Flight from hell

I’ve had some pretty hellish experiences on plane flights. I’ve traveled from the UK to the USA while suffering from the ‘flu, on a plane filled with rowdy cheerleaders. I’ve been trapped for several hours on a motionless plane in Chicago, with all the ventilation and air conditioning turned off. However, a recent news story is putting my experiences into perspective.

An elderly woman died near the start of a flight from India. British Airways propped up the body in a spare seat in first class. The first class passengers then had to deal with not just the presence of the corpse, but also the corpse’s daughter, who spent the remainder of the 9 hour flight sobbing inconsolably.

Then once the plane landed, they all had to sit there for an extra hour until a coroner could verify that they hadn’t caught anything from the corpse.

One passenger complained to British Airways. Their official response is that he should “get over” it. Nice.

Summer camp with a difference

Recently I watched a documentary about a group of 5 UK teenagers who went away to a Summer Camp in the US.

I remember Charlie Brown used to go away to summer camp. I always thought it was a strange idea; one of those very American institutions that Americans probably assume exist everywhere, like college fraternities and drive-through restaurants.

This particular summer camp was more of an institution than usual, though: it’s a camp for children who suffer from Tourette Syndrome, often as well as OCD and ADHD.

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Four fried chickens and a Coke

I’m in Chicago to put signs on doors. No, really.

IBM is setting up a swanky new customer briefing center, where major customers are given custom presentations, attend hands-on technical demonstrations, and are shown proof-of-concept systems. Outside each room will be a video screen. The plan is for each screen to show the room number and name, the title of whatever event is happening at that moment (or starting soon), the times of the event, and the name and e-mail address of the IBM contact responsible for the event. There may also be a need to put custom logos, screenshots, clip art or animation on the screens.

There are turnkey systems for doing this sort of thing, but they cost a ton of money and are a pain to administer. So, we’re building one in-house. Or more specifically, I’m building the software, a colleague is installing the (Linux based) hardware. Each room will be driven from a central Domino database, which can be managed by any authorized user, and is integrated with the system used to book meeting rooms. The screens will show a web page, implemented in XHTML and CSS, and displayed using an embedded version of Firefox (I hope, or else I’ll have to do some extra work to downgrade the web design). The page will simply refresh every N minutes.

The hardware only arrived on Friday, so everything was booked at the last minute. I picked the closest hotel to IBM that had broadband. It turned out to be the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown Chicago, on the north edge of the theater district. The current IBM office building is a short bleary-eyed zombie-like morning walk away, and there’s a Starbucks across the street from the obvious route, so that works well.

Also just down the street is the Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist. Until now, the only Christian Scientist church I had seen was the one in Boston, labeled First Church of Christ Scientist. I had thought that that was just the full brand name of the church, like the First National Bank. It hadn’t occurred to me that they actually number the things. Thank goodness Starbucks didn’t take that approach, or they’d have problems fitting wide enough signs on the stores.

This evening I walked to the original Pizzeria Uno. Just down the street someone had started an independent pizza restaurant called Pizzeria Due, with a very similar logo. I thought this was pretty amusing, and would have eaten there, but there was a queue almost as long as the one in front of Uno.

I’m sure I heard something about Chicago having a tough economy; yet someone is clearly doing well, as downtown is infested with condo developments. Many local businesses have recently shut down, and often have “Coming soon: more condos!” signs on the windows. A condo here starts at $200,000 or so.

Further evidence of selective richness: I saw a shiny silver Lambourghini downtown. I think it was a Countach. I love the design of the Countach, and the name—it turns out it’s the Italian equivalent of “Holy crap!”. The car got that name because when people living near the Lambourghini plant saw the test car being driven, they tended to say something like “Countach!”. A security guard was standing looking at the car. I’m not sure whether he was a guard from a nearby store taking a break, or whether it’s possible that someone is rich enough to hire a guard to stand and watch his car.

There’s also an enormous Apple Store. It’s just like one of the stores in the original Grand Theft Auto—the one where there’s a special stunt jump that involves driving through the plate glass windows and up the glass staircase.

If you like Art Deco, Chicago is the city for you. It’s everywhere. The hotel is in a historic building, and has some beautiful metal elevator doors on the ground floor. It also has an authentic deco mailbox set into the wall; or rather, something which used to be a mailbox. It doesn’t have a slot any more.

Prius filter hack

Looked at the air conditioner filter in the Prius. Saw that it was encrusted with filth, covered in tufted seeds (dandelions?) and had collected a few leaves too. Checked the price of a replacement filter: $19 for a regular one, $35 for an electrostatic.

Went to Target, got a 3M electrostatic filter for $4, cut it to fit the Prius’s filter holder. Job done.

Surprisingly, Reader’s Digest ranks Austin as the 8th cleanest city in the USA. (Just don’t drink the water.) I say surprisingly, because it seems like the pollution here is dreadful–it’s almost like they don’t bother with vehicle emissions standards at all. (Oh, wait, who was the last state governor? Which state went straight to #1 in pollution levels? Never mind.)

Thinking about it more, though, the streets are clean. And whereas Boston/Cambridge/Somerville had various areas that always smelt like rotting garbage (for instance, the intersection near the Twin City Plaza mall), I’ve not encountered any skunk-gaggingly stinky places in Austin. Yet.

Chicago is ranked the dirtiest major city in the US. Looks like I’m going to be there at the start of next month, so maybe I’ll get a chance to see if it’s true. Right now, the sum total of my knowledge concerning Chicago is what I learned from watching The Blues Brothers and playing SubLogic Flight Simulator (in which Meigs Airfield was one of the key locations).

Home alone

So, on Monday morning sara set off to catch a 10:00 flight to Chicago. At around 16:30, she called to tell me she was still at Logan airport. I’m sure she’ll have a few words to say about United Airlines when she returns.

Monday was Patriots Day, notionally a holiday in Massachusetts. It was also a Bank Holiday in the UK. I decided to work anyway, as it was a good opportunity to roll out a redesign of a vital 3GB database while nobody was likely to be needing it. Everything seemed to go more or less according to plan, until some kind of glitch dumped a few hundred old e-mail messages in my inbox.

In the evening, I met up with Mark and we went to Buddha’s Delight in Chinatown. He suggested it, saying he’d never been before. Apparently he doesn’t eat vegetarian very often.

Afterwords he came back to take a look at the iBook and iMac. I also showed him Linux. Some time this week, hopefully, we’re going to try switching his old PC to run Linux—all he really uses it for is web, e-mail, and the usual office tasks involving spreadsheets and writing documents. He’s had Windows Me self-destruct multiple times, and is ready to try something a little more stable.

After that, we played video games—mostly Cookie and Cream, which is a two-player game of almost Nintendo-like cuteness involving two bunnies who have to race through level after level of obstacles, co-operating to help each other past the various hazards. I also showed him Rez, which he agreed is very cool. Then he had to dash off to get the last train home.

Today I cleaned up the inevitable unforeseen problems from yesterday. Obviously the one thing I didn’t think to check (because I hadn’t changed it in any way) was the one thing that broke, in completely mysterious circumstances. Once I’d fixed that up and cleaned out my inbox again, I dealt with various end-user requests, and that was about it for the work day.

This evening I’ve been mostly tidying up and repairing stuff around the house.