Category Archives: Geek

Leaving… On a Sleeper Train

I wasn’t going to write but now it appears, writing I am. (Knowing full well the extent to which this is probably going to sound like a sad, poor man’s Michael Portillo’s Great Train Journeys!)
I’m a mix of feelings: Worry that I’m going to get no sleep, trepidation ahead of meeting colleagues and work tomorrow and of course, deep down, pure geeky excitement that I’m on one of the country’s only two Sleeper Services.
It sounds dreamy: “The Night Riviera”. Go to bed at London Paddington, wake up in Penzance Cornwall. How dreamy the reality is, I shall have to let you know – It better be good – I’m coming back to London in the same manner tomorrow night!

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At Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great and imposing Paddington, the train is waiting for me at Platform 1. I take a stroll past Paddington Bear, and wait for a while in the First Class Lounge. I was lucky enough to manage to sneak into IKB’s original feature waiting room. Complete with a monogram for George the 6th.

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I charge my phone a little, help myself to the wares on offer. (Cup of Tea and a fair few packets of glorious Boarders Biscuits.) I sat and people watched before making acquaintance with the couple next to me. We were reminded (regularly) that the train was ready for us to board, and eventually I caved in and headed for the train.
The isle was narrow. Very narrow. I had a backpack on my back and couldn’t turn around in the isle. I found the attendant and was checked in. The room (or berth) is small but functional – a bed, a sink, a hanger and a small box with soap, a flannel and some lip balm. You also get a tiny towel!
I’m in Coach G. The back of the train. Sadly, berth 1 – backing on to the toilet. Thankfully I packed my earplugs and should hope to get a good night’s kip. Breakfast has been booked with my friendly attendant – Coffee and a croissant.
I heard the automated voice heard at every other national rail station announce “The 23.50, First Great Western Service to Penzance” and headed to the back of the train. I hung my head out the window for a moment. I could see the grand station clock and Paddington Bear. The doors clunked. Locked. We were ready. Mere seconds later, the whistle blew, a green flag waved and we were off!

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The back of the train has no engine car, so I could see “Where I’d been”. Watching the Great Paddington station get left behind, a tube train try to race us along the track but most importantly, London being left behind.
I left the back of train and made my way up the endless feeling corridors to the Lounge Car. Got myself a tea and a whiskey and sat down (As it happens with the couple from earlier) to take in my surroundings.
There is something special about this. Something I can’t explain. Something just feels right. It feels somewhat poignant, almost like this sort of travel was what was envisaged when IKB build the fairly imposing arches of Paddington Station. The trains are tatty and worn. (They’re undergoing a refurb) They don’t have plug socket! (“Shavers only!”) The Moquette on the walls has gone a bit dull and the buffet car dated. Yet still it feels oddly classy. Classic perhaps and somewhat romantic.
I’ve finished my tea and whiskey and the train has just left Reading… I think it’s time to trundle back through the coaches and test the bed! Night!

Tea in a Pullman cup. Classy. Actually so classy.
Tea in a Pullman cup. Classy. Actually so classy. 

Day 7 : Space Oddity

Damn. It really is only yesterday’s post that is song-title-less!!

Today I drove accross Florida to the Kennedy Space Centre. To those who know my history with causeways, you’ll be pleased to know I managed to drive over NASA Causeway without causing any damage!

I’d had a tiny splurge and booked a “behind the scenes” style tour which included the Launch control room.

As I arrived I jumped almost straight on the tour bus to take us to the control room. The tour guide was very funny and as we pulled out the car park made a joke, pointing at the deliveries hut saying something like “well folks, if you’ve never seen a fed-ex delivery before, nows your chance… Don’t say things aren’t cutting edge here”

After that the bus pulled onto the main complex. The size of it was mind blowing. It’s got big main roads like the ones I’d driven to the space centre on!

We headed for the Launch Control suite which happens to be situated next to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

VAB and Launch Control.... It's so much bigger than you can imagine!
VAB and Launch Control…. It’s so much bigger than you can imagine!

In the lobby the guide explained the evolution of the use of Cape Canaveral and now the Kennedy Space Centre and how the two are now often referred to as one or the other when in fact technically they are different things.

On the wall of the lobby was a little plaque for EVERY rocket ever flown from the Kennedy Space Centre. It was overwhelming to see so many plaques on the wall. Each plaque contained the Mission Launch and End/Landing date dangling below. (with the sad exception of the few missions in which the Astronauts did not return home)

Plaques... so many plaques
Plaques… so many plaques

From there we were escorted (by two security guards at all times!) up to the third floor to visit the Launch Control room. The guide was telling us about how private companies are now building state of the art control centres… Not at Kennedy, but around the world, which would make the facilities here look a little silly… He also explained the fact the Kennedy Space Centre launch control room (one of them) is soon to become a multi user (i.e. not just nasa) facility (clues from the huge SpaceX hangar in the distance!)… As he was telling us about this… I did start to wonder…. WHY. It’s actually really out of date! For something as cutting edge as space flight… it’s still got melamine light switches from yesteryear…

Lighting up the room which lights up the rockets! It's all a bit 1960s.
Lighting up the room which lights up the rockets! It’s all a bit 1960s.

The Launch control building at Kennedy is simply out of date… It surprised me on one hand… but on the other hand I kinda expected it… Things have moved on since the Kennedy’s Golden days of space prominence.

How to Fly a Space Shuttle: FOR DUMMIES.  (No Really... that's the full shuttle user manual!)
How to Fly a Space Shuttle: FOR DUMMIES.
(No Really… that’s the full shuttle user manual!)

The view out of the Launch control room was pretty impressive. Views of a few of the modern launch sites and the surrounding areas….

View out of one of the windows to the launch pad... the white box in the distance is the SpaceX Building
View out of one of the windows to the launch pad… the white box in the distance is the SpaceX Building

While they are converting the room for individual companies to come in and use the room, NASA have still kept some launch control kit in the room to enable them to launch future rockets…

Nasa's Kit in the front (Closest to the huge windows!) ... and then the partitioned areas behind made for private companies.
Nasa’s Kit in the front (Closest to the huge windows!) … and then the partitioned areas behind made for private companies.

I was amazed by the detail of things we were being told… most of the information went in one ear, and blasted itself into space out of the other… but one thing did shock me and stay with me….

When launching a space ship, the Team at Kennedy only has control for the first 7 seconds of the flight before all control is switched to the control room in Houston. (Hence “Houston we have a problem”)…. Seven Seconds? That’s nothing! All this technology (however new or old) for Seven Seconds! That’s CRAZY!

Before we left the Launch control room, I couldn’t resist doing…..

A Launch Selfie..... Obvs!
A Launch Selfie….. Obvs!

From there we jumped back on the bus and did a tour of some of the launch pads, and other buildings on the site…

As we pulled away, the size of the VAB was still not really comprehensible, until you look carefully at things… illustrated best by two photos like this…

This is the Large... but in this photo seemingly small Boeing building on the site... Next to the VAB. Look how it doesn't even reach the top of the lowest part of the VAB Doors!
This is the Large… but in this photo seemingly small Boeing building on the site… Next to the VAB. Look how it doesn’t even reach the top of the lowest part of the VAB Doors!

Boeing building is hiding just behind the white building in the foreground right!
Boeing building is hiding just behind the white building in the foreground right!

If that hadn’t really put the size of the VAB into perspective for me, then driving out and along the crawler-way sure would. This area, with something like 8 inches of top layer, specialist shingle (Specialist as they had to fly the rocks in specially as they were rocks that won’t spark!) and the width of an American highway, this “roadway” as made specially for the crawler which would take the spaceship from VAB to the launch site. It was a size that was just magnanimous!

Again, if that hadn’t put the size into perspective, we then came face to face with one of the very crawlers which takes rockets, down to the launch site, at 1 mph. (It can go a whole 2 mph if unloaded!)

Not likely to go whizzing down the top gear track any time soon!
Not likely to go whizzing down the top gear track any time soon!

It took me a minute or two to realise, that this beast would fit through one of those doors on the VAB. ONE DOOR. (one of the dark blue bits)… THAT MAKES THE DOORS HUUUUGE!

We went down and got quite close to two of the launch sites. Including this one… where there is supposed to be a SpaceX launch on the Next week on Weds…. UPDATE: I thought about postponing my flights… luckily I didn’t as the launch was postponed!!

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2,1... LIFT OFF!
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2,1… LIFT OFF!

We journeyed round a bit more but there was little to note without boring you all to tears. We soon arrived at the Apollo/ Saturn 5 building… Where you go through a video/presetntation in a mocked up control room, taking you through the launch of an Apollo/Saturn Rocket… and then go into a huge hall complete with a restored (unused) Saturn 5 Launch vehicle (rocket)… It was huuuge!

I couldn't really get a picture showing how large this was!
I couldn’t really get a picture showing how large this was!

Underneath and around the Apollo rocket was all sorts of exhibits and pieces of space history, including ship control modules (The pod that lands in the ocean, with astronauts in!) Test vehicles for the lunar landing and exploration… and small piece of moon rock… Yup, I touched a piece of moon rock! You know officially know someone who’s touched a piece of moon. (LOL)

The Control Capsule
The Control Capsule

After a spot of lunch, I was back on the bus to the main complex…. Where I went to the Atlantis exhibition. I should realised when taking this photo, that there was a critical component of it missing….

Er... Where's the Shuttle Atlantis?!
Er… Where’s the Shuttle Atlantis?!

Once inside you walk round some information on the walls about space shuttle flights while slowly ascending up a slope. Eventually you come to a screening room where you see a video about shuttle launches specifically Atlantis’s missions.

I clocked on towards the end, as to what was going to happen… I don’t want to give too much away but it’s a pretty impressive and spectacular unveiling!!

After the screening you get to go and walk round Atlantis, and see the surrounding exhibits to do with space shuttles and the Hubble telescope as well as the international space station… and a slide which is supposed to give you a similar feeling to a landing in a shuttle?!

Ah, That's where Atlantis is!
Ah, That’s where Atlantis is!

I soon threw all my worldy goods in a locker and queued up for the simulator. WOWSER. What a feeling – Not sure I’d have coped… perhaps I’ll have to put my career in space on hold!

Wandering about the underside of Atlantis, was amazing how you could see each of the individual foamy looking, thermal protection tiles and their markings!

This would make Ikea assembly look easy!
This would make Ikea assembly look easy!

I managed to take a seat on a replica space station loo (as you do) as well as look at (And touch) the huuuge tyres (with purposely just the right amount of tread to save weigh!) amongst the artefacts.

No shuttle exhibition would be complete without remembering those who died flying in such magnificent beasts. There was a whole section dedicated to those who died on both Columbia and Challenger… interestingly the longest write up was for Ilan Ramon, the Israeli who was killed in Columbia in 2003. I still remember being in Watford, in the department store that is now Primark, watching the footage on the hundreds of TVs not long after it had happened.

A Piece of Columbia found after it had broken up on re-entry.
A Piece of Columbia found after it had broken up on re-entry.

Having wandered through the main exhibits, all that was left for me to do was to take some photos in the “Rocket Garden” – an area of the site containing lots of old unused and refurbished rockets….

Not your usual ornaments!
Not your usual ornaments!

From Kennedy, I travelled down the coast a little to see Cocoa Beach – Somewhere Mum and Dad visited 25 years ago…. I went inside Ron Jon’s Surf Shop which is the largest Surf Shop in the world! CRAZY! So so so huge!

From Coca Beach I set the Sat Nav to take me back avoiding Toll Roads (to make a change and to see some bits of america off the tourist trail…) To say I didn’t see much was an understatement… but there is something about driving 26 miles down a road, when you only see 2 other cars… and no junctions… AMERICA IS CRAZY HUGE!

Time for some sleep!

The Thrill of the internet.

I ought to outline from the off, that this is not about internet porn sites. The title may suggest, but really it’s simply the thrill of the internet.

 

While researching some information relating to Windows 8 today at work, I was presented with screenshots of windows through the ages. The second or third picture was Windows 95.

Stupidly, foolishly and geekishly sounding, Windows 95 was where my computer history began. I remember watching over my granddad’s shoulder as he played games sent to him by friends on floppy disk.

 

Back then, we had no clue what was going to come of the computer and of the internet.

Windows 95 and it’s hopeful icons such as “Set up the Microsoft network”  (running in a virtual machine on windows XP!!!)

 

Our first computer was second hand… It was a sort of TV/Computer thing, which now days would be branded “Media Centre” It was way ahead of it’s time, yet suckishly lagging behind all in one go: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olivetti_Envision I remember it developing a fault, to which an engineer told us “your problem is you are turning it off… it’s only supposed to be put to sleep”.

 

I digressed from the internet for a short while, so let’s return…..

A short while after having the computer, my parents decided that only being able to play “Floppy Swap” with their friends was not enough, and that they would try some of this new fangled internet malarky.

Internet started for many users with the CDs that were given away by ISPs. Every paper, every magazine, HAVE A CD FROM 5 ISPs. Everywhere you looked you could find a CD from AOL with their new version of software…. the poor Sods, all those CDs in the 90s and early 00s but where are they now?! How a user chose an ISP was and still is beyond me… I’d have thrown CDs into a pile and picked the most colourful.

Those of you whom were adept in the internet usage of the 90s will remember that you had a binary choice. A 1 or a 0. Did you want to be able to make/receive phone calls or did you want internet?

When the internet choice was made, it was often accompanied by many shouts of “Get off there, I want to use the phone” OR “Oh, Aunty X said she was going to phone me at 6.30, if you’re on that computer, she won’t get through.”

Avid internet geekies will remember that many ISPs (Namely ours – freeserve) would not connect you to the internet unless after 6pm. Meaning that we’d gather round the computer at 5.40 awaiting 6 to arrive so we could dial to the world.

This waiting till 6pm gave a thrill, a magic, a mystery to the world of the internet. As a young child I often wondered if the world would end if we dialled up before 6?Would a little man explode as there was a call to early? Working in IT, I now know, We’d have just got a rejection message and no connection until 6pm.

At 6pm, a connection was created. Mother clicked some buttons, Typed a password… and the computer started making a funny noise… INTERNET HAD INITIALISED.

The internet made us, or maybe just me, feel a sense of excitement – this element of mystery which involved bright colourful (16 bit) Images, and text magically zapping down the phone line, only after 6pm.

Back in the 90s, had the Harvester EarlyBird deal been more wide spread (or even in existence  you could have popped out for your cheapo Harvester meal before 6, and then been back in time for the internet. However… as things evolve… Earlybird and Internet are both available all day now…. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

Internet is now available all day. Not just all day but everywhere you go. (Ok, Not EVERYWHERE but you know what I mean) It’s so in your face that you take it for granted. Each time I tap the icon on my phone to tweet some pointless information to 600ish followers who probably don’t give a damn about my latest meal, or temperature… I forget the thrill of the internet.

Internet vs phone is no longer a binary choice… you can natter on the phone while internetting, and family rows have henceforth decreased. Internet connectivity allows us to communicate pictures, voice, video and text to eachother, around the world in a matter of seconds from within the palms of our hands, now wirelessly on our mobile phones….

I can bet you, that none of us, gathered round our computer at 6pm in the late 90’s thought, that within 10 years, we’d be internetting, from our palms, all day, at nearly 10x the speed… all without a promotional CD ROM.

So next time your internet connection goes down, or your phone/laptop battery dies… Just pretend it’s before 6pm and you are waiting for the magic to happen…. and when connection/battery is restored…. think carefully as you reconnect, as to what we could be doing differently in just 10 years time.