Judgement Days

As I write, my youngest child has just gone into an exam hall, scraped his uncomfortable chair noisily into position, put a few pens and pencils out in front of him, and, in common with thousands of kids across the country, prepared to do battle with a brand new GCSE exam.

This afternoon’s challenge is Physics. In common with most of his cohort, he’ll not have a lot of use for  F = k x e or a = F/m in later life, and if he does, he’ll be able to look it up, rather than try desperately to remember as he walks into the exam hall. So we should probably forgive him if his mind wanders occasionally into the realms of ‘is this really worth it?’

At almost exactly the same time, several hundred miles north, his eldest brother is walking into a similar hall, but this time in a group of twenty-somethings, to take his final written exam, after five years of pretty serious academic and practical study. Months and months of revision have gone into just this one 3 hour event; 8 in the morning until 10 at night, day after day, seven days a week, just to put himself through a series of strenuous mental hoops, to qualify for a specific job. In which, incidentally, he will suffer astonishing levels of stress and anxiety for an entire career.

Just up the road, #3 will be sitting an exam to mark the end of his first year at Uni, and hopefully allowing him entry to the second, where, assuming there isn’t a repeat of the university strike action this year, he might actually get some tuition.

And finally, another few hundred miles to the west, at 9am, #2 has been handed a topic on which to write a 24 hour assignment; his final assessment of his degree. He’ll work on it all day, get some sort of finished paper this evening, get it proof read, and then work through the night fretting and finishing and fining until he hands it in tomorrow morning.

As a parent, this combination of events delivers a level of stress that has to take second place behind what the boys are feeling, but is nonetheless, very real. At 1330 this afternoon, when #4 hears the words ‘Turn over your papers’, I’ll be feeling physically sick. That’s not because it recalls any horrible past experience particularly, although like many people, one of my recurring nightmares is being put in an exam hall, hearing those words, and not being able to function. No, this nausea is about the consequence of success or failure, and what it means for the future of the ones I hold dear. All over the country, I imagine parents are all feeling this way, feeling awful for the ones whose hands we stopped holding years ago, but, who for a few hours at a time, really are completely and utterly on their own.

The point of writing this down is not particularly for any empathy, certainly not to justify any vicarious living through our kids. It’s to challenge why we go through all of this as either parents or young adults, as an accepted way of measurement. And to do that, we need to look at what’s at stake. For our family, the consequence of #1 screwing up this morning’s exam would be a re-run of year 5, on the assumption he fancies a sixth year of expensive study and pressure, and a bid goodbye to the job he’s already accepted. For #2, there’s about a 2% tolerance in his marking of this exam to distinguish between a very good and a very very good degree; something that will matter enormously in the daunting challenge of career prospects for arts graduates these days. And for #4, he’ll either get the qualifications to get to his college course, or he won’t. And if he doesn’t, then his plan B isn’t especially palatable.

And all of this is hanging on a couple of hours of assessment, when you might not be on your game, when you’re entirely at the whim of the examining board in which part of the syllabus they want to quiz you on, and, most importantly, when you might not be able to remember stuff.

Because pretty much every exam that my kids are currently sitting through still requires them to remember things that they’re unlikely to need either now or in the future. And the tests are a bit light on proving their abilities at (say) reasoning, or logic, or any other measure of what we might call intelligence for later life. That’s important because we just don’t need a lot of that stuff in our heads any more. I’m not saying that facts aren’t useful, but they’re all available, at the touch of a button, through that thing called the internet. Which is a much better reference point in most cases than the half remembered facts in your brain. For example, the last time I went to my GP, we had a quick conversation about why I’d come in, a bit of a poke about in the relevant area, then he went straight onto Google to confirm his thinking and choose the right medication. And rightly so; at a guess, the last time he’d been fully tested on his memory for medical facts was over twenty years ago.

I can’t help thinking that life would be a bit more sensible for everyone taking these exams these days if the focus was on reasoning, analysis and the ability to seek out relevant information rather than the regurgitation of facts and figures. The most intelligent people I’ve ever met have these sort of skills in spades; and they don’t necessarily have a detailed knowledge of stuff to make them any more functional in their lives. They also tend to have a high level of what them psychologists call ‘emotional intelligence’, which allows them to interact by recognising their and other people’s feelings.

For one reason or another, I reckon my kids score fairly highly when it comes to things that matter, like emotional intelligence. But I’m really fed up that they’ll continue to be measured on stuff that matters less, and in a way that tests something altogether different. Anyway, good luck to them, and good luck to everyone in similar boats. (Although I don’t know why you’re reading this, you should be revising, for goodness sake).

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Good Technology

(For the article on ‘Whatever happened to the Red Guitars’, check back later. They’ll be filed next to ‘Kissing The Pink’ in an article on ‘Why The 1980s Was Actually Quite A Good Time For One Hit Wonders Now I Think About It’. Or something like that….)
I’ve worked in technology, or somewhere near it, for pretty much all of my adult life. And, insofar that you can love something that’s essentially a terribly complex twist of cable and metal and silicon, I absolutely love it.
My first job involved coding on mainframes, and my finest hour was the completion of a project that delivered two green screens to process car insurance changes for Foreign Use. Without a trace of irony, the screens were called FU1 and FU2. It was really neat because we produced something that automated a really painful process, and the process of pulling these screens together was considered something of a dark art, which made us feel pretty special.
Later on I progressed to networks (computers could talk to one another – awesome!), then applications like word processors (no more Tipp-Ex!) and email systems (which, on reflection, may have been where it all went wrong).  More of this another time, but, suffice to say, it was a fabulous period in technology, and some of us were lucky enough to be riding a pretty big wave.
Or so we thought, until a really big wave came along and we found ourselves talking about third generation languages, relational databases and smart ways of delivering business solutions. Suddenly we could start plugging in technology that looked and felt cool and didn’t have to take two years to deliver. What a wave!, we thought, as we tried to ride it.
Then another couple of really big waves came along, one called personal computing, and another called the Internet. And suddenly technology was everybody’s friend, and it was ok to come out of the closet and say that you loved this stuff, without sounding like too much of a nerd.
Then we got apps that everyone could write, complete interconnection, cloud services, mobile applications, (relatively) safe payment systems, online music and a glorious jumble of technologies that made you excited and proud to line up with. Technology is now both good and cool.
But, you’re no doubt be asking, is the coolest and best use of technology that the Emu has ever seen during this glorious 30 year relationship. Well, I’ll tell you…
Last weekend included a Saturday night that neither Mrs E nor myself were particularly looking forward to. We had given in to Jr Emu#3’s longstanding request for a 17th birthday party, and, worse even, had conceded that there’d be no better place to hold it than at our house. Frankly, Mrs E and I both needed our heads examined.
Anyway, it wasn’t toooo bad. They were all lovely kids when they arrived, and even after a couple of illicit hooches they were all quite charming, with a couple of notable exceptions. I (& I hope #3) will remember for some time his parents unblocking a vomit filled sink with one of the guests permanently attached to the toilet. Delightfully, when one of the more sober party goers asked if our guest was ill because he hadn’t had anything to eat, Mrs E was able to describe his last meal in some detail, including specifics on both pasta and sauce type.
But I haven’t told you the best bit. I’d asked #3 to pull together a Spotify playlist on his phone, which he did, and I’d provide the amplification, which I did. And we plugged in for a quick trial and all was well. His tunes were, as the youngsters say these days, bangin’. All was well, albeit a little annoying when his chums found the volume button, as the party ramped up.
Meanwhile, #3’s two older brothers, currently 6,500 miles away, almost on the other side of the world, were enjoying a quiet coffee in a cafe in Buenos Aires, as you do. And this cafe had wifi. Did I mention that we all use the same Spotify account? Well, we do. And because we do, and because it did and because they were, they were able to not only see what was playing, but to take over the phone and play their own choice of, well perhaps, less bangin’ tunes.
And so it was, with the party in full swing and some sort of ridiculous dubstep/trance/ rap nonsense making its noisy way down to our kitchen (where Mrs E and I were sat, largely occupied with directing pissed up 17 year olds to the toilet), that we heard the unmistakeable first few bars of ‘Fun Fun Fun’, certainly one of the high points of ‘The Cat In The Hat’ film soundtrack.
Separated by hemisphere and ocean and connected by unknown servers, satellites, undersea cabling and networking applications that are too cool to even describe, four of us are cracking up like you wouldn’t believe. Admittedly, it’s a return to a low form to basically point and laugh at #3 on his birthday party, but, all the same, it made us very very happy. Good technology? I should cocoa.

Brass In Pocket

Sometimes I fear that this blog is just turning into a whole load of middle-aged, middle-England, middle-class whines at the state of the nation. So the next time I sit down with my laptop and rattle off a few choice thoughts, they will be either about a lifetime experience of pub-rock shenanigans, or possibly why the internet is set to fail us, by virtue of the idiots that seem to have claimed it for themselves. I would very happily take a vote on this, and choose the subject accordingly; just write to me at the usual address.

And speaking of voting, what a huge surprise that the country should have vented its spleen, in the first referendum for years, on what appears to have been a direct vendetta against Nick Clegg. Personally, I’m not ashamed to say that I voted No, which is the first time I’ve ever sided with a Tory policy in an election. Well, I say I voted No. Actually what happened was that my first choice was No, and my second one was Yes, tee hee.

I don’t think I have the energy to go into the missed opportunity that the AV referendum presented for some sort of democratic change in this country. But while I’m here, a couple of thoughts…

I don’t understand why we don’t have some sort of proper proportional representation in England (we manage to do so in Scotland, after all); although I do think we could manage a bit of fun into the bargain. My suggestion would be simply that the number of MP’s be cross checked after each election against the number of votes. For parties not adequately represented by constituency MP’s, a number of reserve MP’s without constituency would be added to parliament. If, on the other hand, a party was over-represented, those MP’s with the smallest majority would be publicly shot. I really think this would make people consider their commitment to politics. Incidentally, I wonder whether we could spice up our more boring athletic races in the same way. The 10,000 metres on the track, for example, is a tedious 25 laps around the track, with usually only the last couple raced at pace. Think how much more fun it would be if the last runner on each lap knew that he or she would be physically damaged for being last. I’m only thinking about an air rifle, although I’m aware that our enthusiasm for extreme sports would cause a bit more of a demand for something more dramatic eventually.

I digress, so on to this week’s blog. For one reason or another, a couple of weeks ago I had to withdraw a reasonably large amount of cash from my bank. So I called them in advance on the morning I needed the money. Three times. Each time the phone rang for several minutes, wasn’t answered, and I hung up. I was phoning largely to check to see if I needed any extra ID to take out five grand in cash, and, of course, to see if the branch was open. I decided to chance it anyway, and cycled down to the bank. To my surprise and pleasure, it was indeed open. So I went inside, where I was delighted to see three tellers, uniformly staring into space, and two other staff, presumably engaged in some sort of meet & greet (or possibly meet, greet and inappropriately sell) role. There were no other customers to be seen.

“Good morning”, I said to the first teller, because largely it was.

“I’d like to withdraw five thousand pounds please. Should I make the cheque out to cash?”

“Good morning”, the teller parried (and at this stage the morning was at its shiny best)

“You don’t need a chequebook for that…I can sort that out on your debit card.” She smiled, and I could hear small birds chirruping outside.

“But you can’t withdraw that amount of money without calling us first.” The small birds stopped their chirruping.

“But I did call you. No-one answered.”

“Well, we’ve been really busy this morning.” I looked around for signs of busy-ness, and saw none.

To my delight, just at that point the phone rang. And rang, and rang. And the four other members of staff in the branch ignored it. The phone, incidentally, was in the middle of the branch, on a table, under a poster extolling the virtue of the bank’s customer charter.

After a certain amount of backward and forwardness, we established that I could withdraw £4,995 without telling them in advance, but not £5,000. So I did. I was tempted to go outside and call the branch number to get the full amount, but was worried that my call wouldn’t be answered.

“Are you doing anything exciting with that money then?”, the Teller asked.

“Not really, just paying off my dealer”, I replied. Which was a joke, and not terribly well received.

And this week, I found myself at an event to discuss the future of digital banking. One of the key messages was around the maturity ‘tipping point’ for successful customer interfaces through internet and mobile devices. And one of the contentions was that this maturity could never be reached until digital transactions could have the same level of personal interaction as that delivered in branches. Well, for all the wrong reasons, it seems to me that the future is already here.

Rupert the Bleaurghh


Rather disappointingly, I seem to have inherited very few of my father’s redeeming features. Not for me the fine aquiline nose, the easy athleticism, the ability to be at ease in any social situation or the capability to enjoy a good political argument without resorting to mild violence. Disappointingly, my make-up features clear opposites of all of the above, plus a rather jaundiced view on genetic inheritance.

Where we stand, however, father and son together, is in our clear enthusiasm for taking a stand against some of societies irritants, to the point of boycott and damnation. If you want to see my father worked up into a furious, blue-nosed frenzy, just mention that you’re a glowing admirer of Dame Shirley Porter, the London Evening Standard, or Rupert Murdoch. If you want to see me seething in a similar fashion, you can achieve a similar effect by expounding the virtues of Bill Gates, Michael Winner, or, funnily enough, Rupert Murdoch.

In my father’s case, his sense of moral frustration has some dire consequences. He lives a long way away from the distribution of the Evening Standard, and only recently have I realised that he’s managed to put a good 10 miles between him and the nearest branch of Tesco’s, which was probably a key factor in choosing his location for retirement. He still believes that every penny spent there personally bankrolls Dame Shirley, and for all I know, he may well be right. His love of cricket is tempered on a regular basis, depending on which network has got what contract – he’d rather make a 250 mile round trip to see a county game than even consider watching a test match on Sky.

Anyway, the fantasy disembowelment of Rupert Murdoch is a passion shared, and I guess we’re both equally pleased to see the real-life Monty Burns start to get irritated about copyright law. As far as I understand the argument, the sense of outrage that News International currently has, is against the notion that its journalistic data be shared on the internet for free. As such, it is planning to introduce a new model for Times subscribers, whereby they pay for online content. And presumably NI plans to sue the backside off anyone who has the audacity to use the copy & paste facility. (Which, I might add, was not invented by Bill Gates.)

Since the first salvoes were launched on charging for online content last year, it’s all gone a bit quiet, but I can’t imagine the ambition has gone away, so the likes of me are still looking into the middle distance, jaws dropped on the floor. If it had been suggested 10 years ago, we would have pointed and laughed. To suggest this as a valid business model now is kind of missing the point of the internet, of social communication, and of how the whole realm of journalism is heading. It’s not as if there isn’t a model to base the future challenges on – I’m not sure what parts of the music industry NI owns, but there’s a pretty strong precedent there in the way that old business models just don’t work any more. In the same way that musicians are going to have to find different ways of getting people to listen to their music, journalists and writers are going to have to find different ways of communicating. And that’s no bad thing. When I buy a newspaper I’d really quite like to have a different type of paper every day. Generally I would rather buy than have something sold to me, and I’m sure I’m not alone there. The bigger point is that the days of the fourth estate and journalistic privilege are truly numbered as long as there is a persistence that the public needs to pay in old fashioned ways for new delivery. Which means that News International, Fox, The Sun, Sky and all the rest might all yet be under threat. And I’m sorry if this sounds childish, but good. And ner ner ner ner ner ner*.

For now of course, I’m pretty happy the way it is. When Principle Skinner got together with Marge’s sister in The Simpsons, they realised that their common bond was that they hated the same things. It might not be the strongest basis for a relationship, but I do quite like having something in common with my Dad.

*admittedly, that was reasonably childish.

R+D my R’s


I’ve been lucky enough to be working with technology in one form or another for all of my working life. I ‘got into it’, as we used to say when we were young, purely by accident, and have grown ever fonder of the twists and turns it has taken ever since, providing us with new smarter ways of communicating, keeping transparent, staying alive, and much much more. So I am what you might call a fan of technological advance.

And central to the theme of technological advance is Research & Development. Or at least it used to be. In what my children are increasingly calling the olden days, there would be a separate R&D function in almost every business that was delivering new stuff. This stuff could be anything from service products to cars to software. It was expected that any company worth its salt would be finding out what the market wanted or even how to manufacture that market. (History is, of course, littered with attempts to manufacture the market that went horribly wrong. The one that always sends a shudder down my spine is the campaign based on Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) at the end of the 90’s. If you’ve erased this from your memory (and I so wish I could), this consisted of O2 promising that the internet was going to be arriving on WAP-enabled handsets, so everyone could happily browse away in the (relatively infant) web. The problem was, they couldn’t. Not only was the network not up to the job, but neither was the internet. Or the handsets, really. Which just left a half baked idea and a lot of front. And what might work for Simon Cowell didn’t work for O2.)

Anyway, R&D was pretty core to the smart companies that dominated the post war years. Any book on company management will tell you that R&D is the key to the constant re-development of companies like Sony, Apple, Toshiba etc. And the companies that didn’t have effective R&D are the ones that started feeling a bit cumbersome. I think that’s what happened to IBM, and I also think (and part of me secretly hopes) that it’s what may well happen to Microsoft. If your business is constantly trying to push the same market, there’s a chance you’re going to run out of customers.

So, I was at a meeting with a pretty big IT company recently, and asked them how much they were spending a year on R&D. The rep quoted an absolutely massive number, which I couldn’t quite believe. Pushing a bit harder, we agreed that this number must include acquisition costs. At which point it struck me that that’s where we’ve got to in the development of R&D. We see this all the time in IT, with the big companies buying up the small ones to create a portfolio of product, sometimes at odds with their initial direction as a business. And I think that’s a real shame as it becomes all about wedging something small into a bigger whole, and that’s not really about R or D. And of course, in extremis, the big company buys up the smaller one before they can become a competitor, sometimes killing the developed technology in the process.

So I think that’s a shame. When I looked at this fantastic idea from the RCA grad show:

http://www.iconeye.com/index.php?id=3864:rca-student-radically-improves-the-uk-plug&option=com_content&view=article

then I can’t help feeling that what’s being developed by the bigger businesses in the name of R&D these days is pretty second rate.

A brief history of the internet (part one)

Well, not really.

This is a story about how attitudes to technology and sharing across the internet have changed, seen through a very personal lens (mine). All I really want to do in this blog is to use a couple of experiences to gauge how far away we’ve got from the original objectives of the internet.

And, in order to do so, it would be good to examine these objectives…which of course, don’t really exist. However, let’s look to the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, for inspiration, and look at the names rejected before settling on world wide web. These included The Information Mesh and The Information Mine. Incidentally, both were turned down as they abbreviated to TIM, and TB-L is a modest sort of a fellow. Anyway, these say an awful lot more than WWW. The object of putting the web on top of the internet in the first place was to allow users to mine for information in a way that, until that point had only been possible in slow time with huge physical libraries of information at your disposal.

Which brings me to coming across the web for the first time. In its early days, the internet made its mark through Joe Public (who needed a networked connection into some other host capability) accessing what we now refer to as bulletin boards or user groups. If you knew an address, then you could type this in to some sort of emulator, and see what the dudes on alt.gaffatape.hamster were talking about. It wasn’t really until the web and web browsers were laid on top of this that any ‘browsing’ could take place, and even that was a bit rudimentary. But what the browsers did do, was open up a whole lot of relatively rich content.

So, my first story involves setting up these browsers at work on an internet connected network for the first time. I had a rudimentary networking knowledge, and we chose a browser called Netscape a) because it got the best reviews and b) because it wasn’t a Microsoft product. We’d read up a good deal on the potential for sharing information, how we were going to see encyclopaedic knowledge shared throughout the world, although of course the number of sites providing this data was a fraction of a fraction compared to the web today. So, we dutifully installed the browser on the MD’s computer, and configured it to connect to the net while isolated from our internal network. We solemnly placed the cursor on the address line and awaited instructions from the MD, who had just come into the office with the marketing director.

“Right”, the authoritative voice called out, “Where’s the porn?”

To be continued…