The miracle of air travel

Some people do this multiple times a week, and do it for years. Perhaps having everything on expenses moderates the pain? Maybe after a while having to partially strip off and participate in the security theatre starts to feel no more undignified and annoying than paying a bus fare. But for me it still feels like the rehearsal for the inevitable Iron Heel style dictatorship that is currently being implemented. These changes don’t happen overnight. Much like roadworks; they can take so long that you forget what it was like before the cones and diggers were part of the landscape.

But this is now, and we are currently only in the advanced stages of capitalism. Also, I’m white which means I’ll get a longer stay of execution before they discover my thoughtcrimes.

Advanced capitalism provides minor annoyances, a bundle of which have been getting on my tits today. For example, I bought a flight with British Airways and only today I discovered that it will actually be an American Airlines flight. Many years ago they used to try this on in London: you bought a train ticket and they led you out the other side of the station and onto a bus that said “rail replacement service”. I never fell for this though, and instead would go back to the ticket office and ask if they were taking the piss. Usually they would give a defeated “doh” sound and refund my ticket, at which point I’d go and get a bus that only cost a bus fair and didn’t take me on a surreal “train line on roads” route.

But you can’t do that with air travel. You just have to suck it up.

The increasingly baffling necessity of “on-line check-in” has also been “improved”. The seat selection process has been converted into overt extortion: you get shown the worst seat on the plane and told that it’s yours unless you cough up $100. If you’re flying as a couple or group, the seats are deliberately set far apart as an “enticement” to pay. There was also a weird bug that result in them trying to make me pay to check my single bag!

So arriving at the airport I approached the American Airways attendant with the intention of dropping off my bag and heading over to security hell. But instead of a lovely fake smile and a greeting, all that the attendant was willing to offer was a weary, dismissive instruction that I need to check my bag in “over there” before approaching her majesty.
Being a good citizen I complied, and did battle with a user interface that was as well designed as it was functional. After it failed to read my passport for about 10 minutes it asked me the same set of questions as the BA staff used to ask and printed my baggage ticket, only it too asked me for 60 fucking bucks to check my bag. So that wasn’t a bug in the check-in software after all. I check with the humans at the desk whether this was correct. “If you want to argue about it you can…” she started. “I don’t want to argue about it,” I interrupted, ” I was just checking.” It’s almost as if she was used to dealing with customers who wanted to argue about it. Already my brain had run down the path of planning my revenge, but that would be later. I returned to the digital extortion machine and gave it my credit card. It cheerfully responded by printing my baggage token along with instructions on how to attach it to my bag (something BA staff used to do for you). But with this token at least I would be granted an audience with the human!. I excitedly approached her with my bag and sticker. She observed me faffing about with the long, ungainly, sticky, token and offered some advice on how to correctly apply it to my bag without casualty. Once the token was attached and my bag was on the conveyor-belt she told me I was free to waste my time with the dignity removal service offered by the TSA.
Clearly the whole idea of adding another layer of bureaucracy was based upon the good capitalist ideal of removing unnecessary labour by replacing it with “smart machines”… much like the self checkouts in Supermarkets. And as with the self checkouts they simply cost a great deal more money to do the same job, and the staff numbers stay the same but the staff are relegated to working around the problems created by the crap programming, rather than actually being human and helping people. That’s progress.

In the old days you would take your passport, ticket and bags to a human who would swiftly and professionally check them, register you and accept your bags. Now you have to endure a flaky on-line check-in that frequently involves not being able to process payments and forces you to retype all your details in multiple times (normal humans don’t possess the handy passport reading tools available to the check-in staff and so have to type the whole lot in by hand, leading to inevitable transcription errors). After the on-line check-in you need to go through more digital persecution by another badly designed piece of hardware at the airport, and then need to go to a member of staff who essentially acts as tech support for the machines and bag-straightener on the conveyor belt.

After my vacation, the time to check-in arrived again. Despite my anger at having to cough up another 60 bucks to take my bag back home, I resolved to pay up front, on-line so as to make the boarding experience less painful. But I had forgotten the golden rule:

Everything is bollocks and nothing works properly

I tried a British credit card, an American debit card, and PayPal, with the poxy BA check-in software and none worked. Each time I was kicked back to the start of the process and had to reenter all of my details including passport and green-card number by hand from scratch. Eventually I gave up and accepted the seat assignment of 42E (middle seat in the middle column, at the back of the plane next to a man that was unfamiliar with the concept of soap. It didn’t actually say that last bit at the time, it just turned out that way.) This time I was going to be arsey.

After a particularly good cab ride with a driver as optimistic about the future of society as I was, I arrived at the BA desk and went straight for a human. I told the lady that about the failed payment attempts, the crappy software and then remarked at how bloody outrageous it was to have to pay to check a single bag on a transatlantic flight. Her response was not what I expected. She started to give me the company line, with odd interjections of the form “I’m not saying I agree…”. But as she talked she became increasingly agitated with what she was saying and eventually switched to “what do I care? I’m leaving soon! We all are. BA have lost the plot! Haven’t they?” she asked her colleague, who nodded in woeful agreement. At this point I genuinely felt like she had more to be bitter about than us passengers and so let her take my money and went on my way, resolving to get my money back in the form of free drink on the ride back. I managed it too.


Funny old world

Thirty years ago or so there was a very dramatic evening involving a bunch of teenagers who decided to explain to the victim of a Lothario that he wasn’t going to be her Mr Right. This is the kind of thing that happens when teenagers get drunk together. To us, and especially to the victim, this was a very fucking dramatic night. There were tears. There was screaming. There were feelings of distrust with the universe. There was a long walk through a local park after all the booze was gone to help cool off. Most of all there was a message scrawled on the bathroom mirror in toothpaste that read “funny old night”. This summed up the situation in more ways than the author knew…perhaps.

Since this, in my early youth, there have been countless examples of dramatic and disturbing events that range from domestic arguments to the election of a mentally disabled fascist. Whenever something like this happens, all I can think of is that toothpaste graffiti on the mirror: “funny old night”. Nowadays my brain changes it to “funny old world” because that is more accurate.


Ten Word Film Reviews: Part One

For those occasions that I actually sit and watch films: some reviews as memory joggers.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Visually stunning, entirely appropriate sequel. A bit pretentious in places.

Lady Bird (2017)

Great acting; fun if you like catholic school stuff. Yawn.

The IPCRESS file (1965)

Essential fodder for spy movie buffs. Brilliant, gripping. Still cool.

8½ (1963)

Worth it for the opening scene alone. Weird and beautiful.

The Trial (1962)

Fantastic and accurate rendition of the book, without the tedium.


Fridays again

As I have mentioned before, one of the loveliest things about London (possibly England (possibly Britain (possibly Europe))) is the “after work drink”, especially on a Friday. In this job, my 12,000th since moving to America, I am very lucky to not only have a bunch of people who enjoy the same semi-religious ritual, but we also have a de-facto place to worship.
Nothing dramatic, gossip-worthy, or significant, needs to happen; we just need to talk and laugh. It sounds like such a simple recipe doesn’t it? But it’s surprisingly difficult to find. You need people with whom you can communicate in a way that doesn’t involve sport, and also who aren’t affected negatively by someone with a foreign accent, and who says a lot of stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense. You also need people who don’t drive to work. How fortunate to have found such people! And tonight, after my old team-mates had left to pursue their commutes and domestic duties, how extra-lucky was I to be invited into a new cabal of people who work in a related team and share this odd collection of values?

It has been a while since I last blogged, and a lot has happened. The last couple of weeks have been genuinely enjoyable and that probably has something to do with why it’s easy to write again.

Some cryptic stuff to remind myself about why life has been enjoyable:

  • Working with Homehub CPE on TLS1.2.
  • Nick and his team are delightful to work with.
  • Pub quiz with Matt, RJ et al
  • Birds…including Russ.

The Smug Train

Sometimes – rarely – the unreliability of the public transport operator can work in your favour. This morning provided me with a great working example of the phenomenon. After a particularly good night’s sleep, I prized myself out of bed at an unusually early hour and consequently arrived at the station with ample time to wait for the “early-train”. To my surprise the station was packed to capacity, which made very little sense as the even-eariler-train was much earlier – really quite a lot earlier – and by dint of the hour, none of the early early trains are ever that crowded.
The SEPTA app (so much better than it was btw) revealed the solution to this paradox: not only was the even-earlier-train severely delayed, but the unfeasibly-early-train was even more delayed!
Now that we all have supercomputers in our pockets we can find this stuff out on the platform, and then look at a map to show us where the actual trains are in real time!
A crowded train arrived, and the crowds of people all forcefully piled-in, delaying the train further, and will have spent a miserable 25 minutes standing up as the train slowly joggled its way into Center City.
Obviously I did not join the throng, aware as I was that literally around the bend was another train – presumably empty.
An older lady at the station approached me as the crowded train was departing, seeking support for two conjectures:

  1. There was another empty train on the way.
  2. These younger people are so regimented that they can’t handle the idea of not following their daily routines as closely as possible.

It was an instant bond formed from an overwhelming feeling of smugness that we had outwitted the youth. She apologised for including me in the non-youth side of the scenario but suggested that, despite my obviously youthful aspect, the others may have been younger. She also asked me how I got real-time train info on my phone; outlining that here and referring to her as an “older lady” as I did above more than cancels the debt as far as I’m concerned.
Less than a minute later, a completely empty train arrived and took me to work. As it progressed through the inner cities, it became evident that the same scenario had occurred all the way down the line: the few passengers that did get on were also overflowing with smugness and we all got to appreciate what I can only describe as a luxurious commute.


What makes a really good day?

Today was a really good day, but the reasons for saying so should make a lot of normal people, including me, cringe. Nonetheless bedtime this evening fills me with a smug, warm, feeling of retrospective joy.
Today was the the day that the local sportsball team was celebrating victory in a sports ball competition. For reasons I genuinely don’t understand this resulted in the largest public turn-out in history for Center City Philadelphia. Obviously this alone would be, at best, a source of misery for me – a sports-hating depressive who despairs at the lack of concern shown by the general public for the far-right direction the world seems to have taken – but as a result of the brokenness of society this resulted in all employees at my company being given a paid day off! Those of us with any knowledge of the labor movement in this country may find this amusing; that is another blog.

An unexpected day off really means a lot to we proles. In particular it meant that my wife and I could spend an extra day together with absolutely no pressure to be doing something productive; planned days off usually come with the burden of feeling like you have to make the most of them by “achieving” something. Peculiarly, the freebie nature of today’s liberation did not seem to invoke this dark guilty feeling; we therefore did whatever we wanted and ended up achieving more than we would normally manage on any weekend. Here’s a list (because I like lists):

  • We went out to brunch at a local diner. In this endeavor we achieved both the consumption of delicious food and plenty of laughter.
  • When we got back home I achieved an hour long nap!
  • We decided to have a crack at tidying one of the darker regions of our house and by some miracle we worked together, got it done, and both enjoyed it!
  • By all means call me a scab, but I had arranged to have a tutorial with someone in Gigacorp about a brand new company wide Kubernetes-as-a-service [ignore this bit if you don’t understand it – it’ll soon be over] project. Working on a day off is a no-no I understand, but this is not only a topic that interests me, the guy seemed like he may be nice… he had a TARDIS as his Slack status icon. (It’s probably worth mentioning that my status icon is K9. Nerds will understand.) His personal tutorial was brilliant and inspiring. He also seemed to be every bit the lovely bloke I’d imagined.[There. Over.]
  • I got to spend a lot of time hanging out with the parrots and the chickens… yeah we have a bunch of chickens living in our garden temporarily.
  • After becoming inspired by my chat, I revisited a problem I’d had at work with my own experimental Kubernetes cluster [ok, it came back. see above for advice]. This time I fixed it by trying something that was more intuition than a result of information on the Internet. This made me feel very happy.
  • We watched Kingpin for the umpteenth time and had a really good dinner!

So work and industry, on a day off, cheered me up. This is not what I, or anyone that knows me, would expect, but there you have it.

Quote of the day:

“What’s a Cabernetti? It sounds like an Italian pastry”

— my wife after overhearing my Kubernetes tutorial.


LoRealAle

lora dev board

LoRa Dev Board

There’s a catch-22 involved in feeling uninspired: you need a seed of inspiration, but in order to find it you have to go out and experience things – and that seems like a huge amount of effort when you’re feeling uninspired.
In the fug of a long-term grey period of un-inspiration, some of the fine hairs on the edge of my inspiration-gland were inadvertently stimulated during a DevOps conference (yes I know… more later). Someone started talking about a thing called “LoRa” which it turns out is a low power long range digital radio standard.
Several months later, it was last night.
Last night was great. After work I went to a “pre-hackathon meetup” focussed on this LoRa thing which was being held by phLoRa in advance of a big Hackathon effort next weekend. This is the first time I’ve ever been involved with a Hackathon and it was a tad nerve-racking, right up until the point of entry into the venue: a sort of incubator thing called WeWork. It was lovely for so many reasons; suffice it to say there was free beer. Also there was a bunch of very friendly, excitable and knowledgeable geeks who were there for much the same reasons as I.
We got given some hardware to play with and, thanks to the skillful presenter’s abilities, we were all able to hook the hardware up to a local Philadelphia LoRa network by the end of the night. We, probably like you dear reader, also became aware that there was such a thing as a local LoRa network!
It was a great experience on a technical and social level. I met some lovely people from as far away as Italy, Georgia (the country) and even Kensington (the Philadelphia one). The guy from Kensington turned out to be an ex-employee of my current employer and used to work with a lovely guy I have known for a few years now: Nick.
Anyway, we all had and the inspiration level indicator on my tank was back into the “F” region. That’s “F” for “Full”. You knew that.

After the meetup, whilst waiting at the familiar bus-stop on Walnut St, I received a text message alerting me to the notional existence of a pint of beer that would be mine providing I attended the Dawson St. Pub in Manayunk; it was from Nick [q.v. above]. It was also clearly a message from the Gods, as was the severely delayed bus that arrived at my stop just when I needed it.

So, after the usual unpleasantness of I76 I spent an unreasonably pleasant experience at Dawson with Nick, his friend, and a couple of pints of beautifully kept British-style real-ale: Yards ESB.

The cherry on the cake was that I had taken Friday off of work, as a result of the ludicrous “use it or lose it” policy, and so had the freedom of not worrying about getting up in the morning.

Sometimes things just come together.


Scotch Eggs

Around seven or eight years ago a Venezuelan friend of mine asked me if I’d ever heard of a “Scotch Egg”. Obviously I explained how common they were in the UK, and asked how he could have possibly encountered them.
Anyone not from the UK needs to understand Scotch Eggs and the part they play, or rather the part they used to play, in British culture; we tend not to think about them unless we’re actually eating one. If you ended up eating one during the course of your day it would be forgotten about almost immediately, and only brought to mind with an accompanying thought along the lines of “oh dear, I shouldn’t have eaten that scotch egg!”
Consequently very few Brits ever spend time wondering where Scotch eggs come from. I suppose there are places where people do actually make them by hand and serve them to their families, but I’ve never seen anything like that. Generally Scotch Eggs are just there in your mouth at some point. You don’t deliberately go out and buy them, and you certainly couldn’t order them in a restaurant. Also, never in my entire life had I imagined they were possibly edible while hot!
scotch eggIf you’d asked me where to get one I’d have probably suggested a service station or maybe the remaindered section of a low end supermarket like Iceland. Actually the front seat of a car parked in a motorway service station is probably the most appropriate place to eat one. It’ll be cold, stuffed down to suppress hunger, and immediately forgotten.
At this point it’s important to know that I have always liked them despite my general indifference. They were useful guilty pleasures made more enjoyable by the rarity of their appearance in my life.
But things have changed. The idea of a deep-fried egg wrapped in sausage meat and breadcrumbs seems to have triggered a level of excitement in those unfamiliar with the general concept and as a result they have been adopted by poncy restaurants in the US! You can frequently spend the best part of 10 bucks on a hot Scotch Egg in a posh eatery, and it will arrive with some gourmet dipping sauce, a rocket (arugula?) garnish, on a piece of distressed roofing material.
I used to chuckle in an inexcusably patronising way when I saw this happen in high end restaurants here: these Americans think Scotch Eggs are proper food!
Earlier this year I visited London and was shocked to discover that high-end Gastropubs were now serving gourmet hot Scotch Eggs (dip/leaves/slate etc) for the best part of 10 quid! How did this happen?
I had to try one. It was bloody gorgeous.


Inventing Sex and Tech – part one

It has always frustrated older people when the next generation thinks they’ve discovered something new, because it’s invariably something that has been around forever. Sex is the classic example: no matter how naughty, new, or wild you think you’re being, humanity and the species that predated us have been doing it before. As Bill Hicks observed: look at your family tree and remember that every time the line splits, there’s fucking. And if you ever had any suspicion that Internet porn was responsible for inventing some of the extraordinary perversions that have now become commonplace, just see if you can find some uncensored historical texts. No matter what debasing act you think you’ve discovered, I guarantee that as long as it doesn’t rely on modern engineering techniques, it was done thousands of years ago.
It’s not just sex. In my accidental career of, what is now called, “software engineer” the atmosphere is riddled with the hormones of excitable youthful pricks who believe they have discovered a whole new area of computing. Spending time in an office full of millennial “programmers” (what we used to call ourselves) is the equivalent of walking through the fetid stench of a school gym changing room. They spend their time going to conferences and listening to their peers describing white-hot, bleeding-edge, paradigm-shifting technologies that were actually discovered decades ago. Armed with their new knowledge they return to their jobs and look down on everyone else who doesn’t know the new names for the old technologies they’ve discovered.
One of the tragedies of this situation is that in twenty years time they will feel the same miserable exhaustion that I feel now, but if they have any sense they will have departed the technical path and moved into management by then.
My personal curse is that I have eschewed any kind of management track, or “management bollocks” as I prefer to call it, which means I’m surrounded by these little gits who know everything.

By the way, it’s safe to say they are “little gits” because I was one. In my twenties my brain was faster than now and I thought I knew everything. In fairness I knew a lot more about the technology of the period than some of my peers, but looking back I was an ignorant nobhead. It’s hard to feel I was more ignorant then than I know myself to be now, but it’s surely true; it didn’t take long to learn the vastness of the universe of stuff I don’t know about; a universe that seems to expand exponentially with every article read. This is another significant problem: after twenty or so years of learning how little one knows, one tends to feel beaten down.
The only benefit of this awful, miserable realisation is that stamina combined with a vague interest in new technology is all that’s needed to hang on to your career. If you wait five years, the genuinely good technologies become fashionable again and you can ignore all the nonsense until then. NOSQL is a classic example of this. NOSQL was not originally “NoSQL”, it really meant “Not Only SQL”. This was an interesting development based on the real need for fast, scaleable key-value stores without the complexity of a SQL cluster. The world could have taken two paths at this point:
1) Reinvent database technology.
2) spend more time making SQL databases more scalable.
3) Use both.

Obviously they all happened, but the youthful excitement of new, hot, technology caused the young pioneers to throw away all trace of 2). That was old fart technology!

A few years down the line, the brilliant work of the forefathers is recognised once more as being pretty bloody useful and so relational databases, together with their trusted underlying technology, are about to take over again. Good.

Now, I hate Oracle as much any anyone else on this planet but don’t tell me it can’t outperform MongoDB with billions of rows of data because I’ve done it. Admittedly getting the queries right is an absolute bastard if they’re going to perform well – but compared to the alternatives it’s a piece of piss!

Yeah, there’s a lot more to say here. But it’s time to shut up.


You fool!

As I left the shower this morning I was shocked to see this on the kitchen floor – the dog had recently seemed pretty lethargic and they do get tummy troubles from time to time. Being completely unable to handle this kind of thing, I remained glued to the spot and yelled for Michele; after all, dealing with animal dejecta is her specialty. “Something really horrible has happened!” She came running in and looked pretty confused. Her immediate reaction was to try to diagnose the problem before even trying to clear it up. She knelt down and to my horror dipped two fingers into the horrific mess. There is a limit to my admiration for her professional interest in animal health and I thought I’d reached it with her sniffing the dog’s diarrhea when she upped the ante by putting both fingers into her mouth and licking them.

There were a good few seconds of stunned silence as my brain tried to come up with every possible explanation for what I’d just seen. It was only when she collapsed laughing that I remember the date…
OK, you really got me.
For the record, chocolate pudding, plasticine and brown leather paint are very, very convincing.