Damon Hart-Davis: Anecdotes

Some of my real-life anecdotes and safe-ish after-dinner stories!

Entries will be added when I have a burst of enthusiasm.

Material Girl

While cycling back home at circa 2am on a foggy freezing moonless night from washing dishes as a teenager in a country pub I somewhat startled a woman walking about five dogs by belting out Madonna's "I am a material girl"... No, my lights weren't working either.

Cheating on the Ethics Test

At one of the many City financial institutions that I consulted for, as was commonplace, there was set automated training on the PC for a number of issues. Some were about money laundering, some about compliance, some a bit broader such as "ethics".

All fine and dandy. I like CPD, we were being paid for the time to do the training, and we weren't pressured. Except for one little problem.

The ethics test had a bug in it and the there was apparently no way to complete the mandatory module. Oo-er. And the helpdesk or whatever, wasn't.

In the end I had to 'cheat', use the accessible version which basically had the intended 'correct' answers in plain text, and work out how to make the system accept the (broken) 'correct' answer for one of the questions!

I suspect that I was not the only one to have to do something similar.

The upside was that I really thoroughly researched that part of the test and probably paid far more attention to it than I otherwise would!

Colour Clash

Back in the 90s when I lived in Catford (south-east London) on the main drag near the drycleaners there was a menswear shop. As I recall I went in very rarely, but on one occasion I ended up with rather a bargain.

The charming chap behind the counter managed to interest me in a collared shirt, mustard-yellow colour, and with some fancy embroidery. It could be worn with a suit, at the cost of some eye-strain to an onlooker!

At the same time I saw a bow-tie of the sort I wore for many years, clip-on, in rather bright psychedelic swirly colours.

The man was horrified and said that he could not possibly sell me both, in case I ever wore them together.

So he gave me one for free!


Many years ago, when mobile phones were mainly candy-bar form and still had stubby aerials, I was working in the City and living in the suburbs one stop down from an area with a large Korean and Japanese contingent.

I happened to be working for a Japanese multinational at the time, and was taking Japanese lessons.

On the way home one evening I was trying to read a book, but failing to progress beyond the first paragraph on a new page. That was because the Japanese woman next to me was making call after call very loudly and in very animated fashion. What with being deafened and dodging her antenna which repeatedly threatened to jab me in the eye, I was getting rather annoyed. As she was about to start the next (fourth?) call I politely asked her to desist or at least make it easier for me to read. At which point the woman very haughtily said something to the effect that the calls were all very important.

My Japanese skills were very basic, but the vocabulary she was using sounded like an informal form, and her animation suggested also that it was all idle (highly unimportant) chit-chat.

So calmly I said something like "Honto ni sumi masen ga sukoshi sukoski wakari masu" which was my attempt to say "Sorry, but I do understand a little Japanese [so I think not]!"

Not quite right, but the effect was interesting.

I've never seen someone turn instantly purple before, like a grape.

She ran away to the far end of the carriage. Rumbled!

Rumbled II

Another time, on the London Tube, I was standing in a busy carriage amongst a group of Japanese teenagers/20s women.

They were gossiping amongst themselves in what I took to be quite saucy terms, though my vocabulary was not up to being sure!

As we rounded a bend a couple of them fell into me and apologised politely in English. To which I replied "Daijoubu desu", which means "No problem", sort of.

They then all went quiet (and rather red), not sure how much of their previous banter I had understood.

Luck: A Cup Half Full

While at my aunt's farmhouse (Bridget, aka Lady Silsoe), when I was about 17, she had rather a large number of adult guests and had set me to work making coffee for them, a job I didn't like partly because at that age I was no fan of coffee or its smell.

I have always had slightly shaky hands and been prone to clumsiness, and these were magnified as a teenager; the kitchen's red tile floor and the coffee cups were just waiting to get me, of course.

After making about the 20th cup for a guest my aunt suddenly piped up that I had not made her one, so I got another mug out and dutifully did so, with my back to her, and hers to mine as she continued chatting.

I turned to face her across the kitchen and she started to say something to the effect "but I want a half cup of my special [Hag] decaf" but I slipped, dropped the cup (threatening to smash on that lovely floor) and miraculously recaught it a spin or two down but having shed half the contents. Keeping a totally straight face I handed to her with some comment such as "Half a cup?" and everyone was flabbergasted!

Pint of Belgian

I had been teaching a techie course (Java to automotive folks) in Leuven in Belgium, and went to the train station to get back to Brussels and onwards home via Eurostar.

It was evening, I was tired, and my train wasn't due for a little while, so passing the time on the platform I paced and whatever, and noticed a row of beer taps on a slick slim bar on the platform. I did a double-take, as nice bars al fresco and suburban trains don't go together in my head.

The smooth talking bar steward offered me a pint—yes a pint since the measure had just been made legal for beer across the EU!—of good Belgian beer. What an unexpected simple pleasure!

Spinach and the 3-Day Week

When I was small, about six, my family lived in a small flat in Oxford. Famously, there was only electricity 3 days each week, so we used to cook on a portable gas stove then. Infamously, my dad used to buy huge blocks of frozen spinach, and smash bits off on the edge of the freezer, ready to cook.

So in my mind I associate (in a bad way) dodgy spinach, dodgy power, and dodgy industrial/economic management. I have largely overcome my distaste for spinach 40-plus years later, the rest less so!

Freelance Day of the Week

The hazards of working to your own timetable, often largely at home, decades before covid-19 was a thing...

One morning I was getting very annoyed that my client's receptionist/telephonist was not picking up the main phone when I was calling in to speak to someone. No automated direct-dial-in in those days. She was often quite slow, but this was bad. Then I realised it was Sunday!

In the very early days of the Internet in the UK (the '90s), I set up what was to become my multimedia gallery. In those days search engines were quite raw, and you could usually see the exact query that a user had typed to be routed to your Web site.

So imagine not my disappointment, but that of the searcher, on arriving at an artful picture of a huge paperclip given that their search query was for "huge vacuum penis expander".

Tech Astonishments: Randomly Faster

In response to a thread on HackerNews about "C++17 constexpr everything" and someone saying "Code generation is widely used, at least in automotive. Comparison of hard-to-read and hard-to-debug advanced template/constexpr machinery vs code generated by standalone tool that is easy to read and easy to debug would not be taken seriously" I responded:

Both approaches have their problems, but resolving to compile-time constants with simple expressions is NOT "hard-to-debug" if done with care. As ever, tools can be abused, and real life can astonish.

Example: for the credit dept of a now-ex investment bank many moons ago we had a set of blessed (including with the correct correlations) random numbers pre-computed and baked in via code generation.

I discovered that I could actually generate numbers faster at run-time with highly-tuned code because of the high cost of paging in the large-precompiled numbers array across the network.

Yes, that really was astonishing, and meant that we could actually generate new numbers each time with the right characteristics faster than pre-generating, and vary those characteristics, which made our Monte Carlo algorithms happy. This for the derivatives/credit desks of Lehman Brothers...

Tech Astonishments: Calculator Longevity

I find it amazing that the Casio fx-100 pocket calculator with which I did my A-levels* is still useful for me today, eg to check investment numbers for my business and compute energy consumption figures circa 2018.

I don't think that I've changed the batteries even 10 times over that 30+ years.

*There was some suspicion that 'my' fx-100 was swapped inadvertently with that of one of my fellow A-levelers at some point, and I thought that we then scratched our names in the cases to avoid further mishap, though I don't see any evidence of such marks right now!

Tech Astonishments: 10x Slower Files

In response to seeing again the infamous We can't send mail more than 500 miles story, I recall something similar!

We had 10x faster file transfers in one direction than other at a large oil company's campus. After weeks of effort and hiring some very expensive test gear and a person to operate it, turned out to be kinked fibre causing large (NFS) packets to fail frequently in one direction: big data packets damaged more than tiny ACK packets.

Tech Astonishments: BBC Radio 4 in the Bath in the Med

Many years ago I was working on a small island in the Med, staying in a friend's flat in a village in the back of beyond. There was no wired broadband. GPRS (early slow mobile data) was the new kid on the block, and the (near) monoploy mobile telco wasn't selling access to it. In fact, it was free if you know how to use it. But reception in my friend's flat turned out to be far too patchy for streaming, which killed my habit of listening to Radio 4 in the bath!

Luckily I knew someone who worked in the telco and mentioned this to him. After a few days he suggested that I try streaming Radio 4 again, and, well, it was a sea change. Rock solid. Turns out that in the absence of any paying customers the tech guys had had some fun and electronically pointed all the antennae in reach at my friend's flat, so I had probably the best mobile data on the whole island. And perfect streaming of Radio 4's dulcet tones in the bath!

(Soon after, the telco's CFO had an epiphany and realised that this service might be worth something, and started charging an eye-watering rate per MB, but found some real customers prepared to pay it. No more R4 for me!)

Tech Astonishments: A Pager In The Hand

Near the start of my time in the City, as a tech admin, someone up high pronounced that there would be company-wide pagers for tech problems. For a long time nothing happened and then I was told that there would be two, one for my then desk (Swaps) and one for the whole London office as I recall. So I set up our desk one to send me useful messages, which it occasionally did. Carrying the London office primary pager was apparently worth a whole extra day's work every week. And no one knew how to send it messages. YES PLEASE!

Many uneventful page-free weeks passed, possibly partly because my colleagues insisted on showing me how the Hutchinson-Wampoa pagers would not survive being dunked in a pint of beer on a Friday night. And then I was told it was hardly my fault if I couldn't respond. Still rather more important was that no one yet knew how to send that primary pager a message!

Until a couple of pints into another Friday night, the pager actually went off. With some very inscrutable messages. And phone numbers that when I rang were nothing to do with the London office. And no one answered my calls back to my desk. Weird and worrying.

It seems that there was no crisis in the office: Hutchinson had simply decided to liven my evening by routing other random pager messages to me, possibly intended for bouncers.

I didn't get to keep that pager for much longer, but for the odd Friday fright it was definitely worth a free day's pay per week!

Tech Astonishments: Getting Started

My dad got me started on tech maybe age 5 or 6, I'm not sure, showing me how to build circuits with batteries and bulbs and switches. Which was OK, but I might have lost interest except that he did something that I still don't quite understand now.

I got the idea that for a lamp to light it had to have a continuous wire circuit from the battery terminals through the lamp. (I was using little incandescent torch bulbs in those days!) If you opened up the switch the lamp went off.

Except that on this occasion that hooked me, opening the switch only made the lamp go dim, not off.

And if you think that that's a spurious reason to get into technology, know that my mum and dad basically met over a bug: a flashing integer overflow light on a Fortran computer. My dad was getting weird results from my mum's electron-orbital program. My mum eventually taught me how to program.

I graduated via 100-in-1 electronics kits with spring clips, and germanium discrete diodes and transistors and resistors etc, to drawing up my own circuits and buying the components from the likes of Watford Eletronics and Maplin by mail order, and soldering them up on strip-board.

But dreams are big, pocket money small, and my soldering skills marginal. Which is why when we got a home computer (a Sharp MZ-80K was first), I was deflected to the dark side (software), though still pretty low level, often with machine code mixed in, sometimes laboriously typed up on a real manual typewriter, with hand corrections in pen or pencil! One of my O-level computing project submissions was a 'space invaders' game in machine code!

Tech Astonishments: Getting Conceived

I learnt programming from my mum. She was my FORTRAN virtual machine, and 'ran' my programs that I had typed out on a manual typewriter long before we had any sort of home computer! She met my dad over an integer overflow light at university when he was using some of her electron-orbital FORTRAN code and getting strange results. I am the result of a bug, it seems!


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