Category Archives: Isn’t my life interesting?

Road trip!

Given that I’m on a break, I figure I should do something more interesting (and restorative) than just sitting at home studying mathematics (though sitting at home studying mathematics is going very well and I’ve learned a lot of interesting things about graph theory and combinatorics).

Which is how the idea of doing a road trip started. I’ve done a road trip across Namibia after PyCon Namibia, but I’ve actually spent very little time exploring the UK.

After posting the idea on Twitter it rapidly went from “Hmm maybe I should do this” to “Oh I guess I’m doing this”. I’m going to be doing a big road trip across the UK in November. It’s a silly time of year to do it, but oh well.

The plans are vague, and they will continue to be vague even while I’m doing it, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

I will be departing home some time on or before November 11th (Ideally closer to November 3rd (this Thursday), but there are some things I need to sort out) and returning home some time on or before November 24th. Probably a couple days before.

I will be driving from Lands End to John O’Groats (specific destinations I want to visit meant I was going to do like 80-90% of that anyway, so I figured I might as well enact the cliche).

I don’t really yet know what I’ll be doing or where I’ll be going in between. Here’s what I know:

  • I’ll be visiting the Eden Project.
  • I’ll be visiting the Falkirk boat wheel.
  • I’m going to spend a couple days in Edinburgh.
  • I’ll probably stop by Birmingham for at least a night.
  • I intend to visit a lot of large second hand book stores.
  • I intend to do a lot of walking, both in the country side (weather permitting) and exploring cities and towns I haven’t been to.
  • I mostly don’t intend to know where I’m going to be exactly more than about a day in advance, and will largely be staying in a mix of youth hostels and airbnbs with the occasional stop over with family and friends (family and friends reading this: If you want to offer me a room I will probably happily accept…).
  • I do not intend to pass through or particularly near to London

Anyway, I mention this partly because there will probably be a bunch of blog posts on the things I’m doing, and partly because I want suggestions. In particular:

  • Places I absolutely have to visit (I will probably ignore > 50% of these but I’d still like the suggestions).
  • If you live in the UK and I don’t get to see you often (or even if we’ve never met!) and you’d like to meet up, let me know and if I’m passing vaguely your way (for values of “your way” that may include “somewhere in the region of 100 miles of you) I’ll come say hi.
  • This is includes if you’d like me to come visit your company, tech meetup group, etc. though this is primarily not a working trip and I can’t promise I’ll be in full technical mode if and when I do.

Answers welcome in comments, tweets, email, whatever.

That’s all for now.

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MacIver: A pronunciation and spelling guide

My name appears to cause people problems.

I’m normally pretty good at taking this in my stride, but the thing with constant irritations is that there’s very little middle ground between being able to ignore them and being enraged by them. Most of the time I’m all “Hey, it’s fine, everyone gets this wrong” right up until the point where I snap and go “ARGH WHY DOES EVERYONE GET THIS WRONG I HATE ALL OF YOU”.

So here is a guide to not getting it wrong. Note that if you deliberately get it wrong to troll me (hi jonty), I’ll just think you’re bit of a dick and will not be successfully trolled. The annoying thing is that people find this difficult to get right. Most names are easy to get wrong when you’re actively trying.

First thing to note: That’s a capital i, not an lower case L. When written in a sans serif font this may be non-obvious.

This confuses a lot of people. About one time in ten if someone is calling from my bank or similar where they’ll not have seen my name before they say “Hello can I talk to Mr Mackelver please?”

The second problem with that I is that it’s pronounced ee. If you’re like most people you will be pronouncing my name to sound like the guy from the TV with the paperclips and be saying “Mack-Ivor”. This is, to be honest, fair enough – the Scottish clan we’re descended from do pronounce the name that way.

However, I don’t. I’m not sure when it happened, but for whatever reason our branch of the family do not pronounce the name that way, and haven’t for a few generations (and I have video evidence to prove it. There’s a 1941 movie set in 1840 which uses our pronunciation).

A minor irritation is caused by people who omit the a. Mc/Mac are both common prefixes for mac names, so if you encounter one and are not 110% sure how to spell it (and need to spell it) you should probably ask which one it is.

“Ask how to spell names” is especially true in this case given that the person who is talking you may not be able to pronounce it. Which is how I ended up with my name spelled as “Mcgiver” on my P45. This is possibly the single most annoying abuse of my name I have ever encountered.

I believe this covers all the normal issues. So now you should have no excuse but to get my name right. Your compliance in this matter is appreciated.

Sincerely,

Day-vid Rich-ee Mack-ee-verr

PS. It’s DRMacIver. Not DrMacIver. My name is David Ritchie MacIver and I do not have a PhD.

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Coinpocalypse

I’ve just experienced what is possibly the single worst piece of user experience I’ve had to interact with.

I go to top up my Oyster card. There are two machines. One has a long line in front of it, the other is empty because it’s cash only due to a broken card reader. I have plenty of cash on me, so I decide to skip the queue.

This, it turns out, is a mistake.

So first it asks me how much I want to top up. My options are helpful prefilled buttons of 10 through 50 or I can enter an amount. I try to enter an amount larger than 50, but it helpfully informs me that despite the ever growing costs of public transport in London it’s literally inconceivable that I could want more than £50 on my Oyster, so I’m not allowed to do that. Fine, I ask for £50. It tells me to give it the money.

I put in two £20s and hunt around for a £10, but I turn out to only have £20s (For some reason it does not occur to me until later that I could have just put in an additional £20 and got change). Can I just ask it to accept that? No. Oh well. I click “Go back” assuming it will keep my money and let me choose another option.

Nope. Apparently “Go back” means “Abort everything, go back to the very beginning”. Oh well.

But as I press go back and am returned to the beginning of this sad saga, there is an ominous “clunk” noise.

Which is then followed by the distinctive metallic rain sound of a shower of coins onto hard plastic as my nice, compact, £20 notes are converted into individual £1 coins.

“Oh you’re fucking kidding me” I exclaim, as I stare at the machine in disbelief. The lady next to me at the other machine gives me an amused smile. “Ha ha, sucker” she carefully refrains from saying. “Should have waited in the queue”. She completes her transaction and moves on.

Meanwhile I’m left with a giant pile of pound coins and an untopped up Oyster card.

I sigh dramatically and begin to feed the coins into the machine. You know those nice big coin hoppers they have at a lot of self checkout machines where you can just pour your coins into it? Oyster card machines don’t have those.

I gather up handfuls of coins at a time and start individually feeding them into the tiny coin slot. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.

After £27 it decide it’s had enough and just starts spitting out any more coins I feed it. I can’t really say I blame it. I mean who the hell would want to have that many pound coins, right?

I press the go back button again. Metallic rain.

At this point, the machine has defeated me. I gather up my coins in two great big handfuls, cross the hall to the empty ticket hall and talk to the nice man behind the desk.

He looks bemused as I pass him my pile of coins, but is perfectly happy to count them up and put the money on my Oyster card. The entire transaction takes about two minutes.

The annoying thing is that as a programmer I know exactly the sort of dysfunctional processes that lead to this sort of thing. But, as a user, I sure wish they’d actually watched some people trying to use these machines with cash before they shipped them.

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How to get free tea from Pret a Manger

Note: For obscure and nefarious purposes I’ve decided I should write a little bit more about my life. I’m going to be starting with what entertaining stories I can extract from it, ideally dressed up as some sort of parable or life lesson so you and I can both pretend there’s some point to this.

So as you might have noticed, I can be something of an angry person. I hide it well, but it occasionally comes out in subtle and hard to read ways like telling most of the tech community that they’re utter hypocrites who need to learn to take responsibility for their actions. Things like that.

This is somewhat visible working with me. I’m very often visibly annoyed at things – software that isn’t working right, bits of the codebase that we’ve wanted to fix for ages and have never found the time for, etc.

I’m very rarely angry at colleagues though. Or at least, not to their face. I’ve sent an angry email or two (there was the “How dare you edit my words, you horrible little man! Do you know who I am?” prima donna email I sent once. It was totally justified), but nothing too serious. There have been some animated debates verging on full blown arguments, and I’m sure I’ve occasionally been short with people, but I’ve never actually yelled at a colleague.

Oh. Except that one time.

Picture a scene. My colleague is sitting in his chair, wearing a perfectly respectable suit. I am standing near him. We are arguing. I am illustrating my points by gesticulating with a (thankfully mostly empty) mug of tea.

I am not wearing a suit.

More specifically, I am wearing pyjamas.

Not just pyjamas of course. That would be silly. I also have a dressing gown and slippers on.

There is a towel draped around my neck.

Back to the argument. It is fairly heated. Eventually I shout at him. What do I shout?

“NO”, I declare “This is SCIENCE. YOU do not get to have an OPINION about SCIENCE!”

Lets rewind.

There are a number of things confusing about this scene which will make more sense with more context.

For example: Why was my colleague wearing a suit? He was a programmer. This was a startup. We don’t wear suits. The very idea is ludicrous.

In order to explain this, I must tell you an important fact: This was a Friday. This particular Friday was also Halloween, but I think that was more an excuse than a reason.

Earlier that week Charles, our CEO, had got it into his head that it would be an amusing team building exercise to invert normal corporate culture. “Many companies”, he said, “have a dress down Friday, in which people come into the office in casual clothes. But this company couldn’t dress down any further without getting arrested, so instead lets have a dress up Friday in which everyone comes in in suits”

“Can’t dress down further?” I thought. “Well that sounds like a challenge”

Which is why on that particular Friday morning I put on my pyjamas and dressing gown, donned some shoes I owned that looked remarkably like slippers (this was before I realised that flat feet and shoes designed to feel like barefoot were a terrible combination), stuck a mug in one dressing gown pocket and a wallet in the other, artfully arranged my towel and set forth for the tube.

I have learned interesting things about how Londoners behave when you do strange things on the tube. I learned it this time and confirmed it when I later carried a giant frog with me on the tube (it was a wedding gift).

They don’t look at you at all. They’re afraid that if they make eye contact the crazy person will come talk to them. So they very scrupulously pretend everything is normal and keep reading their papers.

Except children.

It might be more curiousity. It might be less fear of awkwardness. Whatever it is, children are entirely happy to ask you what on earth it is you think you’re doing?

Which is why the only remarkable feature of the tube trip to old street was when a child asked his mother “Why is that man wearing pyjamas?” and she replied “I don’t know. Maybe he forgot something?”. I politely explained that I was wearing a costume for halloween. It was mostly true. She looked very relieved.

Eventually I got to Old Street. There I ran into my colleague, Jon. He didn’t look half as scary then as he does now, but he was still suited up and with his shoulder length hair tied back into a (very short) pony tail he was definitely giving off a bit of a Mafia enforcer guide.

He saw me from across the station and thought “Ha ha. There’s some idiot wearing pyjamas. That’s the sort of thing some of the nutters I work with would do…. Wait. Hang on”

So from there we proceeded to work together. Of course now people would look at me. A guy in pyjamas might be a dangerous lunatic. A guy in pyjamas accompanied by a Mafia enforcer is more likely to be performance art. This is East London after all. We definitely got some amused smiles and laughter as we passed.

En route we stopped at Pret a Manger so I could get some breakfast and tea.

The tea was needed to complete my costume. I presented my empty mug and politely asked the girl behind the counter to fill it with tea and could I have a croissant please?

Eventually she stopped laughing. She comped me the tea (Allegedly because I had my own mug, but I’m choosing to believe it was out of respect for the gown). Alas I still had to pay for my croissant, but I guess a gown only gets you so far.

Tea in hand, Jon and I finally proceeded to the office. I put on my best sleepy just-got-out-of-bed face and ambled in through the door, yawning.

There was laughter and a certain amount of respect, but ultimately not all that much surprise. As new people came in we occasionally had conversations to the tune of “Are you wearing pyjamas?” “Yes” “Why?” “Because Charles set a challenge, and I could not in good conscience refuse it” “OK”.

Besides, it was hardly the strangest thing anyone had ever worn to work in that office.

After not too long we settled down. Some of us were in suits. Some of us were in pyjamas. It was fine. This was the new normal. We adjusted.

The new normal

Aww. I was so young and cute! I still had hair and glasses!
Picture taken by my friend, and colleague at the time, Al Davidson

And this, you see, is why when I was shouting at my colleague I had pyjamas and he had a suit. It was normal. Everything makes sense with enough context.

Why was I yelling at a colleague about science?

Simple really.

I have a few hot button topics. Subjects on which my normal insistence on reasoned discourse frays and I find it hard to treat matters of disagreement as reasonable positions to take and instead take them as evidence that the person in question is a terrible human being.

Which is why, when the colleague in question was talking to his neighbour about how global warming was just a big conspiracy by the governments of the world to extort more tax money from hard working individuals like him, I didn’t take it very well.

I was working on something at the time. I’ve no idea what. I had a very researchy job then, so it was probably something to do with network analytics or text processing. I’m going to pretend I was doing something clever, but five chances out of six it was more likely to be tweaking an SQL query or munging large volumes of text through GNU sort.

It doesn’t matter much though, because in the presence of climate change denial going on not 3 meters from me it wasn’t really going to happen. I spent about 5 minutes gritting my teeth and telling myself not to get involved. Then I got involved.

I don’t remember the details of our conversation. I imagine there was a lot of back and forth with me quoting the facts and him weaving conspiracy theories. I do remember what lead up to the punchline though.

Look. You are a programmer. You are not a climatologist. There are a very large number of climatologists, whose job it is to study these things, who actually know what they are talking about and have hard evidence for it who say that you are entirely wrong.

That may be, but my opinion-

NO. This is SCIENCE. YOU do not get to have an OPINION about SCIENCE!

Which is why, on this particular Friday, in the middle of our office, I was in a dressing gown yelling about science at a colleague in a suit. Obvious, really.

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With enough context, everything makes sense

From the work IRC channel earlier:

11:30 < DRMacIver> Oh by the way. There’s ice hiding inside the towel under the bowl. For reasons that totally make sense.

They do, too.

The ice was wrapped in a towel to keep it from melting. The bowl was on top of this because it had contained some of the ice for usage, on top of the rest seemed like a convenient location, and I figured a bit of evaporative cooling from the water couldn’t hurt even if it probably didn’t help very much.

I had the ice and the towel because I’d had to improvise a cooler box inside my backpack this morning. I put a bunch of ice in zip-lock backs, packed it around a Tupperware box, which I wrapped in a towel, which I put inside another bag, which I put in my backpack.

I needed this in order to be able to transport a mix containing raw pork and eggs at a sensible temperature in the heat, especially because my backpack tends to get quite warm from my body heat whilst cycling. Once at work I transferred it to the fridge.

I had this mix because I decided to make rosemary and paprika pork burger mix last night.

Which I need to transport to a barbecue tonight.

Because it’s Monday night burger club.

Which meets on a Tuesday.

Monday night burger club meets on a Tuesday because it used to meet on a Monday and we got attached to the name, so when we collectively decided that Tuesdays were much more convenient we were OK with the date change but changing the name would have been unacceptable.

Which is why, on this particular Tuesday, there is ice wrapped in a towel sitting on in our office kitchen area.

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