Sunday, January 30, 2005

Putting passwords in their place

(This article appeared in Networked Comms Insight during 2003)

Network security is a difficult business, particularly desktop access. Like most regulation, it imposes a burden on the majority of users because of the risk from a few. Authentication of a user used to be a simple process but is nowadays somewhat fraught.

Take the whole genre of passwords, for example. Once upon a time, passwords were simplistic, obvious, easily remembered to those who needed to know them and basically just a way of keeping out casual users who could cause inadvertent damage.

A good example of this was the GEC SL-X system in the late 70s. To get into the software diagnostic area, the password was “S803”, which was an abbreviation for Section 803, the bit where the developers worked. Everyone who needed to know could readily remember it and the consequence of someone misusing it was not too important, other than possibly causing a system reload, something generally career limiting!

Nowadays, passwords are individual, tailored, have to follow arcane rules and are an absolute pain. It has to be memorable to you but not obvious. It shouldn’t include obvious dictionary words. It needs to be mixed case alphanumeric with as many obscure characters as possible. It can’t be something you have used in living memory of the system and the sodding thing will start pestering you to change it just when you have got used to the existing one. No doubt, in three months time, the memo will come round that we have to jump through even more hoops.

Why do we have to be so precise with making our passwords so complex? After all, the network only allows you three bites of the cherry before being consigned to lockout limbo and the subsequent password reset purgatory from the service desk.

The answer comes in the way passwords are encrypted within the domain controller and across the network. Whilst supposedly secure, they can be broken by brute force using widely available tools. Widely available, that is, to script kiddies as well as security managers. Whilst domain control can be on a secure server in a protected location, the local files on laptops that enable us to work offline are much more vulnerable, as are the packets flying round the network, particularly if Wireless is involved.

The need to have numerous shared passwords to get into a range of applications is less of an issue these days as more and more software falls in line with the authentication policy so the days of several post-it notes surrounding the screen are drawing to an end. However, we still have the need to identify ourselves to the network at logon and after every short pause where the screensaver kicks in. It is tiresome, tedious and costs big business a lot of wasted effort in managing the scheme.

So, what is the answer? There are possibilities of using biometrics, whether fingerprints, face recognition, voice recognition, retinal scans and measuring the dynamics of signature analysis. They all have their merits and their pitfalls. How soon before we have the first publicised cyber crime that involves physical mutilation in the style of Arnie Schwarzenegger?

The biggest problem with the current password regime recommendations is that if users can’t use memorable words, they will tend to make up gibberish based on easy to remember key sequences which can be observed and reproduced. This is particularly prevalent for cash card crime, where a user is observed, distracted and then the card palmed to be used five minutes later down the road.

Assuming that the mechanism for cracking password files is a losing battle then the need for avoiding memorable words is probably bogus as they will all be cracked with negligible time differential. It isn’t bogus if the words are guessable, however! What we need to do is have individually memorable words but varying key entry. The banking industry have something called scrambler locks- a 6 digit pin code to open the door from the banking hall to the secure area, but the keypad randomly scrambles the numerals and they are only viewable close up from a very narrow viewing angle (indeed the last one I saw and used up close used decadic counter (Nixie) tubes that I hadn’t seen in instrumentation since the days before LED displays). I can see that scrambler keyboards would make a lot of sense on cash point machines, as well as on the arrival of PIN & CHIP point of sale terminals for credit cards that we have seen in France for nearly a decade.

Back to our Corporate laptops, where scrambler keyboards are not likely to appear. What would be a better way of securing them, or better still, unsecuring them when we (and only we) want access?

Well, my most recent ID card contains an RFID chip, the big brother device that the civil liberty and tin foil hat brigade warn us will be used to track our every waking moment when all of our possessions are chipped and the Home Secretary has insisted that we get one implanted in order to qualify for anything other than emergency tax code.

Despite the 1984 connotations, the card is a boon- I don’t have to swipe it or fiddle about with PIN codes, doors and barriers unlock in my presence. I still have to do a bit of vague genuflection in the direction of the sensors but future products will no doubt have a bigger sensor catchment zone and it will simply be a case of walking through portals.

This RFID chip lives around my neck every waking corporate moment upon pain of disciplinary action. Provided I don’t lose it, it is considered secure enough to get me everywhere I am entitled to, with additional PIN code access for particularly sensitive areas. If my laptop could sense the presence of the ID card then that would solve a big problem straight away- if I am there the PC unlocks and if I go for a coffee the portcullis slams down and the drawbridge goes up.

The trouble is that the RFID chip is passive, it simply spits out a stream of data when requested and that request could be from a hostile source. Active RFID chips exist- you probably have one on your key ring to unlock the car. The downside is that they currently need batteries.

So what will the future hold? I see terminal devices including a Web cam as a matter of course so a combination of RFID, face recognition and the occasional challenge for particularly sensitive stuff as smoothing the process. What it will muck up though, is the common-or-garden business presentation- there will need to be a PowerPoint mode where it trusts you for a bit standing at the front of the room waving your arms about!

What do we do now in the meantime? Bruce Schnier is a well-respected security guru who writes a monthly e-newsletter that is well worth subscribing to (see He does a good job of debunking the FUD that vendors come up with and has made himself very unpopular with the U.S. Government by pointing out the fallacies in the draconian homeland security legislation rushed into place after the World Trade Center atrocity.

(Every time I see it called 9-11 I think “November 9th?” I’m happy to call it Center instead of Centre though, in the same was as I’m happy to pronounce Paris as Paree the way the French do, after all, it isn’t cement).

By the way, I’m a generalist, specialism is for insects. However, I spend enough time asking the right people the right questions to know enough to not be dangerous, so to speak. (Well, most of the time!.)

Back to passwords, his advice for password management is classic KISS (Keep it simple stupid). Paraphrasing his and other suggestions, I adopt the following:-

Create an easy to remember username and low level password that you use for all of the unimportant stuff across the web. Sometimes you may have to tweak it slightly due to bizarre rules, but that’s life.

For the important stuff like banking, spending money, sensitive details, don’t try to memorise them any more. Instead, make them long and complex, write them down and keep them in your wallet. Treat them like a credit card- important and remedial action needed if lost or stolen.

As for the corporate workstation? Do the latter, but you will have to remember it if you don’t want to look in your purse or wallet 20 times a day. Roll on the future!

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Putting business in control of callflow

(This article appeared in Networked Comms Insight during 2003)

Once upon a time, business telephony was fairly simple. When you wanted to ring up a Company, you dialled their switchboard number and the friendly Operator put you through. Customers didn’t ring businesses that much as the standard response was often a request to put the query in writing anyway.

The arrival of DDI, ACD, Networking, messaging and CTI gradually led to more efficient call handling within the Corporate environment. Firms that could afford it were able to invest in powerful software based phone systems and train up staff to be able to match the business needs to the functionality available. There was an irony here- Businesses could do all sorts of clever call manipulation on-site whilst the public network was mostly constrained to delivering the calls to the targeted geographic number.

The rise of the large call centre must have put considerable strain on the local exchange- an average System X Concentrator serving up to 4000 users would generally have been served via a PDH 34 Meg feed and probably only had 8 E1 links back to the parent exchange. Even when provisioning was not an issue, filling the pipes efficiently has always been a challenge for more complex call centres, as well as number management as trading products are refreshed and replaced.

The first generation of non-geographic number services brought a major change of approach. The so-called “Intelligent Network” provided a mechanism for translating the number dialled into the number to be delivered to. Suddenly, businesses had the opportunity to get decisions taken in the network, rather than on their own switches. This enabled call distribution between sites based on ratios, time, date etc. Unfortunately, anyone who has had to manage call plans on behalf of business users knows that the results are based on what the Carrier software can achieve rather than what the user wants. Sometimes they are the same but not always so!

IN has gained in functionality through further developments in recent years and can now offer comparative sophistication in results. The main stumbling block, however, is that it is not particularly intelligent when it comes to understanding what is really going on in your business in real-time. Businesses that need to re-route calls elsewhere in anything other than broad brush rules have had to over-provision links and private circuits due to the tandeming involved.

The second generation of callflow functionality came with mechanisms integrated between the PSTN and local phone and IT systems. The best known solution arrived from a small Company called Geotel in America. This replaced the IN mechanism with a system known as Intelligent Call Routing, or ICR. With this solution, ICR has visibility of your systems and can make sensible decisions in real-time of which agents are free (or likely to become free) who are appropriately skilled to handle particular calls. Cisco bought up Geotel and developed it further to be more than just voice, renaming it Intelligent Contact Management, or ICM. Now most of the major carriers are able to offer a flavour of ICM, although it is probably a good idea to research it carefully as it can be a complex subject and there are different approaches taken providing subtly different solutions. The other thing that has to be understood is how well ICM integrates with your favourite PBX- sometimes it is call routing based on educated guesswork and doesn’t always do what you expect.

Rather than manipulate call flow in the core, an alternative approach has been to manipulate it at the edge, still on Telco property but with data links to the Customer IT. This works because there is still full visibility and access to C7 signalling at the edge of the network that is not provided via DASS or Euro ISDN on the private switches. Whilst there is some inevitable tandeming if there is a need to route calls elsewhere, it doesn’t impact on channels from the exchange to the PBX. Gematech have some interesting solutions to this but it does require co-operation from your carrier. Of course, as this type of solution generates extra minutes of traffic, this is something that a lot of carriers like!

There are two pitfalls with these second generation solutions that increase risk to business. Firstly they are based on proprietary solutions so further developments depend on the success of the product and the business drivers to enhance it. Secondly, it makes the business somewhat beholden to the carrier involved, moving business is considerably more complex than simply porting the number as the implementations vary.

What Businesses really want is for the solution to be based on business rules, not Telco ones. Let us imagine a third generation solution of the future.

Someone, somewhere, wants to contact our Company and has dialled one of our numbers. In real-time, over a high speed data link, we learn of this. The Carrier sends us as much information as is available about this particular call which at a minimum is the target number called. Based on this information, we make an intelligent decision. The calling number is recognised as Mrs. Wilson who called yesterday for a quotation. The called number and IVR data-capture is recognised as the “hot quote” number allocated to Mrs. Wilson. She talked to Sue Jones who is working today and likely to become available in the next 45 seconds. We make a decision- play Mrs. Wilson a “thank you for calling back” message, tailored as to Sue’s availability and the option to wait, queue jump or get an immediate callback. We also prepare our systems to flag Sue’s queue for a priority call until we get a Mrs. Wilson update.

The next call that arrives is recognised as Mr. Hughes who also called yesterday. However, this time, Mr. Hughes is calling the number for an allied product. We decide that he is simply shopping around and downgrade his priority, based on the current call answering performance which is a little below par at the moment- there is a major team brief happening at site one and site two has an ongoing (false) fire alarm situation. It will resolve in five minutes.

Meanwhile, Mrs.Wilson has decided to talk to the next available Agent. There are four overflow home workers available and Ruth Coshak is chosen as having the personality style most closely matching Sue Jones. The call is presented to Ruth along with a brief “whisper” prompt whilst Mrs. Wilson is thanked for her choice. Ruth also gets an account popup showing clearly what the call is about. (Ruth also gets an indication 30 seconds into the call that Sue is now available, however she chooses to cancel this as she has started to develop a rapport with Mrs. Wilson.)

The key differentiator in these scenarios is that the Telco reports the call details and the Business tells the Telco what to actually do with the call. This is not just setup- it could include subsequent segments of the call where it is modified through a “take back and transfer” basis, something of a holy grail for Call Centre Telecoms Managers. What we need is what the software guys call an API, or application programming interface. Most PBXs have APIs for Computer/Telephony Integration but an API for the Business to control the PSTN is what we want.

Is this a pipedream? No, not at all. The Parlay project is intended to offer this functionality and rather a lot more- it isn’t just about voice but embraces multiple contact channels and applications. The Parlay API has been specified and updated, what we need now are some real products and participating Carriers. There are some interesting names on the list but quite a few are conspicuous by their absence. Will this functionality appear on the PSTN, or do we have to wait for the Business Internet? Will it feature in UMTS?

Some questions remain to be answered. Can businesses be trusted to manage callflow without safeguards? What happens when the disgruntled employee arranges to deliver 300 Erlangs of traffic to the local Pizza Hut? We all know Back-office applications are as tetchy as a class of stage-school infants and will sulk for almost any reason. How do we integrate in the face of unreliability? How do we pay the carrier for it all?

These are all challenges and I don’t envy the early adopters for getting the bugs out & getting to grips with doing it well. However, this is certainly a route to competitive advantage & making the most efficient use of resources and technology. It also needs a change of mindset within both IT and the business teams, anything becomes possible, provided we plan and implement it well enough.

Find out more about Parlay at

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Is the number up for the PSTN?

This article appeared in Networked Comms Insight during 2003

The title of the article asks two questions, depending which way you read it. When will the PSTN disappear, to be replaced by something else, which for argument’s sake, I’ll call the PNCN? Or, when will we stop having to use hard to remember numbers, to communicate with others?

I’d like to think the two go hand in hand, but I’ll cover off the first one first. The PNCN is already here- the Internet is the Public Non-switched Communication Network. The four letters warrant closer examination as each has an interesting parallel with the past.

Starting with “Network”, this simply implies devices connected together. In the case of a private network, it is a firmly closed user group, a public one accessible to all (based on availability of connection and ability to pay). The PSTN is global in reach but the only common denominator is 300Hz-3.4kHz analogue speech for basic telephony, everything else we take for granted in the first world (such as 64k clear channel) patchy at best in the third world. By comparison, the Internet is also Global in reach but the throughput and bandwidth available is rather more difficult to predict. We have also covered off “Public” by default here but we can take it as read that despotic regimes aside, where people want to get access they will be able to do so, mostly unfettered by the regulation that held back Telecoms post-nationalisation.

“Non-switched” vs “switched” – is of negligible interest to most users. When you talk to someone, you don’t care if your speech is packetised, encrypted, sent by multiple methods or indeed played to dolphins at sea World through underwater ultrasonic speakers en-route provided that it is something resembling commercial speech to both parties. However to the carrier, it is much more problematic. With the PSTN, the engineering comes in the unswitched capacity, once you managed to get through, you generally kept the connection as long as you needed it and the quality remained the same provided wireless wasn’t involved. With the PNCN, however, as it currently involves multiple technologies, effective capacity management must be an operational nightmare.

Finally, we come to “Telephone” versus “Communication”. The PSTN is admirably suited to talking and can be used for low speed data, whether bonded multiple 64k channels, or 300 baud modems. The Internet as a whole, however, is pretty hopeless at coping with speech from end to end unless you are prepared to accept random quality and poor reliability levels. As for real-time video, forget it.

That is not to say that significant chunks of the Internet cannot be used for carrier class telephony within the same supplier. Indeed, how many Carriers would swear on the bible that all of their private circuits provided to Customers as such are actually genuine, dedicated, uncontended provision?

Now, onto the thorny subject of numbers. We take telephone numbers for granted and they are comparatively easy for the public to understand and use. If they are so simple, why don’t we use them on emails? Well, in the early days of Compuserve, that was the case. If you wanted to send me a message, I was something like [123.456789] (I didn’t actually want a Compuserve account, having jumped into the Internet deep end with Demon when the setup was fairly complex, but it came free with a project I was working on). Account names often had semi-random alpha numerics in them, generally at the whim of a Sysadmin because simplicity and scalability hadn’t really been thought through at the time. These days, the de-facto standard seems to be firstname.lastname@company.type which is fine if you aren’t called John Smith, or in the Gulf Countries, Mohammed Abdullah. So why don’t we do the same with telephony?

Well, the reality is that we do. In our diaries, on our mobiles, on our featurephones, we create an alias that we immediately recognise and can associate with who we want to contact. We can remember a handful of numbers but there comes a point where we have to look them up, whether on a piece of paper, or having to dial 118£££. With instant messaging, we create “buddies”. With email, we create distribution lists or mailing lists. With favourite websites, we create shortcuts. However, it is not normal to number them!

I bought a couple of cheap phones on ebay recently to replace my home caller display units that were getting unreliable. After living with them for a while, something struck me about how the speed dialling worked that was unusual for a wireline instrument. Rather than bring up a numbered list, the list was sorted alphabetically. It did mean that you couldn’t do < 3> <2> for entry 32, but instead, when you pressed speed dial, you simply chose who you wanted in the same way that you type SMS on most phones, i.e. to access entries beginning with K, you pressed 5 twice. The phone positively encouraged you to label and store calls, both incoming and outgoing. Whilst this was fine, I eventually realised that I had to do exactly the same chores again on the upstairs set!

So, are numbers better than meaningful names? Yes and no. Numbers are quicker, but harder to remember. Text is more straight-forward, but requires greater accuracy. Dyslexia affects numbers as well as names, we get a lot of calls to a test phone on 01422 xxxxxx when the caller meant to dial 01442 xxxxxx, i.e. Hemel Hempstead, not Halifax!

ENUM is an interesting development, which is an attempt to provide a mechanism to contact someone by any channel. It works a bit like the Internet DNS lookup that turns a URL such as into an IP address such as In simple terms, you ring, fax, email or message the one number, which is then translated to the appropriate address for delivery.

I see the future as including both- When you want to contact someone from a PNCN device, you find who you want quickly and intuitively from contextual menus guided by what information you already know. However, if you are in a Bedouin village in the Sahara, you find the ENUM from the community solar powered PC like-device, then queue up for your turn on the rotary telephone. (Or buy a journalist a large drink and borrow his Satcom system!)

So is the number up for the PSTN? Not yet. Too many security problems on the emerging networks at the moment. Too many technical issues, Telcos feeling the pinch, not enough investment. But, why should there only be one internet?

Monday, January 24, 2005


When I checked out Bob Emerson's site via the link in the last posting, I'm delighted to see that he is now giving away 21st Century Communications as a .pdf as the book is out of print.

Of course, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, the book might do your head in or something.

Can I trust my telephony to IP?

(This article appeared in Networked Comms Insight during 2003)

Up until a decade ago, I used to work on the dark side, deriving most of my income from Telecoms manufacturers. I was involved with many new developments, generally at field trial (beta) stage, where the work tends to be with Customers who are early adopters, who actually want the solution being offered.

What it is easy to overlook working for a large Corporate in a globetrotting, ground breaking environment, is that sometimes developments are solutions looking for a problem. This is where the magical world of marketing takes over, in persuading Customers they may have a problem that their solution is optimal towards solving.

Packet switched telephony is just such a solution. I was reliably informed by clever people that circuit switched technology was a dinosaur back in 1988, but here we are 15 years later and whilst it is now starting to look very old and tired, it still hasn’t become extinct yet. Why is this?

Well, speaking as a Telecoms Manager, 50% of the sector seems to have a vested interest in my being sceptical. IP from the new boys leaves something to be desired, they hint. It might be quite reliable now, but a lot of those features that you take for granted just aren’t there. Never mind the quality, feel the width. Of course, our solution gives you the best of both worlds, everything you want, in an IP environment, fully integrated with your legacy stuff.

Hang on, though, I think. You guys have been charging an arm and a leg for functionality that has paid for its development many times over. If I want to add clever stuff in my old and new bits I still have to pay through the nose for it. If I don’t you deem it to be legacy and I have to pay catch-up to do the slightest thing a few years down the line.

But hang on again, all these licensing and legacy things seem to be a very similar scenario to the way the IT Software industry has gone anyway, so I am going to have exactly the same issues with the new players on the block. Lets take a closer look at their story.

The idea of convergence, it seems, is to bring voice, data and applications together in one cohesive whole, a true Information & Telecoms Technology (ICT), or perhaps better expressed as INS, or Information and Network Services. One network saves on costs and is a great enabler for multi-channel, unified functionality. Bob Emmerson, the well-known industry watcher has coined an even more interesting term that embraces the applications, connectivity and process in a holistic manner. He calls it UCI, which stands for Unified Communications and Information. So, yes, there is a definite problem that IP can be an enabler for solving; our communications channels are islands of functionality isolated from our processes and each other.

Well, that sounds great. However, not all of us are blue-chips with huge budgets. So what do we need to do to start trusting our voice to IP?

Our biggest hurdle is the Network.

Firstly, we have to tackle the problems of packet loss, delay, jitter etc. Voice doesn’t need massive bandwidth but it is hugely intolerant to any mucking about. This means the network has to be fully switched from edge to edge where you want to talk, with 100 Meg to the desktop and Gigabit core. It needs to support packet prioritisation, probably at both layer 2 locally and layer 3 when routed.

Prioritisation by itself doesn’t help in overload situations. A bit too much voice will dramatically impact on the non-voice throughput; way too much voice could cause bottlenecks and quality deterioration. Whilst bandwidth planning isn’t constrained by real channels any more, there is still the need to plan and engineer the network.

Resilience is crucial to continue to deliver high availability that phone users have always expected. It is a good idea to provide UPS further out towards the network edges so that phone conversations are immune to power cuts. Hang on though, many IP phones have power bricks into 13A sockets. Fortunately, 802.11af power over Ethernet has now been standardised. Always ensure there is adequate provision of Ethernet power, whether via in-line adapters or switches that include it. Given time, in-line power will become standard rather than an up-lift and one less variant to manage.

Once the network is voice ready, we then have to take stock of our legacy voice systems. They are also a big hurdle, because their legacy gets in the way of a UCI approach. Some of the vendors are starting to show what we might call green shoots of UCI, as there are some interesting partial solutions out there. The Cisco’s and 3Coms of the world also have their own UCI offerings.

I think that having an IP phone on every desk is a bit of a red herring in the majority of Companies. Yes, making the configuration follow the phone means that the instrument can go into the packing crate along with the files when someone moves and the functionality follows them. However, we have to get away from the mentality of the number belonging to the phone. When we move, we want to leave the thing on the desk, log in and then the associated phone becomes ours, for the duration, or by default if we choose it to be (semi) permanent.

I want us to get away from having a separate phone and PC, but I’m not talking about kludges like soft phones, USB interfaces or sound cards. My ideal workstation looks like a PC with a handset, headset or bluetooth associated with it. However, here is the crunch. The phone is actually built into the keyboard and is the network connection, powered via Ethernet. A small display & message waiting light above the numeric keypad is the only immediately obvious difference, along with the cradle, if fitted. When we arrive in the morning, we have a fully working traditional phone, however, once the PC has booted up and we have logged in that is when the phone really performs, being fully integrated with all our other communication channels and applications.

What about all of the users who just need POTS? Initially, put IP to analogue gateways in the closets and patch them as distributed analogue devices locally. There comes a point when IP-POTS will be cost effective enough to spend £50 on a simple IP phone and not have to manage them as a special case. In the IP world, vanilla telephony (PIPS) can include a display, message waiting light and half a dozen feature buttons, as the marginal cost between production runs of nasty phones compared to basic ones will indeed be marginal.

Having moved on to futures, let us return to the present. There are two further obstacles to achieving voice UCI. Security is an obvious one & there are (possibly) urban myths about denial of service attacks, hacking & viruses taking down IP phone systems. There are also stories of full voice IP systems running physically separated from the main data network, not just Vlan which is the virtual equivalent. Security has to be ubiquitous and multi-tiered, a point not to be laboured here.

Once we have ourselves a secure, resilient, reliable, robust IP network, our final hurdle is to manage it. The move, change & feature bit is probably a lot easier than what the voice people have been used to. However, what is the really critical bit is network management, both from a real-time and historic perspective. With the success of Cisco AVVID, there seems to have been a clutch of enterprising small companies who have popped up to provide useful tools outside of the scope (& huge cost) of the traditional tools like HP Openview, Cisco Works, Transcend et-al. We also have to work out how to get our voice, application & data staff trained up with the right skill set to do it, or find a partner who will.

Will I trust my telephony to IP? Well, I would if I had the time, money and resources. In the meantime, I have one IP phone and am thinking about installing another one! Now if only the IP-PSTN were here today…

Bob Emmerson can be found at

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Crying Baby update...

There is a fierce bidding war going on between thetingleytroll and katybuchanan.

As I type, the troll has got it up to £32. & still 1 day 1 hour 11 minutes to go...

All for a good cause etc.!

Saturday, January 22, 2005

A troll in Tingley

We have our first bidder for the "baby crying" sign. I suspect the technophobe may have got his finger out as the user name is "thetingleytroll" which is the jokey name for the bloke who collects Butlins ephemera down Tingley way. Yes, he is short, but not green, you're thinking of Fungus the Bogeyman...

21st Century Presence

(This article was part four of a series intended to develop a theme for a presentation at the Enterprise Networks Conference 2004, an event which included the CMA Plenary keynote session. See for more details)

When I was in the throes of youth, presence meant actually being there, typified by dear Blondie always being touched by it and Level 42 perfecting it in silence physically.

Charismatic people are sometimes described in terms of their presence dominating the room through force of personality, apparently an essential must-have for MP selection in the days where empathy was less important than staying on message & winning arguments.

Presence doesn’t always mean people, as sung by Alison Moyet going weak in the presence of beauty in 1990.

When the Internet became recognised as a serious business tool, the term presence became accepted to mean having a web site, whether a simple page, a full e-commerce site or all of the variants in between. Indeed a straw poll of ICT people suggests that this is still the general view, although “increased presence” generally relates to improved rankings on the major search engines rather than bigger sites.

From a communications perspective, presence can be thought of as a real-time indicator of likely availability when someone wants to contact someone else. Does this already exist? On some channels but not others.

· With voice, you generally don’t find out if someone is available until you call them, at which point you may get busy tone, get routed to messaging, get answered by someone else or get ignored. In sophisticated PBX systems, the Operator may well be able to see that a user is on the phone or has redirection activated (or possibly has “Do not disturb” with a given reason, such as on holiday or in a meeting). With feature phones, it is often possible to get visual indication of colleague status so that ascertaining when to call is easier. The use of CTI soft phones is making this more flexible but there is still some way to go.
· With mobiles, the likelihood of contacting someone is probably higher provided that they carry their phone around with them in a pocket rather than leave it in a jacket or handbag. However, it still takes a call to find out & there is the possibility of being rebuffed through use of the call reject key, whether a reaction to circumstance (in a meeting, driving etc.) or conscious rejection (I don’t want to speak to him….!).
· With email, the message is sent in hope of being read but there is a certain level of faith involved. An out of office message may advise on non-availability but the reply might come in a few seconds, a few days or never. The same applies to SMS to the extent that if it doesn’t get received immediately it could be delayed considerably.
· With instant messaging, presence is essential- if someone isn’t available then they can’t be contacted. Users create a “buddy list” which is updated real-time showing who is online. Of course, depending upon the implementation, people may be sending messages to users who are showing as available but they aren’t actually sitting at their PC, which may be in screen saver mode.
· With video, the same constraints as voice apply, although once desktop video becomes widespread there is scope to improve this for users not overly hung up about privacy.
· When we take mobility into consideration, another form of presence is whether a user is actively logged on to a specific application or on the network in general. The latter is currently problematic in that whilst we might know when someone last logged on we can’t be entirely certain they still are. Indeed they could be logged on at more than one PC.

So we can see that presence is around but not particularly joined up across the channels. How would we like presence to work?

When we want to contact someone, we make conscious decisions as to what channel to use based on our own perceptions of importance and urgency of the topic. They are influenced by knowing something about the likely response of the other person, i.e. there may not be too much point discussing a complex spreadsheet to someone equipped only with a mobile and a car driving to Edinburgh. They are also tempered by the reality of realising that our own perceptions of importance and urgency may not align with the other person, particularly if there is a seniority deficit.

Sometimes we choose a less than ideal channel out of deference (without even realising).
We may send an email to someone hoping they will ring us because we can’t get past a defensive secretary or we know that they use voice mail as the first line of defence and triage to the level that they never quite get a round tuit. Conveniently wandering past their office often circumvents this but what if they (or you) are 300 miles away or work from home?

Working from home focuses the mind considerably, as that human need to interact with others and feel part of a team is heightened by the lack of contact, even for Agents who talk to Customers all day. Without the comfort of being able to walk around a workspace and see who is in, at the coffee machine, in the restaurant and so on, it is easy to end up feeling detached from belonging. Technology cannot be a panacea for this, but it can go some way to making communication more effective.

How do we want it to work? The instant messaging approach is a good start. We create buddy lists of people we regularly collaborate with and we can see at a glance what contact method is going to work at this moment in time. The traffic light analogy works well-
· red means stop, this method will not be successful (e.g. on the phone, all calls forwarded, currently in a collaboration session)
· green means go, you will almost certainly be able to communicate with the person in real-time. Of course, they may decline to respond due to particular mitigating circumstances (building being evacuated, off for a fag break, don’t like you etc.)
· Amber means warning- it may not be successful as the user is around but not near the phone, logged in but in screensaver mode, mobile switched on but possibly out of contact (poor signal area, in the basement, in a tunnel).
· There is also a fourth state on the traffic light- greyed out (phone unplugged, PDA switched off etc.)

To make this more effective, we want hooks into all of our applications & devices so that it becomes embedded and ubiquitous, coloured entries in our mobile directories, icons in our inbox, even traffic lights on our telephones.

What about people who are pseudo-buddies? Ones we might want to interact with occasionally or on a one-off basis but not to the extent that they are worthy of a constant refresh on our devices. For this we might want the presence equivalent of ring back when free, a check availability button that gives us a snapshot of their public presence status (and preferably not have to pay 10p to use it!)

As someone with a buddy list, this implies making presence information available to others. In this case, it needs to be somewhat Shrek like (Ogres are like Onions) in that it starts off simple at default settings and complexity can be layered to suit so that, for example, during the annual appraisal the only thing that intrudes is the Halon being triggered in the Server Room. Similarly, when generally available, calls from recognised Telesales nuisances go to the messaging equivalent of spamtrap.

There are great claims made for presence- it is suggested that Tel-Tag & multiple contacts can waste up to 20 minutes or so of a typical business day. The reality is more mundane, of course, as that doesn’t necessarily translate to 20 minutes of increased personal effectiveness.

What presence needs to become essential is to prove itself incredibly useful. This means that green lights represent that the other person will definitely see or hear what is sent every time in a timely fashion. How can we ensure this? We could include passive infra-red detectors (or RFID detectors) in our hardware so that there is a high probability that there is someone actually at the desk (or looking at a PDA) when status is green. We can make a lot of the status decisions be based on sensible intelligence- if I am collaborating in a desktop teleconference I don’t want instant messages from the security man asking me if I still have the garden shed for sale (but might want to know if he is telling me I have left my lights on). We have to allow for human error and mitigate against still being on holiday three days after coming back.

What else do we need? The Internet needs to come of age and turn into the Quinternet (the new made up name for the Quality Internet). We need more standards that are designed with presence at their heart rather than the current crop of applications emulating & postulating what is going on across disparate systems. We need seamless integration, Carrier Class ruggedness on hardened Servers, robust software that is particularly resilient in the face of adversity, rather a lot of bandwidth for the vast amount of overhead that all of this burble will generate and a lot of innovation.

There are a lot of things still to get right but if you listen carefully, that grinding noise is the sound of a paradigm being shifted. It isn’t very loud yet but it will turn into a roar.

Ello, ello ello, wots going on here?

PC Woody seems to be off the air and has been so for a few days. It told the tale of a new recruit who had given up IT services in favour of becoming a Bobby instead. I wonder if she has had her collar felt?

Meanwhile PC David Copperfield continues to amuse the thousands of us who follow his robust views at The Policeman's Blog. He does his anonymously but I'll bet there is a big manhunt going on somewhere & the secret squirrels know who he is.

Both of you, may the Force be with you....

Friday, January 21, 2005

21st Century resilience

This article was part three of a series intended to develop a theme for a presentation at the Enterprise Networks Conference 2004, an event which included the CMA Plenary keynote session. See for more details

What do we mean by resilience? One dictionary definition is “able to quickly return to a previous good condition”, giving a rubber ball as an example. For people, we generally mean bouncing back after some hard knocks, whether physical or emotional. For Telecoms systems, it is perseverance in the face of adversity, the Pony Express rider ensuring the mail gets through whilst dodging bandits and arrows (or fires in cold-war underground tunnels!)

Phone systems are real-time in software terms- the most important thing they have to do is notice events happening and act on them in timely fashion. These events are generally quite low level, i.e. a user has pushed a button on a featurephone, a DTMF digit has been detected on a trunk line, an E1 interface has received a signalling message, the technician has pressed a key on the system terminal. (In the 1970s, it was lower still- the processor was often keeping track of every dialled digit, validating it for speed, make/break ratio, inter-digit pause etc.)

What often isn’t appreciated is that in many systems letting go of a button on a featurephone is also an event- how else could it be possible to buzz-buzz your Secretary?

There are also a corresponding set of “non-events” to be handled- i.e. timeouts where something should have happened but didn’t. An example of this is a user being given dial tone but not doing anything about it. Often the hardware will react to non-events from the software as well- sometimes called a watchdog timer, to capture the situation where St. Vitus gets involved.

The software architecture will normally revolve around something called a work scheduler- this is the main engine that allocates tasks according to their importance. Giving a user dial tone may involve several iterations around the loop- firstly recognising the event at a low level & ensuring it is placed into the correct signalling buffer, then recognising what the transition actually means, i.e. a user appears to be initiating a call and it isn’t a priority user so put it into the correct call processing buffer, then eventually allocating resources & providing dial tone when it reaches the head of the queue.

So our system is constantly working very hard looking for something to do & leaving imaginary timed notes for itself to check up things that don’t happen when they should. So far, this isn’t that different to what any computer system would be up to, be it an enormous supercomputer at the Met Office or a humble Gameboy in your child’s bedroom. The difference comes in the resilience- being able to keep going despite all odds.

Hardware resilience comes in the form of robustness- duplicate or triplicate processors that work in co-operation or hot standby to ensure call processing continues. Mirrored memory, dual interfaces, backplanes & power ensure that most likely hardware failures result in minimal interruption and automatic recovery.

Software resilience comes in the form of recognising hardware faults and recovering from them. It also means recognising unexpected software outcomes and recovering from them, as well as producing an audit trail so that the situation can be duplicated & a solution found. Providing tools and alerts for the maintainers to ensure optimal service delivery varies from product to product & is generally much more simplistic for a Business system than for a Public Exchange.

In the phone system, unexpected events are hopefully worked around, provided that the scenario has been recognised by the designers. As the only software that runs on the system is proprietary there is a high expectation that outside of beta trials, the systems will run stable. Or, more accurately, they appear to do so- most systems run housekeeping routines that “tidy up” after the call processing routines and close scrutiny indicates that the garden is not totally rosy. Phone systems have generally evolved from older systems where memory capacity, processor throughput and intra-system bottlenecks have resulted in constraints. Stress any one of these and even the best known systems start to behave oddly during the busy hour. (This is inevitable as it is never possible to test for absolutely every eventuality in a complex system).

Contrast this with Servers. High end Servers are available that have redundant power supplies, robust disk arrays, hot swappable cards etc. Whilst they are not totally duplicated internally in their architecture (don’t be fooled by the number of CPUs) they can be clustered together in order to make them more powerful and resilient. Unfortunately, however, it is all too easy to load any old software onto them.

Are they suitable for call processing? They can be, provided that call processing is the primary function, or indeed the only function in a Windows environment. It is also a good idea to have automatic routines to enforce the occasional out of hours reboot in order to minimise the impact of memory leaks. Similarly, call processing needs to be executed as a “service” so that it starts again automatically and the device needs to be tuned for optimal behaviour, something not particularly suited to the ICT policies of using a preferred Server build and load.

Another thing about clustering- it comes in more than one flavour and may require intervention to recover from fail-over. The most useful approach is where one Server can be taken off-line for patching or upgrade whilst the other does the work & then vica versa, preferably seamlessly. This doesn’t entirely exist in the real world, although high availability is possible, even if zero downtime doesn’t. Also, be prepared for occasional intervention whilst the typical Server response to an unexpected event continues to be the “blue screen of death”.

Of course, there are benefits. Servers are streets ahead of legacy phone systems with Ethernet and network connectivity. Woe betide anyone who naively put their Option 11 onto the network without an intervening router, as the system would spend more time watching what was going on out beyond the RJ45 than attending to low priority call processing tasks. Servers enable applications to communicate with each other efficiently and effectively, whether across the LAN or the WAN.

Something that does need to be taken seriously on Servers is in managing threats- without the latest patch fixes they are vulnerable to attack, as are the intervening network devices, increasingly so if they are from Cisco.

We communicate most effectively using all of our senses, i.e. sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, along with an awareness of acceleration and gravitational force through our balancing mechanisms. ICT mainly concentrates on sight and hearing (once you put aside oddities like Sensurround, Smellovision and Theme Park rides).

Voice communication has an immediacy & convenience factor that has made the humble telephone omnipotent in the developed world and the penetration of the mobile telephone even more remarkable. The convenience factor is a double-edged sword, of course, as it is frequently inconvenient to receive calls and often downright intrusive. The Unidirectional equivalent of the phone is of course Broadcast Radio, although the Tannoy system also fits the analogy.

Text communication has progressed through Telegraph, Telex, Fax and Email, with an exponential increase in content potential and effectiveness. Fax added imaging, the first “rich text format”. Email gave the ability to attach data, graphics, pictures, sounds and programs. However, it remains a unidirectional, non-real time channel, in that whilst it is possible to have email conversations, they are by their nature asynchronous. SMS and MMS are mobility approaches to un-tethered rich text channels and Instant Messaging is an interesting hybrid of immediacy that can be more effective in contacting someone than persistent phoning.

Combining sight and sound, we have Video Conferencing which is poised to become commonplace on most desktops, along with Video messaging, Video broadcast (multicast) and on-demand playback (unicast).

In Telecommunications there are also elements of communication not immediately obvious to the user, e.g. data flow from PCs to the Network, Clients to Servers, Applications to other Applications, housekeeping for connection management and billing.

This is definitely a fractured landscape for the poor old user, further complicated by Chinese walls between channels and devices for home and business use. (That sound you heard was the author giving himself a quick slap for jumping on the buzzword bandwagon).

So how can our new unified systems possibly hang together and work well? Let us take a look at the disparate communications channels that we might possibly want to bring together, along with the transport mechanisms, interfaces and deliverables. This diagram has had several iterations and adding further detail or subtlety has been abandoned for now. It is an exercise for the reader to join all the possible entries and associations together and not make it look a complete rat’s nest!
There are a number of challenges here. As the main theme is resilience, then let us consider what a UCI based system needs to do in a fairly straight-forward set-up, say a single-site office. It needs to communicate with all of the existing communications systems in order to be aware of what is going on. It may need to communicate with the back-office applications where there are associations (or hooks) into functionality. It needs to communicate to all of the users in order to serve their needs & be aware of their current availability set. It will have to be scalable for multi-site and nomadic use.

The important bit is that it has to be able to maximise the user experience in the event of any of these complex interactions failing or behaving inconsistently. Getting everything onto an IP backbone has to make it easier and given time, the other systems will be developed to be aware of and support UCI.

Next article- 21st Century presence, what is it and how can it be tamed?

21st Century Bugs

(This article originally appeared in CMA Newsline March 2004)

This article is part two of a series intended to develop a theme for a presentation at the Enterprise Networks Conference 2004, an event which includes the CMA Plenary keynote session. See for more details.

In part one, I suggested that the biggest obstacle to 21st Century Communications was the poor quality of Software Engineering, a heresy likely to get me drummed out of the British Computer Society. I have visions of the dishonourable discharge where the pony-tailed Technical Design Authority Prime removes the pencils from my breast pocket & ceremonially snaps them, breaks my keyboard over his knee, guillotines my CDs, removes the ball from my mouse, takes a hammer to my cathode ray tube & plunges my SecureID dongle device into my Dilbert Coffee mug!

How can I substantiate that sweeping statement? From a couple of decades in the Telecoms industry, on the fringes of (& sometimes in the thick of) the programmers. Something I discovered very quickly is that most programmers love programming but have very little interest in the product they are developing, especially if it is for business process or something not directly software related, such as switching phone calls in a business communications system. A dream job for a programmer is probably either developing software tools, or developing computer games, depending on inclination.

My first stint as a professional programmer involved three months of on-the-job training over in Canada in the mid - 1980s. I had the advantage over many of the newbies (& lots of the oldbies as well) in that I had worked on the product for a number of years & knew what it could do. Understanding how it ticked under the hood gave me considerable insight into why it worked the way it did.

After exposure to the various aspects of the process, we were all given a number of simple bugs to investigate, fix & report back on. In a complex multi-user system a peer review is normally part of the process- you have to convince others that you recognise the problem and your solution is appropriate before being allowed to re-integrate into the main software product.

Five of my six bugs were all straightforward enough, but one of them was a real humdinger. The feature was something called dial-tone detection, where an outgoing Trunk line is checked for dial tone before sending the digits (This was before the days of ISDN and supervision signalling could not always be relied upon in some Countries, ground start/earth calling PBX trunk lines being uncommon outside UK & America). The high level design showed that there was a sophisticated algorithm (arcane programmer-speak for a recursive mathematical routine) that would carefully track overall Exchange response in order to isolate faulty Trunks and dial-tone detectors whilst allowing sufficient time to react to dial tone speed changes. There was a robust validation of the algorithm using data familiar to those of us who have had to use grade of service calculations derived from Erlang tables.

The documentation was spot-on and the Author was the most respected senior pointy-head in the place (who had recently moved on to greater things within the Company). Why didn’t it work?

The answer came to me in a flash of insight a couple of days later whilst setting up breakpoints & traps, the software equivalent of an oscilloscope. The reason it didn’t work properly was that the algorithm had a major shortfall- it was designed based on precision numeric calculations to several decimal places but the system itself used integer maths- 42.99999997 was still 42.

Once this was grasped, it showed up several flat-spots on the response curve where certain scenarios could result in calls hunting between Trunks rather than waiting the appropriate time. The fix was reasonably straight-forward- a couple of lines of compensatory code to smooth out the response hiccups.
What was considerably more enlightening, however, was getting the solution through code review. The experienced programmers had trouble accepting that such a mistake was possible by one so senior, such is the hubris of the profession. Whilst I was able to eventually persuade them, it took considerable escalation through the ranks as there was also a certain level of denial- if it was so fundamentally flawed, it should have shown up during testing, regression, field trial etc. The reality had also been that the programmer had designed some very complex code as an intellectual exercise then someone else had implemented it without too much thought.

Whilst this was just one (particularly memorable) bug from two decades ago, have things got better? To an extent. On the positive side, languages have evolved considerably, along with the tools and processes used to create and manage them. The downside, however, is that the proprietary platforms and languages have largely given way to generic tools. This is a good thing in many ways but it means that problems with functionality cannot always be identified and sorted out in-house, especially when the tool source code cannot be examined (the Windows vs. Linux argument).

A particular problem that hasn’t changed much is something known as scope creep- where the definition of what software is meant to actually do evolves during the course of development, often compromising the original design. There are many factors that cause this, starting with the business not actually knowing what they want at the outset, the analysts interpreting the requirements to fit a solution, the developers creating specifications that are open to interpretation and the business then changing priorities & functionality once they get their hands on the beta software.

There is always pressure- pressure to deliver on time, pressure to deliver what is wanted (rather than what is asked for), pressure to maximise quality and pressure to minimise expenditure. These pressures are perfectly normal for any type of project but when it comes to complex systems where the project managers can’t actually wander round site and see what the chaps in hard hats are up to, then it is often a voyage into the unknown.

Another area that causes bugs is interpretation of standards. When Telecommunications was very standards-based, the specs were thorough, well researched and definitive. The CCITT would publish the manuals on a 4 year cycle and the colour of the cover determined the vintage. Suppliers would talk about Q.921 Blue book & everyone knew what they meant. The standards bodies would adopt each others standards and everything in the garden was more-or-less rosy. However, as time went on, the pace of change blew this out of the water. An example of this is ISDN in Europe, where the early introductions were Country specific with standards such as DASS and 1TR6 before giving way to Euro-ISDN which still has a number of flavours.

Nowadays, whilst there are still numerous standards for all sorts of things, the Internet (bizarrely enough) doesn’t actually have any in the accepted sense of the word. Instead it has RFCs, or “request for comments”, maintained by the Internet Engineering Task Force. RFCs cover things such as routing, protocols and even accepted procedures for quoting text in email replies, something Microsoft chose to ignore when they created Outlook Express.

So, equipped with some programmers, some processes and some standards, all with varying levels of dodginess, our tame software house wants to write the ultimate killer application, the one that unifies the fractured communications landscape & makes them a shed-load of money in the process.

How well will they manage that? It depends on their background and to some extent whether the emphasis in ICT is on IT or CT. Developers of real-time carrier-class systems with expectations of 99.999% availability have different approaches to developers of billing systems requiring 99.999% accuracy.

The next article in the series looks at resilience, i.e. ensuring the IP equivalent of dial tone for all communications services.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Abolish the TV license........ please!

I first had the logic of a TV license brought into question by a Canadian called Art Henry about twenty years ago. At the time, I thought that the state was my friend so whilst his arguments made sense I just accepted it as the way it is in Britain.

At the time, it was probably all of twenty quid and I didn't worry about it.

Today, I found out that the childcare place we use has decided to remove the tellys because they will now have to pay a fee based on the number of children involved, getting on for a £Grand for their two locations. Whilst telly watching is deliberately minimised, it now means they can't watch the occasional video or DVD either.

The laws of unintended consequences strike again, two less licenses & considerable nuisance value.

I don't watch much telly anyway so would be quite happy if the BBC raised money via market forces rather than punitive taxation. The argument that it is voluntary doesn't wash with me either, there is no way of receiving non-BBC channels without a license. They'll be taxing internet connections next.....

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

21st Century Communications

(This article originally appeared in CMA Newsline March 2004)

This article is one of a series intended to develop a theme for presentation at Enterprise Networks 2004, an event which includes the CMA Plenary keynote session so it will be well worth attending, see for more details.

There is a sea-change in communications coming, a tidal wave of sweeping innovation poised to invigorate our businesses and make knowledge working truly effective. The technical solutions already exist, the software has reached the marketplace, the standards are open, convergence is the launch pad and collaboration software with presence functionality promises to offer the renaissance of the information age. Unified Communications and Information (UCI) is the next big thing (TNBT). We either ride the wave, or get swamped by the tsunami. If you want to stay in business, get your cheque book out.

It sounds good, doesn’t it? (Apart from the bit about the cheque book). Let me dampen the daydream, bring you back down to earth and buy you a large virtual double espresso. Make sure you add sugar to sweeten the bitter reality pill. Now take a deep breath and smell that coffee…

When I hear the terms “paradigm shift” I reach for the buzzword bingo pad. When I see the word “leverage” I now mentally tune it out and replace it with the words “make use of”. When I read that the business case for something is compelling, I open my filing cabinet, go back three years and read the same words on the same subject, only with less caveats. When I speak of a “fractured communications landscape”, I want to give myself a good slap.

You can probably tell from the above that I am rather British in my outlook, scepticism is my middle name. I wouldn’t call myself cynical, just a practical pragmatist with a healthy streak of realism.

However, the space cadet in me is screaming for the stuff of sci-fi. I want a virtual personal administrator that organises my day for me, prioritises issues and preferably offers me solutions as well. I want instant transportation so that I can have an ad-hoc meeting anywhere in the world at short notice (or indeed go on holiday if the whim takes me). If technology can’t transport my atoms then I’ll settle for 3D holography via Joe 90 specs, or an RJ45 (or better still fibre optic connector, I’m a bit wary of Wi-Max) via spinal implant. I want to be able to express ideas to my Secretary when something occurs to me, be always in touch for people I want to be in touch with & have instant access to information as needed. I want to interact with others, share ideas, enjoy quiet time when I want to just think or relax. I want communicate effectively so much more and I want to push the technology barriers out of the way. Quick, more coffee…

The title of the article, 21st Century Communications, is the name of a book co-authored by Siemens and Bob Emmerson, an ex-pat Brit journalist living in the Netherlands. The book is a jolly romp through futurology targeted at senior management, so naturally enough, it isn’t at all technical. Bob appeared to invent the term UCI, which is the convergence of communications applications and information systems in order to make communication so much more effective.

The trouble with these visions comes with the unpleasant reality check- they all rely on software engineering, which remains a 20th Century discipline without centuries of embellishment, unlike, say, thatching. The trouble is, when you build a bridge, it can be measured, analysed, stressed, destruction tested and pronounced fit for purpose. When a Company produces a software product, it only does what it says on the box because lawyers write weasel words ensuring that the definition of what it is suitable for are non-specific enough to be as slippery as black ice.

Software Engineering has evolved considerably over the last 20 years, however doing it right requires a clear specification, robust design, vigorous testing, tight management, disciplined enhancement and a reliance on tools and applications from others also doing what they say on the box. Couple this with commercial reality and it is no wonder that IT projects often fail to deliver the three essentials- on time, on scope, on budget. More anon!

Remarkable sums raised...

It is in today's local paper that the event last saturday raised £10k, plus the £1k the square dealers gave plus another £2k donated at a multi-denominational service on the Sunday. I was going to go along to the service to take a photo but that 666 shaped tattoo-like birthmark at the nape of the neck started to throb....

Still no takers on the crying baby yet.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Catchy tunes....

Wifey bought me the greatest hits of Jackson Browne for Christmas and I've been playing it in the car ever since. I don't listen to it by default, I generally catch BBC Radio 4 going to & from work but if something I'm not interested in comes on I'll sometimes click the CD button. It is mostly precipitated by Sport & Thought for the day!

Anyway, CD 1 track 9 has really got stuck in my head, it is called "Fountain of sorrow" and whilst a fairly up-tempo AOR rock song, it has a bitter-sweet lyric and a melancholy feel to it. You can find the lyrics here.

Interestingly enough, when looking for the lyrics I notice that Joan Baez has also covered it. It was on her Diamonds & Rust Album & I remember Napstering the title track when I was putting together a Diamond Jubilee compilation for Eighteen Plus. I feel an Amazon Oneclick (tm) coming on.....

Charity baby crying update: four watchers, no bids so far!

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Broadband for Business article

This article appeared in CMA Newsline during 2004

Broadband for Business By Ian Grey, Membership Services Director, CMA

Many of us will have looked at providing DSL connectivity to home workers and branch offices. The lure of cheap DSL Modems/Routers, £20-£40 a connection and the possibility of 2Meg downloads to rival Megastreams certainly looks attractive compared to the prices we pay for leased lines.

Quite a few of us will have piloted DSL for some locations or workers and had mixed results in the process. A friend of mine used to refer to disastrous implementations as a “partial success”, generally interchangeable with the robust Army expression “SNAFU”. After our own partial successes, we will have either decided to live with the limitations or abandon it due to the uncertainty.

Some of us who are early adopters and have actually implemented DSL for business may have found that our concerns were unfounded, or at least are for now. However, there is always that nagging doubt in the back of our minds that the gaps in the SLA might indeed backfire on us and perhaps we should have put in that expensive tail after all (or paid for always-on ISDN). SLAs are often worth the paper they are written on, i.e. there may be cause to get compensation out of your Telco on occasions of partial successes, however it never reflects the true cost to the business of the lost productivity or goodwill as a result of sustained outages. Energis have been rumoured to have provided a 100% availability guarantee 24/7, which as any fool knows is an accident waiting to happen. BT on the other hand, are much more straight forward with their guarantees, generally being based on terms such as “four hour response”, which means that they might actually get round to turning up mid-morning on Monday if something goes wrong mid-afternoon on Friday. (Unless it is DSL, of course, when they won’t even do that).

Those of us who have a home Broadband connection would have concerns that the consumer experience is at best variable and could be very unsatisfactory if the typical problems that occur at home impacted at enterprise level. (They often do, but for different reasons, of course!). Typical problems include: unable to connect to the Radius Server for authentication, packets disappearing into oblivion (whether the Internet at large or the providers’ home servers), FTP transactions that slow down to a crawl and never complete, DNS responses that deny that they have ever heard of well known sites, POP poisonous payloads, PING response times that would challenge a snail and throughput that would sometimes put a 300 baud modem to shame. One of our Managers resents spending £4 to ring BT in Bangalore every time an email refuses to download blocking the POP account, an event apparently common enough to be a nice little earner for BT Openworld (& forthcoming churn for that particular customer).

Fortunately, relief is at hand. The use of DSL to connect a location into a Business Grade service is now starting to become viable, widely available and affordable. Using what Thus christened PaDSL (Private Access DSL), cheap tails into robust IP networks with the ability to implement Quality of Service now looks realistic. It is also possible to choose a contention level to suit your pocket, from 1:1 uncontended through 5:1, 10:1 and 20:1, even 50:1, depending on what the supplier offers in their portfolio. Where DSL isn’t available, Frame Relay can be used with one PVC into the IP cloud, giving effectively any to any if the cloud is MPLS. There are also dial-up ISDN possibilities into MPLS, however the solution is a bit of a dog’s breakfast if you want it to be “always on” rather than ad-hoc for nomadic staff as BT is still going to want 1p a minute from any OLO unless something like Friaco is used.

There are two flavours of Business DSL, using what BT call IPStream and DataStream. IPStream uses BT’s Colossus Network to transit to the destination, whilst DataStream uses ATM to get to where it is going. The services are point to point, however you can’t make the other point another Branch site, it needs to be either a switching network (such as an MPLS cloud) or a fat pipe into a Head Office (essentially the same arrangement as a non-BT ISP). How secure and robust these solutions are depends on who you talk to and their vested interests, however IPStream is essentially BT’s part of the Internet whilst DataStream could be thought of as parts of BT’s CellStream ATM backbone. All DSL traffic is initially carried over DataStream, however the ATM traffic types are not the same and IPStream generally gets the raw deal. The following diagram should make it clear as fairly thin, watery, diluted mud. (The icon top right represents “here be dragons…”)

(Nope, I haven't embedded the diagram, sorry. Do you want it on a plate?)

There are variants of this diagram and the DataStream proponents will give you a good story on why IPStream leaves something to be desired. Similarly the IPStream proponents will also give you a good story on why DataStream is unnecessary expense. Most people will also tell you that contention is not a problem but they may include caveats such as “today” or “at present”. It may not be but if I am trying to maximise my utilisation, you can bet that other network managers that I am contending with are thinking the same way.

It seems that contended ADSL into MPLS is about to hit the big time, there is talk of a 256k/256k pseudo SDSL (i.e. capped ADSL 512k/256k) appearing widely by the summer in addition to the real standards based SDSL piloting in Coventry and London.

I have been disappointed that DSL has not been seen as an opportunity to make Frame Relay tails even cheaper- whilst it isn’t the future it would have made a nice stop-gap for 5 years or so whilst IP matured. (My Boss agrees, as he intends to retire by then!) It seems that over the pond, the Merkins are breathing fresh life into Frame to make it interconnect to the brave new world.

Frame has it’s own problems, of course, particularly management of PVCs (permanent virtual connections) where a truly meshed network requires n! PVCs (n factorial, i.e.n*n-1*n-2 etc), each of which has to be configured and paid for.

The nice thing about frame, however, is the committed data rate, where a 64k connection can sustain a throughput of (say) 32k indefinitely, but will burst up to the maximum as required for short periods.

And the good news is…… it is coming to DSL! I have seen one provider presentation showing availability of bandwidth guarantees over DSL available as a product during 2004. Given a choice of contention (& uncertainty) versus non-contention (& more money), the third way, a more meaningful (and indeed measurable) minimum bandwidth guarantee wins hands down.

Bring & Buy

Six hours in the Town Hall this morning and the appeal is now £98.50 better off from the sale of my jumble.

Some interest in the "baby crying" sign, including a collector of Butlins memorabilia- however he is a technophobe with no internet access!

Friday, January 14, 2005

Baby crying for Tsunami

People in Morley are organising events for disaster relief, in particular a village in Sri-Lanka where a local minister lost many family members.
We've had a sort out of good quality stuff that might have gone on ebay one day if I'd ever got round to it and I'm running a stall in Morley Town Hall for the Sams Appeal in the morning.

When looking for things to shift, I remembered something unusual that used to lurk in the downstairs toilet (no, not me!) and thought about shifting it at the bring & buy. Then I remembered the power of 'tinternet and hopefully will raise a bit more that way. The lot is Ebay here or a search for "Caister" will probably unearth it. The auction expires Monday 24th at just before 10:15pm, happy bidding!

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Wellington Wellesley memories (circa 1987)

It smelt damp up on the balcony.
There was an interesting model of the building in the foyer.
If they had unlimited money the first thing they'd do would be buy new seats.
That's it!

Newcastle Paramount memories- Part 2

In Part 1, I elaborated on how I became well known at the Odeon until moving away from Newcastle aged 18.
In the subsequent two decades since my teenage days, I made a few minor efforts to find out more about the Paramount. I recall hearing that it had become four screens and was intrigued as to how it had been done.
I became a member of the Entertainment & Leisure Industry Study group after meeting Malcolm Campbell at an Organ Concert at the Slough Granada & ended up buying a lot of his stock. I found out about the CTA and joined that as well. I combed back-copies of articles to find out more about Newcastle (not that there was very much published).
I visited the Newcastle City archives and failed to find any reference to the building in the card indexes. I looked at the outside of the building and could see that the stage dock door had become exit doors. I went along to see a film and was relieved to find that the Balcony was more-or-less intact, the new screen four apparently being formed from the front stalls & stage and a new proscenium being built in front of (and higher than) the old one. I still remained intrigued, however. How much of what I remembered was still in-situ? How much had been destroyed?

A number of years later, I was visiting Newcastle and came across "Cinemas of Newcastle" by Frank Manders. Whilst not specifically devoted to the Paramount, there was a considerable write-up over several pages along with a lot of interior photos of how the building had looked in the past. This was my first insight into how elaborate the Paramounts had been. (I had mixed up Paramount with Gaumont in my youth, due to the presence of Gaumont rubber mats beside the Machines in the Box).

Later still, I met frank Manders at the first Mercia Conference in Loughborough, who helpfully gave me two very useful pieces of information. Firstly contact details for Neil Thompson, an Operator who worked in the building and was very keen on it. Secondly, the correct reference number to access the plans at the City Archive office. (Being a Librarian by trade, Frank had access to the stack and had managed to track down and correctly categorise the lodged plans).

Acting on this information, I wrote a letter introducing myself to the Operator. This was to lead to some interesting exchanges over the years and my knowledge in other related matters occasionally being useful to him.

I visited the Archive offices several times in order to examine and understand the lodged plans about the building. The main plans had been carefully traced and hand inked by the Verity & Beverley practice to a high standard, presented on parchment-like thick linen paper. Like all plans, the execution was not exactly the same as intended and it was enjoyable to speculate on the reasons for this.

The preliminary plans initially submitted provided for a more elaborate foyer and somewhat better stage/backstage, allowing for a scenery storage dock. However the agreed submitted plans reduced this somewhat in order to increase seating capacity, the galleried foyer (possibly with Cafe) being simplified, although still enormous by UK Cinema standards.

In a similar variation, the main plans show the interior to be somewhat like Manchester with a huge ceiling dome & ornate Tympanum above the Proscenium. An as-built plan for ceiling level (blueprinted on regular paper rather than the elaborate submitted plans) shows the simpler flat ceiling as used for the sister Cinemas in Aurora and Denver, resulting in a much less elaborate catwalk system down the centre line of the roof for access to the chandelier winch.

Having studied the plans at length, it was finally time to renew my acquaintance with the Building and I arranged to spend some time with Neil who suggested he come in on his day off rather than a working day. (Newcastle had been running single-manning for a number of years so the duty operator had to do a certain amount of trotting around getting the shows on in the three boxes).

The day eventually dawned and accompanied by my better half, the Paramount beckoned.

The first striking difference was the wet lobby- the external paybox was gone and the left half was now a sweet shop with external access as well as from the Cinema. The colour scheme was now Odeon nursery (powder blue with yellow woodwork) and the two doorways up to the circle lobby and through to screen two were still in place. (The staircase down to the "usherette avoidance" route was walled off to exit directly to the side lane, stealing a bit of shop space in the process.)

We met up with Neil and we spent some time trying to work out why we had never actually met. He had originally worked at the Queens and transferred over to the Odeon at about the time my visits were tailing off due to getting more involved at the University Theatre, City Hall and Theatre Royal. He had asked his Chief though, who vaguely remembered me (he had been number 3 at the time & was a quiet chap who didn't say much).

We briefly went into the downstairs Box to dump bags (it looked almost the same as in 1974) and took in the two mini screens before making the long trek up to the back of screen 1. On the upright of the very top step, Neil pointed out the remains of the original paramount carpet that was the only obvious bit left in the building. Although over 60 years old, it was still very vibrant and striking, instantly recognisable (even as a fragment) as matching the design of the interior photos.

Pausing briefly to take in the atmosphere of the former balcony (still lit with the cleaners lights), we continued the journey onwards and upwards.

The staircase up to the box looked almost exactly the same as the first time I saw it 30 years before, the only obvious difference being the use of long life energy efficient lamps in place of tungsten ones.

Entering the box was like a time warp- the Cinemation was still there, the walls were still grey, the floor red, the Machines Vic 8s. When they were first converted for Xenon, the original Peerless lamphouses had been removed from the mechanisms & stored in the roof void, being replaced by Kalee units. However, at some stage they had been refitted and definitely looked the part. Looking more closely, however, there were inevitable differences. The Westrex open construction amp racks had been cleared out and there was now a modern 19" rack for the Dolby equipment behind the Cinemation. The two Stelmars had been moved over into the corner and the slide lantern had gone.

The two huge meters were still in-situ, as were the DC controls & mimics for the rectifier feed, although they had been painted over. The operating switches for manual control of everything in the custom panels had been replaced by the usual hotch-potch of miscellaneous MK buttons and the ganged 0-20 volume controls had also gone. There was some modern equipment in-situ- a large screen Barco style projector & associated telecoms equipment was installed where #2 lime used to be, it seems that projected sports events were doing well.

Seeing the Barco reminded me of my first meeting with the Eidophor, the original hot mercury based TV projector that used to get hired in for special events. About the size of an American fridge, this Black & White device worked on the Epidiascope principle where it shone a lot of light onto the mercury bath (which changed reflective characteristics based on the TV picture through means I don't entirely remember) then an enormous lens collected the incident light & focussed it onto the screen. It couldn't have been very efficient and wasn't particularly bright but it did the job. I think my first encounter was the afternoon of the celebrated Cassius Clay/George Forman fight in 1974 and we had a colour telly at home by then anyway!

The rewind room where I used to drink the evaporated milk tea felt different- I eventually twigged that it was because the ceiling lantern had been removed and boarded over, making the room very gloomy.

The resistance room was a lot untidier than the days of Barney, being full of tools & bits & pieces piled around. There was a 1940s/50s Odeon stalk ashtray (the sort where you pressed and it spun the dimp away inside) that Neil was hoping to clean up. The resistances were still in-situ and I was surprised to see that the labelling on them was just paper- I would have expected them to have been engraved as part of the original installation but there was no evidence of rivets or residue.

The Rectifier room was also very gloomy, due to the removal of the greenhouse style lantern. Apparently they had received break-ins through the lanterns both backstage and on the box so they had all been removed a number of years previously & burglar alarms installed.

The Hewittic rectifiers were still in-situ, although the front access doors had been chained up and padlocked for "health & safety reasons". A trip round the back proved what a nonsense bit of officialdom that decision was as the racks have open rears. I'm not certain what the risk is of mercury encapsulated in a glass bottle securely mounted in a steel frame but I'm sure it is negligible if you don't mess about with it. That brought to mind a story about the Byker Odeon (Black's Regal) from the other Operator called Mick- when they had been redecorated, one of the painters had been kneeling on the mesh top of the rectifier & broke the bottle. Now quite knowing what to do with the mercury, they decanted it into a jamjar where it probably stayed until demolition!

All of the wiring behind the contactor panel had been removed along with the stocks of Cinemoid- the area was completely clear.

There was one old familiar friend in the rectifier room, the slide lantern that we used to project the scores of the F.A. Cup Final (in 1973, Sunderland vs Leeds, or maybe it was 1974, Liverpool vs Newcastle. I recall that Sunderland played Newcastle the following week and whoever wasn't in the final slaughtered the winners, if anyone was bothered enough to place it). The lantern looked very forlorn and had lost its most important bits.

We then trekked down to backstage via the exit corridor route. On the way, I pointed out to him the hole where Mick Seed had confessed to me that he lost the wires into the conduit when repairing a lampholder on a wall fitting- so he had just removed the whole thing and made good (in a token way- I don't think he even put a cover on the conduit box!). This amused Neil considerably, I had told him the story before but he hadn't made the connection between what he must have seen hundreds of times before.

Passing the front circle exit, I was pleased to see another legacy item still in place on the wall- the six-potentiometer mic mixer control for stage shows. An operator could work this whilst skulking in the doorway behind the drapes, mostly unseen.

Backstage had been redecorated but still had that utilitarian feel to it of painted brickwork and narrow corridors. We went firstly into the new box for screen 4, which had been fashioned out of two dressing rooms and the corridor beyond the back wall of the stage. This was my first glimpse of screen 4, pleasantly sized and with angled splay walls towards the stage. The machine had an oversized projection port but no observation port- the roofline of the suspended ceiling abutted the top of the opening so that the operator had to stoop to see the screen.

We then went upwards to take in the battery room and roof. I had ruined an admittedly horrible shirt by brushing against the cells previously (I might have been trying out the hygrometer) so I wasn't going to make the same mistake! 120 2v cells arranged all round the room, it provided the maintained lighting all over the building but could only run it for 20 minutes so wasn't much use during the winter of discontent! I persuaded Neil to go up onto the stage roof. I wasn't too bothered about the tank room but a look onto the grid would tell me a lot about what had happened to the stage. We had a lot of difficulty getting the door open, it had been bodged shut to keep pigeons out and was proving stubborn. I felt my anxiety levels rise, if I couldn't have seen in I would have been very frustrated and disappointed. Then, Voila! Neil managed to get it to open and we both peered in. A strange sight greeted us. In amongst all of the bird lime and feathers, we could see the header pulleys. Surprisingly, there were still steel wire ropes in abundance, although most of them were slack. It was obvious that the Safety Curtain was still there as the counterweight ropes were still under tension, as was the hauling rope. I took photographs of the grid and the hauling engine, fascinated that so much should still survive, abandoned and serving no purpose whatsoever. We peered down through the grid to the top of the false ceiling some 45' or so below. (It was a 60' grid). Neil commented that had had forgotten how high the grid was and how much unused space below. I was tempted to trek across to the loading gallery, however I was mindful of Mrs. Grey waiting patiently on the roof below.

Carrying on down to the boiler house level, we viewed the new boilers filling maybe 10% of the space the old ones did. There was still the smell of fuel oil from the tank area, although natural gas was used now. The vaccum plant was still the same and the intake room not much changed, although the switchgear to change sub-stations had gone.

The plenum chamber was identical to the last time I saw it, other than the addition of safety guards on the main fan drive belts. The Master Brenograph had been cleared out from under the escape stair at the far end of the room, although Neil had made an innovation- he had arranged to get a sunflood in the air intake duct to make the job of changing the filters easier. (The intake filters were new- originally there were just large vertical louvres, although the recycled air was filtered.)

There was one other unusual sight in the basement, passing through a paint store we found ourselves in the access area under the remains of the organ lift. Whilst the platform had gone and it could be seen that the orchestra rail had been partially smashed to allow for the new sloping floor of screen four, the remains of the little door for Organist access could still be seen.

We couldn't see the remains of the orchestra pit or the stage contactors as Neil didn't have the keys, however we were able to visit another time capsule, the prompt corner.

Opening a very narrow door on the stage left corridor, we found ourselves behind the switchboard. Neil cautioned me that it wasn't totally isolated, the wiring for the screen 4 tab warmers was still connected via the motorised dimmer in the corner. The board light still worked, as did the prompt corner light. Here we found ourselves in a small L shaped space left over after screen 4 was added. The safety curtain controls were still there (although not having noticed any evidence of the Iron having been chained to the grid I wisely didn't touch it) and the remnants of the counterweight frame were along the stage side wall, including all of the rope locks at low level. Counterweights were stacked up neatly behind the switchboard and there were various control switches on the wall for running a stage show. One thing that I remembered had disappeared- there used to be a speaker & microphone for a home made intercom system up to the box. The six mic input sockets were still there, using 2A mains plugs as connectors.

I did look to see if there were any dip traps visible, but they were all covered by the new wall and floor of Screen 4.

I was never entirely clear what dated from the opening and what was from the early 50s electrical refurbishment when the Major 10 scene Preset was replaced with the simpler Pride controls & motorised dimmers. However, I imagine that before then an Operator was needed in the prompt corner even when it fully went over to films (not a problem for Cine-Variety).

Stepping back into reality, we had a quick peek into screen 4, although we couldn't see too much because there was a show on. The structure of the proscenium arch could be clearly seen, however, slightly piercing the splay walls towards the back of the screen. This also explained the old dock door having been turned into an exit, originally there was a 1' drop onto the stage, although now the slope had been re-arranged to level with the exit doors. As I glanced at the faces of the people watching the flickering shadows, I wondered if any of any of them realised that they were surrounded by all of that vintage stage technology beyond the false floors, walls and ceiling.

Our journey was now drawing to a close. As we walked up the stalls exit corridor that became the screen 4 access route, Neil commented that the Fire Brigade had recommended partial-panelling the walls, although neither of us were entirely clear as to why. As screen 1 show was about to finish, we went up to the Royal lounge to admire the ceiling pendant light fittings above the double height foyer. Neil mentioned that he kept them lamped up with long life rough service tungsten light bulbs and had resisted relamping with energy efficient lamps for the simple reason that they look horrible! we then went to take in the ambience of the decorative lighting in the main hall as the house lights faded up. It may have been mucked about with over the years and somewhat mistreated by an unsympathetic management but even as a shadow of it's former self, the Paramount was still a great place to see a film.

I have revisited the building several times since then & kept in contact with Neil. He is now the Chief of the Gate complex and the former Paramount has been abandoned. The story of the listing recommended by English Heritage and subsequent de-listing by Baroness Blackstone was so dubious as to make it into the Nooks and Corners column of Private Eye.

I very nearly went to the closing night performance. However, I decided to keep my memories as happy ones. One thing I'd really like to see one more time is the beautiful garden mural on the safety curtain, although it is now likely to be only seen again during the late stages of demolition.

At the time of writing, the future of the grand old lady of Pilgrim Street is looking very shaky indeed. It is now owned by a property developer (who owns the entire block), it is being guarded by a security firm and there are large retail chains showing interest in turning it into a shopping experience. It seems that the City Council are unaware of how special the building is and how much of an asset it could be as a new venue for Newcastle. (Those who are aware are indifferent). It is not quite on a Par with the Coventry Theatre saga where for indifference read hostility!

The building was well worthy of Grade 2 listing and any attempt to retain the facade is probably pointless tokenism as the quality of the design was in the interior spaces, not the somewhat restrained monumental exterior.

My thanks to Neil Thompson for being so helpful over the years, as well as to Frank Manders, Mervyn Gould & Karen Grey for indulging my hobby-horse.

Newcastle Paramount memories- Part 1

(This article appeared in the Mercia Bioscope issue number 87, May 2003 and was written after several years of nagging by Mervyn, an old acquaintance who is a retired electrician, stage manager, university tutor and gasman. Interiors of some of the spaces described can be found in the Mercia Cinema Society gallery

Much has been written about how the Paramount Corporation came to build a chain of huge American style "Movie Theaters" in Britain before WW2. As a schoolboy growing up in Newcastle during the 60s I knew nothing of this, however I did know that the Pilgrim Street Odeon was something special, eclipsing most of its City peers for scale and style. This article is a very personal recollection of the building during my formative years and the fascination I developed for the technology within.

As a teenager with an interest in stage lighting, Cinema was always an enjoyable experience but flickering shadows on the silver screen were never a match for the excitement of a live performance. Similarly, the deco style interiors were pleasant but uninspiring compared to the wedding cake style ornate plasterwork of Edwardian theatres, particularly the Theatre Royal in Grey Street. On this basis, I had always been a little dismissive of the Cinema. This was all to change when I came to realise that 20th century style could be just as interesting as 19th Century heritage, just as important to cherish and retain.

My earliest specific recollections of going to the Odeon were back in the late 60s, the interval punctuated by the unexpected vertical arrival of an orchestra pit ice cream stall strikingly lit by a fiercely bright white spotlight beam from above our heads. I recall turning round, gazing up at the numerous openings and wondering what was in there.
A few years later, I embarked on construction of a model theatre and used this as an excuse to talk my way in at most of the Stage Doors in the town. I used to ask for scraps & offcuts of colour filter material (known as "Gel", from the origins of using coloured Gelatine) to colour up my cardboard battens & footlights complete with torch bulbs.

Asking at the Odeon eventually yielded results and I remember the occasion vividly, one cold Saturday morning in November. I was led through the dark foyers to the stalls and parked by the stage left pass door whilst my guide disappeared through the mysterious doorway towards the backstage areas. From my vantagepoint, I noticed that the only light on in the auditorium was a single naked lamp on a stand in the centre of the stage in front of the closed screen tabs. An ageing, rotund, bald gentleman was busying himself with the cable for the light, casting sinister shadows on the drapes and walls as he moved. This was my first introduction to Barney McGlen, the Chief Projectionist and an archetypal Chief of the old school. After a couple of minutes he emerged back in the stalls, having been advised of my presence. He gruffly acknowledged me & what I wanted, then led the way up to his domain, the Box area. Getting there was quite a trek and he was panting a little by the time we had completed the stairs to the back of the Circle and the final flight that led into the projection suite, 120 steps in total. We passed through the box with me gawking at the machinery within and through further rooms until we arrived in the rectifier room. Here, behind all of the control gear & mysterious equipment was where the Gel lived, Strand "Cinemoid" rolled up and separated by tissue paper. This was a lot more casual than I was used to, the "proper" theatres had large plan type cabinets with the dozens of different colours carefully catalogued, whilst the Odeon seemed to be able to survive on a handful of colours. Barney noticed my interest in all of the equipment and made me a generous offer- if I came back in two weeks time at 10am, he would happily show me round & explain how everything worked. He then bustled me out of the Box, on the basis that he had far too much to do to entertain me that morning!

Two weeks later (which is a long time for a schoolboy), I duly presented myself at the Theatre and an usherette rang up to the box on the house phone. This time, I noticed that all of the foyer lighting was on, compared to the murky gloom previously. I wound my way up to the back Circle and was surprised to hear a soundtrack as I reached the top. Pausing briefly, I could see there was a film showing, which didn't bode well for my guided tour! When I reached the Box I took in the ambience of a working projection room- spools turning on the first machine, subdued lighting, bright light leaks around the lamphouse and near the gate, whirrs & clicks from the mechanism, tinny soundtrack from the monitor speaker above. Barney advised me that this unexpected special show had been pencilled in the previous week. He would be on shift again the Saturday after next, which was Christmas Eve no less, so unlikely to get a special show at this late stage. In the meantime, I was welcome to stay and watch the film, which hadn't been on too long

The film was Cliff Richard's "The Young Ones", part of which is set in the Finsbury Park Empire. Even at my age, I knew that you didn't turn on Battens using Cue light controls, however it remains a firm favourite of mine to re-watch when the mood takes me.

Another two weeks later, made my way back to the Odeon. No one was around in the lobby, so I wandered up to the Box entrance, which was locked, not unsurprisingly as I was a little early. I took in the ambience of the hall, lit by a number of naked 500-watt general service lamps hanging from the ceiling (& not normally noticable). The cleaners' lights made everything look bright but rather bland. I could see cleaners busying themselves with hoses down in the stalls, which they plugged in to connectors on the wall. Shortly afterwards, a couple of people I hadn't seen before arrived, doing a double take at me sitting in the back row of the Circle. I explained why I was there, which they happily took in their stride. This was my first introduction to Bill Furness, the Number One, along with one of two trainees. With the passage of time I cannot re-create that visit too accurately, however I can hopefully convey the sentiments of my impressions that morning.

We briefly popped into the Box to abandon coats & bags, and then it was next stop the Boiler House as they were expecting an oil delivery. The Odeon had a steam system, originally Coke fired then converted to fuel oil at a later date. The Boiler House was massive, with two huge Boilers that would quite happily have graced an ocean liner. Oil was sprayed through an injector and then ignited by a continuously re-firing electric spark. It was nominally automatic, although in practice it was necessary to clean the nozzles & electrodes occasionally or it would not ignite & shut down. There was also a third smaller boiler for domestic use- i.e. hot water for the sink taps around the building. Behind the boilers was an exit door that led to a service corridor in the Cafe area- a handy route to avoid the usherettes when re-visiting the Operators on subsequent occasions. After the oil had been delivered, we returned to the Basement to see the other service areas.

Next to the Boiler House was a small room that contained the Centralised Vacuum Plant- this provided suction to connectors all over the building so that cleaners didn't have to carry heavy Hoovers round with them. Like all Vacuums, this was very noisy in use!

A third room was the main electrical intake to the Building. Here were the various meters, switch/fuses and cables serving all of the electrical systems. It was even possible for the Electricity Company to switch the Building load between two different sub-stations if necessary. Huge armoured cables left the massive distribution board to serve various parts of the building.

The fourth room was the largest and extended entirely under the stage & the yard beyond. This was the enormous Plenum Chamber where fresh air was drawn in from the outside, filtered, mixed with recycled air, washed, heated, chilled, fragranced and then ducted to grilles around the ceiling, lobbies and under-balcony area. A large motor powered an enormous fan via belts and an even larger motor served a large compressor for the refrigeration system. Air wasn't washed, fragranced or chilled any more but the plant remained impressive. The plant changed the building air every 30 minutes on lower speeds, being capable of every ten minutes on full, controlled by a large handle that wiped a contact across a number of studs behind a protective glass.

Also under the stage at crossover passage level were the former Band Room (now the Handymen's CubbyHole), the Organ Lift (converted to the Ice Cream stand) and the large motorised Orchestra Pit which could rise to level with the Stage.

Going up to Stage Level we visited the Prompt Corner- here was the large stage switchboard in an alcove which controlled all of the Battens, footlights, Wing Floods & Front of House spotlights. Here I discovered my first terminology clash between Theatre & Cinema- the floats were called Foots & the Balcony spots were called Pageants.

The stage was surprisingly shallow without much wing space but it was equipped with a full counterweight system (although the screen took up six sets) and lots of Dip traps into which large towers containing the Wing floods were plugged. The connectors were an eye-opener- wooden plugs with ebony handles and copper strips for connectors, potentially very dangerous in these enlightened times and a bit dodgy even then. Three large loudspeakers were on trolleys behind the huge screen- huge Bass "Bins" with horn style speakers above. The counterweight sets were worked from stage level, the theatre norm (in older buildings) being for flymen to work the sets from a gallery above.

Bill explained that the screen could be packed off into the fly tower single handedly but it took at least two of them pulling very hard to get it down again. He also explained about the Safety Curtain- they had to lower it during every stage show but often wondered whether the motor would lift it out again, having to resort to manual hauling being a very painful slow process up on the grid. They also often had run-ins with touring stage crews who wanted to set up PA where the Iron Curtain would crush it.

We then went up to the Box, pausing briefly at the circle front where he pointed out the stage mixer control, six large knobs on a wall mounted Westrex control panel for setting up microphone levels. This route also enlightened me to another method of usherette avoidance- the 1st floor dressing room corridor had a passdoor onto the front circle exit route which also could be used to get up to the upper circle foyer via an uncarpeted stairwell. It did, however, pass the fridge room, where the usherettes put their feet up between intervals.

Finally in the box, he showed me the major systems.

On the extreme left was the twin turntable Non-sync, for playing interval records (non-vocal "top of the poppers" stuff was popular, I particularly remember "Time is Tight" being track 1 of a favourite interval record).

Next to the non-sync was one of two Stelmars using low intensity 30 Amp carbons & elaborate optical systems open to view. (They were both different, one was a genuine Steel & Martin Stelmar from Frank Brockliss with motorised carbons, the other an F J Pride design with hand fed carbons).

In the centre of the box were the two enormous Victoria 8 35mm Projectors with Super Zenith arc lamphouses (running at 120 Amp current). Next to the portholes were the sound controls including the mechanically linked volume knob next to both machines (on a scale of 0-20) as well as switch panels for working curtains, masking lights etc.

Next to Number 2 Machine was the wooden Cinemation Console. This was the Building Management system for controlling lights & services, as well as automating the show, triggered by impulses from foil on the film. Under a protective glass cover were two large timeclocks (the second for Sunday hours) and two large drums using split-pins for selecting the show sequence.

Beyond the second Stelmar was the Slide lantern, used for special event slides, and "Is there a Doctor in the House?" type messages.

On the back wall of the Box was the rewind bench, where the 6000' (60 minute) spools were rewound as well as checked, made up and broken down. To the left of the bench were the open construction Amplifier Racks from western Electric. If I remember correctly there were 5 valve amplifiers, each running 30 Watts RMS which didn't sound much to me but was ample using efficient horn systems. There was one channel for the optical sound, three channels for magnetic sound (left, right and effects speakers in the roof) & one channel for stage show use to two speakers in the proscenium arch.

The Operator's rest room provided the welcome diversion of a Kettle, the technical library & some comfy chairs. I became very fond of that room & developed a taste for tea made with condensed milk- they didn't have a fridge & it kept longer out of a tin!

Beyond the rest room along a corridor was the resistance room, which was also the workshop. This was next to the rectifier room, with the four huge mercury vapour rectifiers that glowed an eerie blue-purple colour when in use. A small door led out onto a flat roof that provided access into the roof void and up onto the projection suite roof.

Over the next few years, I became the Projection room equivalent of a Stage Door Johnny, making frequent visits to meet the team, talk about the equipment and try to get the balance right between being helpful & a nuisance. I was shown how to clean and carbon up the lamphouses, work the Stelmars, lace up the machines, splice using cement, understand the Cinemation, appreciate variety style lighting, prepare & show slides and develop an appreciation for the showmanship state of mind. No money was ever offered or expected but I certainly quenched my thirst for knowledge and the Operators had a chance to liven up an otherwise dull shift by chatting with a lad who showed an interest in their work. By the time I had the opportunity to work shows there, I was then working as a casual at three other venues and the Odeon was falling out of favour, the 74/75 drop-wall tripling proving an acoustic disaster for live shows. I did get a payment in kind once- I had worked a Saturday morning show (some friends of mine had a Band and had persuaded the Odeon to let them play on the Orchestra Pit). The grateful Deputy Manager gave me a complimentary ticket for Dionne Warwicke who was performing two shows that evening. This was my only time I saw the Safety Curtain lowered and I was impressed to see that it still had the painted garden scene that matched the original interior decoration scheme from the 1931 opening.

Thinking back to a time three decades ago, I am surprised at lots of trivial memories that are still fresh, like Barnie McGlen wearing his trademark Editor's eyeshade & rolled up sleeve retainers telling me that film never touched the floor.

I can recall Bill Furness taking his false teeth out to eat his sandwiches, Mick Seed (the young rebel number 3) playing Pink Floyd Albums on the non-sync and Barnie getting me to hold down a rectifier relay using an insulated rod because one of them wasn't striking up properly.

I even remember finding a £1 note in the under-floor air ducts when exploring, as well as realising that the large heap of scrap in the corner of the Plenum was actually the remains of the Master Brenograph effects projector, removed to make room for the Cinemation Console.

I can remember Bill asking me if I could remember where odd plans could be found around the building, as they were needed for the tripling work planned during 1974. I recall standing in the partially constructed new Box & visiting after it was completed. I can remember walking on-stage post-tripling during a fit-up and being shocked at how much the drop-wall dominated the view through the proscenium.

I moved away from Newcastle in 1976 and didn't give too much thought to the building for a number of years. However I was able to repeat my technical visit in 1994, the subject of part 2 of this article.