Tag Archives: Opinion

The Computers That Made Britain

I’m still fascinated by the computers of the eighties. Without well known standards, every machine was different, not only from those of other manufacturers but also older machines from the same company. As as user it was terrible. Back the wrong horse and you’d be stuck with a working computer with no software and no one else to share your disappointment with.

But looking back, there’s a huge diversity of ideas all leaping onto the market in just a few years. Naturally, some of those ideas were terrible. Many machines were rushed and buggy, precisely because there was so much competition. Going on sale at the right time could make or break a machine.

Tim Danton’s “The Computers That Made Britain” is the story of a few of those machines.

He covers all the obvious ones, like the Spectrum and the BBC Micro, and others that I’ve not seen the stories of before, like the PCW8256.

While it’s called “The Computers That Made Britain” rather than “Computers that were made in Britain,” I would argue with some entries. The Apple II is certainly an important computer but, as noted in the book, they didn’t sell well in the UK. Our school literally had one, and I think that’s the only one I’ve ever seen “in the wild.” Sales obviously isn’t the only criterion, but the presence of these machines presumably pushed out the New Brain and the Cambridge Z88 (among others). Since this book is about the computers than made Britain, I would have liked to see more about them and less about the already well documented American machines like the Apples and IBMs.

The chapters are largely standalone, meaning you don’t need to read them in order. I read about the machines I’ve owned first, before completing a second pass on the remaining ones. They’re invariably well researched, including interviews with the protagonists. Some machines get more love than others, though. Talking about the Spectrum, it finishes with a detailed look at all the subsequent machines, right up to the Spectrum Next, though curiously missing the SAM Coupe. But the Archimedes gets nothing, even though there was a range of machines. Did they run out of time or was there a page count?

But those are minor complaints for an otherwise well put together book. Recommended.

It’s published by the company that makes Raspberry Pis, which you could argue is the spiritual successor to the Sinclair and Acorn machine. You can download the book for free, but you should buy it! The above link is for Amazon, but if you’re near Cambridge you should pop into the Raspberry Pi store and pick up your copy there instead.

If this is your kind of book, I would also recommend “Digital Retro” and “Home Computers: 100 Icons that defined a digital generation,” both of which are more photography books than stories.


After university, when I first started working, I jealously noticed people leaving their desks and attending meetings. I was left sitting at my desk, bashing out code. What was going on? What exciting things were being discussed without me? Sometimes they’d come back from the meeting and ask a random question. It was all very mysterious.

A while later I started getting invited to these meetings. I found what was being discussed. I discovered the mystery.

I’ve spent the rest of my career trying to avoid them.

Of course, meetings are not inherently bad. Sharing information, collaborating, making decisions are all vital functions of a company and you need meetings to do that. So why are they often so bad? And why do I spend so much time trying to avoid them?

Meetings are a cultural artefact. Good and bad etiquette isn’t evenly distributed. The companies with the worst meetings are also, ironically, the ones with the most.

What makes a good meeting? There are lots of articles on the web about this, so I don’t want to belabour the point, but, actually, I think it’s quite simple:

  • A defined function
  • The right people
  • The right duration

Missing any one of those means that the meeting is going to be a waste for at least some of those attending.

By “a defined function,” yes, I mean an agenda. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full and formal written agenda, but all attendees should know the point of the meeting. If they don’t, maybe you do need to write it down. I encourage people to decline meetings with an unclear objective1.

The “right people” to invite to a meeting is often driven by the org chart, but this is completely the wrong metric. You need the fewest people that can meet the objective of the meeting. Don’t include someone just because they’re “important.” Don’t exclude someone because they’re too junior. Include everyone needed to share information or make a decision, or whatever the goal. But no more than that.

One thing that infuriates me is where people in a meeting have no “function.”2 Everyone should have a clearly defined role. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be there.

What about duration? I see two sides to it. First, work expands to fill the time available. Don’t do that. If you set aside an hour for a meeting but it actually only takes ten minutes, quit while you’re ahead. In fact, for people that tend to take a while to get to the point, I’ll deliberately book short meetings.

Conversely, if you’ve spent an hour going around in circles without making a real decision, maybe it’s time to call it a day. Your conclusion should be the information you need to actually make a decision, the people who are going to obtain it and, hopefully, when the next meeting will be.

Talking of “an hour,” that’s my benchmark for maximum meeting length. Anything significantly longer than that suggests to me that there isn’t sufficient focus or a tight enough agenda. And, perhaps more importantly, people are just not going to focus that whole time. They’re going to drift off into a dream world or check their phone. Why have them in the room physically if they’re not present mentally?

It all sounds so simple when you put it like that and yet we’re all guilty of Doing It Wrong. If there’s one thing to take away, it’s that meetings should be deliberate, just like any other corporate artefact.

  1. There are exceptions. For example, I wouldn’t decline a meeting with a client but I would seek clarification. ↩︎
  2. When Dilbert was good, there was a character called the Meeting Moth. I think we’ve all worked with people like that. ↩︎


As the Downing Street clock reaches zero, as Whitehall is lit in red, white and blue, as the Union Jacks blanket Parliament Square, I wanted to commemorate Brexit actually happening.

In fact, I’ve wanted to say something about Brexit since before the referendum, but what is there to say that’s new? But original or not, I needed to write something.

Far from a celebration, 11pm on 31st January 2020 marks the culmination of years of misdirected anger and politicians harnessing that for their own personal gain.

The reasons for the anger are real. Inequality. Stagnating, if not declining, living standards. But the causes are austerity and neglect, not immigration.

That was merely misdirection. There were also the lies. You know it’s gone too far when Johnson, in a room full of journalists and cameras, says that there is no press there. And he still won the election.

And that’s what makes me angry. The lies. The demonisation of anyone trying to scrutinise the changes or hold the government to account. Even if you want Brexit, you should surely want it done right. It’s gutter politics; you should be able to win without smearing your opponents and outright lying1 And I’m angry that “the public” have let them get away with it2.

I’d like to think that Gina Miller, Lady Hale, John Bercow3 and backbench MPs like Dominic Greave will come out of this well when we look back in a few years. The current batch of MPs waving through the Withdrawal Agreement in three days, not so much. Did those MPs forget, or not care about, the predicted consequences of Brexit?

There’s a lot more that I could say, of course, but this whole charade has been well documented elsewhere.

What I would say is that I genuinely worry for the future of the country. When I first wrote that sentence I stopped and wondered if I was being overly dramatic. But I’m keeping it.

The government has a large majority, unconstrained by details like truth or an effective opposition party or a press willing to hold them to account. The issues that brought about Brexit — austerity, income inequality — are still present and will likely be exacerbated by our separation from Europe. Yet the same government has little interest in the kinds of people that will be most affected by their own policies.

The main positive is that Johnson owns Brexit now. It’s his signature on the bill, it’s his party in power, it’s his team negotiating. He can’t blame parliament. The consequences are his.

If that sounds like I want Johnson to fail, you’d be right. But not at the expense of the country as a whole. If we have to leave, I want Brexit to be a success. I just have a hard time seeing how that could happen.

  1. I’m not naive, I’m not saying that Westminster has always been filled with selfless, upstanding campaigners but the ratio of good-to-bad these days seems badly skewed. ↩︎
  2. Of course most of the public are not the Union Jack wearing, Nazi saluting caricatures we see on the news or Twitter. Still, enough people thought that lies were preferable to Corbyn’s ineffectual leadership. ↩︎
  3. While you can’t ignore the bullying accusations, I think it’s fair to say that he fought for the sovereignty of parliament. This is the right thing to do whether leaver or remainer. ↩︎


Here’s something I’ve seen a few times recently: a startup issues a patch for a critical issue seen by one of their large customers. The “enterprise,” however, takes a week to install and test it. Clearly, the startup concludes, if it takes a week to try a patch it can’t be that urgent or the staff are dumb, or, quite likely, both.

Separately, we all know that a big difference between a startup and an enterprise is process. So why do people suddenly get angry and start to lack empathy when that difference is exposed?

What we saw in the first paragraph is normal in big companies where you can’t just promote changes into UAT, much less production. It doesn’t matter how loudly you shout at their operations team, it’s not going to make any difference. Maybe the process requires writing test logs and rollback plans. Perhaps it has to be deployed and run in the pre-production environment first. It likely needs sign-off by the QA and security teams. With the best will in the world, this just can’t be done in a few hours, no matter how critical the issue is. Who is to say that the patch isn’t worse than the problem it’s trying to fix?

The difference is frustrating, but don’t mistake tedious process with a lack of urgency or incompetence. Circumventing process can take longer than following it and your client probably knows that. If nothing else, these people might lose their jobs by not following the right process!

Work with it, understand their constraints. This isn’t the time to lose that empathy. It would help if you also had humility and understanding. You know your product but they understand their systems, including how your software interfaces with the other applications they have running in their data centre.

And yes, working with their process is more complex and time-consuming. This is why we charge enterprises more for, ostensibly, the same features.

Innovation department

When I see a company that has an “innovation team” or a “chief innovation officer” I immediately understand that it’s not the kind of company I want to work for.

Innovation isn’t found in a particular team, person or department. It’s your culture.

If you need a special team outside the normal management structure to innovate, what does that say?

Which Tablet?

I was recently asked to recommend a tablet. I thought my reply might be generally useful, so below is a lightly edited version of what I wrote.

The machine I’d recommend depends. It depends mostly on how much you want to pay and what it might used for. The good news is that, by and large, you get what you pay for. (Corollary: don’t get any of the really cheap ones. Argos, for example, do a really cheap one. Avoid it.)

The main ones I’d consider are:

Kindle Fire HD 7″ £119

By far the cheapest but very much tied to Amazon — indeed it’s pretty much sold at cost with the expectation that you’ll spend more money with Amazon later on. That means there are fewer apps (games), you can’t download/rent movies from iTunes, etc. But if you just want to surf the web, check email, etc. and play some big names games it would be fine. Probably worth spending the extra £10 to get the version without adverts (“special offers”) though.

Google Nexus 7 £199

Nicer hardware than the Kindle but mostly what you get is access to the Google App Store, which has far more apps, lots of which are free or very cheap. It runs Android, which is the main competitor to Apple and is generally considered to be pretty good, though I’ve not used it much myself. It’s also not tied just to Amazon (though you still can’t get iTunes) but you can get most of the Amazon stuff. Like the Amazon one, it’s cheap because Google expect to make money from you in other ways.

Apple iPad Mini £249

Better hardware than either of the previous two (metal rather than plastic case) but, arguably, a worse screen than the Nexus (physically bigger but fewer pixels).

iPad gives you all the iPhone and iPad software — which is typically better than Android. Also gives access to iTunes for music, movies and TV shows. The iPad software is often considered to be bit easier and less confusing than Android and you’d get stuff like FaceTime and iMessage (free text messages with other Apple users) which you can’t get on Android.

iPad mini with Retina display £319

As above but with a far nicer screen and is about four times quicker. It will probably last longer as it’s more future proof (but that’s obviously speculation at this point). Possibly hard to get hold of right now as it literally just came out and it “supply constrained.”

Apple iPad Air £399

As above but with a 10″ screen rather than 8″. I have an older versions of this, though the mini didn’t exist when I got mine…

(The prices above are “retail” prices. Some of the links go to the same product but for a lower price.)

It’s also worth noting that you can get more expensive versions of all of them that come with more space and/or cellular radios (so you can access the Internet when you’re out of the range of a friendly WiFI network).

It’s even harder to give general advice about this than the tablets themselves. In general, the more you want to download movies and large, complex games, the more capacity you’ll need. If you mostly surf the web or read books even the smallest versions should be okay. (Indeed, that’s what I use.)

The 3G/4G question is tricky. Me, I get the cellular radio because I do travel with my iPad and I have a Pay As You GO SIM which means I don’t pay a penny in months that I don’t use it. But it does cost more. You might prefer to spend the extra to get a larger storage capacity.

When I first got an iPad, it was because users of one of my apps were asking for a version that used the iPad’s bigger screen. I was skeptical that I would actually use it. These days I probably use it more than my Mac. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s worth getting the right product rather than just the cheapest.