Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    It Was Twenty Years Ago Today (Not)...

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    So here a question: in how many consecutive years must something happen before it stops being a once-in-twenty-year event? I only ask because it would be nice if the people who pretend to run the country were at least a bit prepared for such an event.

    I refer, of course, to the recent snow we've had here in Britain. Tales abound of services failing, lack of capability to manage the situation, and general incompetence. For example, despite the fact that, with the exception of the three worst days, everyone in our village has managed to get to work without a problem, there have been no letter post or parcel deliveries for nearly two weeks. Dustbins and recycling bins have not been emptied for three weeks, and there's been absolutely no sign of any council workers attempting to improve the situation for local taxpayers.

    Talking to a colleague who lives in a similarly sized residential district in the US, it's interesting to compare how they handle winter weather conditions. Their local council emails residents with details of its plans, ploughs and grits the local roads, and delivers a pallet of rock salt for residents to use to keep paths and drives clear. Our council promised us a grit bin after the snow last year, but it's never materialized. And, best of all, a visit to their web site revealed that "they'd love to receive photos of the winter conditions for their picture gallery", yet there was absolutely nothing about how they plan to fulfil their duties of managing their district's needs.

    Yes, I'm aware of the argument that we can't afford to have equipment standing around all year just in case it snows. But surely there must be some ways that they can be prepared and actually do something when it occurs, without investing millions of pounds in fancy snow blowing machines. A simple snowplough on the front of the gritting trucks would help, and some attempt to clear the side streets as well as the main roads would be nice. A local farmer happened to be passing last week and it took him five minutes to clear the worst from our road. Why don't the council have some official plan for farmers who can't get onto their land at this time of year to clear snow when required?

    But I suppose the stories on the TV news and in the papers reveal the real depth of our country's incompetence. The council has to preserve grit stocks because they can't be replenished - the grit delivery trucks are stuck in the snow! Health and safety rules mean that refuse and recycling collectors cannot work when there is ice on the paths. And the highways department requires anyone who wants to use machinery on a public highway to complete a training course and apply for a special license. So that's OK then, we can take comfort from the fact that everything grinds to a halt because of the usual health and safety concerns...

    However, where there really is a concern is with the web. Can internet shopping survive another year of late and non-deliveries without people deciding it's just not worth the hassle? I ordered a snow shovel a week before the worst of the snow came, and it's still somewhere in transit (probably the driver is using it to dig himself out as we speak). Even my new Windows Phone, which is coming by courier, has spent two weeks wandering between depots without seemingly getting any nearer here.

    According to the managers of the major delivery companies and the post office, interviewed on TV during the "crisis", we can expect the disruption in deliveries to continue through to the New Year, and that's if there is no more snow. They say that they are working 24 hours a day to catch up, but that it's seemingly an impossible task; and suggest that people should not rely on getting anything delivered in time for Christmas. But, unless somebody built a few million new houses last week, surely they should be pleased about the economies of scale that the compression of deliveries will produce? 

    I read in the paper that a record 832,000 pounds was being spent on the internet every hour here in the UK last week, so there's a very large pile of undelivered goods somewhere...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    It's Non-Denominational Gift Giving Season Again

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    Some while back, I was explaining why "USB" stands for "Unexpected System Behavior" (see Top 10 Tips for New or Nervous Computer Users). However, while roaming the web looking for something different for my wife for Christmas, I discovered that what it really stands for is "Useless Separate Bauble". You only have to explore some of the gadget gift sites to see why. Obviously I bought the wrong computer, because mine only has seven USB ports. It seems as though twenty is the minimum to achieve a harmonious and satisfying working environment these days.

    I suppose I could buy a USB Motorcycle Engine that adds three extra USB ports, with the added bonus of making annoying motorbike noises whenever it's plugged in. Then I'd be able to connect a USB MSN Missile Launcher so that people can shoot harmless projectiles at me while I'm chatting with them. But best of all, I'd be able to plug in my USB Pet Rock. At least that would be less annoying than most other USB gadgets seeing as how it doesn't actually do anything at all.

    In fact, paying money for stuff that doesn't do anything at all, never mind anything useful, seems to be a new and growing trend. I'm trying to figure when I'd need a pen that writes with ink that just disappears again leaving no trace (see KGB Disappearing Ink Pen), or a shower curtain showing the periodic table (useful in case I forget what the atomic mass of Caesium is while I'm showering, I suppose). Or even a pair of electronic eyeballs that blink in a very realistic manner and, according to the web site (though I'm not sure I believe it) can "turn any object into a lifelike lovable friend". Hmmm ... they obviously work to a different definition of the words "lifelike" and "lovable" than I do.

    But at least I did find some really useful things. I toyed for a while with buying my wife an artificial hand for eating potato crisps without getting your fingers greasy. However, in the end, it had to be a remote controlled duck. Just the thing for extra bath-time fun.

    And for myself? I reckon it's a tossup between an electric guitar T-shirt that you can actually play (and there's a drum one as well), or the more enigmatic "There's no place like 127.0.0.1" version.

    As you can see, we're in for an exciting non-denominational gift giving season at our house this year...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    The World Changed at 10:30 AM

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    While I can't say that I'm a fanatical weather watcher, I am interested in the way that the contributing factors change and provide the rudimentary basis for weather forecasting (at least in the short term). Tapping the glass of the old wood and bellows barometer to see which way it's moving is fine for a rough guide, but more sophisticated kit can provide a lot more useful data.

    I've rambled in the past about the weather station and corresponding web site I run (http://www.primrose-hill.com), and I'm starting to get quite proficient at rudimentary cause/effect recognition. At first it was exciting just to watch the real-time display, but now I generally drift straight into the trends page and look at the range of charts it provides. The usually smooth gradients of these charts provide a good indication of what to expect in the next 12 - 24 hours.

    So it was a bit of a shock to see the results shown below a few days ago. OK, so the pressure had been falling steadily overnight and stormy weather was, therefore, anticipated. And then, at around 10:30, it levelled off:

    Pressure chart

    And within just a couple of minutes the wind direction had completely changed through something like 150 degrees from South West to almost due North:

    Wind direction chart

    At the same time, this cold North wind brought the ambient temperature down almost instantly by 3 degrees, and then by a further 2 degrees within half an hour. This is the fastest drop in temperature I've ever recorded:

    Temperature chart

    Meanwhile, the heavens opened and it began to rain. And, briefly, it rained at a rate of over 26 mm (one inch) per hour:

    Rainfall rate chart

    We'd had some rain earlier in the day, but within a few minutes we'd had another 1.5 mm, climbing to 2 mm within the hour:

    Total rainfall chart

    I keep hearing about the gradual changes to our climate brought on by global warming, but this almost instantaneous change in the weather (local cooling?) was quite a surprise. And then, within the hour, it was snowing - though I knew that was going to happen because I'd just watched the weather forecast on the TV (and, yes, I know that's cheating)...

    In fact they say this will be the coldest winter here in Britain since 1963/4. I can believe it - we've regularly had days where the temperature falls to minus 15°C (5°F) during the night and never gets above minus 5°C (23°F) during the day. They even said that one night last week it was colder in England than at the North Pole. Snow had been lying here for more than four weeks (waiting, as my Grandma would have said, for more). And while it's cold here, most of the Northern hemisphere seems to be suffering as well. I read that the temperature in Northern China was as low as minus 35°C (-31°F) in December so I suppose we're relatively lucky here. And, of course, everyone marvelled at the frozen lighthouse in Ohio.

    So I suppose my New Year's resolutions should include buying a set of winter tyres for my car, stocking up on rock salt and shovels, and getting the central heating system serviced regularly. Meanwhile, if you are still at the "watching dials go round stage", you can just play with the semi-real-time page instead of looking at boring charts. It's updated every ten seconds:

    Realtime weather display

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    In England's White and Pleasant Land

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    I received an invitation to attend a "highly recommended" course this week on how to maximize use of Office Communicator, Live Meeting, and the Office Conferencing System. Specially timed, no doubt, to coincide with the rather interesting weather we are currently experiencing here in Britain. And obviously a really vital event to reduce the need for travel during this period of meteorological uncertainty.

    Great, I thought, really useful - must sign up and watch the remote presentation! Except that, oddly, it's only being held in London and Reading (both some 180 miles away from me) and is not being networked. So I have to travel to see a presentation about reducing the need to travel. I suppose they assume that, until you see it, you won't know how to view it remotely. Maybe these photos of our usually green and pleasant land will indicate why I'm likely to miss it...

    Derbyshire snow
    Derbyshire snow Derbyshire snow
    Derbyshire snow Derbyshire snow
    Derbyshire snow Derbyshire snow
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