* Posts by John Styles

462 posts • joined 23 Jul 2007


Dratted hipster UX designers stole my corporate app

John Styles

Terminal Beach

When I arrived at my second job, the software I worked on and another set of applications were written for PC using an in-house graphics library wittily called GEMTSC because it was written using GEM and emulated TSC terminals, enormous heavy terminals that took two people to lift. It is possibly that people in this company actually wrote the microcode for the terminals, that was before my time and I don't think I ever really knew.

Now, this was in the forgotten days of software-that-was-graphical-but-not-WIMP, and a particular feature of this library was that you could have 50 lines of 80 characters on a PC screen in EGA mode - EGA was lower resolution than VGA, 640 by 350. Now, of course, the only way of getting 50 rows of characters in 350 pixels is to have a 7 x 7 font. Which one of my colleagues drew over a weekend, including lower case. I have to say that it looked rather better than the 7 x 7 fonts I can find on the interwebs, and I think his feat was insufficiently recognised. (*) Each character could have a different foreground and background colour (3 bits each). As you can see from this description was rather like Teletext mode and, indeed, on the 'real' TSC terminals characters could be made to flash, fortunately this didn't make it to the PC version. It was vehicle routing software. Each route had a line on the screen and each drop was represented by a 2 character abbreviation, with the background and foreground colours of both characters bring significant, so the information was amazingly dense.The users could type in things (something) like M01010503 to move the drop at position 1 on vehicle 1 to position 3 on vehicle 5 and the software would update the display with changed timings and colours to reflect delivery windows etc. The users could do this amazingly fast, far quicker than you could with a mouse.

Meanwhile, with one of the products, not the one I was working on, work was going on on the next generation of that product, which would have a proper WIMP interface, using the full GEM GUI thing, which I think had a silly abbreviation GEM AES - application environment services. Except that it didn't use 'normal' GEM forms as people didn't like them - my boss in all seriousness said that he didn't think we would ever let a windowing system dictate the look and feel of our software. This is not as nutty as it sounds for the late 80s. It would, however, I feel have been less nutty if the colour scheme chosen hadn't been so bizarre, it was very heavy on black, white, grey, light and dark blue and light and dark magenta. A rather gothy look for the software. The text on the forms was either the same font or something very similar, certainly non-proportional, with the buttons having right angle corners. Some time I will have to mock up what it looked like.

The next generation product seemed to me to suffer from the traditional program of it being rewritten by people who didn't quite understand the principles behind the mathematics etc. (I'm sure that if anyone finds this and recognises what I'm talking about they will disagree, and perhaps I am being a bit unfair).

I suspect it didn't help that the person who wrote the original system was not over-communicative and had an ideological objection to meaningful subroutine / function names in the conventional sense of the term. We were, of course, in the land of FORTRAN 6 character names, and his argument was that a name, least of all a 6 character one would be a misleading simplification. Therefore things were given numbers e.g. IX8081 - with IX meaning integer function and 81 being the 81st routine in subcategory 0 of category 8 - you would then look in the documentation to find what the 81st routine in that subcategory was, and of course you would see the hierarchy chart explaining what category 8 and subcategory 0 of it were.

It became clear that it wasn't going to fit into 640K and therefore the software was ported to OS/2. And I mean ported rather than rewritten, so we had the strange non-platform look and feel forms ported from GEM to OS/2. (**)

So far, so good. I actually quite liked OS/2, although it suffered from the problem with all OSs except Windows and (in recent years) Linux of only installing and working on PCs under carefully controlled circumstances (***)

At this point, however, (a) people wanted the software to run on varieties of Unix and (b) people wanted the software to run on Windows. Someone called Bill faffed around with a Unix machine to try and work out what we should do. The decision was taken out of his hands and it was decided to use (cue dun dun dun music) a cross platform library.

The cross platform library, which it appears is still on the go, was called XVT. At the time it provided support for the Mac (which we didn't want because there is no call for engineering software on Macs), Windows, OS/2, and a variety of Unixes (and possibly VMS running X). There was also a rather bizarre character mode version which emulated windowing on a character display. The software was therefore ported again, but maintained its lovely home-grown look and feel.

Now, the thing is that lots of people used this XVT thing back in the day for their desktop software on the off chance that they might want to run it on Unix. However, we were the only people I know to use the Unix version. And it didn't work terribly well. Though possibly that was the fault of (a) the wacky non-platform-look-and-feel forms and (b) the fact that it was on its third port by that point. I have no idea what it's like now, and of course now it's competing with free (beer / speech) software.

So we went back to writing our own cross platform library more optimised for what we did - the fourth port. And so it stayed until I left.

(*) thinks, with a 1280 by 1024 display, you could fit 142 rows of 182 characters, wonder what that would look like?

(**) my group, on the other hand, DID actually ship some software written in GEM using this library, the only software written in the GEM version that ever was shipped. My vague recollection is that we shipped the software in order to get paid though we knew that the customer wasn't going to use it due to a change of management / direction. It was a GEM running on DOS front end to an IBM mainframe system written in FORTRAN using a 3270 terminal emulator. Essentially another brilliant but slightly misguided person wrote a layered protocol stack based on the theory of the OSI 7 levels. This entailed gibberish being written to the 3270 terminal which was read using the emulator library and converted to menus / forms etc. We had to get the resident IBM mainframe guru to write us some special assembler to call from our FORTRAN to clear the 3270 screen. The architect of said software took his money from the sale of the company to quit and travel round the world. We also wrote a route finder package we were going to sell for a few thousand pounds, which is what they cost in those days. We had just about finished it when AutoRoute came out for fifty quid. My, how we laughed at that, too.

(***) "We don't get many of those round here" "Vampires?" "No, controlled circumstances

Reliable system was so reliable, no one noticed its licence had expired... until it was too late

John Styles

Re: 60 bit "bytes" aka word.

My favourite thing about Radix-50 is that it's 50 octal

John Styles

Re: Remember Y2K?

In the early days of Rails I remember someone on a forum saying 'I like the look of Rails but I worry about its long term maintainability'. Let's say that this was in March, it got an arsey reply saying 'huh, you don't know what you're talking about, I've been using it since November and the maintainability's fine'.

Check your repos... Crypto-coin-stealing code sneaks into fairly popular NPM lib (2m downloads per week)

John Styles

The rigour of it all

They don't call it Software Engineering for nothing.

Behold, the world's most popular programming language – and it is...wait, er, YAML?!?

John Styles

The most popular kind of cheese is baked-beans.

Official: IBM to gobble Red Hat for $34bn – yes, the enterprise Linux biz

John Styles

A RHAT joining a sinking ship

30-up: You know what? Those really weren't the days

John Styles

Re: "Ooff, that hurt. Citation please."


UK getting ready to go it alone on Galileo

John Styles

Re: Cooperation

Almost every response by the 'no deal will be great' crowd is 'well, there will be a deal for that' e.g. nuclear medicines, aircraft etc. etc.

John Styles

I do think that feasibility studies for things that are unaffordable is a giant scam and part of the general corruption in this country. That league tables don't show this country as being incredibly corrupt is indicative to me that the measures are meaningless. We are probably reasonably non-corrupt in the 'brown envelopes full of cash' sense but not in the 'doing favours for the right sort of people in the justified expectation that favours will be done for you because you're the right sort of person' sense.

See also the enormous trade in feasibility studies for transport schemes that are never going to happen.

John Styles

Re: Wait, what?

No it's not, there's no frequencies available.

Visual Studio gains some go-faster stripes for Android emulation

John Styles

Yes, agree with this, though I haven't used any IDEs since VS in non-geological timescales anyway. I reckon I come across this issue about every working day though, I think use of smart pointers and the like make it more or less unavoidable.

John Styles

What I want (and it could be there in the latest version, am still using 2015 but it has been missing for decades so I would be surprised) is a STEP INTO THE FUNCTION, NO I SAID THE ****ING FUNCTION, NO NOT ALL THE CONSTRUCTORS, SMART POINTERS ETC ETC CALLED FOR ALL THE PARAMETERS, THE FUNCTION button / keystroke in the debugger for C++.

Gartner's Great Vanishing: Some of 2017's emerging techs just disappeared

John Styles

Shouldn't that be Grindr hacking not grinder hacking?

If Brussels wants Android forks, phone makers aren't helping

John Styles

I don't want an Android fork, I want a translucent blue impeccably designed iSpork

Microsoft still longs to be a 'lifestyle' brand, but the cupboard looks bare

John Styles

B2B means....

"Bollocks to Bozos"

First A380 flown in anger to be broken up for parts

John Styles

Re: This underlines one more thing

The government and 52% of the population have come up with a much better way to encourage business to leave London. Not to Birmingham, though.

John Styles

Re: This underlines one more thing

Stop over in Birmingham... quick trip to Sparkbrook for a balti surely? How could that compare with London?

A Reg-reading techie, a high street bank, some iffy production code – and a financial crash

John Styles

But in the general case

expression1 = expression2 + expression3


expression1 += expression2


expression1 is textually the same as expression2

The second is better because you don't have to eyeball the code to make sure expression1 and expression2 are identical





Did I mean stoat-boat or was that a mistake?

My PC makes ‘negative energy waves’, said user, then demanded fix

John Styles

Re: qotw

Poe's Law applies to this one, I am still not sure myself if it is a parody or not


IBMers in TSS: How WILL we support customers after these latest job cuts?

John Styles

I like the idea of near shore. Prison ships just outside territorial waters.

We sent a vulture to find the relaunched Atari box – and all he got was this lousy baseball cap

John Styles

Re: "It will do 4K video"

If you are interested in how to program them (on emulators primarily obviously) I recommend this book

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01N4DSRIZ/ Making Games for the Atari 2600 by Steven Hugg.

For a more general book about it there is Racing the Beam by Ian Bogost (who you may have heard of) and Nick Montford https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/racing-beam

It is somewhat academic in tone (I mention that not as a pejorative term, but to give an idea as whether it might be for you)

UK tech whale Micro Focus: Share price halves as CEO quits, sales slide

John Styles

I remember someone thinking that when I said we would (re)develop something in MFC I meant 'MicroFocus COBOL'

I couldn't give a Greek clock about your IoT fertility tracker

John Styles

Re: In my day

My late (much older) brother had some sort of 'book of facts for boys' dating back to the early 50s. It has a section on camping which had a paragraph beginning 'When attending to the wants of nature...'.

It was only years later I worked out what the hell it was on about.

Developer mistakenly deleted data - so thoroughly nobody could pin it on him!

John Styles

My favourite accidentally deleting things story, which I'm sure you will agree is the platonic ideal of a dull historic IT anecdote (I have probably told you all this one before, too)...

At some point in the 80s we were using both PCs and some strange things called Sages running CP/M 68K.

The Sages were configured with the hard disk partitioned into 2MB chunks (the limit) with

A = operating system and toold

B = source code

C / D / E etc. = customer data or more copies of the source code

P = floppy drive

(the idea being that the number of had disk partitions depended on the size of the hard disk but P was always the floppy)

So in summary

PC = A: floppy C: system

Sage = P: floppy A: system

Now, a moment's inattention on a Sage, you format the floppy FORMAT A: - bye bye OS and tools.

The other fun property of Sages was hard disks very averse to the computer being dropped.

Elon Musk invents bus stop, waits for applause, internet LOLs

John Styles

Is there anything to his 'we can tunnel cheaper and quicker' stuff? How much money would that save anyway? Suppose you could magically tunnel between stations for essentially free, but not, obviously fit out the stations, build the escalators, find room for and build the surface parts of the station etc. what percentage of the cost of an underground system would this actually save? Not much I wouldn't have thought.

Age checks for UK pr0n site visitors on ice as regulator cobbles together some guidance

John Styles

Just as well the government doesn't have to implement 100s of new processes / systems / procedures in a hurry in the next couple of years then.

10 PRINT "ZX81 at 37" 20 GOTO 10

John Styles

Re: Hmmm - what about the predecessor?

You should watch this fascinating long interview about the MK14 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awlqzippsSc

(and the life of its creator)

A fascinating titbit is that his original plan was to use octal so it could use a Sinclair calculator with its 7 segment displays as the UI (I may have slightly misremembered the detail, but definitely octal)

IBM gives Services staff until 2019 to get agile

John Styles

Re: Please tell me another.

There is a book by Jerry Kaplan about his experiences as CEO of Go corporation, who tried to do a Pen operating system. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Startup-Silicon-Adventure-Jerry-Kaplan/dp/0140257314

It was very much the classic Silicon Valley start-up before they became fashionable (in that it tore through a ton of money and then tanked) and it is quite well written.

Anyway, at one point ***SPOILER*** they are given a choice by a big customer to go with HP or IBM and choose IBM. This inevitably causes the issues you would expect, but at one point IBM try to shaft Go and to get the customer to use, wait for it, Pen OS/2.

The term 'Pen OS/2' always makes me chuckle every time I remember it.

Intellisense was off and developer learned you can't code in Canadian

John Styles

Re: Program, program, I'll say potato

I think program for 'things wot run on computers' is more or less agreed on, though I do remember university exams saying 'linear programme'.

But what about dialog or dialogue? My view is that like program for things wot run on computers vs programme for things wot you watch it should be dialog as in 'having a dialogue about dialogs'.

John Styles

Does the accidentally redefining 0 in a FORTRAN program count here? Because I genuinely did that in real life and spent a while puzzling over it.

Windows slithers on to Arm, legless?

John Styles

Re: Surface, but...

Better to support hardware whose manufacturer does support Linux.

(Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends spend their time hacking Tesco Value Toasters etc. to run Linux. But).

John Styles

I bought a very cheap Windows 8 tablet (not RT). It was baffling bad. Like someone had never seen a tablet, but had one explained badly to them when not really listening and then half-heartedly implemented it from that description whilst watching YouTube videos. Or something like that.

The level of group-think required to think this was remotely a good idea beggars all belief.

A print button? Mmkay. Let's explore WHY you need me to add that

John Styles

Omnomnom Eloi

signed A. Morlock

IBM declares it's the 'backbone of the world's economy'

John Styles

Is this a cognitive backbone?

Russian-monitoring Shetlands radar station was nearly sold off

John Styles


In the 90s we stayed in a B&B near there (and did have a drive up to what you could see IIRC). The proprietor was an ex-stonemason who had become allergic to chemicals he needed, and his wife was a teacher at the school http://ahistoryofrafsaxavord.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/haroldswick-school.html (now closed).

When we flew up there from Birmingham the flights were more expensive than ones to New York.

H-1B visa hopefuls, green card holders are feeling the wrath of 'America first' Trump

John Styles

On holiday in New Mexico we were stopped at a check-point... it went something like this

'I'm sure you're American citizens'

'No, we're here on vacation, we're from England'

He looks confused.

'In that case can I see your....[pauses to think of word]'


'Yes, that's it!'

We hand them over

'Have a nice day'

'Thanks, and you'

and off we went

Death notice: Moore’s Law. 19 April 1965 – 2 January 2018

John Styles

I have a question. Suppose I am completely uninterested in security as am I essentially using a PC for computation and can apply any security outside the PC, which is unconnected to the big, bad, scary internet, to what extent can I just say 'oh bugger it speculate all you wan't?'

a) on Windows?

b) on Linux (where presumably I can turn off retpolining in GCC)?

John Styles

Re: so Desperation

I am actually dubious of this, I think inability to write code well in high level languages because of over-fixation on low level details that don't matter' is about as common a failure mode of developers as 'writing tremendously inefficient code because of too limited understanding of what is actually going on'.

I thought there'd be more Instagram: ICT apprenticeships down 20% in five years

John Styles

It's the Long Island ICT that drives you to drink.

John Styles

The skills gap is the same as it always has been, of 18 year olds with 5 years experience in technologies that have been round for 3 years who will work 80 hour weeks for peanuts and not answer back.

IBM UK's pre-Xmas GTS head-chop: THWACK! Is that it?

John Styles

Dear IBM,

Please stop making this irksome usage of 'cognitive' a thing. It is not going to become a thing and you are just embarrassing yourselves by this point.


everyone in the world without the defective custom IBM dictionary

'The capacitors exploded, showering the lab in flaming confetti'

John Styles

Many years ago

A friend, sadly no-longer with us, had a nervous breakdown whilst doing his degree - as part of his rehabilitation he was given some work in the medical sciences research bit of the nearby hospital (some of you may know a city has the mental hospital adjacent to a medical research campus). He was a bright guy but unfortunately had a compulsion to set knobs to zero, which was unhelpful.

As an attempt to cure him of this a bit of fake equipment was rigged up with a large enticing dial on it [this was in the 70s which explains a lot], set so that when it was zeroed, an enormous capacitor would explode. Apparently he covered the 10 metres to the door in a world record time.

IBM turns panto villain as The Reg tells readers: 'It's behind you!'

John Styles

Re: arrogant disks?

Decades ago we had someone move into our group who did PC software from one who did IBM midrange software, there was a certain amount of mutual incomprehension as the terms he used for everything were different (library for directory was particularly baffling IIRC)

We translated Intel's crap attempt to spin its way out of CPU security bug PR nightmare

John Styles

Re: 'how Itanium isn't affected'

I was trying to work this out... on the whole I concluded I didn't understand enough to know but if the compiler generates code that does speculative loads aren't you still screwed (although of course you can't blame the processor, just the compiler). See https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/oldnewthing/20150804-00/?p=91181

Kernel-memory-leaking Intel processor design flaw forces Linux, Windows redesign

John Styles

Fe fi fo faction

I smell the blood of a f****ing enormous class action

Merry Xmas, fellow code nerds: Avast open-sources decompiler

John Styles

I wonder how well it does at working out C++ class hierarchies, spotting vtables, turning a bunch of functions back into methods etc. etc.

IBM to expunge over 500 people in latest redundo round

John Styles

Am I alone in being irked and slightly nonplussed that IBM are using the word 'cognitive' for something completely different from what the word actually means, i.e. they are using it meaning 'our mish-mash of AI related technologies' ?

John Styles

Re: Serious question


See the bit about 'Consult with trade union representatives or elected employee representatives - or with staff directly if there are none.' i.e. you get the staff to elect committees and consult with them.

Three useless UK.gov 'catapults' put in Last Chance Saloon

John Styles

Yes exactly, that was my point.

John Styles

I rarely actually get angry about these things but the concept of a transport catapult was an absolute ****ing (can't remember if I am allowed to say ****ing here) disgrace if you recall for example that

a) it takes us decades to tentatively do the experiment of a tram-train for Rotherham when this is established technology in Germany. Why? Maybe Plank's constant is different in the UK for some reason.

b) in my lifetime we have failed to successfully link bits of Watford with other bits of Watford (can't find a good link but basically the faffing has lasted a lifetime, responsibility was pushed back to TfL and the mayor unsurprisingly thought there were better uses for the money than the ludicrously high sum to build one viaduct across a road)(you might well say that this wasn't a terribly sensible project even at non-ludicrous sums of money but in that case best not to waste millions with nothing to show for it)

c) in general as per Edinburgh things cost far more to do in this country than anyone else in Europe



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