Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Week 22.3 – Version Controls

So here’s the ‘system’ out here. Imagine a children’s party, and at this party there are games. The first game is Chinese Whispers, and the first child is told the name of a thing to be drawn, this then being whispered around the circle until the last child hears a substantially corrupted version of the original message. This last child then begins to draw the whispered thing, folds the paper concealing what has so far been drawn and passes it backwards around the circle, the drawing progressing with no knowledge of what has already been done or what is to be added. Now, imagine the scene thus far described, but make the game players attendees at separate parties many miles apart, and imagine that they have never met and use different drawing tools and speak different languages to each other. This, I am now convinced, is the technique used to produce the kinds of design that I get to work with every day.

Of course, all these various drawings and documents have to operate together and relate to each other precisely, in order for any interlocking system to function safely. Fortunately, this constancy of design can be ensured by rigorous attention to version control, ensuring that all documents are at the same issue status. I was prepared, initially, to place some confidence in this, but have now seen it fail far too often; for example, the circuit I have before me as I write has passed through these versions: A, B, A, A, B, C, D, B. That must have been the episode of Sesame Street that I missed. Typical safety-critical engineering design specifications which I receive tend towards “around there somewhere” and the frankly scary, “it doesn’t matter, it’s not important.” Be afraid, be very afraid.

And then there are the standards which I put in that I’m told to remove, because, unexpectedly, they don’t want precision, accuracy, scaling or any detailed design information (“if we don’t state anything, we can’t be wrong.”) [All I need is a head-sized gas oven.] So I painstakingly explain to them why they ought to produce documentation that’s useful, dependable and a valid design component, with the potential to be used as a future resource, and they natter away to each other in Nederish and then ten minutes later tell me to change it anyway. What, did the Nederese tell Van Gogh to use fewer colours and less detail? Maybe now I understand why he cut his ear off.

Meanwhile, ProRail, the alleged overseeing body for all things NederRail (the Dutch railways have been recently broken into separate components and now work in much the same way that they don’t in the UK), have totally failed to specify any standards whatsoever for the production of designs and seem to merely expect that everything will turn out for the best. Blind faith, don’t you just love it?

My suspicion that English is a second-class language over here was further deepened on Thursday, when I was speaking to Shahram at great length regarding version control and its importance, and as I near the end of my tirade he interrupts me to start TALKING TO HIMSELF. Apparently, he hadn’t realised I was speaking to him, despite the fact that there was no-one else in the area.

And so to the weekend. Shahram, Cornelus and I were planning to go to Six Flags (“it’s about time you saw more of the Nederlands – we’ll take you to an American theme park”); however, it started to rain at 5 a.m. Saturday (so hard that it woke me despite double glazing) and didn’t stop till Sunday night, so we were forced to cancel. I took the opportunity, being trapped indoors, to clean my digs – I was amazed how much the dirt had mounted-up in just four short months.

Monday, and Ronald returns from the Hague (there seems to be a tendency to go on holiday just before a job is due for completion out here) and begins to hurry me on a project which I thought I’d completed. The problem is that he was given design changes to make to route control tables, and was supplied the design prints with required changes at version B; however, the digital files which we were supplied were at version C, which is known to be wrong, which is why the drawings are now at version D, which we don’t have and won’t get, so we are now raising the design to version E based on the design changes which we’re adding and the errors which we have been able to identify. I mention to Ronald that I think this is a bloody dangerous way to proceed, and he agrees and tells me that he only agreed to work on the job because it’s already been decided that it won’t be built anyway. What? Then why the hell are we working on it? Damned stoners, all of them, I swear.

For a while I found going to the gym to be a good way of working through aggression, but now that I’m getting a better grasp of Nederese even that’s beginning to annoy me. I’m on the cycling machine or the cross-trainer or whatever, and up flashes the message ‘HOUDEN HANDEN OP SENSORS’ (yeah, I know it’s easy to translate, but I just didn’t bother reading Nederish until recently, okay). This message represents a basic mis-understanding of the whole man-machine relationship, which is a classic master-slave scenario: man is master, machine is slave – the machine can’t be telling me what to do, I have free will! Anyone who’s seen Terminator knows what happens if you let the machines get the upper hand – get your sensors off me, you damn dirty droid.

More news if it breaks. Just about live from Zwolle.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Week 21 – Cycle of Life

Well, I started this week with aching knees and a sore bum. The innocent explanation for this was that, knowing that Thursday would be the day of the national transport strike, I decided on Sunday to try cycling the journey between Kampen and Zwolle. It’s something around 35 to 40 kilometres for the round trip (22 to 25 miles) and afterwards I could really feel that I’d done it. Everybody says that cycling out here is easy (because it’s so flat), but the fact is that, because it’s also very open, there is always wind exposure – and it’s really quite unfeasibly windy - with, somehow, almost always a facing wind, despite the fact that that’s clearly impossible. At least now I understand why serious cyclists dress-up like gimps in all that skin-tight fetish-wear. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s suddenly become much colder out here: now down to 7° C (2° C at night), and that’s without factoring in the not inconsiderable wind chill (to truly appreciate the wind out here, you have to see the waves that it makes in the canals; or, incredibly, the waves it creates on the roads during rain).

The Schiphol drawing, of which it might have seemed I was complaining last week, is no longer an issue since, after spending two days working on it, I went in search of some further information and learnt that the entire document already existed complete from a previous job. Ah, inter-departmental communication - same as it ever was. Anyway, I’m now producing three solution studies for turnouts at Riekerpolder, on the Schiphol route, with my usual attention to detail and scaling that goes so un-appreciated out here; and out of curiosity, I translated the notes associated with the designs: 1) Not possible (so why am I producing it?); 2) Probably not possible, must take measurements (the measurements are available, I’m using them; they’re right, it’s not possible); 3) Not possible in reality (in reality! Where else would they build? Fantasia?). So, having spent two months producing a feasibility study for a project that won’t get built, now I get to spend a further two months on an unfeasibility study for a project that can’t get built. Thump, thump, thump the head against the desk.

Anyway, this week the top bods from ProRail came in to review our progress and examine the drawings produced so far, on which, predictably, they had no engineering comments; just aesthetic criticisms and a query regarding the kilometrage points which I had added to the design for clarity (‘what are they?’). [Mental note: next time in UK, purchase baseball bat]. I suspect that a great deal of the apparent confusion out here stems from the way the Nederese communicate numbers: for example, if someone tells you to meet them at half eight, you’d better make damn sure you arrive at 7:30, which just makes no sense at all that I can fathom; worse are ages, because they always seem to group figures in pairs and say them backwards (twenty-eight is eight and twenty, for example), but keep them in forward form when they translate them: so our secretary tells me she’s 82, and I complement her on her youthful looks; but, far more distressingly, a telephone number which you hear as 436275 will actually be 342657. Aaarrrgghh!

The time warp factor is still very much in evidence: there are bands with guitarists and real drummers out here, and last week I swear I saw Duran Duran in the charts. Freaky. Tragically, having finally found myself once again somewhere where paisley is fashionable, the pattern on my tie (which was brand new in only 1987) is now too faded to really stand-out anymore. Ah, cruel fate.

Come Thursday (the day of the strike), I was fortunate enough to be offered a lift by my colleague Meindert, which saved me from a long cycle in the dark with quite high winds and sporadic rain. Not that drivers fill me with confidence out here – they make the cyclists look cautious with all their unsignalled zigzag manoeuvres and corner-cutting. The curious thing about the strikes is that the changes which the government are proposing will only really affect the long-term unemployed and the long-term stay-at-home sick pleaders, and yet the workers of the country are up in arms about it, support the strikes and have a really militant attitude to any suggestion of change (supporting malingerers is, apparently, something they consider a birthright out here). Despite their holding such views, when I called them communists they got upset about it.

Not much else this week, except to relate that curiously, once again, two or three Nederish are wrestling in the office – actually wrestling, mind, on the floor: not quite WWF, but in that vein. That seems to happen once or twice a week, as does the putting practice – not what I’m used to as office behaviour, but a pleasant enough distraction, I suppose. Having said which, I can’t really comment, since Shahram and I spent twenty minutes on Wednesday re-enacting the battle scene between Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader using a banana, followed by a chase scene from The Blues Brothers using the spent peel.

On a completely separate note, a warning: when using a combined photo-copier/fax machines, always ensure that it is set to fax mode before punching in a twelve digit number and walking away.

Anyway, I’m off to catch a train to Schiphol, languishing under the pleasing delusion that EasyJet might give me a punctual flight home. More news as it breaks.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Week 20 – Weather Patterns

Well, Autumn’s really starting to set in, and it’s notable mainly for its changeability. Thanks to the fact that The Nederlands are totally flat and right up against (or under) the sea, the wind is very strong; and this means that a beautiful sunny day can become torrential rain in half an hour, and a half hour after that be back to warm sunshine and a clear blue sky. Oh, and when I say torrential, I mean it: it’s not like UK rain, it’s like the tide coming in. I’ve been out at lunchtime in the sun and come back totally saturated. This makes choosing clothing quite difficult, since the only truly suitable attire would be a swimsuit but, frankly, that’s not deemed appropriate to an office environs.

Perhaps because of the climatic vicissitude, health seems to be going downhill in the office, so most days it’s like being in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery, what with all the coughing and sneezing. In addition to this, in the almost five months that I’ve been here, two members of staff have gone on long-term sick leave with stress, and two others have left to have babies (all occurrences for which, I hasten to add, I deny any and all responsibility). I blame powdered milk (for the health issues, obviously, not for the pregnancies - although you can’t really tell what’s in it…) – they don’t seem to use actual milk over here, and there’s so much white powder about the place that it looks like the offices of an advertising agency.

Another strange seasonal observation is that secretaries out here appear to be deciduous. The principal indicator of this is that three of their number, who were blonde all summer, have all come in as brunettes this week. I can’t tell if they’ve gotten any smarter, but this unusual phenomenon clearly merits further investigation.

Schiphol is becoming a headache to design for. I have to produce modifications for the track layout, and in order to establish what it’s like on the ground at the moment I have to refer to three documents in order to get all of the information required. Now, they’re all of the same area, so you’d expect the drawings to be pretty similar, right? Wrong. I have three drawings of the same area showing three different layouts; although even this isn’t immediately apparent, since not only are none of them to scale, but they’re all not to scale by radically different and continuously varying factors; so I have to look quite hard simply to establish the similarities, before I can even begin to notice the areas which bear no correlation to each other. And then there are the tracks which can only connect if I bend the fabric of space (because, for example, the kilometrage 20.262 doesn’t lie between 20.875 and 20.930 in this universe, as it does on one of these plans). In addition to which, I also have to make connections to two proposed new lines which are part of a separate project which I have no data for and which nobody can tell me where they will be or where their ends are. Still, I’m not one to complain.

Fortunately, to break-up my work I also get to be an interpreter (which, given my language skills, would seem somewhere between unlikely and incredible). Lots of European companies exchange information between each other, but since, for example, the Italians speak no Nederlands and the Nederese speak no Italian, English is the common language through which they opt to communicate (after, apparently, a brief but abortive attempt to use Esperanto); and so I am often asked to review and correct letters and emails being sent out, and to interpret and simplify the replies. It gives me a bit of an insight into the way things operate over here, but most of the messages seem to be complaints about people not having done things which they’d promised, and most of the replies are hollow apologies and vacuous excuses, so it seems some aspects of rail operation know no borders.

After last weekend’s anti-whatever it is they’re complaining about demonstration, a general strike has been called for next Thursday; so no buses, trams or trains will run on that day. Fantastic. Fortunately, it’s only about an hour’s cycle ride from my digs to the office, so it shouldn’t affect me too badly. If it’s not raining. I tell you, all summer, not one strike.

Anyway, just got back from lunch – we went into town again for fresh fish – and I had what I think was cod, but here it’s called lekkerbekje. Now, I know that lekker means nice, so I ask what bekje means. Disturbingly, I now know, lekkerbejke translates literally as ‘nice mouth’; well, I guess fishermen can get lonely on those long nights at sea, but please.

Not much other news for the moment, except for a couple of observations:

• If you visit the Nederlands at any point, you have to remember to set your watch forward by an hour, but your calendar back by two decades: the fashions, the music, in fact the whole fabric of society is from a different age – and, generally, it reminds you just how great the eighties were. Except the IT, which reminds you how badly the eighties sucked - most of the time it would be quicker to use a pencil and paper than a computer. Oh, and don’t even start me on standards and systems.

• The Nederers keep apologising to me, in perfect English, that they don’t speak very good English. I worked in Birmingham for three years, and not once did anybody there apologise.

Anyway, it’s Friday evening (almost) and the pub beckons most enticingly, so I’m off for a swift fles of beer (how gratifying is it that my moniker here refers to a beverage receptacle?). Live from Zwolle.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Week 19 - Rail Olympics

Well, the good news is that I survived the whisky night. On the Tuesday evening in question, Sjoerd graciously allowed me to eat at his place beforehand (he cooked spaghetti bolognaise with fresh vegetables, which is a big deal for me in these days of microwaved meals and pizza deliveries) and then we went to the Blues Cafe, where our host treated us to a forty-five minute soliloquy on the history and provenance of Scottish single malt whiskys, during which I smiled and looked attentive and made like I could understand a word he said; which in actual fact, on reflection, I could (“durby der flurby derby der whisky flurby durby fur”).

We were then taught the correct way to drink whisky (orally) and sampled many (well, more than four) single malts. Long before the evening ended (4am, apparently) I slithered back to the station, caught my train and (somehow) cycled back to my digs, considerably the worse for wear.

Curiously, I was fine to get to work the next day, which is more than I can say about the following Monday. After a weekend at home my Easy(?)Jet flight back from the UK on the Sunday was delayed by an hour and a half (thirty minutes more than usual), so I didn’t land until 11pm Nedertime. I was just able to catch the last train back to Zwolle, where I arrived at 1am with no hope for a connection. Fortunately, the station was abundantly furnished with cabs, so I caught a ride back to Kampen in what I subsequently realised was a jet-car. Apparently, after midnight traffic lights don’t apply, and nor do any other road laws, so I was whisked through a multitude of red lights in a 50kph (30mph) zone at speeds in excess of 140kph (90mph) back to Kampen station (the only place in Kampen my driver knew how to get to), where I had fortuitously left my bike and was so able to complete my eight hour journey with a ten minute cycle. Four hours sleep, I can assure you, is not sufficient when you have to work the next day.

The Schiphol project has been cancelled because the bean counters at ProRail failed to take into account almost everything involved in the process of increasing the headway, and therefore estimated it at €30 million; whilst our feasibility study put it at €60 million. Apparently, they forgot to cost for OLE (Overhead Line Electrification), cabling, civil engineering or health and safety. Once again, I find myself with a new respect for Network Rail/Railtrack.

Nonetheless, I’ve been pulled back off the significantly late level crossings job to work on the design of the new, massively downscaled Schiphol project, which is now reduced to just a few extra sets of points and a couple of new signals. Once again, I’m back to digging holes and then filling them in again. Still, I’m much happier to put in the hours since my agents got their act together and started paying me properly.

And so to the volleyball weekend. Once a year, all the rail companies come together and play volleyball against each other in a tournament of fifteen minute games between fourteen teams, which really helps to establish better contacts with your colleagues and competitors. I’d already warned the boss about my sporting abilities, but I think he thought I was joking. He tried to explain to me about the tactics for passing, and I explained to him that ’away’ was the only direction I could guarantee to hit a ball when it came near me. Nobody could doubt my commitment, though: I was the only player who actually bled for the game (tragically, during warm-up, because the ball hit my wrist quite hard, which isn’t too impressive now I come to think about it). Anyway, I actually managed to score a few points and we didn’t come last (we came fourth from last - an improvement on last year, I’m told). Martin, Sjoerd, Erwin, Erwin, Marcel and Marcel’s son Jorik were quite patient with me while I overcame my confusion of volleyball (over the net) with football (back of the net) and basketball (through the net) and at the end we were all awarded a pair of sports socks each. Don’t know what they expect us to do with them - having come tenth out of fourteen, I thought giving us sporting goods was rubbing salt into the wound a little bit. Still, I suppose I can always wear them in the gym.

For the rest of Holland, Saturday saw the general public (200,000 according to the papers) going to Amsterdam for a protest march. At the moment, everybody here works about 35 hours a week tops, has twenty-five days leave, five to ten bank holidays (if a holiday falls on a weekend, it’s lost!) and ten other days called ADV (some flexi-time arrangement where if you actually do a proper working week then they give you time-off to compensate). If you’re made redundant, your unemployment benefit is equal to your last wage for the first TWO YEARS that you’re out of work, and most people retire at 55. Now there’s going to be a general strike because the government has said maybe people ought to go to work once in a while. On the other hand, of course, there’s no NHS and free education ends at age twelve, so perhaps they have got a point. I swear everybody went to the demo. I’ve never seen the stations or trains so crowded. NR had to lay on extra trains to cope with the volume of protesters, and yet there was no trouble. See that in the U.K.

Anyway, on Sunday, after all that exercise and stress, I fancied some real food, so I went back to D’Olde Vismark for a meal. I can’t say enough good things about this place. The food is just superb, the service excellent, and the staff so friendly that Ron (the owner) found time to beat me twice at chess, despite having to deal with other customers, while he waited for me to be ready for dessert. D’Olde Vismark, curiously, translates as The Old Fish Market. I asked about this, and it was explained to me that the one was constructed on the site of the other, and it was better to keep the old, familiar names. I wasn’t convinced, until I recalled that this would have given Goldiggers (Chippenham’s old nightclub) the name The Old Cattle Market, which has a strange kind of symmetry to it.

Beyond this, I am finally making my mark, and now have another office saying ‘dude’ and ‘cheers’ on a regular basis, which is gratifying to say the least. That’s everything for the moment. More updates as stuff happens.