Well, that was unexpected

Unexpected aspects of 2009:

  • I didn’t expect that I would leave Amazon, nor that I would join Huawei.
  • I didn’t expect that I would move from Seattle to Palo Alto. (In fact I never expected to live in California.)
  • I didn’t expect that I would spend seven weeks of the year in China (as well as two weeks in England). And there’s going to be a lot more travel to come in 2010.
  • I didn’t expect that I would become a car-owner again.

Overall, unexpected is good… it keeps you on your toes.It can be tiring, of course: it’s hard to relax into a routine. It’s been a year of learning, in all sorts of ways. I wonder what the corresponding list for 2010 will look like.


More details about TSA security theatre

Gizmodo has the text of the new TSA regulations. Note that the order expires on December 30, which suggests that this was simply rushed out to persuade people that Someone Is Doing Something About It, and that we can expect revised (and hopefully more sensible) regulations to follow. Don’t hold your breath, though.


Catching up…

What with travel to China, and travel to the UK, and work, and holidays, it’s been a little hectic. So let me sip on this excellent Old Pulteney single malt from Wick, and catch up on a few items.

  • A month ago I blogged about the new HP laptop that I’d got for doing software development. I took it with me to the UK, since I knew I would need to be doing photo and video work which aren’t feasible on my work laptop. Unfortunately it started acting up while I was there, failing to come out of sleep or hibernate. When this happened, the disk and motherboard were powered up, but the screen was blank. Occasionally I’d see the CapsLock and NumLock lights blinking in a code that meant “CPU failure”. I nursed it through the trip, and checked in with HP when I got back. Yesterday I shipped it back for “repair”, which probably means simply replacing it. Fortunately I still have my Macs.
  • We went to see “Up In The Air” today. Brilliant. Great writing, excellent acting. The interplay between George Clooney and Vera Farmiga was simply delightful. Highly recommended.
  • That trip to England was hectic and unsettling in many ways. Lots of last-minute changes of plans, both family (my mother’s degree) and business. Yes, it was great to get together with family and friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years. (Sorry I missed you, Jenny!) But there were two quiet moments that stand out. The first was visiting Ely Cathedral, just before sunset, with the choir practicing for a concert. And then on our way up to visit my mother for the last time before we left, we drove through Windsor Great Park, and pulled over for a moment to enjoy the wintry landscape, with Windsor Castle just beyond the trees.
  • When I got my iPhone 3G, I decided that the white model looked nicer than the black. That may have been a mistake. I’ve noticed a number of hairline cracks, at the corners of the connector cut-out, next to the mute switch, and along the sides. Apparently this is a known problem. It’s not clear whether all of the iPhones crack, or if it’s just that the cracks are only visible with the white plastic. I wonder if Apple will replace it.
  • During the short break between returning from China and departing to the UK, I managed to finish ripping all of my CDs into iTunes on my Mac Mini. (Many of them had been in storage, and I’d only just retrieved them.) The grand total: 14,522 items from 1,228 albums, performed by 2,082 artists. They occupy 78.46GB of a little WD USB hard disk (and yes, I back it up!) and to play every track would take 52 days. I know it’s not an extraordinarily large collection, but ’tis all mine. And I must confess that I find the idea of 52 days of music just a little bit disconcerting.

Email the White House about the latest ridiculous "security theater"

I just sent the following email to the White House via their contact page.

Last year I flew nearly 100,000 miles on business: business that generated much needed US economic activity. And I flew almost all of those miles on US airlines, which desperately need the business. Travel is stressful enough these days, without the US government indulging in “security theater” to mollify people who bleat that Something Must Be Done.
The latest TSA regulations will do nothing to make us more secure, but will be extremely burdensome to many passengers and airline staff. They will drive away passengers, especially the elderly and parents with children, at a time when airlines are struggling to avoid layoffs and bankruptcy.
The last Republican administration used fear as a way of manipulating public opinion and pandering to the neo-cons. I had thought that the Obama administration was above such cynical tricks.
Get rid of these stupid knee-jerk regulations, please. Instead of increasing security, they simply punish law-abinding travelers.

I have no idea if this will do any good, but maybe if enough people make their voices heard…..


Misfortune for some, great for us

Due to (I think) equipment failure Because of snow in Washington DC, last night’s IAD-LHR flight was cancelled, which meant that United was forced to cancel an LHR-LAX flight. They tried to accomodate as many of the LAX passengers as possible on the LHR-SFO flight, which meant that when Kate and I went to board our flight home, we were upgraded to Business class. This made the nearly-11-hour trip much more enjoyable….


A strange (but productive) day trip to Munich

As part of the “work” portion of this “family+work” trip to the UK, I was scheduled to do a business trip to Munich on Thursday. We’ve been staying at the Jury’s Inn close to the end of runway 27L at Heathrow, so getting in to the airport for my 6:05am flight was simple: walk across to Hatton Cross station and take the free all-night bus. Check-in was fine, ditto boarding, but then we sat at the gate for 20 minutes before we pushed back. En route to Munich, the pilot advised us that snow in the Munich area might delay things, and our approach pattern seemed to take us all over Bavaria. We parked at a remote stand, and were bussed in to the terminal, so by the time I emerged from the terminal at 9:30am I was half an hour late. Good start.
The meeting had been scheduled for 10-12. based on Google Maps estimate of a 45 minute taxi ride, plus 15 minutes for contingencies, so I jumped into the first taxi, gave the driver the address, and settled down to SMS my colleague and host that I would be late. It was snowing, but we swung onto the autobahn and were soon zipping along at typical German speeds. And then we hit a wall of red brake lights. From the chatter on the car radio, it was clear that there were numerous snow-related accidents and traffic jams around the city. My driver muttered, and then snarled, and then cut across three lanes of traffic to take an exit onto a minor road. I got used to the muttering, but the snarling became worse as we went on. It wasn’t snowing hard, but there was considerable slush even on main roads, and progress was slow. In fact it took 75 minutes to reach the destination: it was now 10:45.
I handed the driver a credit card for the 70 Euro fare. More snarling, and rummaging, and an old paper swipe machine was produced. He positioned my card, inserted the slip, swiped the slider, and ripped the slip. More snarling. Repeat. Same result. Repeat. Intense snarling.
I didn’t have 70 Euros. In fact I hadn’t bothered to get any Euros – taxis all take credit cards, right? So using the currency converter app on my iPhone, I calculated an equivalent amount in GBP and USD, demonstrated this to the driver, gave him the money, snatched a receipt, and exited as quickly as I could.
It was now 10:50am, but the others had waited patiently. Juice and coffee was distributed, and we started the meeting. It was very productive, and although a couple of people had to leave early we kept talking until around 3:00. They called me a cab (with “takes credit cards” clearly specified), and I headed back to Munich airport.
At this point I realized that I was ravenously hungry. I’d had some breakfast at 4:30am (5:30 CET), but nothing since. So when we reached the airport, I quickly verified that I couldn’t switch to an earlier flight (no way – the change fee would have been almost the same as the full fare!), and then found a restaurant and had a good early supper. At 6:30pm I headed over to the gate, to find that boarding was delayed “due to late arrival blah blah blah”. Yeah, whatever. Eventually we were bussed out to the stand, and boarded the A320. LH had screwed up, and allocated two passengers to 14F, but the flight wasn’t very full, so neither of us minded. And then we were told that there was a minor fault with a communications system, and the mechanics were working on it… But eventually we were airborne.
When I had left Heathrow, the weather had been cold (29F) and clear, and I didn’t expect anything different. Was I in for a shock! During the day a windy snowstorm had moved in, and as we descended towards LHR the ride became very bumpy. We were landing on 09L, and coming over Windsor the Airbus was bouncing around like a bronco. It was the kind of approach where passengers glance at each other, quizzically: “Is this going to turn OK? Should I be worried?” My guess is that we had crosswinds of around 15 gusting 30 out of the north, and the landing was hard and off-balance. But we got in OK.
I got the bus back to Hatton Cross and walked the five minutes to the hotel. By the time I got there, the front of my jacket was encrusted with an inch of wet snow. Snow in the morning, snow in the evening. What a day.


Why fly United?

The other day, a friend was asking about our upcoming trip to the UK. She had flown BOS-LHR and SFO-BOS, and was puzzled why the flight time for SFO-LHR was so much less than the sum of those two flights. She was introduced to the concept of “great circle” routes, and the fact that the the great circle from SFO is 5,367 miles, and takes you up over northern Canada, while SFO-BOS-LHR is more than 600 miles longer, at 5,969 miles.
Imagine our chagrin last Monday, when UA 930 from SFO to LHR flew almost straight to BOS, and then took a southerly track to LHR, making landfall at the SW tip of Ireland. Total distance flown was 6,050 miles, and we were still 20 minutes early. (And would have been even earlier except for the now-routine hold at Ockham before descending to LHR.) The reason: tail winds of up to 170 MPH, giving us some of the highest ground speeds I’ve ever experienced.
But enough of the good stuff. I want to consider United. Specifically, why the hell would anyone want to fly United?
First, the good points.

  • Economy Plus. Legroom is (almost) everything.
  • Star Alliance is still the best of the alliances to accumulate frequent flier miles.
  • Channel 9. Crack cocaine for the ATC junky.

But do these plusses really make up for all of the minuses?

  • Price. Internationally, UA is rarely the cheapest option. On SFO-HKG, everyone undercuts them.
  • IFE. The 777 we flew on had tiny seat-back screens that were invisible when the seat in front was reclined, but since there were only a handle of uninteresting video channels this was no great loss. Video on demand? Hah! And some of the long-haul fleet still have 80s-vintage overhead TV monitors.
  • Food service. On our flight they advertised dinner and breakfast. With a 7pm departure, we figured (correctly) that the meal service wouldn’t begin before 8:15, so we ate before boarding and skipped dinner. “Breakfast” was a small, dried-up ham-and-cheese roll wrapped in aluminium foil and a sickly-sweet yoghurt. No tray. Juice and coffee, but no time for refills.
  • Beverages? If you want alcohol, that will be $6. Only in America…
  • Seats? Well, United hasn’t adopted the “shell seating” torture device that CX is now using, but in other respects the seats are pretty bad. They feel, well, worn out.
  • Attentive flight attendants? Not on this flight. Unprofessional, sloppy, clumsy, inattentive… and hardly any offers of drinking water, even though the humidity was set really low.
  • The Red Carpet Club? OK, the SFO International RCC isn’t bad, as RCCs go, but it still doesn’t measure up to the HKG RCC or any of Air Canada’s Maple Leaf lounges.

It’s interesting to note that on the Transpacific routes the United service is quite a bit better. They now have hot breakfast, free booze, decent lounges, and cabin crew who actually pay attention. IFE? Well, that requires investment. But why does the Transatlantic customer get shafted? Complaints (or lack thereof) from code-share partners, perhaps? Who knows….
So why do I continue to abuse myself? Is it really all about Channel 9?


What a week!

It’s been quite a week. Last Monday we flew to the UK, intending to visit my mother, Lorna Arnold, in Oxford and attend the ceremony at which she was to receive an honorary doctorate. It soon became apparent that she wasn’t going to be well enough to leave hospital for the occasion, so on Saturday I attended the ceremony on her behalf and accepted her D.Litt. scroll from the Vice Chancellor of Reading University.
After the event, there was a lunch with a couple of dozen distinguished guests – academics, scientists, MoD, and writers. Obviously they had expected to hear a speech from my mother, so on Thursday I had taken my camcorder to the hospital and recorded a short message from my mother to her friends. At the lunch, I simply held up my laptop and played back the video clip. Then I made a few remarks of my own. I hadn’t prepared anything, and I can’t really remember what I said, but it seemed to be well received. After lunch, we headed back to the hospital in Abingdon to give the scroll (and photos and DVD of the event) to my mother.
Yesterday we left Oxford and headed over to Cambridge. We hadn’t got any firm plans – the previous week had been so ad hoc that planning had been the last thing on our minds. On a whim, we decided to overshoot Cambridge and go on to Ely, where we spent a happy couple of hours exploring the Cathedral. The experience was enhanced by the fact that the choirboys were rehearsing for a concert.
So now we’re in Cambridge, at the Best Western Gonville. It’s a great hotel, unlike any other Best Western I’ve stayed at. Today I have meetings in Cambridge, and then tomorrow we’ll catch up with some family members en route to Ipswich.


One more trip to round out the year

After three visits in a row to China, the final trip this year will be to the UK. We’re heading over next Monday, December 7, for two weeks. We’ll be in Oxford for the first 6 days, visiting my mother and seeing friends. Lorna is being honored by the University of Reading on the 12th, when she will receive an honorary Ph.D. for her contributions to the history of science. I’m really looking forward to this.
The second week is going to be mostly work: meetings with a technology partner in Cambridge, and customer visits in the UK and Germany. We’re still working on the detailed logistics, but we’ll probably stay near Heathrow for a few days so that I can do the German leg as a day trip. After one more weekend in England, we’ll fly back to the US on Monday 21st.
(At some point, I’ll have to add up all of the miles I flew this year. It’s been… busy.)