09 April 2012

Thanks For All The Fish. And Computers.

I've been thinking about all the things I do and have just updated my website, andrew-hill.net, to feature What I do and I realised just how lucky I am to be alive at this time and to have so many amazing tools just there, ready to use, so many people just there, ready to help. And it's all free. Well, apart from some electricity or phone rental, which isn't much. So I'd like to say thank you to everyone out there who makes all this possible.

My favourite author, Douglas Adams, was born in the same year as me. I share many of his interests and delights (although I never bought a Mac!) and I often think it was such a shame he didn't live to share in all this. I think he would have enjoyed it so much too.

Text design
I have always loved doing my own designs for leaflets, letterheads, posters and the like. That used to mean buying sheets of Letraset and carefully positioning each letter, rubbing over it with the end of a pencil or a stylus if I was being really careful, and hoping that the serifs would stick down properly and that I wouldn't run out of Rs or Ts. There were usually enough Es.

Now there are lots of lovely programmes that make this easy and, of course, there are web design tools too so that I can publish them and see them on screen.

ICT training
My first real experience of word processing was with golfball typewriters and then daisy wheel ones which did allow me to make mistakes and fix them without having to throw away too many sheets of company notepaper. The biggest leap was with a Digital Dual Display computer we bought for the office. It cost about £12000 and the printer was so noisy we bought a special box for it. Even that wasn't brilliant though and it finished up on the floor below where it could bother someone else! I often thought that was a bit unfair so let me say sorry now to Lyndsey, Katrina and Susan in particular, as well as thank you to Jeanne and Judy who had to go up and down stairs a lot to get whatever they'd printed.

We taught ourselves then, just as I have done since with all the programmes I've had to get used to since. From Locoscript to WordStar to Works to Word and 97 to 2010 and no doubt there'll be more to follow. I also started teaching others in the late 90s as people started buying computers either at work or for their children to use at home. I still have the Introduction to Access and Spreadsheet booklets I wrote and provided for the sessions as well as many more. That was a job that I just kind of fell into and have been doing in some form or another ever since.

Teaching
As well as ICT training, teaching other subjects has been made so much easier with places to store materials that students can access when they like. Having extra tasks on hand for those that complete the first ones, having examples I can share so that I don't have to try and explain or draw them on the board. Being able to find answers to questions within minutes as opposed to spending hours researching in books and magazines. All these internet tools have made that job something I could do and feel that I could contribute more to.

Working with pictures
I remember getting photos back from the chemist and being pleased with a few of them but seldom all of them! You could get enlargements but it was expensive and quite complicated. You had to try and indicate exactly which part you wanted enlarged and could seldom do much about the ones that weren't straight or with poor lighting. I so much wanted to do more with my photos and there was one school friend who understood developing and even had an enlarger and all the papers and chemicals at home but it looked difficult and I couldn't ask him to spend much time on my ideas.

Photocopiers were a great advance and I did quite a lot with them but the grainy and solely black and white images weren't really what I wanted. So when computers came along and I could actually scan my own pictures, crop them and do all sorts of editing I was in heaven! Then digital cameras arrived and, whilst the first one I had (free with some software and with something like a maximum of 320 pixels!) wasn't particularly great, the next one was and, in fact, had it not been stolen in 2004 I would probably still be using it now.

To be able to take as many pictures as you want and not worry about the cost is extraordinarily liberating and I can experiment and even when the results aren't quite right there are tools that can help fix them. More than anything, I think, this has been the most pleasurable development, even though it hasn't made me any money!

Writing
I have always written things, from articles to books and poems. I love writing. Whatever I did write, though, stayed virtually unseen in a pile of big books, little books and scarps of paper. I dreamed of publishing them but could never afford it. I did try printing a 450 page novel at one place where I was running some ICT courses. They had a super fast printer that did things like double-sided printing and could put two pages onto one. That enabled me to have an actual printed copy of the book and some spares to give to friends with page numbers that changed automatically if I made changes to the chapters too.

Previously, with an Amstrad PC and printer it took 1 minute to print a page and you had to remove that and insert a fresh sheet each time. I calculated that my 450 page book would take several days to print! (I did do it, though. Once.)

Now I have been able to publish my novels, with my own cover designs and jackets. I have poems on blogs and articles in a range of technical on-line journals. I'm not making any money from this but the feeling of holding your own hardback book after so many years is wonderful. To see my articles and poems on screen is good, too, and to be able to share them and hope others might enjoy them too is most satisfying.

I now write regularly for a range of TV shows and entertainment programme reviews. Again, it's mostly for fun but some of these are proving remarkably popular with lost of people seeming to read them so that makes it worthwhile too.

Whereas previously all I would have done is scribble away to myself and hope someone appreciates it when I'm gone or finds it of historical value of some sort, now I can get the kick of seeing people enjoy what I write shortly afterwards.

Numbers
I have played with numbers and been fascinated by maths since my school days. Now, with spreadsheets, I can produce all sorts of graphs and series and things and just play with formulae for hours if I ever have a few spare.

There are also great resources available on-line for those that wish to learn more. My children have enjoyed the Khan Academy courses and I have even tried to teach myself some python programming with Udacity recently.

Editor
Whilst I seldom spot my own mistakes very quickly, I do seem to be able to spot others' almost instantly and enjoy helping rephrase text as well as correcting spelling and grammar for people, especially where it's in an important document they're proposing to share with others. Word processors make this a simple task although I don't rely on their in-built checks! Even I will have trouble with some words, though, and to be able to look them up on-line and get a quick spelling idea saves me a lot of time. Word count, too, is a real time-saver!

Being able to compare students' texts to both other students' submissions and what might be published elsewhere is also an invaluable tool.

Business
I once had a client who wanted to develop a business and he provided me with new sets of figures almost every week. I spent days and nights setting up a sort of spreadsheet (although it wasn't called that in 1982) which would do all the calculations for monthly balances, cash flow etc. It was wonderful and meant that I could do more of that sort of interesting work more often. Now I can illustrate different scenarios and produce charts for this as well as nice sheets of numbers in a flash with software like Excel.

This led me into the world of helping new businesses assess feasibility of new developments and, of course, those that did proceed would need stationery, leaflets promotional material and logos, corporate identities and, more recently, web sites too. Great. Just my sort of work and I have had a wonderful time helping ideas become real and helping to make them look good too. The computer and all the software tools have made this possible whereas before I would probably never have got so involved.

Music
Then there is music. I love the sound of the Sixties as well as every decade since. As a teenager, I would have to try and record tracks with a microphone held up to the radio or TV speaker and hope no-one made any noise in the background. The tapes were fiddly and not brilliant quality but I was able to build a collection of favourites. Albums and singles were expensive for me. Yes, I bought quite a few but not nearly as many of the tracks that I would like to have done at the time.

Now, I have a really comprehensive collection of good quality music and can listen to what I want, when I want and almost wherever I want. It's crazy. There was even a track I thought I would never, ever find because it was something I heard for just a few weeks one summer. It never got into the charts but I sort of got hooked on it and never forgot it. A little while ago I discovered that all Radio London's Fab Forty Chart programmes were available on-line and, sure enough, there were a couple of weeks when that track was to be played. With a simple bit of recording software and some editing, I now have that track in my collection and can play it any time I want. That's all so cool.

In fact, everything I do is amazingly influenced by having software that is mostly free, on computers that are not expensive. I can compete with others for business. I can express my views on things and expect at least some people to see them. I can do so much that I love doing without spending a penny now that I have the essentials. I will never have time to do everything I'd like to.

The possibilities are now endless. But I shall enjoy every moment.

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