Some free advice

I’ve lived long enough that I’ve managed to figure a few things out. Usually by screwing them up on first go, but a scientific background (and Google) often help me figure out a better way. You might be interested. Maybe not.

See what happens when you say yes

One of the biggest problems I have in life is I find it very difficult to say no. It’s sort of a strange mixture between being too shy, and at the same time thinking that it might be an adventure. It has sometimes led me on a wild ride with no idea of where it would end up. It’s how I got into scientific publishing in the 60s and into web design in the 90s, for instance. And a while ago it got me, in a modest way, into writing. I said ‘yes’ to putting something together to go on the website of the Newtown Residents’ Association (I have a son who lives in Newtown), without realising that it would entail writing the stuff first.

My starting point was a collection of 12 rambling and unpublishable interviews with former trustees of the Wellington South Licensing Trust (15 hours of audio in total). The finished product was a 32-page (A4) PDF history of the trust. You can see it here: History of the Wellington South Licensing Trust

It turned out to be an extremely interesting exercise in the fallibility of memory. The people who were interviewed gave contradictory facts, had dates and the order of events wrong, had people’s names wrong, and even spelled out names so that they would be transcribed correctly — and got them wrong. I checked what I could against official records and other publications, but to have checked more I would have had to spend some time in the National Archives. Perhaps I should have. In some cases I still don't know when some liquor outlets opened or exactly where they were.

I’m glad I did it though. Say yes, that is. You should try it.


When the Licensing Trust was wound up, they put some money aside for producing a history. I told the Residents’ Association to donate it to Newtown School. They did, and it helped to pay for a mural on the side of the school hall. Neat, eh?

Do you recognise Kamala the elephant who used to live at Newtown Zoo?

Back it up

If you use a computer at all, which I guess you must do if you’re reading this, then listen to this: Back it up.

I’ve had computers for over 30 years, so believe me I’m not speaking theoretically when I say that all hard drives will eventually fail, and you will most probably lose everything on them — unless you’ve backed it up. Sometimes it will be a sudden failure, and sometimes the signs (odd behaviour) will be there, but you’ll probably choose to carry on because you’re so busy working on a crucial job. At one time or another it’s all happened to me, so that’s why I might seem a bit paranoic about it. I’ve coped by having a simple rule, which is: If it’s important, make sure you have it in at least two places.

What I currently do is probably over the top, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. I back up my computer onto a Time Machine drive automatically (incrementally once each hour), and I also regularly make bootable clones of both the computer and Time Machine onto two more external drives using Carbon Copy Cloner. Then I have a further drive that I use to store copies of important files such as projects and photographs — and of course I clone that as well. That’s five external drives, but they’re cheap enough these days. And I don’t keep them all in the same place — in fact, not even in the same building. So even in case of theft or fire, I should be right. At least I hope so. Perhaps I should add something more just in case … just kidding.

[Why haven’t I mentioned backing up to “The Cloud”? Two reasons it wouldn’t work for me: a) Broadband costs me too much. Most of the hype for this comes from countries with denser populations and economies of scale. b) The US government can reach around the world and shut things down with no warning. Let the sad tale of people who lost their files on MegaUpload be a lesson.]

There’s an adaptor for that

As manufacturers change the design of connectors on electronic equipment, old peripherals become unusable and new peripherals won’t plug into old equipment. Sometimes the fix is simple, and Apple has an extensive range of adapters to cope with connectors of ever-smaller size and design. Here’s a few less obvious examples.

Our television set is a few decades old, but works fine. The only input is through RCA composite connectors, so how can I connect an Apple TV to stream data from the computer? The answer has proved to be a little black box that takes HDMI in one side and sends composite video out the other. In contrast, our old VHS tape player has the opposite problem — it only has composite video connections, but I want to edit old tapes on the computer. The answer is another little box (from DataVideo) that will do the digitising and send the result to the computer through a FireWire cable.

And then there’s my camera: a Canon EOS 350D which uses a CompactFlash memory card. These cards are no longer readily available, but after a bit of hunting I found a simple adapter that slides into the camera’s CF slot and accepts an ordinary SD card. Problem solved. My next problem is much more difficult though: an Alps printer with a SCSI connection and no driver for OS X. I’ll try to find a SCSI-to-USB adapter and use a Windows driver under emulation. Sounds complicated, but might work.

So, when it looks like you’ll have to junk good equipment, do a bit of research and you might be able to keep it working. Unless, of course, you’d really prefer an excuse to get something new and shiny.

Sticky stuff

Here’s my top tip for surviving in life: Never trust anything self-adhesive.

Any form of sticky tape will let you down eventually. It doesn’t matter how neat and solid it looks at first, you will inevitably regret using it.

Tear a page? Fix it with tape, and before long the tape will drop off and leave behind an ugly brown stain. Do what a professional restorer would do instead and use tissue paper and PVA glue (both non-acidic, of course).

If you get something for the kitchen or bathroom that claims not to need tools for installation, then it will have pads of double-sided sticky on the back. Even if you prepare the wall with an alcohol wipe, it will fall off with a loud crash, within a week, and usually in the middle of the night. Just use screws from the start.

Actually, I’m exaggerating a bit. There is an exception, and I refer to that magic-in-a-roll called duct tape or gaffer tape. With duct tape and WD40 you have a miracle repair kit that could save the world.

But even duct tape will fray and tear in time. And it looks ugly. So once again — just do the job properly in the first place.

Being an early adopter

Here’s another tip: Never get version 1 of anything.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. First-edition books (and comics) — even an Apple 1 computer — have sold for high prices. On the other hand, the original owners wouldn’t have been able to predict the future value of the items when they first bought them. Another consideration is that sometimes the novelty and bragging values are overriding factors. But in general it pays to wait until bugs are ironed out. Many companies seem to use the first public release as beta testing of a product.

This came to mind recently when Apple uncharacteristically stuffed up the release of iOS8. It took three revisions before version 8⋅1 finally seemed to work as intended. In the meantime there were reports of bricked iPhones from a few people who were quick to upgrade.

Luckily, the time it takes me to get around to trying new things is about the same as it takes for problems to surface and be solved. Of course, procrastination has nothing to do with it.

Are we about done yet?

Yet another a tip: Everything takes four times longer than you think it will.

As a general, I’ve found that to be pretty true. There’s a number of factors working here. One is that it’s hard to estimate objectively, because if you enjoy what you’re doing, time passes very quickly. Before you know it, it’s lunch time. On the other hand, if you hate what you’re doing, it seems to take the whole day to get to lunch time.

Another factor is Parkinson’s Law (“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”). If you estimate a longer time, then unless you’re very disciplined, that’s how long it will end up taking. A third factor is the ability of one job to spawn others. To find the one thing that you need, you’ll have to do that tidying up that you’ve been putting off. You know the sort of thing.

A particular danger is in the workplace. If you are pressured to estimate a short time and you actually take longer, you look bad. If you estimate a longer time, and finish the task earlier through luck or hard work, then that becomes the expected time for future tasks. When the next job takes longer, you look bad again. My advice is to estimate with a multiple of four, and if you finish early you should spend the rest of the time doing the research, the updating and the preparation that you would never have the time to do otherwise.

Prostate cancer

Okay guys, here’s the deal. There’s no screening programme for prostate cancer, and there won’t be one in the near future.

At the moment, and unlike breast cancer, there simply is no easy way of detecting prostate cancer. The PSA blood test doesn’t measure cancer specifically, only prostate activity in general. The other test is of course the DRE, the finger up the bum. It gives clues about the size and feel of the gland — and maybe puts your relationship with your GP on a different level — but it still doesn’t directly indicate cancer.

So it’s up to you, and it isn’t easy: there’s no test you can do yourself, and if you just wait for symptoms then you’ll be leaving it too late. What you have to do is insist on annual PSA tests, starting at least in your 50s, and get your doctor to look out for any steady rise. The other thing that needs watching for is any enlargement or change in texture of the prostate. Your doctor dons the rubber glove for this.

There’s no magic fix you can find on Google, and it won’t get better by itself. You’ve heard this before, but it really is important to catch it early. Early, and it’s fixable. Late, and it could spread and be really nasty. Just look after yourself and take the initiative.

© 2018 Tony Pritchard