Computer Industry Book Reviews

Back in the 1990s, I wrote regular book reviews for computer industry magazines. It was a great little gig and I enjoyed reading the books and seeing my writing in print. I also got to keep the books after reviewing them, and ended up with a large collection. I’m sure I still have some of them.

One of my many book reviews from Computer Weekly, c. 1995.

My review of The Skin of Culture above mentions “the growth of new media such as E-mail and videoconferencing”. We are now living and working in a world where both technologies are so ubiquitous they are taken for granted.

Another of my book reviews from Computer Weekly, c. 1995.

In the review of Rewired above, I mention approaching the next millenium. It feels quite strange to realise we are now two decades into that millenium, and that I wrote those words over twenty years ago.

There were lots of different industry magazines like this, including Computer Weekly, Computing, Microscope, and several others. Some, like Computer Weekly, have now gone digital only.

Many of them no longer exist at all.

Computers used in the Classic Dallas TV Series

Ewing Oil Computerised in 1982

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Earlier this year I began watching the classic TV series, Dallas, which ran from 1978 to 1991. I don’t recall what made me look, but I discovered all 357 episodes on Apple TV, and committed myself to a new daily routine of watching one over breakfast each day.

During the first five seasons, the appearance of a computer on the show was very rare. Season five saw a Tandy TRS 80 Model III appear briefly on top of a hospital filing cabinet, but I don’t remember spotting any others. (Maybe this is a great excuse for me to watch them all again sometime?)

As some point in 1982, Ewing Oil was obviously computerised, as computers begin making a regular appearance on the show. JR, Bobby and their secretaries all started using shiny new NEC PC-8001As, as seen in the photograph above, which is a screen grab from Season 6, Episode 9, “Fringe Benefits”, where JR can be seen flicking through a manual and using one finger to randomly press keys just before he receives a visit from his rival Cliff Barnes who has just purchased a refinery that JR himself wanted to buy.

Ewing Oil used Home Computers for Business!

It took me a long time and lots of Google searches to discover what these computers were, because I didn’t have much to go on other than a few seconds of footage. I tried searching for early 80s PC clones, dumb terminals, minicomputer terminals, you name it. Eventually I stumbled across the image I was looking for.

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There was no mistaking the unique combination of dark key surround, separate numeric keypad, the row of five function keys, and those two sets of vents at the back.

The PC-8001 was actually marketed as a home computer, so it’s interesting how someone at Ewing Oil decided to deploy them for business use. I’m not sure whether old Jock Ewing would have approved of that. They had just 16KB of RAM, could display 8 colours, and ran N-BASIC which was a variant of Microsoft Disk-BASIC. Optionally, the CP/M operating system was also available. Back in 1981 this machine cost $1,295, which in today’s money is around $3,857. You could buy a pretty amazing PC for that amount in 2020.

Business Applications

Unless Ewing Oil hired a consultant to develop some bespoke business software in N-BASIC, they were probably using a packaged application available for CP/M, which means they paid extra for the optional CP/M operating system. They could afford it!

There were several off-the-shelf CP/M applications such as WordStar, word-processing software which cost $445 (including the manual) in 1979. Although it was more likely JR was getting to grips with the sister product CalcStar,  spreadsheet software he could use to quickly calculate how much money he was making on a deal. Then again, maybe he was using InfoStar/DataStar to computerise his rolodex so he could call the Cattleman’s Club himself instead of getting Sly to do it every time.

Evolution of IT in Ewing Oil

As the show rolls on through the 80s I’m expecting to see a change in the computers being used. I suspect PC clones will start to make regular appearances. Maybe the Apple IIe will feature too, or the Lisa or the Macintosh. Who knows, maybe JR and Bobby will be super innovative and invest in some NeXT Computer workstations?

My next task is to figure out what computer Cliff Barnes has in the corner of his new office at Barnes Wentworth…

This is all making me feel very nostalgic for the early days of my IT career.

Will 2020 be The Last Year of Flickr?

I really hope I’m wrong, but I have a sad feeling that 2020 is going to be Flickr’s last year. I’ve been a ‘Pro’ (paying) member of the photo-sharing site since 2006.

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The early years

I remember the earlier years of Flickr very well. For me, it went through a Golden Age which ran from about 2007 until 2010. During those years I found many friends on the site, and am still in touch with a couple of them who post to this day, albeit much less frequently.

After a break of a few years, during which I still made photographs but didn’t feel the need to share so much, I came back in 2013 to find things still going strong. Most of my old friends were still there and I undertook an ambitious 365 project through the site, to try to get my creativity back again.

The community spirit on the site during that year was wonderful. Lots of interaction, lots of constructive criticism, and lots of great photos from other people.

The last days of Yahoo

By 2007 when I joined, Flickr was of course already under Yahoo!’s ownership. I personally didn’t notice whether the departure of Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake in 2008 made a difference, but I’m sure to some people it did.

For me, the big changes happened between 2013 and 2018 during which time Yahoo! was mostly being led by Marissa Meyer. Back in 2013 there was a major UX/UI update which drove many users away, but I stuck with it for a while and actually preferred the new look. I believed the new Yahoo! CEO was going to do great things for Flickr.

Gradually, however, the audience floated away. I stopped using the site regularly at the end of 2013 for personal reasons and posted only sporadically for about four years. Strangely, everyone else appeared to do the same, and over the course of the next five years Flickr faded. I’m not suggesting it was anything to do with Marissa Meyer, because I don’t know whether that was the case. Was it due to lack of investment? Was it due to the rapid growth of Instagram and market competition? I don’t know.

The Smugmug takeover

In 2018 I received the email from SmugMug in which they announced they had bought Flickr and were promising to revitalise the service. I started playing around with it again and began posting images more regularly, but most of the people I knew had long since deserted it.

I had faith, and renewed my Pro membership, looking forward to a rebirth. When the new team got rid of the awful Yahoo! login constraint I was excited for the future. When they moved the platform over to AWS, I really believed they were going to save Flickr.

But the interaction just wasn’t there. The groups weren’t the same, and had become dumping grounds for people who tried desperately to raise their view counts. Flickr had become like Instagram. People liked, but hardly anyone ever commented, which was one of the great things I remembered about Flickr from around 2009-2013.

The email from the CEO

On December 20th, I received an “Important letter from Flickr’s CEO”. I guessed it wouldn’t be a happy letter and braced myself for a shutdown notification, but the news wasn’t quite so bad. However, Flickr, the “world’s most-beloved money-losing business” still needs help, and is not yet making enough money to survive. It needs more paying Pro members.

I believe Flickr is far superior to Instagram for photo-sharing, but without the audience it isn’t going to make it. Me asking the few people who read my blog to sign up is not going to help. It saddens me to think 2020 may go down as The Last Year of Flickr.

Happy Childhood Memories

Today I went back to my old home town of Great Harwood, and walked around for half an hour with my camera. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for years.

It’s grim up north, but it’s where I grew up, where I spent many a happy summer day playing in those backstreets as a child, befriending stray cats and scraping my knees climbing walls. Great Harwood the town has changed, but turn a corner and you instantly go back in time. The red bridge is still there, as you can see in the photos above. I remember climbing through that same gap in the railings, and going down onto the little pebble shore. There was – and still is – a dreadful chemical smell rising from Hyndburn Brook, but when I played on that beach, skimming stones across the water, in my mind I was on a beautiful desert island in the middle of the pacific.

Happy memories.

A Short Break in Windsor & Eton

Nearly twenty years ago, I worked in Slough for around six months. I wasn’t immediately impressed with the town back then, and followed some advice to stay in nearby Windsor instead. I found myself a B&B where I settled for the duration, and since then I have been a regular visitor back to Windsor and Eton, with my wife tagging along. We always stay at the Castle Hotel, but with every trip there is something new for us to discover, as well as comforting familiarity.

This time we discovered the grave of the author M.R. James, in Eton Cemetery. We also discovered how lovely The George Inn is – it’s on High Street, Eton, and well worth a visit for food and/or drink. We enjoyed a mulled wine sat by the open fire.

Whenever I visit Windsor I always want to return to my old haunts. Alma House B&B is still there, where I stayed in 1999, although it has changed quite significantly since then. The Viceroy of Windsor, a fantastic Indian/Bangladeshi restaurant is also still there. I have memories of spending many an evening enjoying a spicy curry. My old favourite was “Murgi Mussala” – Chicken and minced lamb, medium spicy, with egg – and imagine my delight to find it still on the menu as a house special!

Two views of Stocks Reservoir

Here are two pictures I made of Stocks Reservoir.  I’m not really a landscape photographer, but these are interesting because they are both of the same scene, captured from The Causeway in Gisburn Forest, but they were taken twenty-two years apart.

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The weather conditions are obviously different, as is the water level!

The first photograph was made on black and white film in 1994. Back then I was still living with my parents. The second photo I captured with my DSLR a couple of weeks ago. Now I’m married, and my wife was with me.

Another big difference I remember is how back in 1994 I had to hold my camera up over my head in order to get that first picture. I took it blind without knowing what the view was like, or what I would get. This time around I could see over the wall, but the strange thing is, I was already fully grown in 1994, so it’s not as if I got taller. I can’t really explain what happened there.

Also worthy of note is the fact that for some reason I didn’t get around to developing that black and white film until c. 2009, so I waited well over a decade to see the result of that over-the-wall shot, even though I never forgot the day I took it.