Andalucia Steve the dream

My Timemachine of Technology

How I've been lucky to live in a time of unparalleled technological change


I feel very fortunate to have been born when I did and to have observed the revolutionary change in technology that I have. Things whizz along so fast these days. My father woke me up in the middle of the night to watch man's first moon landing, but the rocket that took man to the moon only had a 16 bit processor and a tiny amount of memory by modern standards. These days we all have far more power in our mobile phones! It's all happened so blindingly quickly!
In fact I feel very fortunate to be born at all, as my parents were quite ‘elderly’ when they had me. Dad was 54 when he had me and mum in her mid forties so I'm lucky to be here. Accordingly the environment I grew up in was full of old technology that had been accumulated over many years. We had a valve radios and television that took ages to get hot before they would work. The family camera was a ‘box brownie’ – little more than a black box with a lens and a winding mechanism to advance the film. The film wasn’t cheap so we took each photograph with care, posing and saying cheese! Then it took days or weeks to get the prints back from the chemist! All these artifacts smelt old and musty, but also everything felt frozen in time as though they had been around forever.
Then around the mid-sixties I remember my elderly grandfather went through a number of transistor radios, all of which were made in Hong Kong. My grandad was a bit clumsy and used to drop these ‘trannies’ repeatedly. Invariably the case would break and after a few months of being held together with rubber bands and sticky tape, they would be replaced with another which was always smaller and lighter than the last.
I loved to take the old radios apart and figure out how they worked. The valves of old had been replaced by small blobs which were transistors. The other components had all been shrunk too, as had the printed circuit board. Even so, every component was identifiable and it was generally possible to figure out which did what.
By the time I reached secondary school things started to change a whole lot. My physics teacher explained to me about integrated circuits. Tens or hundreds of transistors were now being fabricated together on one piece of silicon to form whole circuits. These were found in the first pocket calculators. My first calculator, made by Prinztronic cost a fortune but only did +-/* and percentages!
It wasn’t long after that I saw the first microcomputer on the television. This was the commodore Pet, which today still looks more like the sort of thing you would find on the deck of the starship enterprise. The Pet seemed unimaginably expensive to a youngster like me, but pretty soon my school purchased a bunch of microcomputers in kit form (NASCOM 1 if you're curious)  and us school-kids were co-opted to spend hours soldering them together.
I inevitably found myself working in computers and during the 1980's the IBM PC became the default architecture for most business users. My first experience of these was the Olivetti M24, which was a dinosaur by today's standards but crucially the office had them networked together with this clever thing called co-axial cable. The first time I met with this concept I remember thinking what a waste of money! Surely if two people wanted to work on the same spreadsheet they could copy it to a floppy disk and walk to the next office with it. How wrong I was, which is a recurring theme in my life! Of course from these humble beginnings, networking really took off, bringing us to the Internet and the applications on the World-Wide Web we are all so dependent on today.
I'd moved to Spain by the time I saw my first smartphone, a first generation iPhone owned by a friend on holiday from the UK. It seemed so revolutionary at the time, and Apple had clearly got it right - the combination of touch-screen and scrolling GUI was a winner. Now we all have one (or more) in our pockets and think little of it. When you do think about it though, today's smartphones are far more advanced than the communicators used in the first series of Star Trek, which themselves were considered light years ahead at the time. 
An example of how far things have advanced is the disdain people have today of optical media, the CD/DVD discs read with a laser, which are now seen as quaint and clunky like the horse and cart of the digital world. With today's Internet speeds it a lot easier to stream a movie from Netflix than it is to watch an optical disk. A laser based tech becoming near obsolete in my lifetime! How amazing is that?
You might think then, like the apocryphal story of the commissioner of the US patent office, Charles H. Duell, that everything that could be invented had been invented. (I traced the quote - it was more likely a joke prophecy made in Punch magazine). This couldn't be further from the truth. the 21st century is the age of materials, where scientists are gaining insights as to how to manufacture new things at an atomic and quantum level. Quantum computers are in their infancy but promise to bring unparalleled levels of computing power. Graphene, the single atom thick layer of carbon famed for its conductivity of electricity and heat as well as tensile strength has already made its way into a commercial battery. Though at the moment it is only used to assist and enhance conventional lithium batteries,  it is expected that graphene only batteries will be used in future mobile phones and electric vehicles that will be a fraction of the size of those used today. 
So I've seen the world move from valves to the quantum computer in a couple of generations and technological progress is still accelerating. We're living in a world none of us could have envisaged 10 years ago. Who know what the next ten or fifteen years will bring. 

The Thief of Time

You've no idea how long I put off writing this blog-post!
I remember the occasion that I learned the meaning of the word procrastination. It was 1974 and I was in my first computer class. Our teacher, a dear man called Stan Smith, who in a previous profession had been a scientist at Jodrell Bank, had taught us about loops and set us an exercise - to write a program that printed a phrase 10 times. That phrase was "Procrastination is the Thief of Time". Why he broke with the traditional convention in computer programming of having us print "Hello World" is a mystery to me, but for whatever reason I'd learned a new word.
verb [ I ]
uk/prəˈkræs.tɪ.neɪt/ us/proʊˈkræs.tə.neɪt/
to keep delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring
Perhaps he was being ironic because computers, machines, electronics and robots simply don't procrastinate. As John Conor said in the 1984 movie Terminator, "..when Skynet went live it decided our fate in a microsecond".
Humans do procrastinate and me more than most. I don't think I'm alone in this but I'll watch a movie rather than do something arduous like clean the bathroom, but then when I'm watching the movie I'll pause it at a dull moment to go and check Facebook before resuming the movie. In programming terms I'm a recursive procrastinator.
I've never found myself able to stop procrastination altogether, so over the years I've developed techniques for working around it. I split my tasks up so that I give myself divided targets, chunking a big job into several smaller ones, then give myself a foreseen ration of more interesting things to entertain myself with as procrastination treats.
As we identify procrastination with the evils of modern life like TV, Video Games, Social Media and worst of all, YouTube, one could be forgiven for thinking procrastination was a recent phenomena. Not a bit of it. The Stoic philosophers were writing about how to combat procrastination 2000 years ago. Seneca wrote (In 'On the Shortness of Life' )
It's not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it's been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it's spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn't notice passing has passed away. 
Seneca offered many insights into dealing with procrastination. He advocated structure and planning, anticipating work to be done and analysing it for the pitfalls that await to distract and divert one's attention. Many of the suggestions of Seneca and the other stoics distilled into the writing of Tim Ferris in his famous book 'The Four Hour Work Week', for example in the recommendation that one only checks email once per day. Ferris talks much of the stoics in his works and it amazes me how relevant their insights are when applied to modern life.

It's a shame then, especially with PM Johnson being a classics scholar, that the US/UK governments have not observed the lessons of the stoics. The pandemic crisis of COVID-19 engulfing the world as I write has been met by successive countries, not with decisive action but with procrastination. In fact the World Health Organisation procrastinated in declaring Coronavirus a pandemic. There were over 100,000 cases in all continents save Antarctica before the WHO yielded to the admission. Prior to this it was calling it an epidemic. The distinction may seem a small one but it is quite important. An epidemic can in theory be contained. A country can close its borders and maybe receive aid and medical assistance from outside its borders. A pandemic is confirmation that the whole world is an infected area. Closing borders no longer is an effective way to contain the spread of the disease so that each country has to take responsibility for containing its contagion domestically. It is a starting gun for governments to act.

When the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March it then became up to national governments to take effective action to battle the disease. Spain acted quite swiftly bringing in a total lock-down last weekend. Meanwhile Britain and America are still procrastinating. America has brought in local lock-downs in cities where the infections have been seen. Britain's government have advised people to stay at home but delayed 10 days before taking the decision to close pubs, restaurants and gyms. Most shops remain open and people still have freedom to leave their homes, unlike Spain. It's easy to understand why, they didn't want to cause an unnecessary panic and the economic cost of shutting down businesses will be severe. However the message from Seneca is the relationship between short-term pain and long term gain. The longer Britain and America stave off the decision to bring in a complete lock-down, the larger will be the strain on the health services, the more people will die and the greater will be the socio-economic impact. The thief of time will become the thief of life.

I won't bloat this post with more detailed description of the failings of the UK and US governments in their handling of the crisis but here are some links to stories documenting the issue.

Working From Home. Why Not?

2020 is the year that COVID-19 made home-working a must.
With the relentless advance of Coronavirus and the Daily Express asserting this is the 'End of The World' predicted by Nostradamus (as it does regularly as clockwork about anything from the latest Near Earth Object to God's face being seen in tub of lard), governments across the globe are asking as many of us as possible to work from home. 
As I touched on in a previous blog, I've had plenty of experience of this since I first tried it in the early 1990's. In fact for the best part of a decade I was a paid up member of the UK's Teleworkers Association. 
In theory, modern communications are so advanced that they should make travel irrelevant save for the transport of goods. With a video camera, a microphone, even 3D virtual reality spaces like Rumii and available to anyone with a smartphone, there seems on the face of it, very little reason to leave one's house, nor even ones bed in the morning. 
Human nature however works differently. I worked in a organisation many years ago with four geographically dispersed offices in different parts of Britain. Someone had the bright idea that if they invested in a video conferencing system, the cost would soon be recouped by the savings in travel and expenses. In those days, before the Internet and with the insistence on studio quality cameras it was a six figure investment. Despite much goading from above to try and get executives to use it, the system soon became a white elephant. I doubt it ever achieved the return on the investment that was hoped for. 
The reasons seemed to be twofold.  Firstly many people are inherently camera shy. Especially if they don't appear in front of a camera very often, most people have that feeling of being 'put on the spot' and of having their natural spontaneity sucked from them by anxiousness. Secondly, people enjoy face-to-face meetings. In contrast to camera shyness, people open-up in the physical presence of another human being. Also, as my boss at the time remarked "nobody wanted to use the thing because they would rather go on a jolly, leave the wife at home for a few days, have a few beers in the evening with their mates and maybe squeeze in a round of golf".
When the Internet became popular in the early to mid 1990s I really thought remote working would finally take off. Why on earth would employers maintain offices in expensive locations when they could move to a cheaper place out of town? Why have an office at all if employees could network remotely? Then when the Twin Towers (and building seven) were destroyed in a terrorist attack there seemed to be even more incentive for large concentrations of workers in cities to become a thing of the past. Surely businesses would see the value in dispersing geographically? Incidentally I was working at home on 9/11. In the interests of self-discipline I made a point of never turning on the TV while I was working, so as to avoid distraction. One day, I had a yearning to break that rule. I made a cup of tea and turned on the TV which happened to be tuned to Skynews. The first plane had just crashed into the Twin Towers. I watched open mouthed as Kay Burley mistakenly interpreted the incoming footage as being the same crash from another angle. It was the second plane. I don't know what made me turn the television on that fateful day to see the live action as it happened. What did stick in my mind is the sense of being alone in a crisis. There was just me and a two dimensional representation of Kay Burley. I really needed another human being to turn to and just say "what the absolute fuck?", but there was no one other than my cat who was not really interested in the matter. The isolation of working at home can be very frustrating.
Anyhoo, despite 9/11, businesses continue to concentrate in ever taller buildings. Twenty years on and the web has made very little impact on employer's desire to keep people in chair so they can keep an eye on them. Most companies have vertical hierarchies, and managers love to manage. Many get into it because they are psychopathic control freaks, the sort of folk who like standing over you watching what you do - seeing how long it takes you to go to the loo and what time you choose to knock off in the evening. Home-working has a different dynamic which old style managers cannot get their heads around.
So will generation Z be any different? We're talking about people who were born into being videoed so feel very comfortable with it. They also seem to handle isolation well, being that they are welded to their phones from early childhood and no longer seem to bother talking face-to-face.
Somehow I doubt it.  At the end of the day, interaction is at the root of markets, it is at the root of our psyche and it is fundamental to who we are as humans. So however good virtual reality gets and how comfortable future generations become with it, I feel there will always be  the last nine yards in which there is no substitute for direct human contact. Also any companies of the future pioneering teleworking seemed doomed if they try to use the hierarchical management structures of the past. They will need to be more co-operative and have a flatter management structure that is less dependent on monitoring and more reliant on collaboration. I think if such companies do arise they will find big rewards in being agile and competitive. The snag is as, with big open source projects like say, Wikipedia, they end up begging for funding because despite a huge amount of volunteer working they don't have a format that impacts sales in a way that a vertically structured company does. It seems you need an arse at the top banging on doors, making deals and keeping profitability in-check, while confident enough in delegation to keep management structures flat. 
I saw an interesting video recently in which Elon Musk was ascribed just these qualities. Apparently in both Tesla and SpaceX he promotes a results-driven culture in which people are encouraged and rewarded for delivering ideas across what in other companies would be considered 'cultural' divides. So if a person working on one aspect of production had an insight into another unrelated field, he or she has free-reign to approach that area's director to make a suggestion. This has led to some quantum leaps in Tesla's development and is the sort of management that is required of companies in the 21st century. I don't know the degree to which Musk encourages homeworking, but presumably because he can't be in two places at once, he must himself be a remote manager for some of his time at Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring company. Perhaps Elon is the chap we should be keeping an eye on. Tesla's market capitalisation has just hit $100 billion which is a trigger built into his contractual compensation plan that could be worth $55billion or more, making him the richest person on the planet. Not bad for a part-timer! 

My Top 10 Youtube Channels

I don't watch TV - here's what I do watch.

I haven't been a regular TV viewer since the last century! Working from home in the mid 1990's I always had a computer in my front room anyway, so I transitioned from 'lean back' to 'lean forward' media very early on and soon found it quite odd that folk would sit on a sofa having inane programming firehosed at them while there was a whole planet of interesting stuff to go and find.
Mind you, back then, content was spread around among many independent websites. It was quite a while before video became a significant datatype. Bandwidth was at a premium and video hosting could be a tricky business. An announcement of an online video in the mainstream media could trigger a demand spike that would cripple a normal website. My own web design company, Datadial, reacted by providing a dedicating video-hosting outsourcing service that was popular at the time with advertising and marketing companies, as we had servers in the docklands datacentre that could handle a big surge in demand.
I mention this because when YouTube first came out in 2005 my first thought was 'That's a really dumb idea!'. Knowing how video chewed up bandwidth, the idea of having a generic hosting service where anyone could upload a video about anything seemed like a great way to go out of business really fast. Surely hosting costs would never be recouped by a freeview service from the low quality video being uploaded by Joe Public? How wrong I was! Here we are 15 years later and YouTube is one of the Internet's top five websites with over 31 million unique channels and an audience of two billion per month and growing. And I'm the biggest sucker for it! Rarely a day goes by in which I don't watch a video or two from one of the 900 or so channels I'm subscribed to.
So for this week's blog (which is admittedly a bit of a filler because I've had a lot to do), I thought I'd list my top ten YouTube channels. 

Rich Rebuilds

Rich RebuildsOk this is about a guy (called Rich) who rebuilds cars. Simple enough, huh? Except Richie B Kidd only rebuilds electric cars. The channel started a few years back when Richie bought a Tesla model S that had been written off after taking a swim in a lake. He took the car to pieces and put it back together over a fascinating series of videos that showed me for the first time what the inside of an electric car looked like. Subsequent videos have documented his rebuilding of a Model three and converting a petrol driven Rat-rod into an EV using the guts of a second hand electric motorbike. The show is interesting, not only because it illuminates the engineering behind EVs, but it also exposes the politics behind Tesla's aftercare. Tesla is not keen on work being done on their cars by non-authorised mechanics. Rich has done some quite revealing exposés documenting a range of issues from being denied permission to buy parts to having supercharging turned off remotely by Tesla. Another great reason to watch the channel is Richie himself, who is a world class wit, prankster and comedian. Even when he diverts from the narrative to bring a word from his sponsor, the content he delivers remains fresh and funny as though you're not watching an advert but part of the main feature, which is a very rare skill.

First We Feast - Hot Ones

Hot Ones In the words of their own blurb, "First We Feast videos offer an iconoclastic view into the culinary world, taking you behind-the-scenes with some of the country's best chefs and finding the unexpected places where food and pop culture intersect." First We Feast is a magazine, YouTube channel and brand that produces a number of video series, one of which is called Hot Ones. Hot Ones has a cult following. The format of the show sees host Sean Evans interviewing a celebrity whilst both he and the star munch their way through ten food items (usually chicken wings or vegetarian options such as cauliflower bhajis) each of which has an increasingly powerful dab of hot chilli source. It's a deceptively simple idea that works incredibly well, partly because the show is meticulous well researched so its questions are deep and probing, and also as the 'scoville' units rise, the celebrities are often caught off guard leading to some really revealing answers. This week the host of 'In The Actors Studio', James Lipton died at the age of 93. Previously his show was the best place to go for celebrity interviews, but Hot Ones has in my opinion taken it's place in the 21st century, as the stars seem to be falling over themselves to be on it. Good guests to look out for include Charlize Theron, Gordon Ramsey and Idris Elba.

Up and Atom

Up and AtomI stumbled across this channel when I saw the click-bait title "50 AMAZING Physics Facts to Blow Your Mind!" I was irresistibly drawn to click through and I've been a fan of the channel ever since. Up and Atom is the brainchild of Australian science communicator Jade Tan-Holmes. Her videos cover the full gamut of STEM topics from quantum biology, physics, higher mathematics, logic and even touches on philosophy. What makes the channel such a delight is the presenter's mastery of communication. I don't recall seeing anyone taking a bachelors degree level subject and making it so accessible to the layman. Her joy in both the subject and the action of explaining it is instantly visible in all her work and is dangerously infectious. If you have even the faintest interest in science, watch one of her videos. I'm sure you too will end up subscribing.

Geography Now

Geography NowWith well over two million subscribers, Geography Now probably needs no introduction, but if you have not heard of it before, the channel is on a mission to bring you a bite-sized video about every country on planet earth. Working from A through Z, they are up to St Kitts and Nevis at the time of writing. Fast talking host Paul Barbato started the channel in 2014 and shares presenting duties with a small team of regular hosts and guests from the country being featured. The presenting style is opposite to what one has experienced in traditional academia, and is an attention grabbing mix of comic book/pop-art/slapstick. Episodes are divided into four sections, political geography, physical geography, demographics and the friend-zone (international relations). Despite the informal presenting style, the videos are well researched and contain a mountain of facts. Errors do creep in occasionally but corrections appear in a follow-up show to each episode in a counterpart called Fan-Flag Friday.  Good episodes to cut your teeth on include Japan, Israel and Iran.

Ask a Mortician

Ask a morticianAnother channel that has become so popular now you probably don't need me to tell you about it, Ask A Mortician is hosted by the ever engaging Caitlin Doughty who has been delivering death-themed videos since 2011 and now has over a million subscribers. As one might expect from a holder of a BA in medieval history, Caitlin's videos are meticulously researched, but also she has a gift for story telling. This coupled with her dry sense of humour infuses her videos with bitter-sweet quality - it's kind of like Jackanory with corpses! Good episodes to watch out for are "WHAT HAPPENED TO HIROSHIMA'S DEAD?", "The Self Mummified Monks", "Why Do We Get Columbine So Wrong?" and "The Dyatlov Pass Incident".


AveAve is a channel primarily devoted to mechanical engineering, a subject which is of little interest to me, however I watch often because the host is endlessly entertaining. Who he is remains a mystery as he keeps his identity private, however he is a French Canadian engineer who clearly has a background in machine-shop, hydraulic systems and electronics. Many of his videos (or vijayos as he calls them) are tear downs of tools or domestic electronic products. What makes the channel outstanding is the host's creative use of the English language. He doesn't talk so much as paint with words. His lexicon is extended with local north-American expressions like chooch and skookum, the meanings of which become apparent through watching his videos. He weaves these in with expletives, rhyming slang and shop-talk almost creating a private language all of his own. Just as Shakespeare had a gift for creating expressions such as 'the milk of human kindness' and 'disappeared into thin air', Ave has a gift for coining novel expressions with a wit and creativity that is truly remarkable. I randomly dove in to one of his videos to bring you an example and within seconds came across a rant where he was battling with his camera's auto-focus: "Eye of the Tiger right out fighting with Jesusless camera for the focusing - fuck!" Sheer poetry!


ContrapointsFrom the channel's description "YouTuber, ex-philosopher. Sex, drugs, and social justice." Contrapoints is the video channel of Natalie Wynn, a transgender women who is making a name for herself as an astute, left-wing video essayist. Her channel also explores transgender issues and the politics of sexuality. Not the sort of thing I'd normally watch videos about but the production values are so high and the content so well constructed that I find her videos compelling viewing.  

Dr Becky

Dr BeckyRebecca Smethurst is an astrophysicist with a passion for blackholes. As I write this I can see a common theme emerging among the channels I watch, in that Dr Becky is another presenter who exudes joy in delivering information about her chosen subject. Her enthusiasm is quite infectious. I don't know my parsec from my elbow but I'm learning thanks to watching her weekly content. She only has just over 100k subscribers at the moment but this is climbing and I'm sure she will become the Patrick Moore of the 21st century.

Rick Beato - Everything Music

Rick BeatoBeing a musician myself I watch a ton of channels related to musical education, but Rick stands out as the crème de la crème.  He's worked as a college level music tutor, worked for over 20 years as a producer/engineer and has a huge range of contacts in the music industry. He has a number of series within his channel such as 'What makes this song great' where he tears down a famous cut (often working from the original multi-track recording) and he has other series on guitar tuition, music theory and film scoring. If you have any interest at all in how music is made, there will be something in Rick's channel for you.

Fully Charged Show

Fully Charged ShowFronted by Robert Llewellyn (yes, the Red Dwarf guy). Fully Charged is dedicated to bringing you news about electric vehicles and sustainable energy. I'm far from being a tree-hugger but I see the importance of moving to clean energy, so I watch the show regularly to keep up with the latest developments. Though the subscriber count is little over 640k there is a unique buzz about Fully Charged, a sense growing over time that we really are on the cusp of a green revolution. Contrary to what you might think, the show isn't all about Teslas! In fact the most recent video featured the Top 30 EV models in what is a fast growing market. 
So there we are. Let me know in the comments what you think of my picks and let me know if there are any channels you would recommend!