I so very much want to have a go on this.
On the way out to the French Alps for a week of skiing, and we had enough air miles to upgrade to business class on the way out, so I’m sat in the lounge enjoying complimentary gin & tonic and croissants. 10 in the morning, and I’m already buzzed: after a long and hectic few months, I’m really glad to be off on holiday!
Aaaand…. right before I left I put in an application for my boss’s job, which she vacated a few months ago. Should hear by the time I get back whether I’m being invited to interview, so that’s exciting too!
Anyway: just wanted to share my excitement with my favourite MegaMasons. If I’m not online much this week, you’ll know why! Have a great week, folks: love you all!
I’ve had a tardy summer for blogging, falling way behind on many of the things I’d planned to write about. Perhaps the problem is that I’m still on Narrowboat Time, the timezone of a strange parallel universe in which everything happens more-slowly, in a gin-soaked, gently-rocking, slowly-crawling haze.
That’s believable, because this summer Ruth, JTA and I – joined for some of the journey by Matt – rented a narrowboat and spent a week drifting unhurriedly down the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal… and then another week making a leisurely cruise back up it again.
We picked up Nerys, out of Cambrian Cruisers, who also gave us an introduction to the operation of the boat (driving it, filling it with water, pumping out sewage, generating electricity for appliances, etc.) and safety instructions (virtually all of the canal is less than four feet deep, so if you fall in, the best thing to do is to simply walk to the shore), and set out towards Brecon. In order to explore the entire canal in the time available, we needed to cover an average of only five miles per day. When you’re going at about two and a half miles per hour and having to stop to operate locks (there are only six locks on the navigable stretch of the canal, but they’re all clustered towards the upper end), though, five miles is plenty.
The upper end of the canal is by far the busiest, with not only narrowboats cruising up and down but a significant number of day boats (mostly on loan from Brecon) and at least one tour boat: a 50-seater that you don’t want to have to wiggle past at sharp corner North of the Bryich Aqueduct. From a navigation perspective, though, it’s also the best-maintained: wide enough that two boats can pass one another without much thought, and deep enough across its entire width that you needn’t be concerned about running aground, it makes for a great starting point for people who want some narrowboating practice before they hit the more challenging bits to the South.
Ruth was excited to find in me a driver who was confident holding the boat steady in a lock. Perhaps an expression of equal parts talent and arrogance, I was more than happy to take over the driving, leaving others to jump out and juggle the lock gates and lift bridges. Owing to Ruth’s delicate condition, we’d forbidden her from operating the entirely-manual locks, but she made sure to get a go at running one of the fancy hydraulic ones.
After each day’s cruising, we’d find a nice place to moor up, open a bottle of wine or mix up some gin-and-tonics, and lounge in the warm, late summer air.
As we wound our way further South, to the “other” end of the waterway, we discovered that the already-narrow canal was ill-dredged, and drifting anywhere close to the sides – especially on corners – was a recipe for running around. Crewmates who weren’t driving would take turns on “pole duty”, being on standby to push us off if we got too close to one or the other bank.
Each night moored up in a separate place gives a deceptive feeling of travel. Deceptive, because I’ve had hiking trips where I’ve traveled further each day than we did on our boat! But the nature of the canal, winding its way from the urban centre of Brecon out through the old mining villages of South Wales.
The canal, already quite narrow and shallow, only became harder to navigate as we got further South. Our weed hatch (that’s the door to the propeller box, that is, not a slang term for the secret compartment where you keep your drugs) saw plenty of use, and we found ourselves disentangling all manner of curious flora in order to keep our engine pushing us forwards (and not catching fire).
Eventually, we had to give up navigating the waterway, tie up, and finish the journey on foot. We could have gotten the boat all the way to the end, but it’d have been a stop-start day of pushing ourselves off the shallow banks and cleaning out the weed hatch. Walking the last few miles – with a stop either way at a wonderful little pub called The Open Hearth – let us get all the way to both ends of the navigable stretch of the canal, with a lot less hassle and grime.
It’s a little sad coming to the end of a waterway, cut short – in this case – by a road. There’s no easy way – short of the removal of an important road, or the challenging and expensive installation of a drop lock, that this waterway will ever be connected at this point again. The surrounding landscape doesn’t even make it look likely that it’ll be connected again by a different route, either: this canal is broken here.
I found myself remarking on quite how well-laid-out the inside of the narrowboat was. Naturally, on a vehicle/home that’s so long and thin, a great number of clever decisions had clearly been made. The main living space could be converted between a living room, dining room, and bedroom by re-arranging planks and poles; the kitchen made use of carefully-engineered cupboards to hold the crockery in place in case of a… bump; and little space-saving features added up all along the boat, such as the central bedroom’s wardrobe door being adaptable to function as a privacy door between the two main bedrooms.
On the way back up the canal, we watched the new boaters setting out in their narrowboats for the first time. We felt like pros, by now, gliding around the corners with ease and passing other vessels with narry a hint of a bump. We were a well-oiled machine, handling every lock with ease. Well: some ease. Unfortunately, we’d managed to lose not one but both of our windlasses on the way down the canal and had to buy a replacement pair on the way back up, which somewhat dented our “what pros we are” feeling.
Coming to the end of our narrowboating journey, we took a quick trip to Fourteen Locks, a beautiful and series of locks with a sophisticated basin network, disconnected from the remains of the South Wales canal network. They’ve got a particular lock (lock 11), there, whose unusual shape hints at a function that’s no-longer understood, which I think it quite fabulously wonderful – that we could as a nation built a machine just 200 years ago, used it for a hundred years, and now have no idea how it worked.
Our next stop was Ikea, where we’d only meant to buy a couple of shelves for our new home, but you know how it is when you go to Ikea.
We wrapped up our holiday with a visit to Sian and Andy (and their little one), and Andy showed off his talent of singing songs that send babies to sleep. I swear, if he makes an album of children’s songs and they’re as effective as he is in person, we’ll buy a copy.
Altogether, a wonderfully laid-back holiday that clearly knocked my sense of urgency so far off that I didn’t blog about it for several months.
Edit, 22 June 2018: after somebody from the Canal & River Trust noticed that my link to their page on the Brynich Aqueduct was broken after they’d rearranged their site, I removed it. They suggested an alternative page, but it didn’t really have the same content (about the aqueduct itself) so I’ve just removed the link. Boo, Canal & River Trust! Cool URIs Don’t Change!
Hot on the heels of our long weekend in Jersey, and right after the live deployment of Three Rings‘ Milestone: Krypton, came another trip away: I’ve spent very little time in Oxford, lately! This time around, though, it was an experimental new activity that we’ve inserted into the Three Rings calendar: Dev Training.
The format wasn’t unfamiliar: something that we’ve done before, to great success, is to take our dedicated volunteer programmers away on a “Code Week”: getting everybody together in one place, on one network, and working 10-14 hour days, hammering out code to help streamline charity rota management. Sort-of like a LAN party, except instead of games, we do work. The principle of Code Week is to turn volunteer developers, for a short and intense burst, in to machines that turn sugar into software. If you get enough talented people around enough computers, with enough snacks, you can make miracles happen.
In recent years, Three Rings has expanded significantly. The test team has exploded; the support team now has to have a rota of their own in order to keep track of who’s working when; and – at long last – the development team was growing, too. New developers, we decided, needed an intensive session of hands-on training before they’d be set loose on real, production code… so we took the principles of Code Week, and turned it into a boot camp for our new volunteers!
Recruiting new developers has always been hard for us, for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that we’ve always exclusively recruited from people who use the system. The thinking is that if you’re already a volunteer at, say, a helpline or a community library or a fireboat-turned-floating-museum or any of the other organisations that use Three Rings, then you already understand why what we do is important and valuable, and why volunteer work is the key to making it all happen. That’s the bit of volunteering that’s hardest to ‘teach’, so the thinking is that by making it a prerequisite, we’re always moving in the right direction – putting volunteering first in our minds. But unfortunately, the pool of people who can program computers to a satisfactory standard is already pretty slim (and the crossover between geeks and volunteers is, perhaps, not so large as you might like)… this makes recruitment for the development team pretty hard.
A second difficulty is that Three Rings is a hard project to get involved with, as a newbie. Changing decisions in development convention, a mess of inter-related (though thankfully not inter-depedent) components, and a sprawling codebase make getting started as a developer more than a little intimidating. Couple that with all of the things our developers need to know and understand before they get started (MVC, RoR, TDD, HTML, CSS, SQL, DiD… and that’s just the acronyms!), and you’ve got a learning curve that’s close to vertical. Our efforts to integrate new developers without a formal training program had met with limited success, because almost nobody already has the exact set of skills we’re looking for: that’s how we knew it was time to make Dev Training Weekend a reality.
We’d recruited three new potential developers: Mike, Rich, and Chris. As fits our pattern, all are current or former volunteers from organisations that use Three Rings. One of them had been part of our hard-working support team for a long time, and the other two were more-new to Three Rings in general. Ruth and I ran a series of workshops covering Ruby, Rails, Test-Driven Development, Security, and so on, alternated between stretches of supervised “hands-on” programming, tackling genuine Three Rings bugs and feature requests. We felt that it was important that the new developers got the experience of making a real difference, right from the second or the third day, they’d all made commits against the trunk (under the careful review of a senior developer, of course).
We were quite pleased to discover that all three of them took a particular interest early on in different parts of the system. Of course, we made sure that each got a full and well-rounded education, but we found that they were all most-interested in different areas of the system (Comms, Stats, Rota, etc.), and different layers of development (database, business logic, user interface, etc.). It’s nice to see people enthused about the system, and it’s infectious: talking with some of these new developers about what they’d like to contribute has really helped to inspire me to take a fresh look at some of the bits that I’m responsible for, too.
It was great to be able to do this in person. The Three Rings team – now about a dozen of us in the core team, with several dozen more among our testers – is increasingly geographically disparate, and rather than face-to-face communication we spend a lot of our time talking to each other via instant messengers, email, and through the comments and commit-messages of our ticketing and source control systems! But there’s nothing quite like being able to spend a (long, hard) day sat side-by-side with a fellow coder, cracking through some infernal bug or another and talking about what you’re doing (and what you expect to achieve with it) as you go.
I didn’t personally get as much code written as I’d have liked. But I was pleased to have been able to support three new developers, who’ll go on to collectively achieve more than I ever will. It’s strange to look back at the early 2000s, when it was just me writing Three Rings (and Kit testing/documenting most of it: or, at least, distracting me with facts about Hawaii while I was trying to write the original Wiki feature!). Nowadays Three Rings is a bigger (and more-important) system than ever before, supporting tens of thousands of volunteers at hundreds of voluntary organisations spanning five time zones.
I’ve said before how much it blows my mind that what began in my bedroom over a decade ago has become so critical, and has done so much good for so many people. And it’s still true today: every time I think about it, it sends my head spinning. If that’s what it’s done in the last ten years, what’ll it do in the next ten?
A couple of weeks ago – and right at the end of the incredibly-busy development cycle that preceded Three Rings‘ Milestone: Krypton – Ruth, JTA and I joined Ruth’s mother on a long-weekend trip to the island of Jersey. I’d been to the Channel Islands only once before (and that was spent primarily either in the dark and the rain, or else in the basement meeting room of a hotel: I was there on business!), so I was quite pleased to get the chance to visit more “properly”.
Of particular interest was the history of the island during the Second World War. Hitler had been particularly pleased to have captured British territory (after the islands, which were deemed undefensible by the British, had been demilitarised), and felt that the Channel Islands were of critical military significance. As a result, he commanded that a massive 10% of the steel and concrete of the Atlantic Wall project should be poured into the Islands: Jersey was, as a result, probably more heavily-fortified than the beaches of Normandy. In the end, this impregnable island fortress was left until last – Berlin fell before Jersey and Guernsey were liberated – and this was a factor in the great suffering of the islanders during the occupation. We visited the “war tunnels“, a massive underground complex built by the German defenders, and it was one of the most spectacular wartime museums I’ve ever experienced.
The tunnels are, of course, an exhibit in themselves – and that’s what I expected to see. But in actual fact, the care and attention that has gone into constructing the museum within is breathtaking. Starting with a history of the islands (in a tunnel filled with the music and postcards of the 1930s), you can just about hear the sounds of war, echoing distantly from the next chamber. There, you walk through a timeline of the invasions of Poland, Denmark, Norway and France, and see how – even with the enemy just barely over the horizon – Jersey still marketed itself as a holiday destination for Britons: a place to escape from wartime fears. Then comes the evacuation – the entire population given barely a day to decide whether they’re staying (and doubtless being occupied by Germany) or leaving (and never knowing when or if they’ll return to their homes). And then, the story of the occupation: framed in a wonderfully “human” context, through exhibits that engage with the visitor through storytelling and hypothetical questions: what would you do, under German occupation?
Certain to ensure that the whole trip didn’t turn into an educational experience, we played a fabulous round of adventure golf under the glorious sunshine of the Channel Islands. I did ever so well, up until the moment where I lost my ball and, swiftly afterwards, my ability to play the game in any meaningful capacity whatsoever. Eventually, Ruth and I tied, with JTA just a little behind… but we were all quite-embarrassingly well over par.
Jersey is apparently moderately famous for its zoo. Ruth’s mother had apparently been looking forward to visiting it for years, and – despite it only being of a modest size – had opted to spend an entire day there, and considered taking another half-day, too. Once the rest of us caught up with her there, we certainly had to agree that it was a pretty impressive zoo.
I was particularly pleased to visit their pair of very active young komodo dragons, their bat cave, their tortoises, and their remarkable aye-ayes – Jersey hosts one of very few successful captive aye-aye exhibits anywhere in the world (and let’s face it, aye-ayes are a fascinating enough species to begin with).
Ruth, her mother and I also got out for a little geocaching, an activity that I’d somewhat neglected since last summer. It turns out that there’s quite an active community on the island, and there were loads of local caches. We hit Not much room? first, which turns out to be among the best cache containers I’ve ever seen (spoilers below; skip the remaining photos if you’re ever likely to go ‘caching on Jersey), and certainly a worthy find for my 100th!
Later, we set out for View over St Aubins (which I’m sure must have been at a great viewpoint, once, until the trees grew taller and cut off the view), and a quite-enjoyable puzzle cache called Dear Fred… all in all, a great excuse to stretch our legs and to see a little more of the island than we might otherwise have.
I’m pretty sure I spent most of the holiday, though, catching up on sleep (interspersed with tiny bits of Three Rings work as we came to the tail end of the testing period – the WiFi at our B&B was, by-now-unsurprisingly, faster than that which we get at home). Or drinking. Or one, then the other. After a hard run of Three Rings development, coupled with “day job” work and the ongoing challenge of buying a house, I was pleased to be chilling out and relaxing, for a change.
Most-importantly, I reflected as we passed back through airport security on our way back to the mainland, nobody felt the need to kill anybody else the entire trip. Ruth’s mother and I, for example, haven’t always seen eye to eye (something about me ‘stealing’ Ruth from a life of monogamy, or otherwise being a bad influence, might have been an early issue), and it’s not unknown for relations to be strained between her and her daughter or her and her son-in-law, either. But even as we bickered our way through the departures lounge at Jersey Airport, at least I knew that we’d all survived.
All things considered, then: a successful trip. Fun times were had, lots of exciting history was learned, tortoises were prodded, and nobody killed anybody else, however much they might have been tempted.
After a few years break, I’m once again heading up to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. As on previous ocassions, I expect to spend a lot of time enjoying Peter Buckley Hill‘s Free Fringe, which is just about the best thing to happen to the Fringe ever. And this time, I’m going to be better-prepared than ever. I’ve made a map.
Sharing is caring, so I’ve made the map available to you, too. Click on the picture to see the map. Because it’s in Google Maps it ought to work on your mobile phone. If you’ve got GPS then you can get lost in Edinburgh in high-tech ways you never before thought possible. Click on any given venue for a web address where you can find a list of events that are occurring at that venue.
Or if you’re really nerdy, you can download the KML and go geocaching-for-comedy. Just me? Okay then…
Update: you can now view the map on the frontpage of the Free Fringe website, too.
I took a tour of the United Kingdom over the Christmas period, and was offered no fewer than five different beds to sleep in. Here’s a little about each of them:
The first bed belonged to Robin, (Ruth‘s little brother) at their mother’s house. Robin wasn’t with us for the entire period that Ruth, JTA and I spent visiting Ruth’s mother, so I was able to annex his bed for much of the time.
While at first it appeared to be just a regular single bed, closer investigation revealed that the entire headboard was hinged, with radial bolts to hold it upright during normal use. Opening these bolts allowed the headboard to tilt forward and lie down on the bed. I have no idea what purpose this mechanism was supposed to serve, but it was very useful for getting my hand down the back to plug my mobile phone charger in to the otherwise-inaccessible sockets behind.
Owen’s Folding Mattress
While Robin and his boss were around, though, I was relegated to the living room floor, and given a folding mattress that Owen (Ruth’s older brother) used to keep in his van as a crash-space. Unfolded and then wrapped in a blanket and sheet for comfort, it didn’t look like much except a quick way to consume floor space.
But damned if it wasn’t the most comfortable thing I slept on all week. I’d jarred my back in some awkward way (probably lugging my enormous suitcase and a stack of presents around the country!), and a low, firm mattress on a hard floor turns out to have been exactly what it needed to speed my recovery.
My Mother’s Futon
My next overnight stop was in Preston, visiting my family. My mother keeps a futon in her study, a room barely bigger than the bed when fully deployed, which made getting into and out of the room more than a little challenging, but only marginally less-difficult than re-folding it back into a chair every time.
The futon itself was comfortable enough, but the room was extremely nippy. After a particular cold snap one day, I began taking not one but two hot water bottles to bed, and running an electric heater for an hour or so beforehand. I suppose the main problem was the tiny 4.5-tog “summer” duvet I was using, which I’m sure would have delightful if I were in, say, Egypt. Still: I got to rediscover quite how delightfully opulent it is to get into a bed that’s been freshly warmed by a pair of hot water bottles, which was nice (albeit also necessary).
My Dad’s Bed
When he left Preston to go and finish his final few days with Go North East, he offered me the use of his bed, which – given the temperatures on my mother’s futon – I should have taken.
But I didn’t, so this bed is the bed that wasn’t. Five just seemed like a better number than four for the article title. And no, “five beds” isn’t a metaphor for something (which I feel the need to say after some of the feedback I got to my apparently-too-mysterious earlier post, “Marmite“).
Liz & Simon’s Massage Mattress
I saw the New Year in at Liz and Simon‘s house in Macclesfield, where I was given the choice between the couch and a “massage mattress”. Naturally, I opted for the latter – one doesn’t turn down a strange-looking, vibrating sleeping partner without good cause!
Unfortunately, I never got to try it out! After a copious quantity of alcohol and a handful of other substances, my one-day-only roommate Alex collapsed onto the sofa and fell asleep within seconds. Not wanting to wake him, I left the mattress off and just, y’know, slept on it (how old-fashioned). It was still a great night’s rest after a fantastic party, though.
So there we are – a round-up review of my sleeping arrangements. Apparently I’m in a slightly off-the-wall blogging mood so far this year. Because sleeping on-the-wall… would be weird.
In April, my dad’s off to the North Pole, in another of his crazy expeditions! Long-term readers might remember that he and I cycled around Malawi and attempted to canoe down the Caledonian Canal, but his latest adventure makes those two look like a walk in the park!
It’s particularly challenging, I think, because he’s having to walk there. It turns out that there isn’t a regular bus service to the North Pole, which I think pretty-well represents everything that’s wrong with the bus industry these days. I worry about the poor old lady who lives at the North Pole – you know, Santa’s wife – and how she gets out and about when her husband is out in their only flying sleigh.
But in any case, dragging a sled behind yourself which holds everything that you need to survive for over a fortnight on the Arctic ice is a monumental challenge for anybody. As part of his training, my dad’s been dragging a tyre, roped to his waist, around Gateshead. This apparently approximates the amount of drag that is produced by a fully-laden sled, although I’m not sure that the experience is truly authentic as polar bears are significantly less-likely than geordies to mock you for dragging a tyre around. Also less likely to maul you.
In fact, now I think about it, the dangers of Arctic exploration – with its shifting ice, temperatures below -30°C, polar bears, and blizzards – are actually quite tame by comparison to going for a stroll in some parts of Tyneside.
In any case, I’m incredibly proud of what he’s doing. His expedition is self-funded, but he’s also accepting sponsorship to raise money for an organisation called TransAid, who help provide sustainable and safe transport solutions in the developing world, where they can make all the difference to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach a hospital, school, or work opportunities.
So if you’re as impressed as I am with this venture, then please find a little spare change to sponsor this worthy cause: sponsor Peter Huntley’s North Pole trek in aid of TransAid.
Recently, I wrote about the fact that I’m driving to and from Aylesbury once a week in order to study there. I passed my driving test a year and a half ago, but, of course, I don’t actually own a car. What I’ve been doing is using a car sharing company called Zipcar (technically, Streetcar, when I started, but the latter is merging into the former).
There are two varieties of car sharing clubs. These are:
- Ones like Zipcar, which are companies with a large fleet of vehicles, pre-vetting of customers, and “live”/”on-demand” booking.
- Ones like WhipCar, which act as portals to allow members of the public to borrow one another’s privately-owned cars.
I haven’t had the chance to try the latter variety yet, although there are a number in my area. The important things are the things that both types have in common, and that is distinctfrom most traditional car rental companies:
- They keep their fleets spread out in disparate locations, meaning that you don’t have to “go somewhere” to pick up a car.
- They make heavy use of the Internet, mobile apps, and – in the case of the corporate varieties – remotely-managed engine computers and RFID technology, to give their members access to vehicles.
- As a result of the above, they cater in particular to people who want to borrow a car occasionally, conveniently, but only perhaps for a few hours at a time.
For me, at least, it’s far cheaper than owning a car – I only make one journey a week, and sometimes not even that. It’s far more convenient for that journey, for me, than public transport (which would involve travelling at awkward times and a longer journey duration). If I were using my own car, I’d have to park it in Oxford city centre on Mondays in order to make my journey possible (which is as challenging as it is expensive). Paying by the half-hour makes it convenient for short hops, and the ability to book, pick up, and return the car without staff intervention means that it doesn’t matter if it’s midnight or a bank holiday or anything: if I ever need access to a car or van in a hurry, there’s almost always one available for me to just “swipe into”.
And it’s far simpler than a conventional car rental company… at least, once you’ve gone through the telephone set-up process: a three-way phone call between you, the DVLA, and the car hire company. If I want a car, I pop up the website or pull out my phone, find a nearby one that’s free when I want it, and go drive.
The cars are all new and well-kept, and the pricing is reasonable: you get a daily mileage allowance (now 40 miles, which is pretty ideal for me, as my round trip journey is barely more than that), and then pay a mileage rate thereafter (if you need to fuel up, there’s a fuel card in the car). Paying by the mile, rather than the litre, has the unfortunate side-effect of failing to encourage eco-driving, but other than that it’s a sensible policy which allows you to accurately anticipate your costs.
It’s been great, so far. I’ve been doing it for a few months and I’ve only had one niggle: I was on my way to college, as usual, when Zipcar called me to let me know that the previous person booking my car was running late. I’d never had this happen before: I’d never even been lined up back-to-back with another user before; it actually seems to be quite rare. In any case, Zipcar found me another car, which I declined (it was on the wrong side of town, and by the time I’d cycled back to it and driven across to this side again, I might as well have waited). In the end, the other user was fined, and I was given a discount in excess of the “missed” time, which I spent on a tin of biscuits to share with my classmates by way of apology for turning up late and disrupting the lesson. I’ve had a few difficulties with their website, especially when they first started taking over Streetcar’s fleets, but they’ve been pretty good about fixing them promptly.
So there we go: a nod of approval for Zipcar from me. So if you’re based in London (where there’s loads of them), Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge, or – soon – Maidstone, Guildford, or Edinburgh, and occasionally have need for an on-demand car, look into them. And if you sign up using this link or the shiny button below, we’ll each get £25 of free driving credit. Bonus!
Just a quick thought: what does it say on the inside front cover of the Queen‘s passport?
Presumably it ought to say:
My Secretary of State requests and requires in my name all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.
Nonetheless, I’ll bet that she doesn’t get as much trouble at passport control as I do, despite the fact that she doesn’t have a surname at all (to be completely accurate, Windsor is the name of her royal house, and is not a surname in the conventional sense). It makes the Passport Office look a little silly to complain about my unusually short name.
Interesting fact about passports: in their current form, they’re a comparatively new invention, but have achieved a rather quick ubiquity in international travel. Historically, the term “port” in their name doesn’t refer, as you’d expect, to sea ports, but instead to the “portes” (gates) of walled cities: most early passports granted the bearer the permission of their lord or monarch to travel between cities in their own country – sea ports and international boundaries were considered fair game for anybody to cross.
It was only really with the outbreak of the First World War that it became a widespread mandate that travelers had passports to cross international borders, as the nations of Europe fought to prevent spies. The Schengen Area – only around 25 years old and hailed as welcome liberalisation of European international transit laws – could actually be likened to a step backwards to a simpler time when citizens movements were not so closely monitored.
Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging, this last month, include:
- Code Week: hacking Three Rings code in a converted hay loft of a Derbyshire farm, as mentioned on the Three Rings blog.
- Hoghton Tower: as is traditional at this time of year (see blog posts from 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003, for example), went to Preston for the Hoghton Tower concert and fireworks display, accompanied by Ruth, and my sister’s 22nd birthday. My other sister has more to say about it.
- Family Picnic: Joining Ruth and JTA at Ruth’s annual family picnic, among her billions of second-cousins and third-aunts.
- New Earthwarming: Having a mini housewarming on New Earth, where I live with Ruth, JTA, and Paul. A surprising number of people came from surprisingly far away, and it was fascinating to see some really interesting networking being done by a mixture of local people (from our various different “circles” down here) and distant guests.
- Bodleian Staff Summer Party: Yet another reason to love my new employer! The drinks and the hog roast (well, roast vegetable sandwiches and falafel wraps for me, but still delicious) would have won me over by themselves. The band was just a bonus. The ice cream van that turned up and started dispensing free 99s: that was all just icing on the already-fabulous cake.
- TeachMeet: Giving a 2-minute nanopresentation at the first Oxford Libraries TeachMeet, entitled Your Password Sucks. A copy of my presentation (now with annotations to make up for the fact that you can’t hear me talking over it) has been uploaded to the website.
- New Earth Games Night: Like Geek Night, but with folks local to us, here, some of whom might have been put off by being called “Geeks”, in that strange way that people sometimes do. Also, hanging out with the Oxford On Board folks, who do similar things on Monday nights in the pub nearest my office.
- Meeting Oxford Nightline: Oxford University’s Nightline is just about the only Nightline in the British Isles to not be using Three Rings, and they’re right on my doorstep, so I’ve been meeting up with some of their folks in order to try to work out why. Maybe, some day, I’ll actually understand the answer to that question.
- Alton Towers & Camping: Ruth and I decided to celebrate the 4th anniversary of us getting together with a trip to Alton Towers, where their new ride, Thirteen, is really quite good (but don’t read up on it: it’s best enjoyed spoiler-free!), and a camping trip in the Lake District, with an exhausting but fulfilling trek to the summit of Glaramara.
That’s quite a lot of stuff, even aside from the usual work/volunteering/etc. stuff that goes on in my life, so it’s little wonder that I’ve neglected to blog about it all. Of course, there’s a guilt-inspired downside to this approach, and that’s that one feels compelled to not blog about anything else until finishing writing about the first neglected thing, and so the problem snowballs.
So this quick summary, above? That’s sort-of a declaration of blogger-bankruptcy on these topics, so I can finally stop thinking “Hmm, can’t blog about X until I’ve written about Code Week!”
Recently, I learned that the roads in Great Britain are numbered in accordance with a scheme first imagined about ninety years ago, and, as it evolved, these road numbers were grouped into radial zones around London (except for Scotland, whose road numbering only joined the scheme later). I’d often noticed the “clusters” of similarly-numbered roads (living in Aberystwyth, you soon notice that all the A and B roads start with a 4, and I soon noticed that the very same A44 that starts in Aberystwyth seems to have followed me to my home here in Oxford).
Who’d have thought that there was such a plan to it. If you’re aware of any of the many roads which are in the “wrong” zone, you’d be forgiven for not seeing the pattern earlier, though. However, seeing all of this attempt at adding order to what was a chaotic system for the long period between the Romans leaving and the mid-20th century makes me wonder one thing: are there “roadspotters”?
There exist trainspotters, who pursue the more-than-a-little-bit-nerdy hobby of traveling around and looking at different locomotives, marking down their numbers in notepads and crossing them off in reference books. Does the same phenomena exist within road networks?
It turns out that it does; or some close approximation of it does, anyway. One gentleman, for example, writes about “recovering” road signs formerly of the A6144(M), which – until 2006 – was the UK’s only single-carriageway motorway. A site calling itself The Motorway Archive has a thoroughly-researched article on the construction history of the M74/A74(M) from Glasgow to Carlisle. Another website – and one that I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d visited on a number of previous occasions – reviews every motorway service area in Britain. And, perhaps geekiest of all, the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts (SABRE) maintains a club, meetups, and a thoroughly-researched wiki of everything you never wanted to know about the roads of the British Isles.
From what started as a quick question about British road numbering, I find myself learning about a hobby that’s perhaps even geekier than trainspotting. Thanks, Internet.
There’s a film that I’m a huge fan of, called Primer. Since I first discovered it I’ve insisted on showing it at least twice at Troma Night (the second time just for the benefit of everybody who didn’t “get it” – i.e. everybody – the first time). If you haven’t already seen it, this post might be a little spoilery, so instead of reading it, you should warm up your time machine, go and watch the film, turn off the time machine, get into the time machine, come out again right now, and then read its Wikipedia page until you understand it. Then come back.
Still with me? Right.
Why Primer is awesome, and why you should care
In Primer, the protagonists accidentally stumble across the secret of time travel and use it to cheat the stock market. The film isn’t actually about time travel or science-fiction: it’s actually about the breakdown in the relationship between the protagonists, but it’s got some pretty awesome science-fiction in it, too, and that’s what I’d like to talk about. The mechanism of time travel in Primer, for example, is quite fascinating: the traveler turns on the machine using a timer switch (turning it on in person risks the possibility of meeting a future version of themselves coming out of the machine). They then wait for a set amount of time, then they turn off the machine, get into it, wait for the same amount of time again, and emerge from the time machine at the moment that it was turned on.
This is a lot weaker than many of the time travel devices featured in popular science fiction literature, films, and television. It’s not possible to travel forwards in time (except in the usual way with which we’re familiar). Travelling backwards in time takes as long as it took the machine to travel forwards through the same period, making long journeys impossible. The machine has to be strategically turned on at the point at which you want to travel back to, reducing spontaneity, and it can’t be used again in the meantime without resetting it. Oh, and the machine is dangerous and causes long-term damage to humans travelling in it, but that’s rather ancillary.
There’s a certain believability to the time travel mechanic in Primer that gives it a real charm. As far as it is explored in the film, it permits a deterministic universe (so long as one is willing to be reasonably unconventional with one’s interpretation of the linearity of time, as shown in the diagram above), provides severe limits to early time travel (which are great for post-film debate), and doesn’t resort to anything so tacky as, for example, Marty McFly gradually “fading out” after he inadvertently prevented his parents from getting together in Back to the Future.
Experiments in the Primer universe
I’ve recently been thinking about some of the experiments that I would be performing it I had been the inventor of the Primer time machine.
First and foremost, I’d build a second, smaller time machine of the same design. We know this to be possible because the first machine built by the protagonists is smaller than the ones they later construct. I want to be able to put one time machine inside another. Yes, yes, I know that this is what the protagonists do in the movie, but mine has a difference: mine is capable of being operated (power supply only needs to be a few car batteries, as we discover in the film) within the larger time machine. That’s right, I’m building a time machine inside my time machine.
- Experiment One attempts to explore the relativism of time. Start the larger time machine and warm it up. Stop the larger time machine. Start the smaller time machine. Get into the larger time machine, carrying the smaller time machine, and travel back. Once back, turn off the larger time machine. Experiment with sending things forwards in time using the second time machine (which has traveled backwards in time but while running, from our frame of reference). If objects inserted into it come out in the future, before it is picked up, this implies that there might be a fixed frame of reference to chronology. It also indicates that it is possible to build a machine for the purpose of traveling forwards in time, too, although only – for now – at the usual rate.
- Experiment Two attempts to accelerate the rate at which a traveler can move forwards or backwards through time. Based on the explanation given in the movie, the contents of the time machine oscillate backwards and forwards through the period of time between their being turned on and being turned off, for a number of repetitions, before settling. If we are able to synchronise the oscillations of two time machines, one inside the other (by turning them on and off simultaneously, using timers attached to each and their own distinct, internal, power supplies), might we be able to set up a scenario that, in X minutes, switches off, and we can get inside the inner machine and travel back to the switch-on time in X/2 minutes? If so, what happens if we send such a two-machine construction back in time as in Experiment One – do we then have a “time accelerator”?
- Experiment Three takes advantage of the fact that for an object within the field, an extended period of time has passed (during the oscillations), while from the reference point of an external observer, a far shorter period of time has passed. Experiment with the use of an oscillating time period field to accelerate slow processes. Obvious ones to start with are the production of biologically-produced chemicals, as is done in the film (imagine being able to brew a 10-year-old whiskey in a day!), but there are more options. Processing time on complex computer tasks could be dramatically reduced, for example. Build a large enough time machine and put a particle accelerator in it, and you can bring masses up to relativistic speeds in milliseconds.
- Experiment Four is on the implications on spacetime of sending mass back in time. As we know, flinging mass in a direction of space produces an equal and opposite acceleration in the opposite direction, as demonstrated by… well, everything, but let’s say “a rocket” and be done with it. Does flinging mass backwards through time produce an acceleration forwards through time? This could be tested by sending back a mass and a highly-accurate timepiece, removing the mass in the past, and letting the timepiece travel back to the future. The timepiece is checked when the experiment starts, when the mass is removed, and when the experiment ends. If the time taken for the second half of the experiment, from the perspective of the timepiece, is longer than the time taken for the first half, then this implies that Newtonian motion, or something equivalent, can be approximated to apply over time as well as space. If so, then one could perhaps build an inertia-generating drive for a vehicle by repeatedly taking a mass out of one end of a time machine, transporting it to the other, and sending it back in time to when you first picked it up.
The scientific possibilities for such a (theoretical) device are limitless.
But yeah, I’d probably just cheat the stock market, too. At least to begin with.
Right now, I’m out in Oxfordshire for this a “code week” – a get-together for the purpose of hacking some code together – for the Three Rings project. That’s got nothing to do with this post, but helps to offer a framing device by which I can explain why I was in such proximity to London in the first place.
Last night, y’see, Ruth and I hopped on the bus down to London to meet up with Robin, her brother, for his 21st birthday. Starting out at The Dove in Broadway Market, we began an adventure of epic proportions, backed up by some of the least-consistent planning ever encountered in a pub crawl. At times, the revellers and I were as one unit, moving together through the capital, shouting “Dave!” in unison. Other times, keeping the group together and headed in the same direction was a little like trying to herd cats.
But progress was made, and a milestone birthday was celebrated. Highlights included:
Pub Monopoly is so last week: Pub Jenga is the new hotness. At each bar, we brought out a set of Jenga, the bricks of which had each been emblazoned – using a marker pen – with the names of diferent areas of London. When the tower collapsed, the brick responsible dictated where we would go to next.
The person responsible for the destruction of the tower was required to drink a penalty shot of Jägermeister and be the bearer of the Jenga set and The Trowel until the next pub. Oh yeah, The Trowel. Robin’s plan was that, at the end of the night, the Jenga set would be buried forever at a secret location. As we’d left before this point to catch the bus back to Oxford, I’ve no idea whether or not this actually happened.
Ruth and Robin’s older brother, Owen, had come prepared: having numbered each of his eight pockets and placed a mystery item in each, Robin was periodically charged with picking a number, at which point the contents of the pocket were revealed and used. Some of the items revealed were:
One of the first Mystery Pockets contained red and green face paints, with inevitable results. Also, I’m not sure what was in them, but quite a lot of people at the table started itching quite a lot after they were applied: whoops! Click the thumbnails for bigger pictures.
After these were chosen, everybody managed to get ahead of Robin by sprinting down a tube station fire escape staircase, and hiding around the corner at the bottom. Which might have been more effective if not for the fact that it’s quite hard to hide a dozen people in a tight stairwell. Also, that Robin had decided by this point to “fall” down the staircase.
It’s silly. ‘Nuff said.
People Of London
Our travels put us into contact with a variety of people from around the city, like:
The Moon Man
In Covent Garden, we got a small audience as a result of our various exploits, but this one – persuading a random stranger to bare his colourful underwear to the world, might be the best. In the background, you can just make out an unrelated group of partygoers, about to tie themselves together with a long rope left lying around by a street performer.
The two women at the next table from us in a bar in Oxford Circus, who seemed quite pleased and impressed when Owen tore his shirt in half in a show of manliness. I’m pretty sure that if he’d have asked, they’d have paid to see more.
Jamaican Me Crazy
A busker with drums who we persuaded to play the most reggae interpretation of Happy Birthday To You that has ever been heard.
I can’t even remember how, but it quickly became our callsign that – in order to make sure that everybody was together (at least, after we’d lost the enormous Papa-Smurf-penis-styled balloon, fresh from Owen’s mystery pockets, that had previouly been our beacon), we’d all shout “Dave!!!”, as if we’d lost somebody by that name. No, I can’t explain it either.
A Cornish-Pasty Themed Pub
Seriously, such a thing exists. We almost gave this one a missing, mistaking it for merely being a late-night Cornish Pasty Shop (yes, that was more believable to us at this point), before we noticed that it had a bouncer. “What kind of bakery needs security?” “Ohhhhh.”
Playing Jenga In Unusual Places
Like the game on the steps of St. Paul’s Church.
Racing Around The Transport Network
You know all of those signs about not playing on the escalators, not running up the escalators: all that jazz. Apparently some of the group didn’t think that they applied to them, with hilarious consequences. Honestly, I’ve never seen somebody slide all the way down the central reservation of a 100-foot escaltor before, “bouncing” over every sign and emergency-stop-button as they rocketed down along the polished steel. And if I never do again, that’ll be fine, because I’ve seen it now.
Meeting Some Fabulous People
Turns out, everybody who came along to Robin’s birthday – most of whom I hadn’t previously met – were all awesome in their own unique ways. It’s been a long time since I’ve hung out in the company of such a lively crowd. Thanks to you all for a fantastic night out.