Hit the road, Jack

Before leaving hospital I’d asked my consultant how long I needed to wait after the operation before I was able to drive again. His view was that there was no physical reason for me not to be able to drive immediately, provided that I felt confident controlling the car, able to perform an emergency stop if necessary, and didn’t over-exert myself. However, he did warn me that my insurance company would want to impose additional restrictions, and that their decision should be the ultimate arbitrator.

So I was completely astonished when I called my insurance company earlier today to learn that they are quite happy for me to drive without restriction now that I have been discharged from hospital. A short drive to the local shops and back revealed that I’ve no real issue with driving per se, but given how quickly I became tired while simply walking around a couple of shops to buy a birthday card and some other odds and ends, I think I’ll avoid driving any more than I absolutely have to, at least for the time being.

Still, having that option open to me is going to make getting to some of my post-discharge medical appointments a whole lot easier than if I was having to use public transport or be totally dependent on friends and family for lifts.

Man bag

The Ultimate Addons bag arrived today, and it really is small. Very small. There is barely room for the Aspire One and a few odds and ends. There isn’t really room for all the stuff that I normally carry everywhere, but it’s close enough that with a little more rationalisation, I think it will be just fine.

Being so small, it doesn’t look like a laptop bag which is good; there’s less chance of it being stolen, or me being mugged for it. However, it does look rather like a “man bag”; I haven’t decided whether that is good, bad or indifferent yet, but it’s certainly not a look that I’m used to!

In terms of packing, the things that are proving hardest to fit into it are the power supply/mains cord, and the ethernet/security cables. However, I don’t see any easy way to avoid carrying them. I suspect that coiling the cables in larger loops may help a little, though sadly the slimplug that I mentioned in a previous post doesn’t seem to exist any more, so I’m stuck with fitting the large UK plug in there too.

Smaller is better – reprise

Having been using the Aspire One as my main work machine for about 2 months now, I’m pretty sure I’m going to continue with it for at least the time being. It’s simply a much better fit with the kind of work that I generally need to do. Now, if IBM were to offer me one of those rather nice X300’s … well, that might be a different matter.

Back in the real world however, I’m currently transporting my diminutive little netbook around in a massive backpack. The backpack actually weighs more than the netbook. So it’s time to shrink the luggage to match the contents, and I’ve been looking for the smallest “laptop” bag that I can just fit all my everyday “stuff” into. In general I carry the following things around:

  • the aspire one (obviously)
  • a bluetooth mouse
  • the power supply
  • a mains cable
  • an ethernet cable
  • a kensington lock
  • a couple of pens
  • an A5 notebook
  • my cell phone & its wired headset
  • a couple of USB memory keys
  • my car/house keys

At the moment I’ve found three candidate bags:

At the moment the ultimate addons shoulder bag is the prime candidate, though it looks like it could be tight squeezing everything into it. However, at £20 with a 30 day return policy, I think it’s definitely worth a try. A colleague has also pointed me at this ingenious (if rather expensive) collapsible mains plug, which will definitely help with packing the ungainly UK mains plug into it. The only problem is, it has the wrong sort of IEC connector, so I may need to modify it somehow. I’ve dropped the manufacturer an email to see if they either do an alternative with the right sort of connector, or if its simple to replace the cord with another.

There and back again …

Well, the South Africa trip is over. And I have to say that I enjoyed it enormously, helped by a fairly easy schedule.

Late Sunday afternoon I drove up to London, and by some staggering feat managed to avoid any other traffic to speak of. A steady 90mph up the motorway meant that I arrived at Heathrow at least an hour ahead of my expected schedule. Checking into the flight was the work of 5 minutes, since I was e-ticketed, and very early. The nice lady on the South African Airways desk moved my seat to one that she thought would give me an aisle/window seat to myself (and she was right, bless her).

I then spent 2 hours wandering around the departure terminal shops, wondering at the over-priced “stuff” that people must buy (otherwise why would they be selling it?).  Scarves for £100. Laptop bags for £200. It’s clear I’m not in whatever income group airport shops are catering for. I suspect, from my observations, that almost no-one else present that evening was in that income group either. The only place doing a brisk trade was the bar …

The SAA flight from London to Johannesburg is now running Airbus 340-600’s, which are nice aircraft. 2-4-2 configuration rather than the old Boeings 3-5-3, which means you stand much more chance of getting an aisle seat. In addition the plane was configured with plenty of legroom, and a nice in-flight entertainment system. In the end I caught an on-demand film, before firing up the laptop to work on my presentations. 3 hours later I’d done about all I could without an Internet connection (when are we going to get decent connectivity on a plane?), so I tried (and failed) to get some sleep. I struggle to sleep at the best of times, so sleeping on planes is a real challenge. As usual, I failed the challenge, and watched the hours tick by. 12 hours in a seat is a long time. Not fun. Note to self: anything over 8 hours needs to be business class travel … I’m getting too old for economy.

The landing was really good at Johannesburg, with barely a jolt from the undercarriage. After spending about an hour in a queue for passport control (shades of trying to get into the USA) I got a taxi to the hotel, and then after freshening up, another to the local office, where I got to catch up with the sales and marketing people, and use the corporate network to finish off my presentations. Also managed to make contact with some of the other presenters, and arranged to meet them for drinks and dinner. Ended up with an aged steak in Mandella Square, which was by far the best steak I’ve had outside of France. Yum!

Tuesday was spent in the office fine-tuning my presentation, and then at the conference actually giving it. 140 people turned up, which was pretty impressive. Pitch seemed to go well, though (as usual) I wasn’t very happy with it, and thought that I could have done better.  But ended up chatting to lots of people about the content afterwards, and managed to put some of them in contact with the right sales people, which is good.

Wednesday morning was spent doing email and background “stuff” before heading up to Pretoria for a 2 hour guest lecture at the University of Pretoria, which was great fun, even in the 35c heat. Then got dropped off at Johanesburg airport, where I picked up the flight to Cape Town, where I collected a car, and drove around in ever-decreasing circles until I eventually found my hotel … and met up with all the other presenters in the bar … and had a drink. And another. And another … etc.

Thursday I got a free day. And had a very leisurely breakfast (2+ hours!) with a couple of the other presenters, discussing life, the universe, and all sorts of interesting side debates around science and computing, and our industry. Probably sounds really boring, but was a really fun way to start the day. Then went for a wander around the waterfront area, and watched the tourist helicopters flying in and out over the bay (which was pretty). In the afternoon I drove over to Table Mountain and took the cable car up to the top of the mountain, where I spent a happy hour or so drinking in the views, and looking at the local fauna and flora (for those that don’t know, its a world heritage site, with an almost completely separate ecology from the surrounding area).  Then drove down the cape towards Cape Point until I ran out of time, and had to turn around and head back to Cape Town to meet up with the rest of the team for dinner.

Friday was the second presentation, and then another 12 hour overnight flight home in economy class. Enough said.

You can climb on the table, if you want

It turns out that I get to spend next week in South Africa.  Which sounds wonderful, as its right in their “summer”, and its right in out “winter” here in the UK.  Unfortunately, in practice, I’m approaching this with very mixed feelings indeed.

The last time I was in South Africa was about 7 years ago, and it was breath-taking in its beauty. It was also the scariest place I have ever visited. The levels of crime (particularly violent crime) were way beyond anything I’d ever experienced before.  Gunfire on the streets was not something I could become comfortable with.  The information I’m being given at the moment seems to indicate that the situation hasn’t changed much in the intervening years …

The travel is also a pain in the rear, as it involves 12 hours in economy, overnight.  Both there and back.  Most of the other presenters are from the US, and are flying business class. Needless to say, the criteria for US employee travel and the criteria for UK employee travel are not the same.  😦

Still, on the upside, its looking like I’ll have a half day of free time in Cape Town, so I can’t complain too much – its looking like I will (finally) make it to the top of Table Mountain.

Paris in the spring …

I love Paris in the spring. In fact, I pretty much love Paris at any time of the year. Sure, the locals are arrogant, bad-tempered and unfriendly (in stark contrast to most French people), but the place itself is well worth the cost of putting up with its inhabitants. The sense of history, the grandeur of the boulevards, the great spectacles of architecture, the wonderful pavement cafés and restaurants, and even some of the quirky little alleys and back-streets – they all combine into being one of those places that always manages to lift my spirits a little. And this week finds me at a conference in Paris, in the spring.

Except I’m not, because this conference is actually in the conference centre at Disneyland Paris.  And Disneyland Paris bears absolutely no relation to the Paris that I know and love. Apart from the locals, of course.

I must admit my bias up front here – I’m not really an amusement park kind of person. I’d much rather spend a day with a picnic, a good book, and a beautiful view than being herded from one queue for an artificial experience to the next, hemmed in by large numbers of other people and their badly-behaved kids. However, we’re all different, and I can see that Disneyland and Disneyworld in the USA have created an experience that many people enjoy.  I’m sure the weather there helps, and probably the fact that like all things American, it will be built on a grand scale with large paths and drives, to accommodate the number of expected customers. There will also be the usual American levels of customer-service and attention to detail, ensuring that people go away wanting to come back for more.

Unfortunately, this place lacks all of that. The check-in at my hotel (The Dreamland Castle) took nearly 30 minutes of standing in a queue. The room turns out to be very faded indeed, and was clearly never that well fitted out in the first place. Despite being a 4* graded hotel costing $250 a day, there are no complimentary toiletries, and the mini-bar is empty.  And to get them to put anything in it, you need to pay an additional deposit. Frighteningly, Internet access from the room costs a startling $20 a day more. The worst thing so far though was the food. Apparently there is an a la carte restaurant here, but it’s only open from 11am to 5pm, at which point the restaurant switches over to only supplying a hot buffet.  The two restaurants in the nearby “Disney Village” that offered a proper sit-down menu were both full, with long queues. Dinner ended up being a takeaway New York style sandwich – which was nothing like the sandwiches that I’ve had in New York. While searching for something to eat, I met some colleagues who were also searching for food.  In the end we decided to have a beer in the local hotel bar together, only to be hit with a charge of $8 a beer.

So, in summary, Disneyland Paris is the worst of all worlds; Disney kitsch, American capitalism run mad, with French customer service. And to think that people want to come here for a holiday? P.T.Barnum may have been wrong – it looks like you really can fool most of the people most of the time.

Ah well, only four more nights to go …