For followers of my writing adventure, I have two short stories published in the anthology, Page Dancers. You can find the book for sale via bookfinder or read about it at IFWG Publishing.
The two stories are Barking Dog and Medic! both of which I first published here on Sal's story mat.
Thanks to the support and guidance of everyone who has given me feedback on my writing here at Sal's - I would never have achieved this milestone without your enthusiasm and dedication.
As many of my good friends on Sal's will be aware, I've been unemployed for almost exactly one year. The stress of this situation has borne a heavy toll on me and on my personal life. During this time I have valued the support of my many friends here on Sal's.
Thank you everyone who has offered me kind and supportive words during the past year.
I've just started my new job and am about to undertake my first big assignment, so won't be on these forums so much for the coming days and weeks.
Even though I know there is much disapproval of the situation, I won't reserve my words. At a time when everything else went wrong, Pixel Bunnie provided me with support and encouragement that I received from nowhere else. When those closest to me withdrew or undermined me, she was present and built me back up. Pixel Bunnie, thank you very much for all that you have done for me this past year; I appreciate it all.
I was just on a training course preparing me for my new job, which I'll be starting in the next couple of months when I picked up a missed call from my wife that the house had been broken into. I wrapped up what I was doing on the course and headed home. The front door had been broken in and there was quite a mess, but lots of things got passed over, so I guess the burglar didn't stay in the house more than 15 minutes. He took jewellery, my two boys' Nintendo DS's and games and a small amount of cash - nothing else seems to have gone and the front door's been repaired already. It happened between 1PM and 3PM today - the time when the boys' childcarer had them out of the house on a trip to the park. We've done the necessary - police, insurance and mostly tidied up already. That's about it. Just posting it here because it will get the attention of the right interested people.
A week became a month and then two and eventually three. Sorry for the long delay. Simple would have done better, but admitted to copying and pasting existing material, so I'm going with Desireful's offering. Congratulations Desireful.
I shut the car door with a bang. I tried to block out my sisters whines. I was here. King's Island. My favorite amusement park. The smell of cotton candy wafted all the way into the parking lot, giving me a feeling of excitement. My family and I approached the front gates, our tickets in hand. We hand them to the lady, and are admitted into the park. The boys go to the left to hit the coasters and the girls go to the right to hit the children rides. Hours after hours we waited in lines for a 3 minute ride or less. Does that sound boring? I particularly love waiting in line for the thrill of my life. The fresh, lazy breeze, cooling us off after hours in the hot sun always make me feel more awake. Step by step we will move closer to the ride, with our anticipation growing.
Halfway through the day, we will all meet up and vaguely describe our stories of what we did that morning. We discuss how expensive the food and drink prices are and what we should do after lunch. We decide we will all do a few rides together. We throw away our greasy trash into the nearby trash cans, and walk away stuffed with pizza and soda. We walk by a Merry-Go-Round and my little sister insists that we should ride it. So we quickly get into the 3 person line, and board the ride. We spin around on the horses for several minutes and then get off. We walk to "The Son of the Beast" and quickly realize... my little sister is gone!
We abruptly all turn around, scanning the crowds in every direction. We find the nearest park worker and told him of our problem. He said he was going to go to the person that deals with these things, and walked into a large building. We trace our steps back to the merry-go-round and find my little sister in line for the ride. Again. She waves at us, smiling, just as little kids do. We take her out of the line, and keep her in our line of sight. We head back towards "The Son of the Beast" and as we get closer, I realize just how tall and big it is. With a staggering height of 218 ft (66 m), I gulp, and felt butterflies in my stomach.
I glance up at the top, and notice two helicopters flying around up there. I look a little bit below them, and half the train is hanging off the track, at the tallest point in the ride! I alert everyone in my group, and we decided that it probably won't be opened for the rest of the day, so we went and found a different ride instead.
As we look back at that.. if my little sister didn't get lost, we could have been on there, hanging 200 feet above the ground. But the bright side is, no one died or got seriously injured. There was only minor brusing and everyone was ok. I later went on "The Son of the Beast" the next year, without it flying off the tracks. Does everything happen for a reason? I, for one, am starting to believe that statement more and more.
I was hoping to set up a quiz for all my readers before I went away on a week's vaction, but I've just run out of time. Instead, I'll invite the authoring of a guest entry. This was the concept behind this blog's predecessor, The Anti-Blog, but it didn't work out quite how I intended. I'll give it a try since I won't be active here for a week, and see whether there are any improvements in the standard of the offerings.
Basically, write an entry for my blog - make it "Eclectic Nostalgic Reminiscence" - a story from your life, and post it here as a comment. On my return, I'll judge the best entry and give you a slot in the Prize Winners' list and make that comment the next entry in this blog.
Hands up if you remember the MS-Blaster virus.
The outbreak of this particular virus was the high-water mark of my career authority and responsibility (for which, read "Power").
It started as a regular day for me, but around 9:30AM I received an SMS text message instructing me to call in to an emergency conference call number immediately. I was running a department of twenty-or-so IT support technicians supporting one site in a multi-national pharmaceutical company. The message came from the central IT support function for Europe - one of my many "bosses" in the wondrous management miracle known as a "matrix organisation." I dialled in and found out that a virus (later identified as MS-Blaster) had breached corporate security and had placed a number of key systems at risk. I needed to be on the call in another fifteen minutes to receive instructions on how we were to proceed. In that time I alerted my team to expect some emergency measures, to check our security systems and security logs. This had happened before, nothing too special, until the bombshell landed. There was no way for us to contain the outbreak as the anti-virus companies didn't have a profile and clean-up tool yet. The head of European IT therefore mandated that we physically unplug every single device connected to the corporate network.
Now, one of the things that middle managers learn over time is this: You get promoted for being bright, capable, able to think for yourself, make sensible decisions and all the rest. Then you get saddled with passing on the most bizarre instructions from on high. But with an organisation many thousands strong, you don't get a chance to argue. Like steering a super-tanker, when the captain says turn to port, if the rudder doesn't shift and the beast begin to turn, only those with a view of everything that's going on from the bridge will fully understand the consequences. Sometimes, you have to swallow common sense (sorry CS) and fall in line. My site wasn't even infected. We could have just cut our WAN links... Ours not to reason why. Ours but to do and die.
I sat back for a minute or two and formulated a plan of action - then I went for it. I sent an e-mail to the whole of site IT - about seventy people, which said something like this:
Unless you are in a business-critical, customer-facing meeting please report immediately to the IT Operations office to assist with an emergency situation.
I then wrote a short notice explaining the situation and printed fifty copies to hand out to everyone who would be arriving. While I did this I was talking to my junior managers and asked them to appoint staff to take ownership of a series of separate duties:
Communication with central IT
Communication with users
Communication with management
Communication with IT helpers (due through the door any minute now)
Monitoring our security systems
Monitoring our network
Acquiring physical maps of site (there were about seven large buildings and about a dozen small buildings on the site)
Within ten minutes I was running a department of around sixty staff. The walls were covered in maps with different coloured pins in them. As our colleagues wandered into the office, they were handed a piece of paper explaining the background of the situation, then asked to report to a scheduler who was putting together site-walking teams. Once sufficient people were in a team they were then allocated a map of one of the buildings, given a list of IP devices on the corresponding segments of network and let loose. We had about 3000 devices live on the network at 10AM when the first team started to walk the site to physically disconnect network cables. There was a wonderful air of focused, intense, busy-ness.
Around 11AM my boss (the site one this time) came and joined the party. He asked what he could do to help. I suggested getting pizza in for everyone because no one was going to be going to lunch that day. By 12:30 there were less than fifty network devices still on net. Most of those were our own monitoring systems, but a few were obscure devices like the PC in the groundsman's workshed. These were easily dealt with in the next half hour.
Everyone in IT agreed that it had been an exciting, enjoyable and well run operation. Some of the users were less pleased. The site was a pharmaceutical research laboratory. Chemists painstakingly synthesise unique chemicals, then run them through batteries of tests to assess their viability as potential medicines. Several batches of test results were lost as a result of disconnecting the devices, even though we could have isolated their network segments to allow the test instruments to talk to their data gathering devices.
So, why the emergency measure? Well, the outbreak had gotten into a manufacturing facility. That facility produced over half of the world's supply of a medicine used to treat a wide-spread chronic condition. The manufacturing plant came within hours of having to shut down as a result and, undoubtedly, would have resulted in severe illness and death for many thousands of people had their medicine supply been interrupted.
It was very exciting and very rewarding to run such a large team, if only for half a day.
Thanks for reading.
I just wanted to say "Thank you" to so many of the members and staff here at Sal's. The promotion topic, PMs and responses to my other posts around the forum have been universally positive and encouraging since I joined the Moderator team. It's gratifying to see the constructive community spirit of these forums demonstrated and a great reminder of the reason I spend my time here and enjoy being among the membership.
This contrasts sharply with the feedback I received just over a year ago when I made Distinguished Member. I guess that blue-badge got me noticed over the past year and now more members know who I am and how I post. In this regard I think that the DM position, while occasionally challenged as pointless, serves to draw attention to exemplary members who are worth watching and emulating. My behaviour as a DM has been no different than it was as an ordinary member, yet I am on this occasion congratulated, where previously I was either unknown or considered unworthy by a vociferous minority.
I hope that this outpouring of support will be repeated again with each future announcement and recognition of those who make Sal's forums the place we all enjoy being a part of.
Once again, to all my Sal's friends, thank you.
In 1997 I took a trip with my then girlfriend to New Zealand. Anywhere else I've been to in the world, the word "tourist" has been a somewhat derogatory and demeaning term, but not in New Zealand. They sure know how to treat visitors. We met up with my girlfriend's friend who was living in Hamilton on a year's sabbatical and planned a tour. She'd already been to all the preferred tourist hotspots, so while the three of us travelled together, we decided to visit the less-frequented region of the East Cape (the back-fin of the North Island fish-shape). Doing our research before the trip my eye was caught by White Island - a highly active volcano just (50km) off the north coast of the cape. One of the great attractions of New Zealand for me was the fascinating geology and this was an opportunity I didn't want to miss.
The day arrived when we were close to White Island and we hurried down to the port to book our trip across to the Island. There is a handy landing spot at the edge of the old caldera where a shingle beach provides access to shallow bottomed boats, but unfortunately the sea was too rough that day and none of the boats were expecting to be able to make the trip. I didn't want to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity and so persuaded my two companions to fork out the five hundred bucks for the only other means of crossing - helicopter. I have absolutely no regrets about this money well-spent.
The pilot had flown many scientists to the island and had picked up a lot of the science from a layman's perspective - so proved to be an excellent guide. A hundred years ago, the island was inhabited by sulphur miners, but they'd all been killed during an eruption and nobody had risked living there since (though there are webcams permanently situated on the island now). The edge of the caldera stunk of sulphur - aka brimstone. The ancients and mediaevals believed that volcanoes were the entrance to the underworld and that sulphur was the stuff of Hell seeping from its brim. As we strolled across the caldera to the most active part and the central lake we had to don gas masks to protect our lungs and eyes. We were able to walk up to the edge of the lake and peer into it. The pilot had once hovered over the lake and lowered an acidity-meter into the lake, but it hadn't registered a reading because it had dissolved - a feat only possible in a pH below minus one!
On the return flight the pilot made several passes around the island for the keen photographers among us. I'd foolishly only taken my higher powered zoom lens, so wasn't quite able to capture the full majesty of the spectacle, but this is the best picture I managed to take - long before the days of digital photography. I'm very pleased with the level of detail in this 35mm film picture, but if you zoom in a lot you can make out some of the flaws of chemical film production.
My picture of White Island from the helicopter
A couple of weeks later, on South Island, I proposed to my girlfriend and we married the following year (back home in England).
Thanks for reading.
I was newly appointed to run a team of twenty IT staff. I had two junior managers helping run the team; both inexperienced but both very capable. After just a couple of weeks in the job, one of my junior managers, I'll call her S, came to me to let me know that one of her staff, I'll call him M, should be fired. He hadn't been up to the job for months and had been given plenty of opportunity to mend his ways but hadn't improved at all.
As an experienced manager I've dealt with plenty of difficult situations, but I also like to give those around me every opportunity to grow and develop. So I had the following conversation with S:
"I can fire M for you if you like. Or you can. Have you ever done anything like it before?"
"No I haven't."
"How would you feel about doing it?"
"I wouldn't feel at all comfortable."
"Would you like me to show you how to do it?"
S thought about this. Then very determinedly said, "I'll fire him."
"It won't be easy, it could get messy, but I'll teach you exactly what I would do. Also, when you 'do the deed' you can use one of the meeting rooms close to my office. If things get out of hand, I'll hear if there are raised voices, or you can just come and get me and I'll step in."
I then went on to tell her the way to handle any difficult staff management situation - prepare. Schedule a one hour meeting with him, even though it should take nothing like so long. Pick a time when we're all available and make sure you get one of those rooms near my office. You'll want to do this soon, so let's book it for tomorrow. That means you'll be doing all your preparation tonight. Before your meeting, come and see me and we'll review your preparation.
Now, here is what you'll prepare. You will produce a record of every instance in which he has not performed to the standards expected of his role. You will also record every time you've spoken or written to him about his performance. You will specify dates and times where you have them and have to hand any evidence available (print out e-mails and such) to support your case.
Next, you'll imagine how the meeting will go. You'll imagine his reactions, from anger, to silence, to tears, to arguing - and you will prepare a response to every outcome. So that, for instance, if he sits in total silence throughout the whole meeting, you'll know exactly what you're going to say and do. That's it.
Next morning I met with S and asked how the preparation had gone. She said she'd spent three hours working on it and felt as prepared as she could be. I reiterated that I was nearby and available and she went to have the meeting with M. A few minutes later she came to see me in my office and beamed, "That went brilliantly."
She opened the meeting with M by saying, "I'm sorry M, but I'm going to have to let you go. Your work isn't up to standard and you've had every opportunity to improve."
M replied indignantly, "What are you talking about? My work's fine and you've never had any problems with it in the past."
S responded with the air of cool confidence that graces the thoroughly prepared. "Would you like me to go through the facts?"
At this point S pulled out her note booklet, flipped the cover revealing a numbered list filling the whole page. The placed her finger on item number 1 and read it out.
M interrupted her. "I've heard enough. I'll pack my things and go."
M left quietly. S went on to be the most talented natural leader I've ever met in my career.
We prepare as much to prevent as to deliver.
In a further illustration of my belief in this principle, I just last week responded to a survey over in Homework Helpline. The survey was about views on war and I quote the pertinent question and my response:
Thanks for reading.
Breaking with tradition my intentions for this blog, I'm actually going to post an entry outlining some of what happened today.
The morning was fairly uneventful. I was planning to make some baguettes, which my boys have been trying to persuade me to do for some days, then we planned to go to a local park in the afternoon. I set up my bread making machine to prepare the dough for the baguettes to be ready just in time before we went to the park, except, when I opened up the machine, I realised I'd accidentally set it up to bake the bread rather than make dough - so I had a very small french loaf instead. Little did I realise this was a precursor of my lunacy to follow.
We went to the park and met up with another family with a young son and set off on a woodland trail with various activities along the trail. The park was very crowded, compared to normal, but still plenty of space to have fun. My two boys kept on running ahead so, rather than put in the effort to chase them all the way down the path, I spotted an opportunity for a shortcut through the woods. As I reached the point of "I've gone too far to turn back now" I approached a slightly boggy looking ditch. There was no way around, but since it hadn't rained for several days and was even warm enough today for shorts and t-shirt, I decided to pick my way through. I realised this was a bad idea as the sucking mud oozed first over my shoe, then over my sock and eventually half way up my shin. Unperturbed, I pressed on and eventually made it to the other side - short one shoe. After ten seconds of splashing and muddying myself I managed to retrieve the shoe and made my way onto the path to the vast amusement of passing strangers, although my boys were only passingly concerned / amused. Not a good first ten minutes of a two hour park visit.
Excepting the squelching sounds and sucking, moist feeling around both my feet, the next hour or so was relatively uneventful, although we did pass a mock ancient / mediaeval looking village of straw huts at one point. Then we came to a crossing bridleway and were surprised to be passed by a barbarian horde mounted on horseback. They were then followed by several vehicles of cameramen, technicians, caterers and the other paraphernalia of film making. Ten minutes later this was capped off by the passing of a small contingent of roman legionaries, bearing eagle-standards and all the rest of the gear. I managed to grab my camera in time for this lot, unlike the mounted barbarians who preceded them. You can also make out a marching camp just to the left. As an added bonus, you get to see my wife and eldest son in this pic too :(.
Under the pressure of intense interrogation, one of the set workers cracked and revealed that they were making a movie called "Centurions" - but my son stopped asking questions at that point so we didn't find out if any big-name celebs were on set today. An area of woodland just a couple of miles away was destroyed during the opening scene of Gladiator a few years ago ("A people should know when they are conquered."), so the area has a (top notch / reasonable / so-so / rotten - delete as applicable) pedigree in swords-and-sandals movie making.
When I got home I switched on my steamer to make dinner, then went to shower my legs down in the bath. I was wearing shorts, so didn't take off any more clothes. I turned on the shower which was resting in the bath and went to the toilet while it warmed up. The shower head spun around and was spraying water all over me while I rushed to finish up. Then, I finally got in and cleaned my legs. Being an agile fellow I hoist myself out of the bath using just my arms, but I'd forgotten to put my towel down landed on the slippery (shower soaked) hard tile floor and slipped right over with one leg still on the side of the bath. When I eventually composed myself well enough to venture downstairs I found that the steamer was empty - I'd switched it on with no contents.
I really do seem to have turned into Mr Bean today. Luckily, I was laughing at myself all afternoon. Though my wife was just shaking her head and said that I was worse than the boys - to which I had no good answer but to look sorry for myself.
Thanks for not laughing too hard at my misfortune. I hope you had a better day than me. Thanks for reading.
On my engineering degree, the students used to joke that if you got a third class degree you could break things, if you got a lower second you were good at breaking things, if you got an upper second could make things, and if you got a first you were actually good at making things.
I got a lower second and took the advice to heart. After a couple of years as a professional programmer I switched over to software testing and seemed to be pretty good at it. Then again, I thought I was a good programmer too, so maybe I'm just biased. To give an idea of my experience, I've tested and certified software used for:
Military weapons systems, helicopter mission computers, naval data communications, transport aircraft flight control, nuclear power station control, electricity generation scheduling for the UK, spacecraft control, airborne navigation systems, telecommunications backbone network controllers, emergency services call handling and many more besides.
There are two anecdotes I have to relate on this topic and, as so often in my blog, from which to draw broader principles.
I wrote my first company's standards for safety-critical software testing and then went to another organisation to be a testing consultant. While there I became involved in the investigation into the catastrophic failure of the first launch of the European Space Agency's (ESA) first Ariane 5 launch. One of the principles of safety-critical software is that there should be no paths through the software code that aren't anticipated and controlled and tested. That's kind of like saying that a vehicle is designed to travel only on roads - but more severe than saying you'd invalidate your warranty if you took it off road - more like saying that any attempt to steer the vehicle off-road will cause it to automatically steer itself back onto the road. This is all well-and-good for highly tried and tested systems, but.. there are many types of safety critical system and understanding the differences is very important. But I'm getting ahead of myself, so more on that later.
This was one occasion when economists were better engineers than the rocket scientists. The insurance companies refused to insure the launch. ESA gave a free ride to its first passengers - a couple of European satellites worth a few tens of millions of Euros each. Ariane 501 exploded 37 seconds after lift off.
The inertial navigation system of the Ariane 5 launcher was taken directly from the Ariane 4 launcher. Tried and tested technology, proven and trusted. This component had never failed in the lifespan of Ariane 4 and so it seemed like a great idea to use it in the newer, bigger booster. In fact, it was so reliable, it was deemed unnecessary to test it in the full-system test phase of the Ariane 5 pre-launch qualification. Big mistake.
What's an inertial navigation system?
Ariane 5 is so much more powerful than its predecessor Ariane 4 that its immense acceleration takes it into a more horizontal launch profile than the weaker, more vertical launch of the smaller booster. Effectively, it can start to "go into orbit" before it's even left the atmosphere. The inertial navigation system was pre-programmed with the parameters of the Ariane 4 launch profile and, when it wandered outside the expected flight path of the rocket after launch, did something no safety-critical software is meant to do - it did something unexpected. The excellent programmers of this system had, in line with the rules, left out any possibility of it ever facing the input parameters for this particular flight profile. As a result, the software had no idea what to do. The system was developed in a programming language specially designed for safety critical applications, Ada, which in common with most modern languages used exception handlers. These software devices allow the program to follow some pre-defined behaviour whenever an "exception" occurs - an exception being something that wasn't catered for in the original code design. On your home computer, an exception handler has usually been invoked whenever you see an error message pop up from your application.
As I say, the programmers of this system had been very diligent in following the safety-critical rules, and not allowing any extraneous paths through their code "off-road" from the anticipated behaviour, had stripped out all exception handlers. Top marks to them. Exactly what they should do. We don't want code flying on safety-critical systems which has never been tested or proven to work - which by definition is what an exception handler is. So the Ada exception was passed up the chain of command from sub-routine, to main-loop, to operating system at which point an exception handler had been coded - an exception handler designed to cater for all exceptions not handled anywhere else. As you can imagine this didn't take the most specifically-appropriate action to each and every possible exception scenario, instead it hit every problem with exactly the same sledge-hammer response - reboot.
Unsurprisingly, the launcher lost all control and had to be destroyed before endangering anyone or anything over the Atlantic (the splendours of Europe's colonial past mean that ESA has one of the best launch sites of any space agency in the world - right next to the equator).
So what are the different kinds of safety-critical or high reliability systems? I'll illustrate with examples.
You fire a space probe all the way to Saturn, it launches a sub-probe that plunges in a few hours into the atmosphere of Titan, beaming every ounce of data it can back up to the mother-ship before onward transmission to Earth, shortly before being lost forever in the shroud of this alien world's atmosphere. What are you going to do if the software raises an exception? Keep going. If your altimeter stops working? Make a best guess of your altitude. If the mother ship stops responding? Keep transmitting and just hope. You get the idea. It doesn't matter a damn - you've spent billions on this bloody piece of kit and you're not just going to let it give up so easily.
You're controlling a nuclear power station. What do you do if one of the instruments gives an unsafe reading? Shut down the reactor - just to be safe. What about if the instruments give conflicting readings? Shut down the reactor - just to be safe. I think you get the drift on this one.
Now your software is flying (or assisting with flying) an aircraft. One of the altimeters fails? Advise the pilot and suggest an emergency situation. An engine fails? Use the remaining engines to compensate, advise the pilot and suggest an emergency situation. (In fact, this is the best guess to what actually happened in the Turkish Airlines crash outside Schipol airport Amsterdam, but the pilots thought it was still ok to use autopilot with one altimeter down - a mistake they won't have the opportunity to repeat).
Now the software is a depth charge firing system on a helicopter. Navigation system fails? Don't fire - you could be over land. Altimeter fails? Don't fire. In fact for every exception - don't fire. Which reminds me of another funny story. When I was running a team conducting the testing on this particular system we received books of software specification for each unit of the weapons control system, as well as the source code. We produced test software to wrap around each unit and check whether it conformed to its individual specification. One of my team members called me over and asked me what to do about one particular unit. The specification contained the following sum-total content: "Cannot be arsed to write this right now." Needless to say that unit failed its test and was sent back to the software supplier much to their embarrassment.
My second anecdote on software testing is more of a management story. I was fairly new to a telecom software house and was newly appointed as the head of software testing. An urgent project was running close to the wire and the head of product development, J, called me in for a meeting.
J: How long is this going to take to test?
Me: How long have I got?
J: No. I want to know how long this is going to take to test.
Me: It will take as long as you give me.
J: There's only one way to test this stuff. How long is it going to take?
At this point my emotions (my reptilian brain for those who have followed my blog) took over. He'd belittled my department's work by saying there was only one way to test - my temper decided to set him straight and I blurted out the following in unthinking, machine-gun-fast tones.
Me: If there is a data entry field that can take input values from 1 to 100, I could test it with the value 50. I could also test it with 1 and 100 to see that the boundary cases worked. I could test it with 0 and 101 to ensure that values just beyond the boundaries were rejected. I could test it with negative numbers. With fractions or with formulae to assess semantic response. I could enter the value 50.1. I could test it with nothing but a decimal point. I could test it blank. I could test it with letters or symbols for syntax errors. I could test this system for as long as you gave me and it would increase in assurance of reliability with every test.
J looked at me somewhat shell-shocked, then meekly spoke again.
J: You have two weeks.
He never again asked me for how long I would need to test any functionality or system, but instead asked me what level of confidence I would have in a system after given intervals of testing.
On an aside, one thing I've always wanted to try is bug-seeding. The idea is that you get the developers to deliberately "seed" ten bugs into a piece of software. Then you hand it over to the testers. They find say thirty bugs, but only five of your original seeded bugs. You can then astonish them by saying, "You've only found half the bugs. Go and find the other thirty."
While I haven't really done true bug seeding, I've done something half-way there. I've concealed the developer's own test findings from a test team, so that known bugs (yes, there are such things) are used as effective seeds to "test the tests." The problem with this method is that the one thing you already know about these bugs is that they can be found, since they already have been, but it's still good fun to tell the testers, "You've only found eighty percent of the bugs in this system. Now find the rest."
Thanks for reading.
1) If you have a balloon full of helium so that it is lighter than air, you tie it via a string to the handbrake of your car. When you accelerate the car forwards, how does the balloon move relative to the car?
The balloon will lean forwards.
There are a couple of ways of thinking about this one. The simplistic shortcut to the correct answer is that the balloon already defies one acceleration field (gravity) by floating up - so it will defy all acceleration fields by attempting to accelerate faster than its surroundings.
The more complete explanation is that the balloon is accelerated by differences in pressure. In a static column of air, the air pressure is higher lower down than above. Since the balloon has a lower density than the surrounding air (lighter in the question), its weight is less than the pressure difference, so it will tend to rise against gravity. In an accelerating car, the inertia of the air causes it to tend to move to the back of the car. In just the same way as it acts under the influence of gravity the air will increase in pressure toward the back of the air and decrease toward the front. The pressure difference is greater than the inertia of the very low mass balloon (with helium) providing a buoyancy thrust toward the front.
If you don't believe me try it. If, like me, you have young kids, you get plenty of opportunity to hold a helium filled balloon on car journeys back from children's parties.
2) A toy boat is sitting in a small pond with a brick on the boat. The brick is pushed off the boat, falls into the pond and sinks to the bottom. What happens to the level of water in the pond?
The level of the pond will drop - but there are some interesting nuances on the way there.
When the brick is floating on the boat, it displaces sufficient water to counterbalance its weight (Eureka!). When it sinks to the bottom, it displaces as much water as its volume. We know the brick is denser than water - that's why it sinks. So the amount of displaced water drops a little and the level of the pond falls. Simple!
However, at the moment the brick is pushed off the boat and enters the water, it is initially accelerating downward, pushing up water by volume displacement (as it does on the bottom) and pushing water aside at the same time. So, in the initial fall, it is displacing its volume plus a little extra due to the pressure wave ahead of the accelerating brick. This "extra" push displacement reaches its maximum at terminal velocity (when the drag = gravity). So, the water level initially drops, then steadily increases until terminal velocity at which point it equals the original level, then as the brick hits the bottom and settles drops again.
First prize goes to Cameron as the first to get both answers correct - and a bonus prize for not being believed by any of the subsequent respondents!
Sadly, I blurted out my answers without thinking through all the dynamics of the situation and said that the balloon would lean back and that the pond level would rise. I guess I learned not to be so hasty at least.
When I applied for my first university course in the interview I was asked two fluid dynamics questions. Unfortunately, I got both questions wrong as I tried to answer them "intuitively" rather than thinking them through properly. Still, I got accepted somehow.
1) If you have a balloon full of helium so that it is lighter than air, you tie it via a string to the handbrake of your car. When you accelerate the car forwards, how does the balloon move relative to the car?
2) A toy boat is sitting in a small pond with a brick on the boat. The brick is pushed off the boat, falls into the pond and sinks to the bottom. What happens to the level of water in the pond?
Answers on a comment please.
In many years as a manager I've developed a philosophy I call "alignment." This is best illustrated by a service I ran a few years ago.
I ran all the IT services for about seven hundred users. The services included printing and we outsourced this service to another company together with faxing, photocopying and scanning. They supplied an on-site engineer who would service and repair the various devices they'd supplied around site. The service was appalling. The users thought the devices were unreliable and much worse than our previous in-house equipment. The engineer was miserable and hated his job. And every task seemed to take forever to get resolved. I was preparing to terminate the whole arrangement which would be not only costly, but embarrassing too as I'd been involved in setting up the deal.
I went to visit my most vociferous user and asked her exactly what the problem was. There was this one print device that would frequently smudge the printouts. Every few days, all the printouts would be grubby again and she'd call up the engineer to come and fix it. Unsurprisingly, she thought the equipment was rubbish.
Then I spoke to the engineer and he said, "Oh yes, after 6000 prints the drum gets dirty with toner and it starts to come off on the printouts. I just go up and clean the drum and it works fine again after that."
"Can you tell how many printouts the printer has run at any particular time?"
"Yeah. Look at this." He pulled up a display on his PC which showed how many pages had been printed by every device around the site.
"Could you go to that printer and clean the drum after, say, 5000 prints? That would prevent this issue, wouldn't it?"
"I could... But then I'd lose my bonus. I get a £200 bonus at the end of each month for keeping the average time to fix any issue below a certain level. I can fix these problems in under ten minutes. They're great!"
This was a complete failure of alignment. Within days I had his management team come and visit and told them to rebuild his bonus structure. The following month his bonus was raised to £400 for keeping devices "up" for the month. If any device had two or more outages in a month (including smudged pages) they had to replace the device with a new one. By the end of the month my users were happy, the engineer was happy and the supplier company was happy. Oh, and I was happy too.
My philosophy? If people's motivations are aligned to customer desires and customer desires are aligned to organisational goals - then people and systems will pretty much manage themselves.
I did some more work with that supplier and the engineer and they went on to improve the services year on year. They even invited me to speak to some potential customers of theirs, to whom I related the above story. It was funny to see the sales team sweating when I said I came close to terminating the whole deal. I concluded by saying "They're not perfect. No supplier ever is. But they listen and they respond and they learn." The potential customer said that they'd heard near perfect testimony for all the competitor references, but that they didn't believe them and that my testimony was the most convincing they'd heard. They won the business.
Thanks for reading.
When I was seventeen I suffered from testicular torsion. It came on as soon as I woke up in the morning (before 8am) and was eventually fixed in an emergency operation 2pm the same day. This is a condition that will generally become irreversible after 24 hours or so and lead to certain death through gangrene setting in and poisoning the blood.
It was painful enough that I said to the Doctors and (to my eternal regret) my father, that if they couldn't fix it I wanted to be killed right there and then.
Shortly after reaching that level of desperation I had an interesting experience. My vision began to fade, until I was completely blind, but with an effort of will was able to restore my sight. Then my hearing did the same, and I knew that I was dying. It became a lot easier to bear when I knew that my senses would shut down one by one. Although the pain remained, I knew it would not last much longer. Within less than an hour of reaching that point I underwent an emergency operation and made a full recovery.
It did leave me with post-traumatic-stress, although such a phrase was only just coming into use back then. For some years afterwards, I would feel the full pain come back and even went to my Doctor to say that it can't have been fixed properly. He reassured me that the fix was certainly good and that I must be imagining it. I only came to "manage" the waking nightmares by, instead of waiting for them to take me at an inconvenient time, choosing to relive the experience as fully as I could from time to time. About 5 years later I'd got down to doing this just once a year (on the anniversary of the original incident). After a further 5 years, I didn't even need to do that any more.
As a result of my experiences, I think I could counsel someone suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. I also have no fear of being broken under torture (excepting psychological), because I know that the human mind shuts down at the point that pain becomes intolerable. I've apologised to my father for burdening him with having to hear me say that I'd rather die than go on suffering, but it's still the most negative part of the whole experience. That and the similar strain it put on my other family members at the time.
This was originally posted in response to a poll asking two questions: 1 - Do you believe in ghosts? 2 - Have you ever had an experience involving a ghost?
I'm probably the only person who answered "No" to the first question, I don't believe in ghosts, and "Yes" to the second question, having had an experience with one.
I really don't believe in ghosts and spirits (although I've written about them in a piece of fiction in the Story Mat), but....
When I bought my current house there were an awful lot of funny noises. Frequently we would hear a door or window slam as though in the wind. Eventually, paranoid, we went and shut every single one in the house and all the nearby outbuildings and after being sure about doing this, on two separate occasions, we still heard a door slam shut. There was one particular window which, on more than one occasion, from the outside I would catch out of the corner of my eye the reflection of a man wearing a broad-rimmed hat, but would not be able to make him out directly.
Even though I don't believe in supernatural phenomena behind these things, I do hedge my bets and, when we were going to do some structural building work on the house, I went to the "most haunted" spot near the window in question and asked the "ghost's" permission to modify the house and that we would try to keep the modifications in keeping with the character of the house (it's an old house). After that, no more strange happenings, until...
After all the work on the house was complete, we had a lot of surface water flooding in the area. One morning, I got up and heard the most ghastly moaning and wailing sound, but very quiet and easily missed. I turned off anything that could make any noise so that I could carefully trace the source of the noise. It took me about an hour, which is no indication of the size of the house, but of just how faint the sound was, and eventually tracked it down to a join between the original part of the house and part of the newly fitted structure. I put my ear as close to the gap as I could and could hear the sound quite distinctly from there, but much fainter in the background I could just make out the sound of gurgling and bubbling. The rain had stopped and water was starting to drain away from the foundations of the house, forcing air through a tiny gap between old and new foundations and causing this spine-chilling sound to resonate in the gap. It really was a terrible sound, albeit quiet, as it was well within the human vocal range. If I had believed in ghosts, I would most definitely have left the building and taken my family with me, but since I don't, I was "happy" to spend the time investigating it.
So, I don't believe in ghosts and supernatural spirits, but I have had experience with one. I can explain some of what I experienced, but not all. The bits I can't explain, I put down to 99% explicable through common physical phenomena, but the remaining 1% is that smidgen of a possibility that science has just not yet got around to finding out about ghosts and spirits. If they do exist, I'm confident that some day they can be as well understood as the physics of gurgling water.
Thanks for reading
If there's one topic that fascinates me, it's cognitive science. Neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence - anything to do with thinking. The brain is differentiated into many different sub-systems, but is also highly plastic, so that one part can take up another part's typical function if need be. In gross terms, the brain can be divided into three sections, which roughly correspond with the evolutionary development of our brains.
The first section is the most primitive and is dedicated to keeping the rest of the body in good working order. This part of the brain keeps our heart pumping, our lungs breathing, our blood pressure and other vital functions operating smoothly.
The second section is our emotional and instinctual brain. This is as far as reptilian brains got in their evolution (although we can't assume anything about their thinking as a result, but it's an interesting indicator). This part of the brain responds to the environment without free will, volition or forward planning.
The third section, the frontal lobes, perform the conscious thinking in humans and, to varying degrees, in the other mammals. This is where everything you are aware of thinking about is going on. Some interesting experiments show that this part of the brain actually follows the mid-brain - so that the fore-brain is just a justification engine for things we already feel deeper down, but that's a topic for some other discussion.
This post is labelled "Travel" because it relates to my own experience of a fear of heights. I visited the CN Tower in Toronto and went to walk on the famous "glass floor" at just over 1000 feet high. Now, like any sensible human being, I have a modest fear of heights. If there's a danger of falling and hurting myself, I'll get excited, anxious and feel some fear. But I've always been able to overcome the fear if I knew I'd be safe (i.e. there's a net below or a safety harness or whatever). I strolled confidently toward the glass floor with its clear views of the ground so far below and, just as I was about to step onto the glass my feet stopped moving. I had no sensation of fear or anxiety. Instead, the lizard part of my brain had intervened and responded to the conscious part of my brain with a "don't be so bloody stupid!"
This was a completely novel experience for me. As I say, I felt nothing wrong or untoward, I just couldn't move forward. In the end, I just cast my gaze upwards so that my mid-brain was unaware that I was doing something stupid and was happily able to walk out onto the glass. Once there, I could look down happily and walk around fine, presumably because the mid-brain realised its error by my continued well-being.
As I mentioned at the top of this article, I've been a long-time student of all things brain-related, but it certainly was an eye-opener to have this experience sharply demonstrating how fragile conscious control of our own minds is.
Thanks for reading.
This delicious and easy to make Thai-style chutney is perfect as a dip.
Blend together all the following ingredients with a little water:
1 bunch - Fresh Coriander
25g - Dessicated (or block) coconut
1cm - fresh ginger root or 1 tsp - dried ginger
1 clove - garlic
Few slices - onion or leek
1/2 tsp - cumin
1/2 tsp - pepper powder
1 tblsp - sugar
1 pinch - salt
2 tblsp - lemon juice
1 - green chilli - deseeded (optional - if you don't like spicy food)
Caption competition available in this anecdote
One time when I was living in the West Country my best friend, Andy, came to visit. We were at a loose end so asked my housemate, Dave (he of another hapless adventure recounted elsewhere in this blog) what he fancied doing. We eventually agreed on an over-night camping expedition. It was February, so pretty cold, though above freezing that particular weekend. We packed our gear (no, not drugs - a three man tent, sleeping bags, food, clothes, cooking equipment and a torch) and drove off at random. We eventually pulled the car up onto a secluded location somewhere close to the middle of Exmoor. We grabbed our supplies and trekked across a couple of fields until we eventually found a "suitable" spot at the end of a field beside a long avenue of tall trees with clear views to East, South and West horizons and a ridge to the North. The field was also home to about a dozen horses and neighbouring fields looked like they were set to pasture though no livestock were apparent.
We pitched our tent, cooked dinner and prepared for an uncomfortable night. Just as dusk was setting in, I had this sudden feeling I hadn't locked my car. We decided that I would stay and "defend" the camp, while Andy and Dave would take the one torch and go and check and lock the car. They set off on the 20 minute round trip as twilight quickly turned to darkness. While we still had a camp fire, I had no other source of light. I'm a city boy at heart, so not really sure of myself in the country. I consider myself brave but not foolhardy, so I took precautions for my safety. Rather than sit by the fire waiting for anyone to come by, I hid in a nearby tree from where I could watch the camp. The only sounds were the occasional shifting and snorting of the nearby horses and the gentle rustling of the breeze in the trees.
Meanwhile Dave and Andy had successfully reconnoitred the car and were on their way back, but the torch light had begun to fail - oh the wonders of modern wind-up torches. It had grown so dark that it was impossible for them to tell whether nearby sounds were actually coming from the horses they suspected were there. When they risked shining the torch (and draining its dwindling batteries further) they were shocked to see glowing red eyes peering back at them unblinkingly. Unless you're used to being around horses in the dark, this is the sort of thing you really don't expect to see. By the time they made it back to camp they were suitably spooked and I hardly put them at ease by them discovering the camp abandoned and then by my emergence from a nearby tree. Little did we know that the night's amusements had only just begun.
We settled ourselves into the supposedly-three-man tent until I couldn't take any more and crawled in my arctic-rated Super-Odin sleeping bag to sleep under the open skies and hope for a dry night. Around 8PM we were all awakened by the sound of a distant crash of thunder. A hill about two miles distant due-East of us was suddenly lit up with a flash of persistent lightning. On further observation, we saw that it wasn't lightning, or indeed thunder, but a series of explosions and thunderflashes. Hovering about 200 feet above the hill was a clearly outlined Sea-King Helicopter. Hanging down below the helo was a drop cable and squadie after hell-bent squadie was being disgorged onto the hill top as the ensuing flashes and bangs went off all around them.
Dave, Andy and I sat wide-eyed in our little camp as this distant military exercise unfurled before our eyes. Little did we know just how our anxiety was about to crank up a notch or two. The helicopter, finally completing its deployment, turned and started flying directly toward us. Within a couple of minutes it was passing directly over our heads. The winch operator popped back into the cabin and wildly gesticulated to one of his colleagues to come and take a look and pointed down at us, illuminated by our camp fire, looking back up at them aghast. It is at this point that I invite blog commentators to offer a caption for what the winch operator might have said. I'm going with "Look at those idiots down there. They're in for a shock tonight!"
The helicopter flew on another few minutes and repeated the exercise at another hill due West of us; bang, flash, deploy; then departed. We were right in the middle of a military exercise!
There was nothing for it, but to try to settle down and get the best night's rest we possibly might. All through the night we heard sounds of machinery (tanks to our imaginations) and small-arms fire coming from over the ridge line to the North. Thankfully, nothing that we were aware of troubled us in our field. It didn't rain and, while I collected a little dew, I managed the camping equivalent of what passes for sleep in my super-cold-rated sleeping bag, bivouacking under the cloudy skies.
If only that were the whole of the night's drama. Alas, hapless Dave caused one more situation. Just around first light I heard screams coming from the tent. Then these were mingled with shouts, so that both Andy and Dave were crying out. "Ouch." "I can't feel my arm." "Ow." "Let go!" "I can't feel my arm! It's gone dead!"
Dave, apparently, was holding Andy's arm, thinking it was his own arm that had gone numb and was applying more and more pressure and pain stimulus in an attempt to get the nerve endings to respond. Needless to say, it wasn't the best night's sleep all round.
Andy and I never went camping again. I've never been to Exmoor since. Dave is alive and well and still living in that part of the world and still takes occasional camping trips in the area.
Thanks for reading.
Why does the room spin when you're drunk?
The inner ear contains the organs of balance. There are two separate organs in each ear. One organ consists of the otoliths - little stones that sit on top of a bed of hairs. The stones shift under acceleration (which includes gravity) and cause the hairs to bend, stimulating nerve endings which tell the brain which way we're moving and which way is up. The other organ consists of the semi-circular canals. These tell us which way we are rotating. They consist of three (in each ear) curved channels filled with fluid and lined with hairs that slosh around in the fluid. As you turn your head, the fluid sloshes around, bending the hairs which stimulate nerve endings telling your brain which way your head is moving and how fast.
So far so good. The system works as long as the hairs and the surrounding fluid are in neutral buoyancy. Add alcohol and this is where things start to go wrong. Each hair has its own minuscule blood supply. When you introduce a sufficiently large amount of alcohol into your blood stream, the density of the blood will be lowered. The net result? The hairs in your semi-circular canals will start to point away from sources of accelaration, including gravity, i.e. the Earth. This will cause the nerve endings in your semi-circular canals to tell your brain that your head is spinning, which will be in direct conflict with what your eyes are telling your brain. Welcome to "the bed spins." But that's not all. Wait sufficiently long and some of the alcohol will leak into the fluid in the semi-circular canals, restoring normal balance... for a while. The alcohol will be quickly flushed from the blood-stream (courtesy of the liver) and the little sensory hairs in the semi-circular canals will be left at a higher density than the now-alcohol-suffused canals. As a result the hairs descend causing the reverse "spins." These also eventually settle down when the alcohol in the semi-circular canals leaks away.
On a related aside - ever wonder why humans suffer from motion sickness?
No? I'll tell you anyway. Motion sickness occurs when the signals between the organs of balance (vestibular system) and the eyes are in conflict. That's why, if you're prone to motion sickness, you're best off being able to see a horizon or surrounding terrain, rather than looking inside a vehicle. But, why become sick? As outlined above, the only situation in our evolutionary history in which there would be a conflict between our vestibular system and our vision would be if we were poisoned. The body's first line of defence against poisoning is purging, i.e. being sick. Maybe in a hundred thousand years humans might evolve to the point of telling the difference between poisoning and riding in a vehicle, but for the time being, I don't see any selective evolutionary pressures against those who suffer from motion sickness - so we're just going to have to live with our evolutionary legacy.
You can find more on this stuff at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vestibular_system. Thanks for reading.
After graduating I was unable to find work in aeronautical engineering (and people wonder why I don't hold Margaret Thatcher in high regard). I took various odd jobs, but to keep my mind stimulated enrolled on a part-time post-graduate course in Astronomy and Astronautics at the local polytechnic (which metamorphosed into a university while I was there). About fourteen people were enrolled on the course and, to my surprise, the vast majority were retired men. There was only one woman on the course and she was middle aged (I guess she was about my age now). I was by far the youngest student. I guess there's not a whole lot of interest in part time study among the young.
We first met at the observatory and astronomy centre, away from the main campus, but part of our induction included a visit to the campus site. We toured the library and computing facilities and a few other parts of the site. Shortly after visiting the Computing building (yeah, back in those days you had to go to a special building to use a computer ^_^) the female student came over to me looking somewhat anxious and said, "That dirty old man just tried chatting me up!" She pointed at one of the older students. He looked innocent enough, but you never can tell. I asked what he'd done. She replied that he'd said, "They named this building after me." An odd chat up line to say the least. I thought little of it, but kept an eye on both of them for the rest of the tour, for her sake, but he didn't approach her again.
It later transpired that the building was indeed named after this guy! His name was Sir Norman Lindop and he'd been the director of the Polytechnic until a year or two earlier. He was an ex-professor of Chemistry and had helped set up the computing facilities and even founded the Astronomy and Astronautics course he was now studying as a hobby ("I felt I ought to know what was in a course I helped to set up"). The computing facility was named "The Lindop Building" in his honour.
If you know much about me, you know I have little regard for rank or status, but for reasons I don't fully relate to, hardly anyone else on the course talked to Sir Norman. At one point, they noticed I'd been chatting to him and one of the other students asked whether they should call him Norman or Sir Norman. I laughed, I always called him Norman and had even asked how he came to be knighted. Apparently, knighthoods are just handed out to anyone who finishes being director of a polytechnic and he took no offence at having the "Sir" dropped feeling he deserved no special title or recognition.
If you're a decent person and are willing to accept me for who I am, I'll have time and respect for you regardless of your standing in either your own perception or the status accorded you by society.
Oh I almost forgot to say. I never finished the course, although I accumulated sufficient credits to get some sort of certificate, because I eventually got a job about 150 miles away. I never bothered requesting a certificate. About fifteen years later I was chairman of my local astronomy society and was organising speakers for our monthly meeting schedule. I contacted my old uni and asked whether they'd like to send a speaker down. They nominated one of the observatory staff who obviously did a little research on me before he visited. When we met, he said it was a pleasure to meet a "graduand" from the uni. Now there's a word you don't hear often (the meaning of which is possibly known to every graduate and next to nobody else). I prefer "former student."
Thanks for reading.
P.S. If Norman happens to stumble on this, say by searching for his own name on line. Hi Norman! How's it going? Get in touch mate and let me know how you are. I hope you don't mind me posting this and, something tells me, you never realised how you came across after visiting "your building" that day.
A friend of mine once related a tale of a trans-Atlantic flight he was on. Everything was fine and then over the tannoy system the Pilot's voice came on and announced, "May I have your attention. This is your Pilot speaking. We've developed a mechanical fault and the aircraft is going to have to ditch in the sea. Please familiarise yourselves with the emergency procedures and follow all instructions from your cabin staff."
The passenger cabin fell into a total silence, including the flight attendants. No one uttered a word and instead just stared around in shock. Slowly the staff started to move to their emergency stations and started preparing to give instructions on emergency procedures. Presumably one of the cabin crew went to speak to the Pilot as a few minutes later there was a follow up announcement. "Hello everyone, this is your Captain speaking. Sorry about the previous announcement, I pressed the wrong button. There are no problems with the aircraft."
At least it's nice to know that in a real emergency the Pilot's attention won't be distracted making lengthy announcements to the passengers when flying the plane is their top priority.
This story has grown to be my most acclaimed piece of writing since I first wrote it in October 2007. Evin threw down the gauntlet in GRB, and I took it up here. "Not exactly poetry," he said. "Something that isn't sci-fi or fantasy," he said. Well, I couldn't take that. Here's the response I produced in just 45 minutes of writing with 45 minutes of research (Arabic sayings) and editing. If only I could tap into that level of creativity in all of my writing. This story's been selected (together with my other story, Medic!) for publication by another internet site.
They say you see your whole life again just before you die. Mine had better hurry up, I have about half a second left. I wonder which part of me does the thinking and remembering. Soon my body will be shattered into a million pieces, brain disintegrated, heart vaporised, bits of bone careening through the air, muscle and sinew twisting, soft fleshy parts splashing and splattering. How did it come to this? How did I get here? I am a good man. This is the end; or is this the beginning?
My hand is inside my jacket; I press the button. Time stops. There is no sensation. About forty people are nearby. Half of them will die. Half of the rest will be crippled. Half of the rest will be injured for life. The remainder will thank their god or destiny or mere chance for sparing them.
Young childhood: with my brothers and sisters playing happily in the narrow city streets. Carefree, unafraid. The time a bigger boy shoved me into a wall and I hurt my arm. My father leaving. A classroom with a teacher. A ride in a truck. The mountains. The clear sky at night, shooting stars. A pack of dogs, barking. Waking up, the house shaking, running outside, afraid: earthquake.
Time hasn’t stopped, just slowed. The charge moves from the battery pack through the trigger, into the chain of metallic tubes filled with white gel and metal balls wrapped around my abdomen. A flash begins at the head of each cylinder, the gel begins to boil and swell, the cylinders to rip open, the metal balls accelerate.
My oldest brother leaving to join my father. Jet planes flying over the city. Soldiers hiding in our house. Father returning for a visit – he’s changed, hurt, scared, ruined. Strange bags and packages stored in our house. A call to prayers. The enemy: foreign soldiers, dirty and godless. Fear. Gun shots in the distance. Bodies in the street. Hatred. An explosion in the city, the ground shakes, a dust cloud rises into the sky in a flashing column.
The gel vaporises and the flash grows. My middle is completely engulfed in flame, the fastest of the tiny metal balls are travelling through my torso and legs, others race outward in all directions.
Adolescence: Noon prayers at the Mosque, the Mulla speaking. “You blame your times when you should blame yourselves! A Muslim’s heart is his guide.” Picking up spent shells. Scrambling over the smouldering carcass of an armoured car. Running errands for our warriors. Arrested, but let go. Meeting the girl who will be my wife. Love, caring, but little hope.
My body is tearing apart. Still no feeling. The balls rip streams of blood out of my body. The bright flash surrounds me. The little eruptions where the balls slam into the stone floor. Chips of bone burst within my legs and chest. I recall a voice, but not the speaker. “He who sees the calamity of other people finds his own calamity light.” I move to smile, but my body is too slow. Time is too slow. No one nearby is reacting yet. The nearest person is hit by the first metal pellet.
Arrested again, questioned, released. No longer a boy. Running supplies: chemicals, guns, bullets. Arrested again, released again. A friend killed, a funeral. Foreign soldiers looking at our women disrespectfully; smashing down the doors of our homes; dirtying our holy places, insulting our customs. I spit on them as they pass in the street below. I throw stones at their tanks and kick their cars and sneak in at night to piss on their kitbags, spit in their food, defecate on their clothes.
Fire and light fill me up. My legs are gone, my hands are gone, my body is shattering. People are hit, their flesh tearing, their bones smashing, organs erupting. Dust is flying up from the ground, holes are boring into the walls, trails of fire and smoke tear through the air. Objects turn to shrapnel: coins, bones and teeth.
My cousin’s wedding. I will also marry soon. Happiness, celebration, elated gun-shots into the sky. Passing helicopters and airplanes bristling with machine guns, turn back on the wedding, shooting and circling, shooting and circling, crack-crack-crack. Running for cover. Crying, shrieking, bullets and blood, dying. Fear. Helping the injured, fleeing for cover. Shooting and circling. Pain and tears. Shooting and circling, crack-crack-crack-crack. Explosions and fire. My ears hurt. My chest hurts. Screaming and dying. Blood on my hands. My sister is shot, I pull her into a small shelter and lay her head on my legs. Blood on her body, fear in her eyes, outrage in my heart. She dies. I cry. I shout. I hit the wall. I hit the ground. I hit her. I don’t know what to do. I am sick. How did it come to this? How did this happen? How did I get here? I am a good man.
I am torn apart, I am nothing. It is over. What have I done? I was a good man.
The dogs may bark but the caravan moves on.
I was IT manager at a Pharmaceutical research lab for five years. One day at 5 in the morning I was called at home by an Italian security guard at the site reception.
"Hello, [name omitted to protect the innocent]?"
"This is security at XXXX. You snow management team."
"This security. You snow management team."
"I am [name omitted again] and I do work there. But, did you say 'Snow Management Team'?" I repeated the words very slowly and carefully.
"Yes, we have your name. You snow management team."
"Err no. I'm the IT manager. What seems to be the problem?"
"The tractor. It no start."
"It snowing. The tractor no start."
At this point I looked out my window, and there was indeed about 3 inches of snowfall and more on the way.
"I'm sorry, I can't help. I run IT systems."
"You come an' fix tractor."
"No, I really can't help. You must need someone else."
It kind of ended around then. Later that day I went into the gatehouse and spoke with security. When it snows, there's a tractor that the guards or gardeners use to clear the driveway before the staff start arriving (there are about 700 people working at the labs). They have a list of emergency contacts. The list was all the senior managers and about twenty of them had asterisks against their names. Below the list the asterisk appeared with the words "Snow Management Team." Immediately below that list the next entry was my name for any IT related calls.
After that, I had them reorganise the list to be clearer. I didn't see a lot more of the Italian security guard.
When I was ten years old, I was late to school dinner one lunch time. There were normally two or three choices for lunch, but on that day only one option was available for main course. Even at that young age I hated waste, especially when it came to food, so I accepted and ate the one meal on offer. It was a sort of suet sponge stuffed with onion and bacon pieces. I'd seen this dish plenty of times before, but avoided it because I really didn't like onions. By that afternoon I had a bad headache and in the evening became very sick. After emptying my stomach, my headache only worsened. I resolved to avoid onions ever after.
I'd suffered from occasional bad headaches for a while, but their incidence grew more and more frequent until, about a year later, I was never without a headache to some degree. Painkillers (back in those days, that meant Aspirin) had absolutely no impact on it and about once a week the intensity would reach such a strength as to cause me to vomit.
You can learn to live with pain, but the things that anyone avoids when suffering from a headache became normal things for me to avoid all the time. As a result, I shunned vigorous sport and didn't enjoy crowds, noisy places or bright lights. Around the age of thirteen or fourteen, I remember one day I didn't have a headache. I remember saying to my mother that I knew I wasn't imagining having had a headache all those years because that day I didn't have one. I don't remember ever seeking medical treatment, but in those days I imagine it would have been a case of, "You haven't got a brain tumour. Take an aspirin. Goodbye."
When I was fifteen, I happened to watch a TV documentary about food allergies and that they could cause headaches. Such ideas are commonplace these days, but in the mid-eighties, this was ground-breaking stuff. I stopped eating immediately. Within 24 hours I felt better and by 48 hours I had no headache at all for only the second time in 5 years. Another day of fasting and I started a programme of slow food reintroduction. After a week of adding two or three different foods per day, I introduced bacon and within a couple of hours had an awful pounding headache and was sick again. It took three days for the headache to fade and I've cut my intake of processed pork products ever since. Bacon and other processed pork products (sausages, pork-containing burgers, preserved ham and such) contain preservatives (Antioxidants Sodium Nitrite and Potassium Nitrite - saltpetre to the alchemically minded) which appear to be the cause of my reaction. Fresh pork products have no such effect on me. I've grown tolerant of the effects over the years and can take small quantities with no noticeable impact, but have suffered occasional migraines since.
For what it's worth, it was only many years later that I actually connected the incident with the school meal and the reaction. Until then, I didn't realise just how long I'd suffered from the headaches.
At the time I didn't appreciate it, but I am sure that such a prolonged exposure to pain changed my character. I grew interested in sport and socialising and since then I've been interested in pain and its management. I believe I have a much higher than average tolerance of pain as a result. This came to the fore a couple of years after I discovered the cause of my headaches, but that's a story for a future blog entry.