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 code for my v3.0 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

I’ve always liked Totnes

I’ve always liked Totnes. Especially the Tudor Butterwalk, the Babbage room in the museum and walking by the river. I confess however that I’d not noticed the castle until the last time I visited on 2nd January this year – much to the amusement of my wife. My excuse was that as I drive I’d never seen it from the road, and if you’re in the town centre the buildings shield it from view.

So here’s a view of the River Dart, taken on my last visit, by way of welcoming their MP Dr. Sarah Wollaston to the Liberal Democrats.

The River Dart at Totnes
The River Dart at Totnes

Random musings from Bracknell

I’ve been a regular visitor to Bracknell for twenty years. It’s the town in Berkshire whose 1960s centre was so unloved that it was recently demolished so that it could be rebuilt in 21st century … splendour. The town’s fascinating subway murals celebrate buildings and employers that are no more.

3M Building - Bracknell Subway Mural
A mural in a Bracknell subway celebrating the 3M building, now demolished.

The drive between Derby and Bracknell gives me plenty of time to chew things over, not necessarily Bracknell related. These were some of the random thoughts that occurred to me during last week’s driving.

Will Dr Phillip Lee, Conservative MP for Bracknell, join the Liberal Democrats?

I don’t think that he will. But I can see him resigning the whip to sit as an independent MP of one flavour or another. However, my political predictions are usually rubbish, so nothing would surprise me. I’d be certainly be happy if he did join the party though. His pro-business credentials would certainly sit better with us than in the current anti-business Tory party.

What’s the point of the A308(M)?

At 0.6 miles in length, this is the country’s shortest signed motorway. The queue to get off it is sometimes 0.6 miles long too. The A308(M) wasn’t always like this, as Pathetic Motorways explains.

Why do supersized versions of small cars look so ugly?

There are some great small car designs. The original Fiat 500 is beautiful. The current Fiat 500 although larger, still looks cute, especially in yellow. A Pikachu of a car. But the Fiat 500X? My goodness it’s ugly. Lovely to be driven around in certainly, but that’s because you can’t see the outside at the same time. As ugly as a Raichu – the ‘evolved’ version of a Pikachu.

What would the 15 year old me make of the 55 year old me?

I think he’d be happy that I managed to turn my hobby of tinkering with electronics into a 30+ year career in the software industry. After all, writing software and getting paid for doing it is fun. Helping to explain the benefits of software to others, while still being paid, is even more fun.

Which songs make me smile unexpectedly?

This one did. It brought back some pleasant memories of Easter 1980, before the grind of sitting O Levels began.