Hixie's Natural Log

2004-05-23 17:31 UTC Spring 2004 Travelog: Part 1 (Whining)

It's that time of year again. The quarterly trip. This time I'm going first to Boston for the May 2004 CSS working group face-to-face, and then on to the bay area to eat Grandma's Especial and (probably more to the point) to attend a workshop on Web Applications and Compound Document.

A pretty standard trip: an SAS flight from Oslo to London Heathrow on a 737-800 (with, as most of the SAS fleet, a small poem-like writing at the entrance: On a round planet, / your destination / will always / bring you home) followed by the normal paperwork at Heathrow before boarding the 777 to take me to Boston.

Heathrow is such a mess. Seriously. Imagine one of those science fiction movies where the city is dark and bustling with non-descript industrial activity: things barely working due to a long slide into disrepair, kept working by patching as little as possible, as cheaply as possible. Corridors lead nowhere; derelict equipment lies unused in passenger waiting lounges; "temporary" structures have become part of some of the permanent structures; toilets are concealed behind load bearing columns that look as if they were added as an afterthought during construction (or even later) when the building threatened to collapse (mind you, given recent events, I suppose that could be worse); signs clarify other signs; the public announcement system regularly informs passengers that everyone else in the terminal is intent on stealing their baggage, or maybe giving some to them, and that one must thus be vilgilant at all times... When we landed we had to actually step onto the runway to get into the terminal because for some reason our gate had no extending arm thingy.

It continuously amazes me how the British can have such an obsession with doing things cheaply. "Maintenance", in the UK, seems to mean "repair", not "preventing failure". Things that are functional are good enough. There was a television screen at our gate, showing BBC News 24's coverage of some royal wedding or other. It was a pretty good quality large widescreen plasma display with a pseudo-surround-sound system. But of course the picture was delivered via analogue cable, in 4:3 ratio and stretched to fit the 16:9 frame, an affront to the televison's abilities (and to BBC News 24's producers, since they have been broadcasting in 16:9 for years). Anywhere else, the technicians would have refused to even install such a system; a plasma TV needs a digital feed, not coax. In Britain? Coax is cheaper.

While I'm whining, I think I'll transition smoothly to a critique of Along Came Poly, one of the films we were provided with on the American Airlines entertainment system. A mediocre movie, which could have been saved by featuring more of one of the characters, a ferret, but which unfortunately utterly failed to use even a fraction of its potential.

First of all, I must emphatically point out that ferrets do not sound like squeaky toys. They are in fact largely silent. It's one of the features that makes them look so innocent and mischievous at the same time. They make a sound when you step on them or drop them (a kind of indignant "epp epp epp!") and occasionally let out muted cries while fighting, but that's it.

Secondly they never stand still (except when they're looking at you waiting for you to either feed them or play with them). If you put a ferret in a harness on a leash and attach the leash to the door handle, one of three things will happen within about twenty seconds. First, and most likely, the ferret will somehow manage to get the leash off the door handle and start exploring the surroundings, especially any dark and inaccessible places. Second, less likely but still quite common, the ferret will magically get out of its harness and again start exploring. Don't ask how they manage to get out of their harness. It is a perennial mystery. I'm not a ferret expert but my understanding is that the leading theory is that they possess short range teleporting technology of some sort. The third possibility is that the ferret will begin exploring with the leash still attached to the door handle, and, through climbing atop nearby boxes or through nearby pipes, will manage to either entangle itself in a knot that will take significant effort to undo, or will slip and end up dangling in mid air. (I'm sure more ferrets get killed by curiosity than cats.)

What will never happen is them just standing there patiently waiting for whatever humans have in mind for them. So you would never find a ferret sitting in the middle of a hallway.

Thirdly, ferrets don't run into walls. They run along walls. If they find a wall, they run towards it then follow it to find out where it leads. They follow walls almost as religiously as they explore holes.

And finally, ferrets sleep. As far as I can tell most ferrets spend no more than thirty minutes awake per day. No movie that purports to show someone, whose first guess when he sees a ferret is to think it is a rat, dating a ferret feeder (you don't own ferrets anymore than you would own a cat), could possibly omit the line "do these things do anything but sleep?". Well, I mean, obviously it could, since this one did, but such an omission would always be a major error.

I arrived in Boston having read about half of Peter F. Hamilton's latest book, Pandora's Star. This is a nearly 900 page book, part one of the Commonwealth Saga. I absolutely loved his first saga, the Night's Dawn Trilogy. So far this book is promising to be just as good.

Getting to Boston itself from the airport was quite easy, due to convenient public transport. Unfortunately, Boston reminds me of Heathrow. It's American, of course, so it's on a bigger scale. But it has all the same features of looking temporary. A few months ago I heard that The Big Dig was complete, but it seems that they forgot to let the crew know.

I went for a long two and a half hour walk around the city to see what it was like. One of the most confusing things I came across was a couple of big old iron pipes coming out of the ground and spewing dirty steam. Why would there be steam underground? And why would you want to release it all over the place?

For dinner, I had a burrito. Europeans don't know how to make burritos. They try to serve them on a plate with garnishes, or with the rice on the outside, or with sauce poured over the burrito. That would be like serving a ploughman's lunch as individual parts around a plate (mind you, I've had that done too). Burritos should be self-contained. Just one big lump of goodness filling a leak-proof yet edible wrapper.

It was a good burrito.

The next day, today, I woke up refreshed, watched Finding Nemo on TV (Pixar rocks), then walked around Boston some more. Some of us working group type people are planning to meet for dinner tonight. In the meantime I think I'll sit down at Boston Common and read my book.