Airline Announcements

OK, I fly a lot. Not as much as pilots or flight attendants, but I have no problem qualifying for Elite level in at least one program each year and often two programs. Which means that I get to experience a lot of different announcements on planes. But this post is not a rehash of the announcements heard on a plane, amusing though they are. This is a complaint about the inconsistencies between flight attendants on different planes and they way they implement “laws”.

On some airlines (United) you are encouraged to wear headphones during taxi and take-off, as they have an arrangement where you can hear the air traffic control announcements for your plane. In fact on one flight approximately half the cabin I was in appeared to have noise-cancelling headphones of one sort or another. On other airlines (KLM) it seems to depend on the time of day- early morning flights (when everyone is trying to go back to sleep) it is OK to wear them, but sometimes in the evening you might be asked to remove the offending cans. Then it gets confusing: KLM Cityhopper (the regional airline of KLM) request that you remove the headphones on every flight, no matter what time of the day. No, I have no idea why 2 parts of the same airline would have different policies, but there you go.

Even more confusing is Air Canada where it seems to depend on which province the flight attendants are from: Get a flight crew from out west and headphones are not a problem. Get one from Quebec and someone (generally undefined, but announced in a menacing way) will be fined $1500 if you don’t remove them. The way I figure it, if it is not me getting fined, what do I care? But if you take that attitude with a French Canadian there is a good chance they play hockey and I have seen what happens at hockey games.

Then finally we come onto the budget airlines: At least these guys are consistent: Damned annoying because they all ask you to remove the headphones for about half the flight, but at least consistent.

Except that on the budget airlines, it seems that mobile (aka cell) phones generate inconsistency. Pretty much all countries require you to turn your phone off once the doors close. Unless there is a delay, in which case you will be allowed to turn them on again. On landing sometimes you can turn them on whilst taxiing, sometimes once parked and occasionally not until you are inside the terminal (which is a real bitch as these are the times when you are most likely to have to catch a bus to terminal. Yes we are back with the budget airlines again).

And then we come to being in the air and the advent of ‘flight safe’ mode. This is obviously a real problem for airlines: unless the flight attendants know which phones have a flight safe mode and how it is indicated, they are basically hosed. So some airlines still refuse to allow anything, some just say “Flight safe mode once the seat belt sign has been switched off” and then the most peculiar one I heard: The only devices that were allowed to be used on the plane: Blackberries. The announcer specifically excluded Nokia, Sony and Samsung and confirmed that only Blackberries were allowed. Almost immediately I heard a voice behind me say “I wonder how much Blackberry paid to get that endorsement?”. And what made it all the more confusing was that this particular announcer appeared to say that this was the law, he was going to enforce and by God, no-one had better get in his way. Mind you, he did try to tell a joke later, so maybe he was just auditioning for his local theatre troupe. By the way, on the joke front; no-one laughed.

To be quite honest, I don’t really care what the rules are- obviously I would like to wear my noise cancelling headphones for the entire time I am on a plane, because they really do make the experience so much nicer. But what I really want is for the airlines to be consistent. Off on, flight safe or Blackberry; I don’t care. Just apply the rules consistently across all airlines. And don’t make out that you know the law when I was on another plane less than 24 hours earlier that had a distinctly different approach.

On Daylight Savings

Like most people, I enjoy many more activities in the evening that take advantage of daylight savings time than I do mornings that are hindered by it. But that is not to say that I don’t suffer the occasional wish for lighter mornings. Take, for example, the fact that pretty much every week I have to get up at 3:30am to drive to an airport for a 6am (or thereabouts) flight.

For the past 6 months this has meant stumbling around in the dark at home, getting into a car or taxi in the dark and boarding the aeroplane, also in the dark. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some attractions to this, not least of which is the fact that because my prime intention upon boarding the plane is to fall asleep as quickly as possibly, so the fact that it is still dark outside means that my body clock still thinks it is night-time thus rendering the falling asleep that much quicker. Add to that a pair of noise cancelling headphones and a sleep mask and I am usually dozing during the safety announcement and rarely conscious for take off. On which point I apoligise to any flight attendants on planes that I catch at 6am: It is not that I don’t find your safety demonstration scintillating entertainment, but you may be able to tell from the fact that I have headphones on, my eyes closed and frequently am gently snoring that you are getting somewhat less than my “full and undivided attention”. (Actually I don’t snore, but you get the point)

However, this is about Daylight Savings Time; unlike the US and Canada, the UK has not changed its clocks. This meant that as I was driving to the airport this morning for my (now delayed) flight, I could see dawn breaking in front of me (I was driving east at the time, so the metaphor is actually correct). Now this was in England, so obviously dawn was only visible through cracks in the ubiquitous cloud layer, but none-the-less it made the drive that little bit more pleasant.

Next week, after the clocks spring forward, the drive will once again be entirely in the dark and I will have to wait a few more weeks before going to work does not feel as though I am some sort of bizarre nocturnal creature. Oh well, roll on summer.

But one final point, the flight that we all merrily boarded in the grey light of dawn then had a problem with its undercarriage, neccesitating a return to the departing airport and a 4 hour delay. Had we all known that at the start then the morning drive would have been all in daylight. But then I guess that flying in a plane that may not be able to land is not such a sensible thing to do, so returning probably was the safe option

How the internet changes content

I love the stories, jokes and amusing articles that get circulated around the internet and the fact that the same jokes resurface time after time. But what I hate even more than that is the way that the content of these stories gets changed, the authorship gets modified and we lose sight of the provenance of the thoughts. The net result of content circulating on the internet is that the author often loses control over what happens to their carefully crafted words, loses all rights to their intellectual property and never gets any compensation for the repeated use of their ideas. But I guess that is just the price we have to pay in return for the ability for all of us to transmit vast quantities of information that we are entitled to distribute.

OK, so getting off the high horse of content theft, here are some of the best examples of the way distribution of things over the internet has changed the content. I am sure that there are more- in fact there are probably entire web sites devoted to the subject, just as there are to cataloguing acts of stupidity (Darwin Awards), urban legends, virus hoaxes etc etc. I simply present some that I have come across.

The most famous example of the misappropriation of authorship is probably the article ‘Sunscreen’. It originally circulated on the internet in 1997 as the graduation speech given by Kurt Vonnegut to a high school. It extolled the virtues of living life to the full and reminded us of the imprtance of using sunscreen to protect our skin. The words were so effective that they were used as the lyrics to a song, cunningly titled ‘Sunscreen’. All of which is fine, except for the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was not the author of this particular article. Presumably the orginator of the e-mail chain, or someone involved in it, thought that the actual author was not famous enough for people to forward the message to all their friends. Or maybe there was another reason, but whatever the reason Mary Schmich must have been pretty miffed that the piece that she wrote for the Chicago Tribune was now circulating the world many times over, with someones elses name attached to it. At least the lyrics to the song were correctly attributed, so not all was lost. I am not the first person to note this- we are all treading in dangerous ground by perpetuating the myth, but here is someone with a fairly complete history of the story.

The next example is one that I liked so much that I even posted it to my collection of jokes: Called ‘A revocation of independence‘ it is a list of what will happen because the US appears to have considerable difficulty electing a President (think ‘hanging chads’ in 2000). There was a canadian equivalent of this, when the result of the election in 2001 was announced (correctly announced too) within hours of the polling booths closing, but the british one is IMHO funnier. The premise of the joke is simply that the former ‘troublesome colony’ like an unruly teenager doesn’t really know how to govern itself, so the Mother Country is going to reclaim what was lost, and reimpose her rules. The same joke, with a few subtle changes, reappeared after the 2004 US election when the rest of the world was quite simply dumbfounded that a population could re-elect someone who, in terms of foreign policy, appears to be a complete buffoon. There is a politician in England called Boris Johnson, who held in the same regard as George W Bush, the only difference being that Boris is probably not destined for higher office, rather he provides huge amounts of amusement when he attempts to host comedy quiz shows such as ‘Have I Got News for You‘ or the Official HIGNFY site. I have no idea if the respective career paths of these politicians is a reflection of the relative intelligence of the two populations (but I rather think not) but back to the two versions of the same joke: Being someone with a background and history of living in the UK (though not so much since I have had a choice in the matter, but that is another story) I could fully see the merits of some of the points raised by the Revocation of Independence, I just couldn’t see the same joke being quite so funny 4 years later.

The final example is also something that I liked so much that I posted it to my web site; it is called ‘A Canadian Apology‘. When I received the text it was attributed to Rick Mercer who is a comedian in Canada most famous for the comedy special ‘Talking to Americans‘. For several years I thought that this was correct, but now, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can see the original video from the CBC show ‘This Hour has 22 Minutes‘. And what becomes immediately apparent is that the presenter is not Rick Mercer, rather it is Colin Mochrie. I have no idea why the original distributor thought it necessary to change the author, because in America and the UK Colin Mochrie is more famous than Rick Mercer, on account of the fact that he appeared on the improv comedy show ‘Who’s Line is it Anyway?’ There is a possibility that Rick Mercer was the writer and Colin Mochrie the presenter, but it is not possible to work that out, and why would the writer give up such fantastic material to someone else? I just don’t know but the mis-attribution persists.

And then comes the second piece of internet corruption: The text that circulated the internet is not the same as the original video. Someone, somewhere decided that they knew better than a professional writer and they would edit the content to make the joke ‘better’. There are two possibilities that I can see here:

  1. The editor was watching the show and tried to transcribe the words and got it wrong. Look I am trying to be generous here, no I don’t believe it either, but we have to include it as a possibility
  2. The editor genuinely thought that they were smarter than the original writer

Given the arrogance (and anonymity) of the average internet publisher, I am going to go with #2. And this is a real shame, because there are, IMHO, a couple of cracking jokes that were missed out from the text and it would have been great to read the original as it was intended to be. But then I like seeing Shakespeare done with the original words, rather than someone trying to adapt it. So maybe I am still out there on the ledge.

I guess that the final action that I should take after making all these points is to take down the various articles that I make available via my web site, on account of the fact that now that I know the copyright of the material I am actually breaking it. In my defence I am trying to provide the correct history and provenance of the jokes, articles and text; I am pretty sure that won’t stand up as a defence in court, but I’ll cross that bridge when the lawyers come.

Comedy Talk Shows and Favourite Songs

Talk shows are a staple of modern day television and have been so for over 50 years: Johnny Carson defined the late night talk show for nearly 40 years in the US and Michael Parkinson similarly dominated in the UK for 25 years. Recently the trend has seen far more informal shows dominate, things like Jimmy Kimmel in the US or Jensen in the Netherlands (my dutch may be bad, but he conducts some of his interviews in english so I can watch along). In the UK this has been taken even further by a raft of talk show where the hosts are not even real people.

One of the first to do this was Dame Edna Everage who dominated talk shows in the late 80’s and early 90’s by mixing proper talk show conventions with some comedy that was only possible because the interviewer was actually a man in drag peforming as a comedy character. This approach was continued by Caroline Aherne/ Hook (a 20-something comedienne) who used her Mrs Merton persona (a senior citizen with few social graces) to ask truly outrageous questions; the finest of which was “So, Debbie, what was it that first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”

And now we have Al Murray using his ‘Pub Landlord‘ character as a host of chat show. The problem for Murray is that, unlike Parkinson or any of the late night show hosts in the US he is unable to command the quality of guests that a show typically needs to be successful. Whether this is because the guests have wised up after the experiences of Dame Edna or Mrs Merton is not clear but it makes for less interesting television. On the other hand he has come up with a couple of cool gimmicks; including getting all the musical guests to play 2 songs: 1 is normally the latest single that they are promoting, the other must be from the band who are, in the opinion of the Pub Landlord, the greatest band ever: Queen. So you could get Bryan Adams doing Fat Bottom Girls or Katie Melua doing Crazy Little Thing called Love.

Or the one that I liked best because it is my favourite Queen song: KT Tunstall doing Hammer to Fall. Which got me to thinking about my taste in music- it is very rare for me to agree with what is generally perceived to be the ‘best’ song or ‘favourite’ song by a band or singer. I would guess that Bohemian Rhapsody will be far and away the most popular Queen song- but not for me. When it comes to the favourite band of my youth (I got all their albums): The Beat (or The English Beat, depending on what side of the pond you are on) Mirror in the Bathroom is what most people will pick- not me, I love Save it For Later. Whether it is the rather risque lyrics that attracted a 13 year old boy or not I don’t know, but to this day it is still my favourite. And someone no less than Pete Townsend agrees with me. And he knows a little bit about writing songs (although a lot less about what you should or shouldn’t do on the internet). I’m thinking that I should stop that analogy right there. Onto The Eurythmics: I am going to guess that Sweet Dreams would be up there, but I’d pick When Tomorrow Comes. I never seem to get it right.

All of which pontification on musical taste has no real conclusion but leaves me wondering if I am yet again out of step with the majority of the world. Maybe it is the wiring in my head that makes me understand databases, but I still don’t fit in. And you know what? I am happy with that.

IT Architecture in the Blogosphere

Say what you will about Google and its adsense, it does throw up more than the average number of ‘interesting’ links at the top of Google Mail. I stumbled across a link that looked incredibly interesting, but as a means to prevent me from being sued for libel I will refrain from publishing it. My recent post on Redefining IT Architecture shows that I am completely unsure whether I do any real architecture work- most of my work is in the design world- but from time to time I do define the rules that a solution (and very occasionally an enterprise) uses to implement a system so I think that I can call myself an architect.

But after an hour of so of clicking and following links in the IT Architect blogosphere I am confused, depressed and not a little angry at the content that supposed architects are publishing. Now I admit that most of my professional life has been in the data sphere, but I also spend a significant amount of time in the ‘business’ world- talking about governance, processes and skills and resources. In my entire experience I have never had cause to wonder about the details of language used to implement a system, the development methodology or any other deep technical issue.

Now this may simply be a case of the same word being used in multiple situations- after all, we as the IT profession stole the word from the construction industry, so we can’t really complain- but surely there is a difference in the technical skills, the soft skills and the background and experience between someone attempting to define how an multi billion dollar company sets up its governance structure for Information Management and someone implementing an (admittedly possibly large scale) application using the latest technology.

And furthermore (yes I am fully in rant mode now) I also recognise that there are significant skills required to build these systems, but according to the scale of systems complexity (I’ll insert the link to that later) an organisation is one of the most complex systems it is possible to consider; far, far more complex than any engineering design, simply because it has to deal with that most unpredictable of things- a human being. So, is the work that a technical architect does less valuable than an enterprise architect? No, because like all good constructions you need the foundations to be sound, but honestly, none of the major challenges that I face  are in the traditional technical domains (application, data or infrastructure). Far, far more complex to understand is the activity associated with working out what users really want, how we ensure that they use the systems that we build for them correctly and getting buy-in and belief from non-IT people who just see us getting in the way.

As the MD of one of my former employers would frequently say: “Guys, this is not a technical problem”. Unfortunately for that company the tech heads ruled and it finished up going bust (after, I hasten to add, I had got the heck out of Dodge as I could see the writing on the wall). OK, IT Architecture is not going to go bust, but we risk losing a lot of credibility by solving the wrong problem.

And now I need to shut up before I offend more people than normal.

Redefining IT Architecture

Every now and then someone comes along who has such a compelling message and a such a fantastic delivery of that message that the very fabric of your intellectual foundations get shaken. Jan Hoogervorst is just such a person.

Until now I looked upon IT Architecture as a largely diagram based activity- trying to stay away from the As-Is and focus on the To-Be- but fundamentally it drew pictures and was descriptive. Oh, how naive I was: In an hour long presentation Dr. Ir J. A. P. Hoogervorst turned my world on its head.

According to the presentation, and both its content and style of presentation lead me to believe that this view is entirely correct, Architecture provides normative guidance for design. That expression needs explaining: Architecture is the prescriptive process the defines (not describes) the rules by which changes may be made to an existing design to create a new design. Practically speaking then, Architecture is a consistent and coherent set of principles and standards that prescribe how a system is to be designed.

The consequence of taking this approach is the realisation that Architecture and Design (at least in the IT world) are fundamentally different concepts, and that most of the time, the activities that Solution Architects do are actually design. This is not a problem (in fact, a lot of the ‘fun’ part of my job is the design part, the architecture part makes your head hurt) as long as the managers, leaders and other stakeholders recognise what it is you do. And there are actually some good reasons for having one person act as Architect and Designer: the relationship between Architecture and the Design created using it is naturally very close. And as most organisations do not have well defined Enterprise or Solution Architectures, the poor chap (or lass) doing the work is probably going to be switching hats between Architect and Designer many times a day.

As the maturity of Architecture increases, the distinction between the Design and the Architecture will become clearer. But by then there will be a new IT paradigm and we will all be some other sort of engineers.

Gurkha: Bravest of the Brave

We all have heroes, be they your mother or father, a great scientific mind or the sportsman who performs feats of skill every Saturday night. But there are other heroes who we need to recognise, not least of which is because they will never consider themselves heroes; in this category come nurses, firemen and, most relevant to this post, soldiers. But not just any soldiers, there are some that stand out more than others. And although many people know who the Gurkhas are, there is no harm in retelling a good story.

I first saw a Gurkha regiment when I was a teenager- they marched at triple time (180 steps to the minute) in full dress uniform right through the Medway towns in Kent. Not only did they not break step, they didn’t appear to break a sweat. I was so impressed by this regiment of Nepalese soldiers who fight for the British Army to want to know more: The most basic question is why is a there a regiment of Nepalese in the British Army? The answer shows much for the pragmatism of what became the British Empire: In 1814-16 the East India Company was involved in an “action” against Nepal and Tibet that resulted in a stalemate between the two sides largely as a result of the effectiveness, stubbornness, loyalty, valor and indomitable bravery of Gurkhas. Taking a practical approach, the East India Company decided that rather than fight against these people again, wouldn’t it be better to get them to fight for you. Thus was established the first relationship between the Gurkha and the Crown.

Delhi 1857 is a defining moment in the relationship between the Gurkhas and the Crown: The Indian Mutiny was in full cry and whilst others fled or rebelled, the Gurkhas remained loyal. The 60th Rifles of the British Army was fighting alongside the Gurkha Sirmoor Rifles and they were tasked with holding a key position in Delhi until relief arrived. After three months of constant bombardment the Gurkhas remained defiant and they still held the position, despite the fact that 327 of the 490 men of the Sirmoor Rifles were killed or wounded. As the story of this action, and others like it, was reported to the British public the Gurkhas became more than simply a fearsome, determined force; through their loyalty, the gallant warriors of Nepal carved a special place in the consciousness of all who heard about them.

This bravery was shown time and time again, including the Great War where the Gurkhas were the only allied troops to reach and hold their objective at Gallipoli. But all these actions would remain unknown were it not for the reporters and writers who capture the moment. And the Gurkhas have Professor Sir Ralph Turner, MC, who served with the 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles in the First World War to thank for writing the following:

“As I write these last words, my thoughts return to you who were my comrades, the stubborn and indomitable peasants of Nepal. Once more I hear the laughter with which you greeted every hardship. Once more I see you in your bivouacs or about your fires, on forced march or in the trenches, now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by a pitiless and burning sun. Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds; and at the last your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you

Cloverfield: Style over substance?

Let’s start with a contentious one and see how the day takes us from there:

I have a theory about blogs: the only people with time enough to update a blog on a frequent basis are those people who do not lead exciting enough lives to actually warrant posting anything. Conversely, when you are doing loads of stuff and coming up with cool ideas that other people will want to know about, there is no time to actually sit down at a keyboard and write it up.

So it is with the next post: Had I gotten around to posting these thoughts about Cloverfield when they were fresh in my mind, the posting would have been quite topical. As it is, the moment has passed: Anyone who wanted to see it, will have seen it and those who don’t will almost certainly not be interested. On the other hand, I have never been one to stop in the face of overwhelming stupidity, so let’s plough on regardless.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Cloverfield it is a movie that was released in early 2008. There were various stories published about the making of the film, including that the actors didn’t know all the parts of the story, that the name of the film kept changing etc etc. So why the rumours? Well, much of the advertising was done via a ‘viral marketing’ campaign. This can be a risky strategy for films that may work spectacularly (e.g. Blair Witch Project) or fail dismally (e.g. Snakes on a Plane).

But why would you need to use such a risky strategy for Cloverfield? Well, because at its heart it is a story that has been told countless times before. According to Angie Errigo (and various others) there are only really 7 basic plots and every story ever told is simply a variation on one or more of those plot-lines. This is apparent when you look at at films like ‘Dan in Real Life’ which looks remarkably like ‘Roxanne’ which is ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ etc etc. And Cloverfield is no different: It is telling us one of those 7 stories that we have all seen before; this time it is a monster story (don’t think I am giving anything away here). So why are we going to see the story again? Well, sometimes it is because we do know the story and want to see how it has been updated (think Peter Jackson’s King Kong) and sometimes we don’t know the story but have heard cool things about the film: And this is the approach that Cloverfield took.

As a monster film goes it is pretty cool- I jumped at all the right moments, I laughed (though possibly not at the right moments) and I wanted to stars to escape from the monster. Is it a great film? Absolutely not. Was it worth spending the €8 to see what the hype was about? Probably. Would I have gone to see the film without the viral marketing campaign? Probably not. So, whatever the film’s producers spent on viral marketing, they made some money back on it.