Getting Under the Bonnet

[As ever, this is also on the BBC News website, though note that I *don’t* think we should be a nation of programmers – the question mark is there for a reason!]

I’ve had my own website for fifteen years now, running on a wide variety of different computers. I started off with some space on the PIPEX WorldServer, a large – for the time – system that offered web hosting back in the days when getting online was a dark art and I was lucky enough to work for one of the early commercial internet service providers.

On leaving PIPEX I moved over to Cityscape, another Cambridge-based provider from the early days. When they [update: as Simon notes in the comments, they didn’t go bust but were sold, but they did stop hosting stuff for people like me…] went out of business I set up a server at home for a while before relocating the hardware to a shelf in the corner of a friend’s office, where he was happy to offer bandwidth and a power supply for a very modest monthly payment.

Three years ago I moved the whole thing again, this time onto a virtual server at Bytemark, one of the many small hosting companies that offer friendly and reliable server space for all sorts of organisations.

A virtual server is a way to get lots of different sites on one physical computer.  From the outside you can’t really tell, and when you log on to the virtual server it acts just like a real box, but it’s a lot cheaper to run and you get the benefit of having serious hardware, a secure power supply and an easy way to upgrade.

If you run your own computer, even a virtual one, then you also have to take responsibility for keeping it up to date. Mostly this involves applying patches, checking system logs and other relatively straightforward tasks, but servers, like cars, sometimes need a proper service.

And so it was that I spent a happy couple of hours on Saturday morning stripping down my website, backing up the blog installation files, database and key configuration files, and then doing a complete rebuild, or ‘re-imaging’ is it is called.

It all went remarkably smoothly, and installing the latest version of Debian Linux went without a hitch. I spent most of the time copying the gigabytes of data from my home server back to the site because uploading is still slow thanks to the asymmetric nature of UK broadband services.

The configuration files for the virtual servers went in smoothly, and I even managed to trick the MySQL database management system that holds all my blog posts to let me simply copy my files by creating an empty database of the same name and then overwriting it with my backups – far faster than importing everything.

Apart from a ten minute hiatus when I failed to get the web server to restart because I’d forgotten to create the folders where it writes its log files, there were no problems and I managed to get to the cinema to see the excellent ‘In The Loop’ for the noon performance, as planned.

One reason it went well was that Bytemark’s systems made it easy, but it also helped that I’m trained to do this sort of stuff. I’ve got a master’s degree in computer science and have had 25 years of experience in the industry, including a period as managing editor and systems administrator for The Guardian’s first website back in the mid-90’s.

Far too many people who use computers every day, and have them in their homes, aren’t even capable of applying the system updates that Microsoft and Apple automatically send out, leaving them with buggy and insecure systems vulnerable to all sorts of attack.

Even though we rely on our computers for so much there is still a sense that understanding how they work is an optional extra, something that really only needs to be reserved for the geeks or those whose work absolutely requires it.

Last friday the actor and self-confessed ‘technophile’ Stephen Fry was one of the more interesting contributors to a rather self-serving debate about ‘Digital Britain’ held at the British Library.

He offered an analogy between the early days of the motor car and the current development of a network society, noting that there were no agonised debates or high-level task forces convened to discuss the rollout of the car, so perhaps we should be more relaxed in our attitude to going digital.

We might not have seen our cities damaged beyond repair in the interests of improving traffic flow if we’d stopped to think, of course.  But even if the network is going to happen with or without government intervention, the end result is that most of us, most of the time, will be using computers to carry out activities that are pretty central to life in the modern world.

And if we do not understand how they work then we will be in trouble.

There are many reasons for knowing a bit about how cars work.  You can tell if there’s something wrong, and avoid driving a dangerous vehicle. You can decide whether the mechanic suggesting a thousand pounds worth of repairs is ripping you off. And you can even do some things yourself.

It’s almost fifty years since the writer CP Snow gave his famous lecture about the ‘two cultures’ at Cambridge University, where he outlined the dangers that come from the lack of understanding between literary intellectuals and the scientific community.  Today things don’t seem as bad, and there is clearly a much greater awareness of and interest in popular science.

Unfortunately a new divide has opened up, that between those of us who know enough about our computers to look under the bonnet from time to time and those who use them without any real curiosity or awareness.

The results could be far worse than being ripped off by unscrupulous engineers who offer them unnecessary upgrades, because these digital tools will increasingly shape society.  Those whose understanding of IT stopped at learning how to use bold font in a word processor will be at a significant disadvantage, one that we should work hard to overcome before it is too late.

We don’t need a nation of programmers, but we do need to be confident that everyone knows what programmers do and what programs look like.

Bill Thompson will be speaking about the new two cultures in a lecture at the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University on May 27th, part of the University’s celebration of its 800th anniversary.

Bill’s Links
Bytemark on rebuilding your server:
Rory Cellan-Jones on Digital Britain:
Donald Clark is sceptical:
CP Snow: Two Cultures:

7 Replies to “Getting Under the Bonnet”

  1. The analogy that I always use when clients or friends insouciantly tell me they’ve no idea how to do something on the computer is:

    “Would you be as proud of being illiterate as you are of your technical ignorance?”

    Of course I make it a bit more tactful than it sounds here 😉
    Sadly, it goes back to schools. In the 1970s & 1980s we taught kids how to program, & to understand computers. Now we just teach them to use the office products of an American billionaire, and nothing about real computing. Let’s get kids building website mashups, mobile phone apps, programmabe robots… 🙂
    – Richard

  2. I think Tony might want to correct your implication that Cityscape ‘went out of business’…

    They were acquired by Demon and then Scottish Telecom I think.


  3. They went out of *my* business… ie stopped running Cityscape Gold to host things for me. But I suppose you’re right 🙂

  4. The thing is, whilst I fully agree With Bills comments, as an IT professional, I am exasperated on a daily basis by the ignorance of some users. I have to say, for a purely selfish point of view, that the longer people don’t care about the innards of their systems the longer people like me can continue to make a good living!

  5. We never went out of business! Well, certainly not when I was running it. As Simon said, it was bought by Demon in 1995.

    That said, I didn’t really keep track of it afterwards – Thus (part of Scottish Telecom) acquired it along with Demon in 1998, and Thus got bought recently by Cable and Wireless. As for Cityscape … looking on, it stopped trading as a seperate brand back in 1999. And Simon and I moved back into their Convent Garden (Cambridge) offices not long after … but that’s another story.

  6. The analogy with cars is a very good one. I personally don’t know anything about mechanics (well very little). So I take it to a trusted mechanic for servicing, make sure the things I’ve been told I should do are done, topping up oil, keeping tyres inflated, keeping an eye out for warning lights and strange noises etc… And if there is a more serious problem take it to the guy for professional repairs. Because if I asked my neighbours son who likes to tinker with his Saxo on saturday mornings to fix it, it will probably not do it any good…

    But the problem in the PC world is that home users aren’t prepared to treat their computer in this way. The accepted way to treat electronics is to use them like TVs or Microwaves, to use them with no thought of maintenance until they give up the ghost, then either get it fixed or buy a new one. The other problem is that to get it fixed, few people turn to professionals, but take it to little Jimmy next door because he is never off the computer (meaning he likes to play call of duty online) and assume he will know how to fix it properly. Add to this the issue that, in reality, a lot of professionals know as little as Jimmy next door does when it comes to correcting common issues.

    If people truly treated their computer as the miracle of engineering it is, rather than a radio or TV, then they might have more success with them.

    Of course these days you can buy a new PC for a lot less than a new big-screen TV, so maybe it isn’t worth the effort and people should just stop complaining?

  7. as lappy repair company i have to say that the majority of laptopm designs are awful, yes there new sleek shinny but there should be an access pannel for the user to remove to clear the dust that clogs up the heatsinks then they would last far longer, the other bee in my bonnet is the cooling ( or lack of it !!! thses new designs are slapped together and thrown into the market. Im affraid these days little is properly tested for flaws and its the consumer who ends up testing after they paid their hard earned cash out. The HP DV seris is a typical example nvidia chipset is flawed and affects thousands od lappys including dell toshiba etc, Now if the chipset was reaserched properly they would have saved thousands of customers misery.
    At this point > there is a recall on the range check out (H.P DV seris recall) if you have one of these seris and it goes bad outside the warranty they will charge you 265.00 to fix UNLESS u mention the recall then its free !!!!!!! rip off anyway theres a heads up 4 ya.

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