Archive for August, 2011

Maths, Comp. Sci, and Music

29 August 2011 1 comment

Ah, how I hate when reading and television screw up my perception! I remember reading (or seeing) something about maths and music being linked together. The current peak of this is Douglas Hofstadter’s book “Godel, Escher and Bach,” which (deep down) relates cognition and creativity emerge from the mind. He puts it better than I can, but there a number of common (i.e. I read about them elsewhere but forgot the details) thoughts.

Although I am paid to be a software developer, I am also a musician, and, I’m pretty sure that if I’d chosen that career path and been given the perfect breaks I could have suceeded as a guitarist. Further research suggests that lots of computer scientists are also keen fans of music. Many key figures are musicians – <A HREF=””>Richard Stallman<a> notably travels with a recorder.

I think an unusual proportion of computer programmers/scientists/experts have an unusual interest in music. But I can’t find a survey to confirm it. Any emirical results out there?

Categories: Real Life, Software

Plain sailing

1 August 2011 Leave a comment

Well, after making the trip many times, it’s time to review the state of the crossings between France and the UK.

I’ve travelled on the Dover to Calais route, with both sea France, and with P&O. I’ve also travelled on the Dover to Dunkirk route with DFDS
Seaways. I have not used the tunnel at all, apart from a coach trip about eight years ago.

So, who is the best to travel with? I’m not going to answer that straight away, but I have some observations.

In the past, we, as a family, used to holiday in France, roughly every other year, and generally we travelled from Portsmouth to Cherbourg on the “fast craft” catamaran. These are small vessels, and so the shop is small, there isn’t a choice of restaurants, and so on. There’s only really enough seats to go round, and these are either very regimented (all facing the same way) or in the bar area. If you want to go outside, there’s a tiny windblown area at the back that you can share with the smokers. The big advantage is the speed, both of the crossing, and unloading at the far end. (How long can it take to unload a small boat? Not long).

But what about Dover to the continent, as I’ve been doing on over a dozen trips in the last three months?

Firstly, Sea France. I’ve only made one one-way crossing, and I hated it. The ferry was old, almost decrepit, and the staff were rude and surly. The food was not to my taste – I didn’t eat anything there, it just didn;t take my fancy. I was glad when the trip was over, certainly. The only reason that I chose them was because they were much cheaper than the others for a one-way trip. I would endure it again if it saved me a tenner, in fact, as I wouldn’t eat, it would save me a more than that! I have another one-way trip coming up, and will see if I have to try them again.

Secondly, P&O. They have both old and new vessels, and the old ones are pretty typical – choice of self-service and bistro restaurants, plus coffee and bar areas. There are different “vibes” in the different seating areas and generally you can find a quiet place if you want some peace and quiet. They are large vessels, and there’s plenty of space, generally. Big Big gaming areas, an old feel “pub” bar area, typical of state of the art a decade or two ago.

The new P&O boats are beautiful inside, and feature a restaurant with a huge, double-height panoramic view forwards. The boats have a similar mixture of facilities to the old ones, although it’s not as easy to find a quiet area. Outside is great too, there is a snack bar, the deck area is a large two-tier affair, and, of course, separate smoking area. On both old and new P&O boats, the food is typically british – fish and chips, sausage or pie and mash, curry – and just under a tenner for a main meal, which I think is a little more than a motorway services, although the food is better and portions might be larger. They are well geared-up to serve the initial rush, and there’s always space to sit down.

In the summer, this is the preferred route for school trips, and for several weeks I heard the tannoy requesting that teachers from such-and-such a school should report to the information desk (to collect misdemeaning pupils, I assume). On these trips, the staff are on their toes all the time, children are constantly being reprimanded by staff for running or shouting, and the kids generally add a huge amount of noise and energy to the crossing. On these occasions, there really is no place where peace can be found. The freight lounge must be a haven of calm in these situations. I enjoy their energy and antics, but others seem to spend half their time getting upset and asking the girls (as it nearly always is) to keep it down a little. The girls give a huge shriek/giggle as they move off by ten feet or so, then resume fever pitch.

And now, the Dover to Dunkirk route. (Why do the British insist on re-spelling the names of foreign towns and cities? We should write Dunkerque and Bruxelles, not Dunkirk and Brussels, for example). The first time I saw the DFDS boat sail into the port at Dunkerque, I was amazed – it looked totally modern, almost sci-fi like, a huge wall of glass at the front. Inside, it’s, as you expect, modern and shiny, and has that panoramic view out front that’s on the new P&O boats.

Every time I’ve eaten in one of these in peak season, the tills have been unable to cope with the volume of traffic – mainly, they say, as it takes much longer to process a card transaction. So, we stand in a queue facing an idle crew over a serving space full of hot food, but we don’t get served until the queues die down. I guess it’s good that they want us to enjoy the food at it’s best, and their fish and chips is far superior to the rather greasy P&O offering. So, the scenario goes like this. More customers enter, see the queue for hot food, and grab a salad or just a drink instead, and join the queue for the till, increasing the queue length and delaying the serving of hot food even further! Food selection and prices are on par with P&O, and I’ve noticed that if you wait until the second half of the journey, you get bigger portions of curry. (Not that I ever take the curry, I’m just a nosey (or is that observant) bugger.). The pies and fish are obviously unable to be upsized as easily!

DFDS provide (free) booklets on tours and sights to see in Europe, including war areas and wine-producing regions. These are really nice, large, glossy, well-produced, and give you the idea that this is a quality company that cares about its customers. The DFDS boats seem a little smaller than the P&O ones, and once I was on a trip that was fully booked, and the boat could barely cope. There were families with small children sitting on the carpet, and they opened the freight driver’s lounge to the public – much to the annoyance of the regulars (“Pay a thousand quid to get in here and they get let in for free” neatly avoids the idea that the 38-tonne lorry is free. )

DFDS make a big thing about Dunkerque being nearer to many destinations. That’s true, but there is a bit hitch. Firstly, the ferry terminal is nowhere near the town. There’s a sign on the motorway that says “Dunkerque 20km” but at that point, you still have 40km to go. And the last part of that trip is on slow roads through a semi-indistrial area. The first time I made my way there, I was glad there were signs at each junction, because I thought that there could be nothing for the public in the wasteland I was driving through. To measure the real difference in time, I toggled my satnav between Calais and Dunkerque, and the time difference is 13 minutes. The Dunkerque ferry crossing takes 30 minutes longer, so there is a net loss in journey time. (The ferry doesn’t take a straight line from Dover to Dunkerque, it takes a short line across the busiest international seaway in the world then hugs the coast of France – it almost straight past Dover, and, as you know, a car would be much quicker than a boat. )

Finally, a word about customer service. One time I inadvertently booked Dover->Calais->Dover with P&O, instead of Calais->Dover-Calais. I arrived at the check in at about three in the morning, and was told of my error. The kind fellow tried to alter my booking (for free) but the sailing had
been locked and he couldn’t do so. So he sent me to the ticket office. As it was early, I incorrectly walked into the Sea France ticket office
instead. I told them of my mistake and asked if I there would be a fee to amend my booking. No, I was told, I would need to make a completely new
booking! Yikes! Then, after attempting to get my details from my original booking, and the reference not working, I realised that I’d gone to the
wrong office. At P&O, they amended my booking for free! Another time I was running late after a series of incidents along the M25, and worried I’d not make my DFDS sailing. I phoned customer services (hands free, honest, guv) and they told me my ticket was valid for the sailing before or after the one I’d booked, subject to space being available. P&O allow two crossings either side, but they have a more frequent service.

So, overall, I choose P&O whenever I can but avoid the fish and chips (I’ve tried it several times). When their prices are too high, I choose DFDS and a little more time to eat.

Categories: Uncategorized