Tag Archives: London

Box of earth, be my home

(To the tune of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver)

Almost heaven, Transylvania
East Carpatians,
Cold Prahova river.
I lived long there
Lurking in the trees
Hunting in the mountains
Drifting on the breeze.

Box of earth, be my home
Be the place I belong
Transylvania brought to London,
Box of earth, be my home.

All my powers root themselves there
Superstitious peasants live in terror
Mountain refuge, under moonless sky,
Salty taste of warm blood
Wolf-pack in full cry.

Box of earth, be my home
Be the place I belong
Transylvania brought to London,
Box of earth, be my home.

I hear its voice
‘Cross the salty seas it calls me
Scent of earth reminds me of my castle far away
And flying in the dark I get the feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday

Box of earth, be my home
Be the place I belong
Transylvania brought to London,
Box of earth, be my home.

Originally posted on Making Light

The very unhappy path to Terminal 5

I see that the new terminal at London’s Heathrow airport is in the midst of another weekend’s disruption. Problems on the terminal’s opening weekend resulted in over 200 flights cancelled and a backlog of 28,000 bags. The chaos has already cost British Airways, the sole user of the terminal, £16m, and some estimates put the eventual cost around £50m.

Initial problems reported included the failure of either passengers or staff to find the car parks, slow security clearance for staff, consequent delayed opening of check-in desks, and multiple unspecified failures of the baggage handling systems. Once the initial failures occurred, a cascade of problems followed as passengers began to clog up the people-processing mechanisms of the terminal.

This weekend’s disruption has been blamed on “a new glitch” in the baggage handling system. I suspect that means that when they solved one set of problems they unmasked another. A spokeswoman assures us that they’re merely planning how to put an identified solution in place. Her statement doesn’t include any reference to the fact that these problems often nest, like Russian dolls, and that the new solution may uncover—or introduce—new problems.

Of course, my reaction was, “Did they test the terminal before opening it?” The errors shown include both functional errors (people can’t find the car park) and non-functional ones (the baggage system failed under load). No system is implemented bug-free, but the breadth of error type got me wondering.

Fortunately, the Beeb covered some of the testing performed before the terminal opened. Apparently, operation of the terminal was tested over a six month period, using 15,000 people. The testing started with small groups of 30 – 100 people walking through specific parts of the passenger experience. Later, larger groups simulated more complex situations. The maximum test group used was 2,250. BAA said these people would “try out the facilities as if they were operating live.”

Do 2,250 people count as a live test? Are they numerous enough to cause the sorts of problems you’re looking for in a volume test?

I plucked a few numbers off the web and passed them through a spreadsheet. T5 was designed to handle 30 million passengers per year, which comes out to an average of 82,000 per day, or 5,000-odd per hour in the 16-hour operating day (Heathrow has nighttime flight restrictions). These are wildly low numbers, because airports have to handle substantial peaks and troughs. Say that on the busiest day you get 150% of flat average, or 7,500 people per hour. Assuming 75% of the people in the terminal are either arriving from or heading toward London, and the rest are stopping over for an average of 2 hours, that’s about 9,375 passengers in the terminal at a given time.

9,375 is more than 2,250. You can,however, magnify a small sample to simulate a large one (for instance, by shutting off 2/3 the terminal to compact them into a smaller space). It’s not just a numbers game, but a question of how you use your resources.

Most of the testing documentation will of course be confidential. But I found an account of one of the big tests. I would expect that any such report was authorised by BAA, and would therefore be unrealistically rosy; they want passengers to look forward to using the new terminal. But still, the summary shocked me.

In fact the whole experience is probably a bit like the heyday of glamorous air travel – no queues, no borders and no hassle.

Any tester can translate that one. It means:

We didn’t test the queuing mechanisms, border controls, or the way the systems deal with hassled passengers.

In software terms, there is something known as the happy path, which is what happens when all goes well. The happy path is nice to code, nice to test, nice to show to management. It is, however, not the only path through the system, and all the wretched, miserable and thorn-strewn paths must also be checked. This is particularly important in any scenario where problems are prone to snowballing. (Airport problems, of course, snowball beautifully.)

Based on the account I read, these testers were set up to walk the happy path. They were not paid for their labours, but were instead fed and rewarded with gifts. I’m sure food and goodie bags were cheaper than actual pay, but they dilute the honesty of the exchange. We’re animals at heart, and we don’t bite the hand that feeds us. We like people who give us presents. Getting those people—mostly British people—to act like awkward customers, simulate jet lag or disorientation, or even report problems must have been like getting water to flow uphill.

Furthermore, look at the profile of testers mentioned: an ordinary reporter and a bunch of scouts and guides. I wish I believed that the disabled, the families with cranky children, and the non-English speakers were just at another table at breakfast. But I don’t. I suspect the test population was either self-selecting, or chosen to be easy to deal with. In either case, it didn’t sound very realistic.

It’s possible that there was another test day for people who walked the unhappy path, and that it wasn’t reported. It’s possible that they did clever things, like salt the crowd with paid actors to clog up the works and make trouble, and that our reporter simply missed those incidents.

But I’ve worked on big projects for big companies, and that’s not what I’m betting. I suspect there were very good test plans, but that for reasons of cost and timing they were deemed impractical. So compromises were sought in large meetings with mediocre biscuits. Gantt charts were redrawn late at night using vague estimates that were then taken as hard facts. Tempers were lost, pecking orders maintained. People assured each other that it would be all right on the night.

It wasn’t.

I wish I believed that the next time someone does something like this, they’ll learn the lessons from the T5 disaster. But that’s happy path thinking, and I’m a tester. I know better.

Alex: an adventure

Alex has been petitioning me to go visit London and see the London Eye ever since I sent him a postcard of it while on a course. We finally agreed that we would go in October, when he was settled into school.

So on October 6 – 8, we did. I picked him up from school on a Friday afternoon and took him home for lunch and a change of clothes. Then we took a taxi to the airport and flew down (British Midland to Heathrow). We took the Heathrow Express into Paddington, then the Tube to Victoria, where we stayed at the Comfort Inn.

Best moment of the journey down, for me: we bought some crisps and some apples in Heathrow, because we were going to be a long time getting our dinners. I was going to be flexible about food on the journey, figuring that any blood sugar was better than none, and offered to open the crisps for him. I got a five-star telling off, because apples are “real food” and crisps are not, and you do not eat junk food until you’ve eaten your real food. He harped on it throughout the trip.

Best moment of the journey down, for Alex: after school, taxis, planes, trains, tubes, and shops, walking hand in hand through the darkness at Victoria, the baggage trailing behind me, he was still cheerful and stable. I said, “You are such a good travelling companion. It’s a real pleasure to be with you right now.” It seemed to strike him deeply that I should feel that way.

We got up the next morning and took a photo of ourselves in the mirror. Here we are, getting ready for adventures:



(He’s being a squirrel in the second of these shots.)

We set out for the Eye before 9, on foot to burn off some of the excess energy. There was some running on the deserted pavements, the odd shot with Big Ben, all that sort of thing.


We got to the Eye before it opened, and queued for tickets in the sharp breeze. By 10:00, we were on board. Alex is a little nervous of heights these days, and nearly funked out a couple of times, but when he got on board, he wasn’t as scared. It reminded him of a space ship.


Although he would only go to the window when I asked him to for photos, he enjoyed the ride.


By the time we were at the top, he was pretty much reconciled to the trip.


He still did his fair share of scowling.


Still, he was glad to get down.


Then we had ice cream (his idea, not mine) and watched the people who paint themselves metallic colours and pretend to be statues. I bought us onto an open-top bus tour for a bit of a rest, and we rode around London for a while, playing with the headphones and the pre-recorded narratives. We got off near Regent Street, with the intention of going to Hamley’s. A bit of lunch restored our energy, and off we went. I let Alex take the lead through the shop. This meant that we saw a lot of Lego.


He wanted to buy himself a toy, and quickly settled on a dragon in its own egg. Then he wanted to make sure we got one for Fiona, at which time I silently decided that we weren’t going to use his pocket money for any of these purchases. (Generosity is rewarded.) We found a cuddly puppy for her, then walked up a staircase themed after the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Alex enjoyed sitting in High King Peter’s throne at the end.


After watching some older kids play with Scalextric, we added a green light sabre to our stash and left. By then, Alex was beat. We went back to the hotel and found a documentary on people who base jump with peregrine falcons (I am not making this up). He watched that, surrounded by his toys, then came out for dinner. We went home and crashed.

We woke the next morning in a silly mood (Well, one of us did, but he was silly enough for two.)


We packed up the room, checked out, and headed for Hyde Park to play about before our flight home. The park was crowded with runners in some sort of footrace, but we soon found an activity more suited to us: a tree that reminded Alex of Yoda’s house on Dagobah. So we did a little Star Wars playing.


Then we headed for the Tube, dodging through the endless stream of runners. We stopped at Paddington for lunch, took the Express back to Heathrow, and flew home at last.

It was an inexpressibly wonderful weekend, with an inexpressibly wonderful boy.

(There’s a Flickr photoset with more pictures as well.)

Photos from London

I’ve been down in London a good deal over the last few weeks, studying for an exam. I brought my phone, of course, which means I brought my camera.

I rarely find the classic London landmarks inspirational for photography. They’re too…well…big.

But the pavement by Tower Bridge really got my interest.


Taken 17 May 2006


Taken 17 May 2006


Taken 17 May 2006

The leaves of an ornamental plant near the Tower also caught my eye.


Taken 13 June 2006

On one of my visits, I walked by the crew setting up for a concert on the Tower grounds. The ironmongery was interesting.


Taken 23 May 2006


Taken 23 May 2006

I was also fascinated by the bright yellow locks on the gates to Trinity Square, a tiny park dedicated to naval war dead near the course hotel.


Taken 24 May 2006

Rainbow over the Thames


Taken 23 May 2006

Overall, though, London does not appeal to me photographically. I guess my heart is in Edinburgh.

Sutherlands Hit London; London Survives

So here we are in London.

M, as he has indicated in his daylog, is here for a web usability conference. B and I just came along for the ride. And what a ride it’s been. We’ve been relentlessly social.

  • On Saturday, we arrived at Stanstead and made our way to London. To my astonishment and amusement, the hotel we’re staying in (Jury’s in Kensington) is right opposite the hotel where I once had a course (the Regency in Kensington). To B’s astonishment and amusement, the elevator has mirrors on all sides, producing an infinity of B’s to flirt with.
    Jules arrived just as we were settled into the hotel room. After some dithering, we all went out to the Science Museum, just up the road from our hotel. It was disappointing in places – it could have done with more interacitvity. But B loved the working steam engine, big as the ground floor of our house, red, hissing and clacking!

  • On Sunday, B and I met up with James (M was at the first day of his conference). At my suggestion, we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, “the attic of the Empire” (James’ term). Amazing place. They have full-sized plaster casts of the fronts of cathedrals. There’s a plaster cast of Hadrian’s Column, in two pieces (upper and lower). The plaster casts take up only two rooms; the rest of the museum is full of equally grand, disassociated things.
    I was worried about how James would react to B. He’s not automatically charmed by babies and children, from what I hear. But B took one look at him and gave him a huge grin, after which James was his devoted slave.
    M joined us for dinner, as did Guy (after some dithering). We had a wonderful time in the pizza restaurant, talking about the good old days (and telling Guy all the embarassing stories on James) for ages.

  • Yesterday, Monday, B and I went to Highgate to meet up with Gritchka, a friend from my online community Everything2. The three of us had a great time: we wandered around Highgate cemetery, where Gritch pointed out the graves of obscure but interesting people. Then we went on to Hampstead Heath, peering at an 18th century house on the way. The weather was bright and crisp, the scenery good, and the company excellent.
    We had planned to go visit Jules in the evening, down where he lives in Guildford. But it became clear that B was overstimulated, after 3 days of constant interaction with half of London. So we stayed at home and let him roll around on the hotel room rug.

  • Today, B and I took advantage of the fine Tuesday weather to go to Hyde Park. I had noticed that there was a horseriding trail marked on the map, and I thought the bunny might like to see some horses. We were most of the way there when M called; he was on an extended lunch break, and could he meet us? We got sandwiches and went to the park.
    B saw a whole menagerie’s worth of animals today:

    1. Ducks, gannets, seagulls and pigeons, when I distributed the bread from my sandwich by the Serpentine
    2. A parrot, two rabbits, and three rats in the pets department at Harrod’s
    3. A horse, from a distance
    4. Numerous dogs

    Of all of them, the horse made the least impact.

The days have been great. Good weather, Bunny a comforting weight in the backpack, a virtuous soreness in my legs and feet form all the exercise. The nights, on the other hand, have been difficult. He isn’t sleeping well. I don’t know if its the hotel cot (rickety; if he could stand in it it would be unsafe), the room (occasionally too hot), or the overstimulation, but he wakes up crying loudly in the middle of the night. Repeatedly. Last night wasn’t too bad; the deliberate choice to spend an evening in seems to have had a good effect.

It worries me, because the trip to California is going to be a series of day-long meetings of the Alexander Beowulf Fan Club, what with all the residents of the Piedmont house. He may very well wig out under the excitement; we shall have to allow decompression times to compensate.