Saturday, December 22, 2007

22 December 2007: Visa

We had been warned it could take nine months. It turned out to be seven and a half.

Yes, that's right, we (more specifically, I) have finally been given a visa to move to the USA. It wasn't easy, it wasn't fun and it wasn't something I'd ever recommend. But it's done, and as we reflect on the process, it's worth running through a few things we learned along the way in case anyone reading this blog wants to get a marriage visa to move to the US.

The process began in May when we started considering the possibility of moving. We investigated the process from the US Embassy website and realised it was a multi-stage process, the first of which was mainly to do with proving that Gloria was a US citizen. That's why we have passports, you may think. You'd be wrong. For the US Visa and Immigration service, we had to fill in a whole bunch of forms and wait two months for them to even look at it all. Eventually they said ok, we agree Gloria is a US citizen and is allowed to sponsor a spouse.

Then they turned their attention to me. We had to fill in another bunch of forms but also we had to get a whole series of other pieces of information, most of which we had in our possession (long-form birth certificate, for instance) but one of which we didn't (police check from sometime in the last twelve months). Had we known in advance we needed one, I'd have gone to the Police Station and asked them for one some time before, since it takes 40 days for one to arrive. In addition, they asked for Gloria's "most recent tax return", which (since the IRS were insisting on making me apply for a US tax number simply because I was married to a US citizen) was the 2005 return rather than the 2006 return, which was still in process. We phoned the £1.20 per minute helpline, who responded "you need to email instead." We emailed, asking whether they meant us to bring the 2005 tax return or the as-yet-not-processed 2006 return. response: Thank you for your email enquiry. Unfortunately we can only accept the most recent tax return. Well, that clears that up then. Anyway, eventually we got all of this documentation together and so filled in more forms and said "we have everything you've asked, please can we have an interview now?"

In the meantime I made an appointment for, and attended, a medical where I had to pay a lot of money for a Harley Street doctor to do a five-minute examination and do a chest X-ray showing I didn't have TB. My local GP could have done all of that, but the US Embassy don't recognise the NHS as a valid medical practice. And let's not even talk about the blood tests I had to get in order to prove that I didn't need vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella because I'd had all three diseases. Anyway, after a good bit of hassle, they decided I was clean and so another hoop was successfully jumped through.

The Embassy wrote back. Interview date 9 October. Please arrange for a medical interview. Well, done that already. So we carefully got all the documents in order, headed to London, waited in line for our "8.30 appointment" (ha ha) in the pouring rain and eventually made it inside, took a ticket, waited two hours and eventually got called for our interview. Well, not really an interview as they never asked us anything other than "please give us the next document." It was much more like going to a bank teller window than an interview. But anyway, they told us that as all our income is UK earned, and the US Immigration service don't recognise income earned outside of the US (which is funny, because the US tax people certainly do recognise foreign earned income since Gloria has to pay tax on it) and as such we were under the poverty line and as such invalid for a marriage visa. The lady said we needed at least seventeen and a half thousand dollars in a US bank in order to meet this requirement, and thus we'd need a joint sponsor who could show they had seventeen and a half thousand dollars in a US account. Message is clear: only rich people are allowed to marry foreigners. Please go and sit down, the lady said, and we'll call you back later to let you know the decision.

Waited another hour or so, then called back to the desk where we were told our application for the visa had been suspended because (1) we had no money (actually, we had not earned US dollars, we had earned plenty of pounds sterling over the last twelve months) and thus we needed a joint sponsor who could show fifty thousand dollars of US savings. Fifty thousand. Not seventeen, we asked? No, fifty thousand, five-zero. And (2) we had provided no evidence of a completed 2006 tax return. It's in process as they're making me apply for a tax number. It's October, the lady said, taxes are filed by April so it has to have been processed by now. Essentially the message was "you're lying". In order to get the visa, she continued, you need to provide a completed 2006 tax return in addition to the joint sponsor. Now please take your chest X-ray photo and go away. (Why did they have my chest x-ray and why were they giving it to me now? I'd paid for it, I guess. Maybe I'll hang it on the wall.)

Gloria was in tears by this point. It's stressful enough to have to go through this long, largely pointless process but to be accused of lying by a rude US government employee who clearly would much rather we didn't exist was very bad indeed, especially when the reason the taxes weren't yet sorted was because it was another branch of US government employees, the IRS tax service, who were causing the delay.

I won't detail the tax side of it, except to say that they lost things, mis-processed things and changes the rules half way through such that I ended up being both denied and accepted for a US tax number. The good old IRS also have a telephone helpline, on which they told us more than once that they had no record of Gloria's tax return for 2006 because it was in transit from one office to another, but don't worry, it'll probably just show up somewhere in a few weeks. Hm, we thought, had they said that to the lady at the US Embassy they would certainly have been accused of lying. But what can you do? All we could do was wait.

Meantime a phone call to the visa helpline to clear up the discrepancy between the joint sponsor amounts we had been told... was it seventeen thousand or fifty thousand? Which was correct? Neither are correct, the man on the expensive phone line said, the joint sponsor just has to make up the shortfall in US funds to get the total up to seventeen thousand. Sheesh. Three different stories from three different people. Best bet, we thought, is to make sure all three situations were covered, including topping up our US bank account to the seventeen thousand amount and printing off a statement proving it.

Still nothing from the US tax people though, so off we went on holiday to Italy, and back we came to find still nothing. All this for an almost-zero tax return: actually, due to some bizarre tax rule related to long-distance telephone accounts, the IRS actually owed Gloria thirty dollars. And guess what? One chilly Saturday afternoon in November, thirty dollars was deposited from the IRS into our US bank account. Nothing in the mail of course, but now we had proof: they had found the tax return and processed it. Now we were allowed to re-enter the visa process!

Of course, it's one thing knowing that the IRS has processed your taxes, it's quite another to prove it. From what we could tell, we now had to print out yet another form, fax it to an office in Austin, Texas, have them mail the tax return printout to someone in Gloria's family, and have them courier it over as quickly as possible. Except - well, we had discovered in our dealings with the US Embassy in London that they had a small IRS office there. We knew they didn't give tax advice or help with filling out the hugely-complex US tax forms, but perhaps they were linked up to the main computer and thus could provide the printout we needed? Gloria walked in to the Embassy (as a US citizen!) and asked. Yes, said a helpful lady, I'll do it for you right now.

Right now? For free? Were things finally starting to accelerate for us?

So with tax printouts and joint sponsor forms completed, we sent it all off to the US Embassy by SMS courier (despite the fact I was working in London and could easily have dropped it all in by hand - not allowed to do that!) and waited. Three to five days, we'd been told. That's if it's successful. (If I had been denied, incidentally, it would have been very difficult for me to ever enter the US as I'd never be allowed to do the I-94 visa waiver form that you normally do when you visit the US on holiday - instead I'd have to apply for a temporary visa each time, and given I'd been denied a visa before, the chances are I'd never be allowed to enter the US. They hadn't told us that when the process began. But I digress).

The following Wednesday we got a text message (sent the previous day, but hey SMS are a courier with a fine reputation. Cough.) saying "please stay in all day tomorrow (ie today by the time I received the message), the courier will deliver your documents between 6am and 6pm." I was in London of course, but luckily Gloria was in. The courier arrived and initially refused to hand over the package ("I need proof of ID for Duncan." "You mean his passport?" "Yes." "It's in that package you have in your hand, idiot.") but eventually was convinced to do so. Opened the package and there it was, my passport with a visa in it, a long small-print letter and an A4 sized beige envelope full of stuff. Woo-hoo!

Opening the pretty-much unmarked envelope to see what was inside, it turned out to just be all our application forms, information etc. Then read the letter:

"Do not open the envelope. If you do, it will invalidate the visa and you will have to go to the Embassy to get a new one."


But the other funny thing (apart from there being nothing on the seal-side of the envelope saying "DO NOT OPEN" or anything helpful like that) was that there was a "personal data" sheet attached to the front of the envelope, saying stuff like my date of birth, mother's name etc. And it proudly proclaimed the following:

- Place of birth: Southampton (err, try Plymouth, like it says on my passport)
- Last place of residence: London (no, how about Southampton, the address you just mailed this package to?)
- Occupation: Student / children under 16 (where did they get that from?)

And the best bit was, since we'd now opened the envelope we weren't supposed to, we could now see all the application forms we'd filled out. And there it was: place of birth - Plymouth; place of residence - Southampton; occupation - Research Fellow in Computer Science.

So we phoned that wonderful £1.20 per minute visa helpline again. "We can't help, it's not our department." Really? Aren't you the visa department? And isn't this a visa issue? "No, it's an immigration issue." What's their phone number then? "You can't phone them." They don't have telephones? "They don't have external lines. You must email them."

Sheesh again. We emailed. No response the next day. No response the day after that. No response the day after that. What to do?

Well, the letter with the visa had said "you will need to go to the Embassy and get another one [visa]." So we took it literally and headed off to the Embassy, where you can't enter unless you have an appointment. We had no appointment, nor any means of getting one, nor any means of asking anyone how we get one. Went at 10.10am. Almost nobody queueing. We realised they tell everyone they have an 8.30 appointment just to get them all there early. Come at 10.10 and there's nobody there. Up we went to the lady at the entrance to the security area.

"When's your appointment for?"
We don't have one. Here's the situation: opened the package by mistake and a lot of the data is wrong. We phoned and emailed but have no response, and we need to get this stuff rectified. it said to go to the Embassy, so here we are.
"Lots of people open the envelope, it happens often."
(Well, why not mark it "do not open" across the seal?)
Hold on a minute," she continued, pulling out her mobile phone and calling someone inside the building.
"They opened the envelope, but also some of the personal data is wrong. They want to drop it off now to be corrected and we should allow it, because it's the Embassy's fault that the data is wrong."

It's the Embassy's fault? Did she really say that? Yes, she did.

"OK," she said to us, "Go through security, don't take a number, don't wait to be called, just go straight to desk thirteen."

In we went. Straight to desk thirteen. Nobody there. A man in the office behind saw us and came over. We explained the situation, gave the correct data for the sheet and even showed him the correct data we'd filled out on our forms.

"Not sure how long it will take," he said, being very non-committal as to whether he was talking minutes, hours, days or weeks. We'd learned that you simply can't tell even those kinds of scales with this process. "Do you want to wait a bit, just in case they can release it quickly?"

So we waited. Fifteen minutes later, perhaps less, we were summoned back to the desk.

"There's the new visa," he said, showing us a shiny new visa on the inside of my passport. "The old one has been cancelled. He flicked over a page and showed us the previous visa, now stamped all over with the words "CANCELLED WITHOUT PREJUDICE".

He gave us the new, sealed envelope and correct data sheet, the passport, and another copy of the letter saying "don't open the envelope" (among other things). He also went through the letter with us, explaining it point by point in a manner that was very helpful given that the language used is often very ambiguous. He smiled, was polite and actually seemed like he wanted to help.

Were we honestly in the same building as in October when we'd been told conflicting stories about what we had to provide and had left in tears because of the rudeness of the staff and the implied accusations of not filing taxes? Were we dreaming?

No we weren't, because as I write this I have the visa and unopened envelope sitting beside me on the floor. The other thing we saw in the letter just a couple of days ago was a sentence buried in the middle of some small print telling us to bring the chest X-ray photograph with us on the plane to show to the immigration officer when we land. Lucky we didn't throw that away. Funny how nobody had told us at any stage that we need to keep that.

But the best bit of the letter is the start of it. It reads, and I jest not:

We are pleased you intend to immigrate to the United States.

They're pleased? They hide it very, very well.

Postscript: Some twelve days after emailing the immigration department, we still have not received a response. Luckily it doesn't matter any more.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

29 November 2007: Arrested

Yesterday's blog implied at one point that the deal that saw Harry Redknapp leave Southampton to become manager of Portsmouth, a move arranged by then-Portsmouth Chairman Milan Mandaric, might have been a little on the dodgy side.

Perhaps the police read this blog? Redknapp, Mandaric and three others were arrested yesterday on football corruption charges. Sheesh, that's some quick action.

It actually relates to a very specific deal, that of Amdy Faye moving to Pompey a few years ago, but let's be honest, Harry's never been far from suspicion and I'll never forget the blog I wrote while Harry's bookmaker odds became ridiculously short at the same time that the media were touting Neil Warnock to take over at Pompey. Yes, the arrest relates to just one event, but remember Saddam Hussein's trial? It was over one event. Harold Shipman? A tiny sub-section of his murders. The police go on their strongest case: the rest can follow later.

Harry says he's innocent, of course. "They have to arrest you to talk to you, for you to be in the police station," he says. Uh-huh.

Still, it probably rules him out of the England job.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

28 November 2007: Homecomings


Eugh. The 5.20am Beep Of Death.

That in part explains the now customary lack of blogging at this time of year. Since last report I have, for the moment at least, put this AKTing lark behind me and been focusing more on the Stellent (sorry, Oracle UCM 10gR3) side of things. After spending a little time twiddling with Kofax Ascent and then a sunny and at times hilariously bizarre two weeks in Italy, I'm now into my third week of the current contract, known locally as "The London Commute".

It's not as bad as it could be, to be honest. Up at 5.20, dress and walk down to Southampton Central train station (as it's a little too early for UniLink buses), catch the 6.30 train to Waterloo (which, incidentally, I'm on as I write this, currently 6.43 and we're still in Southampton Central due the the driver having to fill out a bunch of paperwork to report a signal fault he saw further back down the line - we'll be late again, no doubt). This train officially gets in at 7.44 but actually can't get in until at least 7.49 due to line speed restrictions at Basingstoke. Run off down the tunnel to the underground, six stops up the dirty northern line to Warren Street and out, walking to the building of a well-known research charity where I spend the day doing web-related things. Leave just after 4.00, back to Waterloo for the 4.35 departure, arrive in Southampton at about 5.50, get the 6.00 U1A and home by 6.20, at which point I sometimes just fall asleep.

Could be worse. The trains could be slower (well, except for this morning: 6.46 and still not moving), the place I'm working could be further from Waterloo, the people I'm working for could have said, "no, you're working 9.00-5.30 like everyone else" instead of "yes, 8.00-4.00 is fine". And it's only for another week-and-a-half.

(6.48 and the train pulls out of the station).

So, little blogging has taken place. Not to mention the power supply plug on the shiny Dell laptop dying last week, meaning either emergency microelectronics soldering or a new laptop (mmm, gotta love those Christmas prices, such great deals). So instead my life has been full of four-hours-plus travelling every day, mainly aided by the wonders of Podcasts of such broadcasting luminaries as Mark Kermode and Harry Shearer. However, events of such magnitude have taken place in the last few days that I feel I would be neglecting my duty if I didn't report and comment on them.

No, I'm not talking about Gordon Brown losing his Child Benefit details (and everyone else's, come to that), nor England getting knocked out of Euro 2008 (like they deserved to go through?). Forget the elections in Australia, and the potential elections in Pakistan (Musharrif says the State of Emergency will "help the elections". OK.) No, I'm talking about long-awaited homecomings of long-lost heroes. (No, seriously, it's not about the Pakistan elections.)
Firstly, somewhat obscured by the England's McLaren hilarity last week, the good ol' Atlanta Braves announced the return of 42-year-old left-handed starting pitcher Tom Glavine. So what? So, he joined the Braves first time round in 1984, made his debut in 1987 and from 1991 to 2002 was a member - a leader - of the now-legendary team that won their division every year during that period. When the Braves did their worst-to-first turnaround in 1991, Glavine won the Cy Young "pitcher of the year" award for the National League. He did so again in 1998. In 1995, the only year the Braves won the World Series, they did so on the back of Glavine's extremely frugal pitching, for which he won the World Series "Most Valuable Player" award. When budget cuts and contract issues meant he left to join the New York Mets for the 2003 season, he and his family remained living in the Atlanta area, and every winter the question has arisen: "will he be back this year?" Now, five years later and having completed the requisite 300 game wins to essentially secure his place in baseball's Hall of Fame, he's back. And ok, he's not the player he was ten or fifteen years ago, but he's still better than me (and, more importantly, better than Jo-Jo Reyes and Chuck James and the rest of the somewhat disappointing Braves pitching staff last year), so who knows - maybe this can be the catalyst the Braves need to turn it around and start winning the National League East again?

Anyway, that was last week. Also last week Plymouth Argyle manager Ian Holloway walked out on the club to join Leicester City. Holloway, who incidentally had led the team to fifth place in the Championship (and therefore in the playoff positions for a place in the Premiership), decided that it was better to jump ship and manage under the chairmanship of Milan Mandaric (he who tapped up, sorry convinced Harry Redknapp to go from Saints back to Pompey), apparently because they "have better training facilities". Well whoopie-do. Without him, Argyle again won on Saturday and went fourth.

Thing is, that meant a vacancy in the managerial position at Home Park. And that meant one thing: the usual speculation that Paul Sturrock, statistically the greatest manager in the history of Plymouth Argyle (which, admittedly, isn't saying much) would want to return. The difference this time was that it was actually not implausible. Sturrock, no longer managing in the Premiership or even the Championship, was having an ok time at Swindle Town, but was certainly open to suggestion. And yes, less than a week later, he's back, along with Kevin Summerfield and John 'Sloop' Blackley, sweeping in to Home Park at a Press Conference yesterday where he announced that there was nothing wrong with the way Holloway was running the team so he'd find out about the normal weekly routine and keep it that way. And there were big, beaming smiles all round, the days of Judas comments firmly in the past.

Of course, there's a good chance it won't work. It often doesn't when you go back. Glavine might get hit all over the place (and without Andruw Jones in center field, there's a good chance that will happen). Sturrock might find the players don't like him and don't want to play his way (and let's remember, Trigger Evans was a key - an absolute lynchpin - in Sturrock's system, and he's now retired from the game in order to spend more time with his bricks). And then a sad thing happens: the legend dies, or at the very least begins to look a bit sickly. It's no exaggeration to use the word 'legend' with both Glavine and Sturrock (and it's not often you can say that), both have been arguably the finest in their roles in the entire history of their respective teams, and if it doesn't work out, that record becomes tarnished.

But still, it's an exciting time for both clubs. Meantime the train is now speeding towards Basingstoke some 21 minutes late (how is it, by the way, that delayed trains often become more delayed as the journey progresses?) and I'm thinking it's time to flick on the mp3 player and listen to a little Harry Shearer before heading into another day of Stellent Site Studio.

Or maybe I'm still asleep and the alarm is about to wake me up...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

22 November 2007: Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

2 October 2007: Taxman

Didn't plan on blogging today but as my sis just started blogging (blogging is just sooo 2004, Ali) I figured I'd better add her to my 'links' list.

Then I realised I didn't have a 'links' list. Silly me. And it's not like other people who read this blog don't have blogs of their own too: so Blaine, Andy and Nick also make the exciting new list. If you've got a blog and I can link to it but don't know the link (I'm looking in your direction, Becky), let me know and I'll add you. Not that it will help your Google PageRank rating much, but it'll make me feel a little less guilty about not having done it until now.

What news? Well, having left the university (notwithstanding the not unsubstantial expenses claim they have yet to pay from a month ago), I'm now full-time contracting on Stellent and Stellent-related systems, writing Java and - gulp, can you believe it - VB.NET in order to move various files around various workflows for an unnamed company. No diatribe on VB.NET today (I need to save that up for a blog in its own right I think) but overall the work is enjoyable and surprisingly creative.

Meantime in preparation for The Move, we've taken the step of leaving our house (on which the contract was up) and, with the helpful help of certain kind people, some of whom read this blog, we've moved to a nice apartment for a few weeks until the visa is granted and the US tax year ends, probably in that order...

The Visa Interview will take place on 9 October. Next week. Soon, and sooner than we'd been led to believe. Happily we have all the documentation they asked for, and more besides, so there shouldn't be a major problem with approving me a for a Spouse Visa, meaning we can move to the US and I can legally work there. If I'm approved, the visa will be granted in three to five working days, and that's that, we can up and move whenever we want (within six months).

Except for the good ol' US Internal Revenue Service - the taxman to you and I. Unsurprisingly, when we move we have to begin paying US Income Tax - in fact, Gloria almost has to do this already, being a US Citizen living abroad, although her earnings fall comfortably under the threshold where she actually would have to start paying. More of a surprise, perhaps, is that we become liable to pay income tax on all our earnings during the tax year, which in the US runs from January to December. Therefore were we to move in November or December, we'd get a whopping great tax bill come the spring on earnings on which we'd already paid a nice chunk of UK income tax. Nasty, but they're the government, who (apart from one day every four years) are an unregulated body.

It's not actually as clear cut as that, to be fair. Some portions of the IRS website, and some of the people you speak to if you call their "help" line, state that as a first-time first-year immigrant to the US, I'd only be liable to pay from the day we enter the country, although Gloria would have to pay in full. Other web pages and people you speak to say the opposite: we have to pay in full. The truth is that nobody really knows, and whether what we do is right or wrong depends entirely on who you speak to and how they interpret the rules. The simplest approach therefore: don't move until January, then there's no issue. So we're moving in January.

Meantime life continues apace - trying to find a decent shipping company (is air freight the better option given we're only shipping kitchen stuff, clothes and books?), giving away electrical equipment with UK voltage ratings and generally working hard. We have a couple of weeks vacation in Italy coming up in a few weeks, our first real break since Christmas in Texas, so I'd better try and learn some of the language.

Anyone know the Italian for 'pasty'?

Monday, September 03, 2007

3 September 2007: Cardiff

In Cardiff for a couple of days attending my last conference as a Research Fellow.

The last three months has seen me work, sometimes pretty frenetically, on a UIMA-based tool to take web pages, strip out the tags, investigate the text and populate an ontology (kind of like a database in this case) with information about terrorist incidents in Afghanistan, so that Dong-who-sits-opposite can use it to put dots on his map. Somewhat amazingly, it actually does seem to work, and so today we're showing a live end-to-end demo where, at one end, you stick a couple of words in a search engine (usually "Helmand" and "Incident") and it churns away for a minute or so, sending messages back and forth between servers located in various parts of England and Wales, and then boom, there it is, dots on a map showing the incidents reported by the documents you searched for. Neat, and not totally inaccurate either. And it's pretty much all programmed in Java, no Perl in sight, just a smear of PHP near the surface.

The fun thing is that, as our demo requires internet access, our colleagues based here at the University of Cardiff cunningly (and secretly) negotiated for our specific project to have a little web access so we can show our demo. The rumour is starting to spread that there's internet over here in this corner of the room... the looks we're getting from the other projects...

Course, it means I can blog a little while we wait for the presentations to finish...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

28 August 2007: Leaving

Took a big step today: resigned from my job at the university.

The reasons are fairly clear-cut. We're looking to move to the USA, and have submitted a visa application to get me over there as the spouse of a US citizen. We had initially planned on doing this much earlier, as soon as my PhD finished back in September, but that dragged on a bit. Then we thought we might be staying a little longer. But now we've made the decision to go, and despite the lengthy visa application process (it takes months, literally, although once you get an interview date from them it all moves very quickly), we are getting ready to go, initially to Texas, thence to wherever the right job takes us.

In fact, the visa application process has been underway for a while now. So why the decision to resign today (technically, yesterday)? Well, readers with computers who can click here will know that back in October last year I spent a month doing some consultancy work for an unnamed company. A similar offer emerged at the end of last week, with the remuneration for the five-week contract exceeding the salary I would get were I to remain at the university to the end of December. Since we're looking to go to the US anyway as soon as we can (and don't get me started on tax laws, which we're currently investigating after a tip-off from McDougal), it made sense for me to write my 'with regret' letter.

And it is with regret. When I leave after my notice period it will be four years, almost to the day, since I began work as a full-time PhD student with a computerless desk, a vague notion of the semantic web and no idea at all what an RDQL query was. Now I've got a computer on the desk, I've completed a PhD applying semantic web science to the digital library metadata and RDQL has become SPARQL. I've learned a lot, written papers, presented talks, taught students, even performed a little research along the way. And now, with the clean break of the USA move becoming imminent (and a little more about the visa process to follow in another blog, I feel...), it's time to move on.

Arouna from the other end of the level 4 lab is thinking of organising a farewell five-a-side testimonial for me (and possibly him, depending on what he decides to do when his contract is up next month). I wonder if they have much five-a-side in Texas?

Postscript: My leaving Southampton makes my blog title even more decoupled from reality. Any suggestions for an alternative title?

Friday, August 10, 2007

10 August 2007: The Luminous Flesh Of Giants

Once every four years I buy a new novel.

It used to be more often than that. Around the time of doing my A-Levels I actually bought and read no less than four novels in one year. This wasn't to do with a voracious literary appetite so much as curiosity into writing styles: how do different authors, in different contexts, for different audiences, tell a story? Turned out Emily Bronte, Alice Walker and Vikram Seth had a lot in common (English language, use of chapters, freeform movement between first and third person). The fourth was also similar in these respects, although the only reason I bought it was because I had a train journey and this book had a shiny, attention-seeking cover.

I spotted it, in October 1994, in Waterstones here in Southampton. A paperback, there were a small pile of them on the floor section of a black IKEA-style cuboid shelf unit in the middle of the basement room. It jumped out at me because of the unusual colours, the cool (even I could tell it was cool) use of sunglasses reflecting San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge in the hand-drawn artwork, and the fact that although it was clearly 'sci-fi' in loose terms (and I hadn't read one of those yet that year), I'd heard neither of the book nor its author.

The book was called 'Virtual Light', the author one William Gibson.

So, I bought it out of curiosity, mainly because of that cover. Even the tagline "Author of Neuromancer" made me curious: I hadn't heard of that either, but obviously it sounded like I should. And so I walked through the rain and under rapidly darkening skies down to the station, hopped on the train to Plymouth (requiring change at Westbury and costing no less than forty-nine pounds, and this in 1994, remember) and started to read.

The first chapter of Virtual Light remains the single most baffling piece of writing I've ever come across, and that includes all those bizarre Description Logic papers with upside-down A's I had to read for my PhD:

The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic. He watches a gunship traverse the city's middle distance like a hunting wasp, death slung beneath its thorax in a smooth black pod. Hours earlier, missiles have fallen in a northern suburb; seventy-three dead, the kill as yet unclaimed. But here the mirrored ziggurats down Lozaro Cordenas flow with the luminous flesh of giants, shunting out the night's barrage of dreams to the waiting avenidas-business as usual, world without end.

The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night. Closing his eyes, he centers himself in the background hiss of climate-control. He imagines himself in Tokyo, this room in some new wing of the old Imperial. He sees himself in the streets of Chiyoda-ku, beneath the sighing trains. Red paper lanterns line a narrow lane.

He opens his eyes.

Mexico City is still there.

And so it went on, the following paragraphs of that opening chapter equally baffling and yet somehow lyrical in their technical descriptiveness. Fortunately, the second chapter and those that followed made more sense, and now, some thirteen years on and having re-read Virtual Light countless times, I can pretty much understand of most of that opening sequence, although for 'faint hepatic corona' I still just read 'yellow glow'.

So this was Gibson's latest, at that time, newly released in paperback and, I discovered, his first novel not to be part of the 'Sprawl' series, of which the aforementioned 'Neuromancer' was the first. For whatever reason, I didn't rush to pick up the Sprawl series, nor indeed did I think about Gibson again until three years later when I saw a new paperback named 'Idoru' for sale, and read it on a train journey, this time from London to Plymouth, and was happy to note some of the same characters appearing.

Then it sped up a bit. Two years after that, in 1999, waiting at an airport in Los Angeles for a very delayed flight back to Blightly, I thought I'd better read Neuromancer (and enjoyed it, although I preferred the world of Virtual Light), then later in 1999 I spotted and purchased (in hardback this time) another new Gibson (All Tomorrow's Parties), which turned out to be the final (and lightest, in terms of both plot and prose, and thus more accessible) book in the Virtual Light series. Over the following couple of years I made my way through the remainder of the Sprawl series (Count Zero comfortably being the best of the three in my opinion, although clearly not as groundbreaking as Neuromancer), and the short-story collection 'Burning Chrome and other stories' which was like eating Gibson sandwiches for lunch instead of a huge evening meal that you had to spend a week digesting: you got all the goodness with less of the effort, and Burning Chrome remains, possibly, my favourite Gibson product. And that was that, the back catalogue dealt with.

2003 came round, and with it the next 'new novel' (at which point I realised he was producing them every four years). By this point I was plugged (a little, at least) into the online Gibson fan forum, and thus discovered that, to compensate for the new novel (Pattern Recognition - the first novel he's written that's set in the present day) being published in the UK some five months after its release elsewhere in the world, there was an official launch happening in Russell Square, with Gibson reading, answering questions and signing books. Naturally I went along, got his rather-too-printed signature in my copy, asked when he'd write more short stories ("when they come along," he replied, "although they don't pay the mortgage like a novel does").

Like he still has a mortgage after all the money I've paid for his books, I thought.

And that, then, was it for another four years (give or take the Relevant Experiment, conducted by Gibson fans and mildly Gibsonian in nature), until Spook Country came out last week. I finished it last night (four years wait for three days of reading: something's wrong with this equation, although I will re-read and re-read again numerous times for the sheer enjoyment of the prose) and will probably blog about it sometime (let's just say it makes me want to head down to Dock Gate 20 and drill holes in some of those containers). But it made me think back to whatever it was that got me started on the Gibson journey, and all I can trace it back to is that front cover, flourescing up at me from near the floor of Waterstones' basement level, beckoning me into Gibson's densely-worded universe of long-chain monomers, that new car smell, wolfishly professorial assassins and that faint hepatic corona.

Postscript: Wow, all that without mentioning stuff like cyberpunk, Johnny Mnemonic, Keanu Reeves, The Matrix ("the unpaid bill" according to Gibson) and the fact Gibson invented the word 'cyberspace', and envisioned what it meant, quite a number of years before Sir Tim invented the Web.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

7 August 2007: Facts

As I begin to squeeze my way between the surprisingly dense prose of Mr Gibsons's spy-related latest publication, McDougal points out that governments are notoriously bad at keeping secrets and that civil servants are notoriously bad at doing anything at all. Which leads me to consider the question: why do I (and others) conclude that these 'numbers stations' are, in fact, government-operated or at least government-driven?

To answer this question, we need to consider the known facts and then the circumstantial evidence.

FACT 1: These stations do exist, and have existed for some decades.
- A fact, incidentally, that is neither confirmed nor denied by any government: they do not acknowledge the existence of these stations. However, they clearly do exist, and from this we determine that somebody, somewhere is wanting to broadcast them and somebody, somewhere is wanting to receive these broadcasts; the broadcasts are spread widely enough over geography and history that they cannot be a single hoax.

FACT 2: These stations are illegal.
- The international airwaves are governed by a surprisingly strict set of global regulations requiring registrations, call-signs, identification etc at regular intervals. Pirate radio is not only frowned upon, it is hunted down and taken off the air. These stations are unregistered and do not meet on-air identification requirements. Meaning that, at the very least, governments and radio enforcement bodies will have investigated them if they're not running them themselves, leading to the third fact...

FACT 3: Governments do know what they are and why they are there
- Even if these are rogue pirate broadcasts or a massive global inter-generational hoax, they will have been investigated by governments and radio authorities who will, provided the broadcasts originate from this planet, find out what they are, why they're there and (for whatever reason) let them carry on. So when in the 1998 Telegraph article the government official said "they are what you think they are", he said that because he was in a position to say that: he was able to make a statement concerning the nature of these stations.

The we get to conjecture, and although some of it is very strong, it can't be established as sheer fact, but provides major circumstantial evidence:
  • These stations broadcast what you'd expect a spy-station to broadcast. One-time pads are a known, established feature of international espionage, and this is what you'd send to people with one-time pads. A whole bunch of numbers. It's how they work.
  • The government response is exactly what you'd expect too. NCND ("neither confirm nor deny") is the normal response to any questions about MI6, CIA or anything else. Governments consistently neither confirm nor deny even the existence of these stations, which is pretty crazy considering fact number one. But that's exactly what you'd expect.
  • The stations are deliberately, cleverly enigmatic: the Lincolnshire Poacher broadcasts the same way every single day, 200 five-number sets, whether there's nothing going on in the world or whether it's 9/11. Always the same, no reference to human events other than the invention of numbers and short-wave broadcasting. Even within the code, who's to say which bits are dummy and which bits are genuine? It's even more complex than a baseball manager relaying signals. ("Hit - the - ball"). This stuff is smart, and is very very careful not to give even a single clue.
And then beyond that there's the small evidence that does leak out from time to time - Radio Havana sometimes being relayed on 'Atencion'; jamming signals traceable to 'enemy' regimes; signals themselves traceable by directional finders to, for example, that RAF base in Cyprus; not to mention the major drop-off in stations since the end of the Cold War. And as I discovered yesterday, many overseas BBC employees are actually not BBC employees at all but technically work for the Foreign Office, a spill-over from the BBC initially being a state broadcasting service. Put all this together with the facts as stated above and it's pretty clear what we're talking about.

I guess it's just safe to say that it's not your normal government department civil servant who works for MI6. I'd put money on them not using Stellent, or if they do, they use it really really well.

Now, back to Gibson's book, wonder if there'll be any Cuban number stations broadcasting to Tito and Alejandro?

one, nine, five, eight, six!
three, five, five, seven, nine!

Monday, August 06, 2007

6 August 2007: Spooks

In advance of William Gibson's new novel "Spook Country", official release date tomorrow, I inadvertently slipped around to thinking about the spying game last weekend.

In particular, I remembered something I heard Danny Kelly tell Danny Baker once on a football phone-in (of all places) - something like:
DK: Aah, the secret bells and numbers. Just like shortwave radio. 'Our hen has laid one egg'.
DB: What are you talking about?
DK: You know those weird noises and radio stations you hear after dark on medium wave or short wave, like ringing bells or people reading out lists of numbers?
DB: I always thought that was the national lottery.
DK: No, it's government spies, all sending messages to each other.
DB: Seriously? It's spies?
DK: Yeah, it's the governments sending out covert messages to their agents. Probably telling them why Graeme Le Saux shouldn't be playing for England.

OK, so that dates it as being circa 1998, and forgive me if the exact words are incorrect. But it stuck in my brain.

So Saturday night, in advance of the Gibson book and still feeling a little bit ill after eating rather too much tandoori chicken a couple of days before, I went online to see what I could see about these mystical spy radio stations. Naturally, I started at Wikipedia, since it knows everything about everything. There I found a curiously uncertain page about 'number stations', putting suggestions forward as conjecture explanations for these mystical short-wave number-reading stations, rather than stating as fact in normal wikipedia fashion. From this I garnered one important fact: we don't actually know what they are, but from occasional media slips, court cases and directional receiving equipment, we do have a pretty good idea.

During the Cold War, and to a lesser extent since, spies were placed in 'enemy' countries and given little books of coded numbers called 'one-time pads'. These code-books, to be used once, are a mathematically-proven uncrackable way to pass encrypted information (although you can have a go if you want), and so to communicate with their agents in the field, all the government has to do is send a whole bunch of numbers, usually grouped in sets of five, and it does this via these unlicensed, technically illegal, shortwave radio stations.

Naturally, a spod group (sorry, group of curious enthusiasts) formed around these mystical semi-broadcasters and for over forty years people have been tracking these stations, recording their frequency changes, trying to decrypt the headers (the messages themselves are uncrackable, but the first part of the message, saying which agent the message is for and occasionally other information, is marginally more accessible, although largely meaningless), and more interestingly trying to figure out just who is doing the broadcasting.

The best-known station is one named the 'Lincolnshire Poacher', so-called because it begins every broadcast with a few bars of the eponymous English folk-song. If that weren't a hint enough as to the country of origin (the language and accent, incidentally, is often English, even for Soviet or Eastern Bloc stations), those clever spods with their directional receivers actually traced the signals to a UK-run RAF base in Cyprus. Oops. The BBC, bless them, deny all knowledge of anything at all (they once said a numbers station was "nothing more sinister than the snowfall figures for the ski slopes". Uh-huh.) but BFBS, the British Forces Broadcaster, did on once occasion acknowledge the existence of broadcasts from their systems, and noted the frequency was 'lent' to them by the BBC. Domestically, the BBC occasionally discuss the phenomena (aside from Baker and Kelly), but stop well short of stating the pretty-well-accepted explanation of what they are, why they're there and certainly whether the BBC Overseas Dept has anything to do with it.

Of course, plenty of other such stations exist, although not in the same numbers as during the Cold War era. Cuba still runs the 'Atencion' stations (hilariously sometimes featuring snippets of Radio Havana broadcasts when somebody plugs the wrong cable in) and the former Eastern Bloc countries, notably the Czech Republic, seem pretty heavy users of the system. The US runs a few, Russia seems to run quite a number and China has recently added a few stations from what the tracking pages tell us. If you really want to know more, you can sign up for the "Numbers and Oddities Newsletter", a monthly round-up of number lists from spods all over the world, or even download 4 CDs of recorded number stations (oo, that'll knock Timbaland off the number one spot).

So, before going to bed on Saturday I flicked the radio from its normal (if little used) position of Five Live over to shortwave and tried to see what I could find. Through all the different bands... lots of Indian music... some bizarre Euro-trance beat-heavy stuff... "This is Radio China International... " "And now, with his defence of the Catholic Faith..." "... broadcasting from Prague with the latest news ..." dit-dit-deet-dit-deet-deet (mildly promising) ... "... to do in Beijing this weekend... "

But no numbers. Maybe it was the wrong time of day, although the reports are that the stations seem to mainly start on the hour of half-hour, and I was listening at exactly midnight BST. Still, it helped me get to sleep better than NyQuil, and that's mainly what I needed.

So, that was my Gibson Preparation Exercise. Now online this morning, checking up on tomorrow's launch date.... to discover that 7th August is the US launch date for the book. The UK launch date is 2nd August. Yes, Gibsonians, we know what that means: the book is ALREADY OUT!


So I'm going to sign off at that point and head off to Waterstones before they run out. Wonder if it will out-sell 'Harry Potter and the Pointless Sequel' or whatever it's called?

Postscript: Different astonishment from Blogger's spell-checker: for some reason it actually does recognise 'NyQuil' as a word. Is there some sponsorship going on that I don't know about?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

31 July 2007: Eggspensive

Click for full-size picture

Part of this AKTing Lark over the last three or four years has been the re-discovery of old haunts during my first time round as a Southampton student.

Back in those days I studied politics, drank Old Rosie, did a lot of cycling and ate large amounts of curry. Some of this was home made, but occasionally myself and some house-mates (normally Andy and Richard) would venture out to find a nice friendly Indian restaurant where we could eat hot food without the hassle of having to cook it first. On one such venture we found ourselves wandering further than normal, out past Safeway and The Hobbit, down into Bevois Valley and up the other side, where we found a small, grubby-looking curry house named the Manzil Tandoori.

In we went. Friendly Bangladeshi Gentleman came to take our order.

Me: Can I have the tandoori chicken starter please?
FBG: Samosa is good, sir, would you like samosa?
Me: No, I'd like the tandoori chicken please.
FBG: Samosa very good tonight sir. Made fresh.
Me: Please, I really would like tandoori chicken.
FBG: I'll get you samosa. On the house.


Me: And for the main, I'd like the lamb phall please?
FBG: No sir, that is too hot for you. I recommend madras please.
Me: No, really I would like the phall. Lamb phall, please.
FBG: No sir, it too hot. I will get you lamb madras and extra chillies on side if you want to make it hotter.
Me: So I can't get a lamb phall?
FBG: (writing) Madras with extra chillies.

It was like stepping into a parallel universe. Naturally, it quickly became our favourite restaurant. The next time we went it was even more bizarre. It was a Monday evening, fairly early, maybe 7pm. We walked in and the place was deserted, not a soul in the place.

Me: Table for three please?
FBG: Sorry sir we are full.
Me: Full?
FBG: Yes, all tables are taken.
Me: (pointing at table next to me) What about this one?
FBG: We are full sir, sorry.

And so we left. Went back there several times, and something weird or unusual always happened: one time they made us sit in the take-away waiting area while we ate despite several other tables being available. And though we are now some twelve years on from that first incident, Andrew, Gloria and I decided it was about time we gave the place another visit last night.

It was frightening normal. Apart from the fact we were the only customers, and apart from the fact that the restaurant didn't appear to have been cleaned in the intervening twelve years, it seemed like a normal restaurant. I ordered tandoori chicken starter just to see what would happen: I got it without question. No longer phall on the menu but they had a 'hot' Ceylon dish so I ordered that: it came without problem. (Wasn't actually as nice as a Karai or Jalfrezi, but this was all in the name of scientific experimentation, right?). I kept waiting for something to happen, something unusual, something from the parallel universe, but it didn't.

Until we looked at the takeaway menu.

As first glance, this appeared to be a normal Indian takeaway menu. Full of the usual Baltis and Tikka Masalas. On the back, as is sometimes the case, was a "European Food" section, presumably for kids who don't like Indian but like the idea of a takeaway. Omelettes, steaks etc, the usual stuff. Then I looked at the prices.

Click for full-size picture

Chips cost one pound. Egg and chips cost four pounds. Therefore egg costs three pounds.

Three pounds for an egg? Admittedly, I didn't ask how many eggs you got for your money, nor indeed what kind of eggs they are that cost three pounds. Not Kinder Eggs, I'll bet. And 'fired' scampi for a fiver? Wonder what job it was fired from?

In many ways it came as something of a relief. I had been concerned that somehow the hole in the fabric of space-time had been repaired and that the Manzil Tandoori was no longer a gateway to a parallel universe, but now I feel better. It's good to find these little anomalies every so often to remind us, just when we're about to forget, that there's truly no such thing as normal.

The Manzil Tandoori is open every day from 6pm. Who knows what you may discover.

Monday, July 23, 2007

23 July 2007: Graduation

Dressed up in silly clothes today. Kind of like Aston Villa except without the sponsorship or the mildly annoying accent.

Yes, that's right, time to graduate. Headed up to pick up the bizarrely-coloured gown nice and early to get the official (=expensive) photos done before the rush. Back home briefly to take a few more pics, brighten up the neighbourhood for a few minutes (I got some strange looks from the neighbours) and back up to the university for the ceremony.

The ceremony itself lasted a little less than an hour, which was pretty good considering it was all Bachelors, Masters and Doctors degrees in Computer Science. Interestingly the number of PhDs was larger than the number of MScs, but I suspect that's just down to the highly fashionable clothing you get to wear as a PhD. Eventually my turn came around: hand the hood to Eric Cooke, wait for Wendy to read out the name and off I go (to the loud 'whoop' cheers of a number of ITO students who'd already been presented with their BSc degrees by this point), kneel before the Chancellor (apparently because he's not quite tall enough to perform the ritual if we're standing), Eric hands him the hood, Chancellor loops it neatly over my head, says a few non-threatening words and off I go.

Quick champagne reception (featuring food, I am happy to report) where my "two guests" (wife and mother) were introduced to various friends and acquaintances, including the President of the British Computer Society (pictured above, mainly because he supervised my PhD and headed up AKT), and, best of all, my above-mentioned friends who are now ITO graduates. They're all off to highly-paid London jobs (or, in one case, the Royal Air Force) while I continue to mooch around the Comp Sci department as a Research Fellow. Still, it was good to see them one last time.

The rain continued all day - and indeed returns as I write this - but it didn't dampen the day at all. Thoroughly enjoyable and fun, despite the hopelessly useless clothing I was forced to wear.

If you're interested, there are some photos online from graduation day and from the party we had the day before, and Gloria even made a 40-second video (high bandwidth and lower bandwidth) of the Chancellor getting to meet me. Lucky fellow.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

19 July 2007: Oldest

The Altanta Braves, who are kind of up there in the NL East race this year (despite just losing three in a row), just made a move to turn their season around by signing a first baseman holding quite a large number of records.

Julio Franco holds a number of career distinctions: American League Batting Champion, All-Star 'Most Valuable Player', five-time 'Silver Slugger' award winner, three-time All-Star. But most of his category-topping appearances begin with the word 'oldest':

Oldest player to hit a home run, oldest player to hit a grand slam, oldest player to hit a pinch-hit home run, oldest player to steal two consecutive bases, oldest player to pinch run (ie they substituted him in to the game for his running speed), oldest player in Major League Baseball (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007), oldest regular position player (ie he actually plays and fields) in Major League history. The few 'oldest' titles he doesn't hold (oldest to steal a base, oldest to have an at-bat) are due to token performances by elderly 'players' back in the early days of baseball, when people didn't take baseball so seriously. If he steals a base within the next year, however, he'll even manage to get that record - which has stood since 1909.

He's officially 48, 49 on August 23rd. Unofficially, based on comments made by several teammates in 2002/03, he's at least 53. His career began when he was signed as a free agent for the Phillies organisation in 1978.

1978. Sheesh.

He was signed by the Braves in 2001 while slowly finishing up his career in Mexico. Manager Bobby Cox thought perhaps Franco could do a job against left-handed pitchers while platooning at first base. He ended up staying four years, astounding people with his athletic ability (in 2005 he was still one of the quickest runners on the roster) and bizarre diet ("raw eggs, pro-tee-in") and eventually was released when, in 2006, his salary arbitration took his earning figure up to the $2 million mark, something the Braves hadn't figured on. The Mets picked him up, and he had a good 2006, but his appearances were limited somewhat in 2007, and they released him.

Immediately the Braves were on the phone. "Get down here and play for us," was the message - and one plane flight later, Julio will be in a Braves uniform and playing in tonight's game. Not just an invaluable bat off the bench, not to mention his base-stealing and pinch-running abilities, he's also extremely valuable to the team as a leader: it's kind of like having an extra coach down on the bench, something the Braves have lacked a little since the departures of Franco and former catcher Eddie Perez.

Whether this is the catalyst the Braves need to put some consistency into their streaky season remains to be seen. But at least it's a distraction from the ongoing Saints takeover soap-opera, which rumbles ever onward with little sign of a conclusion: at least not before the closure of the transfer window, which is what really matters in this case. Maybe Julio (career earnings of over $24 million, which isn't much by baseball standards) should come in with a bid? He's probably fitter than most of them anyway.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

17 July 2007: Fraud

Saints Takeover Exposed As Fraud

In new Saints developments this morning, it was finally exposed that the forthcoming "massively big" takeover of Saints by a mystery consortium was, in fact, a load of old bunkum.

It turned out the consorts were actually a combination of failed local businessmen: Barry Beardall, a convicted fraudster, Barry Brylcream, the slick-haired 'face man' of the operation and Barry Beegee, a local karaoke star. The three of them nicked a Dubai flag from a Dubai-registered container ship down at Dock Gate 20 and announced via The Saints Forum that they were a major international consortium going to take over. Sheik Hn'vac, an Arab rich guy who made his money in the carpet trade, was rumoured to be the 'Mr Big Money Bags' backer, a man who would allegedly "bring the freshness back" to the club.

Unfortunately, after a tip off from Saints' own undercover journalist superstar Richard Chorley, the police raided several football clubs yesterday, including some annoying little blue team down the road, and as a result of the investigations, the "Barry Buyout" was exposed as being a con.

As a result, the British government have expelled four Russian diplomats and Foreign Secretary David "Steve" Miller Band said that unless the Russian government extradited Barry Blabbingov (the unofficial spokesperson who initially contacted The Saints Forum) then the deal could not go ahead. The Echo picked up on the story too, and it soon became clear to everyone here that the whole thing was a hoax and there were no carpet barons and race horses about to mount a hostile takeover at St Mary's.

However, it still appears there are a few small bids on the table, seemingly from (1) Barry Souness (2) Barry Londonbusinessman and (3) Barry Lowe. Barry 'Cillit Bang' Scott was unavailable for loud, pointless comments.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

11 July 2007: Rumblings

Well, the rumours continue and seem to be gathering a little pace, so I'd better post about it now so that at least I have a chance of saying "I told you so" if it does actually materialise...

Yes, it's Southampton Football Club yet again, no longer to be bought out by Paul 'Microsoft Founder' Allen, but instead by another mysterious consortium. The Saints Forum has had a humorously long-running thread series dedicated to the 'imminent takeover' of the club since the PLC first officially went into 'Bid Situation' status back in April on the Stock Exchange (the previous incarnation of the thread was called 'Now That's What I Call A Takeover Thread Volume Nine') but now the thread title is 'Woo Hoo the last takover thread.........hopefully'.

This thread is largely a one-upmanship discussion between those who are 'In The Know' (ITK) and those of us who are mere mortals. Interestingly, though, in this case those who are ITK seem to be quite normal, regular posters on the boards and indeed have claimed that the papers (well, the Daily Echo, if that counts) have a bunch of information on the imminent takeover and will publish as soon as given the ok by the incoming masters. Who, incidentally, WILL be coming whatever the current board do. The Paul Allen deal reputedly fell through because the executive directors said they'd only walk if they were given a full 18-month payoff (including the guy who just became a director last week - how convenient, Mr Oldknow!) but this one is to be a hostile takeover from what I can gather.

Anyway, the normal rumours and rumblings abound, usually stating an announcement will be forthcoming in about two or three days from now (this is what could be termed a 'rolling announcement' - it's always two or three days in the future), but hey, maybe things will actually happen sometime soon and the announcement that will "rock the footballing world" will occur. I'm not excited particularly, more bemused, and certainly seeing Gareth Bale and (fairly certainly) Chris Baird head off in order to balance the books has got to make you wonder if it isn't just someone's imagination.

Still, who knows? If it doesn't happen, at least I'll be able to deflect attention by blogging about graduation and root beer.

Footnote: Outside the bubble of The Saints Forum, the rest of the world laughs loudly: alternative (=rougher) messageboard 'The Ugly Inside' features a goodly number of threads ridiculing the whole process and describing it as a group hallucination. ForeverSaints, originally set up to mock TSF's predecessor 'SaintsForever', features threads introducing pictures such as the one above, which looks quite a good idea to me: a large rollercoaster is probably a better right-back option than Ostlund, and the giant ugly 'Ted Bates' statue and his enormous left fist hanging over opposition left-midfielders is bound to scare them... I can just see it thumping down on the poor wingers, week after week.

Friday, July 06, 2007

6 July 2007: Dear Aunt

It seems the Norway post stirred the happy debate concerning PCs and Macs: not the debate as to which one you should use, but the debate over the best reason for choosing a Mac. The above video is one of the more compelling pieces of evidence.

Personally I'm still not a Maccer just yet, partly because as a developer it's something of a requirement to make sure stuff works on a PC since most of the world uses one, and partly because I actually find half my time working on Linux anyway and I'm very happy with that. My problem with Linux is that I can't - or at least couldn't some two years ago at last attempt - use it for because (1) the Linux version of RealPlayer looked like a very poor attempt at a hack that barely worked and (2) dropped RealPlayer in favour of Windows Media format anyway shortly after.

Best plan might be to get an AS/400 and do everything in RPG or COBOL, outputting the baseball results on punch cards. Just have to make sure the punching machine didn't get RSI from constantly having to output "Chipper Jones injured again". Honestly, it's nearly as bad as when Graeme Le Saux 'played' for Saints.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

28 June 2007: Bravely

What was that I said in my last blog about Tim Henman?

"My tip? Expect Tim to lose, bravely, later this week."

If you want the rest of the results before they happen, you'll have to pay me. Cheques payable to "The Wise Man In the Ninja E-Defence Grotto" please.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

26 June 2007: Tennis

Bizarre sight here on Level 4 a few minutes ago. I was meandering through the lab and was suddenly faced by a whole slew of people walking out of the coffee room and back to their desks, all smiling.

Turns out they'd had the Wimbledon coverage on in the coffee room and they'd just witnessed Tim Henman winning his first-round match against Carlos Moya, an epic five-set battle eventually won 13-11 by Henman this afternoon after it just got too dark last night to finish the game.

"He won!" exclaimed one happy IAMer.

Of course he did. It's round one. Even though Timmy's powers are definitely waning, he's still a better tennis player than me, you or most of the rest of the world. He's a better player right now, for instance, than Jeremy Bates was at his peak, or Mark Petchey, or any of the other nonentity players we used to cheer wildly for as they bravely lost in the second round or, maybe once in their careers, played with real heart and incredible luck to make it through to the fourth round. And it seems to me that the optimism and excitement shown today much more closely mirrors those good ol' days than the last ten or twelve years when we've had at least one (always male) player with a not-totally-unrealistic shot at actually winning the thing.

My tip? Expect Tim to lose, bravely, later this week.

My reason for meandering through the lab, incidentally, was to do with the still-tight deadline for graduating this year. Despite getting the amended thesis back from the bindery and actually handing it in, the process remains every-so-slightly incomplete as Dr Les, my internal examiner, still hadn't (as of this morning) handed over the necessary paperwork to the admin folks. So a quick chat with Dr Les (during which he assured me - and I repeat this for reasons of public record - that he will get it done before he leaves today) and that was, hopefully, that.

Meaning not only will the visiting relatives from the US be able to see me graduate this year (passports pending...) but I'll also be in the same graduation ceremony as my second bunch of students to whom I had the joy of teaching programming. Their results came out on Friday and showed a slew of 2.1s but just one first-class honours degree being awarded: congratulations to Kerry, and indeed to the rest of them.

Monday, June 25, 2007

25 June 2007: Norwegian Blue

This was the scene from the lakehouse in Hamar over in Norway. Not bad, especially considering the sunset lasts a good three hours at this time of year.

We were there a week ago but today's the first chance I've had to blog about it, what with visiting IBM for three days of ITA stuff, racing to get the thesis signed off and to the bindery in time to graduate this year (it's looking hopeful for Thursday's deadline - Dr Les said 'ok' and the bindery said 'we'll turn it around in two days if you give us lots of money'). Not to mention the laptop dying over the weekend, of which more anon.

Norway first: we went as Gloria's college buddy Kelly met and married this nice (and very tall) gentleman named Vegar, a Tolkein-loving Norwegian. They were married in Texas back in December (and we were there for that ceremony), but decided to wait for the good weather in Norway (about three days of the year, I gather) to hold their 'blessing' ceremony - like a wedding, but with the vows in the past (past-continuous I suppose) tense. So over we went, paying £160 for 2 return train tickets from Southampton to Stansted and £20 for two return flights from Stansted to Norway (there's a time, incidentally, where irony over prices is overtaken by sheer bewilderment at the price differential). Flew into "Oslo (Torp)", which is naturally nowhere near Oslo (it's like having an airport named London (Manchester)), bussed and railed it through the capital and a couple of hours north to Hamar, not far from Lillehammer (of Winter Olympics fame), and stayed with Kelly's family in a gorgeous lakeside cabin affording the almost continuous sunset view above. Celebrations all went well of course, and there are more photos online at: if you'd like to take a look.

Back home, of course, things were a little crazy. The stupidly-large eucalyptus tree is now gone from the garden (due, I'm happy to report, to tree surgery rather than high winds - photos also available at the above link); the car engine no longer smokes; the thesis is signed off and at the bindery and the laptop is, well, currently undergoing a form of therapy known locally as "a complete reinstall of Windows because Microsoft, Intel and Dell can't get their act together".

The reason? Try a Google search on: ialmrnt "infinite loop" and find a nasty problem to do with graphics cards, driver updates and the Blue Screen Of Death, a problem about which Dell support seem (from these sites) to be in continuous denial. All I did was allow Windows Update to perform a driver update for me, which it duly did, and naturally asked to restart the computer. When it did, it started ok, let me log in, but as it was running through its startup script (and before it gave me the chance to open anything), up popped (ever so briefly) the BSOD, and the computer then immediately restarted. Logged in again, waited 10 seconds, there's the flash of Blue Screen and reboot. And again. And again.

Eventually I got the camera out and started trying to snap the message on the blue screen before it vanished. After about eight attempts I got this, and discovered that something nasty was going on with this ialmrnt thing causing an infinite loop. The solution? Roll back the driver! Of course! Except the computer reboots itself before I can do anything, and good ol' Dell/Windows/whomever is responsible for such things have elected not to give me a "start up in safe mode" option (of course, that itself may not have worked either, but it would have been nice to try).

So out came the Windows XP disk, let's try rescuing this Windows installation. Well - it worked, kind of: a whole slew of "missing DLL" error boxes came up in the process, but eventually (and very slowly) it did let me back in to Windows. Of course, the Wireless connection threw lots of errors and Internet Explorer and many other things were totally corrupted; so all there is to do is to back up all the nice photos from Norway on to a safe place (thankfully the CD writer was still operational) and attempt a total format-and-reinstall-and-do-it-again-from-scratch. Currently the format operation is at 23% - maybe it will finish in time for a spot of lunch.

Or dinner, at this rate.

Vegar is right: PC bad, Mac good. Or maybe Macs are just as bad, they just look better when they fail?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

10 June 2007: Doctor

Very little time to blog this morning as we're off to London on the yes-you-can-actually-go-to-London-for-one-pound Megabus. And the eucalyptus tree is to start being chopped down this morning so I need to get some photos of that before it goes to remember just how disproportionally huge it is compared to the garden and house we're currently renting.

But it's probably important to note a milestone event in this AKTing Lark which took place on Friday morning, a 'viva voce' meeting between three professors and myself at which, subject to minor revisions, my thesis was successfully defended (somewhat vigorously at a couple of points) and thus I became Doctor Duncan. Got to turn the whole thing round and get the final hard-bound versions handed in by June 26 in order to graduate this year, but the wonders of email, word-processing and laser printing mean this is actually a relatively simple process, give or take going to London/London/Norway (as is happening this week, and yes London is deliberately mentioned in that list twice).

I'm not totally sure of the implications of this successful outcome for the rest of my life but graduation will take place at a ceremony on 23 July, at which I expect to receive my Tardis.

Happy days!

Postscript: What kind of dictionary does Blogger use such that the spellcheck function doesn't recognise 'Tardis'?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

23 May 2007: Final AKT

It's time to dispel some rumours.

  • There will be no immediate takeover of Southampton Football Club. Yes, they're in a bid situation, but nothing is imminent and it may be that missing out on promotion means Saints are much more likely to be the next Leeds rather than the next Chelsea.
  • My head operation went well and I am alive and healthy, despite the frighteningly massive gash and stitches currently on display to anyone slightly taller than me. The surgery took a little over thirty minutes, the first twenty of which were spent trying to stop the bleeding that took place after the initial incision. Conversation (local anaesthetic, you see) went as follows:
    Doctor Armstrong: You've got a very healthy heart.
    Me: Why do you say that?
    Doctor Armstrong: You're bleeding heavily.
    Stitches come out next Tuesday.
  • Virgin births are possible among sharks, although any babies will only ever have mummy DNA and thus will be girls. Raising the interesting if theologically unsound notion that Jesus could, just possibly, have been a female shark.
  • This blog is not actually about AKT, nor has it ever been. Proof of this will be evidenced by the next blog entry after this one, because today is the final day of AKT, ever.

To give a little background to the uninitiated (which, frankly, is most of the world, including a number of people in my research group), AKT stands for Advanced Knowledge Technologies and has been a six-year five-university research project aimed at inter-disciplinary research. Admittedly, it would be fairer to label it inter-sub-disciplinary since almost everyone involved is a Computer Scientist in some way (even me), but still it's been all about promoting smart computing which, almost since the start, has meant 'Semantic Web'.

The Semantic Web, of course, may in time turn out to be another myth to be dispelled, but for now it's Sir Tim's vision of a web where URIs are used to represent things with some degree of consistency, RDF is used to describe the relationships between these things, and SPARQL is a query language where you can ask about such relationships. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that (rdf:seeAlso ontology), and there's something about owls in there too, but essentially that's the vision. And since 2001, AKT has been pursuing this with a fair degree of effort.

And today it ends. Some people from the Research Council are in town, along with a few other important folks, to review the project, look at some posters and have a spot of lunch. Us AKTors are gathered for the final time, hawking our wares (and indeed wearing our hawks) and generally showing off. From my perspective it's a little weird to be wearing a collar and tie and yet also have a huge gash in my head, but it's worth it for a project that has not only funded my PhD but helped me learn a lot about the semantic web, citation analysis and supervisors with too much on their plate (not necessarily in that order). I just hope they don't notice the scar and start asking about that instead of my work.

On the other hand, maybe I'll just tell them that now AKT has finished, they've let me take the implant out.

Be afraid...

Friday, May 18, 2007

18 May 2007: Imminent

The rumour mill is in overdrive. Sounds like there's an imminent bid for Southampton Football Club coming from person or persons unknown, but who might very well actually be Paul Allen from Microsoft.

The club's shares have been in 'bid condition' for a couple of weeks now, and now the playoff circus is out of the way, things seem to be actually on the move. In some ways it might just be rumours, of course, but these rumours smell a lot like the ones that had Harry coming to Saints late in 2004 and Harry scurrying off back down the M27 to fishtown last year. Sources seem to be reliable, and varied, so who knows what the summer holds for the Saints?

Can't say for sure just yet, but let's see what happens on the Stock Exchange... if anything...

Edit: As Becky points out, it's not yet July, as I previously stated in the title of this entry. Rumours have died down a little, although some sources predict an announcement as soon as Monday morning. If nothing happens by 18 July I'll be pretty disappointed. By the way, Nottingham Forest 2 - 5 Yeovil Town: what's that all about?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

17 May 2007: Number Four

Got some strange looks walking through the level four lab this morning.

Simple enough reason: been to Mauro's again. And this time the radical haircut is nothing to do with Italy losing at football/rugby/World War II (delete as applicable) but instead I actually went in there and asked for "four on the top, two on the sides". The reason for this near-shaven buzz-cut is not that I've decided to audition for Ewan McGregor's role in 'Trainspotting', but instead I'm in for some brief head surgery on Monday where a local doctor will take a rusty scalpel and attempt to remove a sebaceous cyst from the top of my dome. A nice short haircut now means that it'll all grow back roughly together after the event... at least that's the theory.

But what it reminded me of, and devotees of previous incarnations of this missive (such as the Street Level Reports of 1997/98) will know about this, was the barber shop I used to go to when I first moved to London. Back in those days, a fresh-faced graduate from Southampton University's Department of Politics, I had relatively lengthy hair, which I didn't worry about getting cut until I'd been in London some two months. Eventually, however, the hair-in-the-eyes syndrome necessitated either something to tie it all back with, or a haircut, and I went with the chop option.

Of course it was one thing deciding to get a haircut, another entirely trying to find the right place. Hoxton, a small highly diverse corner of Hackney, featured roughly three such establishments. One had constantly-closed red curtains in the window, which scared me witless; the second, down by Old Street station, seemed to be shut most of the time. So on a dark Thursday evening in November, at about 6.30pm, I wandered into 'Dad's Unisex Hair Salon' on Hoxton Street, sat down and awaited my turn.

There were four barber chairs in the place, and three barbers working. I was fourth in line, so figured it wouldn't take too long to get me in and out. At one point, a small boy (maybe six years old) shouted at one of the barbers, "I'm next, innit?" and said barber instead pointed around the room, saying "It's 'im, then 'im, then 'im, then 'im, then you." My place in line was secure.

Two hours later I got to sit in the chair. I don't know why it took so long, but the sign on the wall saying "Barbers need a break too" seemed to be a statement of policy rather than a two-minute breather every so often. That said, the atmosphere in the place was fantastic. The humour was ongoing, and I was included in it even though I'd never been there before, and the older gentleman proprietor ("dads" was what they all called him) reminded me sufficiently of Norman Beaton to make me wonder if, despite being outside Peckham, the comedy show 'Desmond's' might actually be partly based on this place.

But I digress. I sat in the seat nearest the window and Andy set to work on my hair. Now, what I haven't mentioned so far, unless you picked it up from the Desmond's comment, was that this was something of a not-very-racially-integrated shop. In fact, I was the only white person there. Which was fine with me, and with them, but it meant one thing: Andy was not very confident when it came to cutting my lengthy, lifeless locks. His first comment, as I sat in the chair and he picked up a handful to begin the process was: "How am I supposed to cut this?" "Wiv' scissors," grinned Keith, working at the next seat along. "Man," replied Andy, "It's like cuttin' the grass, innit?"

Fully an hour later I emerged from the shop with a haircut akin to the one I sport today. Andy never actually did use scissors, but buzzed his way over my head several times until he was happy. Took forever, it seemed, but it was an experience I'll never forget. Over the months that followed I went back many times, usually during the day when it was less busy, and usually had a different barber each time. (How many of them worked there? I'll never know.) The one constant was the haircut: no matter what I asked for, however I asked for it, I would always get the buzz-cut, usually grade four on top and two on the sides. 'Dads' would occasionally play around with scissors before giving up and going to the buzzing machine, the others just got straight on with it.

After about three years of this, a gentleman from the flat upstairs informed me that the barber near Old Street station actually was pretty good and if you went at 8am he'd be open and willing. I tried it, got a normal haircut for a change, and never went back to Dad's. Mauro seems to be the Southampton equivalent of George, the barber from Old Street, except from Italy rather than Cyprus, and so I've been happily going there since moving back to the south coast.

Today, however, reminded me of those happy, bizarre days at Dad's when no matter what you asked for, you knew what you were going to get.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

16 May 2007: Championship

Saints Clinch Championship Berth

Yes, it's true! Saints have confirmed their place in the Coca Cola Championship for next season!

In an exciting second leg of their playoff game against Derby last night, the match swung back and forth several times, Derby frequently threatening to snatch away Saints' Championship status by cleverly letting players like Viafara and Rasiak score against them. However Leon Worst showed his true Championship ambition by not only scoring an own goal to cancel out Viafara's second of the night, but also later on by cunningly missing the first penalty in the shoot-out, thus ensuring Saints' Championship survival for next year.

"It was hard work," said Worst, son of former Northern Iceland and Manchepstow United star George Worst. "It took a lot of guts and at times I had to lead by example out there."

Saints' place in the Championship was confirmed by Basque International Inido Idiotez, who blasted his penalty confidently and firmly into Row Z, thus saving Derby the prospect of having to take their fifth penalty.

"I've watched The Weakest Link several times," he told reporters while wearing a red nose and a lot of make-up. "So I knew the format. Miss the fourth, they don't have to take the fifth. I'm ecstatic about the result," he added as he drove off in his little car with bouncing seats and doors that fell off.

Saints now face a nice easy season against the likes of Scunthorpe and other northern teams whose players you don't know. Derby, meanwhile, will be daunted by potentially having to face the likes of the Liverpool Reds and the Chelsea Pensioners, although they do have one last chance to cement a Championship place in the play-off finals against some midlands rubbish at the end of the month.

Postscript: Wonder if Microsoft Man will still want to buy Saints after this?