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Part of my own library, rather than a public one

Part of my own library, rather than a public one

https://mystudentvoices.com/the-legacy-of-the-free-library-ac822d82b1a1

I came across this blog post from the USA about the role of free libraries in education and social development. It interested me because the writer was from a much younger generation, and started using their library in a time when libraries generally were beginning to get to grips with what we used to call “the Information Revolution”. The blogger remembers first coming into contact with audio-visual formats in their library, and accessing the Internet for the first time in that library. It’s interesting to have this perspective, because I’m from the generation where libraries were equated with books; and very many opinion formers – writers, thinkers and a whole range of people in different walks of life whose work I absorbed – themselves promoted libraries as formative and positive influences at the time when they only contained books. It’s reassuring to read an account that suggests that libraries are as important now as they have ever been.

I responded to that blog, and I repeat my posting below.

-oOo-

Here in the UK, we had Carnegie libraries too, and many are still revered in their local communities. Sadly, the concept of the library as a public service has been eroded because of the financial crisis. With the austerity cutbacks imposed by the Cameron administration from 2010 onwards, local councils (who administer public libraries) had their budgets slashed and many of them cut back on library provision. In a lot of areas — my village included — libraries closed and were handed over to volunteers to run.

This puts me in a quandary. Forty years ago, I trained to be a librarian, because in those pre-Internet days, librarians were the local experts at helping people access knowledge. Sadly, Government policies back then meant that I never fulfilled my ambition to work in a library and help expand free access to information to all. Now I find that the local library is asking for volunteers to help run it. I could do that (or I could if I wasn’t working full-time in IT). But why should I give away for free what I trained and studied long hours for so I could earn a living? When the Government of the day discounts and devalues your job, why should I collude with them by agreeing to work for nothing?

I wanted to become a librarian because in my home town, I went into the library and was staggered by the fact that in that one place, in an unremarkable mill town in the Midlands, there was one place where (potentially) all of human knowledge could be accessed; and this was replicated across the country (and, indeed, the world). And it was open to everyone who wanted it. It also gave me a feeling for books, and reading, and (eventually) writing too. I may not have become a librarian, but at least I can now say that I have a few books to my name, that I’ve made a small contribution to the sum total of human knowledge, even if it is pretty small and quite esoteric, and likely to be of interest to only a small number of people.

I am concerned that the Internet age has made knowledge, in some ways, more commodified; to access it, you now need to own a particular device, pay for a service to connect it to the Web, have power to run it, and possibly (in the case of streaming services) also have to pay to access the content. There may well be a case for that for things that are optional, such as entertainment, though even entertainment may have educational value. But access to knowledge and information should be a basic freedom, allowing for individuals to make informed choices in life and (perhaps more importantly) preventing them from making bad choices. The control of information is something that all tyrants throughout history have exercised; when someone tries to restrict the information you can access, or brands one source of information as “bad” or “fake”, then you can be sure that they are trying to tilt the playing field in their favour and keep everyone else in the dark about their intentions. Knowledge, after all, is power.

 

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Written by robertday154

February 23, 2018 at 10:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Fiesta’s end

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARegular readers will remember that at the end of 2016, I swapped my Mercedes C-class for a 17-year-old Ford Fiesta, in the face of looming garage bills when I was without work. I reckoned that such a car would be a short-term measure to keep me mobile, and could almost be replaced out of petty cash, if necessary (albeit with something equally bargain basement). W643RRJ came to me with little more than 75,000 miles on the clock, and a record that suggested that it had spent most of its life in the Preston area and may well have been the conveyance of a number of elderly ladies.

I proceeded to bat up and down the M69 in my daily commute to work in Coventry, something that soon exposed its limitations. Acceleration was unspectacular, the boxy shape was subject to crosswinds, cornering was exciting for all the wrong reasons, and top speed was somewhere just over 80 mph if you could get a good run up to it. It looked fairly rough because it hadn’t really been looked after, internal noise was dreadful, any overtaking manoeuvre on the motorway had to be planned a good two miles in advance because of the lack of any top-end acceleration, and worst of all, it garnered absolutely no respect from other road users. This last one wouldn’t be an issue if I was only pootling to and from the shops; but in rush-hour motorway traffic, mixing it with HGVs and Type A psychopathic personalities in their Audis and BMWs, it was positively dangerous. A couple of times I was severely hustled by lorries, whose company names were conveniently difficult to read, and to whose managing directors I would have delivered a severe bollocking had I been able to identify the operator.

It let me down three times. The first time, the windscreen wipers failed in a severe rainstorm. The RAC (Royal Automobile Club for non-UK readers) came out and fixed it with what looked like a giant paperclip; it cost me £45 to repair and it only took my garage half an hour. The second time was a bit more hair-raising. Coming home one afternoon, I had a rear tyre blow out on the motorway at about 65 mph. Fortunately, the weather was dry and I was able to come to a halt on the hard shoulder in a cloud of smoke. The tyre had let go completely and the tread had separated from the sidewalls, which in turn were pretty much shredded to pieces. I had to have the RAC out to that one as well, as the car lacked a jack so I couldn’t change my own tyre.

I took it to the nearest tyre specialist the next morning. The guy looked at the remains of the burst tyre, and then said “I see your problem. There will have been radial cracks in the sidewalls – like these on the offside tyre.” So that was two new tyres, total £96, which as a casual purchase was not a good thing. (The two front tyres were fairly new – I had receipts for them – and that had lulled me into a false sense of security.)

The third time was unusual. Over the summer, I’d noticed that if I turned the heater on at night, the engine temperature rose. An examination of the coolant tank showed that I was losing water, but not very much. I took it for its MoT (annual safety check) in August, thinking that this would be a make-or-break deal. The verdict was good – all it needed to be road-legal was a new front wheel bearing, total cost £94. But when I went to get the car back from the garage, I just got home when I noticed the engine temperature rising again as I parked up. I opened the bonnet and saw water pouring out from the area of the heater. I obviously had some sort of leak, but I couldn’t see anything obvious. So I decided to refill the system once it was cold, and then go to work the next day as normal, but carrying water with me to refill if necessary, until I could get it looked at properly.

The next morning came and I set off. I got a mile down the road when the steam started coming from under the bonnet – but the engine temperature seemed normal. But the inside of the windscreen was misting up more than I’d expected – and it kept getting worse. The engine temperature was rising too – and the interior of the car was beginning to fill with steam. This was a problem. I was approaching the motorway junction to join the M69 to Coventry, and there was nowhere to pull over and stop. However, the motorway junction is also a junction with the M1, and there is a service area less than a mile from that junction. I headed for there, constantly wiping condensed water off the inside of the windscreen and with both windows open to try to get the steam out of the car.

I made it to the service area and summoned the RAC. They turned up fairly quickly, and diagnosed the problem. The heater control valve on the Fiesta was made out of plastic; and it looked as though it had reached the end of its life. As with most plastics, heat and vibration would tend to make it brittle; and even if that was considered to be a problem, the designers almost certainly considered that a design life of ten years was sufficient for this car. Seventeen years was never considered. So when I noticed the first engine temperature rises, the valve had probably developed cracks and some coolant weepage. But when I’d taken it to have the bearing replaced, the garage had lifted the car on a trolley jack, and most likely let the jack down by gravity when the job was done. No problem 99% of the time, but the shock of the car hitting the ground, even though it would have bounced quite happily on its suspension, would have been the final straw for the heater valve, and the inlet and outlet pipes had sheared off.

When I started driving the car, coolant would have sprayed out all over the engine compartment. The Fiesta has a transversely-mounted engine, and so directly underneath the heater valve is the exhaust manifold, with a steel heat shield over the top of it. The leaking coolant would have hit this and flashed straight into steam.

The RAC engineer said that this was a common problem with Fiestas, and then dug around in the van and came up with a little kit to bypass the valve so I could get back on the road. This bypass kit, which looked like nothing so much as the bypass Walter Tuttle, the guerilla heating engineer, installs in Sam Lowry’s flat in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, effectively cut the heater out of the circuit, but that was hardly a problem for August, even given British weather. So I had something else to go back to the garage for (after the next pay day, of course).

Except that I never got there.

Come August Bank Holiday weekend, I was travelling along the A5 towards Atherstone. Approaching a junction, I could see in the distance a car turning out of a side-road on my left to make a right turn. It crossed my carriageway but then stopped, waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic. I lifted my foot off the accelerator, ready to brake. But then the other car either rolled back or reversed – I could not tell which, but it looked deliberate – leaving enough space for me to move into the centre of the road and pass them by, which I started to do.

Except that when I was within fifty yards, the other driver saw the road to their left was clear, and made their right turn, having forgotten I was there to their right. I had been accelerating, but when I saw them pull out, I immediately made an emergency brake application. But I was unable to stop in time and hit the other car squarely on their offside front wheel.

The driver of the other car and her mother were the only occupants; they were unhurt. So was I, after I’d let my hands have a good shake for a couple of minutes. The other driver summoned the police, who turned up reasonably quickly, but they saw no-one was injured, so they gave us an incident number and left.

My car was driveable, and the only damage was a severe crease in the bonnet.

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Though I was unable to actually open the bonnet, I was able to complete my journey. The other car was not so lucky; the offside front wheel’s suspension had collapsed and it was undrivable.

The other driver’s father arrived after about half an hour to render assistance. His first words to me were “Did the police breathalyse her?” I replied “No. Is there any reason why they should have done?” He made the excuse that “I thought they did that to everyone in road accidents these days”, though I suspect he’d been watching too many police reality shows. I then said “You might want to change the subject” because that suggested to me that he thought that there would be a good reason why the police might breathalyse his daughter at 12 noon on a Saturday.

I completed my journey and later on got home without incident. The next morning, I had a call from the RAC’s Accident Assistance service. It turned out that we were both RAC members, and the RAC’s assistance service (actually sub-contracted) would happily take over the management of my claim, especially as they were able to offer me a better level of service than my own insurers (who didn’t offer a courtesy car if mine were to be off the road and were making noises about a £250 excess on a car that an online car buying service had said was possibly worth £250). They also told me that the other driver had admitted full liability. After I described the accident and the damage to my car, they declared it to be unroadworthy (as I couldn’t open the bonnet to replenish vital fluids or tackle a fire should one break out in the engine compartment), and they would arrange a courtesy car for me whilst my own vehicle was taken away for assessment.

The next week, a delivery-mileage Citroën C3 turned up (eventually – the hire firm’s delivery driver drove past me to the end of my road and then wondered why they couldn’t find me, despite the fact that I had been standing at the entrance to my driveway for nearly an hour waiting to flag them down. Ringing my phone never seemed to occur to them) and the Fiesta was taken away for inspection. Within a few days, the reply came back that the insurers would treat it as a Total Loss as it was beyond economic repair. I had assessed the repair cost as being somewhere in the £160 region even if I got myself a brand-new replacement bonnet rather than trawling for one around the scrappies of south Leicester and had my garage swap the bonnets over; but they did the full exercise, with new front bumper, front grilles, bonnet, badges, headlamp glasses, a check on an alignment jig, respray and so on, all by specialist companies and coming out with a repair cost somewhere in the low thousands. For a car that cost £450, that was never going to add up. Now, you might say that was overdoing it a bit; but the deal was to restore the car to exactly the condition it was in before the accident, though in fact the work they described would probably result in the car being in slightly better condition than before the collision.

They then offered me £575 in complete settlement, £150 more than I’d paid for the car in the first place; most of that would come from the other driver’s insurance, but £17.50 would come from selling the vehicle for scrap. Naturally, I agreed to this, though I harbour the suspicion that the vehicle actually went back into auction as it was driveable and had a long MoT as well – so if they made £20 on it at auction as an insurance write-off, they would be in profit. Though any prospective buyer would have an unpleasant surprise when they finally got the bonnet open and found no working heater in the car!

So there I was sitting on £575, which with cash I had set aside to repair the heater and have a couple of other things looked at I could make up to £750. What could I get for that sort of money?

First thoughts were “Not a lot much better.” But I trawled the online pages of the Auto Trader for vehicles within ten miles of home or ten miles of work in that price range. And in amongst the rows and rows of 15-year-old 1-litre hatchbacks in indifferent condition, I found something different that attracted me very much.

A Saab 9-3, just like the one I drove happily for many years, and blogged on when I had to let it go in 2012. 15 years old but less than 100,000 miles on the clock. (For Saabs, this is low mileage.) It was in the hands of a private dealer in Coventry, and from the looks of the photograph, I could pretty well work out where. It looked clean, and indeed a check online for its last MoTs (which you can now do) showed that between 2016 and 2017 it had only done 1,800 miles. It also showed that the car had been in the hands of a dealer for all that year; and I could see from the photographs (and later confirmed in person) that the car was not only clean, it was showroom clean and had even been cleaned on the underside. The only thing I could think was that it had gone into the garage (in Reading) as part-exchange, and it had sat in the showroom for a year because “Saab are out of business now” and “anyway, Jeremy Clarkson said that Saabs are just badge-engineered Vauxhalls” (which just shows what that fool really knows about cars). The only issue with it was that it was an automatic, and  not being the most modern of designs it could be heavy on fuel compared with a manual box. But – a Saab! I duly made an appointment to go and look at it.

As I got out of the car just around the corner from the address I’d been given, I saw two things. One was a Rover 75 that the same dealer had advertised. The Rover 75 was the  slightly upmarket saloon that the Rover Group tried to relaunch its fortunes with, and which BMW were so amazed by that they bought the company. (Apparently, they buy rival cars from time to time as ‘mystery buyers’ to suss out the competition. They were impressed with the 90, and when they heard that the Rover factory at Longbridge was up for sale, they went to look at it. Their reaction was “How can they build a car THAT good with a factory THAT BAD?“. The rest is a rather sad history.) This Rover 75 looked quite clean and nice, and it boded well for the sort of cars this dealer selected and presented.

The other thing was the dealer himself, a bloke in his late twenties or early thirties, with a broken arm in a cast. He said it was a rugby injury, and so he would let me have the car for a test drive of my own choosing. And so saying he handed me the keys and headed off back indoors! I did a round trip test drive of about ten miles, and by the time I’d got back, I’d decided that this was the car I wanted. After a little discussion, I gave the man a deposit.

I had to wait a few days for the insurance cheque to clear before transferring funds into the dealer’s account. This I did on a Friday night, but I was unable to arrange to pick it up until the following Monday, as I had to also give back the hire car on the same day. With the help of a colleague who drove me across Coventry, I was able to collect the Saab. We did the paperwork, and then the dealer gave me a ten-pound note. “I’m sorry” he said, “but I had to borrow it over the weekend. I had to run an errand, my wife’s away so she couldn’t drive me, my plaster doesn’t come off for another fortnight and your car’s the only automatic I’ve got in at the moment. So here’s what I owe you for the petrol I used.” I was flabbergasted. You do not expect that level of honesty from a back-street private car dealer.

And so I am a Saab owner again, much to my surprise! And this is the apple of my automative eye:

 

By dint of some gentle driving treatment (and inflating the tyres to their correct pressures), I was able to improve a displayed fuel consumption of 27.6 mpg to better than 30 mpg on my daily commute (ten minutes’ local driving, twenty minutes’ motorway driving followed by forty minutes or so in urban crawl), and with only slightly longer trips on motorways or trunk roads without stopping I have improved that to 32.6 mpg – not cosmically better, to be sure, but improvement in the right direction, and for a 15-year-old two-litre engine attached to an automatic box, not too bad. Interestingly, nine months driving the Fiesta seems to have broken me of the habit of driving fast (although I was never the fastest driver on the road; there was always someone wanting to go faster than me even when I was exceeding the speed limit). And it does an older car – or any car, for that matter – no good to be continually thrashed all the time. I suspect that many of the cars currently being driven on personal hire contracts, where in exchange for regular payments drivers get to hand the car back at the end of the contract period and choose a new one, are being driven into the ground and will be liabilities for anyone buying them in future time.

Three minor problems with the Saab – there is no rear parcel shelf (“Never had one” said the dealer, when I asked), the external air temperature sensor thinks it’s 50 degrees Celsius outside (and so the aircon gets pretty confused) and the radio aerial is held together with gaffer tape, and reception is therefore about as good as you’d expect. These things can be fixed fairly easily.

But  – a Saab!

I can now certainly hold my own with other traffic, and it commands a good deal more respect than the Fiesta ever did. I now drive with a dashboard camera for my own protection. But I drive with a smile on my face, and I don’t reach my destination feeling like a wrung-out dishcloth. And if that makes me a petrolhead, then so be it.

Written by robertday154

February 15, 2018 at 11:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The best laid plans…

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I made myself a list towards the end of 2017. These are the ideas I have for blog posts, I thought. Let’s make a list so that I don’t forget them. Over the summer and autumn I had a few trips out, to County Durham and to Manchester; we lost Brian Aldiss, who I blogged on a few years ago; and I had an unexpected change to my motoring plans. Each of these and more were going to be the subject of detailed blog posts.

So what happened?

Christmas, that’s what. Come the end of the year, there’s not only Christmas (as someone once complained, “Why does Christmas always come at the time of year when the shops are so busy?”), but as Competition Secretary for Sutton Coldfield Model Makers, I have to prepare for the grand final competition at the end of the year. We hold monthly competitions, and the winners in the various classes go forward to the Finals, where the Model and Modeller of the Year are selected. That takes quite a bit of setting up; and then I have to collate the results, let the Chairman know the outcome so that the trophies can be suitably engraved, print out the certificates and generally make everything ready for our Awards Night which is usually in the second week of December.

At the same time, as Secretary of the Austrian Railway Group, I had to finalise minutes from our last Committee meeting, which we held in November, ready for the next in January. I did actually manage to send a batch of Christmas cards this year – the first time for a couple of years that this has been an affordable exercise – and for those who don’t normally see either me in person or this blog I had to enclose a “round robin” letter just to explain what had been happening to me recently. (This caused a little amusement as one recipient rang my sister in some shock and horror as to what had been happening to me!)

So with all that, seven blog posts – yes, that was my plan! – went out of the window. So here’s a round-up of the things my regular readers might be interested to hear about.

Most of this will consist of pictures.

 

Such as these from a trip to the Tanfield Railway, in County Durham. Tanfield is a bit unusual, in that it is a restored colliery railway, whose passenger service was restricted to colliers going to and from the pit. The north-east of England was the birthplace of railways, the Tanfield line being able to trace its origins back to the Causey waggonway which opened in 1725. Waggonways – primitive railways using initially wooden rails and horse-drawn wagons – date back in this country to the early 1600s, though the use of tubs on rails in mines and quarries can be traced back in Germany to perhaps the late 1400s. These waggonways evolved into the modern railways we know over the following hundred years, first adopting iron rails and then steam locomotives in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Tanfield has worked hard to retain its colliery railway atmosphere, and the result is a fine example of combining the attractions of a steam railway with an accurate approach to history. No former main-line locomotives and coaches here, but a range of stock reflecting the sort of railways to be found in the area. They also have the sheds and workshops as open to the public as seems safe, and also allow the more intrepid visitors to wander around the sidings that hold stock awaiting restoration. Too often nowadays, the sort of decrepitude that photographers love is locked away under the banner of “health and safety” – not that I’m against health and safety, you understand. I just find it a shame that my pleasure in finding photogenic industrial grot is constrained by the likely actions of less responsible members of the public who would treat such a thing as an adventure playground but then cry “foul” when it all ends in tears.

Without the opportunity to wander around at will, we wouldn’t have found something truly odd – a locomotive from the Tasmanian Government Railways, repatriated to the UK a number of years ago by a private owner who then didn’t have the necessary funds to actually restore the thing. It’s quite a substantial engine, too – an M class 4-6-2, and it’s at Tanfield because it was built by Robert Stephenson & Hawthorne’s in Newcastle.

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Tasmanian Government Railways class M at Tanfield, 2017

It should look like this:

TGR_M_Class

By Hothguard11 – Taken at BRMA Model Train Show 2013, at Tasmanian Transport Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40653927

Which has given me another idea for a writing project – a series on overseas locomotives in the UK, to be entitled A Corner of an English field…

A few weeks later, a trip to Manchester, acting as chauffeur, gave me spare time in the city, which I occupied with a little museum-going; most specifically to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Imperial War Museum North, and to the Greater Manchester Museum of Transport. This last one is housed in part of a bus garage out at Cheetham, but it is easily accessible via the Manchester Metro tram service and then perhaps 10-15 minutes’ walk. The garage itself is interesting; its appointments, such as the canteen and other offices are all part of the experience and add to the atmosphere of the place. But the key exhibits are the buses.

 

The late Alan Coren once said “You could understand people being trainspotters when the trains were worth looking at. Nowadays, they all just look like Tetra-Paks.” Well, I feel pretty much the same about buses.

In October, a railway museum closed. You’d think that this would be pretty big news; but no. And there was a fairly good reason for that. The museum in question was the Electric Railway Museum, and their remit was to preserve and educate about electric railways in the UK. That’s not the most sexy subject if you think about “heritage railways”; yet it’s important. So much of the daily commuting by rail in this country is by electric railway; these mass people movers have been so very important in the economic life and history of the country. Yet, beyond the London Underground – which is more than adequately covered elsewhere – very little attention has been paid to electric railways in this country. (It’s different overseas, especially on the Continent, where there is a lot of interest in electric locomotives – but they have a lot of interesting examples, all bonnets and bus-bars and insulators and ventilation grilles and connecting rods, many as ugly as a box of frogs but possessing a certain charm.)

The Electric Railway Museum, on a brownfield site on the outskirts of Coventry, was beginning to get a handle on their development when the plug was pulled on them by the city council, as leaseholders, who had sold the land off as part of a redevelopment deal for new industrial premises. So they had to close and vacate the site, the collection being scattered to different sites across the country, pending their getting them together again at some point in the future.

I said that this wasn’t big news; actually, it made quite a splash locally, to the extent that on their last open day, they were inundated with visitors, more than they had ever seen before (indeed, probably more in one weekend than they’d had throughout their existence!). A shame that more hadn’t been to it before; and a shame that the council, having pulled the plug on them, didn’t see it as an obligation to help them find another site.

 

As the year drew to a close, I went out early one morning to photograph a steam excursion, with the newly-restored Great Western ‘Castle’ class locomotive Earl of Mount Edgecombe out on the main line. I don’t do many of these trips, because it can sometimes involve a lot of travel for a very brief glimpse of an engine in full cry on the main line; but this was only a few miles away on the south side of Leicester and I was lucky enough to find a good spot to photograph. And it wasn’t far on a cold morning.

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Great Western in Leicestershire – Earl of Mount Edgecombe outside South Wigston

The final railway trip of the year was to the Severn Valley Railway. A colleague very kindly passed me some shareholders’ tickets that needed to be used before the end of the year, so a crisp December day saw us making the journey from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth. We had a spirited run behind a rebuilt Bullied Pacific, Taw Valley, along the line; just outside Kidderminster, the traveller gets the rare chance to see rhinos, elephants and other wildlife as the line skirts a safari park.  I hadn’t been up into Bridgnorth town for very many years, so that made for a pleasant excursion, together with a (rather slippery) walk around Castle Hill to look at the funicular railway (the only one in the UK not at a seaside resort) and a fine view over the River Severn.

 

And that was the end of the year. 2018 dawned with my catching flu, like so many others; and the possibility of change once more. But that’s for the future, perhaps. Meanwhile, although I haven’t told the story of my car, I think I’ll leave that for another post…

Written by robertday154

February 10, 2018 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Where is the fun in that?

with 6 comments

A recent article circulating online listed “30 things that might be obsolete by 2020”. It set out to outline the changes we can expect to see very soon in our everyday lives because of the impact of the latest changes to technology.

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/money/news/30-things-that-might-be-obsolete-by-2020/ss-BBG5rAe?ocid=spartanntp

I read this and seethed, for a whole pile of reasons. For me, it paints a picture of a new hell on earth, and I’m about to tell you why.

(And before any of you accuse me of being a reactionary Luddite leftist dinosaur, I’ll beat you to it and say “Guilty as charged – and proud of it.” I don’t take a specifically left-wing conspiracy theorist’s view of the march of modern technology in the service of capitalism – at least, not in the strict definition of the word ‘conspiracy’, meaning “a group of individuals, meeting in secret to actively plot a crime, coup d’état or other detrimental change to the status quo“. But I am a firm believer in the existence and power of ‘groupthink’, the act of narrow-mindedness of those with power which derives policy on the basis of “everyone who thinks like you and me is right, and everyone who does not think like you and me is wrong”. It also takes form in the expression “I’m thinking what everyone else is thinking”, though when someone says that, they inevitably aren’t thinking what everyone else is thinking.)

That ‘groupthink’ has another manifestation, in the form of a narrow national viewpoint. The article I am critiquing originated in the USA but has most likely been distributed throughout the English-speaking world. It is written from a specifically American viewpoint, and the attitudes and situations it describes are specifically American. I will point out places where that viewpoint doesn’t even apply in other countries.

So the article starts:

Devices that have only one use like calculators, alarm clocks, and digital cameras are being replaced by smartphones. Phone chargers and headphones with cords are also fading out in favor of wireless models. Paper is going digital, from magazines to maps to regular paperwork.

And newspapers.

Probably true, but don’t forget that the USA doesn’t have the same sort of national newspaper market that the UK does. Local newspapers may well be at greater risk of obsolescence. Then again, the magazine trade has upped its game when faced with the impact of hand-held devices. Many magazines offer both hard copy and electronic versions for those who wish to retain part or all of the magazine. Publishers have improved the quality of the physical magazine, or may include exclusive content in subscribers’ hard copies. Other magazines have taken advertisements out of hard copy versions, or removed barcodes, pricing and other consumer information from the covers of subscription-only physical versions. And many subscribers find the plop of a magazine dropping through the letterbox to be a reassuring thing; it’s nice to have something come through the post other than an official letter (usually not good news) or junk mail.

Newspapers are more problematic. Most people no longer access their news solely via newspapers; their target demographics are generally set according to either their distribution route (Metro, I) or by traditional readership profiles according to political viewpoint (Daily Mail and other ‘bluetop’ tabloids on one side, Daily Mirror and The Guardian on the other). Many of these papers are turning to their websites as their prime medium. I suspect that they, too, will have to improve their product, offering their constituent readers something they can’t get anywhere else, which will mainly be political commentary. But that will put them at risk of changing political moods; the Daily Mail has recently suffered a dramatic decline in its share price, which many are putting down to its relentless and traditional hard rightist line on so many issues.

Digital cameras

Now that phone cameras can shoot pictures and video in HD (there are even iPhone photography awards), clunky digital cameras will fade out of style.

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Isn’t it odd that the road sign icon for ‘speed camera’ is closer to some of these than anything more modern?

It depends on what you want a camera for. The phone camera is fine for taking pictures that are only going to be viewed online. But the lenses of phone cameras, and their tiny sensors, do not produce images good enough for print. And whilst there are phone attachments that allow the user greater levels of creative control – supplementary lenses with zoom optics and the ability to vary aperture – these are so cumbersome and (comparatively) expensive that anyone with that level of interest in taking pictures will soon outgrow these things and move up to a proper camera.

An article I saw today was discussing the feature of the iPhone X to shoot in RAW; but all the image processing that RAW format pictures require was tied up in an app on the same phone. This will still not replace a proper digital camera for professional work – print publications, publicity or high-end imaging. Publications and publicity will still require bigger pictures with more resolution than the best phone cameras can deliver.

Though the best photographers will agree that the best camera for any given event or occasion boils down to “the one you happen to have with you at the time”.

Having said that, 35mm film is unlikely to make a major comeback anytime soon, though some camera collectors will want to use film in legacy gear. Large-format film – 120 roll film, for example – will also survive in the hands of enthusiasts. Universities and other establishments teaching photography to degree level insist on starting with traditional “wet” processes. mainly because digital makes everything too easy and students who only ever shoot digital won’t understand important principles in photography. And for professional studio work, upgrading large-format cameras to digital is eye-wateringly expensive if you are looking to retain the same levels of image quality.

Video is a slightly different matter. Amateur video will be replaced by the smartphone; 8mm cine film and its video successors were always something of a niche product, and anyone serious about making films pretty soon graduated to 16mm or its video equivalent. Nowadays, it’s possible to make perfectly good amateur video using top-end digital SLR cameras (another reason why these will never be replaced by the smartphone), and some convergence of different technologies will inevitably take place. But high-end film and video cameras will be around for some years yet.

Hard drives

Soon, everyone will keep their information in “the cloud” and there will be no need for physical storage devices.

Thumb drives

Thumb drives may be a convenient way to carry data around in your pocket, but thanks to cloud computing you won’t have to carry anything at all.

Whilever there remains a lot of infrastructure between storage and user, there will be plenty of people who prefer the certainty of their data being on a physical carrier under their direct control instead of being located somewhere possibly half a continent away and subject to the wires and wireless technology working perfectly, all the time. Moreover, that infrastructure is under the control of others, whether they be corporations or governments. Although I don’t sign up to the idea that “big government (or even small government) is bad government”, I would rather my data is under my control rather than reliant on the goodwill and best intentions of others.

But for those who still think “The Cloud – but what really could possibly go wrong?”, there’s this:

https://techbeacon.com/cloud-databases-debased-aitype-virtual-keyboard-leaks-31m-users-sensitive-data

Paper maps

With step-by-step directions on Google Maps, paper maps are hardly necessary anymore.

Standalone GPS devices

Same goes for GPS devices. Your phone can perform all the same functions, plus text someone that you’ve arrived.

Well, in the case of Google, the map certainly isn’t the territory. Whilst Google Maps is fairly useful, it isn’t 100% infallible (as I once found waiting for a homeowner to arrive at a derelict house I was contracted to photograph for an estate agent, only to find that the Google Maps geotagging was wrong and I should have been at the far-from-derelict property next door – actually, a quarter-mile away); and it is not good at showing things unrelated to the simple act of getting from A to B, such as topography, abandoned railways, canals, places of worship classified by their architectural features, historical landmarks that only exist as unrelated piles of stones rather than having a visitor centre and a car park, or spot heights above sea level – all things that the UK Ordnance Survey maps show as standard because of their origin as maps for the military. A paper map may not be necessary for finding your way around; but it remains an important document for reading and understanding the landscape itself.

Paperwork

With Google Docs and digital signatures becoming the norm, contracts, medical forms, and other documents will cease to exist in paper form.

Google Docs is far from the norm here in the UK. I would be suspicious of any contract that only existed in the Cloud, because I’m suspicious of any contract anyway (but then again, I’m one of these odd people who actually reads small print). As for medical forms, I’ve steered clear of schemes currently on offer where my medication prescriptions can be transferred electronically from doctor’s surgery to pharmacy, and then delivered to my door, because a) I live alone, and so would need delivery at odd times; and b) even if documents were transferred electronically for my collection at the pharmacy of my choice, it wouldn’t work for me because these schemes in the UK only work within single health authorities; but I live in one health authority’s area and work in another. So the system doesn’t work for me. Often, I find IT systems generally are devised according to ideal circumstances or a series of assumptions about users – who they are, where they live, work and shop, and what their personal circumstances are – which either don’t reflect real life or are of no use to edge cases. The thing is, at some time or another, we are all edge cases to somebody else…

Having said that, I’ve finally seen a use that I can relate to for tablets and pads, only about ten years after they came into use. (Carrying around paperwork for meetings.) This dinosaur may be for evolving, after all…

Fax machines

Let’s face it – fax machines should have disappeared long ago. Once paperwork goes, these dinosaurs are going, too.

Well, fix internet security first. Fax machines died out for most people by the late 1990s – but legal firms retained them because they were actually more secure than the Internet at that time. Yes, there were ways to hack them; but you had to know which machine you were aiming for first. People who hacked fax machines were probably just as likely to engage in physical measures to obtain information from premises anyway.

CDs

People rarely buy music anymore, much less in any physical form. Streaming services are the way of the future.

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Obviously, I’m not “people”.

DVD and Blu-ray players

Movie streaming services like Netflix are turning DVD and Blu-ray players into dust-collecting devices.

These two statements highlight most clearly the commodification of culture. Music and film becomes something to be consumed and discarded when something newer and more fashionable comes along. Only that which is new is valuable; that which is old is forgotten. Lecturers report that students of film and tv production have little or no knowledge of the history of the profession they are looking to follow. It is leading to a degree of contextual narcissism amongst students – and, by extension, amongst the professionals they will become – which means that each generation decides that content needs to be remade for each generation; tv shows and film franchises (and that word in itself is telling) are rebooted and films remade because the producers see commercial advantage in remaking something familiar rather than venturing to produce something truly new.

For me as someone with an interest in classical music, the CD format is ideal. Classical music fans were early adopters of the format because it offered advantages over LPs: mainly increased playing time and relative freedom from extra noise introduced by wear and tear on the record itself (clicks, pops and other transients caused by scratches). Classical music, written without consideration of the time restrictions of any given recording format, did not always fit easily onto LPs: a symphony might have to be spread unevenly over two or even three LP sides, leading to all sorts of compromises. Alternatively, longer works (Wagner operas, for instance) became far more convenient; sometimes, to get the correct split of acts, an opera might end up with one disc with less than twenty minutes playing time – not as bad as the days of 78rpm discs, but still an irritant if you were getting up to turn over sides every twenty minutes or so.

Someone once said that most classical recordings are cover versions: the option of having definitive recordings of a composer’s own vision for a piece only became possible in the 20th century, and (with the exception of things like the George Gershwin piano rolls of Rhapsody in Blue) were not really of acceptable sound quality until the microgroove record era from the late 1940s onwards. But the differences between performances in most classical pieces are minimal. So identifying a performance and establishing that performance with specific characteristics is difficult unless the listener has some other cue to separating, say, the Herbert von Karajan and Rudolf Kempe performances of a Richard Strauss tone poem, Unless the differences are considerable and highly memorable – like the section of Karajan’s recording of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) which sounds as if the entire percussion section of the orchestra has been kicked down a flight of stairs – even a keen enthusiast is not going to be able to keep track of which performance is which just from a list of works. Under these circumstances, the album sleeve or jewel box cover insert becomes relevant as a visual cue. And appreciation of the different interpretations or performances of a work takes time to establish. Streaming, with its emphasis on the new, doesn’t encourage repeat listening, which returning to a physical carrier facilitates.

Buying content on a physical carrier confers an element of ownership over the content; once in the hands of the purchaser, that person can, within reason, do as they like with the physical disc. Of course, that made piracy possible, and content owners’ efforts to combat that, to preserve the copyright owners’ privileges, are quite reasonable. But in shifting to downloadable files and on-demand streaming, the corporates standing behind the services get additional advantages. Firstly, they get an income stream from subscriptions. Free streaming services, whilst available, do not confer the same privileges as the paid-for version (otherwise, what would be the point of the paid-for service?); and with any service, the content provider and owner retains the licence for distribution. The end consumer isn’t purchasing a copy of the content (where files are downloaded); rather, they are purchasing a licence to access that content at will, subject to its continuing availability. Content providers retain the right to amend or withdraw the content at any time, and there have been instances where this has happened. It’s interesting to see that the original article didn’t claim that books would go a similar way. Five years ago that claim would have been made with the rise of the Kindle and similar ebook readers. But the limitations of the format, the issue of licensing versus purchase, and the limited number of ebooks available in comparison to the number of books actually published meant that the traditional book has weathered the e-publishing storm. The traditional book is portable, needs no power source, is comparatively cheap to produce and is eminently tradable; and when faced with the ebook, print publishers, just as magazine publishers did (as I said earlier) improved the quality of the physical book, with better paper and changes to format. The mass-market paperback in the UK is now universally offered in the larger, ‘B’ format, as opposed to the smaller ‘A’ format that was the case from the emergence of mass-market paperbacks in the 1940s and 50s.

Getting bills in the mail

Getting bills in the mail is already becoming a thing of the past with online payment methods and apps. Soon, you’ll be able to pay all of your bills through a few clicks on a computer or taps on your phone.

I’ll give you this one (95% of the time).

Calculators

Most phones have a calculator built in, reducing the need for this clunky device that only does one job.

Assuming that you don’t come from the generation that was taught to do mental arithmetic (said the old man), serious and rapid number-crunching is easier on a more clunky device. Touchscreen buttons lack feedback and slow down number input.

Alarm clocks

Most phones have an alarm clock, stopwatch, and timer built in, too.

Having had occasions where various forms of electronic alarm clocks have failed through power issues or through just not being loud enough, I’m increasingly seeing the old-fashioned wind-up mechanical alarm as the solution to a whole lot of early-morning rising issues. The louder, the better.

Analog watches

Smart watches may not be ready to overtake smartphones yet, but it’s looking like they’re going to replace analog watches.

Yeah, right. The way digital watches were going to replace analogue dials back in the 1970s. This looks like a statement issued by the makers of smart watches to try to talk up the market.

Landlines

2016 was the first year that a majority of American homes did not have a landline, according to the Center for Disease Control, and more than 70% of all adults aged 25-34 were living in wireless-only households. Home phone numbers are on their way out.

Again, a statement being pushed by mobile manufacturers. It does not account for households which are located in areas where mobile coverage is inadequate or insufficient. I live in such an area as I am in the shadow of a hill which blocks out mobile signals. And I don’t live in an isolated property by any stretch of the imagination. In rural areas, even if there is good mobile reception, the number of available lines may still be quite small and the capacity of local cells may be reached and then exceeded very quickly.

Emergency services advise that households should always have access to a landline because they are not subject to power or reception issues.

Pay phones

AT&T announced that it was leaving the pay phone market back in 2007. Everyone has cell phones these days anyhow.

My inner dinosaur brands this as capitalist claptrap. Just because a company cannot make money from a thing doesn’t mean that it should not be provided. And the arrogance of any statement that starts with “everyone has….” just highlights more “can’t be bothered” attitudes from people who only want to justify their position on a thing, rather than to consider possible scenarios and solutions to those problems. There will always be times when the mobile phone isn’t available or isn’t functioning.

Buttons on phones

The iPhone X, released on November 3, 2017, was the first iPhone to ditch the home button, and some Android models have already gotten rid of them.

I’ll grant you this one as well.

Reference books

With the internet at our fingertips at all times, dictionaries and encyclopedias are no longer necessary.

Another example of the arrogance of the IT journalist. It’s based on the lazy habit of checking things on Wikipedia. Now, I use Wikipedia fairly often, and it’s highly useful. But it isn’t the only source of information; and as stuff gets more complex, the “one answer for any question” approach becomes less appropriate. It is this approach which is plunging governments and organisations into making poor decisions on complex matters because they prefer the simple, discrete answer over the more complicated explanation. Reliance on the single answer to any problem also allows the rise of demagogue politicians who offer simplistic, biased solutions to national problems. Reducing any question to a matter of a few simple facts is getting students unused to analysing questions and weighing different opinions to arrive at their own interpretations of events. The internet has the potential to destroy critical thinking.

Checkbooks

With innovations like online banking and Apple Pay, writing out checks is already a chore. The future of finances is definitely digital.

Again, a statement that could have been sponsored by Apple. It also reflects the specifically American situation of not having a national network of large national clearing banks. UK banks tried to eliminate cheques some five to ten years ago. There was immense pushback from consumers who wanted to retain a simple way of transferring funds to friends, relatives, charities or small organisations. The banks had to cancel those plans. In particular, clubs and societies often still find cheques to be the easiest way for members to pay their fees because of the way that cheques can be sent securely through the post. A society that is comprised entirely of volunteer members is not going to have its own corporate mobile phones, and the banks charge unrealistic amounts for the use of EPOS (electronic point-of-sale) terminals. In the real world, people’s needs for financial transactions don’t always fall into easy categories.

Passwords

Apple debuted FaceID this year, while Microsoft’s Windows Hello facial recognition system has been in place since 2015. Forget letters, numbers, and special characters – biometric passwords will be the norm.

Apart from our biometric features being online and presumably capable of being mined from public sources, I’ve met my doppelganger and I’ve been shown a photograph of another body double. Are we all as unique as we’d like to think we are?

Remote controls

You won’t have to search for the remote or replace its batteries when voice commands and smartphone controls become widespread ways to operate your devices.

Headphones with cords

From Apple’s AirPods to Bluetooth headphones, the headphone jack’s days are numbered.

Charger cables

Chargers are also going wireless with charging pads entering the scene.

All of which are dependent on us all buying new stuff all the time. Quite apart from the dependency that forces us into, it would be nice if economies were expanding sufficiently to allow wages to start outstripping inflation instead of the other way around. Then we might be able to afford all the bright shiny new toys.

Parking meters

Parking meters are being turned into art since paying for parking can be done via app in most places.

My experience of using mobile phones to pay for parking in the UK has been problematical, to say the least. The main issue is that I’m not a regular user of any one car park, so each time I’ve gone to use such a system, it’s been a one-off and (quite often) I’ve been in a hurry as well. What I’ve found is that voice recognition to input the car registration works badly, misrecording input due to accent, whether or not I have a cold, and ambient noise from surrounding traffic; information signs are vandalised or badly lit at night, and so difficult to read; and when I’ve contacted helplines to say “I can’t make your system work”, the response from “Customer Service” has been to say “I can’t take your payment over the phone”. Fortunately, salvation may be at hand with the rise of contactless payment systems, which are far simpler than downloading apps and only put me in hock to one giant corporation instead of two or three.

Delivery workers

In 2016, the White House predicted that nearly 3.1 million drivers in the workforce could have their jobs automated. Already, Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery service is bringing packages to customers in 30 minutes or less.

The subtext here is that employees are part of the problem, not part of the solution. And saying that “new technology will create more jobs than it destroys” may be true in the long run, but it isn’t going to help those whose jobs disappear keep food on the table. And I suspect that the number of delivery drivers who successfully retrain as systems developers is never going to be all that high. So who then will be able to afford to buy stuff from Amazon in the first place?

Car keys

BMW already has an app that allows car owners to unlock their doors without using a key, and they announced in September that they’re considering completely replacing car keys with mobile phone apps.

There has been a sudden outbreak of “relay theft”:

https://www.contracthireandleasing.com/car-leasing-news/relay-car-theft-what-is-it-and-how-can-you-avoid-it/

Using your mobile to unlock and start your car only pushes the problem one step further down, especially as mobile security appears equally vulnerable.

Travel agencies

There were 124,000 full-time travel agents in the US in 2000. In 2014, that number went down to 74,000. While a human touch definitely makes booking travel less of a headache, the convenience of the internet is narrowing the field.

These are very US-centric numbers; like the UK, those numbers reflect the impact of the global financial crisis as much as the rise of online tour booking. The UK equivalents suggest that travel agent numbers bottomed out at 59,289 in 2013 (a nine-year low) and had recovered to 66,224 in 2015. The recovery was forecast to continue during 2016 to come close to the pre-recession total of 69,471 in 2008. (http://www.travelweekly.co.uk/articles/60671/number-of-agents-and-tour-operators-return-to-pre-recession-levels) Given that the UK population of some 63 million is nearly a fifth of the US population of about 309 million, the fact that there are nearly as many travel agents in the UK as the US, and that their numbers didn’t show the same decline over the period in question, should demolish that argument. We won’t even mention the number of Americans who do not travel.

Textbooks

Paper textbooks are expensive and heavy, not to mention they often become obsolete after a few years when new discoveries require updated editions. According to Scholastic, higher education has already begun to pivot to e-textbooks.

I’m not a complete Luddite, so I might well accept this one. But see my comments above about there not being the “one Internet answer” to every question.

Paper receipts

CVS receipts are so long they’ve become a meme. But even they have begun offering digital receipts. Many vendors already send receipts via email, so it won’t be long until it’s the new standard.

Try that one on the store detective next time you walk out of a shop without a receipt.

-oOo-

I’m not trying to go back to a mythical Golden Age when we paid for our gramophone records by cheque, signed with a fountain pen, and then dropped off a film for developing at the chemists before picking up the evening paper on the way home. And I do make my living by testing IT software, much of which is increasingly going to be based on mobile technology. But so much of this headlong rush to the automated future seems driven by the groupthink of an industry wanting to expand its market and seizing on information from early adopters to justify their position. And in a Britain supposedly realigning its business stance to look outwards to a wider world, I worry that Brexit might be coming too late for us to be anything other than ‘also-rans’ in the global digital economy.

Written by robertday154

December 9, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Probe probare

with one comment

Which is the motto of the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, where the Ministry of Defence test new military aircraft and where the Empire Test Pilots’ School is located – “To test properly”.

Capture

[Image courtesy of the RAF Historical Trust.]

-oOo-

The BBC Radio 4 afternoon current affairs programme PM has started a new thread this past week, “Will your job be replaced by a robot?”. (Their definition of ‘robot’ is quite wide; what they actually mean is ‘Artificial Intelligence’, which can come in a number of different packages, very few of them – currently – robot-shaped.) Their overall thrust is that within twenty years, very many professional and middle-management jobs will be replaced by AI systems.

We’ve been here before. In the 1960s, the watchword was “automation”. Automated systems were not in any way ‘intelligent’, but they were beginning to replace a number of manual and skilled jobs. Big teams of workers with shovels were replaced by excavators; farm workers were replaced by specialised attachments to tractors; skilled machine workers were replaced by numerically-controlled lathes and drilling machines. In engineering terms, this was about the advance of miniaturisation, from mechanical or electro-mechanical automation systems, to transistorisation, then integrated circuits (ICs), large-scale integration (LSI), very large scale integration (VLSI) and then the microprocessor revolution. In each case, the devices got smaller, faster and cheaper; and humans got ever more ingenious at identifying new situations where these devices could be applied to both systems and machines.

At some point in the late 1970s, this effect crossed over from physical activities and started to appear in knowledge and information systems. Libraries began to see the arrival of computer systems, first for complex technical searching, then for cataloguing, and finally the knowledge itself was no longer confined to the pages of books and journals. Thinkers in what was then called ‘library science’ talked of the ‘information explosion’ and how librarians would be essential in almost every kind of organisation to help guide professionals through the jungle of printed information sources to drill down to the information they needed to run their organisations or plan their products.

Economic and political factors, and then the Internet, killed this off big time. In part, this was down to the librarians not realising that people didn’t want all the information, or even the right information. They would be happy with the most useful information at that point in time, which was a subset of each of those two other things.

Meanwhile, as the impact of computers grew in the daily life of more and more people, pundits began to debate the issue. There was a joke in the late 1980s which suggested that there was a new sort of party game. When any group of computer scientists or employment experts or economists got together, one of them would name a number – say five million – and the rest would take it in turns to explain why the new generation of microprocessor-driven computers would cause either the loss or creation of that many jobs. Oh how we laughed (or forecast doom, depending on where we were standing at the time).

At the time, of course, it was easier to see how many jobs were being destroyed by any given change – say, in mining or manufacturing. My father left his job designing and implementing signalling schemes on the railways because he was being asked to design schemes that put people out of work by doing away with mechanical signalling systems that needed lots of maintenance and signal boxes roughly every three miles along every railway line, staffed 24/7. Multiply that effect across the entire economy and you see a massive loss of jobs.

Economists see it differently, of course. A study done in 2015 suggested that the march of technology since the mid-19th century had created far more jobs than it had destroyed (see http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/aug/17/technology-created-more-jobs-than-destroyed-140-years-data-census). But that’s little comfort to those who lost their jobs as a part of this historical shift, and either never worked again or had to take on different jobs that paid less, or caused major upheaval in their lives. Mass unemployment started in the mid-1970s and is only beginning to work its way out of the system forty years later; little wonder that there are places where unemployment has become generational, or where individuals feel that “the system” is loaded against them. Meanwhile, political demagogues try to exploit this by promising a return to the “good old days” which they are unable or unwilling to deliver.

-oOo-

And so it is with me. I started out in life with an ambition to be a librarian, mainly because I was staggered at the amount of sheer knowledge that there was tied up in even a small public library in an unremarkable English mill town and I wanted to work with that and help others explore it. That came to nothing as society decided that libraries and people who knew their way around them were increasingly outdated and an unaffordable luxury – the first time I was called that, but not the last.

Then I went into the Civil Service, but a succession of governments decided that the Service was part of the problem, not part of the solution. And whilst I gravitated into an interesting arm of government, I was left behind as managerial thinking shifted away from ideas about how best to run a service and get the best out of people, towards a more delivery-based model which didn’t demand the best, only those most effective at meeting specific and very focussed targets. Of my own excursion into self-employment, I’ve said quite enough already in this blog. And so, at the suggestion of a friend who was in IT, I moved into software testing, because it was what I’d spent fifteen years doing and I seemed to be sufficiently good at it so as to add value to the proposition (no matter what later employers might think). But even then, it’s been an interesting exercise so far to try to keep up with the technological wave-front, which seems to move on to something new every six months or so.

Given that it’s how I make my living nowadays, it should therefore come as little surprise that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the whole question of testing computer software.  I started out testing software more than twenty years ago back in Ofwat, where shortly after the first exercise to reset price limits, I was given the job of devising the new format for our data collection tool. This consisted of a number of paper forms asking for numbers to be put into boxes; and for those companies at the leading edge of the technological revolution, they could have the same form as a computer spreadsheet. Very quickly, the spreadsheet version became the de facto standard.

As our requirements grew, the spreadsheet became more complex and needed input from systems developers to make it work. And I was given the task of testing it, because I had designed it and so was the key person who knew what it was supposed to do. (This isn’t good testing practice, of course, but we were rather feeling our way on this one at the time.)

Fast-forward to today and I am now working as a professional tester in a specialist software house, as regular readers will know. The difference between this job and previous test roles that I’ve had is that my colleagues have been active in the testing community for some little while, so they have introduced me to various on-line resources, conferences, podcasts and meetups. Now, this sort of community is something I can relate to. Firstly, being IT-related, the overall structure is a bit like science fiction fandom, something else I’ve mentioned before in these posts. The nature of the beast is such that sf fans were early adopters of computers and often worked with them; and that, in turn, led to many elements of the IT community bearing a distinct resemblance to sf fandom, including (some maintain) the whole structure of the Internet itself.

Secondly, it also bears a bit of resemblance to some of my trade union activities – conferences, training courses, seminars and so on. So again, it’s a world I’m comfortable with, especially as with Ofwat having been a heavy user and early adopter of IT systems at an individual level, I had some input to forming Ofwat staff rules, terms and conditions for the use of desktop IT equipment and services and then rolling these out via national forums as examples of best practice. Those forums in turn fed into national-level consultations which eventually influenced the creation of the Cabinet Office guidance to all Government Departments on desktop IT use. (Sadly, one of the knock-on effects of the 9/11 attacks was that the security services took over managing the definition and imposition of workplace IT usage and management standards and the guidance I helped create and promulgate was dropped for something more stringent.)

My current employer is also quite supportive of staff accessing external training and forums for personal development, which is quite refreshing given that my previous employer considered professional IT staff to be part of their problem, not the solution.

-oOo-

Two things have triggered this post: firstly, I had an issue with my usual supermarket over the mechanism for getting hold of my loyalty scheme vouchers before paper ones are actually sent out to me; and secondly, a software tester’s website has declared me to be their User of the Month because of the various contributions I’ve made to their discussion threads.

In the past year I have begun to have a problem with the issue of my loyalty scheme’s “conditional” (‘get £X off when you spend more than £Y’) money-off vouchers. I get paid on the 24th of each month and time my major grocery shopping accordingly. But I began to find that vouchers were being sent out in the week following my major shop; and the fact that there are additional vouchers for successive weeks is no help, as my top-up shops never reach the minimum spend value. And the last voucher always expires in the week before I get paid again.

So this month, I decided to use an in-store customer terminal to print out vouchers rather than wait for printed ones to come through the post. To use the terminal, first I had to scan my loyalty card. Except that the store had recently updated the cards to introduce contactless use and replace the barcode on the card with a QR code. Eventually, I had to ask an assistant to show me exactly how to log in with the card. Of the three methods available on the terminal – inserting the card in a reader, using a laser scanner to read the card, and swiping the magnetic strip, only the swipe reader worked for my updated card. The other two methods were now obsolete. How quaint, I thought.

But then nothing happened. It turned out that I had to tap the display screen after swiping my card. There was nothing on the display to say “Touch screen to start”.

Then I had to enter the first line of my address and my postcode to verify that I was the legitimate card-holder. There were two fields on the screen, with the insert point in the first field, and a green ‘Next’ arrow bottom right pointing off-screen. I entered the first line of my address and then tapped the screen to move the pointer into the second field. That did not work.

By trial and error, I found that I had to use the ‘Next’ arrow to move the insert point into the second field, even though it looked as though that arrow was only there specifically to move to the next screen.

And finally, the system refused to accept my address, despite multiple attempts to enter it using different permutations, such as “Flat 2”, “No.2″ and so on. My address appears differently in different postcode databases, and it actually turns out that what was I was actually supposed to enter was a misspelt version of the property name. Eventually, the system timed out, and after two attempts I gave up as I was wasting my time trying to access my vouchers. And so I had to pay full price for my basket of shopping, missing out on a £15 discount.

As far as I can see, the issue with the loyalty scheme customer terminal is that the system has been subjected to automated testing – testing that uses computing power to run tests by hitting the system’s code with expected inputs and recording the actual outputs, flagging them as Pass or Fail to the tester. But it does not appear to have been subjected to any sort of rigourous testing by a human being, someone who has taken the role of a user and tested the application from the user’s point of view. I said as much when I wrote to the supermarket’s CEO.

The company’s view of my complaint was illuminating. They admitted that their customer terminals were obsolete and said that they were shortly going to be removed and replaced by a smartphone app. But in any case, I couldn’t have accessed my money-off conditional vouchers through that terminal anyway, which came as news to me as they had never suggested that on the signage in-store. Given that I’m sufficiently old-fashioned to not live through my mobile phone – and as I live in a signal dropout spot, with no reception at all, I’m unlikely to get any further onto the grid than I already am – I can’t see me extending my participation in the loyalty scheme. I’ve commented on this sort of thing on another blog just today; the coming spread of AI and the Singularity where all our daily transactions are going to be dependent on close conformity with a range of IT systems does not bode well when many people’s experience of such systems is “the computer says no” and entirely legal workarounds and short-cuts are blocked, not through security but through simply not being written into the code.

(Testuff blog)

Sadly, this is getting to be nothing unusual. Customer-facing IT applications are becoming ubiquitous, but the extent to which they are customer-friendly varies according to how much thought has gone into their specification, design and testing. Meanwhile, many companies are jumping onto the bandwagon of automated testing, seeing it as a way of reducing the time taken to test a new feature or product and deploy it to the real world. The very name “automated testing” brings a smile to the faces of accountants everywhere, because “automated” implies the absence of human intervention, or at the very least its reduction. And humans are perhaps the most expensive thing in corporate budgets, so when your philosophy is that the aim of a company is to maximise shareholder value rather than to make a better product or offer a better service, automating testing has obvious attractions. And so you end up with situations like the one I found myself in at the supermarket.

-oOo-

“Test all of the things” is one slogan that the testing community has; advocates of better profits through automation counter with “Automate all of the things”. But you just can’t do that and expect your systems to work when they are released into the Real World. People will use – or attempt to use – computer systems in ways that the designers may never have thought of. An experienced tester will try to explore all the ways humans can break things, and either suggest ways that a system can be designed so that it doesn’t break, or suggest ways that the system might break elegantly and not either throw the user out or just lock them into a dead-end of “the computer says no”. The tester will never find all the ways that a user can break a system; the hope is that they will find the most obvious ways and will be able to suggest ways of mitigating user actions.

Of course, no system can ever be 100% bug-free; all a tester can hope for is to find all the worst ones – the ones that are either embarrassing or potentially fatal. Systems can be in place for years before specific combinations of circumstance and input can cause it to fail; subsequent upgrades or modifications may cause errors elsewhere in the system that weren’t foreseen, which is why a clever software producer will from time to time engage in what is called ‘regression testing’ – that is, a battery of tests to make sure that modifications to the software haven’t made it regress to an earlier state – usually a state of “not working properly”.

And here is the similarity between software testers and test pilots. When a new aeroplane is first built, it is handed over to the test pilots – but their job isn’t to flip all the switches to see if they work properly. That’s something done on the production line, and although flipping the switches to make sure they work is a testing task, it’s not the job of a test pilot. Rather, a test pilot is the person who takes the aeroplane up to ensure that it flies properly and safely, that its performance meets the original specification, that it can complete its roles and missions safely and within the design limits, and who establishes the limits of what is called the “flight envelope” – so called because it refers to a mathematical contruct defined by how fast an aeroplane can fly, how slowly it can fly without falling out of the air, how low it can fly and how high. Test pilots refer to this as “pushing the envelope” (those who enjoyed the film The Right Stuff will remember these words), a phrase whose re-use (and mis-use) by people who don’t understand it has been a source of amusement to me for many years. (One respected company of financial consultants and accountants actually had a column in their house magazine entitled Pushing the Envelope and illustrated it with a little graphic of people pushing an unfeasibly large envelope up a hill, in the mistaken idea that the term merely referred to something that was intrinsically difficult.)

So to me, a software tester is someone whose primary role is to improve software products before they go out of the door by doing a number of different things:

  • Participating in the design process by casting an experienced eye over proposed products, challenging assumptions made about users and their behaviour, and thinking about how the product should be tested;
  • Collaborating with developers and product owners during the build process in an on-going challenge process;
  • Arranging for the quality assurance of the product at various stages in its development by helping to make sure that the application works as expected; and
  • Test-driving early prototypes to see if the application does what it is supposed to, to find out the best way of using it, to critically appraise the end result, and to help those who have to write user instructions to understand what the application does, how it works and (sometimes more importantly) why it works. In this last function, the tester is standing in for the end user, reviewing the product with a view to seeing if it can be improved in any way. This in turn feeds back into the design process; software goes through different versions, (hopefully) ‘upgrades’, through user feedback and the process of fixing bugs and implementing new features. At least with computer software, the old corporate mantra of “we are continually striving to improve our products” is more likely to actually be true…
This list is not exhaustive.
The second prompt for this post, as I said, was that a software testing website – ministryoftesting.com, which models itself on the iconic London nightclub Ministry of Sound (“…as I understand from conversations with the Young People, m’Lud”) looked at my contributions to various discussion threads and declared me to be their User of the Month. As a part of this accolade, I was awarded my choice of merchandising from their online store; not being a wearer of branded apparel, I plumped for a coffee mug bearing the statement “It doesn’t work on MY machine”. This post’s ever-increasing length is in part down to my waiting for the mug to arrive so I could be photographed with it, and thinking of more stuff to write in the meantime; although Ministry of Testing is based in Brighton, the mug is actually supplied by a company in the USA, so it took a week to ‘manifest’ itself in the shipper’s export depot in East Rutherford, NJ, from where it will set out on its epic trans-Atlantic voyage to Coventry. Ominously, the shipper’s tracking site advises me that the last mile delivery is going to be in the hands of Yodel, a courier firm with a reputation for delivering consignments in CKD form (another 1960s acronym that some may need to look up).
(Later: tracking the mug throws up more interesting examples of inadequate software testing. I checked the site and was greeted with this graphic:
Capture Mug 1
The package had successfully crossed the Atlantic to a distribution hub, from where it was sent to the nearest depot (Leamington Spa). But the map software interpreted ‘Leamington’ to refer to a street in the Farmington Hills suburb of Detroit… I know Yodel drivers are on piecework rates, so a van driver in Leamington Spa (UK) is unlikely to be all that happy with a delivery round that includes Detroit, especially if he can’t do any drop-offs en route
Back in the Real World, it seems that delivery was attempted on a Saturday, when the office is closed; not so unreasonable as it sounds, as there are plenty of companies who do work 24/7, though when faced with an obvious commercial address to deliver to,  a quick phone check first might have saved a driver coming out of their way. It finally arrived, safe and sound, five days after despatch. It was actually made in Thailand, so it seems to have travelled half-way around the world to get to me.)
Rob Day

The mug arrives. (And my award.) [Photo: CELCAT]

Another blogger on testing who I follow has this as his mission statement: “I believe … software that sucks is a mental threat.” He then declares that testing is his business, though he has also said that he considers himself to be in the mental health profession by helping make software better. I suspect that as we get closer and closer to that Singularity, this attitude will become more widespread. I can relate to that. It’s nice to think that helping people preserve a state of mental well-being through limiting their contact with sucky software is something that can be identified as a boon to society.

Written by robertday154

November 15, 2017 at 10:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Nineteen Seventeen

with 2 comments

One of the more unlikely books in my collection is a 1916 textbook for the teaching of the Russian language in English schools. It is of interest because of the selection of useful words and phrases that the English traveller in Tsarist Russia might need. This book tells us that the Russian word for ‘footman’ is ‘lackey’. And the phrases that are presented for translation exercise paint a very telling picture:

“Where were you yesterday?” “Yesterday, I was on Mr. K’s estate.” “Was Miss N there?” “No, she was at the Princess D’s.”
“They wash all their children with cold water.”
“They demand money from my brother, but he does not want to give them it.”
“How many children have you?” “We have no children, all our children are dead.”
“Why did your son not go to the school to-day?” “Because he has no boots.”
“Your footman broke all our china.”
“I should never be able to speak with two thousand peasants.”

Some phrases sound like exchanges in an interrogation:

“Who are these gentlemen?” “I do not know, but I think they are foreigners.”
“They say they saw your mother in the town.”
“What are you busy with?” “Who told you that I am busy?”
“Where did you see my wife?”
“He was asking this gentleman about the details of your case.”

If this Kafka-eque picture gets too much, it is useful to know how to say: “Death will liberate us from all our trouble and worry.”

And the book has this useful and prophetic phrase: “This is the year 1917.”

I was reminded about this because the centenary of the October Revolution has spurred some attention in the media and some recent books on the subject have become quite widely discussed. I’ve been reading China Miéville’s October, which I was looking forward to because a) Miéville is a writer I admire, and b) he identifies very clearly with the Left. As a leftist writer, Miéville’s position might be assumed to be uncritical; but this is not the case. Reviewers have generally welcomed his book, whilst having some criticisms about the form, or the style. Perhaps the most critical reviews have come from those further to the Left than the author, who take him to task for not being sufficiently dedicated to the Cause, or for not addressing issues which they believe he should have done and which are on their personal list of bogeys, but which are actually well outside the remit of the book.

512iL-h8DjL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_

Miéville’s aim was not to attempt any historical or political assessment of the October Revolution and its place in world history or politics; rather, his aim was to place the story and events of October 1917 before a wider readership and recount that story for those who have heard of it but may not have looked in detail at Revolutionary Petrograd before. After a short piece of historical scene-setting, he recounts the story of the October Revolution on a month-by-month basis, starting with the abdication of the Tsar in February and ending with the overthrow of Kerensky’s Provisional Government in October and the subsequent establishment of Soviet rule under the leadership of V.I. Lenin.

The book is written in a lively, novelistic style, though some level of background knowledge is helpful. I was broadly familiar with the events of October and the broad chronology of the year from books like John Reed’s Ten days that shook the world and films like Sergei Eisenstein’s October 1917 (though it should be noted that there was more damage done to the Winter Palace during the filming of October than there ever was during the actual revolution). And my To Be Read pile includes a number of histories of the October Revolution and afterwards, from a range of writers on all sides of the debate, from Leon Trotsky and Tariq Ali to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and  Richard Pipes. But Miéville’s book is perhaps the most detailed account of pure events that has been assembled from contemporary accounts by a writer with some degree of overview of and insight into the various factions and fractions involved.

For this is perhaps the first key observation: that in February 1917, none of the three leading personalities that the world thinks of when you say the words “Russian Revolution” – Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin – were even in the country. Instead, there were a range of players whose names are now mere footnotes to history. And the Bolsheviks – often thought of as a minority who manipulated events and who were responsible for the overthrow of the Tsar – were actually one of a number of different political groupings who were not always ahead of events as the year unfolded. The vast majority of those groupings were of different degrees of Left-ness; even Aleksander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government eventually overthrown in October, and the figure most ridiculed and derided in later Soviet accounts and in Eisenstein’s film in particular, was from a specific faction of one of Russia’s Socialist parties.

And secondly: this was not a revolution that sprang out of a small group of conspirators. From the very beginning in February, revolution was in the air and the Leftist political parties had mass membership amongst workers, peasants and soldiers. It was the very fact that Tsarist Russia was a highly militarised society, with regiments and garrisons in towns and cities giving large numbers of the population comparatively easy access to weapons that enabled an armed insurrection to become a likely outcome.

There is also a popular misconception that the Bolsheviks had a grand strategy, an over-arching Plan to seize power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly all the way up to the final insurrection at the end of October, Lenin, the Bolshevik Central Committee and their Military Organisation and its successors were reacting to events and certainly were not in control of them. From the very outset and his return to Russia via the famous “sealed train” in April, Lenin in particular had no idea what sort of situation he was walking into. The state of communications meant that whilst in exile, he was out of touch with events and had no way of gauging how things were happening on the ground day by day, no capacity for judging the reaction of the proletariat masses on the streets. He had to improvise; indeed, when Lenin stepped off the train in the Finland Station, he was half expecting to be arrested and imprisoned if not executed. And the counter-Revolution in July was a massive setback for the Bolsheviks that they were not expected to survive. Lenin had to go into hiding again, and all the way up to the eve of the revolution he had various encounters with the authorities where he could have been arrested had he simply been recognised.

If Lenin had any plan, it was to hope that a revolution in Russia would trigger revolutions across the rest of Europe; he felt that the historical moment had arrived where the route to Communism and thence to full socialism was open to all of Europe’s workers. In the event, Russia remained the only successful revolution; the later revolutions in Germany and Hungary in 1919 were short-lived, even though the German revolution did lead to the Weimar Republic.

With our post-Cold War perspective, we find it difficult to understand the attractions that socialism held for the mass of people. But in 1917-20, conditions in eastern Europe were harsh; the war had taken its toll on societies and Russia in particular was struggling to emerge from feudalism and absolute monarchical rule. Marxism had seized the imagination of both its adherents and opponents; for many, it represented a new way of looking at society which held out hope of alleviating the harsh conditions of the time, whilst for the Establishments of many nations, Marxism represented an existential threat to the established order of things. And Marxism set great store on organisation, education and democratic participation – all exciting concepts to working people around the world. The coming socialist utopia seemed just that: a promise that tomorrow would be materially and tangibly better than today.

For a brief window in time, the October revolution promised these things to the people of Russia. Not only was the Bolshevik ideology new, but it drew in new thinkers on a range of subjects and it used new directions in film, art and popular culture to appear fresh and exciting. Constructivism led to dynamic forms appearing as posters in the popular environment; at last, art and education would be open to all and available to all. Bringing Russian involvement in the war to an end promised peace; and the aim of building the new socialist state meant that working people could look forward to a brighter future. Indeed, the new state drew on Russian thinkers like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, pioneer of spaceflight theory, and the emergent technologies of radio, film and aviation to promise a world of wonders.

Of course, it didn’t last. But Miéville’s thesis, which he suggests in the epilogue to October, is that the Civil War and the involvement of hostile interventionist foreign troops set the new Soviet state on the road towards repression and tyranny in the name of security. Lenin did not necessarily lead to Stalin; but Stalin’s reaction to the Civil War, his paranoia, his feud with Trotsky and the creation of a bureaucracy loyal to Stalin as a consequence did lead to the totalitarian state that the Soviet Union became. It took time; for many, the optimistic dream of the socialist future faded slowly and indeed had a brief rebirth and blossoming in the 1950s during the Khrushchev era as the planned economy briefly started to provide Soviet citizens with the material prosperity they had long been promised.

Indeed, the dream lasted far longer than it possibly had a right to, even at the height of Stalin’s terror. There are anecdotes of inmates of the gulags crying when the news of Stalin’s death broke in 1953; earlier, there was the case of the aircraft designer, Vladimir Petlyakov. Petlyakov was a successful aircraft designer working in the Tupolev design bureau; but in 1937 he was arrested along with Tupolev and many other engineers on trumped-up charges of sabotage and espionage. After two years in prison, he was moved to a “special labour camp”, one of a number of establishments run by the NKVD for high-achieving professionals, where he was tasked with designing a high-altitude fighter aircraft. This he successfully and, one gathers, enthusiastically did. Perhaps a more notable case was Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Union’s ‘Chief Designer of Rockets’, who was arrested in 1938 in part of the purges at the Central Jet Propulsion Research Institute; in Korolev’s case, he had actually been diverting official funds away from authorised projects to fund his own research on rockets. After six years in prison, Korolev was pulled out of incarceration to bring his knowledge to bear on material captured from the Germans. Within a few years, he was leading Russian rocketry research along different paths to the Germans but with enough backing from the State to deliver world-beating leads in launching Sputnik I (1957) and Vostok-1, which wrote Yuri Gagarin into history as the first man in space (1961). These achievements made Korolev such a high-value individual to the state that his identity was a closely-guarded secret until after his death in 1966.

And then there was the case of the composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Born in 1906 in Petrograd, he was without any doubt a child of the Revolution; yet in later years he fell foul of Stalin, especially because of Stalin’s fairly simplistic tastes in music, and only narrowly escaped being taken to the Gulag because his chief NKVD accuser was himself arrested and purged the night before he was due to arrest Shostakovich! Yet Shostakovich was happy to write pieces celebrating the iconic events of Soviet history and never considered leaving Russia even though he was lauded and would have been made very welcome in the West, where he had a number of friends in the musical community.

These cases, and many others, show that the dream that the October Revolution offered remained attractive to so many Russians even when the reality clearly fell short. These people were patriots; they wanted to work for the greater glory of Russia, despite what the leadership had done to them. Certainly, they wished for a better, more benevolent government; but it should be one that arose out of the country of itself, rather than being imposed from abroad. Many felt that the Soviet route to socialism was what made their country unique; and many Russians of the older generation look back with nostalgia to the Communist era because of the certainty, simplicity and comradeship that it offered, all the system’s faults notwithstanding. (You only have to consider the vast repository of Soviet-era jokes about the contemporary scene to appreciate this: one of my favourites is “Under capitalism, man exploits his fellow man; under Communism, it’s the other way around.”) That generation see the new market economy and consumerism as Western imports; in part, the popularity of Vladimir Putin is that he is aiming to redress the balance in favour of some specifically Russian virtues – love of country, Russian culture and a strong leader.

And as I said, for a period in the 1950s, the Russian economy was outperforming many other Western economies. As with most things, the facts are usually more complex than the shouty stuff on both sides implies.

What October and some of the other books I’ve mentioned tell us is that in the early years of the 20th Century, the time was right for some sort of overthrow, somewhere, of the Old Order. When a society gets thrown up in the air by a revolution, no-one can tell how and where the pieces will land; and all political events have unintended consequences. Had Lenin been arrested at any stage during 1917 – and this could have happened on at least three different occasions – it is possible that the October Revolution might not have happened, or it might have fizzled out in the way that the German Revolution did two years later. But when an idea’s time has come, that idea will take form, if not in one place then in another. The American novelist Eugene Byrne, working with British writer Kim Newman, wrote a series of stories set in an alternate history where the Bolshevik Revolution never happened in Russia, but instead was sparked off in the USA by Eugene Debs.

Many people say that the Communist experiment was never followed through to its conclusion, or that full socialism has never properly been tried. Be that as it may, we cannot change the history we have; the important thing is to learn from it. But if we only ever accept one interpretation of that history, we aren’t learning from it at all, simply deluding ourselves that our world-view is the one and only True Account. And that puts us at risk from others who have drawn different conclusions or have a different viewpoint. No ideas should ever be off the table.

-oOo-

Some other recommended reading:

Edmund Wilson: To the Finland Station

John Reed: Ten days that shook the world

Francis Spufford: Red Plenty

Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman: Back in the USSA

(And for anyone puzzled by the two pictures above, captioned ‘Lenin in Shropshire’, that statue can now be seen at the Cold War Museum at RAF Cosford – which is, indeed, in Shropshire.)

 

Written by robertday154

October 22, 2017 at 11:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Mr. Prostate

with one comment

Note: of necessity, this post will deal with fairly intimate personal and medical matters. But if you are a male over the age of fifty, or know a male over the age of fifty who you care about, I’d encourage you to read on.

After I got back from Hay, it wasn’t that long before I got a potentially nasty reminder about the progress of Time’s Winged Chariot. I began to notice some discolouration in what General Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove would have called one of his “vital bodily fluids”. I wasn’t in any pain, and I sort of assumed that this was probably the result of some sort of infection – I was feeling possibly one degree under the weather and was running a slight temperature – and it did clear up of its own accord after about ten days.

But two things happened after it cleared up. First, I became aware that my ability to produce a strong flow of urine had improved, which was a bit of a surprise because I hadn’t been aware of any problem in that area up until then. First it was OK, but then it got better. That’s a bit interesting.

Then I got a phone call from my doctor, asking me to go in to talk because my regular blood tests as a part of normal health screening had now shown up two successive PSA readings that were higher than normal. PSA – Prostate-Specific Antigen – is a protein produced by the prostate gland. Elevated levels of it can indicate a problem of some sort. Whilst the assumption that may be jumped to is that by ‘problem’ we mean ‘prostate cancer’, that is literally just an assumption. Statistically, 75% of high PSA readings are due to other causes. But 25% are not, and that’s too high a number to ignore.

So within a couple of days, I was having the conversation with my doctor, and he was telling me that he would be writing to the local hospital to refer me. What was really very heartening was that because of that 25% risk, the process would be fast-tracked and I should expect an appointment within two weeks.

It was actually closer to ten days from consultation to appointment; the letter itself arrived virtually by the next post. So it was that I had to make the journey to Leicester General Hospital, on the other side of the city to where I live.

The first appointment was fine; I saw a registrar (second-line consultant) who talked about case history (no previous history of prostate cancer in the family) and carried out a physical examination to check for any signs of testicular cancer (all clear); then he said that he’d still like to refer me to the consultant for a biopsy and endoscopy.

Again, everything moved fairly quickly, and soon I was going back to the General for the biopsy. For first-timers, this is the procedure that causes the most concern, because the process involves the surgeon using the endoscope to enter the body via the rectum and then penetrating the rectal wall to then snip small portions off the prostate gland itself. The process is done under local anaesthetic, and although there are no nerve endings in the prostate itself – one reason why for years prostate cancer was something that went undiagnosed until it was too late – if you start prodding it, you will feel something. I personally felt that the sensation was akin to that of using a hand-held stapler, and the pain was not as bad as having dental root canal work – except that the surgeon takes twelve samples during the process. I was also given a prophylactic antibiotic before the process, because (obviously) the route of entry is through possibly the most potentially infectious site in the body. In fact, the worst effects I had were nausea and dizziness from the antibiotic – oh, and the effects on my bowel of the invasiveness of the procedure.

I was told to expect results within two weeks and I would be called for a follow-up appointment. In fact, I never received the appointment; the first thing I knew was that I had a phone call from the hospital saying that I’d missed my follow-up. When I said I’d never received any appointment, which is why I’d missed it, I had a new appointment made there and then; again, for not too far away into the future. I assumed that this was going to be for a consultation with results.

Instead, when the confirmation letter arrived, I found that this was actually going to be for bladder endoscopy. Now, as a part of the Government’s “24-hour NHS” programme, this appointment was actually set for a Sunday morning, so off I went.

I saw the same consultant, who delivered the good news that the biopsies were all negative. Then we started the endoscopy. The camera – more accurately, the fibre-optic probe – is inserted through the urethra, this time with no anaesthetic; still not as unpleasant as a root canal, but certainly more so than the biopsy, especially as the end of the probe moves through the various sphincters that control urine flow. A few minute’s observation satisfied the consultant that there was nothing untoward to be seen; the camera was withdrawn, and it was “Thank you and goodbye” – the consultant was off through the door before I had time to gather any thoughts, leaving his assistants – two nurses, one male and the other female, to help me clean myself up and recover my composure. (Forget about my dignity. That went out of the window at the first consultation. And in any case, this is a bit like working on the production line at a chocolate factory, where they say you can eat as many chocolates as you like, secure in the knowledge that by the end of the first week, you’ll be sick of the sight of chocolate; you’ve got nothing that the health professionals haven’t seen before, and in any case, anticipation of the procedure tends to mean that impressing the ladies [amend as appropriate depending on your personal preferences] is pretty low on your body’s internal agenda and your physical manifestations respond accordingly…)

The consultant’s behaviour came as no surprise to me, as I’ve had quite a bit of professional contact with consultants in the past; they are dedicated individuals who are very focussed indeed on the condition they’ve specialised in; the patient is merely the conveyance that brings interesting cases to them. Once I’d proved to have nothing abnormal to be detected, I was of no more interest to the consultant and he was on to the next case. And I was fine with that. The consultant was personable enough before the procedure, and (just) polite enough afterwards. I took the immediate evaporation of his interest in me as a sign that he was a consultant of considerable experience and keen interest in his specialism, and that’s just what I’d want if things had turned out differently.

In retrospect, the worst thing about that visit was what happened next. Leicester General hospital is an old, sprawling establishment that has been added to a lot over the years; and as a result, I got lost trying to find my way out! I’d taken my sister’s advice to go and use the hospital restaurant for at the very least a hot drink to steady myself after the procedure; and it was in leaving the restaurant, which was off the direct route I’d followed from entrance to consulting suite, that I took a wrong turning. I then proceeded to wander around the hospital for a good thirty minutes, as the signage left a fair amount to be desired. What was more, with it being a Sunday, not all the out-patents’ departments were open, so some of the places I’d walked through on previous appointments were all locked and in darkness. I swear I walked past one bloke who was sat waiting twice…

Again, I had been supposed to attend a follow-up clinic a couple of weeks later, but never got an appointment letter, just a copy of the letter to my GP to say “Mr Day failed to attend my clinic on (date) and so I shall treat him as having discharged himself; but please note the results of his examination were…” I have to say that I did make a couple of telephone calls to complain about the tone of that letter when I had not received any letter or telephone call to tell me about that appointment; but that’s about the only complaint what I’ve got.

Britain’s NHS is the subject of massive political debate, both here and overseas. It is far from perfect in too many areas. It has to make compromises in decisions about funding and the allocation of resources. There are numerous instances of people who have legitimate cause to complain about the treatment they’ve received from the NHS. And it has to be said that the current Government’s long-term plans for the NHS are unclear about their direction of travel and the sort of NHS they want to see in the future. Many people do not trust the current Government with the NHS. Others believe that it needs to be swept away and replaced with a different model. Of course, the problem with that is how to get there from here. If we changed to a model based, say, on personal insurance paid over a working life, how do you continue to fund the treatment of those who won’t have time to pay sufficient into an insurance scheme before they need the services of the NHS, possibly in a very big way? Also, such schemes, especially those provided by employers, assume that you will stay with the same employer for a long period. Oddly, the people who advocate that system the most are often those who applaud the end of “the jobs for life culture” and promote the ideas of people – usually far further down the jobs ladder than themselves – having “portfolio careers”, or employers enjoying the “flexibility” to resize their workforces to match demand and supply (usually downwards). A moment’s thought will show that these are mutually exclusive objectives; but the politicians who make these sort of pronouncements work in the hope that no-one will ever notice that their ideas never join up.

And my experience of the insurance industry is that they will often try their hardest to avoid paying out on a claim. Anecdotal evidence I hear from the USA talks a lot about arguments with insurance companies over just what conditions are or are not covered by any particular policy, or at what point the insurance cover runs out.

All I can say is that I am glad that on this occasion, I was dealt with quickly, (mainly) efficiently, and with no other consideration other than getting me in front of a knowledgeable healthcare professional for a diagnosis. And my regular healthcare monitoring will be keeping an eye on this problem in future. This is what I pay my tax for, and given the seriousness of the situation if the diagnosis had not been so favourable, on balance I’m pleased that I do.

Written by robertday154

October 16, 2017 at 10:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized