Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Return to the Forbidden City

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About ten days ago, I posted on here about my attendance at TestBash, a conference for software testers held in Brighton. As I said in the post, that was my first testing conference (and very enjoyable and informative I found it, too), but certainly not my first conference in Brighton by any stretch of the imagination.

Apart from visits on family holidays, my first conference in Brighton was the 1979 World Science Fiction Convention, held over the August Bank Holiday in the Metropole Hotel. I’ve written about science fiction conventions before in this blog; but World Conventions (Worldcons for short) are something a bit different. Until comparatively recently, it was rare for them to leave the United States; prior to 1979’s convention, Seacon, the previous time the Worldcon had been held in the UK was Loncon II in 1965. Interestingly, I recollect Loncon II being reported in the Daily Mirror as though it was a (moderately) serious scientific conference; granted, I was only eight years old at the time, but the reporting seemed reasonably straight, if a little “silly season”, but not mocking in the way that later media accounts of sf conventions have tended to be.

I couldn’t afford to stay in the main convention hotel, so I was located in a hotel on the other side of Regency Square. I had a bedroom at the top of the hotel at the back, and I recollect that the window frame was sufficiently rotten for rain to come in through the frame timbers on my first night. I recollect little of the convention that I’m prepared to write about here, beyond:

  • attending a programme item in the Bedford Hotel a bit further along the seafront and sharing a lift with author Larry Niven on the way out
  • seeing the world premiére of the trailer for The Empire Strikes Back (once Gary Kurtz and Irvin Kershner were able to attach the special anamorphic lens for the widescreen format to the hired-in film projector)
  • watching my then girlfriend portray Supreme Commander Servalan from the BBC series Blake’s 7 in the convention masquerade and ending up on television myself when a BBC camera crew managed to get me in shot during the masquerade photo-call
  • wondering what all the fuss was about with this much-hyped film Alien that we were seeing so much advance publicity material for, including that August’s must-have accessory, Nostromo crew baseball caps
  • wandering by accident into the Science Fiction Writers of America suite whilst looking for someone and (despite their fearsome reputation for security) not getting thrown out because I obviously had the air of someone thinking Nah, no-one here I want to talk to
  • listening to a lot of people discussing this new radio show The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and hearing people wonder who this Douglas Adams bloke was, because he’d nailed some of the more ridiculous tropes of science fiction (especially television science fiction) so well that he was obviously some sort of insider; but no-one had ever heard of him, so the speculation was that it was a pseudonym for someone much more famous (of course, as fans of written literature, hardly anyone had previously spotted Adams’ name in the credits for Doctor Who – as script editor – a few years previously).

I came away with some additions to the book collection and a determination to attend more conventions.

I returned to Brighton in 1984, when the European Science Fiction Convention returned to the Metropole. This time I stayed in the hotel, in what appeared to be a broom cupboard. The impression of it being a broom cupboard wasn’t because of the size – anything but. It was a huge room on the fifth floor, where the corridor turned through 90 degrees away from the front of the building. My room was on that corner, and although it had one wall facing the sea, there were no windows in it. Instead, the windows were on the side wall, and what made me think the room had been storage at some point was the fact that the windowsills were six feet off the floor! To look out of the window, I had to stand on a central heating pipe; and then I was only able to peer over the windowsill. Otherwise, the room was perfectly well appointed, with all mod cons and a huge en suite bathroom. Frankly, I remember even less about this convention. The one thing I do remember is going out to eat with a friend and finding what we would now call a pop-up French restaurant actually on Regency Square. The proprietor was a French chef who was running an hotel’s kitchen for them; the hotel only offered breakfast, but they were allowing him to open the dining room of an evening at his own expense. The food was excellent, but there were very few customers; so after the meal, we got to chatting with the owner, and offered to take him back to the Metropole for a nightcap. We’d talked about why we were in Brighton, but the reality of a convention in full flow rather amazed this chap. He immediately saw the opportunity and sketched out a menu on the back of an envelope, said that if we could get twenty people together he’d do that menu for a fixed sum, and when could we come? We put up notices and spread the word, and on the Sunday night twenty people turned up at this restaurant and filled it. The shock was so much that the chef’s pregnant wife went into labour and he had to make a quick exit…

The convention must have been something of a success, though, because the world convention returned to Brighton and the Metropole Hotel in 1987. But that’s when things began to get a bit weird…

There had been a fireworks display on the sea front opposite the hotel; this had caused some consternation because the organisers wanted to put music on to accompany the fireworks, but the city council vetoed that. So the pyrotechnic engineers cheated a little and slightly increased some of the firework charges. The resulting display was deafening, with car alarms going off in a half-mile radius and some of the louder explosions echoing off buildings in the town.

Meanwhile, I had my second television appearance; this time, another BBC camera crew were filming in the convention’s art show and wanted some fans meeting friends they hadn’t seen for ages. So I was roped in to greet warmly some people who I’d spent the previous evening drinking with. This was unscripted, but I recollect that we had three takes before the director was satisfied. Of course, the broadcast footage looked incredibly staged.

And then there was the infamous (to those who knew about it) ‘hotel explorations’ of the late author Iain M. Banks, who took great delight in clandestinely going “behind the scenes” in the Metropole, just to see what was there. This later appeared as an episode in his novel Use of Weapons where his protagonist does likewise with a hotel – and more, engaging in climbing expeditions on the outside of the building, just for the fun of it…

But that was as nothing compared to the arguments going on behind the scenes in the hotel. There had been issues over some of the function rooms that had been booked and paid for; when the convention tried to use some of these rooms, they found that there were still painters and decorators in residence and some of the rooms were not ready – but the hotel did not seem to be interested in fulfilling their side of the contract. Then there were the attendees’ key cards. Most convention attendees received key cards marked with a green star. The reason for this was that it identified them as convention attendees as opposed to “proper” guests (convention room rates were usually lower than the hotel’s rack rates as part of the deal for filling the hotel and guaranteeing huge bar takings for three or four days; this was long before the Internet and getting the cheapest deal for your hotel room depending on who you book it through); and convention attendees were then not allowed to charge anything  to their room bills. And the hotel security staff were more than a little over-zealous over who they allowed to have access to which parts of the hotel, irrespective of whether they were residents or not. This came to a head at 11pm on the Saturday night, when the convention organisers pulled one particular American author out of bed – his day job was as a lawyer – to confront the hotel manager. Or the deputy manager, as it turned out, as the manager proper was not on site for that particular weekend. A major argument blew up.

The upshot of all this was two-fold. Firstly, the then owners of the hotel – a major hotel and catering chain – were soundly lambasted by convention attendees. At the gripe session – a regular feature of conventions, where attendees can attend and  deliver bouquets or brickbats after the main events of the weekend have finished – one particular friend stood up and declared that although he looked like an aging hippy (to be fair, I’ve known this guy for at least 35 years and he has always looked like an aging hippy), his Day Job was organising corporate conferences and training courses for the UK HQ of a major international computer company on the south coast of England (clue: all their executives wear blue suits, after which the company is nicknamed, their name consists of three letters, and they have no connection whatsoever with the computer HAL in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: a space odyssey, despite many people thinking that there was some sort of connection implied), and he said that after the treatment that both he personally and the convention had received at the hotel that weekend, he could assure everyone that the owners would never get any business from his company again. Anywhere in the world.

But something strange then happened. The deputy manager of the Metropole left the company shortly afterwards. A few years later, some convention organisers decided that Brighton was such a good venue that they should try organising another convention there. They enlisted the help of the official Brighton Conference bureau, whose remit was to bring conferences to Brighton. All was sweetness and light. The organisers chose their hotel and started negotiations. But then, about half-way through, the negotiations came to a sudden halt. The hotel terminated the discussion. No reason was given. The Conference Bureau made enquiries; they were given no explanation either. It wasn’t the personalities involved; science fiction conventions are usually organised by a group of people who come together for that sole purpose, so there was no connection between those organisers and the convention committee of the 1987 Worldcon. The deputy manager of the Metropole had never reappeared; and indeed, the hotel had changed hands twice since 1987. None of this made any difference. Other convention committees came to Breighton, but negotiations either came to nothing or never even started.

And so Brighton became known to the science fiction community as “The Forbidden City”.

Meanwhile, my life had moved on. In 1989, as a consequence of the privatisation of the UK water industry, the government took the decision to locate the regulator’s office, Ofwat, in Birmingham as it was equidistant from most of the water companies’ HQs. I took level transfer to Ofwat, and by a series of odd events found myself the organisation’s main trade union representative. I began rapidly making contacts and looking for support and advice, as I’d gone from being a floor representative within a union sub-Branch in one office of a department employing tens of thousands of staff to being the leader of trade unions in an entire Government Department; although that department only had a total of 250 staff at its height, my peers were suddenly people leading the unions in Departments such as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) or the Inland Revenue, with memberships in five or even six figures. Things were complicated by the fact that the union I was then in, the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA) was known in some quarters as “the Beirut of the British trade union movement”. The level of internal conflict in CPSA was notorious, and had a shady origin in tales of conspiracy, plots, secret armies, infiltrators of Left and Right, and the efforts of the security services to keep a lid on all this. Back in the days of Harold Wilson’s Labour administration in the 1960s, there were rumours that the Prime Minister was a Russian spy (sound familiar?), and one David Stirling – founder of the SAS – and a bunch of cronies from the Clermont Club and similar establishments in Pall Mall had set up a private army ready to seize power. He claimed that he had many supporters in the Civil Service, and the security services promptly recruited some minor union officers to keep an eye on disruptive elements of both Left and Right. In time, these people became entrenched in CPSA and were elevated to high office. Others arose to counter them, seeing them as anti-democratic. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

So it was that CPSA conferences were pretty turbulent affairs. Stirling had recruited his insiders initially to cause trouble at conferences; the Left organised to repay that compliment. Over time, their influence waned, especially as changes in the Civil Service meant that there began a series of union mergers to reflect changes in Departmental structures and to present a more coherent and united front to a government determined to downsize the Civil Service and to degrade the terms and conditions of employment. CPSA and its fellow unions held their conferences, it was said, in “a seaside town beginning with B”, usually circulating between Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton; by the end of the 1990s, a series of mergers had created the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which was of such a size that Brighton’s seafront conference centre was the only venue big enough for the annual delegate conference.

Conference Week was the main event in the union’s annual timetable. Over the preceding months, elections to the National Executive Committee had been held, and the results of those elections were usually published shortly before Conference. Meanwhile, Branches had been consulting members on motions for Conference; these had been submitted and the union’s Standing Orders Committee had considered the motions, brought together those which were on similar themes and had similar objectives in a process known as “compositing”, decided which motions were suitable for debate – there were a set of fairly bureaucratic rules determining the criteria under which motions could be ruled suitable or not suitable for Conference – and assembled a timetable for Conference which placed the most important motions first in each session’s business. If debate caused motions to run out of time, they were guillotined, though half of the final morning of Conference was set aside for guillotined motions to be heard, though it was down to the same Standing Orders Committee to decide which guillotined motions made it to the schedule.

Meanwhile, the normal pattern was for the union’s Sections and Groups – roughly corresponding to employing Departments – to hold their Conferences over the few days before main Conference. These Group Conferences would decide union policy in areas that solely concerned members’ terms and conditions in those Departments. After two or three days there, main Conference would start, with sessions lasting from 9am to 5:30pm, and with a tight timetable and a formal process to determine who should speak. And so it was that I ended up on the podium at least once each Conference, and on odd occasions three or four times.

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One of my appearances at the Conference podium at Brighton (photo: Jon Gambit)

Conference was notable for a few things. One such was Popular Front, or “The Popular Front for the Liberation of the CPSA”, a scurrilous newsheet that circulated on the fringes of Conference and took satirical potshots at personalities on all sides of the union.  It drew its iconography from some of the formal politics of the Middle East (especially Gadaffi’s Libya), inspired by that “Beirut of the trade union movement” tag already mentioned. It is a bit of a surprise that it never got into more trouble with more people than it did. Regularly denounced from the top table, perhaps the best perspective on it would be a misquote of Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being in Popular Front is not being in Popular Front.”

On another occasion, PCS conference made national news, though not through anything that happened in Conference itself. In November 1998 (Conference was very late that year because of merger timetables), the Royal Albion Hotel, at one end of the seafront, caught fire one breakfast-time. Apparently, the ventilation ducts from the kitchen hadn’t had their grease traps cleaned out for a number of years; so a minor frying pan fire rapidly escalated to a major conflagration.

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The Royal Albion on fire, 1998 (Photo: BBC)

The hotel was being used by the MoD delegation, who had to evaculate in the clothes they stood up in. The union immediately made emergency payments available to affected delegates, though quizzical eyebrows were raised at the number of posh suits being claimed for by otherwise sartorially-challenged delegates; and there were red faces over the number of official MoD laptop computers being claimed for that should not have been being used for such non-official duties as union work. I was staying at the time in a small hotel in Hove, a good mile or more along the seafront; the column of smoke was visible as soon as I left the hotel and the location of the Albion meant that traffic was severely affected.

Our regular haunt for our Group Conference in later years was the Queens Hotel, not quite next door to the Albion, A slightly eccentric venue, the site was once occupied by an inn called ‘The Dolphin’ which was demolished in 1846. Next door was the famous Vapour Baths run by one Sheik Mahomet, who had been Shampooing Surgeon to King George IV. The baths were converted into the Markwell Hotel in 1869 and eventually were absorbed into the Queens Hotel.

And now I’ve been to my first TestBash. My last post talked about the content; I’ll just add that for me, it was even a new experience because of the venue, as the Clarendon Centre is located in an end of Brighton that I’ve never explored before. Of course, places look much different in winter (and be sure that March is still potentially winter in terms of the British weather! I’ve never seen snow in Brighton before until this year’s TestBash), so to close, and especially for TestBash attendees who might not have seen much of Brighton in the sunshine, here’s a portfolio of photographs I’ve taken in Brighton since 2003, showing some of the places I’ve named in this post (and a few others that I haven’t mentioned but which delegates might know).

 

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Written by robertday154

April 2, 2018 at 12:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

TestBash Brighton 2018 – a first-timer’s impressions

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(This blog post was written primarily for colleagues at my place of work and for possible circulation to our client base, to show the extent of the company’s commitment to testing as a discipline as a means of contributing to the overall quality of our product, which is a computer-based timetabling application for the higher education sector.)

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Rosie Hamilton’s presentation, “Discovering Logic in Testing”. And yes, the slide on display really does say “That’s Impossible!” – A Developer. (photo courtesy of @flahertsy)

Although I‘ve been engaged in testing work of one sort or another since 1995, it’s only been since joining CELCAT in 2016 that I’ve had any sort of contact with the testing community. This came about because Ben Fellows, one of my colleagues on the testers’ team, was heavily involved in that community and encouraged new colleagues to take part. As a self-taught tester whose involvement in the craft pre-dates the main qualification in the profession, I jumped at the chance, participating firstly in the local Midlands Testers meetup, then exploring the on-line resources provided by the Ministry of Testing (which models itself on the night-club Ministry of Sound, rather than on any Government department), and finally attending their annual conference, TestBash Brighton, for the first time this year.

TestBash Brighton was their original test conference, and 2018 was their seventh such event. The format has proved so successful that it has spawned similar events in Manchester, Dublin, Munich, Utrecht and even Sydney; and similar conferences are springing up world-wide. Talking to test professionals in meetups, at conferences and online, one of the common themes that arise is that testers do not necessarily come from any sort of uniform background; indeed, the diversity of our various experiences is one of the strengths that the profession is beginning to appreciate. It is because of this diversity, and the variety of reactions to the very concept of “testing” that arise in different organisations, that the testing profession is evolving an idea of itself as a discrete discipline.

This was certainly reflected, for me, in one of the most noticeable things about TestBash itself – the levels of energy and commitment that were self-evident through the conference, starting with the organisers and spreading to the attendees. Many of those at TestBash were almost evangelical about testing, both in their work and in their daily lives. Certainly, the organisers’ personal enthusiasm spread into the conference itself; they were organising it because testing was their passion first, and their job second.

(Although this was my first TestBash, it was certainly not my first conference; as a veteran of different conferences and conventions in a number of spheres, and a frequent speaker in front of large audiences, I recognised a lot of what I was seeing and could draw parallels with similar experiences elsewhere.)

This TestBash concentrated on a number of themes that are current in the IT industry generally. One is test automation – using computers to test computers, replicating the steps necessary to ensure that computer code is checked to try to ensure that applications work first time. A parallel thread was that of “exploratory testing”. Some people think that test automation means that there is no need for actual people to test applications. But automation is only part of the story. I like to use the analogy of test pilots. A test pilot doesn’t start by flipping all the switches in an aircraft’s cockpit to make sure that the landing lights work or the undercarriage retracts. That’s done on the production line before an aircraft ever flies. Rather, the test pilot gets into a new aeroplane to try it out, to establish the parameters of the “flight envelope” (how high the aeroplane can fly, how fast, how low and how slow), to explore the performance of the aeroplane against the specification, and to try it out in practice, to see if any unforeseen problems arise in everyday use and to see if it is safe for people to get on that aeroplane and use it, day in and day out. This is something that only human beings can do by taking the role of the end user and reporting any issues, from the trivial to the highly impactful.

This process isn’t guaranteed to find every problem – no piece of software can ever be guaranteed 100% bug-free – but proper, focussed exploratory testing can hopefully find the worst issues and highlight them so that the business can decide the priority for fixing them. Obviously, the more this can be done before the application is shipped, the better.

Other sessions looked at issues relating to the management of testing using what is known as the “Agile process”; whilst there were some speakers who looked at wider workplace issues about keeping people in general, and testers in particular, happy, healthy and productive, and how to support them when these things go wrong. Some delegates queried whether this was the right place to raise such issues; but TestBash is set up as a “safe space” where testers can discuss any matters that concern them, and there are not many forums nowadays where grassroots workers can get together and explore some of these issues.

The CELCAT test team found TestBash a useful and enjoyable few days which has given us a lot to think about. Ultimately, the aim is to use the best and most up-to-date techniques to improve the product that CELCAT creates and to improve the customer’s experience. CELCAT’s testers are an integral part of that process.

Postscript:

The talented Constance (http://theartfultester.com/) has now produced one of her wonderful comics about TestBash. I never knew my beard was that grey…

Written by robertday154

March 21, 2018 at 1:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Knowledge is power

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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.

 

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…

with one comment

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 2 comments

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