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Archive for June 2005

the weight of history

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A politically-incorrect, but factually-correct, thought for the day from a veteran film director who really has seen it all.

As a filmmaker, I’m not interested in 9/11 – it’s too small, history overwhelms it. The history of the world is like: He kills me, I kill him, only with different cosmetics and different castings. So in 2001, some fanatics killed some Americans, and now some Americans are killing some Iraqis. And in my childhood, some Nazis killed Jews. And now, some Jewish people and some Palestinians are killing each other. Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral – not important. History is the same thing over and over again.
— Woody Allen

Written by brian t

June 29, 2005 at 4:56 pm

eternal sunburn of the witless mind

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Part II of the Paris Air Show report: before I get to the planes and the flight displays, a little about the airfield and the facilities. All the general public spectators were crammed into a small section of the flight line – the area closest to the runway – though there was more space further back. I arrived not long before the flight display was due to start, so I went straight to the flight line and spent most of the afternoon there, taking pictures.

It was a very hot day, with almost no shade, and the organizers broadcasting warnings to everyone to drink plenty of water. Could you get water? At a price. A baguette (sub) with jambon et fromage (ham & cheese), a 500ml bottle of Coke, and a 500ml bottle of water came to €12 ($15), more than double the typical street price.

Airbus A340-600The displays had an element of unreality to them: the Airbus A380-800 was parked just in front of us, the last in a row of three Airbuses taking part. First the little A318, then the incredibly long A340-600. This thing just kept on going, long past the point where other planes would have stopped. Landing it must be a hair-raising exercise in centre-of-gravity and airspeed control.

The A380-800 is shorter, but its sheer bulk makes it the first plane to have a takeoff weight in excess of a million pounds (454 tonnes). The test pilots kept its flight display relatively sedate – it’s maiden flight was only a month ago, after all – and they didn’t even raise the gear, saying it takes 30 seconds of level flight to accomplish that. (It would have been halfway to Versailles in 30 seconds.) I didn’t get a good view of any of the landings, which was a disappoinment, seeing as the landing is the most crucial part of any flight.

After an hour I was fried, after two hours I was grilled, and after three I was roasted. By 4PM I decided I needed to get out of there. On the way to the hotel, however… describing this scene is going to stretch my descriptive vocabularly somewhat.

  • A veritable cornucopia of hot, tired, sweaty people, stacked 42-deep around the bus stops, and the show is not quite over. I couldn’t even see which queue I should join, not that I had a chance of getting the bus, so I joined the hordes slogging their way back to Le Bourget station.
  • At each intersection was a large, angry gendarme, clearly unhappy about spending his Saturday directing traffic and pedestrians. Loud whistles, heated disputation, wild gesticulation, oh my.
  • Two kilometres later, I arrived at the station to find the masses wending its way inwards. As far as I could tell, tickets were optional, with a sign telling people to buy €2 tickets for central Paris, and nothing else.
  • Hot, bothered, and distracted by all the commotion, I neglected to look where I was going and fell over a tree emplantation, so my right ankle is now in a state somewhere between “twisted” and “sprained” Cue much Anglo-Saxon swearing and quizzical looks from the locals. (A week later, considering how slowly it’s healing, I call it a mild sprain.)
  • Since I’m heading north, I limp straight through the gates on to the platform, and am mildly surprised to find I made the right choice, and could get on the right train when it arrived.
  • Whew, right? Not quite. I know I’m going to Villepinte, so I get off at the Villepinte station, before I remember not to do that. It’s a 1/2 hour wait for the next train, sadly, before I can head for the right station, Parc D’Expositions. Walking was not an option, with my painful ankle swelling up.
  • A hotel that was supposed to be quite close to that station turned out to be quite far, and I had to pull into another hotel for directions first. I must have looked a fright, but I at least got them to give me some cold water too. This other hotel was really close to the station, so guess where I’m staying next time, expense be damnedm if there is a next time.
  • The hotel I chose this time was really inexpensive, but was a painful half kilometer from the station. It was OK for one night, any longer and would I have sleep-walked my way out the window. It had some semi-permanent residents, welfare cases who put on a classic “white trash” performance for my benefit – heated arguments about money at 2am.

To add insult to injury; I managed to drop my iPaq later that evening. All my contact and appointment data was wiped after the battery came out, but at least it’s all on my home PC and work PC too. I don’t need any of that in my hand until I go back to work, and it can still play MP3s etc. I even took this opportunity to try Linux on it, which is also data-destructive. (Call it a work in progress.)

A week later, and the skin on my arms is still coming off in clumps, and I’m very red in the face. In my concern to get decent photographs, I neglected to carry a hat or sunscreen, didn’t I?

The holiday is almost over, and it’s back to work on Monday, at which point I’ll find out whether my trip to Germany is still on, or not. If so, it’s not back to regular work directly, and I have to prepare to deliver product training. The most flattering part, so far, has been hearing what my department will be charging for my services. That’s per day, multiplied by three days of training plus a day for travel and a day for preparation, plus costs for travel and expenses. (But it’s still much less than trying to buy this training from an external provider.)

Written by brian t

June 26, 2005 at 1:41 pm

a flight of fancy

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Well, that was fun. I’m getting much better at finding my way around places, compared to a decade ago. I got up early and left home at 04:15 or so, thinking the bus to the airport would arrive at 04:30 at advertised. It arrived at 04:20, about a minute after I arrived at the bus stop, and was surprisingly full for that time of the morning. Some check-ins at the airport were mobbed at 05:00, with people queueing around the terminal for cheap holiday flights, though my check-in was no problem.

The flight boarded on time, but left about half-an-hour late, and the excuse was a new one on me: “we have a wide departure window”. Meaning… what exactly? That the tower gave you a wide time window, in which case you gave no excuse for leaving late in that window… or that the airline decided they could afford to be slack at that time of the morning… which is also no excuse. At least they served a nice little continental breakfast, different each way, which was even more welcome on the way home.

This was my first visit to Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris, and quite an experience it was too. Let me see… if you’ve seen U2’s “Beautiful Day” video you have a general idea of what Terminal 2 looks like, but not the scale of the place. It contains six medium-sized terminals under one huge roof, A-F, an overall size roughly equivalent to Heathrow Terminal 1, 2 and 3 combined or Chicago O’Hare International. Terminal 1 is a separate huge building of its own.

I landed at Terminal 2F, and after a bus ride to the Terminal proper I had to take one of the walkways to the central area of the Terminal, where the RER station was. One of those walkways collapsed just over a year ago, killing six people, and that area is still cordoned off.

This is the point at which I ran head-first into Paris’, well … interesting transport system:

  1. Try to catch the advertised bus from the airport to the Air Show? The information desk said to go to the bus stop at the RER station, which was what I remembered. No show – no bus turned up in 3/4 of an hour, no signs anywhere, no hint of a schedule.
  2. OK, back to Plan A: the train. Should be simple… until you try to buy a ticket:
    • Ticket office? Not for the RER (suburban railway), only machines. Machines that don’t take notes, only coins and cards.
    • The machines are running OS/2 Warp – old – and in French only. (I later found a machine in a remote suburb of Paris that did have an English mode, but putting some of those at an International Airport would make too much sense, of course.)
    • That’s manageable, because I have enough French vocabularly to get by.
    • The thing was: of about eight machines in the station, only two were working. The hedgehogged ones had “fixed by July” signs on them, and the working ones had huge queues behind them.
    • I resigned myself to joining the back of the queue at one machine… the screen of which was stuck with an inscrutable message… then it rebooted. The rest of the queue started swearing, in a multitude of languages, then wandered off to the other queue leaving me in front.
    • Great: after an extended self-test the machine was running again, and I could see how to buy a single to Le Bourget. No notes accepted, no coins in my wallet, so a card it had to be. I tried three different cards, and each was refused; carte non acceptee. This process was interrupted by concerned queries from those behind me: “is it working? taking the card? what card is that?”
    • No luck, I thought, and turned to walk away, but someone stopped me in time: it had worked, it just hadn’t told me clearly.
  3. The train was there, and I made it on board just before it left. At Le Bourget station the shuttle buses were filling up, but I was on one in ten minutes, and at the airfield in ten more. Whew.

a wide shot of a wide bodyI’ll write about the Paris Air Show proper next, but here’s a teaser: the star of the show, the Airbus A380-800 a.k.a. the flying ocean liner.


Written by brian t

June 21, 2005 at 1:35 pm

wraparound

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It’s just after six on Friday evening, and I’ve managed to rearrange my sleep patterns to allow me to bunk down before ten, so I can be up again at four. That’s what I need to do to catch the bus to the airport for my 06:40 flight to Charles De Gaulle, for the Paris Air Show. I don’t know how wise it is to muck around with your sleep patterns, but the process has been interesting, at least.

I started by trying to bring my wake-up time forward gradually, from around 08:00 to 04:00, but it backfired badly last Saturday night when I couldn’t get to sleep until well after midnight. When the alarm went off at 06:00, I woke up, but spent about half an hour stuck in “first gear” before dozing back off till nearly 11:00.

june sunrise 2Then I thought I could use an old method of mine: the Wraparound. You execute a Wraparound by lengthening your daily cycle from 24 to 28 hours, so that you get six nights sleep in seven days. It started off well, when I was able to stay up to 08:00 on Monday morning, ahead of schedule. I even got out to the beach at around 05:00 with the camera, and took some of my best pictures so far. There were few clouds in the sky, just enough to make the sunrise interesting, and plenty of light.

That backfired too: this time I couldn’t sleep long enough to keep the wraparound going steadily: I was up by 12:00, less than five hours sleep, and wilted by 08:00 on Tuesday morning, yet slept till only 14:00 or so. I must need less sleep as I get older, but it doesn’t mean that I stay awake much longer, I suppose. It all worked out for the best, though: I was so tired on Tuesday that I could get to sleep earlier, and by Thursday I was up at 04:00, like I was today and should be tomorrow.

One nice thing I discovered today is that there will be a coach service direct from the CDG terminal I’m arriving at, 2F, to Le Bourget airport a few km down the road, where the show will take place. Good – saves me the hassle of dealing with the RER (suburban rail) line so early in the morning, though the cost is exorbitant – €10 each way. I will need to use the train later to get to my hotel, but I should have plenty of time to figure that out.

The only remaining question is: how am I going to post this? I have no Internet access at home – which explains the gap in entries – and the Dublin Airport free access was absent last time I was there. I hear the Press tent at the air show will have WiFi, and I’d like to see them keep the microwaves in the tent, eh?

Written by brian t

June 17, 2005 at 6:10 pm

homophonia

My Japanese classes are getting serious: the more I learn about the language, the more of an effort I need to make to keep track of all the language’s homophones – words, or part thereof, that sound the same. Kanji are the core of meaning here, where written Japanese should be unambiguous, yet there are also multiple meanings for some of those, too.

A simple example: Japan.

ほん
日本

It’s read as nihon, and its Kanji mean “sun” and “origin” – hence the description “the land of the rising sun”. However, a spoken nihon has a second meaning: two books or long things!

にほん
二本

The first Kanji means “two”, but the second one is the same as that for “origin” – it’s a character with multiple discrete meanings. I’ll try to keep track of it mentally by remembering that a book is the “origin” of knowledge, and that books are long things.

A native speaker might not be tripped up by such a situation, since having a better grasp of the complete language means he or she has less difficulty putting the conversation in a wider context – you wouldn’t buy Japan, or go home to a pair of books, not unless you were seriously otaku. (otaku is derived from one way of describing one’s home, and came to mean someone who stayed at home a lot, reading magazines or playing on computers. Its meaning later expanded to mean geeks in general, even those who got out of the house to arcades or other geeky activities.)

Written by brian t

June 14, 2005 at 1:08 pm

Posted in japan, language

i know the feeling

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No, really, I do. I’m referring to Wil Wheaton’s latest update to his weblog: being hit with a case of “yuppie flu” (infectious mononucleosis, a.k.a. “mono”) has made him question the things he’s been doing for himself and others. I can pinpoint three separate times in my life when I’ve been forced to make changes and shrug off the demands placed on me, by myself as well as others.

1991: In the last stages of my electronics apprenticeship at Highveld Steel in South Africa, I had been placed at one of their satellite factories, where I made a good impression and struck up good working relationships with the people there. The culmination of this effort came when I finished my apprenticeship in 1989, and was immediately (and controversially) appointed to a higher post than was normal, with more money, authority, status… envy… and responsibility.

Fast-forward through almost two years of long hours and late-night callouts in dirty conditions, to the point where I was genuinely worried about the long term effects on my health. I eventually resigned and returned to the UK, to London. My hard-earned savings went almost nowhere, and I was on “the dole” within three months. It took all three of those months before the last metallic dust worked its way out of the skin on my hands. I needed the break, though.

1996: I eventually found work, first a fixed-term contract administrative position at the Victoria & Albert Museum, then a full-time job in a major publishing company. I’ve talked about this time before, when I discovered that I had some writing talent; it wasn’t in the job description, but I was soon writing comparative reviews of PCs and accessories, to general approval.

As I’ve noted before: when you become good at something, your reward is to do it again and again. Not a problem if the Quality is there, but this situation became a serious problem of, well, Quantity. After a few episodes of high-pressure writing – such as a magazine’s editor standing behind my chair while I wrote an article conclusion, so he could send it straight to the presses – it all came to a head.

I worked a 36-hour day on a review of tape drives, was forced to perform extra tests to satisfy a clueless editor, and couldn’t get up the next morning. Literally. I knew I was “knackered”, set three different alarms, and slept through all three. Just a week earlier I had gently tipped over in a restaurant, during lunch, and bashed my head on the next table, so this was the last straw. When I got to work at lunchtime, and was called on the carpet for my trouble, I gave my 28 days notice.

1998: Something makes me a finicky employee, all-too-aware that it’s never a charity: the employer needs me as much as I need them. After a suitable rest, I went back to contract work, which started with a bang, or was it a crunch? A 5-day contract was going well, but on the last day I severely sprained my ankle while running to catch the Tube to work. I just kept on going, and finished the job I was contracted for, but by mid-afternoon I was in trouble. They gave me a lift to the station, and I barely made it home OK, took off my shoe, upon which the ankle ballooned up horribly and I was largely immobile for almost a week.

The next contract was with a major financial services company in England, wrangling PCs. This contract didn’t end too well, after they offered me a permanent position… and I turned it down. I remember saying something like “I have no trust you will fix the problems in this department, I don’t want to be part of it”. An arrogant thing to say, even though I still think I was right. The boss later refused to give me a reference – which was better than a bad one, I suppose.

After that, another financial services company, another contract, this time a more satisfying and interesting position. The problem was the commute: two hours each way, on a North London bus to The Tube, then to a train taking me deep into Surrey. After nine months of this, they offered to extend my contract, at which time I fell seriously ill with some virus I had picked up. It developed into pleurisy. I wasn’t flat on my back for a week – no, that was too painful, it took a particular arrangement of pillows before I could breath comfortably. I almost passed out on the way to the pharmacy for painkillers.

After that, the commuting had to stop, and a mere extension to this contract wasn’t going to persuade me to relocate. When the contract expired, I was unemployed again, and started looking for a permanent position. Eventually – nearly a year later – I had one, and I’m still here nearly six years later.

Never mind that the company, or my part of it, has practically disintegrated under my Aeron chair – that’s a story for another year, when I no longer work here. With that, and my five home relocations in as many years, you might say that things have not stood still for long enough for me to get sick of them.

Gee, thanks, Wil! This is what happens when one of your posts strike a raw nerve: a mess of text falls from my fingers onto the keyboard with an almighty splotch. Now, where’s that spell-checker..?

Written by brian t

June 8, 2005 at 7:12 pm

Posted in philosophy, work

fahn fahn fahn

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Blimey: I have two days left to wind things up with my everyday casework before I head off for a fortnight’s holiday. This is an exhausting process of weeding through the open cases I have and negotiating a closure with the customer (via the call centre folks who sent them my way), or negotiating with one of my colleagues to handle the matter in my absence.

To make matters more bizarre: I’m being asked to fly to Ratingen in Germany (near Düsseldorf) to deliver training for a few days, less than four weeks from now, just a week after I get back. The week in between will be spent preparing for that trip, mostly, so the result will be a month away from my normal work. Suits me just fine. I’ve been covering for other travellers for the last few months, and need a break from the daily grind.

Friday night will mean a visit to the pub for yet another leaving bash, the second of many to come. A good thing someone was handing out free samples of an anti-hangover product on the way to work earlier this week, Seems a little strange to be taking calcium carbonate and activated charcoal, and it doesn’t claim to absorb alcohol, but other unfriendly chemicals. I’ll give it a go – don’t want to start my holiday with a sore head.

Written by brian t

June 8, 2005 at 6:26 pm

Posted in travel, work