Monthly Archives: April, 2020

Revelling in Ravel

There have been lots of wonderful examples during lockdown of the musicians from bands and orchestras recording individual parts at home which are then edited together into a combined performance. John linked to this rather pleasing Ode to Joy, for example.

But my favourite so far is from a few days ago: the NY Philharmonic’s version of Ravel’s Boléro. Play it on the biggest screen and best speakers you can manage!


Clapping to a different beat?

There have been a couple of evenings recently when UK residents have been encouraged to go outside and clap and cheer for all our wonderful health workers who are doing such a great job. This is, in many ways, a good idea, and I would have joined in, had I known about them in advance! (We’re a little bit isolated out here and so didn’t hear about them until the following morning.) It’s all rather cringe-worthy, but a significant proportion of my family work for the NHS, and a large number of friends, and they’re working very hard in difficult circumstances. Some of them have come down with coronavirus themselves. So, yes, I probably would have overcome my natural reserve and clapped, at least if anybody other than passing rabbits would have heard me!

I was interested, though, today, to come across this thread on Twitter where a large number of people, mostly who work for the NHS or in healthcare, were expressing their discomfort with the idea, for a variety of reasons.

They had various motives, but the key one seems to be that politicians who have voted against increasing NHS funding have no right to praise those who are now having to be heroes as a result, and certainly not to lead the public in praising them in this low-cost way.

Others say that anyone who voted for those politicians should also not be outside clapping.

My view is that anyone who is not willing to pay a substantially increased personal tax burden should also have pause for thought. I’m guessing that, to have the service we’d all like, we should be thinking of paying about £1000 per year more per family member. (And yes, people who choose to have children would, and of course should, pay more.) However, the country as a whole has been given the opportunity to make rather more modest contributions than that on more than one occasion, explicitly earmarked for such things as health and education, and has turned it down.

I base that £1000 figure, by the way, on the fact that Rose and I have to pay rather more than that for a basic level of private health insurance, on top of what we currently pay for the NHS. We are fortunate to be able to do that, but it’s not because we’re particularly wealthy. We’re clearly a very long way from being poor, but we work for a university and are still, most years, basic-rate taxpayers, not high-rate. So this is a significant chunk of our income, and it’s a luxury but also a kind of voluntary taxation: yes, we get much better service, but in exchange we don’t have some other luxuries, and it doesn’t free us from paying for the NHS: we do that too. But we’ve placed much less burden on it, over the years, than we would have done otherwise.

If, by paying that amount to the NHS, I could be confident of all of us getting the improved level of service, I’d be happy to do so! Instead, at present, we pay so that thing are a lot nicer for us, and a little bit nicer for others.

The problem is that under-resourcing, though clearly a significant challenge, is certainly not the whole story.

On all three of the last three times I’ve had to go to NHS hospitals because friends or family have been there, I have been struck by the many wonderful, cheery, helpful workers… but also by the quite extraordinary levels of administrative incompetence. I encounter employees who would never be able to keep a job if this were a commercial enterprise. I experience procedures which, if they were followed so poorly in a business, would quickly result in that business no longer existing. (Though to be fair, that’s often true of many public bodies.)

And this, I’m sad to say, has been my almost constant experience. On both of the last two occasions I’ve had friends or family staying overnight in hospitals, they have occupied a bed for a whole day longer than necessary. Why? Not because they were still sick, but because the doctor literally forgot to come and discharge them before going home at the end of his shift. Two different hospitals. Two different doctors. Two different patients. Same problem. Actually three doctors, because one friend was forgotten twice in a row, though I think one of them might have been the nurse’s fault. They are not just short of hospital beds for lack of funds!

And this malaise is not just in the area of patient care. I remember when, as a struggling startup company, we were trying to sell a product to our local NHS hospital. They liked it, they wanted to buy it almost immediately, the cost was trivial, but it still took them more than a year to go through their procurement procedures and write us a modest cheque. Even then — and this was explicitly explained to me — they only managed to get it to us because somebody persuaded the person responsible for the relevant account to stay for a meeting which finished after 5pm. He was annoyed, and made it clear, because he normally went home soon after tea-time, at around 4.30pm. For those of us working long hours and weekends to produce the product, we just had to laugh. I know from talking to other technology providers that our experience was certainly not unique. But that was then – what about now? Well, now, remember this story when you hear that they can’t get the supplies they need.

These are just anecdotes, of course – I have no knowledge of the bigger picture on any statistically-valid level. I speak only of what I’ve experienced. But I have certainly not exhausted my stories: those are just a couple of the more worrying examples.

So yes, I love the NHS. I’m enormously grateful for what they’re doing now. And yes, I wish it were better resourced.

But anyone who thinks that somebody else will pay for a better service for them is living in cloud-cuckoo land; we all need to be willing to stump up significant amounts of cash. How many of those people out there clapping think that the problems now being experienced are all somebody else’s fault?

Anyone who thinks that money is the only problem, or that the politicians are the only problem, is similarly deluded. In this country it is very unpopular to talk about any degree of commercialisation of the NHS, and clearly that’s not a silver bullet: one only has to look at the costs of drugs in the USA for an example of how commercialisation can get out of hand.

But so far, nobody seems to have come up with a good way of instilling the disciplines and efficiency and levels of accountability that govern the commercial world into the public sector. And until they do that, it seems to me, we will continue to have some situations where we just have to rely on some people being heroes.

The Woodpiles of Hanoi

One thing we inherited when we moved to this house was a wood-burning stove. We also inherited a couple of wood stores, which we keep stocked up with a mix of occasional deliveries of big logs, and with wood that falls off nearby trees, collected on dog walks and lugged home to be sawn up.

I don’t have a chainsaw, by the way. I’ve sometimes been tempted, but, as my friend Richard pointed out, “Accidents involving chainsaws are seldom minor.” Instead, I have what I call a ‘chainsaw for scaredy-cats’: an alligator saw. This is a splendid device, which does quite a lot of the work of a chainsaw but avoids a lot of the potential pitfalls. Definitely recommended if you’re in a similar situation.

The gripping jaws also mean you can use it for chopping much smaller sticks than would be practical with a real chainsaw, as well as the big stuff.

Anyway, my otherwise-fine woodpiles have a problem. You want the wood to dry for as long as possible before burning it.

The nature of these stores, though, if you top them up continuously like we do, is that the only accessible wood is on the top layers, which is probably the most recently-added, and hence probably the greenest or dampest (or whatever). I was contemplating this challenge the other day, and I realised that if I had a third wood store, I could stack things perfectly. How? Towers of Hanoi!

The Towers of Hanoi is that puzzle where you have a set of discs, typically threaded on one of three poles. The aim is to move them one at a time onto another pole, but you’re not allowed to put a larger disc on top of a smaller one.

It’s not actually very difficult, and once you’ve worked out the basic mechanism you can extend it to arbitrary numbers of discs while still only needing three piles. Here’s a nice animation by André Karwath:

The puzzle is a fun source of entertainment (for a short while, at least), but I’ve never thought it had any actual use (other than as an exercise in recursive programming in computing courses).

But, I suddenly realised, suppose the larger discs represented younger wood, and the smaller ones older, then it’s clear that if I had three wood stores, I’d never need to leave younger wood on top of older wood. It could always be rearranged. Cunning, eh?

The problem, of course, it that it does still take rather a lot of shuffling wood around, which seems like hard work, even for a hardened lumberjack like myself.

So I’m now thinking that perhaps I really just need a wood store designed more like a waterwheel, with the wood stacked in the middle. I’d fill it up as normal, but when I wanted wood for the fire, I’d just rotate the whole thing until the dry logs were at the top, remove some, and then turn it back… Brilliant, eh?

I would go and demonstrate how to make it for you, but just at the moment it’s too cozy here in front of the fire.

Why I really am awfully lucky…

A gate in Coton

Two and a half years ago, after a couple of decades living happily in the centre of Cambridge, we moved out to the countryside.

Here, that only meant a move of about two and a half miles, but it made a big difference; we basically did a simple exchange: swapping proximity-to-things for space. We got a much bigger detached house in exchange for a small terrace; fields and woods right outside the door; and some real luxuries like a spacious driveway and a garage: things we’d never owned in any size or shape before! The house was almost exactly the same value as the one we sold, so the only major cost involved in the move was a very hefty whack of Stamp Duty.

The current coronavirus lockdown, though, has made me realise just how fortunate a decision that move was. Having more space, both inside and outside the house, makes such a difference in this current climate.

I can’t imagine living in London at the moment. It’s not something I’ve ever particularly wanted to do, but it must be even worse now, though at least a lot quieter and less polluted than usual!

The people who must really be suffering, I imagine, are those working from home, with kids, in a small London flat. I really take my hat off to anyone in that situation who is managing to keep their sanity intact! I’m grateful once again that we decided not to have kids… though I suppose, by now, they would have grown up, moved out and would probably have little viruses of their own.

And finally, since, for many years, I’ve been working half-time from home, we’re well set up for that, so no real changes have been needed on that front. In fact, having my wonderful wife-and-chef working from home too has made most days a gastronomic delight.

All in all, then, we’re amazingly lucky in our version of the Covid-restricted life.

It’s tempting to put some of it down to good judgement. Our past decisions not to live in a big city, not to have kids, not to have high-pressure office-based jobs, to focus on dog-walking more than income-generation, and (recently) to live in the countryside, have all contributed to a good quality of life in general, and a particularly easy transition to the one we’ll be living for the next few months. If only I could claim to have foreseen the inevitability of a global pandemic, I could actually claim some credit for them!

But I do recommend at least some of them, for anyone considering big life-changing decisions in preparation for when the next virus comes along. Because it is a sobering thought, even here in Arcadia, that this almost certainly won’t be the last.

Boredom, Toothbrushes and Terminals

When I was a child, we were not allowed to be bored. Boredom, my mother insisted, was a sign of laziness and lack of imagination, and nobody fortunate enough to have all their faculties intact should complain of it.

Some of this came, I think, from lessons my grandfather had instilled in her. Some of it may have been because we had just come back from several years in northern Kenya, where kids in extreme poverty who had no toys would just make their own out of sticks and bits of wire, and play happily with them for hours. Who were we, with boxes full of toys, shelves full of books, and minds full of stories, to complain of boredom? (And that was when the Web and YouTube were still decades away. There’s surely no excuse now!)

Anyway, it was a great lesson, and one that’s always stuck with me. I don’t remember ever being bored in my life, though the nearest I’ve come has not been when I’ve nothing to do, but when I’ve had to do some tedious repetitive task for hours on end…

Of toothbrushes and terminals

In my teens, I had a holiday job for a couple of weeks at the local factory where they made Wisdom toothbrushes. The company was changing the prices of the whole stock, and my job was to sit in front of the mainframe terminal and adjust the wholesale price of the blue toothbrush in a particular range from 23.4p to 23.9p, then do the same for the red toothbrush, the pink toothbrush, the yellow, the white… and so on for every colour they made — there were many — after which I would move on to the next range.

The problem was that this involved navigating very slowly through a deep hierarchical menu which was totally unsuited for this purpose. Today, if these were rows in a spreadsheet, it would be done in about 20 minutes. But we didn’t have spreadsheets back then, my lad. Instead, I had to dig about six layers into the keyboard-driven menu system for the particular stock item, make the change, and then exit from each layer to get back to the top before moving onto the next one.

There was no way to bypass these steps, to speed up the process. No way out of the menu. The display, which I think was probably something like the VT220 pictured above, updated very slowly over its slow connection to an overloaded mainframe. This explained why they had to employ me for many days to perform this simple task. It also taught me a lot about user interface design.


It turned out that the terminal wasn’t completely dumb. On one of our tea-breaks — and yes, we really did have a tea-lady who would come through the office with a trolley of clinking cups at the allotted time — I discovered, in the back of a desk drawer, a manual for the terminal.

I found out that it could be programmed through a simple menu to send a set of keystrokes when it was switched on and connected to the mainframe, in order to identify itself, login, or whatever. This facility wasn’t used in our system, but — and this was the moment of enlightenment for me — you could also cause the sequence to be sent at any time by pressing Ctrl-Break! So I could use it as a kind of macro-recording system (not that I would have known of that concept back then).

Once I started on a new range of, say, the Mickey Mouse toothbrushes, I would work out the sequence of keystrokes needed to update one price: enter, right cursor, down, down, down, right, up, 23.9, enter, escape, enter, escape, escape, or whatever, followed by the down arrow to get to the next toothbrush. I’d program that into the terminal’s setup menu and then just hit Ctrl-Break a dozen times and sit back and watch the menu update as fast as the mainframe could manage (which wasn’t very fast).

Later that day, my boss — a great guy — came by and saw me reclining in my chair, reading something. “Having a quiet afternoon, are we, Quentin?”, he asked.

“No, I’m busy”, I explained, and gestured to the screen, where the all-too-familiar menus seemed to be operating themselves at great speed while I sat back and sipped my tea.

I’ll never forget the expression on his face.

However, I guess all such Sorcerer’s Apprentice tales must have a cautionary aspect to them. In my case, the work was finished much sooner, so I was out of a job.

Perhaps there’s a lesson there. In that case, though, I can’t say I was too sorry!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser