Jet lag

Jet Lag (album)

Jet Lag (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a long night flight, I don’t know what I want. I’m usually too wired to sleep and too tired to undertake anything but the simplest of tasks. I don’t know whether I feel hungry or thirsty. I just feel a general malaise and a burning desire for it all to go away. Unfortunately, there is no magic cure or none that I’m aware of. Depending on how far your journey took you and whether you went East or West, recovery could take days.

When I arrived home very early on Friday morning from Abu Dhabi, I felt exhausted. Last week was the company’s annual conference and it was a massive success. It was positive in every way, but it made no difference to the jet lag. After the buzz of the conference came the awfully timed flight home and that familiar washed out feeling when we landed.

My strategy for dealing with the jet lag was to stay awake for a few hours, have some lunch followed by a short nap in the afternoon. Hopefully, this would be just enough to bridge the gap until that night when I could crash out and hopefully sleep through until morning.

We decided to surprise our 3-year-old niece, Maisie, by picking her up from school. She had no idea and was expecting her mum to pick her up. When we arrived at the class room, the teacher carefully monitored the people coming into the classroom and released children as appropriate. Before the teacher could release her, Maisie spotted me and cried out “Mart-Mart” before running headlong towards me and jumping into my arms. The teacher smiled and nodded her assent for Maisie to go with us.

She showed me what she made at school that day and insisted on showing me her hook where we found her coat and her bag. She told me about her day and insisted on showing me the way home, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we had already found our way to the school in the first place.

We went out for lunch where we conspiratorially blew out all the candles we could find. Then we wafted as much smoke as we could from the smouldering wicks whilst laughing maniacally the whole time. I taught her to stick her finger in the melted wax to form a crust around her finger which made her laugh even more.

On the way home, I suggested that Maisie go back to her mum. After all, I really needed that nap. She insisted on coming with us to the house. As I lay on the sofa, she insisted on lying with me. After 5 short minutes we were both fast asleep.

If ever you have jet lag, seek out the Maisie in your life. I guarantee it helps.


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.

A hurricane in the North Sea?

Esbjerg PedestrianArea

Esbjerg PedestrianArea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We hadn’t been told where we were going. The best man told us where to turn up and to pack for a few days away. Eventually, our coach, packed with rogues and vagabonds, turned up at a port. The terminal was chaotic. The departure boards told us our destination, Esbjerg. “Where the hell’s Esbjerg” asked Bob the Fish.

Eventually we boarded, an hour late, and made our way to the bar. Although the vessel was a glorified ferry, the operators had cruise ship aspirations and there was a full entertainment programme. The compere was a dead ringer for Dale Winton, just a little more camp. He took a shine to us and kept coming over to our table. Someone suggested he fancied Bob the Fish, although I doubt anyone believed that.

The crossing was rough and our drinks slid around on the ringed table. Although much of it slopped over the sides, we consumed enough to ensure a good night’s sleep in our tiny cabins. When we awoke, the ship  had docked and we made our way into town. We had a look around, but found ourselves inexorably drawn to Esbjerg’s only Irish bar, Hairy Mary’s.

The following morning, there was a compulsory sightseeing trip whilst they cleaned the ship. Our party split into those who were hung over enough to insist on staying on board  (including the groom to be) and those who went sightseeing (including myself and the best man). The tour guide introduced himself and the itinerary. It didn’t sound exciting.

“What do you think of my English?” he asked. The coach replied with a chorus of “very good” and “yes”. He explained that Danish children study English from the age of 5, but don’t start learning German until they reach 11. “You might think this is strange, as the only country we border is Germany. This is because we hate the Germans!”

He pointed out Esbjerg’s tallest building (which had burned down) and 3 enormous statues. He asked us if we liked them. Again, a chorus of “very nice” and “yes” from the coach. “We hate them” he said. “They were a gift from the German government.” He took us to a fish museum (which was more interesting than it sounds). Bob the Fish was in his element.

We eventually found ourselves in a quaint Danish village, when I received a phone call. It was the groom-to-be. He told me that the ship would not sail in the morning as planned so they were going to jump on a train over to Copenhagen and fly home. I passed him over to the best man and they had a blazing row.

When returned to Esbjerg, a storm had really taken hold. It was difficult to stand. It was even more difficult after a night in Hairy Mary’s. Making our way back to the ship involved leaning into the wind at a 45 degree angle. At one point, I turned my back to the wind and was astonished to see the road we’d just traversed submerged in water. The cars from the adjacent car park floated into the sea.

Panic reigned inside the terminal building. An angry mob had assembled at the enquiries desk. A German man at the front screamed at the lady behind the counter “You told me my car would be safe!”, every syllable punctuated by his fist slamming on the desk. Somehow, we managed to blag a flight home in the morning  for which we swore not to tell a soul and made our way onto the ship.

We told Dale Winton our story. He told the ship. A TV crew came on board to film the passengers. They interviewed us and Bob the Fish announced our free flights home on Danish TV. As we left to catch our flight, Dale Winton handed the best man a tape. He’d recorded our interview for us. He joked that recorded over his favourite porno. The best man looked very nervous heading through customs.

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 (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.

A snarling trail of traffic that stops every now and then for a spot of tetris

Air pollution is high in Indian cities.

Air pollution is high in Indian cities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Out in Chennai this week visiting the troops. The thing that always amazes me about this place is the traffic. It is quite unlike anywhere in the Western world. The first time your car pulls out into moving traffic (and seemingly certain death), somehow it all happens without collision.

At some point, the driver will probably perform a U-turn to face the opposite direction. You look on in abject terror at the oncoming traffic first from one direction and then the other, but somehow, it just nonchalantly happens.

At first the cacophony of car horns, some melodious, some are so loud they sound like ships coming out of harbor and some so tinny that they wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a 1976 Ford Anglia. But there seems to be a system, one beep for coming through and two beeps for thanks.

Occasionally, the huge, monstrous trail of traffic comes to an obstruction such as a set of traffic lights at which point they jockey for position like some bizarre life-size game of tetris. Then they come to a complete halt and fall blissfully silent as they wait for the traffic lights to kickstart the mayhem all over again.

Motorcyclists with absolutely no regard for their own personal safety lunge for perilously narrowing gaps between a dirty great lorry and a bus and they swoop through appearing completely unruffled on the other side. Sometimes the motorcycles will have pillion passengers, sometimes one of them will be carrying a baby.

They nominally drive on the left, but it seems to be optional as tuk-tuks, bicycles, pedestrians, buses, cows and lorries sometimes choose to go against the flow and make their merry way against the traffic.

Every fibre of your being tells you that all this shouldn’t work. In the West, we have rules and 99% of people follow them and yet we still have crashes. Somehow, the chaos seems to work and I’ve yet to see a collision. I saw the aftermath of one a few years ago, but considering the sheer amount of vehicles – it’s amazing that there aren’t more.

I don’t think I could ever drive in this environment. Being driven is stressful enough, but I do hold a sneaky admiration for those that do. One day, all these roads will end up as sanitized as those in the Western world and a big part of what makes India different will be lost.

In the navy

Age of Sail

Age of Sail (Photo credit: Mark Faviell Photos)

Have you ever been taken aback? Do you know where the phrase comes from? Has anyone ever told you to get cracking? Have you ever struggled to make head nor tail of something?

English is one of the most pervasively spoken languages in the world. As a dialect developed in an island nation, it’s no great surprise that much of the phraseology comes from a life on the ocean waves. I managed to pick up a lexicon of nautical slang during our recent visit to Portsmouth and I’ve chuckled ever since!

The phrase “taken aback” comes from the age of sail where the wind fills your sails in completely the wrong direction. The phrase “get cracking” refers to the noise made when a sailing ship hoists more sails and the wind fills them making that characteristic “crack”. Naval signallers would typically respond with “can’t make head nor tail of it” when they received a garbled transmission.

The origin of some phrases is fairly obvious when you think about it. If something “takes the wind out of your sails”, you’re not going to make much progress. If you are expecting trouble, it makes sense to “batten down the hatches”. It certainly did if you were on a sailing ship heading into a storm.

Sometimes it takes a while to “get up to speed” on something – again, an expression from the age of sail. Often it takes a while until you “know the ropes”. Once you do, you can “fathom” things out. A fathom is a nautical measure of 6 feet of depth which quite literally referred to the amount a man could grasp.

In nautical terms, everything above decks is commonly referred to as “all above board”. This has come to mean that everything’s open and nothing’s hidden. If it weren’t, you could be forgiven for not “touching it with a bargepole”. But if it had a “clean bill of health”, you would be happy. A bill of health was the report filed by the medical officer on the physical condition of a sailor.

You might think this is a load of “codswallop”. Wallop was a name for beer. In 1875, Hiram Codd came up with a process for bottling carbonated water. Before long, sailors came up for the derogatory term of codswallop as a description of this very poor substitute for the beer they were used to.

I think my favourite nautical term has to be to “get your own back” which refers to the lavatory arrangements on submarines. Essentially, there is a tank into which whatever a sailor produces is deposited. Once the sailor has finished, the contents are flushed out to sea with air pressure.

Unfortunately, there is a top valve on the tank which can, either through incompetence of the sailor or through sabotage, can result in the tank contents coming inboard onto the poor sailor – hence the expression!

The romance of travel

"A fanciful view of future airship trave&...

“A fanciful view of future airship trave” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I watch an old Indiana Jones film where they sneak their way onto an airship, I always feel a pang of jealousy that they are using a mode of transport that I probably never will. Modern aircraft feel so claustrophobic with their closely packed seats and tiny windows. The only way to stretch your legs is by dodging the trolley dollies and the toilet-goers in the extremely narrow aisles.

Airship gondolas are always depicted in films as luxurious, spacious affairs with uniformed attendants serving dinner at large tables. Because the gondola hangs below the airship, the passengers have an unimpeded view through the large picture windows. Progress is sedate and dependent on the wind direction, but I can’t imagine a more pleasant way to travel.

I really wouldn’t mind if it took me days to get somewhere. Fit wireless internet and you could even work up there, although if the films are anything to go by, you might get interrupted by the odd murder or gun-toting Nazis looking to take over the world.

I’m not sure I’d feel quite so nostalgic for travelling by ship. If I was travelling on business, according to company policy I’d be in steerage. According to Wikipedia, steerage means limited toilet use, no privacy and poor food. Sounds a bit like economy class on most airlines. The only trouble is that ships are slow. Living in cramped conditions with poor sanitation and loads of other people for extended periods of time leads to disease.

Steam trains hold a special place in my heart too. If I could get aftershave that was eau de steam train, I would buy bottles of the stuff. I simply can’t imagine a nicer smell. There is nothing like the drama of a big steam train pulling into a train station amid clouds of sweet-smelling steam and then pulling out again to a gradually increasing clamour of puffing.

I remember when trains had compartments and really comfortable seats. You also had a reasonable chance of sitting on them too. Trains seemed to be much less busy back then.

With the exception of personal transportation, like the motor car and motorbike, it seems that although transport has become much more efficient, it has also become much more cramped and uncomfortable. When are we going to see a new transport development that takes us back to travelling comfortably without breaking the bank?

The mobile supercomputer

Automobile crossing rope bridge

Automobile crossing rope bridge (Photo credit: The Field Museum Library)

Maybe it’s my fading memory, but I seem to remember that winters were much colder during my school years. It could be that I spent a lot more time standing around in the snow waiting for buses, but the cold used to seep up through my shoes and into my bones. You didn’t need to look out of the window to see whether it was a cold and frosty morning. The starter motors of the reluctant cars made a characteristic whining noise in a gradually slowing rhythm as the last dying remnants of the battery was eaten away.

In the early 1980s, the ignition systems in cars were mechanical in nature. This meant they had the annoying habit of wearing out at the most inconvenient moments. Not only that, but there wasn’t much adjustment available. It didn’t matter whether it was 30 degrees and sunny or -20 degrees with inches of snow on the ground, the components in the ignition system worked (or rather didn’t) in exactly the same way.

The only tool available to the driver was a little knob called a choke which pulled out of the dashboard and controlled the strength of the fuel mixture. On a cold and frosty morning a richer mixture was required. As the engine heated up, the choke could be pushed gradually back in returning the mixture to normal.

Ford assembly line, 1913.

Ford assembly line, 1913. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Electronics were not the only reason cars were unreliable. The assembly lines on which they were produced had not advanced significantly since Henry Ford came up with the idea. Although many parts were pressed out of steel using a massive die, almost everything was assembled by hand which meant that fit and finish were inconsistent. Some cars were more reliable than others and there was a suspicion that quality of assembly went significantly downhill towards the end of the working week. If you were unlucky enough to have bought an unreliable car, people would refer to it as a “Friday afternoon car”. The metals used in car construction were nowhere near the quality of those used today. In addition, galvanisation had yet to take off and few car manufacturers used sufficient rust protection. Even if your pride and joy was in fine fettle, the dreaded tinworm could have nibbled its way through crucial parts of your car’s anatomy.

Construction techniques have advanced and cars have undoubtedly made massive leaps forward in terms of comfort, reliability, efficiency and safety but the basic form factor has remained the same for about a hundred years. The biggest leap forward has been in terms of the sophistication of the electronic control systems watching over the engine, brakes and suspension. It is not uncommon for a premium car to have 20 – 30 micro controllers and 100 million lines of code buried under the considerable bonnet (or hood if you’re American).

Just to put those numbers in perspective,  according to the Mythical Man Month (required reading for anyone in software) it is estimated that developers on average produce 10 lines of code per working day. I’m assuming that car manufacturers must find more productive programmers otherwise writing the software for a car would take approximately 50,000 man years. Of course not everything is written from scratch and the same code must get reused between different components and different cars. Still, it’s an incredible amount of software and not only that, the quality seems very high which is a comfort when you stamp your feet on the brake pedal in the rain.

I’m just glad I don’t have to listen to that infernal racket on a cold and frosty morning.

Shrinking the world


Long-journey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to think that the world was absolutely enormous. As a child, whenever we went anywhere as a family, it was usually by bus or car. Buses are not the fastest mode of transport on Earth and neither of my parents were speed freaks, so even when travelling by car, every journey took an absolute age. It didn’t help that cars back then were particularly unreliable and that dad used to buy cars from that twilight zone between bangerdom and scrapyard. Inevitably, on any lengthy journey, the chances were that we would break down extending the journey even further.

Like most children, I was given a globe for Christmas one year. As I looked at the tiny pink specks that made up the British Isles, I used to find it incredible that it took us such a long time just to traverse our tiny island. I used to look at other places on the globe and wonder how long it would take to get there.

Easyjet and Ryanair had yet to turn the airline industry upside down, so air travel remained the pursuit of the wealthy or business travellers. Our regular trips to Ireland involved getting to Holyhead, which meant an extremely long train journey or an even longer car journey. Once you got to the ferry terminal, you had another six hour trip across the sea. It didn’t stop there – we had to then get from the port to where we were supposed to be. It felt to me like an epic voyage every time.

Back in those days, if you wanted to get a message to someone, you had two choices – by telephone (a landline naturally) or by post. I was amazed when I visited a friend at Durham University when I saw email for the first time. My friend asked me to hang on for a moment because he was in the middle of a conversation with someone in Japan. Intrigued – I watched him as he typed away on his keyboard and sent a message. Moments later – he got a response – from Japan! I was astonished.

Things have sped up so so much. How far do you think that Amazon would have come if they quoted “please allow 28 days for delivery”. Everything is pretty much instantaneous. With the power of the Internet and Google, the instant after you ask yourself a question – you can find the answer to almost anything. I can’t help thinking that all this near instant gratification comes at a price. We have ever shorter attention spans. Will people actually manage to finish reading books in the future ?

Once upon a time, when you were at a loss for things to do, you would tend to daydream. Nowadays, most people reach for the smartphone and log into Facebook.