – running five kilometres around town together.

I think perhaps the biggest take-away from running with the group was that it made the entire escapade a lot easier. When I run on my own (which I still do fairly regularly), there is no peer pressure to get out on anything like a regular basis – but while attending the organised runs with the group, both myself and my daughter lifted ourselves by our own bootstraps. We showed up. We ran.

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Life

An Ideal Day

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “What does your ideal day look like ?”.


My ideal day begins early – rolling out of bed, pulling on some running shorts, and heading straight out into the clear frosty air to run a few miles around town. I love running through town early in the morning and seeing the world come to life – with deliveries of flowers, food, and newspapers criss-crossing the pavements along my way.

On returning home I lean on the tree outside our house to stretch for a few minutes before heading inside for a shower, and clean clothes. Next comes the kettle, a cup of coffee, and a bowl of cereal while emptying the dishwasher. I ask Alexa to play Magic radio.

By now the children are getting up and stumbling through the kitchen with grumpy faces and crazy hair – quietly finding food, filling bags for college or school, and absent mindedly gazing at their phones.

Over the next hour they leave the house one by one. I find myself alone, and set about clearing up the aftermath – returning repeatedly to the bins outside the house with empty bottles, wrappers, boxes, and bags. Finally the kitchen and lounge are clear, and I retreat to the junk room – the place I will spend most of the day ahead reading emails, writing code, and sitting in conference calls.

The webcam on the laptop points towards the tidiest corner of the room. It’s still less tidy than anybody else’s carefully curated conference call locations, but is at least interesting – featuring a Star Wars poster, a scale model of the Saturn 5 rocket, and numerous books, boxes, and brick-a-brack.

Throughout the day I return to the kitchen for coffee. My immunity to caffeine seems to have grown in recent months. En-route I listen out for the washing machine – emptying it as it falls silent, hanging damp clothes to dry, and filling it again with the rapidly rotating wardrobe of our teenage daughters.

At lunchtime I pull on a coat, scarf and shoes and set off across town on-foot to the infant school where my other half works. She has forgotten to take any lunch. There is a garage along the way that sells sandwiches. The route to and from the school takes me through a cemetery. I read the headstones as I pass back and forth – wondering about the lives led by the various names.

Back at home the day slowly reverses itself – with work winding down, and the house slowly re-filling with teenagers, grown-ups, noise, and clutter. Televisions switch on throughout the house, streaming game shows, news reports, and pop music videos.

Dinnertime finds me washing up cooking pots while my other half runs back and forth across the kitchen. She’s the better cook – I’m the better washer-up. I fight a losing battle as pots, pans, plates, cutlery, and more rubbish assemble themselves across the kitchen. I shout to the kids to set the table and silence returns – moments later I am in the lounge, lining up place mats, cutlery, and glasses.

Finally the house slows down. We sit at the table for an hour, eat, drink, and tell the story of each other’s day. We hear about the never-ending drama of school and college friendships, and the various stresses of the workplace. Nobody ever talks about my work – we did once when I complained about being missed out, but it quickly became obvious that nobody wanted to hear about content management, source code, version control, or wireframes.

After another half an hour clearing the kitchen, the evening finally becomes my own. I fall back into the junk room, switch on the computer, and begin writing emails, instant messaging distant friends, and emptying my head into blog posts. I take to imaginary skies for an hour in a flight simulator with friends, and explore pretend exotic destinations together. A little later in the evening I find my other half (invariably in the lounge) and we binge-watch whichever show is being touted by friends on social media.

The day ends in bed, with a book propped on my chest – a few pages read since I last fell asleep reading it. The book is one of many I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I’m getting there. Slowly.


If you’re wondering why my “ideal day” sounds much like an ordinary day, that’s because an ordinary day is my ideal day. A day free of disaster, stress, argument or turmoil. A day where the world continues turning. A quiet day.

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Life

Emojis and Emoticons

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “What emoji(s) do you like to use ?”.


This is where I immediately admit to not using emojis. I tend to write everything long-hand – even when instant messaging people. I certainly don’t use them while writing blog posts. While I know language evolves and we shouldn’t rail too much about new words or turns of phrase, I think perhaps a small part of me will die if emojis make their way into “the written word”.

That said, I do use some of the popular acronyms, and one or two emoticons when writing instant messages – chiefly the happy and sad face, along with “lol”.

I’m old enough to remember emoticons becoming “a thing”. Back in the early days of the internet – when email became somewhat ubiquitous – there was a common problem in that the written word often lacks emotional context – words written in short emails could be easily misinterpreted, and offence taken. I remember writing a guide for everybody in the company where I worked at the time – a guide to “emoticons”, with examples of their use.

For some reason I’ve never quite caught the emoji craze. I can’t help feeling some people cross a line though – communicating in a bizarre mixture of acronyms and emojis to construct a hell-stew of easily mangled gibberish. Don’t even get me started on “l33t sp33k”.

So – getting back to the writing prompt. Which emojis do I use? None really. Unless you count the smiley face – which is really an emoticon.

p.s. if you want to experience my lack of emoji talent, feel free to instant message me – my contact details are on my contact page!