Unconscious probability manipulation

English: London Midland Desiro EMU 350125 call...

English: London Midland Desiro EMU 350125 calls at Watford Junction with a service to London Euston. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who has received any kind of instruction in writing will tell you that the most heinous crime you can commit is to open your piece with something as clichéd as “It was a dark and stormy night“.

So I won’t.

But it was.

I was on the way home from work. One day a week, I trek down to our London office. Partly because some of my team work there, but also because it’s good to catch up with the other people who work there. The office in which I’m based is solely a development shop. The London office houses sales, marketing, HR among other things. It’s a trek because it involves planes, trains and automobiles.

A slight exaggeration – it doesn’t involve planes, but it does involve a walk, a taxi, a train, a walk, a tube and a final walk. It’s exhausting, and it adds roughly half a day to my normal work regime.

I was on the tube home. I normally get off close to the London terminus where I can catch a train to my home town. It occurred to me that the final destination of this tube was half way home and I wondered whether going all the way might be an option for when the trains home are stuffed. Every once in a while, signals fail, drivers strike or someone chooses the day I go into London to end it all by inconveniently jumping in front of a train.

The notion was fresh in my mind even as I alighted the train. At street level, the aforementioned dark and stormy night rendered everything wet. Me, my clothes, the pavement, everything. I hurried towards the terminus to catch my train. As I approached the station, I noticed the newly painted thick white lines in a perimeter around the station. Painted in the centre of each line was a no smoking sign. A notion crossed my mind that with all the rain, they might be slippery.

In the split second that the thought crossed my mind, I felt my feet slip out from under me. I saw the sky and the tall buildings around me spin as I went through a dramatic unintended backflip. Through some miracle, I landed unharmed. My pirouette through the sky softened through the willing compliance of my thick coat and my backpack. Several people rushed to my aid, proving the milk of human kindness has not yet gone off.

I’m not a superstitious man, but I thought about the trains being stuffed and verily, they were so. I thought that the new white lines, slick with rain, might be slippery and verily I was upon my posterior. I’m getting paranoid. I think I may have unconscious probability manipulation.


Being left in the dark

Swiss A330-200 HB-IQH in Geneva International ...

Swiss A330-200 HB-IQH in Geneva International Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No-one likes being left in the dark, particularly when they’re travelling. I’ve been there and it was no fun. I was due to fly out of Geneva airport on the 9:15 Swiss Air flight to London Heathrow. When I arrived at the airport, the information board had an entry against my flight saying “More information 9PM”. Plainly, my flight was delayed, because at 9PM, I would have expected to be on the aircraft rather than waiting for information. There was a large booth in Geneva airport proudly displaying a sign saying “Information”, so I thought I would ask about my flight. The polite lady behind the desk could not give me any information, but she gave me a drinks voucher and said that an announcement would be made at 9PM.

At the designated hour, an announcement duly came telling us that the aeroplane that we were going to fly with had developed a fuel leak. Another aircraft was flying in to take us to London Heathrow and our new flight time was 11:05PM. At almost exactly the same time, every bar, restaurant, café, shop, kiosk in Geneva airport closed for the night, their work seemingly done. I sat down and started reading my book. There is a certain irony in reading “Around the World in 80 days” whilst stuck in Geneva airport.

Our flight was called and we boarded. The Captain came over the tannoy and assured us that all was well and we were just waiting for the last of our paperwork and we would be on our way. Time ticked by and more time ticked by. I was in danger of finishing my book. The Captain came back on to the tannoy and told us that there was a problem with the door and an engineer was on the way. Alas, the engineer tried, and failed to fix the broken door. The captain addressed us again, only this time he had come out of the cabin to do so in person – never a good sign.


Geneva (Photo credit: Alan M Hughes)

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a very strange announcement to make, and a very strange request. The strange announcement is that there is still a problem with this aircraft door and it must be considered out of service. We have consulted the legal articles and we are still allowed to fly, but with a reduced number of passengers. Therefore, could I have 47 volunteers to disembark the aircraft and spend the night in Geneva so that the remaining 90 people can fly to London Heathrow this evening.”

The effect of this announcement was a stunned silence while the message sank in, and then a crowd of people surged up to the front all with questions for the captain.

Would we get a hotel room? Would we get a flight tomorrow? Would we get any compensation? How long did we have to get 47 people off the aircraft? All fairly obvious questions that could have easily been anticipated and answered up front, had anyone thought about it. The chaos continued with some people getting off, some people standing up to stretch their legs, some standing up to complain, some standing up to move their hand luggage to somewhere more convenient. The stewardesses were in among the throng trying to count and recount the passengers to see whether enough have disembarked. Meanwhile you could hear people in the hold crashing around trying to find bags that had to be unloaded.

Eventually, the Captain came back on to say that the airport was shutting and our flight was now cancelled. Amidst a lot of moaning and groaning, everyone got their bags and filed off the plane.

There was no-one to direct us or tell us where to go, so where do you go? There was a big queue of people at the gate where we boarded, so I headed for there, assuming that was where I needed to go. It became clear after a while that the big queue of people was queuing up to be told that we were in the wrong place and we should go to the information desk in the main terminal. They had a tannoy at the gate, why didn’t someone at the gate have the presence of mind to use it and tell everyone at once where to go?

When we got to the information desk, it was another queue. When you got to the front of this queue, you were given a voucher for a hotel room. Everyone had the same questions; How do I get to the hotel? How do I get back again, Which flight will I get in the morning? Is there any food anywhere? Everyone queued up to ask these questions. Why didn’t someone have the gumption to announce to the crowd what was going to happen? The queue would have been more orderly, would have moved quicker and everyone would have got to bed a little earlier.

The thread that runs through this story is a lack of information. If you look at what people do when they need information but are not getting it – they panic, they get upset, confused, rumours start. In the absence of anything concrete, rumours get believed and twisted and built upon. Kill off the panic and rumourmongering. Tell people what they need to know.

Where’s the technology I want at CES?

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Veg...

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas Nevada in January 2010 (cc) David Berkowitz http://www.marketersstudio.com (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My technology needs are simple. I want my phone to check the weather half an hour before I get up. If there’s likely to be frost, it will communicate with a gizmo in my car that will not only defrost the windows, but it will warm up the seats and the steering wheel for me. My heating should also be given a little boost so that downstairs is nice and toasty. Five minutes before I get up, I want it to switch the kettle on downstairs. I want it to gradually bring the lights up in the room so that I wake up gently.

My tablet should automatically download today’s copy of the Times rather than dumbly waiting for me to fire it up and press the button. My phone should check my diary to see whether I have any appointments in London. If so, it should check that the trains and tubes are running OK. If for any reason I need to deviate from my normal route it should be ready for me by the time I look at my phone. I want my phone to check the balance on my Oyster card, If it’s running low, it should automatically top it up. The TV should switch on and automatically turn to my favourite news channel.

If it’s dark and I walk into a room, the lights should automatically come on. If a room is empty for any length of time, the lights should switch off. If any bulbs are blown, and we are running low on replacements, something will magically buy some best value ones from eBay. I should be able to watch or read any media on any visual device in the house. My wife and I should be able to start watching something on the TV and half way through independently watch the remainder on our mobile phones.

The fridge should have a touchscreen that shows the contents in order of sell by dates together with suggestions for recipes. There will be buttons next door to everything so that we can add them to the next order from the supermarket. The cooker will be told what temperature to warm the oven up to and how long the dish needs. The microwave should be clever enough to work out what’s inside it and set the timer accordingly.

The car should go and fill itself up with fuel. As it sits there most of the time not doing anything, it should also automatically check all those annoying comparison sites and renew my insurance and my tax disc. The car should also book itself in for a service, preferably on a day I’m taking the train into London.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Everything connected up intelligently. The frustrating thing is that much of this technology is here today. The reason I can’t do all these things is because consumer technology is so disjointed. You might be able to get some of these things individually, but making then all work together is either ridiculously expensive, difficult or both.

So what do I think we’ll see at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas? Higher resolution TVs, flexible phones and a sea of tablets.

How does London work?

London, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden

London, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of us who travel around London, it’s easy to take the transport system for granted. Although the city above is a labyrinth of winding streets that seems to make no sense whatsoever, the London Underground is an easy to understand schematic which gets you to exactly where you want to go without fuss.

We managed to get down to London for the day during the Christmas holidays. Carefully avoiding the shopping areas which were jam-packed with consumer induced zombieism, we made our way to Covent Garden for a drink. We needed something to do next and the London Transport Museum had the virtue of sharing the same location, so in we went.

Unlike the cities of the United States, London wasn’t laid out in a nice grid network and unlike cities like Paris, there was no grand plan for London. There was no central body in charge of planning for much of the development of the capital. The City grew like a living creature to accommodate the needs of the rapidly growing population. Predictably, this led to absolute traffic chaos.

There were many suggestions for solving the traffic problems including double-decked streets and charging people for using the streets. These ideas were dismissed as preposterous at the time and yet we have flyovers and congestion charging today. Eventually, the city looked underground for the solution and the tube network was born.

Initially, tunnels were constructed using the “cut and cover” method. Basically, digging a massive trench and then plastering over it to make good. If this sounds disruptive, it was absolutely devastating in the reality of densely packed London. There is a very good model in the museum to give you an idea of exactly how much devastation was involved. Because of the way that London had evolved, there were no plans of what lay below and accidents were common.

Diagram of Brunel's tunnelling shield and Tham...

Diagram of Brunel’s tunnelling shield and Thames Tunnel construction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There simply had to be a better way, and there was, thanks to a British invention, the tunnelling shield. Effectively a giant cookie cutter that gets pushed forward on rams as the men inside dig out the clay. It doesn’t sound that clever today, but this was in the days of Queen Victoria and it had never been done before. Pretty much every tunnel since has been dug in exactly the same way.

The real genius in London’s transit network came not from their construction, groundbreaking (sorry) though it was, but from a map. Traditional cartographer’s struggled to capture the simplicity of the network, wedded as they were to geographical accuracy.

A man by the name of MacDonald Gill came up with the idea of spacing all the stations out evenly and using straight lines to link stations. Unshackled from the bounds of geography, the new map could show the entire network in a simple and easy to understand form. Another invention that was so successful, every transit map produced since owes something to the original simple design.

Conference season

Beck at Yahoo! Hack Day

Beck at Yahoo! Hack Day (Photo credit: Scott Beale)

Sometimes, it feels like I spend my life at conferences, either as an attendee, a speaker or maybe even just for some meetings with people who happen to be there. By and large, they are very well organised and it’s rare that I feel that the time I spend there has been wasted.

A few weeks ago, I had a free pass to a two-day conference down in London. The venue was local, the subject matter should have been of interest; cloud, SOA, mobile and REST and the price was certainly agreeable, so why did I only attend day 1?

Firstly, the venue itself didn’t endear itself to me. Although South Kensington is technically in London, it is hardly well-connected. Secondly, the conference took place in Imperial College London which is a sprawling university campus. Not only that, but the signage telling you where you needed to go was pretty poor. Even then, assuming you actually found the right room, there was a really good chance that the agenda had been changed without notice and you were in the wrong place.

Even if you found the right room, the breakout sessions were only about 45 minutes, so the speaker had just enough time to introduce himself and the subject before wrapping up. The sessions were either too superficial for the familiar or over the head of the novice.

All was not lost though. Over lunch, myself and a colleague bumped into Richard Johnson, the American founder of hotjobs.com, in a local pub. His presence was completely coincidental and had nothing to do with the conference. He told us the story of how he remortgaged his house, his business, his dog and his wife to come up with the princely sum of $4m which he blew on a 30 second advert during the Super Bowl.

His was the first dot-com to do so and Yahoo! acquired the company shortly afterwards. Eventually, Yahoo disposed of the operation and it formed the foundation for monster.com which is one of the biggest internet recruitment companies around.

So although the conference itself had lost its sheen, the trip was not totally wasted. I probably learned more during the half hour chat with Richard (who was a total gent) than I was ever going to learn in the odd 45 minute breakout session.

So in a roundabout way – that conference was worthwhile (even though it wasn’t).

The greatest show on Earth


2012 Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the winning city for the 2012 Olympics bid was announced in Singapore, Britain rejoiced for 24 hours. The following day, the 7/7 atrocity took place in the capital and the mood of the country flipped to sadness and anger. For a number of reasons, this Olympics will be etched into the memories of the host nation more than any other.

This is the 30th Olympiad and the 3rd occasion with London as the host nation. 4 years ago, it was Beijing and by any standards, the spectacular show the Chinese put on is crushingly difficult to follow. As always in the build up to such events, there have been wobbles along the way.

When Boris and Beckham in a bus rolled into the 2008 closing ceremony for the handover, I cringed. All Beckham had to do was kick a ball into a massive goal mouth and when he missed – I cringed again. It all looked so amateur in contrast to the drilled professionalism that surrounded them.

June 2011 - Aerial photo of the Olympic Park m...

June 2011 – Aerial photo of the Olympic Park main stadium and Orbit tower under construction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Opening Ceremony for 2012 was a closely guarded secret. Indeed, when we took a helicopter over the Olympic park a few weeks before the ceremony, the flight restrictions were legion, apparently in place to stop photography of the rehearsals of the opening ceremony. Inside the stadium, there wasn’t much to be seen when we made our all too brief fly past. The base of the arena looked like the rolling fields of the British countryside.

We watched the opening ceremony nervously, hoping against hope that we didn’t embarrass ourselves on the world stage. we needn’t have worried – it was so good, we watched in again last night on BBC iPlayer. The opening was a bit shaky, with frolicking and wobbly Maypoles, but the choirs singing Jerusalem and Flower of Scotland raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

The Industrial Revolution kicked in and top hatted gentlemen in their hundreds made their way in. Uprooting trees and rolling back grass to make way for the vast belching chimneys. Pools of red-hot steel were poured into gullies to form large rings, Olympic rings. Once made whole, they were lifted skyward, triumphantly forming one of the most famous logos in the world.

A helicopter picked up James Bond and Her Majesty the Queen from Buckingham Palace and whisked them over the impressive London skyline and they parachuted into the stadium wearing Union Jack parachutes. The London Symphony Orchestra played Chariots of Fire with the help of Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean in one of the funniest sequences of the show. A tribute was paid to the digital age with Sir Tim Berners-Lee  tweeting live from stage.


OPENING CEREMONY (Photo credit: itupictures)

With our heritage of creative industry, music was always going to feature heavily in the opening ceremony. There were some strange choices I thought. Mike Oldfield and the Arctic Monkeys rather than the Rolling Stones. No Elton John or Cliff Richard for example. No Take That or the Spice Girls.

The athletes parade was enjoyable, but interminably long. It seemed to take an hour just to get through countries beginning with the letter ‘A’. There were many countries that I had never heard of and as the host nation, we had to wait until last. In we came along to David Bowie’s “We could be Heroes”.

One of the most poignant things I have seen for some time was the tribute to those who lost their lives in the 7/7 bombings. A haunting rendition of “Abide with me” as the photographs of the 56 victims flashed past in a montage on-screen. May they be remembered and let’s hope that nothing like it ever happens again.

Good luck to all our athletes. Proud to be British.