Google Analytics

Friday 8 December 2023

I Haven’t Time To Be A Millionaire

What do young people do when they begin to take more than just a passing interest in each other? One answer it that they walk in the countryside. Our children did so with there special friends, and I have written about how I was smitten one warm evening in peaceful Leicestershire ridge and furrow. 

My parents were no different. This pair of photographs is from 1945. That is Rawcliffe Church in the distance. 

I was selecting images to illustrate the old family audiotapes I have mentioned several times, with a view to putting them on YouTube to minimise risk of loss. Here, yet again, is my dad singing “I Haven’t Time To Be A Millionaire”, this time as a video with images. It may not be particularly sophisticated, but it seems to work well.

I bet he imagined he was Bing Crosby singing with Gloria Jean in “If I Had My Way”. Let’s say he makes a recognisable attempt. I cannot imagine my mum managing Gloria Jean’s coloratura soprano, though. I looked up the original. What a delight! Astonishingly, Gloria Jean was just 14 at the time, playing the part of an orphaned child. She’s nearly as good as Bing.

Dad sang a lot of Bing Crosby songs to us; there are more on the full audiotape, such as (from the same film): “If I had my way forever there’d be, a garden of roses for you and for me”, and (from “Rhythm on the River”): “Do I want to be with you, as the years come and go? Only forever, if you care to know”. 

“Stop being soppy,” I hear my mum say, which of course encouraged him. 

Isn’t it great to be able to share our parents’ musical obsessions, even years too late. I wish I could watch the films with them now. 

Monday 4 December 2023

Andrew Lloyd Webber

A treat on BBC Television last night: ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber at the BBC’, a collection of performances over the years. It had some commentary, including from Lloyd Webber himself, but nothing shouty or intrusive, no one ‘emoting’ like an open mouthed idiot, just quiet, intelligent and sensible. The BBC at its best. It was first shown in March earlier this year but I missed it then. It is still on iPlayer.

I have long been a Lloyd Webber fan. I first became aware of him in the Joseph days of the nineteen-sixties, but it was Jesus Christ Superstar that won me over, particularly the film - the one with Ted Neely and Yvonne Elliman. I saw it three or four times. My friend Brendan, from the shared house, went to see it about ten times. He knew all the words and harmonies, and could imitate the actors’ bass/baritone/tenor voices:  “We need a more permanent solution to our problem. ...What then to do about Jesus of Nazareth? Miracle wonderman, hero of fools ...” If you know the original you can imagine the hilarious effect.

Then I bought the first recorning of Evita and was absolutely entranced by it, especially the scene where Peron meets Eva for the first time:  “...Colonel Peron / Eva Duarte, I’ve heard so much about you. ... but I’m only an actress / a soldier ... But when you act, the things you do affect us all. But when you act, you take us away from the squalor of the real world. ...I’d be good for you, I’d be surprisingly good for you.”

For me, the highlight of the programme was Lesley Garrett and Michael Ball singing The Phantom of the Opera in 2001. I love Lesley Garrett. She is of my era and from Thorne in Yorkshire, my part of the country. She went to Thorne Grammar School. Goole, Thorne and the villages in between and around used to be as one. They even had the same telephone dialling code. Then some government factotum with apparently no understanding of the social geography of the area thought it would be more convenient to split them off into different administrative regions.

When Lesley Garrett speaks, much of her native Thorne accent still bubbles through. When she sings, she is spellbinding.

Lesley Garrett and Michael Ball: The Phantom of the Opera -
I don’t know why the sub-titles to this video
misleadingly implies that they are married.

Friday 1 December 2023

The Mighty Micro

New Month Old Post: first posted 4th January, 2017. 

Christopher Evans: The Mighty Micro

In 1978, Dr. Christopher Evans, a psychologist, computer scientist and expert on the future of computers, confidently made four predictions for the year 2000: (i) the printed word would become virtually obsolete; (ii) computer-based education would begin to supplant schools and teachers; (iii) money, in terms of physical bits of metal and paper, would almost have vanished; (iv) substantial and dramatic advances would have taken place in the field of artificial intelligence.
His only uncertainty was about the pace of change. It might take a decade or so longer, or occur more quickly, but the changes about to take place would be so stupendous as to transform the world beyond recognition. There would be more changes than in the whole of the two previous centuries. We were about to experience rapid, massive, irreversible and remorselessly unstoppable shifts in the way we lived.

Evans expanded his predictions in his book and television series The Mighty Micro. As well as the four main predictions, he thought we would soon see self-driving collision-proof cars, robotic lawn mowers, doors that open only to the voices of their owners, the widespread commercial use of databases and electronic text, a ‘wristwatch’ which monitors your heart and blood pressure, an entire library stored in the space of just one book, a flourishing computer-games industry and eventually ultra-intelligent machines with powers far greater than our own. Every one of these things seemed incredible at the time.

The social and political predictions were even more mind boggling. Evans foresaw a twenty-hour working week for all, retirement at fifty, interactive politics through regular electronic referendums, a decline in the influence of the professions, the emptying of cities and decreased travel as we worked more from home, and the fall of communism as underprivileged societies become astutely aware of their relative deprivation.  

I remember how fantastic and exhilarating this view of the future seemed at the time, but it gave me a serious problem. Having escaped my previous career in accountancy, I was half-way through a psychology degree trying to work out what to do next. If Evans was to be believed, and I believed a lot of it, then most of the then-present ways of earning a living were in jeopardy.

What was I to do? The answer seemed obvious: something that involved computers. So like Evans, I looked for ways to combine psychology with computing, and after gaining further qualifications that is what I did.

Christopher Evans: The Mighty Micro
Dr. Christopher Evans talks about educational software

It is fascinating to revisit Evans’ predictions. How many were correct, what would have surprised him, and why? Many commentators conclude he got more things wrong than right, but I am not so sure. The printed word no longer predominates; computers now pervade education, albeit with teachers in schools as guides rather than in the didactic and solitary way Evans imagined; and nearly all significant financial transactions are carried out electronically. And the less-bizarre predictions are already here.

Undoubtedly, he over-estimated the pace of change, especially the emergence of advanced artificial intelligence. Futurologists are still predicting it. Stephen Hawking warned of the terrifying possibilities of machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails. On the other hand, it may still be as far away as ever. It remains unclear what qualities such super-intelligence might have, or whether intelligence might have an upper limit. Perhaps our inability to imagine these things defines our stupidity. Where Evans was wrong, if it can be regarded as wrong, is that he was no seer. He could not escape the prevailing mindset of the nineteen-seventies, and foresee the innovative new uses of computers.

He did not foresee the internet. Multimedia crops up only in the form of a brief mention of “colour graphics”. Graphical user interfaces were still little more than a research project. He thought that electronic communications would take place through “the family television set” rather than personal hand-held devices.

And if you could not foresee these things, there is no way you could imagine how they would be used. Evans, with a seemingly naive view of human nature, imagined we would all be using computers to improve ourselves and make our lives easier; that our leisure time would be devoted to cultural, artistic, philosophical, scientific and creative endeavour of various kinds. I wonder what he would have made of internet pornography, fake news, selfies and cat videos.

Evans’ over-beneficent view of human nature coloured his vision of the social and political changes he thought would take place. Take the twenty-hour working week and retirement at fifty. The efficiencies brought about by computers could already have reduced our work significantly, but this has never been offered. It would upset too many powerful interests. Governments answer to the establishment more than the ‘man in the street’. As a result, for those who have jobs, the trend today is the opposite. And for those who don’t, wouldn’t it be fairer to share the jobs out?

Imagine if twenty hours per week up to the age of fifty was all we had to do. What would happen? For a start there would be those who decided to take on additional work in order to fund superior accommodation, private education, health care, better holidays, a more luxurious lifestyle and a more comfortable old age. Anyone content with just one job would begin to lose out. To keep up, we would all continue to work more than necessary, and the extra wealth would evaporate through increased spending, inflation and rising house prices, and disappear into the pockets of the elite minority, much of it overseas. Does that sound familiar? The only way to avoid the inevitable self-satisfied winners and miserable losers would be to ration the amount of work one could undertake, or the amount of wealth one was allowed to have. The necessary laws and financial penalties would be unpopular and difficult.

And how would we use our over-abundant spare time? One could easily imagine an intensification of social ills: epidemics of obesity, alcoholism, drug dependence, mental health issues and the breakdown of law and order. 

‘Parkinson’s law’ prevails: work expands to fill the time available. Anyone with experience of large organisations will know how work once considered inessential or unaffordable, now occupies an entire additional workforce who administer quality, accountability and ‘political correctness’. Rather than reducing the overall workload, computers have increased it by making possible what was once impossible.

Stephen Hawking concluded his forewarnings about super-intelligent computers as follows:

“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far the trend seems to be towards the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”
Sadly, Christopher Evans died shortly after his book’s publication, three weeks before his television series was broadcast. It is often said that if you make predictions about the future the only certainty is that you will be wrong. Evans would have known this, but I suspect he would have been fairly satisfied by the extent to which he got it right. 

My original post in 2017 was quite a lot longer and included links to the archived television programmes, so I have left it here. The programmes are fascinating to watch if this kind of thing interests you - the future as seen in 1978.

Sunday 26 November 2023

Musical Snobbery

Our folk band played a programme of 16th and 17th Century music in the marble-floored hall of one of our nearby great country houses. Actually, it grieves me I wasn’t in it; the side-effects of the pills I have to take make it too difficult at the moment, but there is no point in moaning. Mrs. D. played. 

We mentioned it to a woman from one of those Old-English music groups that are so up themselves in pious authenticity you wonder what pleasure they get out of actually playing the music, if any. She looked interested.

We explained that it was not all 16th and 17th Century music, that there were some modern novelty items like Barnacle Bill.    

Also, that we would not be wearing authentic costumes, only what we had been able to cobble together and make ourselves to create an impression of the time.

And while we do play composers like Playford and Susato, we do not have original instruments, just our usual ones. We even have banjos, piano accordian and an electric bass.

“Oh!” she said in a long drawn-out “Ohhh!”, wrinkling her nose as if something didn’t smell right.

She didn’t buy a ticket.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Full Circle?

The way we save our computer files seems to have come full-circle, as if we are back to forty or fifty years ago.

Clearing out more of my life’s debris reminded me of this. I had accumulated a collection of disks and tapes that are now little more than museum pieces. You once had to be so methodical in looking after your documents and images. But, before that, it was all done for you. An so it is now.

At first, with mainframe computers, systems managers made sure everything was safely backed-up. I learnt to program in a room full of teletypewriter terminals - the noise was deafening - that were connected to a computer centre somewhere else on the university campus. Once you had typed in your program and asked for it to be save, you could be reasonably sure it would be there ready the next time you logged in.

However, if you wanted to move programs or documents elsewhere, or if you had one of those new-fangled micro-computers (i.e. a PC), you had to transfer it on to magnetic takes or disks. The first PCs had no internal disks, nothing was saved automatically by an ‘app’, and there was no OneDrive or Google. The internet did not get going until around 1995.

I learnt the hard way using Tandy TRS80 computers. Everything had to be saved on C60 audio-cassettes, which were notoriously slow and unreliable. I lost hours of work more than once. It was a godsend when floppy disks came along.

Here are some of the storage media I used, now destined for the tip.  

8-inch floppy disks containing my Masters project, which was written in Pascal on an LSI-11 machine. UMIST insisted they had to be protected by special folders. 

The 8-inch disks look enormous next to the later 5¼ -inch and 3½-inch ‘hard’ floppy disks you may remember. 

This is a 6-inch cartridge take from a nineteen-eighties PDP11 Unix system, containing some of the work I did as a university research assistant.

Later, I used zip-disks which were a bit like thick floppy disks, but had greater capacity. Only a few home computers had them. 


Then, we all moved on to CD ROMS and DVD, and USB memory sticks and SD cards. I used a pair of memory sticks to transfer files from work-to-home and home-to-work. My first memory stick had a magnificent 256MB of space (that’s Megabytes not Gigabytes). 

How things have changed! Nowadays, some home computers have internet access only, and no disk drive or USB ports. Some have minimal internal storage. That is also the case if we work only on phones. It feels as if we are being pushed towards keeping everything on the ‘cloud’, like returning to the mainframe days.

Microsoft is removing the Windows video editor from our PCs (through Windows Updates) because they want us to use the online ‘ClipChamp’ editor. Google circulated an email saying they are deleting accounts inactive for more than two years. That could well include blogs. Andrew in Australia lost years of blog posts because of something unspecified he supposedly said. Next, they’ll be trying to charge us to store our stuff.

I don’t trust the b------s at all. I now have enormous amounts of material: family history research, my parents digitised photograph albums, our own photographs and colour slides, our own digital photographs, digitised videos from cine films, our own digital videos, ... and archived blog posts.

In all, it fills over 100 Gigabytes. I’ve backed it all up in duplicate on a pair of hard drives. I’m glad I learnt the discipline.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Exon 14

To paraphrase "GPs Behind Closed Doors", this post contains challenging medical issues.

Exon 14 sounds like a science fiction film. As little as ten years ago, it could well have been, but actually it is real.

I have something called the MET Exon 14 skipping mutation. It alters a specific gene, the MET gene (mesenchymal-epithelial transition) so that affected cells produce an abnormal protein which makes them grow uncontrollably.

The mutation causes lung tumours. It affects mainly smokers, but I put mine down to dirty Leeds in the nineteen-seventies when large numbers smoked, and offices, buses, cinemas, pubs and the shared houses I lived in reeked of a blue haze that stuck to your hair and clothes so much that you failed to notice. Leeds was also full of traffic fumes and pollution from coal fires and industries, and my accountancy job involved hours walking round warehouses, mills and factories where there were all kinds of dust and chemical vapours. The cause on my health record is "significant passive smoking". 

I was entirely symptomless until I had a seizure. Perhaps a routine chest X-ray might have detected it sooner and saved me a lot of trouble, but it was as good as impossible to get one during the covid lockdown, even if I had thought to request one.

Diagnosis begins with a CT-directed lung biopsy. You lie face-down in a CT scanner while a surgeon positions a thing metal tube into your back, through which they can then cut out and remove a small piece of tumour tissue for analysis and gene-sequencing. It is not a comfortable procedure. I wondered what was the cold liquid running into the back of my throat, which I had to spit out on to the scanner table. It was blood. We don't normally realise how cold the insides of our lungs get.

Gene sequencing is only the first part of the science fiction. There is a targeted therapy. The Merck drug company have licenced a chemical called Tepotinib (trade mane Tepmetko) in the form of a daily pill that blocks the abnormal protein, and slows down or stops the tumours from growing. It is a high cost treatment; I have heard a figure of £7,000 per month mentioned, but thanks to the NHS I do not have to pay.

Surprisingly, it is a relatively simple chemical - a hydrochloride hydrate of C29H28N6O2. I imagine that in some parts of the world they ignore the patent and make it themselves for a few pence per pill.

I have had other treatments too: chemotherapy which was awful, lung radiotherapy which was little trouble in my case, gamma knife radiotherapy which pinpoints and zaps small brain metastases, a brain op to drain the cyst that gamma knife left behind, which was scary. All over a year ago.

The side effects of Tepotinib are difficult, especially oedema (fluid retention). If you get cold it takes ages to get warm again because it is the equivalent of having 20 pounds (9 kg) of cold water bags strapped around your limbs and body, and, believe me, you would not want to have scrotal oedema (or vulval oedema I imagine, but don't know because I don't have that).

I am OK. It is but a scratch. I've had worse. None shall pass. I am still here.  

So, not only have we mapped the human genome to identify the 25,000 or so genes of our 23 chromosomes, we can gene-sequence malfunctioning cells to pick out a defective gene, understand its mechanisms, and construct a chemical to block its actions. To those of my generation, even the technologically literate, that really does sound like science fiction.

New things like this are coming along all the time. It should give hope to those who might become ill in the future.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Dirty Old Town

Every year, around this time, the asphalt surface of the school playground would be buried under a huge pile of coke. It was like lumps of gray cindery coal, but without much weight. Gradually, it disappeared into the school boiler room.

The coke was a by-product of the corporation gasworks, which manufactured coal gas supplied to our houses through a network of pipes. We had gas cookers, and gas taps beside the fireplace to which you could connect a free-standing gas fire through a rubber tube. I ran the Bunsen burner for my home chemistry set in the same way. Outside, there were gas lamps along the street, and a man with a long pole came to turn them on and off each evening and morning. My dad could remember the pre-electric days when houses had gas mantles for internal lighting.

Gas was produced by heating coal in the absence of air, with coke, tar, and chemicals as by-products. Coke burned hotter and cleaner than coal and could be used as fuel in specialized boilers. It was also used in industrial processes, but was no good for the home fireplace.

Dad’s Arthur Mee Encyclopedia (1927) has a series of pictures and diagrams showing how coal gas was made and the amount of plant and machinery needed. Here are the first three. 

The corporation gasworks were near the docks where they were supplied by canal with coal from the Yorkshire coal fields. In other towns, coal trains ran through the streets to the gasworks. The infrastructure was extensive: heavy engineering, railway lines, underground pipes. You could live in Gas Works Street, work at the gasworks, drink and be entertained at the Gas Club, and go on gasworks outings. Some of the structures are still around. 

That, for me, describes 1950s Britain (and earlier): asphalt playgrounds, school boiler rooms, gas lights, gas works, coal trains pulled by steam engines, and coke before it had any other meanings. I have no idea why it came to me in the middle of the night. 

It became obsolete when we changed over to North Sea Gas in the early 1970s. Millions of household appliances had to be converted to burn natural rather than coal gas. The gas storage tanks at the gas works continued in use for many years, until condemned as unnecessary. Many have since been dismantled. We have hardly any gas storage in Britain now; just a few days’ supply, as compared with a few months’ supply in Germany.

I found my love by the gasworks croft
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town, dirty old town

I heard a siren from the docks
Saw a train set the night on fire
Smelled the spring on the smoky wind
Dirty old town, dirty old town

Clouds are floating across the sky
Cats are prowling upon their beat
s a girl in the streets at night
Dirty old town, dirty old town

I’m going to make a good sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
We'll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town, dirty old town