An appeal: PAFEC DOGS is worthy of conservation

Recently, there’s been quite a bit of banter in the comments of a post I wrote a couple of years ago about my first employer, PAFEC Ltd.

It’s got me thinking. It would be great to try to re-create a working copy of their most famous software package, DOGS (Design Office Graphics System) on (say) a modern Linux platform such as the Raspberry Pi, for conservation reasons.

As one of the first general purpose CAD packages on the market (it was first released around 1979 if my memory serves me correctly) that didn’t require specialist CAD hardware to operate it, as well as being the leading British CAD software package of the 1980s, it would be a shame not to try I think.

I’ve no idea who owns the rights to the software today, but if they’d like to get in touch I’d be very interested in putting together a small team together to start a conservation effort – assuming that they still have access to its source code.

Iron Man 2 – what was all that about then?

Much against my better judgement, I was persuaded to take a trip to the cinema this afternoon to see Iron Man 2.  I was obviously at a disadvantage, having not seen Iron Man (1), but it had a plot that made no sense whatsoever and had no characters in it that were even slightly likeable. The action was so obviously faked through the over-use of CGI that it fooled no-one over five years old – a shame really as the BBFC certificate is a 12A. Even Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson couldn’t rescue it with their virtuoso performances in pouting.

It also has to feature probably the most ill-advised piece of product placement for a large American software company that I’ve ever seen. I’m not going to name them, because I’m sure they’re regretting their decision to be a part of the film (and if they aren’t, then they should be.)

Their clumsy piece of product placement was just about the only moment of the film that raised a smile for me, when the large American software company in question had their fictional ‘grid’ used to track down the location of a telephone call. This is something you see in Spooks every week as a matter of routine, and for once the British obviously have better kit, because in Spooks it always works. The so-called ‘grid’ in Iron Man 2 took ages to locate even the vague area of the call and then, just as you thought it was finally going to find the villain, the ‘grid’ failed to locate him. Not a good advertisement at all.

4/10. Go and see it only if you’ve really got nothing better to do.

DD303 – Week 8: Context is everything

One of the stories I like to tell about working in the software industry is from the dot-com bubble. At the time, I was working for a company selling web content management software.

On one occasion, we had a day-long meeting with a dozen or so business people from a potential client. The salesperson and I started at around 10am, kicking off with a demonstration of the software to show how you could publish news articles and other content to your website and how you put that content through an approval process before it went live. All without having to have a webmaster handy to do it or for you to have any need to learn nasty ‘techie’ things like html.

As we were selling this software to many different types of businesses, the demonstration website we used to show how to publish stuff was an imaginary CD retailer. After all, people would understand what a CD was, wouldn’t they? And they’d realise we weren’t suggesting that they should be in the business of selling CDs?

At about 4pm we finished and asked the attendees if they had any questions.

One person, who’d been very quiet throughout the day, asked about the very first thing they’d seen at 10.02 that morning.

“Tim, you know when you published that press release, you typed in a paragraph about a CD. As you know, we don’t sell CDs, we sell widgets*. So, would your software still work if you typed in something about a widget instead?”

And the worst thing about that moment was that 2 or 3 other people sat around the table all said words to the effect “Good question – would it be able to do that?”

We didn’t make a sale that day.

We did, however, learn an important lesson. From then on, we dumped the lovingly crafted demonstration CD retailer website and instead used graphics and text from each potential customer’s website. I remember doing a splendid session to the OU on that basis a few weeks later … but we didn’t win their business, either! We did get other business, simply because we were able to put our software into a context they were familiar with.

So chapter 6, on language processing, has been a fascinating read when considering the role that context plays in how we recognise words and understand sentences, particularly when looking at the theories that abound when considering how we might resolve the ambiguities and vagaries in speech and writing. And it was good fun to see the opening sentence from Star Trek being used, along with colourless green ideas sleeping furiously and finding out that there are at least 50 grammatically valid interpretations of “time flies like an arrow”. Unless you’re read the chapter, you probably won’t understand what I’m writing about. Context is everything, you see …

(*) Obviously they didn’t sell widgets, but some details of this story have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty.

PAFEC – August 1991

I’m still looking for the photographs of the Warwick University Rent Strike of 1983. I’ve not managed to find them yet, as it involves going through a cabinet in a cupboard in my younger daughter’s bedroom to find them, which first of all involves tunneling through the masses of teenage detritus she keeps in what we laughingly term a bedroom. You can rarely see the bed (or the floor.)

But I did find these photographs, which are interesting historical documents in their own right. (OK, they’re interesting to me, and me only, probably.) They show the middle office of the 2nd floor of what was PAFEC’s Stapleford premises at 39 Nottingham Road in August 1991. At that time, I was the Product Services Manager and was in the process of building a team from the remnants of three others involved in porting the company’s software, as well as having been given the publications department.

One of the goals we wanted to achieve was to introduce more professionalism into what the company was doing. One means of  making sure this happened involved getting the Support Services Division (which my team was part of) through an ISO9001 audit against TickIT. As part of working through this, we realised (pretty quickly!) that we needed to be far, far better in how we organised our working environment. The first photograph shows the scale of the task we faced. The team covered the whole of the 2nd floor – so we had two other offices that didn’t look too dissimilar to this one.

PAFEC Product Services Office - August 1991

Key to photograph

  1. Back of two Sun ‘shoeboxes’ – at this point in time, they would have contained either 70 or 140 Mbyte SCSI disks and one of them would have had a cartridge tape unit.
  2. A PAFEC DOGS menu card – though probably for one of the options, like DOGS NC, from a superficial view of the colours used on it.
  3. Uncontrolled media – probably containing DOGS source and object code. You can also see piles of it in the open cabinet behind my desk. Part of the process of getting through the audit was to eliminate most of this from the offices (and keep it in a fire safe in the computer rooms in Strelley and Stapleford, where it belonged.)
  4. Our Sun SparcStation 1 workstation.
  5. Our Harris MCX workstation.
  6. The console for the Data General mini computer we had in the office, running the now long defunct AOS/VS operating system.
  7. A Tektronix graphics terminal – probably a 4111.
  8. A Prime PT200 terminal, connected to the customer support database and contact management system.
  9. Boxes containing various revisions of SunOS 2.x, 3.x and 4.x for Sun 3 and Sparcstation hardware.
  10. The back of one of the Sun 3/50 workstations we had in the office. Out of picture to the left would have been our second 3/50, a diskless 3/110, a Sun 386i and a Whitechapel MG-1.

The other offices would have had a number of Apollo workstations (DN3000s  and earlier models), Vaxstations, DECstations, an IBM PC RT (6150) and a HP9000/400 workstation. A range of graphics terminals (Tektronix, Sigma, Westward, Datapath)  would have been capable of working through a Gandalf switch with the “heavy lifting” minicomputers in the machine rooms at Stapleford and Strelley, including Prime, Vax, Data General, HP, Norsk Data, Bull and Harris.

The second photograph shows my desk (you can just about see it in the background of the first photograph) after we’d finished our clear-out. Neat and tidy – with not a piece of uncontrolled and unlabeled media in sight.

PAFEC Product Services Office - My desk, August 1991

We got through the audit later on that year, first time. The quality of the processes we were following improved beyond all recognition and we started to deliver software, not in jiffy bags, but in the type of packaging that the rest of the industry was capable of doing. Which meant that we started to get the right software to our customers, first time, rather than second, third or fourth time. Quality went up, costs went down and the company (after the false hopes we had for the 3D CAD market were past) started to recover with our later diversification into electronic document management software.

DD303 – Week 3: playing about with E-Prime

I got started on TMA01 today and after figuring out what it was all about (I hope), worked my way through the assignment booklet sections on using E-Prime. I thought it seemed remarkably straightforward and it’s nice that we get 40% of our marks on this first TMA simply for producing a working experiment with decent instructions!

It probably took me a couple of hours to create something I was happy with and understood, so I’ve now got plenty of time left for writing the experiment up this week. That’s good, because it means I’m on track time-wise and I know that there are two or three weeks and weekends coming up in February where I won’t be able to spend much, if any, time on the course.

The assignment booklet compares E-Prime to Microsoft Visual Basic programming and I can see that they look and feel very similar. Even the code that the software produces looks very ‘Basic-like’, but I’m not about to start hacking it! It almost makes me misty-eyed for the times when I used to write and debug computer programs for a living.

Now all I need to do is to stop myself from finding some Fortran code to have a play with and get on with writing the assignment up! Happy days …

DD303, Moodle and OUSA

I posted too soon yesterday. Tucked away in the OUSA DD303 conference, neatly placed under a folder called useful stuff is a wealth of mind-maps and notes created since 2005 by previous students! I was particularly taken by a set of mind-maps created by Glynis Freeman, partly because they give some idea of the scope of the course and partly because despite my best efforts, I can’t create mind-maps myself (though I do find other people’s efforts useful).

I’ve downloaded the things that I think may be of use to me already, because of the impending move by the OU from FirstClass to Moodle, an open source virtual learning environment. The confusion that seems to reign in the OUSA Moodle Feedback forum is such that I’m not taking any risks in such potentially valuable content being successfully moved to whatever environment the OU and OUSA eventually decide to use to replace the FirstClass forums.

It’s arguable that the days of  OUSA (but not the OU) needing to provide a closed forum environment for students is long gone, with the rise of independent study groups on Yahoo! and Facebook set up by interested participants, but I for one will be sad to see FirstClass and the myriad of strange (and often sparsely populated) OUSA forums finally go (in July 2010?).

It’s interesting to note that OUSA’s own priorities for forum migration (as expressed in a recent posting to the Moodle feedback forum) is OUSA business forums first, followed by the OUSA study support forums, followed by the social forums. While it’s perhaps understandable that the stduent organisation needs to talk to itself and support its democratic processes, this task could be simplified by rationalising the rarely used myriad of business and branch forums to – let’s be really radical here – one, supported by managed web content and blogs for everything else. The stuff that’s of real value to most students is in the OUSA study support forums – and these (as we found out on ED209) are largely redundant if the course team runs a great closed conference. As for the social forums, they’re definitely a nice to have rather than an essential. I really wouldn’t mind too much if, for example, the OUSA Computer Games, Eurovision, Reality TV and Muppetania forums were to be quitely retired.

Charting the course of Moodle implementations within the university, it seems to me as if the OU and OUSA are painfully discovering what software and IT professionals have known for a long time: even if the application is free (as in the case of Moodle), it doesn’t mean that it costs nothing to deploy, manage and use it. The investment made by the OU in employing programmers, designers and other IT staff to ensure Moodle meets the demanding requirements of the university must be pretty considerable already. There’s no way to know for sure outside of the OU team responsible for the programme, but I wonder if the actual (re-)development costs that the OU has had to invest in making Moodle meet their requirements have been more or less than remaining on FirstClass with some determined negotiation on licence fees and/or functional upgrades?

Judging by the reaction on the OUSA Moodle Feedback forum, there would certainly have been far less angst from the OU’s customers, the students. It’s not just angst, either, but potential lost revenue from course fees. Some OU students have been so disappointed with the capabilities seen elsewhere in other Moodle implementations (inside and outside of the OU) that a small minority have even said they will no longer study with the OU once Moodle becomes the standard. Personally, I’d never go that far as its the course content I’m primarily interested in, but it will certainly be interesting to see how participation in OU and OUSA forums changes (for better or worse) next year.

ED209 – Week 18

Tonight, I was looking forward to having a play with the neural networks software – but the DVD drive on my computer has stopped working! Apparently my wife noticed this a few days ago but failed to mention it. Sigh. Still, it does mean I can nip down to Maplins or PC World or Staples and have a look at some new toys.

I mention Staples, as although both of the other places have lots more fun gadgets to play with (and there’s only so much excitement I can get – no, anyone can get from chairs and desks and filing cabinets), the last couple of times I’ve bought something for the PC it’s been from Staples as they’ve been the cheapest and the friendliest too.

The reading on ED209 was pretty interesting this week and the style of the book seems (so far) to be in marked contrast from the first two. Suddenly, I feel as if I’m back on a psychology course, rather than something primarily aimed at educators and people who want to work with children (I’m neither).

I suppose I relate more easily to the cognitive aspects of psychology as its far closer in concept to computing and the way we sometimes talk about software systems. I remember on DSE212 a couple of years ago getting terribly excited by one of the models of consciousness and comparing it to the way enterprise service buses work.

Anyway, my  notes for the first chapter of book 3 are here. Now, let’s see if I can fix that wretched DVD drive …