A lightbulb moment

Have you ever had the exhaust fall off your car while driving?

It sounds and feels like the world has exploded underneath you – at least if the front gives way and you’re driving that exhaust into the ground!

Do we or don’t we? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself as we’ve considered buying a Nissan Leaf.

Electric cars are still more expensive than internal combustion, no doubt about that, far more for both new and second hand models than the normal price range we’d look at.

A dealership offered us the chance to take a 30kW Tekna home overnight. A longer demo. On the way home we chatted over the pros and cons. I mentioned the possible increased cost of maintenance when my wife pointed out that at least we wouldn’t have to replace the exhaust…

I felt rather foolish. Electric cars have no exhaust… Of course they don’t! They’re electric!

That’s a few hundred pounds we wouldn’t have to shell out every few years…

World building

My visit to a Nissan dealership today, looking to buy a second hand Leaf – Nissan’s electric car, sparked a whole stream of unasked questions.

How many people work at that dealership? How much profit do they have to make on each car? How many cars do they have to sell to pay the salaries of the people working there?

When I mentioned this to my wife she reminded me that you also have to factor in income through the extras they try and up-sell: Gap Insurance; Scotch-Guard; the regular service packages; the commissions from finance; and of course ongoing maintenance and repairs…

However they manage their business, the impression I get is that running a car dealership is a profitable enterprise. Which implies that for every car sold, new or second hand, for every up-sell, profit is being made.

I’m not against profit – I run my own business at a profit – yet as I compete with other contractors for roles and dealerships compete for our custom, I couldn’t help the thought that we humans have constructed a very inefficient model of economy. Surely there is a better way of organising ourselves…

Of course there have been attempts to organise the human economy, the two notable ones being socialism and fascism. Two philosophies that utterly failed in implementation during the last century, both of which tried to redesign our economy.

At the back of my mind as I wrote my first novel: The Great Scottish Land Grab, I was aware that my protagonist – Robert Castle – was rail-roading his way towards his vision for a utopian Scotland. Several readers commented that Castle was a “bit of a dictator…” I hope a benevolent one, but I agree, I ended up giving Robert Castle an enormous amount of power even as he sought to bring about a more democratic society.

At the time, as I was writing Land Grab, I struggled to imagine a different way for Castle to achieve his objective of reversing the Highland Clearances. It seemed to me that such an upheaval could only be achieved by someone willing to take tremendous risks, to go head to head with those in power and authority and accept the possibility that the threat of violence may be needed.

I enjoy my status as World Builder. So much easier to conceive and implement a new economy or society in fiction than in real life. Real life is much messier and frought with real risk.

I believe we have all been created by God to be creators ourselves. We have been given the tremendous capacity to turn the ordinary, everyday around us into something of greater value.

So why aren’t we all rich?

You probably have seen the “You have two cows” meme giving one possible answer to the question.

If you give two women each a million pounds, at the extreme, after a month, one woman will have turned that money into four million while the other will have squandered it all and have nothing to show for it.

Most of us fall somewhere inside those two extremes.

Think of all that humanity has achieved just in the last couple of centuries.

We have taken an industrial revolution to a technological revolution and seem on a trajectory to do more, better, faster and yet…

Hundreds of millions of people across the globe still live in extreme poverty – defined by The World Bank as living on less than $1.90 a day. On top of this, Water Aid estimates that 663 million people live without clean water and a massive 2.4 billion don’t have access to adequate sanitation!

We are all world builders. We’re building the world around us day in and day out. One day I believe we will all have to answer a very simple question: What kind of world did we build around us? One that shared and helped and lifted up or one that excluded and trapped and held down.

Avoiding Transaction

There are times in my job that I wished I had photographic memory. I primarily code in Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and in MS Access SQL (or other flavours depending on the client.)

As with all programming langauges, there are a lot of words to memorize. I suspect that I only use a small fraction on a daily basis.

For comparison, did you know that according to Oxford Dictionary there are 171,476 English words in current use.

Robert Charles Lee writes on Quora that the average adult native speaker of English knows 20,000 to 35,000 words. Also, that “3,000 words will cover 95% of everyday writing.”

Of course, some of those words we use are ones that are not always appropriate in certain situations…

There I was, trying to run a Stored Procedure (a SQL command I’d saved in MS Access) from VBA and all I got was this error:

“The SELECT statement includes a reserved word or an argument name that is misspelled or missing, or the punctuation is incorrect.”

Okay, what does that mean, apart from the obvious? The SQL was working fine when I ran it directly within the Access database. I only received the error when running through VBA.

I went and poured myself a coffee. Decaf…

Reserved word, misspelt or missing argument name, incorrect punctuation… One of those must be true, but why was the SQL query running on the database?

I took a closer look and finally realised what I’d done wrong. The query was returning a list of Transactions and so I’d called the name of the Transactions: Transaction. I searched online and found this handy list of Reserved Words.

Transaction, of course, is reserved. If you know more than basic SQL that is probably pretty obvious. A feature of SQL is that it allows you to combine commands within a “Transaction” which can then be rolled back if something goes wrong.

So, using Transaction as a column name is not allowed. What I’m left wondering is why MS Access allowed it… Maybe one for another day.

What days are we living in?

I watch the news and fear for our future.

I stop watching the news and life actually seems mostly okay.

At least where I am… For now. For others life is hard and sometimes brutally short.

We are living in days when Christians are persecuted on a massive scale from North Korea to Africa to the Middle East. I remember as a child hearing frequently about the persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain. For now, in Russia, life has improved somewhat. I wonder what direction we are heading in within the UK.

I had no idea of the origin of this song. One of my favourites and perhaps a suitable one for the times we are living through…

Who runs your life?

I’m writing this on Thursday as an exit poll has just predicted a Conservative win which may lead to a hung parliament. By the time this post is published on Saturday, we’ll know who is supposed to be running the country… Or if no-one is…

Earlier today – Thursday – for the first time in my life, I took advantage of my right to spoil my ballot paper. Of the five political parties on our local ballot, I rejected all of them.

The government doesn’t run my life and I hope you realise it doesn’t run yours either. Scottish Independence, BREXIT, the economy, they might impact our lives, but they do not determine our future.

In Scotland, I understand the desire to declare independence and control our future as a nation – I wrote the story of how Scotland became independent after all – but regardless of whether Scotland was independent or not, each of us would still be solely responsible for what that future is like. Independence would not be a miracle cure.

Much was made of the magic money tree during the campaigning in this 2017 election. It seems likely that fears over what would happen to Scotland’s economy lost the first Independence Referendum. Yet, while banks may threaten to jump ship and industry bluster about pulling out, the fact remains that in an independent Scotland, each adult would still be an economic force, both earning and spending. We would still need jobs, would still pay taxes and even if some business did abandon us, we would still be able to attract other banks and other industry and whatever we needed to manage our economy.

Yet so many were afraid and put their trust in the UK government.

In Scotland, twice now, a majority has voted to turn away from independence, first from the UK and then from Europe. Yet a sizable minority of my fellow countrymen took a contrary position, rejecting union with the UK while they sought to remain governed in large part by Europe. (Ironically, all the arguments both for and against Scottish Independence could be applied to BREXIT…)

Most of us, it seems, desperately want a government in some location, to run our lives for us. To make decisions that we don’t understand or are overwhelmed by.

I’ve been reading the book of First Samuel recently. Israel was originally intended to be a theocracy, governed ultimately by God and managed on a daily basis by prophets and judges. But the people grew jealous of the neighbouring tribes who had kings to lead them. They didn’t trust the judges (and to give them their due, some of those judges were utterly corrupt.) Eventually they rejected both the judges and God in favour of a king.

I believe we were meant for more than being governed by other people. That God created us with the capacity to rule. Yet to rule, even in our small sphere of influence, takes great courage. It’s much easier to hand off to someone else that we can then blame when they get it wrong.

This week Heather Tomlinson wrote an article on Why Christians need to stop blaming the government for everything. Of course people of every faith and none blame their government. The real challenge though is to stop blaming government and start taking responsibility for our own lives. To seek to stop living off of someone else’s charity, to be the provider for others, to be the carer, the defender in our communities.

While I believe God wants us to seek his help and protection, I also believe he made us to govern ourselves. Will you live as God intended you to, or will you let others run your life?

Flash Fiction: The Day After

Someone kicked him awake. Barely. He opened one bleary eye and saw the TV displaying static.
‘Who did you vote for? Yesterday. Who?’
He looked over at his wife who was peering out through the curtains, knocking over a beer bottle as he turned.
‘What’s wrong with the TV?’ He asked.
‘It’s dead. Radio, Internet, nothing’s working. Who did you vote for?’
‘What’s that gotta do… What are you doing?’
She didn’t answer, just kept staring out the window.
Finally, he got up and walked over, pulled at the curtain.
‘No!’ She grabbed the material out of his grip and pulled the curtain back.
‘What’s got into you?’ He was starting to get annoyed now. He took a firm hold of the curtain and pulled it wide open, glaring at his wife.
She stepped back, into the shadows.
He shook his head and turned to look out, then stumbled back, nausea threatening to overwhelm him. A buzzing filled his senses and from a distance he heard his wife ask one more time: ‘Yesterday, who did you vote for?’

Copyright Mark Anderson Smith 2017 http://www.dragonlake.co.uk/ You may link to this post from http://www.dragonlake.co.uk/2017/06/flash-fiction-the-day-after/ or share on a non-commercial website so long as the full copyright notice and this statement is included.

If you liked this story, or if you didn’t, let me know…

Small Steps

When you’ve no time, how do you change your life?

One small step at a time.

In 2007 I set out to write a novel. I committed to writing 100 words daily and knew if I persevered, I would finish Fallen Warriors in four years. It took ten, but eventually, Fallen Warriors was published.

Small steps, taken daily, lead to long journeys.

Five minutes tidying a room, daily, will gradually clear the clutter.

Ten minutes pulling weeds, daily, tames your garden.

We can all find a few minutes each day to work towards our goals.

What you will achieve will be amazing!

A final analysis

While I’ve been working as a software developer, in one form or another, for the past thirteen years, I know I’m still learning.

At the end of the project I’ve been referring to for the last couple of days, I looked back to see what I could learn.

Estimating. Originally I quoted 15 days to deliver the application being asked for. A week into the project I was advised the system being asked for was more complex than originally envisaged.

Estimating is an area I’ve had no training in. At college a lecturer once told us: when estimating, think of a number and times by three… I think there was a fair bit of wisdom in that statement…

I think 15 days was a fair assessment of how long the original project would have taken. With the clock ticking though, I felt pressure to give a quick response to how long the extra work would take. I underestimated it…

If a similar situation happens again, I should add the time it takes to carry out a new estimate to the length of the original project and make it clear that the original project will now be delayed by however long it takes me to analyse the new requirements.

I should recommend that the original project is completed as agreed (if a short term project.) Longer projects have more scope for flexibility and change. Short projects have very little opportunity for massive changes.

I should allow as much time as needed to work out both how much new work is required AND how much time will be required to undo previous work and integrate the new design.

While it is scary to propose an estimate that vastly increases the cost and time, it is better for everyone to be upfront and honest about this. The client can always decide to drop the new requirements. They may have delayed the original deadline and paid for analysis that is now no longer needed, but they would have had to pay someone to do that analysis and it might as well be me (or you if in a similar situation.)

Or they may decide to accept the revised estimate and in that case, as the developer, completing the project will be less stressful if sufficient time has been allocated.

Do you provide estimates for your work? How do you ensure your estimates work for both you and your clients?

Analysis of a Project

Back in 2013 I completed one of the largest projects I’d tackled to date and decided to work out what I’d actually managed to produce during four months developing a complex business application. I realised then that I’d actually produced the equivalent of a book with all the code, queries and user documentation I’d written. That realisation was pivotal in helping me believe I could finish my first novel.

Last week I completed a much smaller project, one that only took 17 days and decided to carry out the same analysis.

The final application had:

  • 12 user forms, each providing a different type of functionality to the users.
  • 3635 lines of code.
  • 13 database tables
  • 57 SQL queries.
  • 28 user guide.

Converting those lines of code into pages, that’s 95 pages, plus effectively 57 pages for the SQL queries and the 28 page user guide. A total of 180 pages, not including the forms or database design. 180 pages equivalent, after editing and testing… A proof read, formatted, final draft…

Divided by number of days on the project, that works out to just over ten pages a day, full time. So, in theory, if I could match that level of output for my fiction writing, I could potentially write a 300 page novel in 30 working days, or in six weeks.

Writing that last sentence, I still find it hard to believe that it’s possible. But, it’s worth noting that I’ve been working as a software developer for 13 years now. Enough time to have honed my skills, to have learned the methods and routines that allow me to tackle complex projects.

If we keep working towards developing our skills and experience in areas we want to improve, we will see progress. Often, there is no substitute for perseverance. For taking the long road, building discipline and habits. This is part of the reason I’ve set myself the challenge of writing at least 100 words a day for 100 days.

What goals do you want to achieve? What skills will you need to achieve them? Will you commit to developing those skills, day in and out? If you do, one day you’ll look back and be amazed at how far you’ve come.

Looking back

Growing up I was taught to look back, to consider what I’d done. My father worked as a printer and I would help him in his printshop. At the end of the day he would take stock of what he had achieved: 5,000 pages numbered; 2,000 sets of carbon sets collated; 500 tickets printed…

He looked at what he had planned to achieve and what he had actually managed to achieve. Comparing those two allowed him to see whether his estimates were accurate or needed refinement, to see whether he needed to charge more for the work he was doing.

It’s a valuable habit to get into. Reflecting on what we planned to achieve against what we actually achieved and then considering whether we should change how we manage ourselves based on that analysis.

More about this tomorrow…