Tag Archives: Reading

Standing Up for England's Counties

There is a bit of a double act going on between Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) and Eric Pickles (@ericpickles) on Twitter at times with one promoting the other. One such bit of promotion came last week when Grant Shapps tweeted the following:

Eric Pickles standing up for England’s counties and 1,000 years of English history – http://bit.ly/aD1Z0Z

The link points to the Telegraph letters page of August 11th which part way down features this letter from Eric Pickles:

SIR – I share the public’s concern (Letters, August 9) at the recommendation of the Postcode Address File Advisory Board to delete counties from the Royal Mail’s address database by 2016. It speaks volumes that unelected officials regard our counties – and over 1,000 years of English history – as a “vanity attachment”.

But the new Government is taking steps to defend our counties. We have scrapped Labour’s gerrymandering which sought to break up the counties of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk for electoral advantage and we are dismantling the tiers of regional assemblies and development agencies.

It is a response to the recent news that the Royal Mail will no longer include counties in official addresses – and as you can see Eric Pickles uses it as an opportunity to pledge to protect English counties.

I have to say I greeted that with a good deal of amusement, the reason being that I live in what was once the county of Berkshire one of the oldest in the country, which exists now purely as a ceremonial county, and it’s not been Labour gerrymandering for electoral advantage that has reduced the county to a mark on the map, it was the Tory Local Government Act 1972 that transferred a chunk of the county including the former county town of Abingdon to Oxfordshire in 1974, and then the previous Tory administration gerrymandering for electoral advantage that abolished the whole county in 1998John Gummer chose to ignore the recommendations of the commission leaving Berkshire with six unitary authorities.

So what is the effect? For us in our little village at a simple level it means significantly less representation. We have a single local councillor, who we can only vote for once every four years, for the other three years our opinion counts for absolutely nothing. Under the old two tier system we had representation at both local and county level, and many more opportunities to vote.

Looking wider, we now have six authorities fighting with each other. We saw it with the endless debates over housing allocation where Wokingham District fought and lost the battle with the other authorities – each authority purely focused on their own people. Even government documents such as this concede that the six small unitary authorities don’t work in the best interests of the people, check out this paragraph on page 5:

The unitary structure of local government across Berkshire makes it difficult for other stakeholders to engage on issues that cut across boundaries. This is further complicated by the range of political views and agendas within and across the local authorities, and by the fact that changes across other public sector bodies do not align with the Local Authorities or each other (e.g. Police, Primary Care Trusts and Learning and Skills Council)

The size of the authorities causes problems too, I remember a number of discussions with local teachers of the problems, for example the peculiarities caused by Wokingham outsourcing much of their education to next door Surrey, or the fact that school repair projects that were approved by Berkshire were dropped by Wokingham who had more limited funds. We still have the effects now more than a decade later with many students being educated in schools in adjacent authorities rather than their own, purely because villages in the west of Wokingham are closer to schools in West Berkshire, students in parts of Reading are closer to schools in Wokingham.

That also highlights a missed opportunity – Reading still doesn’t have one authority overseeing a strategy for the whole town. A large chunk towards the south east of Greater Reading is in Wokingham, indeed most of the University of Reading is in Wokingham. Over in the west another chunk of the town is looked after by West Berkshire. In both cases there is no clear divide between the areas, but the historic borders were retained.

So will the Tories stand up for England’s counties? I don’t know, but as a resident of the former county of Berkshire their past record doesn’t bode well for the future.

Embarrassing the Sales Assistant

Had an interesting time in a certain large store in Reading earlier today. I was in getting a cable for my iPod, and was in the queue behind a couple who were trying to return their recently purchased laptop because it had Vista on it and not XP. The sales assistant was very much trying to persuade them not to return it by telling them that they couldn’t get a machine with XP any more, and how they’d have to buy second hand, and so on and so forth.

To be absolutely blunt, that is rubbish – what he was actually saying is that his store wouldn’t sell them a new machine with XP. At that point I cut in and said that it was still possible to find a machine with XPDell being probably the best known example of a manufacturer still doing so (albeit to a limited extent), and the example I gave.

At this point the sales assistant looked shifty, and started ringing up the refund, before remembering that they had some similar laptops in their sale that were still running XP. Must have just slipped his mind I guess!

Developer Day Number Six

Today was the sixth of the Developer Developer Developer events at the Microsoft Campus in Reading, and as with the previous events, I spent the day enjoying the sessions. As in previous events what I actually attended didn’t quite match up with what I thought I would attend, but the beauty of these days is you can quite easily switch dependant on what takes your fancy on the day, or indeed which sessions have seats!

First off I sampled the first part of Oliver Sturm’s double presentation on producing business applications with Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). Like most people, what I remember about WPF is the flashy eye candy filled demo applications – what Oliver aimed to do was show that alongside the eye candy was a strong platform that could produce the kind of ‘boring’ business applications that most people end up writing, something in which he very much succeeded.

I commented after DDD4 that the kind of material that Oliver covered needed an early slot, rather than the graveyard slot where everybody was tired, and it is great to see that the comment had been taken on board, as a result I thought I gained a lot from attending both the first and second parts of the presentation (although it would have been better in successive slots I have to say), and certainly have a better idea of what I can do with the new framework.

Another session that gave me a better idea of what I can do was the slightly mis-titled Cruise Control .Net session presented by Paul Lockwood. I say mis-titled as the titular piece of software only appeared at the end of the session, much of the earlier part was looking at all the other bits of software that Cruise Control .Net actually uses, and which provide much of the power of the continuous integration process. No matter as it was an interesting session, and certainly gave me some pointers towards what is needed in setting up a continuous build process. Having said that, at work we’ve been saying we’re going to set up a continuous build process for a long while, whether we’ll actually get round to doing it is another matter!

After that it was back to see Oliver for part two of his session, and then from there on to lunch.

The main lunchtime activity was the Grok talks, of which more in a moment, but first the one thing that really annoyed me about the day (well aside from the car service indicator, but that’s another story) which was the way lunch was handled. Now they’ve tried various ways around this from full scale hot food, through to the bagged lunches they have now. The bagged lunches seemed to have worked fairly well, but it is always slightly slow because they randomly pack the bags so whether you’re just like me and fussy, or more importantly have food allergies you sometimes need to look through to find a reasonable combination. Now obviously there have been comments about this, as this time they had taped all the bags shut and the only option was vegetarian or meat – but still with the same random selection. There were also Microsoft Events staff posted at each table handing the bags out and being downright rude if you tried to have a look at what was in the bags. Heaven help you if you actually had a legitimate reason to be careful what you got. Luckily my random selection was pretty good and I didn’t get a sandwich ruined by tomato and cucumber, and even struck lucky with the flavour of crisps. But seriously taping the bags shut may remove a symptom of the problem, but it’s not actually solving the problem, it’s just annoying!

Anyway, onto the lunchtime talks. In an improvement from last time they were actually held in Memphis rather than in the foyer. There was still a bit of a problem with noise as the doors were open and people were chatting outside – not helped by the lack of a microphone for the speakers in that room, but it was a definite improvement. Whilst on the subject of microphones, in answer to the organiser, who shall remain nameless, who introduced and closed the day in Chicago by saying both times “you can hear me, I don’t need a microphoneâ€?, “we can’t, and you doâ€?! I know it’s a pain to use a microphone, (and I know other people who don’t like it and think they can get away without) and it’s probably not comfortable, but you can’t be heard at the back if you don’t.

Anyway, back to the Grok Talks – there was a good mix of topics including tips on packaging up your custom controls, a demo of Windows Power Shell and some tips on how to speed up Reflection. Probably the two most memorable were firstly a senior programmer, whose name unfortunately I don’t remember, who did a primarily non-technical presentation about a recent project he led implementing a patient record system in the UAE. Basically by reviewing the project from a business perspective it highlighted all sorts of gotcha’s for other people developing software in foreign countries. In terms of software design, things like other countries having names that don’t fit neatly into the forename/surname structure used here are important, also the d’oh moment when they realised that having a picture of the patient was pretty useless when large numbers of the women wore a burqa was good to share. He also highlighted that the scheduling aspect of the system was complicated by Ramadan as the scheduling algorithm would be different in that period. He also highlighted issues of staff morale, and just getting things done – all useful stuff that some might consider common sense, but are easy to miss on a complex project.

The second most memorable was for totally different reasons. This one was Guy Smith-Ferrier talking about Extension Methods. It was memorable not because of the topic, but because Guy chose to do it as a Pecha Kucha where the presentation is limited to twenty slides, each shown for exactly twenty seconds. After those twenty seconds the slides automatically move on, whether the speaker is finished speaking to the slide or not! Even if you’re not really massively enthusiastic about the subject, the format itself does bring in a strong element of interest as you watch to see if the speaker succeeds or doesn’t manage to keep up. Although there were a few points were Guy fell behind, and even one occasion where he was waiting for the slide to move on, he largely succeeded in coping – maybe an idea to try for more speakers next time?

After lunch I stayed put in Memphis for a Question Time style session on recruitment, not because I was massively interested in the subject, but because the panel included Barry Dorrans on the panel alongside a recruitment consultant. To understand why, have a read of some of the posts on his blog… Anyway, it was a worthwhile session, as there was a good discussion of the pros and cons of going freelance – something I’ve considered before, but rejected – which was an eye opener, particularly the comments from the recruitment consultant about the issues with trying to swap back again. I also felt somewhat better about the lousy pass rate we got on the programming test we gave to potential developers on our most recent recruitment round – the manager on the panel said only one in twenty programmers pass his simple test which sounds much the same as ours. I also came away with a great little test for helpdesk operators too which I guess I’ll have to pass on. As to Barry he was entertaining and animated as always, and managed to not lay in to the recruitment consultant too much – and when he did, about the lack of technical knowledge they have, he largely agreed!

The final session was perhaps the one I had least idea before hand which I was going to attend. Eventually I resisted the temptation of Swaggily Fortunes, and went along to hear James Winters talk about how to write a Facebook application, mainly out of curiosity.

The first thing I learned from the session is that in order to make money from writing for Facebook you don’t need to do anything complicated, indeed James showed us an application that recently sold for about $25,000 that in reality took about three hours to write. To understand why, you have to go back and look at how the Facebook model actually makes money – advertising. Therefore the more users an application has, the more it is worth – so all the stupid little applications that some of the people wanting to use Facebook as a business tool tend to look down on are actually worth significantly more because they generally have many more users than the more serious applications.

The general impression I took away from the session is that a basic Facebook application is actually relatively simple to produce – the real skill is coming up with an idea that has the sort of viral penetration to spread through thousands of users, which is how you can make any sort of money as a Facebook developer. Aside from that the applications are really just web applications, albeit with some functional limitations imposed by Facebook.

Anyway, all in all it was a good day, and I picked up lots of useful bits and pieces – and maybe if I can think up a good idea I’ll make my millions writing a Facebook application… maybe not. Oh and if you’re wondering why I wasn’t micro-blogging along with some of the others on Twitter, blame the Twitter mobile service, as I tried to hook up but it wasn’t until I got home that I realised I wasn’t following the feed, so nothing had worked. Maybe next time…

DDD6 092 and DDD6 125 originally uploaded by blowdart2000.

Better Late than Never

200px-crossrail.PNG

Today, the CrossRail project was finally given the go-ahead.

To give you some idea of how long the project has been trying to get the go ahead, it was originally announced when I was still at school and Margret Thatcher was Prime Minister but ever since then nobody has stumped up the cash to actually complete the project.

The basic idea behind the project is simple – getting across London by public transport is very slow. If for example you want to take the train to get from Essex to Heathrow Airport it involves taking a train into central London, then taking the Underground – probably the Circle Line – around to Paddington to catch the Heathrow Express. The line proposed is a new high speed route running under central London on an East/West route – something that would make that journey a lot quicker and simpler.

Back when the route was originally proposed it was a bit more extensive, with a branch running out to Amersham and Watford, and extending as far as Reading. What has now been given the green light is not quite as extensive with the line only reaching as far as Maidenhead in the west, with a branch to Heathrow. Needless to say from a personal point of view that does slightly lessen it’s convenience for us out here as we’d still require a train change at Maidenhead – having said that it certainly will make getting into central London a lot more convenient. Sadly though it won’t be ready in time for the London Olympics – probably the biggest upcoming event that would benefit as the railway won’t be finished until 2017, five years too late.