Tuesday, April 5, 2011


I was doing some research for a prospective client's website this morning and stumbled upon a "Live Chat" software provider, aptly named livechatnow!

After reading through the terms and condition and figuring out how to download and use the software, one question remained unanswered. What happens when your live operator needs to take a potty break?

The thought then came to me. Surely this company eats its own dog food? So I looked around the web page and found a very understated button, apologetically tucked away in a corner, almost begging to be ignored.

I clicked the button and was immediately presented with this pop-up window:

To my dismay, no operators were available to answer my question, which had now been fully answered anyway! It just made me wonder about livechatnow! and its capability to support its customer after the credit card has been swiped ....

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Episode II - Baby Steps

In 1985, the US Government issued me a green card authorizing me to live and work in the United States of America on a permanent basis. Oddly enough the card wasn't green ... and it wasn't the first green card I had ever owned. Here's a picture of my first .... and this one was green!

I came to own it quite by accident. In 1969 I was still busily pursuing my bean-counting career and has passed the first part of the A.I.M.T.A. examinations. One morning in July, we were handed a flyer (the sixties equivalent of e-mail) from IBM inviting any and all interested parties to participate in an 'aptitude' test. The test was administered during the lunch hour in the Council Chambers and a whopping 1,800+ people turned up to try their hand at what turned out to be a speed test of logic and simple math and featured questions like: "A firm buys two typewriters: A and B. If A costs 1/4 more than 4/5 of B and the total comes to £21-10-6 then what is the cost of A" [decimalization didn't happen in the UK until 1971, so we were stuck trying to figure out pounds, shillings and pence - 3-column ledgers made your head spin!]. It wasn't until a few days later that we really understood the significance of the test and its aftermath.

Pre-Decimalization Currency

The County had contracted with IBM (not ICL!) to provide a new super-computer for use in the Treasury Department. Initially, it was going to be used to process payroll for the tens of thousands of local government employees. In fact, they had secretly been building an air-conditioned basement computer room to house this shining beast.

IBM 360 Model 20

When the results of the aptitude test were released and my name was 2nd on the list, I was flabbergasted! The only person ahead of me was a guy named Arthur whose only claim to fame at that point was that he sometimes brought his Salvation Army uniform and his tuba to work and was seen resplendently leaving after 5pm destined, no doubt, for some local temperance event.

My transition to the world of computers was almost complete. A pat on the back from the County Treasurer himself and a transfer (with no extra pay!) to the newly formed "Computer Department" - and it was done! I can remember sitting in a room one Monday morning with 5 other guinea pigs thinking "So what do we do now?". Luckily, IBM was on hand to begin the indoctrination, handing out Green Cards and Flow-charting Templates and telling us that we'd be up to speed in no time at all.

IBM Flowchart Template

The trouble was that - even with our green cards, templates and pencils in hand - no-one still had a clue what being a programmer really entailed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Episode I - The Early Years

In 1967 - at the ripe young age of 18 - I began working at the DMV in my local County Council offices. I was hired under the guise of becoming a Municipal Accountant, the training for which would be supplied by the County in the form of 1 day and 2 nights a week at a local college - plus Saturdays - which really cramped my style in those days! The objective: to pass the examinations of the Institute of Municipal Treasurers & Accountants and be a career government bean counter.

It was at Sunderland Polytechnic that I was first introduced to a computer - the Elliott 803.

The Elliott Model 803

The Elliott 803 was a small computer manufactured by the British company Elliott Brothers in the 1960s. About 250 were built and most British universities and colleges bought one. It was a transistorized, bit-serial beast of a machine using about 32K of ferrite core memory. It had operator's control console, a Creed teleprinter and a high-speed paper tape reader and punch for input/output, using 5-track Elliott telecode code.

Punched Paper Tape

I learned how to create simple programs in a language called Algol - and I mean simple! I typed the program on the tape punch console and fed it back into the same machine in read mode. Making a mistake meant that I had to retype the incorrect section of code correctly and then physically splice it into the roll of tape, replacing the incorrect code. The program needed a batch of data to process, so this too was created on the tape punch machine. I remember being thrilled when my first program added a list of numbers and printed the total on the teleprinter.

ALGOL Programmers Guide

Even in my euphoria, however, I hadn't the first idea what practical use this computer could be put to. After all, I had been using a snazzy (pre-LED) TI calculator that weighed just a few ounces - so why would one need a 5ft tall, half-ton behemoth to do the same thing?

1967 Texas Instruments Calculator

Late in 1968, the college was all abuzz with talk of a new computer being constructed somewhere in the basement. They were calling it a "mainframe" and it was supposedly going to change the face of computing!

The ICL Series 1900

ICL (International Computers Ltd) was formed in 1968 as a part of the Industrial Expansion Act of Harold Wilson's Labor Government. Tony Benn, the Minister of Technology, and his cronies were hell bent on creating a British computer industry that could compete with IBM. Although popular in government, ICL never enjoyed great success in the private sector, and was eventually acquired by Fujitsu. I never did see the ICL 1900 in person, for it wasn't long before I was to transfer from Sunderland Polytechnic to Durham University to begin my hardcore training in computer science. But that's an entirely different story ...