A 1940s Spondon Carnival

Three photographs from a Spondon Carnival of the late 1940s. The first two images show the procession emerging from Cambridge Street onto Willowcroft Road. The third picture is the Celanese float, advertising the benefits of cellulose acetate in textile manufacturing. The sign on the lorry reads: Celanese fabrics made at Spondon are Comfortable, Artistic, Reliable, Novel, Inviting, Versatile, Alluring, Lovely. Marketing was simpler seventy years ago.

The Spondon Historical Society’s archive has more images demonstrating the importance of British Celanese to the event. In 1948 the gowns for the Carnival Queen and her Attendants were loaned to the organisers by the company.

Spondon Carnival Procession - late 1940s
A marching band at the head of the procession turning right out of Cambridge Street onto Willowcroft Road.
Spondon Carnival procession - late 1940s
Prize winners!
Celanese float - Spondon Carnival Procession late 1940s
The Celanese float.

R H Moss ghost sign

While picking up a new pair of glasses this morning, I spotted this ghost sign in Long Eaton. It’s located on the Claye Street side of the building that was, until fairly recently, the Miss Elany antiques shop.

It’s difficult to make out much detail on the sign except that the business was located 50 yards away. Although the sign is defunct it seems that R H Moss & Co (founded 1889) still exists, based a few miles away in Sawley.

R H Moss & Co Ghost Sign, Long Eaton


A snowy Spondon Methodist Church

One of the other astonishing¹ photographs found in my father’s collection yesterday is this view of Spondon Methodist Church. It’s scanned from a small print as the negative seems to be missing. I think it dates from the late 1940s or early 1950s based on the other photographs it was stored with – but obviously taken before the A52 bypass was built in the mid 1950s.

Spondon Methodist Church in the snow, 1940s or early 1950s

¹ It’s the almost total absence of other buildings and the A52 that I find astonishing. This is the view today from about the same spot. The church was built in the mid 1930s, so the photograph might be older than I think.

Beyond the median

It’s been five years since I was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL). I’ve always wanted to know what to expect from treatment. In 2014 the general consensus among haematologists was that the disease was treatable, if incurable. Depending on which research you read, the median survival time from diagnosis was somewhere between 3 and 7 years. Of course, median survival times tell you little about your own prospects. You always hope that you will be on the side of the survival curve that’s beyond the median.

The good news for MCL patients is that the median survival time is continuing to rise as new treatments are developed. I’ve recently read two interesting pieces of research. The first is a retrospective study of patients treated between 2000 and 2014¹. The survival graphs that are directly relevant to me are reproduced below.

OS and PFS in MCL patients younger than 65

For patients younger than 65 years old who had a stem cell transplant following chemotherapy, these charts show that the median overall survival time was around 13 years from first treatment, with the first 7 years likely to be disease-free. Subsequent treatments become much less effective however – hence the rather gloomy sounding subtitle to the study.

The second study concerns an innovative trial for MCL using CAR T therapy. This type of treatment was covered by the recent War in the blood documentary. CAR T therapy involves genetically re-engineering blood cells (T cells) so that they selectively target cancer cells and kill them. A paper² will be presented at the American Society of Hematology’s annual conference in December reporting on the progress of the Zuma-2 trial. The conference abstract states that of 28 patients who received the treatment, progression free survival after a year was 71%.

It’s significant as many of these patients suffered multiple relapses and had hard to treat variants of the disease. CAR T is not yet a cure and there were some pretty severe side effects (‘mostly reversible’), but it does seem like progress. More patients have now been treated on the trial, so it will be fascinating to see the updated results in a year or two’s time.

¹ Kumar, A., Sha, F., Toure, A. et al. Patterns of survival in patients with recurrent mantle cell lymphoma in the modern era: progressive shortening in response duration and survival after each relapse. Blood Cancer J. 9, 50 (2019)

² Wang, M.L. et al. 754 KTE-X19, an Anti-CD19 Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T Cell Therapy, in Patients With Relapsed/Refractory Mantle Cell Lymphoma (MCL): Results of the Phase 2 ZUMA-2 Study. (2019)

Election ephemera – Not Brexit Day (again) edition

A Not Brexit Day treat courtesy of Led By Donkeys. Another commitment given by the Prime Minister broken. For once, I don’t mind one little bit that he didn’t keep his promise.

What’s wrong with your handshake, Chancellor? The BBC reports on class war breaking out between Sajid Javid and Hugh Grant.

I [Sajid Javid] recognised him [Hugh Grant] and put my hand out and said, ‘Lovely to meet you’, and you know what he does? He refuses to shake my hand. He says, ‘I am not shaking your hand’. I am completely shocked. He said, ‘When you were culture secretary you didn’t support my friends in (anti-media intrusion campaign) Hacked Off.’ I think that is incredibly rude. I wonder if people like Hugh Grant think they are part of the elite and they look down on working class people no matter what station they reach in life.

Do robo-pets dream of electric sheep?

Philip K. Dick would be proud. Twenty robo-pets have been “installed” in Lancashire care homes. Definitely not AI, but an interesting use of robotics nonetheless.

The council’s champion for older people is quoted as saying:

These robo-pets are fantastic because they look and act like the real thing. The dogs bark when they hear you, the cats purr when you stroke them.

Part of the cover of Brainchildren, by Daniel C. Dennett

UKAuthority reports that there are plans for more.

How am I?

How am I?

There’s a simple answer – worried, anxious and fatigued. But that’s far too simple an answer, as I’m also hopeful, grateful and optimistic. I feel as if I’m swinging between these two extremes very easily at the moment. Having cancer, and caring for someone with cancer at the same time, is confusing. Nothing I’ve experienced before has prepared me for this.

All of our family and friends have been hugely supportive during the last few months. Thank you to everyone for all that you’ve done for us so far. Jane’s been home a week and the house is filled with flowers. Surgery was successful and her response to chemotherapy has been amazing. The best her surgeon has seen for someone in her condition, so he said.

I'm rapidly becoming an expert at flower arranging
I’m rapidly becoming an expert at flower arranging

The day before Jane went in for surgery I had a one year checkup following my stem cell transplant. That news is really positive too – my consultant thinks there’s a 60% chance that I’ll still be in remission in six or seven years. The pessimist in me whispers that there’s a 40% chance I won’t be, but I’m going to ignore that voice for the moment.

All of these things make me hopeful, grateful and optimistic.

The worries, anxiety and fatigue feel just as real though. All things being equal, I’m a few years away from retirement. I enjoy work. Software AG is a great company, my colleagues are good to be around and I love working with our customers and potential customers. But given how unpredictable our prognoses may be, perhaps it’s selfish to carry on. Maybe I should retire early and focus on making other memories instead. Perhaps there’s a middle way and I can do both. I hope so, but what if I do the wrong thing, make the wrong decision? I don’t want (for example) finance to become a problem if we both continue to defy the odds. And I want us to continue to defy the odds and believe that we will! The Bastard Beast™ isn’t going to push us around.

So I have no answer as to the future at the moment and that’s what I’m finding exhausting, both physically and psychologically. I’m not going to rush into making changes. Jane is an equal partner in my decision making and she needs much more time to recover. I thought that having a stem cell transplant was pretty tough, but it is nothing in comparison to being treated for ovarian cancer.

A Zambretti weather forecaster

When I was recovering from my stem cell transplant last year, I built a weather forecaster. It uses a Raspberry Pi, a BME280 sensor and a 20×4 character LCD screen. The forecasting algorithm I’d written for it was rudimentary, to say the least. However, earlier on this year I came across a device known as a Zambretti forecaster. These were made by Negretti and Zambra for the UK market in the 1920s.

The Zambretti device uses air pressure, the direction of change, season and wind direction to make a forecast. Depending on what you believe on t’internet, a forecast accuracy of 90% is possible. You can buy replicas from a popular forest-based e-commerce site if you want to. I didn’t, but with the help of a search engine and a number of people who’ve been down this route before, wrote my own Zambretti forecasting algorithm. In FORTRAN 77 naturally.

The results so far have been encouraging. However, I’m of the opinion that the accuracy I’m perceiving may be due to the Forer effect, rather than the goodness of the algorithm. It’s true that different barometric conditions do produce different forecasts. However, I remain unsure as to the real difference between Fine : showers possible, Fair : showers likely and Fairly fine : showers. Not much I suspect.  

Anyway, it was producing good enough results to invest a few more pounds in a second LCD display. This retrieves the forecast made by the Raspberry Pi and sensor covered in cobwebs in the garage and displays it in more comfortable surroundings. This time I’ve stuck to C as my language of choice.

Raspberry Pi 4B plus a 20x4 LCD screen showing a Zambretti weather forecast
A Raspberry Pi 4B plus a 20×4 LCD screen, showing a Zambretti weather forecast all the way from my garage.

The current release of my Zambretti forecaster with remote display screen, with instructions, is available on github. Some (most) of the code could definitely do with improvement …

Government Gateway chronicles part 1: “Microsoft are our common enemy”

In business it’s been my experience that chance happenings, hard work and good luck lead to success more often than detailed strategic planning. This was definitely true when I found myself involved in Software AG’s efforts around the Government Gateway in the early 2000s.

I joined Software AG in the summer of 2001 from a web content management startup (Mediasurface). It was fortunate that I did. Mediasurface was haemorrhaging venture capital at an alarming rate. Some weeks after I left, Mediasurface was downsized drastically. I still have my share option certificate and occasionally wonder what on earth I’d have done with all the riches it was supposed to have bestowed on me.

The invitation to join Software AG came from two former Computer Associates’ colleagues. I knew of Software AG because of a faintly ridiculous encounter I’d had with them in the mid-1980s. I’d asked an employee if the Adabas database (like Ingres) had an embedded SQL interface. This was answered in the form of a (very) long lecture on why SQL was the spawn of the devil and why Adabas was the only true way. A consistent feature of Software AG during its 50 years has been passionate advocacy for our (often unique) approach to software engineering.

I was at Mediasurface the next time I bumped into Software AG. This happened during the 2001 Socitm Spring Conference, where XML was being positioned as the key enabler for e-government. By lunchtime I’d become rather tired of being asked if the Mediasurface product was based on XML (it wasn’t) and had gone brochure hunting instead. I picked up one for Tamino – the XML database – and asked a Software AG representative who on earth would need such a thing. You can guess how long it was before I managed to prise myself away …

One of the early assignments I had after joining Software AG was working on our bid for a local government ‘pathfinder’ project at Sedgemoor District Council. (It wasn’t my first assignment – this was for Leeds City Council, who remain the only client I’ve ever worked with who insisted on recording our meetings.) The Sedgemoor ‘virtual service provider’ project was the first time that I’d seen the Government Gateway mentioned outside of the press. It was a ‘negotiated’ procurement process and in November 2001 we were informed that we’d not won it. One of the pieces of feedback we received was that they believed they needed a piece of Microsoft technology known as a DIS (Departmental Interface Server) to work with the Gateway. “You’re not a Microsoft partner, so you can’t meet this requirement” was the gist of what was said.

This was intensely annoying for a number of reasons. Firstly, as the Gateway used documented XML standards it was more than possible for us to work with it. We’d shown that we could, using Tamino X-bridge (later renamed EnitreX XML Mediator) against the Inland Revenue’s ISV test Government Gateway. Secondly, our corporate tagline at the time was ‘The XML Company’, so senior management took a dim view of any suggestion that we didn’t do XML as well as someone else. Thirdly, we’d had lots of success that year in selling XML middleware to UK local government. If we were good enough for Birmingham City Council, we were good enough for anyone! One of my colleagues remarked that we should build our own DIS to demonstrate that they were wrong. At the time I laughed …

2002 arrived and Software AG was struggling. Worldwide sales had dropped from around €600m in FY2000 to just over €400m in FY2001, primarily due to difficulties in re-integrating the US business. The XML database market hadn’t grown in the way the analysts had predicted. The partner channel was also underperforming expectations, so there was renewed focus on trying to encourage business through that route. Alex Campbell, a long-time Software AG employee, was working as our UK partner manager at the time. One rainy lunchtime towards the end of April he happened to be walking past my desk and asked what I thought he should talk to the Sun local government team about. Having known Sun salespeople for most of my career (my first job after university was porting the PAFEC DOGS CAD software onto a Sun 2/50), I suggested that he might want to provoke them. This is what I came up with.

Our corporate offer wasn’t that exciting – as slide 3 of the presentation I spent that afternoon crafting shows.

Slide 3 of a presentation given to Sun in May 2002.

I predicted that by the time he’d finished talking through it, Sun’s salespeople would have already switched off. Hence slide 4. Marmite time. Alex was either going to love it or hate it. Given the legendary antipathy between Sun and Microsoft, I hoped that at the very least it would spark a discussion. It did.

The slide that started it all ...By the time I got to the “architecture” slide Alex was sold on the concept and he pitched it to Sun in early May.

The first 'Sun Software AG DIS' "architecture" slide
The first ‘Sun Software AG DIS’ “architecture” slide. IESD = Integrated Electronic Service Delivery – a Tamino-based CRM product we sold to UK local government customers from 1999 onwards.

I wasn’t able to be at that first meeting with Sun, but the slides had the desired effect. I’m fairly sure that some people at Sun were thinking along similar lines too, but this certainly galvanised the effort. We agreed to jointly approach the Office of the e-Envoy to explore the idea further. But without the Marmite, obviously. Because it was nonsense (as well as grammatically incorrect). Without Microsoft, there would have been no gateway in the first place, and no opportunity for us.

To follow soon: Government Gateway chronicles part 2: The Gateway Interface Project gets the green light