Category Archives: Cambridge

Down Denver Way

One of the most important bits of civil engineering in our part of the world is less than an hour’s drive away, but it was only last month that I actually got around to visiting it.

What is this thing and why is it so important? Here’s my little explanation:

And if you want to take a look around from on high yourself…

You can drag the image around to look in different directions, and you can zoom in and out by scrolling, or using Shift & Ctrl keys.

University of Cambridge abandons open standards for proprietary ones, and starts to pay the price

A few years ago, the ‘University Information Services’ (UIS) team at Cambridge made the decision that the University would no longer run its own email service — something it had done since email began — and instead was going to outsource it to a commercial entity.

This in itself, I think, was probably a mistake, because email is enormously important, not just as a communication method, but as an archive. Many people make this mistake. “We use Slack for our internal chat, we use Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp and Zoom for our external communications. We hear some old people still use email, but why is that any different?”

Email, though, for most people, is not just an instant-messaging system. It’s a store, a journal, a database, a record, of decisions made, invoices received, relationships formed, ideas generated, news exchanged, and so on. I have most of my email for the last thirty years or so, and find it incredibly valuable. Last year, I wrote a post about why I think it’s one of our most successful and important data archive formats, and its success for so long, when compared with almost anything else, has depended substantially on open standards and Open Source software.

Running an email server is easy. Doing it well, however, is not, and requires expertise and dedicated staff. In the past, I have run my own personal server, and we also did this in one of my startup companies. (In both cases these were based on the excellent, widely-used and highly-regarded Exim software which was, ironically, developed here at Cambridge in that same UIS department!) But these days there are lots of good hosting services, and it doesn’t normally make sense for most organisations to run their own.

The University of Cambridge is not, however, a small organisation, and surely it should really be willing to employ the skilled staff and provide the resources to run its own email system, in the same way that it runs its own libraries. (Maybe they’ll be next?)

However, out-sourcing is the name of the game these days, and it’s not that that is causing me, and several of my colleagues, concerns.

Exchanging open for closed

No, it’s the fact that that the University decided to opt for Microsoft Exchange Online. A couple of days ago, most staff who had not yet transitioned were moved from our own servers to Microsoft’s, and the forced migration will be complete by the end of next week, and the old servers switched off at the end of the year. For most people, in the short term, this will just be a minor inconvenience. So why does this worry me? Because I take a longer view.

Since email was invented, all of the email of many tens of thousands of University staff and students has been stored in formats defined by open standards, on machines that we control, generally by open email software running on open operating systems which were storing it on open filesystems… and so on. We had full control, and we always knew we could manipulate, improve, archive, extract and back up any part of this system which stores such a valuable archive of data for the entire community.

This week, however, saw the transition of that entire archive to a system running proprietary software, stored in proprietary formats on proprietary operating systems and filing systems, on servers that we no longer control. And the most important question, of course, when putting any important data into any new system is “How easily can I get it out again, in a usable format for the future, if I change my mind?”

Now, normally, one of the many wonderful things about an IMAP-based email archive is that this is trivial: you can decide to move it from one hosting service to another, or just shift it to your own machine, simply by dragging and dropping it using the email program of your choice. I have done this many times over the decades, as I’ve moved between jobs, email providers, academic institutions, and also as my email-reading devices have switched between different operating systems and different email apps.

Exchange, however, has always had problems supporting IMAP access to email reliably. Experts disagree on how serious those problems currently are, but the fact that the debate continues is worrying. It’s a lower priority for Microsoft, because they’d rather you used their own protocols and their own software.

The slippery slope

The UIS’s own pages telling Mac users how to connect to the new email service, for example, start with this dire warning:

Warnings about why Outlook is the only safe desktop client to use with Exchange

Note that this is referring to Apple Mail, one of the most-used email clients in the world, and there’s a similar warning for those accessing their email and calendars from iOS devices.

What hope is there for those of us who prefer less-common email clients, such as my long-term favourite, Mailmate? Or who use less-mainstream operating systems? Or who have older hardware that won’t run the latest software?

This rings alarm bells for those of us who remember Microsoft’s (thankfully failed) attempts in the past to control another open system — the Web — by getting people to run Microsoft software both on the desktop and the server. When you control both ends of a system, you can freely modify the protocols used to communicate between them until it becomes very hard for users to adopt any other system. Microsoft used predatory and sometimes illegal business practices in the past to try and kill off Netscape and other desktop competition in pursuit of this goal, but the overall strategy failed, partly because their own server-side software was so inferior to the Open Source offerings that the techies responsible for most web servers refused to depend upon it.

I hope we are not seeing a repeat here — and to be frank, I doubt it — but I do wonder whether this shift to Exchange will prove to be a one-way-only transition. Suppose Microsoft were to say, in a few years’ time, that only a very small proportion of Exchange users now depended on IMAP, and they would be switching it off shortly. What options would the University have?

And what choice would users then have about the software they ran on their desktop to access this valuable archive?

Could we rely on getting thousands of email archives out and into a usable form elsewhere? What about any enhanced metadata? Attachments? Calendars? Contacts? There are open standards for all these things, but what incentives would Microsoft have to ease that transition, if it were even viable?

No, I fear that this contract, once made, has been made for ever.

And some of the implications are starting to be felt elsewhere. It recently came to light, for example, that the contract with Microsoft covered the staff and students of the University, but we have traditionally continued to provide email cam.ac.uk addresses to retired academics, emeritus professors, others helping with the activities of the University. “Ah”, said Microsoft — after the deal was signed, as I understand it, but perhaps before our chaps had cottoned on to all the implications — “You do realise that they’re not included in this deal?”.

This has made a lot of people very upset, because they had been given to understand that the email address that they’d always had, often the only one they’d ever had, that had been published at the top of their academic papers for decades, and had been used, for example, to set up all of their other online accounts, would remain a valid way of contacting them indefinitely. Not any more. This, of course, is standard practice in the business world: you leave a company and your email address is gone. The company closes, or is bought, and your email address is gone. But ancient universities haven’t always been run on those purely corporate lines or with those same expectations of transience.

Where does this leave us?

Essentially, therefore, there has been only one choice for those of us who wish to keep our email in standard formats that we know will be accessible in the long term. Reliable archiving is not a service we can now expect our eight-century-old University to provide, so we take all incoming email to our University addresses, and forward it to our own accounts held elsewhere.

Many of my colleagues in the Computer Science department are now doing this. We have to hope that this will continue to be allowed, both by the University and, of course, by Microsoft. We can’t ignore the Microsoft servers completely, because they will probably soon also be the only way to send email that will be recognised by the outside world as coming from a valid cam.ac.uk address. And being able to receive email under such an alias can be important for accessing academic journals, university service etc.

But some friends have decided that a better option is to start using their own personal email addresses on academic projects, papers, websites etc. to ensure that they have control in the future. (If you’re doing this, make sure you use your own DNS domain or a long-term reliable forwarding service, so you aren’t indefinitely tied to your current ISP or your ancient Hotmail account for your future professional communications!)

me.com

And perhaps some of this is inevitable. I used to rely on my employer to provide me with a telephone and a telephone number, for example, but the one sitting on my University desk for the last several years has almost never been used.

For many of us, it’s important that we control our own ‘brand’. Our own phone number, our own website, our own LinkedIn pages are more important to us than how we appear on any particular employer’s website, and as a result we need to pay for those out of our own pockets. Email should perhaps be the same, and wise academics should probably ensure that they control their own destiny and don’t use their current university email address on their publications.

But it all gradually erodes the sense of belonging to an ancient institution with which you might have a lifelong relationship. And that isn’t good for the institution either, especially when it comes to fund-raising. Ask any development office.

Zooming in on the Micro Men

A couple of days ago, in my post about Sir Clive Sinclair, I mentioned the entertaining BBC drama “Micro Men“, which covered the exhilarating race between Sinclair, Acorn and others to corner the home computing market in the early 80s. Any Cambridge friends who are interested in computing and haven’t seen it should certainly take a look!

Those who know any of the people (or machines) concerned, or who enjoy watching the ‘Special features’ section of DVDs, may want to take it a bit further. I’ve discovered that, 10 years after the film came out, the Centre for Computing History got together Steve Furber, Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry for a viewing of the film, to get their take on how it recorded the events.

And also a revealing discussion which followed the film:

If, like me, you wondered why, for example, the Acorn Electron was not the commercial success it should have been, given its technical merits, this informal chat will tell you.

An epitaph for Sir Clive

Are there any stores that you like to go into, but rather hope that you won’t be spotted there by anybody you know, because it would be a bit embarrassing? One of these, for me, is Edinburgh Woollen Mills, which seems to have, as its target market, old-age pensioners with little sense of taste or fashion. On the other hand, when I have crept in there over the last few decades wearing my false moustache and dark glasses, I’ve always found their plain woollen sweaters (and a few of their other less-tartaned items) to be excellent value, well-fitting and very hard wearing (which is good, because I then don’t need to visit too often and risk being spotted).

Well, I had a similar desire to conceal my location yesterday, when I was invited onto Radio 5 Live at very short notice to talk about the passing of Sir Clive Sinclair, his influence on the UK’s computer industry, and the importance of having a culture of invention. That was what the text said, anyway, but in fact they ran out of time and so, I think, slotted me in to the last few mins of the show, just to be polite, and join in whatever discussion was ongoing. With the result that we said nothing about Sinclair, almost nothing about computing, and in fact discussed time travel and whether butterflies could fart. (Don’t ask.) It wasn’t the high point of my broadcasting career. The good news is that I suspect there are even fewer of my acquaintances who listen to Radio 5 Live than who shop at Edinburgh Woollen Mills.

I never met Clive Sinclair, though he had a big influence on my life, having produced, in 1981, the first computer that our family could actually own. The BBC’s enjoyable 2009 dramatisation ‘Micro Men’ portrayed him as a bit of a comedic monster, as I remember, and I’m not sure how fair a representation that is. The programme is now available on YouTube, and I must watch it again, because it does depict several people I do know, and generally does them quite well, so perhaps it was accurate. Recommended viewing for all British geeks of a certain age, anyway.

But it is sad, in a way, that Sir Clive is often remembered for the C5 — his low-slung electric tricycle — which was a dismal market failure in 1985, and the butt of much humour, including from me (though as a techy teenager I would secretly have loved one!)

What did impress me, though, as I was making notes for the interview, was the relentless rate at which Sinclair released products:

  • 1977 – The Wrist Calculator and the MK14 kit computer
  • 1980 – The ZX80 – the first affordable home computer in the UK
  • 1981 – The ZX81 – a much better version
  • 1982 – The ZX Spectrum – the UK’s best-selling microcomputer
  • 1983 – The C5 electric trike, and a pocket television! (Which of course, back then, still had to use a CRT.) Also the Microdrive storage system, using tape-based cartridges which could store a whopping 100KB!
  • 1984 – The Sinclair QL
  • 1987 – The Cambridge Z88 – a portable computer with a full-sized keyboard, which ran for ages on four AA batteries. I have one on the desk beside me here.

That’s quite a list for a small company over one decade!

The failure of the C5 basically killed Sinclair Research, and the Sinclair brand was sold to Amstrad in 1986, which is why the Z88 was released under the Cambridge Computer name.

This failure was notable, though, because it followed the great successes of the previous years, which had made Sinclair a household name, and, by deploying affordable, programmable machines into vast numbers of British homes, played a big part in kick-starting the UK’s technology industry. It certainly kick-started my own hobby and eventual career in computing, which is also a good thing for the nation, because otherwise I might have tried to go into broadcasting.

So I would like, if I may, to propose an epitaph for Sir Clive Sinclair:

It is better to have invented and failed, than to never have invented at all.

Office Meeting 2.0.1

In my post yesterday, I forgot to mention the final twist to my open-air Teams meeting, which made it even more surreal.

Just after pressing the ‘Leave meeting’ button on the app, I walked through our village churchyard and fell into conversation with a gravedigger. No, really. He was filling in a hole, and, leaning on his spade, told me that the heavy clay around here was nothing compared that that around Lavenham. It was a strangely Shakespearian encounter; I half-expected him to bend down, pick up a skull and ask if I recognised it.

After a brief but cheery discussion, I bade him good day and departed, thinking that I should probably have tossed him half a crown for good luck, or something.

Definitely not my typical office meeting, I thought to myself, and Tilly and I walked home debating the whims of Lady Fortune in iambic pentameter.

Gunshot

Barton Road Rifle Range

The Barton Road Rifle Range as seen from the next field, on a recent misty evening.

How to confuse foreigners

Small village. One straight road. Two names.

We Brits seem to think this is normal. This is partly why I got confused trying to find a restaurant the first time I went to California, but for the opposite reason.

I was on the right street, at about the right number… but I was in the wrong city.

A rare East Anglian lakeside walk

In the flat, low-lying eastern part of England, where we live, much of the land is only just above sea level, and for many centuries the inhabitants have been working hard to avoid the appearance of large areas of water.

We have rivers, of course, and dykes and canals, and they are all kept carefully in order and they generally behave and do as they are told. There are village ponds, too.

But to see a body of water of any size here is a rarity, which is why I occasionally make the pilgrimage to Fen Drayton Lakes, about 12 miles from my house. Until around 30 years ago, it was a gravel quarry, but that’s been enough time for nature to re-adopt it and flourish around it. Yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far, and it was pleasant to walk in the shade along the tree-lined paths and catch occasional glimpses of expanses of cool liquid.

It’s tantalizing, too, because you can’t go in or on the water: it’s an RSPB reserve, and home to a vast number of birds, who were clearly having a good time. I foolishly only had an elderly iPhone with me, so just took a couple of more general snaps of the scenery.

There are certain areas where you do need to make sure your dog pays attention to the signs.

But it’s a lovely spot, and very different from Cambridge just down the road. There’s even a quick and efficient guided-bus service from the city — when we get buses back — for those without other means of transport.

Despite all this, surprisingly few people in the area seem to know about it. Don’t tell too many of them…

Waning gibbous

Moon over Addenbrooke's Hospital

The moon above Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, on Friday night. Click to enlarge.

Gateway to Autumn

Trinity College, Cambridge

Cambridge: an early-morning stroll

I was in town unusually early on Sunday morning. This is Rose’s college, St Catharine’s, just before dawn.

The river, just a few streets away, was unusually still.

Silver Street, because of the location of the coach-parking areas, is one of the first things that many tourists see. They don’t often see it looking like this, though!

At King’s College, only one chimney showed any signs of life.

Gradually, as things warmed, a brief mist appeared over the water.

But it soon cleared, as the sun rose a little higher, and started to reach the tops of the trees.

The garden at St Botolph’s was also looking beautiful:

The streets were quiet…

And I crept quietly away as the day was beginning.

StarChapel

Last night I was being a little bit creative with my recent photos… 🙂

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser