Queueing and Blogging

I went to the DIY supermarket at the weekend to buy a set of metal shelves for our cellar.  The shelves, along with their metal supports, were packaged into polythene as a set.  The whole thing was quite a weight to carry, so I made a direct line for the checkout…

Now normally this would not be a problem.  I avoid people that might be in my way, and those that see me coming with such a heavy item would probably make way for me anyway.  But not this week.  Just as I was reached the checkout a young lady stepped out in front of me… and stopped!  Although she didn’t want to go actually to the checkout, she stood in front of it and blocked my way.

I gave here a look that said “this is heavy”, to which she looked at what I was carrying and said “you could put it down!”, and then continued to hold a conversation with someone else.

I was so speechless, that I didn’t even think to reply with “you could get out of my way” or something similar.  I was just amazed at how blunt she was.

Which leads me nicely on to write about a new site where my wife started blogging today.  On AllThingsBritish.net she is doing the exact opposite of what I blog about here – namely writing about British topics in German.  Today, by co-incidence, she has written about how difficult it is in some British shops to know which way to join a queue.

Later this week she will also start blogging about words that have, at some time or other, caused us confusion or at least led to a topical discussion on EnglishWordsExplained.

So if you can understand German then please take a look at the new sites and give her some feedback!

Looking back at Microsoft

With Bill Gates stepping down from his position running Microsoft, it’s quite interesting to take a look at how I have come into contact with their products over the years.

The very first computers that I had anything to do with came from Texas Instruments, Sinclair, BBC/Acorn and Research Machines – and none of them had anything to do with software from Microsoft. As it happened, some software for the Sinclair computers was written by Psion, who I later worked for myself.

But at some stage I came into contact with something called MS-DOS, although it may have been some form of PC-DOS on an IBM PC at the time. For many years that was probably the only piece of Microsoft software that I used regularly. At school we did have Windows 1.0 available and Word (for DOS) 5.0, but I don’t remember using them much.

Whilst at university my laptop (with 640K of RAM) ran on DOS 3.x, the university PCs and our computer at home ran on DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1 or 3.11. It was not until I spent a year as a student in Germany that I really had much contact with Microsoft Office – Version 4.3 (ie. Word for Windows 2.0).

Ironically I probably had most of my contact with the inner workings of any Microsoft products during my time at Psion in Germany – usually working out why some file or calendar would not convert or synchronise with Microsoft Office products, or why the palmtop was not connecting properly to a new release of Windows.

These days the operating system has got much more complex – there is just so much to learn about Windows XP and Vista, not to mention and of the server operating systems. But with so much now web-based, the trend has reverted to simpler applications.

Products like OpenOffice.org and Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird have changed the way home users use their software, with Microsoft Outlook being something I normally only see in a corporate environment.

But whatever you may think about Microsoft’s software policies, there is one thing I definitely admire Mr. Gates for: unlike many IT managers out there, he started “hands-on” – he programmed computers, he wrote code for the company’s first products and grew from there.  He is not someone brought in “just” to run the company, but knows the background of what he is talking about.

When I look at what IT students study today and compare it with what I studied in the 1990s, I am sometimes horrified how little is taught about the “basics”.  I learnt how to structure a database and code it, I didn’t just click it together in a front end.  I learnt about how and why things happened, and what consequences actions could have.  I was studying at a time when memory was still a scarce and often restricted commodity – something many of today’s software developers would do well to remember.

I still have that laptop with 640K of RAM, no hard disc and a double disc drive. I serves as a good reminder of the days when finding a configuration problem meant looking from an INI-file and not searching the Windows registry. When you had to tell a word processor to start and stop formatting a piece of text, eg. bold, and didn’t see the end result until it appeared on the printer. When a backup of my data meant one or two floppy discs, and not one or two DVDs.

Swimming pools and Google Maps

When I was younger and living in the UK, I occasionally travelled to a nearby city by bus.  One of the highlights of the trip was, at least for me back then, being able to see of walls into peoples’ gardens from the top deck of the double-decker bus.

One of the more fascinating sights was in a small village, where one property had a swimming pool in their back garden.  Probably not many people even knew it was there, unless they were looking out of the window from the top deck at the right time.

I was reminded of those times when I read this article on the Telegraph website this week.  Apparently there is a new craze called “dipping” which involves finding such private swimming pools and organising impromptu -and illegal- pool parties in them.

This time, it is not a chance knowledge of a location obtained on a bus ride that is being used, but instead mapping sites such as Google Earth to find the pools and then social networking sites such as Facebook to organise the party.

I wonder why they do it?  After all, even if I know what is in someone’s garden I still have no right to enter the property and use it as if it was my own.  Is it a craze that will die down, or is it just the start of something much bigger with people using these resources for even worse means.

On the one hand I would hate to see such resources shut down – I use Google Maps a lot myself for route planning and the areal views can be very handy for seeing what sort of street I am driving to and what the chances are or finding somewhere to park nearby.

I would also hate to see more censorship and tracking on the internet, meaning that innocent people being monitored just because of an irresponsible few.

But at the same time I could understand it if there were calls for more to be done to stop such gatherings taking place.  It’s just that, how do you recognise someone organising an illegal “dipping” party and differ from someone holding their own pool party in their own swimming pool?

I think the owners of the property that I used to ride past have not got too much to worry about.  I just looked at the areal photo of the village and the pool looks as if it has been filled in and is now a lawn.

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