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I *do* like Onliners. You meet some crackingly good sorts and you also come into contact with some folks who are….different…

I was reading a finance-forum this evening and noticed a thread asking about 100% mortgages and whether there was any aid for first time buyers. Which is a bit of an odd thing to ask in the current economy as I’d have thought even a snail that’s been repeatedly hit over the head with a spanner would have sussed that banks are not exactly rushing to throw money at people who appear not to be a good risk. So I clicked and took a look. It seems our hero wants a 150k house but doesn’t want to save up a deposit for it. Because he’d more than likely take the fifteen grand and blow it on a sportscar and his girlfriend wouldn’t be amused. Sometimes there’s nothing a person can do but gaze on in amazement and then laugh themselves silly. 🙂

Years ago I was employed by the civil service and had a team of reprobates professing to work for me. Despite the job adverts stating that applicants *must* be computer literate I ended up with some staff who literally didn’t know how to switch one on. One woman was hugely intimidated by office software despite claiming to have done a course in computer science. Still, with some a lot of patient coaching she eventually mastered the basics. She did have some interesting views on technology though.

Our computers were part of a huge network. And as with all networks occasionally things run slow. And as with all huge anythings, occasionally some parts of it are found to be not quite up to snuff. One such part was the computer of my anti-geek staffer which was prone to trundling and slowness and admittedly was probably quite annoying. When our IT people turned up to look at it I wandered over to find out what was going on. Surprisingly, my staffer wasn’t too annoyed at the shoddy equipment. Even more surprisingly she assured me that she knew exactly what was wrong with that computer. She had jumping electrons.

Initially I assumed I had merely been struck down by a hitherto unsuspected brain tumour and was thus suffering from problems with lexical processing. So I wasn’t too worried. It was only when she repeated that she had jumping electrons that I began to have problems. The small person in my brain who handles auditory-to-thought translation began loudly insisting that he’d done his job properly and that there was no way I was pinning the blame for this one on him. Rather than have to deal with the unions I decided to make further enquiries. In one sense I turned out to be glad that I did because her explanation was swiftly filed under the ‘treasured memories’ section of my brain and is one that I’ve often trotted out for the amusement of geeks. Of course, there’s the other sense where I wasn’t so glad to ask for an explanation because staring and flapping one’s mouth open and closed is not a good look for somebody pretending to be a manager.

‘The reason’, she explained ‘that my computer runs slowly is because of the electrons and the gap. Because that thing…no, it’s not a computer it’s another thing, it has another name….yes, that’s it….because the tower is on its side so I can put my TV on it the electons have to jump. Before they just went straight but now they can’t go from side-to-side they have to jump up and down. So it takes longer because of gravity and that’s why my computer runs slowly. Hah! I bet you didn’t know that did you? I learned that on my computer science course’.

Of course we agreed with her. What else, after all, could we do. Sometimes there are no words and electrons having to Mind The Gap is one of those times.

I frequently find myself having no words of late. I am helping a manager with a project at work. Essentially building a database except we are not permitted to have database-building software. So I have gazillions of spreadsheets all linked to one another and all taking a tiny part of the load. I’m quietly impressed at myself for the way I’ve created this system and honestly I think it’s quite a clever thing. I have a minor desire for the end result to be a bit more impressive than the tables and charts I end up with. If a person thinks that creatively-yet-logically and carefully sets up some very sneaky systems then there should at least be fireworks and a light-show. Microsoft desperately need to work on some aspects of their software.

Still, my manager seems happy with it and that’s the main thing. Actually I think he’d be impressed if I just summed a column given how IT-illiterate he is. He’s another anti-geek though not in the same category as my civil service staffer. He’s just one of those people-person-people and not remotely techie. So much so that I have (with a nod in the directions of both passengeraction and Arthur C Clarke) named all the spreadsheets that do clever background stuff variants on the phrase ‘magic happens’. Who says technically-minded people can’t be literary?

I sat him down and showed him how the system worked. Data goes into this sheet. Pretty charts are spat out on this one. As for the rest? Oh never mind the rest and DON’T YOU DARE EVER TOUCH IT OR YOU’LL BREAK IT!!! He’s down with that. He understands his limits. 🙂 I gave a fleeting demo of how the system is automated. He was impressed. As I carefully deleted my dummy example (Underground Ernie!) my manager pounced on an issue. ‘The data has gone away! But the name is still there!’

I explained that this was only because I hadn’t quite deleted the name yet and that furthermore the system wasn’t too fussed by the names of the people entered. This led to some conjecture. ‘If I take out that name…(I obligingly delete Ernie*)…and put in someone else (I swiftly think hard but cannot come up with anything better than Joe Bloggs)…then will the computer know it’s a different person?’ Ummm…..that would be a ‘no’ there. Some days I go in and the questions and remarks make me feel like Stephen Hawking. Some days it’s more like Charles Babbage.

Then there was the Day of the Common Sense. In which I was asked to provide a report showing how many drivers were not actually driving due to various reasons. It might, it was suggested, prove interesting to look at the data by gender. I knocked that one on the head by pointing out that relatively few male staff stopped driving due to pregnancy. Next I was asked if my database could categorise entries according to times people couldn’t drive and what the reason was for that. Initially I said there was no way for it to do that because reasons for not doing normal duties are highly individual and besides which nobody had asked me to look at that before. It’s not magic you know…..oh alright then. Not, you understand, that it turned out to be magical after all. I just didn’t have the heart to disappoint him and went and categorised and counted things by hand. When I presented my data he was suitably impressed(though obviously for the wrong thing) but nearly fell out of his chair when I realised that percentages would be a good idea rather than absolute numbers. ‘Why are you typing sums in that box? WHOAH!!!’

So on an almost daily basis I’m being lauded as a genius at work. Regardless of merit. I feel something of a fraud at times but sometimes it’s easier to accept the praise than to explain why it’s undeserved. Take the spreadsheets day. One morning I ambled in and was asked to drop everything and make some spreadsheets up. Fair enough, shouldn’t be too hard, what about? Apparently I was to not concern myself with that at present but to just make the spreadsheets and my manager would get the paperwork for it later. O….kaaaayy. I tried a couple more times to get him to explain what he wanted doing but in the end just said that the spreadsheets were already sitting waiting for information to be put in. At which point I was commended by my forethought. Yeah, me and Bill Gates go way back. 😉

*How tempting…

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