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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts from January 2016

Challenging

Or, where I was when something happened

Not been feeling good in the evenings in the past couple of days: have been staring into space, scrolling through stuff on the Internet, and really not feeling like writing anything down.

I can tell you, though, that 30 years ago it was a Tuesday. I know that because Tuesday was the day my mother ran a judo class at my primary school. I didn’t do judo, but I had to sit in the corner of the hall and read whilst my mum held the class, because otherwise there would have been nobody to take me home. Sometimes we then had to walk home after the judo mat had been put away; sometimes one of the other parents would give us a lift. That particular Tuesday thirty years ago today, I remember, we got a lift; I remember getting into the car and being told, by the parent giving us the lift home, that the Space Shuttle had exploded.

Dinosaurs

In which we explore past times

As soon as we got up on Sunday morning, The Child Who Likes Fairies made it very clear what she wanted to do. “Museum! Museum!”

So, we headed into Cardiff, amazed at how quiet the city was. No more than five or six cars parked in the park-and-ride by mid-morning. The museum was, indeed, a hit, particularly the “Evolution of Wales” gallery starting with geology and the Big Bang then running through dinosaurs before ending the a fake cave of Paleolithic animals. “Dinos!” shouted The Child Who Likes Fairies and “Daaaaaa!” shouted The Child Who Likes Animals, running back and forth from the dinosaurs to the prehistoric marine animals and through to the mammoth and bison, then back again backwards in time.

There are always so many little things I spot during the day and think: “I must put that into a diary blogpost,” but when it comes to the time for writing things down, I can’t recall what any of them are. What else? We left the museum and walked around the city for a while, popping in the art supplies shop and various phone shops, looking to replace the one that turned into a brick the other day. I notice the site of the Ian Allan transport bookshop in the arcades, closed down nearly a year ago because of a rent increase, is still empty and untenanted even though the landlords have split it into two shop units. After we got home, at bedtime, The Child Who Likes Fairies could still remember what we had done: “Museum! Walk! Dinos!”

Today, back at work, was one of those days full of meetings. The longest meeting, however, was in The Tower, a board room way up above the rest of the building on a little floor all of its own, with panoramic windows looking out over suburbs and fields towards the mountains. As the afternoon dragged on the sun came out, its angle highlighting all the slight ridge-and-furrow remnants of ancient agriculture in the fields of pasture alongside the motorway, and just as the skies all turned blue the tower rocked, slowly but firmly, in the wind.

When I got home, I asked The Child Who Likes Fairies what she’d done today. “Go museum see dinos!” was still the answer.

Icing sugar

Well, not really

The temperature was minus 4 when I left the house today: not cold by global standards, but cold by my standards. When I left work to come home again it had risen to plus 3, but most of the buildings around, especially the big dull office buildings, had roofs still covered in rough, powdery frost.

Disassembly, Reassembly

In which we try to use metaphor

The past two days at work have largely just been the long slog of writing unit tests for a part of the system which firstly, was one of the hairiest and oldest parts of the system; and secondly, I’ve just rewritten from scratch. In its non-rewritten form it was almost entirely impossible to test, due to its reliance on static code without any sort of injection.

For non-coding people for whom this is all so much “mwah mwah mwah” like the adults in Peanuts: a few weeks ago I was doing some interesting work, to whit, dismantling a creaking horror, putting its parts side by side on the workbench, scraping off the rust and muck and polishing them up, before assembling the important bits back together into a smoother, leaner contraption and throwing away all the spare screws, unidentifiable rusted-up chunks and other bits that didn’t seem to do anything. Now, though, I have the job of going through each of the newly-polished parts of the machine and creating tools to prove that they do what I think they were originally supposed to do. As the old machine was so gummed-up and tangled with spiderwebs and scrags of twine, it was impossible to try to do this before, because trying to poke one part would have, in best Heath Robinson style, accidentally tugged on the next bit and pushed something else that was supposed to be unconnected, setting off a ball rolling down a ramp to trip a lever and drop a counterweight to hit me on the head in the classic slapstick manner. All this testing each aspect of the behaviour of each part of the device is, clearly, a very important task to do, but it’s also a very dull job. Which is why an awful lot of coders don’t like to do it properly, or use it as a “hiding away” job to avoid doing harder work.

Nevertheless, today it did lead me to find one of those bugs which is so ridiculous it made me laugh, so ridiculous that you have a “it can’t really be meant to work like that?” moment and have to dance around the room slightly. I confirmed with the team business analyst that no, the system definitely shouldn’t behave the way the code appeared to. I asked the team maths analyst what he thought, and he said, “actually, that might explain a few things.”

Too warm

In which things aren't as nice as elsewhere

The rest of the country has snow, apparently, and we have drizzle. I consoled myself by thinking that, by 10am, everything elsewhere was slushy and grey.

I took the children up to the Ponds, and back home again. It’s not the most exciting walk: straight and tree-lined. On the way back I passed a family with the dad telling a young girl: “steam trains used to come up here.”

Celebrity

In which I say whatever inane thing is on the tip of my tongue

Monday morning, about ten past seven. I was getting dressed ready for work when K shouted. I went to the top of the stairs, and she came the bottom.

“David Bowie’s died!”

“What!?”

“It was just on the radio. He was 69.”

“That was the age my grandparents died at,” was the random stupid thing that came out of my mouth. It’s only true for 50% of my grandparents, too. It feels strangely young, for 2016, for someone to die in their 60s, especially someone who felt like a force for foreverness. “The Man Who Sold The World” has been stuck in my head for most of the past two days.

Tuesday: the weather has turned colder, but still no frost on the ground here. No frost at all this winter so far, in fact. The Child Who Likes Fairies has taken to asking to have a grey headscarf draped over her head so she can run around wearing it, looking like a ghost as she does so. I’m not sure she knows, though, that she looks like a ghost.

Out of joint

Or, things not fitting together

Saturday: we went out to the pub for lunch with friends. Our local pub does very nice pizza, and nice beer, and moreover whenever you go in there on a Saturday lunchtime it’s full of children running about the place going crazy, so our own children generally aren’t actually the worst-behaved in there. We caught up on all the local gossip, whilst the children threw toys at each other and other people’s children screamed and cried around us. At bedtime we asked The Child Who Likes Fairies what she had done today, and she replied “People. Food. Baby sad. Pizza! Daddy walk hop-up.”

Sunday: we walked around town with me constantly grumbling about feeling unwell. The charity bookshops had no good books that were affordable; everywhere we went in was so hot it made me feel sick; and in general it felt like the sort of day where things didn’t properly fit together. Still, we got a table in a café for lunch even though it was packet with students on Macbooks who had clearly arrived at opening time and settled themselves in their seats for the day, and one of the waiters was fantastic at bringing us free milk for the kids within seconds of sitting down, and generally stopping to entertain them whenever he was passing. Afterwards, as we walked into town, The Child Who Likes Fairies started shouting “MUSEUM!” as soon as we were within 400 yards of the city museum, so we had to let them run around the stuffed animal galleries for half an hour, fighting other children off the “pull this lever to see a dinosaur’s jaw move” exhibit, and pushing past goth teenagers to get to the best taxidermy.

Doubling up

Or, doing more than I should

Yesterday, I did a full day at the office, went home, then an hour later went back to the office and did another 6-7 hours. Bed at 1am.

The office is big and echoing; in the day time it’s always busy, and the chatter of the various contact teams travels between floors and runs around the building. Last night was the first time I’d worked so deep into the evening since I started this job, and it was interesting to see how sound dropped off as the evening progressed. At 8pm the last contact team on my own floor took off their headsets, put their coats on and went home; and the noise from the teams below us dropped off a lot too. At 10pm the last contact sections on the floor below went quiet, and after that it was just me and my colleagues sprawling over our own corner of the building, eating pizza, and doing our various out-of-hours tasks. With nobody else about, I felt free to walk around the desks as I tried to solve problems, the way I always like to when I want to concentrate.

Today, I worked from home; or rather, hid in the kitchen with my laptop whilst the children stayed in the front room. If they see a laptop, they immediately become so excited they insist on getting close to it, climbing on chair, climbing on people, shouting “PUTER! PUTER!” and getting close enough to it to bang their hands on the keyboard as hard as they can. So when I work from home, I have to work out of sight.

Repetition

In which we get annoyed with AWS

The problem with writing a diary entry every day is that most weeks of the year, five days out of seven are work. It’s hard to write about work and make it interesting and different every day; and also not write about anything too confidential.

Writing about work itself would quickly become pretty dull, I fear, however interesting I tried to make it. Today, I wrestled with the Amazon anaconda. Amazon have a product called Elastic Beanstalk, which is a bit like a mini virtual data centre for a single website. You pick a virtual image for your servers, you upload a zip file with your website in it, and it fires up as many virtual servers as you like, balances the load between them, fires up new servers when load is high and shuts down spare ones when load is low. If you’re not careful it’s a good way to let people DDoS your credit card, because you pay for servers by the hour, but all-in-all it works quite well. The settings are simple, but deliberately fairly straightforward: how powerful a server do you want to run on, how many of them do you need at different times of the day, and a few other more esoteric and technical knobs to tweak. Elastic Beanstalk isn’t so much a product in itself, as a wrapper around lots of other Amazon Web Services products that you can use separately: virtual servers, server auto-scaling and inbound load balancing. The whole idea is to make tying those things together in a typical use-case a really easy thing to do, rather than having to roll your own each time and struggling with the hard bits. The only thing that’s specifically Elastic Beanstalk is the control panel and configuration on top of it, which keeps track of what you want installed on your Elastic Beanstalk application and controls all the settings of the individual components. You can still access the individual components too, if you want to, and you can even change their settings directly, but doing so is usually a Bad Idea as then the Elastic Beanstalk control layer will potentially get very confused.

Today, I found I couldn’t update one of our applications. A problem with an invalid configuration. Damn. So I went to fix the configuration - but it was invalid. So I couldn’t open it, to fix it. It was broken, but I couldn’t fix it because it was broken. Oh.

That’s how exciting work is. One line of work held up, whilst I speak to Ops, get the broken Elastic Beanstalk replaced from scratch with a working one. In theory I could have done it myself, but our Ops chap doesn’t really like his part of the world infringed unilaterally.

The woman at the desk opposite me is on a January diet. One of those diets that involves special milkshakes and lots of water all day. Personally, I’d rather have real food.

Ambulance

It feels like there’s an awful lot of year ahead; January moves very slowly.

On the drive to work: there had been some sort of accident, at one of the places where teenagers gather for the 8am school bus. On a zebra crossing: a blue-lights-on ambulance parked up on the pavement, cars stopped on either side of the road. A flash of memory as I drove past.