An open letter to SEPTA

Dear SEPTA,

Our relationship has been going on for over seven years now, ever since I moved to Philadelphia, and I‘m sure you’ll agree it’s as strong as ever. As a someone that doesn’t, and never has driven, I’ve been a user of public transport all my life and so I’ve got a lot to thank you for; without you I couldn’t possibly live in Philadelphia. You’ve looked after me and helped me live a comfortable and productive life here, and obviously I’m grateful. You know how strong my feelings are for you and I’m always ready to jump to your defence when people unjustly criticize you or make wrongful allegations. A transportation system is far more complex than most people realise and keeping it working is tough, yet you really do an awesome job and in many ways I’ve found you to be even better than my ex, London Transport. But as with all relationships it’s not perfect, and there are still a couple of things that we need to sort out.

Firstly, your fare and ticketing system. It’s ok for the most part – and I’m not even worried about the prices – must make a change eh? For everyday inner-city travel it works adequately. And if it was 1970, it could even be regarded as quite advanced. You have these tokens that are each valid for a single ride, no matter where you’re going, on the bus or the various types of subway-type systems and that’s great. I can pay cash exact-fare but you want to discourage that because it’s a whole load of aggravation you don’t need, so that will cost more. Yeah I understand that too and so the tokens work, even though I have to make an extra trip on a bus to find somewhere that actually sell the bloody things, since there is nowhere in my neighborhood.

Except for the times when they’re not valid and except on your “Regional Rail”, which is apparently different to the other types of rail, like the trollies.

I’ll overlook that these distinctions are far from obvious from your maps and literature and deal with the everyday experience of living in the Philly area which implies a knowledge of these distinctions.

So, I need to take a couple of buses to work. Easy right? I just need to make sure I buy a metric shed-load of tokens and it’ll cost me two tokens per journey. But what’s that you say? I can save money by getting a “transfer”? Cool! Is that another type of token? No. Cash only and exact fare. Hmm, ok well that’s irritating but you’re doing me a favour price-wise, so fine.
Oh yes, did I mention that one of the buses I need is the 124?

Oh dear. Suddenly, with that simple revelation, all of the harmonious simplicity goes out of the window. The 124 and 125 buses are “special” for some reason. They call them “express” buses but it’s not because they’re turbo-charged or anything – it’s because they go a long distance west on the expressway. Other buses that use the expressway (eg the 9 and the 27) are not “express” and so work normally. Hmm.

For the luxury of travelling to work on an “express” bus, a token must be accompanied by some more cash – there’s no way to do it with tokens. For me, the extra amount is currently around $1.25, which again must be in exact change. So pre-buying a load of tokens is no longer the only thing I have to do – I also have to ensure I have pockets of singles and quarters every day. The good news is I can use a Transfer so my total journey costs a token and $2.25 which is pretty reasonable, it’s just a pain in the arse.

Another bizarre thing about the 124 and the 125 is that the extra cash is required even if you travel within the city limits! From 30th street station to Wissahickon there are several buses available. They all cost a token per ride except the 124 and 125 which require the extra cash! Even though that part of the journey is identical and travels on the same roads and in the same types of buses, if you do it on the 124 and 125 you have to pay extra for the privilege. On being told this by a driver I was incredulous and checked it with several different SEPTA sources who all confirmed that this bizarre charge was correct. Not one could explain why, and not one disagreed when I asked them if they thought it was stupid and unfair.

The reason I need the 124 by the way is that at some point in one of my previous lives I must have done something terrible, and have been punished by the gods into repeatedly having to work in miserable King of Prussia, and the 124 and 125 are the only reasonable methods of getting to work. There’s no train. Yet. I know one is planned and because I’m in my early 40’s I may live long enough to see that line opened if, god forbid, I’m still working in King of bloody Prussia then.

Like all of my fellow passengers I completely rely on these services and therefore so do my employers. A huge number of tech companies are based in that area for some sodding reason and so a big chunk of the economy relies on these buses for those who don’t drive.

Up until now I haven’t mentioned the other method of paying for rides: passes. Obviously, I don’t faff about with tokens and change any more, I use a pass. But unlike just about every other public transportation system in the world, it’s actually more expensive for me to use a pass! Yes I pay for the privilege!

And it’s here where the bizarre fare structure starts to reveal itself.

The regular bus-pass is known as a “Transpass” and if you live and work in the city it does exactly what you’d expect. You can move around on any big bus-like thing with wheels without needing any cash. Except regional rail. You can’t use regional rail. Except on the weekends. I know.

Oh, and it doesn’t work on the 124 or the 125 either! You have to pay the bizarre extra cash like you would with a token. And as the passes are even harder to come by than the tokens it really doesn’t help me much. Again, even if you want to hop on a 124 for a few stops in Center city with a Transpass, you still need to pay the extra cash. That is mental.

King of Prussia is outside of the city limits and into the “zones”, which makes it sounds like some terrible post-apocalyptic nightmare. Which it is. After a great deal of consultation with a number of Septa representatives I’m of the opinion my workplace is in Zone 2. I can’t be sure because I’ve never seen an accurate map of the zones, and even though I believe such a thing exists there’s never been one to hand at any ticket office I’ve ever been present at. I have my faith though.

So I need to up my game if I want a pass, and the best option I have is known as the “Trail Pass”. It is the platinum card of passes and even allows you onto regional rail! But this works out way more than paying for my fares piecemeal. Arrrrgh.

There is, however another option that would appear to be a closely guarded secret: the Cross-County pass. So secret is this card that I’ve had staff at Suburban station swear blind to me that it doesn’t exist.

This pass is specifically designed for people who travel out into the hinterlands and I’ve used it in the past. Despite being much cheaper than the Trailpass, its magic is strong and it too allows travel on Regional Rail and buses, but like all magic it has dangers. The biggest danger being that you can use it with a 124 and 125 without paying an extra fare only if you don’t travel into the city! Which entirely buggers up my reasons for wanting to use it. As soon as the bus hits the expressway I owe an extra $1.25.

There is another method method of getting to work. It would involve getting a train to Norristown, then a bus to King of Prussia Mall, from where I can pick up the 124 for the rest of the journey to my office. All of this without costing me any extra money! But of course it does carry the hidden cost of my will to live.

What’s strange about this journey being valid is that if I paid for it in cash, it would be way more expensive than getting the bus all of the way there! It also allows me to travel right down to the end of my road…because the pass is valid further into Center City on the train than it is on the bus! Again, this sounds absolutely insane, but I have validated that it is indeed the case.

So I can travel from King of Prussia to my house on this pass only if I use the, normally far more expensive, train option. If I want to use the cheaper and more direct bus, I have to pay extra!

So clearly I need to buy a zone 2 Trail pass. This works properly and despite being out of pocket I settle for this option because it removes a massive amount of mental stress caused by my brain trying to work out why the fare system is so arcane. Despite the awesome power of the Trail pass I can no longer use the backup option afforded to me by the Cross-County pass: getting the train via Norristown. Why not? It’s valid on the regional rail after all! Well, it’s because somehow, Norristown is in zone 3. What shape are these bloody zones? But as that’s a last resort route anyway, I’m not too upset.

So SEPTA, that’s the fare structure dealt with. Thanks for listening, and I hope you’re not offended when I refer to your fare system as being “insane” and “mental”. It’s for your own good. But there is another source of concern I feel it’s only fair to address: your parochial attitude! Sometimes it feels as if you’re less of a 21st century transport system in a 1st world city, and more of a peak hours mini-bus service in the backwaters of the Northern Territories of Australia!
It’s 2015 and your phantom “key” service still hasn’t launched and so we’re still having to deal with all this stupid cash and paper nonsense. Tokens in the 21st century? What’s wrong with you? I have to physically travel to a place to buy a pass – have you not heard of the Internet?

And I hate to keep banging on about the 124 and 125 but there is another seriously backwards problem with them: on the journey from King of Prussia to Center City, the bus doesn’t always stop at Wissahickon, a major transfer center. According to your documentation, we have to ask the driver to stop there if that’s where we want to go. “G’day mate, can you drop me off at Dingo Creek as you’re going near there?”
Now, most of your excellent drivers realise that this is ridiculous requirement and always go via Wissahickon because a huge number of people rely on it as an interchange point. Now and again a driver will yell out to the bus as a whole and ask if anyone needs to go there. That’s still backwards, but fair enough – at least we’re given the option.
But occasionally a driver will decide that because nobody has specifically asked them to stop there, obviously no-one is interested and so they go straight to 30th street with a bus-load of pissed off commuters – content in the knowledge that according to the rules, they have done nothing wrong. Indeed, should anyone express dissatisfaction with this state of affairs they will quote the SEPTA regulations at them. Which calms everyone down perfectly as you’d imagine.
How about we drop the “request” service and just stick to the schedules, as if we were living in a civilised 21st century society.

And why are there so few services on the weekends? You do realise that people won’t start to consider public transport as an option if the option is crap don’t you?

So there you have it SEPTA. After all of this negativity it’s important to know that I still love you and will stick with you come what may. But we both know you can be better and if you still want to become one of the world’s flagship Public Transport networks you’re going to have to encourage more people to ride. We can work through this.

I’ll see you Monday morning.

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Little Boxes

dog kennelNon-Americans: look at this fake house, built out of chipboard and plastic bags. What’s it for, you may be wondering? Is this for a movie set? Perhaps it’s some subterfuge to fool an enemy into bombing a fake encampment; much like the allies did to the Nazis in North Africa, and Sheriff Bart together with “the good folks” of Rock Ridge did in Blazing Saddles?
Well it’s neither of those things.
Do you give up? In fact this is actually how they build houses here in the USA! Really! And these are real houses for people, not dogs or anything like that. Not only that, but when they’ve finished building it they’re going to sell it for half a million dollars! That actual house, there! Not a real house based on that cheap mock-up, that is the actual house!
I don’t blame you for being incredulous, I didn’t believe it at first either but it’s absolutely true.
OK in fairness, the house isn’t finished yet and obviously the finished product won’t look like that. Firstly there will be more of those plastic bags stapled to it. They’re not your normal plastic bags either – over here they call it Tyvek and it’s a bit tougher than than the supermarket jobs obviously. Secondly they’ll cover it in other material like stucco or cheap Aluminium siding to hide the fact the whole thing is made of offcuts from the local lumber yard.
Half a million bucks – amazing isn’t it? It’s only a matter of time before this sketch becomes a reality:

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New Toybox

Cypress PSOC BLEAnother perk of my new job is that we often get our hands on some interesting hardware, of which this superb little kit is the latest example. It’s a development kit for an amazing little chip from Cypress which, apart from having a full-on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) implementation, contains a Cortex M0 jam-packed with goodies, including most of the radio hardware you’ll need. It’s a great idea because it means that you can create just about any BLE device you could imagine with a single chip and the absolute minimum of external components – no need for an external microcontroller or PHY hardware.

The Kit itself consists of three  devices – one of which is capable of being battery powered and has Arduino compatible I/O ports, an RGB LED, capacitative touch pad, buttons and proximity sensor.

The software is pretty amazing too, but only runs on Winblows. Fortunately it seems to run perfectly on a Virtualbox VM running TinyXP which means I’m happily using it on my old Mac. You design applications by dragging components into a workspace and “wiring” them together on screen. Some of the components are designed to be external (e.g. resistors and LEDs), and some are internal to the chip (for example op-amps and logic gates) but you can hook them up however you like. Obviously, one of the components you have at your disposal is a BLE module, and it comes preloaded with all of the various standard profiles and configurations, so you can literally have it behave as anything you wish from a virtual mouse to a heart rate monitor.

When your design is complete, the software will generate the corresponding code for the device, complete with comprehensive comments, and you can tinker to your hearts delight before building. You can then run and debug it on the hardware. It will even generate a full PDF datasheet for your design that you can then publish to make it look like you’re a proper chip designer who knows what he’s talking about and everything!

So as a result of this I’m very excited and have a new project in mind. OK I’ll shut up now.

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Being a Tourrorist

San Jose, from the perspective of a non-driver in my hotel, is exactly the same as San Diego: a fucking horrible set of roads interspersed with malls and business parks. King of Prussia with mountains, palm trees, and mountains. The mountains are in the distance because you can’t walk to them. I tried. That’s another story.

Today we were supposed to start work with the client that was paying for our flights and rooms in this four star hotel, but we didn’t because of some bollocks I still don’t understand. They make so much money that it doesn’t matter apparently. Instead I slept off the bloody awful flights, went for a walk, and then spent the evening in the hotel bar.

The bar is also pretty horrible, with five 50 inch TVs above it forcing the miserable sport of American Football on all clientele. But I am happy as long as I’m left alone to read my books, respond to quiz challenges, and do all of the other things with my phone that keeps me feeling attached to sane people.

Then the drunk guy next to me starts demanding my attention. That’s fine, I understand drunk people, and so I use my drunk translation skills to express un-interest and preoccupation, but he doesn’t take the hint. Oh dear. He must be really gone…

We chat, which involves several circular conversations in which I tell him many times where I’m from, what I do, and why I’m here. He tells me his name, which I decline to print here, and that he is a pilot, for an airline that I also decline to name.

We talk nonsense, have a laugh, and then he notices that my nationality seems incongruent with my stated job as info-security guardian, and goes a bit weird. By this point he is slurring his words and thoughts so apparently that I fear for his passengers tomorrow morning at 10am – the time he told me earlier that he was due to fly. He asks me what clients we work for and I explain that it’s a closely guarded secret. He then turns serious and asks me if we’re working against ISIS! On being informed that we don’t directly work against ISIS, he makes a big, loud joke about how he’s going to call the police by typing 911 into the iArse login box of his iPhone. I play along with his stupid joke and hope that my new colleague, whom I have yet to meet, will appear and rescue me. At this point my opinion of the drunk pilot is that he’s hitting on me. I don’t have a problem with this because by now he knows, or rather would know if he’d actually absorbed anything I’d said to him, that I’m straight and married. So I don’t run away.

My new colleague appears and we recognise each other by the vague descriptions we gave each other over the phone a while before. I enthusiastically invite him to sit down at the bar and we talk nerdy stuff – he’s an awesome guy it transpires and we have a lot to talk about. Our drunken pilot friend meanwhile amuses himself by putting his head in his hands and murmuring to himself. As my colleague and I begin to bond about microcontrollers, Flight-Captain Pisshead clambers off of his bar stool, puts down some money, leaves the rest of his glass of Chardonnay and shambles off to talk to the bar staff. My new geek friend and I move on to discussing SDR, and begin to enjoy ourselves, especially as Orville Wrong is observed to depart the vicinity.

The geek-fuelled chatter continues now that the mad bloke has departed and it is a while later before I ask Mine Host if the Flying Sotsman was alright, and whether he had spoken about us. He laughed sheepishly before explaining that we had both been reported to the hotel management as terrorists!

As unlikely as this seems, we really had been reported to the hotel manager as terrorist suspects and, frankly, I’m surprised we’re both not incarcerated at this moment. Luckily his demeanor of an incapable drunk did not convince anyone of his theory. I only hope that by 10 am tomorrow – in 12 hours time – he has his shit together enough to pilot a plane load of passengers across the country.

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The Sandbaggers

The Sandbaggers DVDFor someone who spends an embarrassingly large proportion of his time watching detective and spy TV programmes, it was quite galling to discover I’d been oblivious to a British show that aired in 1978 and was described by the New York Times as “The best spy show in TV history.” Worse still, I was made aware of it by an American work colleague. The final indignity was to discover it was every bit as good as the hype suggested.

There’s no James Bond nonsense here, just a tiny Whitehall department, encumbered by budgets and politics, that nonetheless has to undertake missions ranging from foiling terrorist bomb plots to organizing foreign coups. There are no absolute rights and wrongs, and no conventional heroes. Instead there some extraordinarily plausible plots, brilliant acting, and superb characterization that combine into a thoroughly gripping, albeit traumatic at times, TV series. There are many reviews out there that express this better than I ever could, but If you’re a fan of complex, well thought out, realistic spy dramas in the mold of Le Carre then please get hold of this as soon as you can

As a final enticement, here are two Interesting facts about the mysterious author of this masterpiece, Ian MacKintosh:

  • One episode of the second series was dropped because it contravenes the Official Secrets Act.
  • Before the scripts for Series 3 were completed, Ian MacKintosh disappeared under mysterious circumstances in a private plane together with a friend and his wife. This is why the series was cancelled.
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Laurel and Hardy Airways starring Deputy Doofus

The first time I encountered Deputy Doofus was a week last Saturday at John Wayne airport in Orange County, California, after flying in via Atlanta. It was around 10pm local-time, despite the insistence of the little clock in my brain that claimed it was actually 1am. The previous 12 hours (time-zone be damned) had involved various forms of travel, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t in the best of spirits as I waited by the carousel for my bag to appear – yes I checked a bag – no I won’t be doing that again on a domestic flight.
My plane-mates and I stood in languid silence as we watched the bags proceed on their perpetual journey around the carousel whose name, if it had one, was “Atlanta”, according to the monitors above. Occasionally a lucky passenger would recognise a suitcase and react for a brief moment as if they’d won a life-altering sum of money until they managed to regain their composure and wrestle their bag away from the scene and re-commence their journey. As we waited, Deputy Doofus lumbered into the scene to offer his valuable insight into the situation. He was about 50, adorned in a loose representation of the airline’s uniform and clearly appeared very happy with his role in the business of facilitating air travel. He approached some passengers standing nearby and asked them in a loud friendly voice if they were from the Atlanta flight. They affirmed his suspicion and he replied:
“Well, the baggage has all been unloaded and it’s coming on to the Carousel right now!”
They expressed mild gratitude for the information and continued to hunt for their luggage on the now busy conveyor. He walked two steps away and addressed me, with exactly the same question:
“Are you from the Atlanta flight?”
I nodded.
“Well, the baggage has all been unloaded and it’s coming on to the Carousel right now!” he enthusiastically repeated.
“Ah, OK.” I said, desperately trying to sound like this was even vaguely helpful, and he went on another two steps, then repeated the procedure for the benefit of the next group of people. It struck me as a very peculiar service for the airline to be offering, after all we obviously had some inkling as to why we were standing here. Perhaps he thought we were confused by the sight all of those big lumpy things going round and round?
Once he was satisfied that everyone in the general area knew exactly what was going on with the bags and our relationship to them, he changed gear; the work was over, it was fun time! He had been accompanied all this time by a short female colleague who had wisely decided to let him do the talking.
“And it’s Jane’s birthday today isn’t it Jane!” he announced, pointing at his colleague. “It’s her birthday!” he repeated to the next group of people standing nearby, as if they couldn’t hear his shouting it the first time around. “I’m embarrassing her!” he continued, and Jane did indeed look embarrassed while she followed him around the assembled crowd. However her look also conveyed a resigned weariness that suggested she had spent time with her colleague in public before.

A week elapsed. Hotel, work, food, drink, nice weather, etc.

The journey home was due to commence with a flight at 6:45am, and so in preparation I arranged with the hotel desk to order a cab for 5:15am.
At around 10pm, as I was preparing to go to bed in advance of the early start, an email popped up on my laptop. It was from the airline and it explained that my flight would be delayed until 8am. So, I put on enough clothing to allow me to schlep down to the hotel reception without causing a scene and travelled in the elevator to the desk. The guy was extremely friendly and understanding and I returned to my room with a comfortable feeling, partly derived from the knowledge I had an extra hour of sleep ahead. Obviously, I’d left my access card in the room and so had to return downstairs to ask the guy, who was slightly less friendly now, to give me another one. But eventually I got to bed and slept.
The lovely, lovely sleep was broken by the harsh sound of my mobile ringtone at around arse-o-clock, or 3:45am whichever is more accurate. On answering the call a robot announced that my flight had been rescheduled. It wasn’t clear whether this was the reschedule I knew about, or an entirely new reschedule so I reluctantly climbed out of bed and investigated the situation, after negotiating the hotel’s crappy wifi captive-portal for the umpteenth time. The airline’s website indicated that my flight was leaving at 6:45 as originally planned, with no indication as to whether the 8am rumour was ever true or mattered any more. Wide awake (that ringtone is really jarring) I acknowledged that the only solution was to aim at the earlier of the two deadlines and stay on the safe side. So, I showered, put on some clothes and returned to the lobby where a new assistant was in attendance. This guy was older, grumpy looking, and wearing an ill-fitting suit jacket over a hawaiian shirt. I explained my predicament and he sighed. “I’m not even supposed to be working now,” he explained without my asking. “I’m haven’t had a day off in four weeks.” Restraining the temptation to quote Monty Python and ask him if he knew his statement was irrelevant, I asked if he could reschedule the cab. Several heavy sighs and a couple of unnecessarily long phone calls later I went back to my room to spend the last fifteen minutes of my time in the hotel rapidly stuffing a weeks worth of dirty clothes into my rucksack. Up until that point I’d be overjoyed with the hotel and genuinely wanted to give them a 10/10 on the customer survey – so much so that while I was waiting in the lobby for my cab I asked the guy if they had my correct email address on file. He faffed about on the computer for a minute or two before saying “I don’t know what you want me to do – send you an email or something? There is no email, it was a web booking.” I was tired and suddenly lacking in enthusiasm for the rest of the conversation and so sat down and waited for the cab.
We got to the airport very quickly – for some reason the roads were relatively clear, who knows why? After taking part in the surreal interactive security theatre the TSA had put on, I put my clothes back on, collected my dignity and went to look for my flight. Consulting the large screen containing details of all upcoming departures I located my flight and was irritated to discover the 6:45 departure time had been amended to…8. It was 5:30 and I had been up, and in a grumpy mood, for 2 and a half hours already but the tiredness was successfully beating down the anger and so I staggered to the departure gate where the departure time was still listed as 6:45, so asked the lady at the desk what was going on. “Look, let me announce this over the PA, because everyone is asking” she said. She announced that there were in fact two flights, one at 6:45 and one at 8. All of the assembled people looked as confused as I felt. I tried to explain about the email and the contradictory phone-call but she looked incredulous and continued to repeat the same story. But whatever was to happen, there would be a way out at either 6:45 or 8 and so I sat down in a sleepy-haze and waited. Many of the other passengers looked non-plussed, and overheard conversations frequently included snippets such as “did you get woken up at 3:45 too?” and “is it 6:45 or 8 that this plane is leaving?” The desk clerk only once offered a suggestion and it was that perhaps whoever had been in charge had managed to obtain another plane and switched it…or something. No-one looked convinced but waited patiently, or more accurately sleepily, for something more concrete or someone who knew what was going on. We had nothing to fear, because the airline had called in the A-Team to clear up the mess: Deputy Doofus!
Wasting no time, he headed straight to the PA microphone and turned on the magic.
“As you may have heard we had to swap out the plane for your flight this morning and although it’s the same type of plane, a 757, it’s a slightly different model and so the seat layout is different. If you confirmed your flight last night and have an electronic boarding pass, your seat may have changed and so you should approach us and we’ll take care of it for you.”
Immediately after he’d finished speaking, a planes-worth of unhappy passengers left their seats and mobbed Doofus’ poor colleague who, up until that point, had been doing a reasonably good job of keeping tempers at bay. She began frantically tapping away on her terminal and before the full wrath of the crowd was upon her she started yelling to anyone who would listen, “it’s alright – everybody’s seat is safe. No-one is affected!” Doofus re-engaged the microphone, repeated his colleague’s announcement and the bitter mob slowly dispersed back to their holding pattern in the seating area.
Eventually the boarding commenced and within a period of around twenty minutes, everyone was on board. A further twenty minutes elapsed during which nothing happened – the most notable instance of nothing being the movement of the plane. We were still attached to the gate and certainly not about to take off any time soon. There was a growing air of disquiet on board which was interrupted by the sound of Deputy Doofus over the plane’s PA system.
“Well, as you probably know there was a whole lot of bad weather in Atlanta that caused a whole lot of disruption to flights going in and coming out, and that’s why we originally moved this flight to 8am, and then found another plane that could take off at the original time. Well, it seems that this information didn’t make it to the pilots, and that’s why we can’t take off. Hopefully, if they believe the flight is due to take off at eight, they’ll actually be here any moment now and then we can take off.”
So the airline had done everything to salvage the flight except arrange for someone to fly the plane. Either Deputy Doofus had been given way too much responsibility or the airline is actually run by Laurel and Hardy, I thought as I desperately tried to sleep and make it all go away. Another twenty minutes of bugger all dragged by. Cue Doofy.
“Well we’re still trying to find the pilots, and right now there’s someone at the gate waiting for them. As soon as we find them we’ll be able to take off. Now, for those of you with a connecting flight at Atlanta, we have representatives there who know the situation and will be waiting for you. If you’ve missed your connection you’ll have been rebooked on another flight. You may know that Atlanta is the biggest airport in the world, that’s the world! They have 750 flights out of there a day! So you will get another flight, and there will be people there to help you.” Then, with a flourish that could only be matched by Alan Partridge he added, “And in case you were wondering what the second largest airport in the world is…it’s Frankfurt.”

Obviously when we reached Atlanta the airline reps didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on, and the only advice I was given was “you betta run!” I did.

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The Great Paedophile Conspiracy

Somehow I missed this whole thing the first few times around and it’s nice to see it come back and get taken seriously because if it’s true then it’ll make Operation Yewtree look like a case of nicking a Twix bar from a newsagent. In 1981 Dickens used parliamentary privilege to name a senior MI6 operative, and knight of the realm, as head of a paedophile ring with the user-friendly branding of “Paedophile Information Exchange”. This is extraordinary for so many reasons. Also bear in mind that back in those days HMG denied the very existence of MI6 and so Dickens’ action was pretty audacious. Hardly surprising he was later the victim of two “burglaries” and multiple death threats. Damn it, I’ve started to respect a Tory.

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The Internet Ages

Here are two nice examples of how the ubiquity of the Internet has impacted two distinct age groups: those who have had the Internet all of their lives, and those to whom it’s still a “new thing”.

One of our neighbours recently celebrated her retirement by buying her first computer, a Macbook Air, and inviting the Internet into her home. Once I’d helped her set everything up she was emailing, web-browsing and printing like a natural.
A couple of weeks ago one of her dogs was attacked by another dog and, knowing M’s ability to fix a variety of wildlife, she knocked on our door in a panic. M explained that she really couldn’t help with a domestic pet, especially one that probably needed surgery. Nonetheless she went round to see if there was anything she could do to help. The scene was intense: the wounded dog was being held by our Neighbour’s sister who was accordingly splattered with a liberal quantity of blood, while our neighbour was hunched over the phone book frantically trying to find the address and phone number of her vet. M was a little surprised by this for a several reasons, not least of which was that people still had phonebooks. “Wait!” she couldn’t help exclaiming, “where’s your laptop?” A quick Google later she’d located the name and address of the vet to the amazement and relief of everyone. It hadn’t even occurred to our neighbour or her sister that the task of looking up a phone number could have been achieved by any other means than the traditional dead-tree method. But what of the generation that have never known a world without The Internet?

Being middle-aged and a code-monger means that my day job frequently involves being surrounded by what I now call “children” (that’s pretty much the only benefit to not being young any more.) We work in the city, but not too near the food action, so we often get together and order food for delivery at lunchtime. Most of the local vendors have switched to using GrubHub for orchestrating orders and in fairness Grubhub do a pretty good job of it on the whole – their cutesy, patronising communications notwithstanding.

One particular lunchtime a group of “children” were ordering Sushi via grubhub when the unthinkable happened: Grubhub went down mid order! Worse still, the vendor didn’t have any other ordering mechanism on their website. Imagine the panic! The Sushi vendor wasn’t totally inaccessible – a reasonably short drive, or a considerable walk away – but on this particular day the outside world was hostile; the ground was covered in snow and ice, the temperature was around -10C, and it was raining. The would-be lunchers were despairing when a slightly older colleague spoke up and suggested they phone the order in! A few seconds of silence followed while everyone considered this bizarre suggestion. “Of course,” said one of the sushi-seekers, “I would never have thought of that!” And the lunch came, and it was good, and there was much rejoicing.

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Fran on Failure

Fran videoThis is the best advice for anyone hoping to learn about…well…anything: get used to failure, because failure is part of the process.
At a previous job, one of my friends used to make a point of asking interviewees for new positions what was the worst disaster they’d ever caused, and what they did about it. It’s a brilliant question because it tends to paint a picture of the candidate in a real life high-pressure situation. Anyone working in a technical field who hasn’t caused some sort of disaster or other has either not been given the controls or is unaware of the impact of their actions. How would they actually cope with fixing a disaster – regardless of whether it was their fault or not?
Obviously there is the finite possibility that they are indeed perfect and infallible, but this is so unlikely that it’s not worth considering – and anyway, would you really want to work with someone like that?

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A complex story with a simple ending

Being terrible at mathematics is rarely a problem for software developers these days; algorithms for most problems are widely available and software libraries implementing those algorithms are equally accessible now that people understand the joy of free software.
A-level Mathematics was extraordinarily difficult for me and even though many of the concepts were beautifully simple to grasp, the nuts and bolts of making them work eluded me. Seeing any formula involving ‘e’, ‘i’, an integral, or a capital Sigma would send my brain into meltdown and force me to look away.
Thankfully we don’t need to understand this stuff in “the real world”, I comforted myself by saying twenty years ago. Twenty years later I was dealing with complex numbers in my day job and regretted not learning about them properly when I was younger; when my brain was less fried. Obviously I understood the basics: ‘i’ is the square-root of -1 and a complex number is simply a combination of i with a real number e.g. “3i+4″. I also understood how to do the operations on them so that performing something like an FFT was pretty straightforward. But why it worked, and what it was all about had eluded me completely. Most people don’t care about that – as long as they can perform the necessary operations they’re happy, and rightfully so. But I’m stubborn and not very good at this stuff so it has always concerned me that I don’t understand why it works, and consequently I never understood why the complex-plane was ever relevant to real-life.
Very recently I stumbled upon this amazing website:
http://betterexplained.com/articles/a-visual-intuitive-guide-to-imaginary-numbers/
This guy is brilliant! It was as if he understood my mental block and picked it apart leaving me with the glorious feeling of actually understanding complex numbers and how they relate to real-life. Quite a wonderful experience to have on the bus home from work.

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