Category Archives: Technology

Who is Britain’s greatest tech hero?

I recently ran a survey for a client to find out who people think Britain’s greatest technology pioneer is – and since the idea never got used, I thought I’d share the results here. We used Google Consumer Surveys to ask 1,000 UK internet users who Britain’s greatest tech hero is and gave them a list of some of the most obvious contenders, as well as leaving an open option for them to suggest other pioneers.

It’s completely unscientific and just for fun, but I don’t think people would disagree with the findings too much.

Greatest Tech Hero - Overall

It’s hard to argue with Alan Turing taking the top spot, although some might wonder whether Clive Sinclair deserves more votes than Tim Berners-Lee. That said, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that the ZX Spectrum had on an entire generation of techies, inspiring millions to experiment with their first computers and learn about coding.

What surprised me was that there was such a slim margin between the top four – even today it still seems that people value the early contributions to computing made by Charles Babbage and, to a lesser extent, Ada Lovelace.

The results become a little more interesting when we look at the difference between male and female votes. First, if we focus on the results from the 320 women who participated in the poll we see very different rankings – women really seem to rate Sir Clive.

UK Tech Hero - Women

Male voters, on the other hand, were more likely to rate Alan Turing as our greatest technology hero.

UK Tech Hero - Men

How I learned the importance of backup, the hard way

When I left school my first job in 1991 was a Production Runner for a TV gameshow being filmed in northwest England. This role is TV’s equivalent of an office gopher, and you’re expected to help with whatever jobs the production team needs a spare pair of hands with.

Part of the job was to keep a file of all of the hundreds of people who’d applied to be contestants on the show, and my boss made me painstakingly fill in a paper form for each person and store it in a lever-arch file. This was far too laborious and old school for my 17 year old tastes, so I convinced the grizzled old producer that we should create a database on the office’s solitary PC, which would streamline the entire process.

He agreed, but insisted that I continue with filing the paper forms, which left me tearing my hair out. The stupid old duffer clearly didn’t understand the point of technology was to reduce work, and now I’d ended up adding extra work to an already painful job.

Nevertheless I pushed forward and created the database to demonstrate that it would be more efficient and useful than the paper system, and pretty soon we had a database of hundreds of applicants. The team were impressed to find that it was suddenly much easier to search through the applicants to find the ones with the attributes they were looking for – I took this as a small victory but was still pissed off that I had to keep doing the hand-written forms.

I sulked and complained and repeatedly told my boss it was a complete waste of time writing out the forms by hand when I was already entering them into the database much more quickly. But he was from a different generation and while he admitted that the database was useful, he’d feel more comfortable if we had paper copies of everything.

And then, one day, disaster struck. The team wanted me to help them search for some new contestants through the database of applicants, but somehow the 5.25inch floppy disk which stored the data had got corrupted and everything was lost. I was 17 and this was my first job, I’d never suffered a catastrophic loss of data before, so it had never occurred to me to create a backup. The disk worked and I had no reason to believe it would ever stop working. Nobody had taught me about the importance of backup, so I’d had to learn the hard way.

I felt utterly humiliated. I spent a whole week working late to re-enter the data, and sulkily admitted that my boss had been proved right all along – without the paper copies we would have been screwed. Could have saved myself a lot of trouble by spending ten minutes making a couple of copies of the database.

Can you set up an office using just free, open source software?

While we were setting up the Disruptive Communications office we were keen to use open source wherever possible. Why? Primarily to keep our costs down but also because it just kinda feels right – the open source community is a hotbed of innovation and creativity, with thousands of hugely talented people working towards the goal of building high quality tools that are free and open for anybody to use, modify and build upon. Something about that strikes a chord with us. Also, free is good.

So what open source office software are we using?

For our our office suite (word-processor, presentation tool, spreadsheet, etc) we chose LibreOffice. It’s a really polished, user friendly package that is reasonably compatible with MS Office and is capable of handling pretty much everything we need to do with a productivity suite. We’ve also played around with OpenOffice and IBM’s Lotus Symphony, both of which are impressive, but for our money LibreOffice is the best.

We’re using Mozilla Thunderbird for our email client, another professional quality package that’s easy to use and powerful enough for our requirements. We added calendaring capability with the Lightning plugin, and the Provider plugin enables us to synchronise with Google Calendar. All in all the bundle works nicely and we’re able to exchange calendar invites with Outlook users seamlessly.

Since we frequently need to do image editing work, we’re using GIMP for this – a great alternative to PhotoShop. In the old days GIMP had a reputation for being very clunky and difficult for newbies to learn, but the more recent versions have a much simpler to navigate interface and we find it a lot easier to use now. For photo editing, graphics manipulation and infographics creation, it’s a really useful tool.

Our website is built entirely on WordPress. While it’s best known as a blogging platform, WordPress has grown into a mature and stable content management system that can be used for building a much wider range of websites. It’s easy to set up, simple to use and incredibly flexible.

While we’re still using Windows on some of our computers, we’re also using Linux to breathe new life into a few of our older laptops. Specifically, we’re using Lubuntu – a variant of Ubuntu designed to run smoothly on lower-spec hardware. And run smoothly it does. The machines which were creaking under Windows are now zippy and responsive again. Best of all, most of the open source tools we’re running on our Windows machines are also available for Linux too, so all the machines can run the same apps.

We’re still using some proprietary software out of necessity (such as Skype) and, while we were keen to try out some open source accounting software like GnuCash, our accountant pleaded with us to stick with the widely used Sage package. We’re also struggling to find a good open source video editing tool for Windows – although now we have some Lubuntu boxes we can experiment with some of the Linux only editing software options.

As the business develops we’ll see how easy it is to carry on using open source software in a world dominated by proprietary and commercial packages, but for now it’s all working pretty well.