Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Virtually singing

Some time at the beginning of last year I saw a video of Lux Aurumque that I found interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it is a piece that was in the repertoire of my choir at the time and it is always useful to hear how it is performed by other choirs, especially when conducted by the composer. Secondly, it was performed by a "virtual choir" made up of people from various countries, many of whom have probably never met each other in real life.

The idea of collaborating over the Internet is certainly not a new idea, nor is the notion of using social media to bring together musicians as was shown by the YouTube Orchestra that performed its first concert in 2009. The virtual choir, however, brings together both of these and the result is, in my opinion, something that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. I think that one reason why it has been successful is that it is being driven by the enthusiasm of one of the world's leading contemporary choral composer, Eric Whitacre. I don't doubt that some of his enthusiasm for the project comes from all the extra publicity he is getting as a result but having met some professional musicians who are trying to make a name for themselves I have come to realise that being an unashamed self-publicist is an essential part of the job.

After seeing the first virtual choir video I was keen to try to get involved with the follow up, which was being anticipated at the time. Sure enough, in September of last year version 2.0 of the choir was announced with a piece that I was not familiar with called "Sleep" and a deadline of the end of the year. Having been so keen to get involved I did what anyone else would in my position - I procrastinated. In fact, I was clearly not alone in doing this as the rate of the submissions appeared to be far below what the organisers had expected. At the announcement they stated that they were aiming to getting over 900 but when I posted my video, around about the half-way point for submissions, there were only around 200. In fact, I was secretly trying to get in at exactly video number 200 but then someone gazumped me by posting himself singing all eight parts from bottom bass to top soprano.

As it turned out there was a rush of videos towards the end and this, together with an extension of the deadline by a couple of weeks, meant that there were a massive 1752 participants from 58 different countries in the finished product. My face doesn't appear but my name is there in the credits, going past at around 8:20. For those interested, there was a TED talk when this was produced to explain a bit of the history.

It is now a year on and just today, virtual choir 3 (we appear to have dropped the '.0') has been announced. Again, it is a piece I do not know so I will probably spend a bit of time procrastinating about it but I saw just three hours after it went live that there were already six submissions and now it is up to 27, including two from here in the UK. I don't suppose you can really tell much from this as the rate will probably die down after an initial flurry but it looks like a number of people were chomping at the bit to get started.

This time it they are going a step further, with on-line masterclasses using Google+ hangouts. For the past versions people learnt their own parts individually and sang as they thought best but anyone who has sung in a choir knows that the conductor does more than just wave his hands around hoping that someone will glance his way from time to time. A lot of fine tuning goes on into a rehearsal and things like ends of phrases and breathing are difficult to get right if you are unable to get everyone in a room together. It remains to be seen, however, if Google+ hangouts are the answer.

The deadline for virtual choir 3 is 31st of January and nearly 800 people have registered so far. I'm not entirely sure when I'm going to get a chance to do anything as I will be particularly busy in the run up to a world premier on the previous Friday (quick plug) so we will have to see what happens.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

There's nothing like good privacy, and this is ...

A colleague of mine notified me via Google+ of the news that Mark Zuckerberg's photos on Facebook had been hacked, supposedly by a security glitch that has now been closed. My colleague's comment on this was that he has "never seen a photo on the site, public or otherwise, where you can't just share out/reference the underlying photo's URL if you want to" and ended by asking "am I really the only one who's noticed this?" I have noticed this but, I must confess, only after being informed about it by the aforementioned colleague. If anyone doubts this statement about the free access to Facebook pictures then they can have a look at this picture which I have uploaded to Facebook but have set to be only visible by me. For added amusement, you will find that you can view it without even being logged into Facebook and, with any luck, it may now start appearing in searches with appropriate search terms.

Facebook are here employing a technique known 'security through obscurity'. The fundamental principal of this is that the name of the image, 388043_10150400636492271_81771217_n.jpg, is so complicated that no one could possibly stumble upon it by accident. The problem with 'security through obscurity' is that it merely gives an illusion of security as it will stop someone accessing something by accident but will not deter anyone with real malicious intent. You could liken it to leaving the front door key of your house under the doormat; the postman who happens to push against the front door is not going to get in but it will not stop the real burglar. Six years ago ZDNet published the six dumbest ways to secure a wireless LAN and three of them are examples of 'security through obscurity'.

However, is there really a problem with the photographs on Facebook? What are the chances of someone stumbling across the correct 5 very large numbers followed by the correct letter to view my image? Admittedly that is not very likely but just as I have revealed to the world the URL of an image in my Facebook account that only I should be able to view, I can do the same with any picture that has been shared with me even if the owner of that picture has set restrictive access. Likewise, I could do the same with any picture visible by an account I happen to have hijacked. Happily, Firesheep is not a problem if you are using SSL but who is to say there isn't another exploit out there that is not yet publicly known?

How hard is it really to make images private? Not really too difficult, as can be illustrated by this picture at Dropbox. I am not arguing that Dropbox are a paragon of virtue (although over that weekend in June the problem was fixed quickly and no one was apparently compromised) but if you click on that link you will, I hope, get a 403 error indicating that access is forbidden. It would not be beyond the realms of possibility for Facebook to implement a similar system but I suspect that the real reason is that they want people to be able to link to their images like this:

without getting this:

The first image being my top secret Facebook picture while the broken image is in place of my Dropbox file.

I think that the conclusion is clear; do not put pictures, or any other other material for that matter, on any social media site unless you are perfectly happy for it one day to find its way into the public domain.


I have just found that Google+ is the same as Facebook in this respect and here is a similar image to the one above. Google+ uses Picasa for managing users' pictures and it would appear that this has been known for some time.

Update 2 - 27/12/12

I have noticed that the link to my picture on Facebook has changed from "" to "". I am not entirely sure whether this is due to an internal reshuffling of the data or maybe the links have always been time limited, which I supposed provides a small degree of extra security. It doesn't take a lot, however, to see how the new link is created from the old. I have fixed the image for the time being.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Updating update

A few weeks ago I had a bit of a rant about the Android Market. Further investigation has shown that I was probably a bit unfair in pinning the blame on Google and it is probably T-Mobile's fault, although I haven't tried following this up yet.

However, the 'package file is invalid' problem was not the only thing I ranted about and when I posted a link on Google+ I got a comment from a friend who works for The Chocolate Factory thanking me for my feedback and saying that he would pass it on to the relevant person. I thought little more about it until this morning when I tried the Market again, as I do from time to time naively hoping that one of the growing number of updates might get through, and I found a request to accept the license agreement. This usually means that it has been updated to a newer version and searching t'Interwebs shows that, sure enough, version 3.3.11 was released on 1 November. Among the list of updates, in direct response to my blog post (well, I would like to think so), are the following new settings:

  • Update over Wi-Fi only - Conserve data usage by auto-updating apps over Wi-Fi only
  • Auto-update apps - Allow apps to auto-update by default

At the end of that post on Android Police it says "Thanks, Joseph!" Is that me? I doubt it but I cannot see who else it is addressed to.

I also saw that, when I tried to update something and it showed me the list of permissions it requires, one was marked as 'New'. I don't remember seeing this being highlighted before but perhaps it has always been there and I've just not noticed it. Whatever is the case, this is a good feature as you should be aware of the permissions the apps you use want and don't want things to slip in during an update. Does the new version of that really cool game a friend told you about 6 months ago and you forgot you still have really need to be able to access your contact details and send text messages on your behalf?

Having said all this, the updates still failed for me so at some point I will probably have to contact T-Mobile to be told that I have broken something myself and it is not their fault at all.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way.

I found an interesting feature/bug in Android this morning regarding the time settings although, as I found out, it is not a new discovery. I had been in Didsbury for the BBC Daily Service as I do approximately once every four months with my choir, the Manchester Chorale. As it is a live broadcast, we have to turn off all phones and suchlike (setting to 'silent' is not enough as a network connection can still interfere with the broadcast) and I decided to go one step further and remove the battery. I did this because I am the sort of paranoid person who will continually check a phone to make sure it is really turned off but the only way to do that with my phone is to press the 'on' button.

After we finished I plugged the battery back in and turned on to find that that time was 00:00 on 6th January 1980. This didn't concern me a great deal as I knew that the phone would get the time updated when the network had woken up fully and, being almost exactly 31 years, 9 months, 4 days and 10 hours slow, I could still use it to approximate the correct time.

By about quarter-past midnight on that Sunday back in 1980 I was starting to get concerned that the time would not click back into place as quickly as I had hoped so I started to search t'Interwebs and I came across this forum post that made me realise that this is not a new problem and, what was more, no one had apparently come up with a sure-fire way of fixing it. At half-past midnight, at the age of nearly six years old, I thought I would try experimenting to see if I could kick my phone back into the present so I turned on GPS and used a useful app called GPS Essentials to monitor how it was getting on.

For those who don't know, GPS works by putting your distance from a number of satellites into a set of simultaneous equations where the unknown values represent your position. As we live in three dimensional space you might be forgiven for thinking that you need three satellites and three equations to find your position but in fact there is a fourth unknown, time, that also needs to be calculated. This is because the distance between you and the satellite is found using the time it took the signal to reach you and unless the clock on your GPS receiver happens to be an atomic clock and set to exactly the same time as all the satellites, it just isn't accurate enough. As a result, a rather useful by-product of GPS is the correct time. Obviously, my smart-phone will be smart enough to use this to correct itself, right?


Not only did my phone not take the correct time from the GPS fix, it clearly assumed that it had made a mistake and refused to get a fix. I watched as up to 8 satellites were found but none was used. GPS Essentials even briefly displayed the correct time but clearly thought that that was so ridiculously wrong that it discarded it.

So I was left wondering, as my phone has GPS installed, and it can calculate the correct time as accurately as any time server that my carrier can provide (and Android can fail to pick up), why is there no option in the settings to use this?

As an interesting aside, it appears that the first GPS satellite was launched on my 4th birthday. That's nice of them.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Market is a Shambles

I have had an Android phone for about a year now and a few days ago I started experiencing problems with the Market. I have not tried installing any new apps but whenever I tried to upgrade something it would get a "download failed" error. I searched on the Internet for solutions and tried various things including clearing the application data from the Market, clearing the cache from the Market and clearing the data and cache from a list of applications that have nothing to do with the Market (but were all created by Google). While trying these solutions I would occasionally get something to work but more often than not the "download failed" would return. Finally I came to the 'turn it off and back on again' solution and this time something odd happened; it took an inordinately long time to reboot and then when I opened the Market it had changed considerably. At first I thought that I had really broken something and it had reverted to some sort of basic mode because it looked like something from an older, more primitive world but I have since discovered that it had in fact updated itself. One of my biggest immediate annoyances, apart from the changed display and the fact that it was now much slower than before, was that the order of the items that appeared when I pressed the 'menu' button had changed. Typically, I would open the Market and instinctively press 'menu' followed by 'My Apps' to see if there are any updates. However, this option and 'Settings' have been switched round and this change, coupled with my muscle memory and the general sluggishness of the application, has led to several moments of seething impotently at Google's developers. Anyway the good news is that I no longer got the "download failed" message. The bad news is that it was replaced with "Package file is invalid" which is, at least, a little more descriptive.

Another thing that annoyed me was that a number of apps had reverted to 'Automatic Update' (again, all Google apps). I set all apps to require manual updates because I like to see what is getting installed on my device. To find that Google has rode roughshod over my preferences makes me a little bit peeved, but not as much as if I were subscribed to a pay-as-you-go data plan and thus find myself being charged for Google's cavalier approach.

As I have already mentioned, I thought that I must have broken something and this is because I have been trying some app development and installing things that I had created only my phone. Some of the solutions I had found had mentioned installing packages download from other sources than the Market as being part of the problem so I had pretty much resigned myself to having to spend some time finding what I had done wrong and tidying things up. This was until I saw someone on Google+ complaining about exactly the same thing. He was putting the blame on the carrier but a follow up comment said, "I blame google for this one. The old app market used to fly." Having seen this I thought I would try seeing what else I could find and I came across this rather illuminating thread. Some of the posts are quite old but from the posts that were added in the last few days there are some interesting comments:

"Google, the new Market is a failure. You didn't test it. You just expect your paying customers to test it. Very lame."
"I still don't know why the Market takes forever to load up though. It is really annoying. I loved the old Market, it was fast, plain and simple."
"I'm a software developer and also I've seen that once the new update of the market was released, the download counter of the apps I've put on the market has completely halted (it was like 20+ download/day)."
"no longer show 'new apps'. This is concerning from a user and developer perspective. As a user, I always looked at the new stream when I was bored. As a developer, you count on people looking at that to get people to use your app. Why is this now gone?"

Of course, these are all anecdotal but it is an indication that I am not alone (which is a relief) but the last two quotes I have put is a concern for someone like me who is hoping soon to start producing apps for putting on the Market.

If this is correct and the Market is currently is a very broken state I would hope that a fix will be coming out soon. If what the developer quoted above says is true it will not be long before more developers find that their revenue stream stream has dried up overnight.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

It's a small(ish) world

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about an experiment I tried on Google+. It was not terribly scientific; I was curious to see how many people used the 'Nearby' stream that I noticed on the Google+ Android app so I posted a comment with a location asking for comments. I had not explicitly requested locations from the people reading it but some people volunteered this information and it became apparent that 'nearby' is a bit of a loose concept.

Recently, Google made accounts on Google+ available to everyone, having previously restricted it by requiring an invite from an existing user., and I was curious to see what this did for the 'nearby' range. To this end I put out another post with a location attached, this time asking people to tell me where they were reading it from. This time I had more individuals responding, as I expected with the increased population, although no conversations started this time so the total number of comments was much fewer. Here is a map of the results.

(View as a large map) The red marker is where Google+ thought I was at the time (I didn't have GPS turned on when I made the post so it is accurate to a few hundred meters). As I was watching the comments come in I thought that the range had been brought in but now looking at the map I see that there are still three outliers to the West at about the furthest distance I saw last time. Someone even commented that he was in New Zealand, but when I looked at his profile it contained almost no information and his comment vanished after a few minutes so I think it was someone having a laugh.

I don't know if this proves anything but I thought it was interesting.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Footnote to a footnote

On Sunday I wrote a slightly more serious blog post than normal (sorry, normal service will be resumed shortly) about the World Youth Day in Madrid and I had a footnote about the supposed controversy regarding the cost of the event. Apart from stating time and again that the cost was being covered entirely by the participants and private donations, the organisers pointed out that the vast numbers of visitors to the city would generate a good deal of revenue during a month that is normally a quiet time in the Spanish capital. Now, after the event, the Madrid Chamber of Commerce have given their estimation of what the event brought to the city and they, if anyone, are the ones who are going to be most concerned about costs to the local population. Unfortunately, this page is in Spanish but from the Google translated version of the page I see that they put the figure at around €160 million, far in excess of the €50 million cost. On the basis of this I would say that the case is now closed.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

World Youth Day

This time last week, before the start of the World Youth Day, I was anticipating the lack of interest by the media in the UK about the event. As the week progressed I became more annoyed at the reporting, focussing on a handful of protesters while ignoring the hundreds of thousands of young people who were gathering to see the Pope. Now I am positively peeved that the best that most mainstream news companies can manage is a short article that highlights the protests (of course) and mentions a peripheral occurrence of little importance. For example, the BBC's latest video clip of the event sees the weather as the most newsworthy item and then goes on to interview one of the protesters.

I would say that what is more newsworthy is the fact that over 1.5 million (some estimates are as high as 2 million) young people from all around the world and from many walks of life have gathered in a great show of friendship and fellowship to listen eagerly to the words of an 84-year-old man who is continually labelled as out-of-touch by the world's press. I know some people who went from the UK who may be in that picture near one of the Union Flags and I know they have been looking forward to this experience for some time. Andrew Brown of the Guardian, at least, blogged about the incongruity of the coverage of the event.

I did managed to catch the prayer vigil, not on any mainstream media but from one of a few Catholic news websites who were streaming the event. During this, a number of young people spoke to the Pope, telling him of their experiences and asking him for his advice. Amongst them was a lady from Kenya who spoke about Strathmore University's Community Outreach Programme that seeks to help suffering people in other parts of Africa, such as North Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. The BBC would do well to find Ms Warau and interview her, thus bringing attention to a very positive effort to get relief to the victims of the recent drought. Sadly, and ironically, the inclement weather meant that the Pope had to cut short his speech in response but it it possible to read the whole thing online. Here he speaks of taking the example of Christ:

He who took upon himself our afflictions, is well acquainted with the mystery of human suffering and manifests his loving presence in those who suffer. They in their turn, united to the passion of Christ, share closely in his work of redemption. Furthermore, our disinterested attention towards the sick and the forgotten will always be a humble and warm testimony of God’s compassionate regard.
Earlier in the day he expanded on this idea when he addressed people at the Foundation of St Joseph’s Institute who, inspired by Christ, had dedicated their life to the care of the disabled.

Something else that struck me was the sudden changes in the crowd from the wild jubilation of a party atmosphere, to the attention during the prayer vigil and finally to deep reverence at the benediction at the end. We are continually told that most Catholics only give lip-service to the teachings of the Church but the 1.5 million young people in Cuatro Vientos last night say differently. I experienced the same last year in Hyde Park; it was a festival during the afternoon but as soon as the Pope arrived the atmosphere changed throughout the whole crowd and then for the benediction you could hear a pin drop.

I was at Mass myself this morning at the same time that the Pope was celebrating it in Madrid so I could not see it live. As is traditional, the Pope ends by officially announcing the location of the next World Youth Day, which will be in Rio de Janeiro in 2014.

On costs

The protests were, we were told time and again, just about the cost of the event and not directed at the Pope or ordinary Catholics. From an article from the BBC:
"I don't have anything against the Pope coming here," explained Pinar Alegre, who was herself baptised as a baby but is not a practising Catholic. "But I'm upset we are spending money we don't have, on a Catholic event when this is not a Catholic country."
Apart from pointing out yet again that the cost of the visit is being covered mainly by the participants, with the remainder coming from private donations, I expect the protesters to be out in similar force for other events that will be held at tax-payers expense. I will not be holding my breath.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Careful what you wish for

Earlier today I was idly looking at the Google+ application on my Android phone and wondering about the 'Nearby' stream. For those who don't know, Google+ is Google's new social media platform that is going to change our lives forever and on the Android app (and possible the app for other platforms as well) it is possible to view public posts made by people nearby, for some value of 'nearby'. I was curious about how much this was used so I posted:
On the G+ Android app I can see 'nearby' posts. Does anyone use this? If you are reading this in the 'nearby' list please add a comment.
I added my location and waited, not really expecting much of a response.
Six hours later and I have nearly 50 comments, mostly from people I've never met. Of course, some of these comments are by the same people but I still got replies from 17 different people, only one of whom I know. So what did I learn from this?

  • Yes, people do actually read the 'nearest' stream. It seems that people like being nosey and seeing what their neighbours are up to, especially if they do not have many active friends on the network yet.
  • If you ask to be spammed you will be spammed. At times I was getting an alert on my phone every few minutes to tell me a comment had been added.
  • Google's idea of 'nearby' is quite broad to say the least. At first I was getting people from Stockport and Marple but then someone popped up out to the West in Partington and then there were a couple from up North as far as Bolton and Haslingden. I hadn't actually asked for locations but a several people volunteered this information.
  • Adding a comment to a post puts it back to the top of the list. I had specifically asked people to add comments and when they did this highlighted the post for even more people to see. I think it is dying down a bit now with the last comment added nearly an hour ago but who knows what will happen overnight.
  • One person commented, "I love that I'm getting different views on here. My Facebook is a bit of a bubble of people that think a lot like me, on here there's all sorts. Yet the conversations remain largely civil, so far at least! <3" I am not claiming that this thread or, more widely, Google+ is an embryonic intellectual debating society but I agree that it is nice to see that a group of complete strangers from various walks of life can still have a civil chit-chat about nothing in particular on the Internet.

What goes around ...

I have been clearing out some really old stuff this morning and I stumbled upon a couple of amusing things that I thought I had lost a long time ago. They are letters from when I was living in London last millennium.

On Saturday 12 June 1999 I travelled up to Manchester for the weekend to be fitted for clothes ahead of my brother's wedding later that year and we were supposed to catch the train together from London Euston. London Underground, however, had other ideas. I had to get from Bayswater Underground Station to Euston Square, six stops that should take about 15 to 20 minutes and, although I cannot remember the exact details, I will have allowed myself much more than that. I knew that there were engineering works starting on that day on the Circle Line but that was around the Kensington corner and I had naively believed the advertisements that explained that the rest of the service would run as normal. After all, I would be catching the first train of the day and for such extensive and well anticipated works surely preparations would have been made to ensure that it all starts off well at least. Oh, how wrong I was.

I do not recall that the train was late in arriving but then it came to a halt at Edgware Road, just two stops along. There we waited. And waited. And listened to no announcements explaining what was going on. And waited a bit more. And got off the train to talk to station staff who were nowhere to be found. Now, trains waiting at stations for a few minutes for no apparent reason is par for the course on the Underground but this delay had gone beyond even the worst hold up at rush hour and I was well aware that the ample time I had allowed for my journey was slipping away as I sat less than 3 miles from where my train to Manchester stood ready to depart. Eventually I concluded that I would have to find other means so I left the station to set off on foot while attempting to hail a taxi, not as easy as I had anticipated on a Saturday morning. I had got to Baker Street before I found one and I was now hoping that Virgin Trains were operating normally and about half an hour behind schedule. Sadly this was not the case.

This rather long-winded exposition is to provide background to two letters I found, as mentioned at the start. The first is simple a courtesy reply to a letter of complaint I had written on 21st June and instructed me that according to their Customer Charter I should receive a full response within 21 days. I don't know exactly what the Charter says but it was dated 5th July which by my calculation means that they have added an extra 2 weeks onto their required response time. I no longer have my original letter but in it I explained what had happened, that it was due to the engineering works that they had foreseen and planned in such a way that a normal service could operate, and detailed the extra expense I had incurred; one taxi fare and the surcharge on my advanced rail ticket to allow me to use it on a different train.

21 days from 5th July is 26th July. I received the following dated 30th, a full 39 days after my original letter:

Thank you for your letter of 21 June, about your disrupted journey by Underground on 12 June. I apologise for the delay in replying, which is due to a backlog of correspondence. 
I am sorry for any inconvenience you were caused by the delay to the Circle Line service. Trains were subject to delay following a signal failure at High Street Kensington. Under the terms of our Customer Charter, our liability is limited to a refund of the single fare for any delay over 15 minutes caused by a failure on our part. Claims will generally only be considered if submited on the appropriate forms availabile from Underground stations, within 14 days of any delay being claimed for. In this instance, I enclose a voucher for £1.00 as refund in respect of your Carnet ticket. You can exchange this voucher for cash at any Underground station ticket office on production of a satisfactory proof of identity. However, we cannot be held responsible for consequential loss resulting from the delay and in this respect we do not refund taxi costs. 
I am sorry my reply cannot be more favourable. 
Yours sincerely &c. 

So there you have it. Supposed signal failures had meant that I was out of pocket to the tune of a taxi fair and an extra rail fare but London Underground had generously given me a voucher for £1, which I still have because I never got round to cashing it in. I say 'supposed signal failures' because I do not believe that for an instant. The engineering works started on that day and the Circle Line was then in complete chaos up until the point that they decided to completely shut it down. I am sure that the 'backlog of correspondence' was due to huge numbers of complaints similar to mine and the matter had even been raised in parliament.

The other letter I found was also from when I was trying to escape London back up to the North but on a more permanent basis. I had applied for a job at Daresbury Laboratory and received the following, postmarked 10th February 1999:

Dear Mr Haig 
Thank you for your interest in our recent advertisement for Software Engineers in our Electronics and Controls Group. 
I am sorry to tell you, however, that action to fill these vacancies has been put on hold for the time being. We anticipate that the positions could now be filled rather later in the year than we had initially intended. I am sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused, and will contact you when action to fill the positions is resumed. 
Yours sincerely &c. 

I'm still waiting. In the meantime I'll continue working on software that may well end up on their machines.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Double Gloucester, toil and trouble.

Yesterday I saw a photograph in the paper of a 14 year old girl in a grubby T-shirt and bedraggled hair proudly holding aloft a double Gloucester having been crowned the women's winner of the annual cheese rolling competition. This national treasure is just one of many traditions maintained in various parts of the British Isles which all the locals of the area hold dear and treat with great respect and reverence while the rest of the world, including most of the rest of the country, look on baffled. What amused me more, however, was that the caption on the picture explained how this fine tradition had been banned last year due to health and safety fears by the powers-that-be but had been organised this year by a group of rebels who decided defy the authorities. I imagined small groups of people furtively shuffling along, always glancing behind to see if they were being followed, to a pre-arranged clandestine hill (if that is not a contradiction) where look-outs were posted every 10 meters to check for spies and die-hard participants were sworn to secrecy before the counterfeit dairy product could be revealed to the gasps of the expectant throng. All this to protect the great symbol of British freedom that is the right to run, tumble or somersault downhill after a lump of coagulated milk fats. I noticed that both the girl I have already mentioned and the man who won all three of the men's races appeared to be missing the same front tooth - a warning to others foolhardy enough to consider participating in such a cruel and bloodthirsty pursuit.

Or maybe it just took place on the usual day at the usual place with police and ambulances in attendance, as usual, and everyone had jolly good fun while the rest of the world, including most of the rest of the country, looked on baffled.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The train departing from platform 5 will depart from platform 3

Last Friday I started writing some notes for this blog on my way back to Manchester but I didn't get very far as I ended up chatting most of the way with three Americans from Washington (state) who are over here travelling around England. I warned them against telling people they are travelling around 'England' when they got up as far as Edinburgh and then on to Aberdeen, before making their way back down to York. I was a little perplexed that they had chosen Manchester as a suitable tourist destination but they explained that they were taking the opportunity to see a soccer game and apparently, to people from across the pond, these usually take place at Old Trafford. (Just for the record, I love Manchester and think there are plenty of interesting things to see, but I just wouldn't place it in my top ten holiday destinations in the UK, especially not alongside London, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and York)

My travelling companions, as I found out, should actually have been on the next train and would probably have been asked to pay a hefty surcharge had a ticket inspector come round. Fortunately, the inspector was nowhere to be seen, as I have found to be the case whenever (a) the train is late, (b) the train is crowded and (c) all the passengers had been told, after boarding at Euston and wondering what the hold-up was, to get off platform 5 and traipse over to platform 3 instead. I think the guard was watching me to make sure I had just finished settling myself down before making that announcement. As it happens, the train departed at about the time the three Americans' train should have left anyway, so I think they would have had a fairly strong case in their favour (or favor?). Not only this, but they had just raced across London, after some helpful soul had instructed that they needed to get to London Victoria.

I was travelling back to Manchester on the Friday morning so that I could get to the Maundy Thursday Mass in Winchester on the previous evening. This weekend is the most important time in the Christian calendar and the tradition in the Catholic church is to celebrate what is called the Easter Triduum comprising three services on the Thursday evening, Friday afternoon and Saturday evening. These three services form a unity, and so it felt a little odd to travel a couple of hundred miles from the first part to the second. I wonder if this is some sort of record. Probably not; for that I would probably need to get up to somewhere like Inverness for the Easter vigil on Saturday night. (Is this the correct use of a semi-colon? I have never really been clear on this punctuation, but what I have been told is that it is for a break that is more than a comma but less than a full-stop, and that seems appropriate here)

I took a few photographs last week but didn't get round to uploading them. My (rather lame) excuse is that I had been put in a room in the hotel that was too far away from the wireless access point, and so was practically unusable. Here, then, are some of those pictures.

On the main street, High Street, there is a section called The Pentice seen here from the East (right) and the West (left). I took these photographs early on a sunny day on a phone camera, so I apologise for the quality. I discovered that the word 'pentice' comes from the Latin 'appendo', meaning 'to hang', and the word 'penthouse', an apartment added to the top of a building, is a corruption of it. The Pentice in Winchester seems to have been built and rebuilt over last seven or eight centuries. Up until the 12th century, this area was probably part of a Norman palace and then, after this was destroyed, it became the site of the Winchester Mint until the start of the 13th century.
There then appeared The Drapery, where drapes and cloth were sold, and it is possible that it was a covered market from this time. In the 14th century, the name changed from The Drapery to The Pentice but the actual colonnade probably dates from the 15th century, with number 32 being rebuilt in the 19th. The shops are not numbered, but it is quite easy to spot which is number 32 - there are three buildings with similar sloping roofs with a big square building nestling between them. You can see this on the first picture, between the black-and-white and the green buildings with sloping roofs, although a picture from a different angle would have been better.

In case you were wondering, this is not actually my own research but taken from Winchester and Late Medieval Urban Development: From Palace to Pentice by Tom Beaumont James and Edward Roberts - worth a read if you are interested.

Across the road from The Pentice is Parchment Street, with WH Smith taking over the entire block before it crosses over St George's Street. The picture is the best I could do, bearing in mind that it was taken underneath The Pentice so the ceiling and pillars got in the way a bit. I am guessing that Parchment Street originally housed bookshops and stationers, and perhaps this is why WH Smith chose this site. As it is, I could find only one other shop, a second-hand bookshop, that would be apropriate for the street name.

I hope this wasn't too incoherent and disjointed. Once again, this was written while travelling down to sunny Hampshire and posted with minimal editing before heading off to bed.

Monday, 18 April 2011

The train arriving on platforms 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 is coming in sideways.

I am back on the train to Winchester again, this time going via London, and I thought I would use my GPS enabled phone to track the route this time. Being a phone, and not a specialised GPS receiver, it is probably not best suited for use on a high-speed train (anyone who has been on a train in the rest of Europe may think I am being ironic refering to our trains as "high-speed" but for us the Manchester-London line is fast) and GPS is only accurate to few meters at the best of times so it doesn't surprise me that the position appears to veer off the railway line from time to time but I found it amusing that it seemed to think I was still travelling at 1 mph while stopped at Stockport. Not only that, but we appeared to move across a few platforms. (As I write this, I see that it has lost it's GPS position completely, so this track is not really going to be too accuarate)

The reason I am taking the route via London is that I was singing in a concert at the Bridgewater Hall that was billed as "Music for a Royal Wedding", and thus was likely to miss the last direct train (don't talk to me about the vagaries of pre-booked rail ticket restrictions). It was originally billed as a "St George's Day Concert" but the organisers, never one to miss a trick, changed it to cash in on the Royal Wedding in a couple of weeks time. However, I think they missed a trick here as the hall was about half full (or half empty?) even with a last minute "two for the price of one" offer. I put this down to the fact that the wedding isn't for another couple of weeks with Easter in between to act as a huge mental block in most people's minds, not to mention that many of the people who would have loved to go to a concert to celebrate St George's day wouldn't really have felt the same way under the new billing. The programme was pretty much unchanged from the same concert last year (which, incidentally, has a lot of the same repetoir as most other concerts by this particular concert organiser, be it the "Last Night of the Autumn Proms", "Sping Gala" or "Classics for Christmas") with a few changes such as the omision of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" (what message would that have sent to the happy couple?) and the inclusion of an excerpt from Wagner's Lohengrin (ie, the Wedding March).

I was going to make a comment about the presenter but I think something an alto from the choir posted on Facebook tops anything I could say:

The narrator at our concert this afternoon was Ian Lavender of "Private Pike in Dad's Army" fame. Half way through the concert he tried to make a joke about the FA Cup score, saying that, "It didn't matter which side won the match because ultimately Manchester still won it" ... There was a moment of stunned silence in the audience before someone shouted out loudly, "Stupid Boy!"

Now I have arrived in Winchester having left Manchester on the 18:35 to London Euston, then going from London Euston I went to London Waterloo on the underground, then London Waterloo to Basingstoke and finally picking up the direct train that had left Manchester at 18:27 for the last stop. Oh well.

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Sound of Silence

"No seat reservations on board this service, due to a fault." So say the electronic displays all the way along the carriage of the train I am currently on on my way back to Manchester. There are no passengers standing, so this is not a particular problem from that point of view, but the lack of reservations means that the designation of a "Quiet Zone" becomes little more than a token gesture. The baby who has been making noises since she got on does not particularly bother me - that is, after all, what babies do and she is not to know any better - but the two guys who, by chance, have between them what are in my opinion the two ugliest accents in the British isles are starting to get on my nerves. Far be it for me to slander any particular accent, but as we pull out of Lemington Spa I am sure that one of them will be leaving soon, while the other is probably on his way to Manchester so that he can then travel a further 30 miles or so West.

The facard of a particular building on St George's street in Winchester caught my eye this week. In an historic city such as this it is an occupational hazard when excavating that you should unearth some ancient treasure and this seems to have happened here, as a plaque on the wall explains: "When repairs were being made to this building in 1959 the carved stones displayed in this wall were found. One stone above the plaque is Saxon work of the 9th century, the others are Norman. They probaly came from the Church of St. Ruel, the site of which lies to the south of here. The church was in existence by 1172. Some bricks from a Roman building which lay beneath the church are also built into the wall."
I have tried to capture some of this, with the 9th century Saxon work on the right and the Norman stone on the left. Below is a view of the whole wall. I wonder if, in centuries to come, an excavation across the road from this site will honour the discovery of the Golden Arches from Ronald's Temple of the Church of American Consumerism.

Another interesting building is the Guildhall, across the road from the bus station. These days this building is a hotel and restaurants, including a Pitcher and Piano on the ground floor of the section shown in the picture. In the windows above this are a number of shields. Being the Guildhall, I would guess that these are the shields of the tradesmen's guilds of the city, or perhaps they are the coats of arms of various nobles, from the time when Winchester was the capital of England. I would be interested to find out - answers on a postcard.

Most of the photographs so far have been of various parts of Winchester. By way of variety, then, here are a couple from the IBM site at Hursley.
First is a picture of the main building, Hursley House where important people and customers who need to be impressed are taken. Sadly, the lab I am working in is located elsewhere but I did have a meeting in the auditaurium, in the right wing of the building at the back, when it took a room full of engineers fifteen minutes to work out how to bring down the blinds and turn on the projector. The other is taken with my back to the hall and shows the cricket ground - not exactly what you expect to find on a company's development campus.
I have made contact with the person in charge of our group's cricket team but it is likely that I will be back in Manchester before they play any games.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Sweet dreams are made of these

I would like to get some more pictures of the town centre of Winchester but the weather has turned bad today so I will leave it for another day. What I will say is that the main shopping streets are now, as is the case with most places in Britain, filled with all the usual suspects; Starbucks across the road from Cafe Nero, Marks & Spencer competing with Debenhams, Clintons for greeting cards and JJB for sports. You get the picture.

Although the shops you see while walking through the centre of town could make you think of pretty much any other town centre in the country, there are still one or two charming local shops here and there such as Henleys, a Traditional Sweet Shop with candy canes and jars of all sorts of multi-coloured delights in the window. Sadly, as with much of Winchester (the Cathedral, the museums, the shops), it is only open at precisely the time I have to be at work and having travelled the length of the country to be on site I do not think I would get away with asking to "work from home".

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk

Kesler, a colleague who is over from the Shanghai office, very kindly offered to take us out, before he flies back to the Far East, to a Chinese restaurant. The plan was to go to a place just across the road by the name of Terracotta, which has two members of this famous army outside facing King Alfred, but it turned out that they were open every day except Tuesdays. What are the chances, eh? There is only other one is Mr So, at the other end of town, but when I was out yesterday evening I saw that they were closed for refurbishment so we decided that the Chinese evening had to wait until tomorrow night and we set of in search of alternative victuals. I was a bit perturbed to find that Mr So was actually open, making me think I had dreamed it yesterday, but this turned out to be their opening night after the place had been taken over by new management.

The food was excellent, thanks to careful selection by Kesler, but the service, I'm afraid, was less so. We saw one group threaten to walk out after waiting for over an hour and I'm sure that at least one other group did. We did wait (for over an hour), which was fortunate as the food was, as I have already said, excellent. I don't go in for taking photographs of my meals as I have noticed that some people do on Facebook, but two particular highlights were a steamed fish (trout? I'm afraid I don't know my fish very well) and oysters, which for me is a new experience. I would like to say that the poor service was due to being particularly busy on the first night but I don't really think another night would be much better. However, if you are willing to wait it is worth it.

Finally, after the photograph from yesterday of the cathedral surrounded by fire engines I thought that I should have another one without obstruction, so here is one from the other end, taken this morning. So far, the beautiful weather is holding, but for how long I cannot say.

Monday, 11 April 2011

A morning stroll

The hotel I am staying at looks out onto Winchester cathedral, which is a beautiful view to have in the morning. This week I am fortunate enough to have a room on this side, rather than one overlooking the backstreet as I did last week. However, the view is probably not best augmented by fire engines, as in the picture. Fortunately, there doesn't look to be anything serious happening, although the fire engines stayed around for a few hours, which is not a good sign. As I write this, they have all just driven off.

So, where is Winchester? Apparently, it is 63 miles from London, 12 miles from Southampton, 27 miles from Portsmouth and 25 miles from Salisbury, so says the side of this building (left). I found this on a walk this morning, which took me past the last remaining part of the original Roman walls that remain.

A plaque on the wall, shown right but not visible on the picture of the whole wall section because of the tree, that shows the full extent of the original walls. Westgate still exists, and it is by the law courts and military museum. There is also a section of the castle from when Winchester was the capital of England. Here is the best view I could find from Google Streetview, based on the Geotag on the photograph of the plaque.

It gets everywhere

One for my colleagues here. On my walk I found a house that looks like it hasn't been lived in for years, but look closely at the bottom right window and you will see someone has written 'AIX' in the dust. Is there no escape?

Sitting on a railway station, got a ticket for my destination ...

Well, more like sitting on a train on the last stretch back to Manchester after three and a half days in darkest Hampshire. The people who pay to keep me off the streets have seen fit to send me on a jollywork trip down to the labs in Hursley to help out with the last stage of testing on a soon to be released product. This being a blog open to the public, I am obviously not going to give too many details about that but I thought I would jot a few notes about the non-work related aspects. I have for some time intended to start a blog but have never had enough things of interest to write about before. Now I have, lets see how long it lasts.

This started a few weeks ago when someone gave a presentation in our lab about new projects we are starting to work on in conjuction with the site in Hursley, and mentioned that they were keen for a few of our number to go and help them in their release cycle. This would be mutually beneficial as those who went down would return with a lot of valuable experience to spread around when they got back. Not really expecting much, I told my manager that I was curious about what this would involve. This slight curiousity somehow arrived at a lab managers meeting as a strong desire and, a few rushed discussions and arrangements later, I was on the train down to Winchester with a colleage, Norman, to do what both of us only had the slightest inkiling about.

And so to the blog. I thought I would try to write something every day or two but I am now on the journey back on the first Friday evening. Is it of interest? Will I make it to a second post this time? Will my writing style cause anyone with the slightest knowledge of the English language howl with agony? Only time will tell. Oh, and you too, if you decide to comment below.

[Edit] What I wrote above, and most of what I wrote below, was indeed written on Friday night on the train but my good intention to edit and publish it over the weekend went awry and so it is now Monday night that I am polishing this up.

Alfred and the Lion

One of the first things that I noticed when arriving at the hotel we are staying at in Winchester is that in the middle of the road there is a huge statue of some bloke holding a sword aloft. Someone with a better grasp of British history than I would probably know instantly who this is likely to be but I, who am a bear with very little brain, did not. Discovering this, I decided, was my task for the week. I admit that this is not something that would have taxed Herculese, considering that it just involved going up to the statue and looking at the plaque, but it was something to do.

This gentleman is, of course, King Alfred the Great, or Ælfred as the engraving says. There is a plaque under the statue which I have photographed, right,
but it is a bit illegible, so if you do not want to strain your eyes, it reads, "Alfred, king of the West Saxons (AD 871-899) drove the Danish invaders from Wessex. He created fortified centres, of which Winchester, the largest, was his capital. During his reign, the streets in use today were first established. Alfred was the most esteemed of English kings. He encouraged the revival of learning and monastic life, and laid the foundation for a single kingdom of England. This statue by Hamo Thorneycroft was erected in 1901."

It's not fire, it's only bell!

One of the last things I experienced in the lab before leaving to get on this train was a test of the file alarms. This may not appear immediately as anything particularly noteworthy except that it very nearly gave me a heart attack. Prior to the test there was an announcement over the PA system, just loud enough to make out the general gist but not loud enough to actually be able to hear clearly, to the effect that the alarms would shortly be tested and this is just a test and people should not evacuate the building and how we would know if there happened to be a real fire and on and on and on. This went on for close to a minute and was then followed by a pause that allowed me, and I'm sure other people as well, to pass from heightened anticipation, through slight impatience all the way down to completely forgetting that anything had happened. There then came the Ride of the Valkyrie in bell form that only lasted a few seconds, so even without the preceeding warning there was not long enough for people to recover from the mild trauma and start leaving the building. There was another pause to lull us all back into a sense of security only to be jolted back to reality by another short blast of the bell. This happened once more that I can remember, but it is possible that my mind has blocked this ordeal from my mind. The Chinese water torture came to my mind but happily there was then another announcement declared that the test was over although I couldn't hear the details over the ringing in my ears.

A sport for animals played by gentlemen

And now on as I get to the end, the train has just filled up with people at Stockport on their way into Manchester. From what I can overhear, it sounds more like a rugby crowd rather than football - little things like the mention of Glocester, Worcester (who are apparently more of a rival than Bath) and only losing by 5 points, not to mention that they all appear to be sober, civilised and not making me hope that I can pass the last part of the journey without being noticed.