Back in the Saddle

Well, I have been called out of my blessed retirement and cajoled into working for a living again. Rats. Just as I was getting used to life as a Country Gentleman of Leisure.

A gentleman relaxes ...

It was all so unexpected as well — yesterday at 2pm I casualy extended a finger and pressed an “Apply for this Job” button, and by 7pm I’d been interviewed and had signed a contract. Huh … actually a total of 3 hours between click and being accepted, with the rest just being paperwork.

Interesting stuff, anyway. “Business Intelligence Architect”, designing a system for external and internal reporting of network alerts and alarms for a major telecommunications company. The really interesting part is that the duties are not just on the Oracle data warehouse design side, but also include the reporting environment and ETL functionality. It is so much more satisfying to mentally flick between “Ah hah … so this metric is required …” into “Well it’ll have to be stored in such-and-such a way” on to “In that case the ETL wil have to …”. A real synthesis of thought processes.

Also, that’s a heck of a lot of paperwork I’ll be spitting out.

The actual development will be offshore and the designs will be subject to approval by the client of course. It should be a wild ride.

Curiously, the consultancy for the work is the UK branch of the company I was a full-time consultant to from 2002 through 2006, when I was in Ohio and Colorado. Coincidence, but another interesting facet.

Not withstanding my new employment status, I’ll still be off to Spain for two weeks at the end of August. I feel like I’ll be ready for it by then.


Well, 2009 is here, and it’s a time of change for sure.

There’s that whole US election thing of course, which made me a happy non-participant in the democratic process, but more importantly it’s a time of change in the Sponge household. After 10 (is that right? maybe more) years of life in the United States, experincing Dayton OH, Colorado Springs CO, and Fairfax VA, we’re heading back to the Old Country at the end of March or thereabouts. Not out in some gods-forsaken wilderness either, but just a shade west of London. Ten years ago I’d had enough of London, and maybe I still couldn’t take living there and commuting into the city five days a week, but it’s a fine place to be near and I’m looking forward to be back close enough for a stroll around Hampstead Heath, or Greenwich, or the Inns of Court.

Mixed feelings in the house about it of course. Nervousness for the kids (5, 7 and 9), who still miss the mountains and sunshine of Colorado. Despite the inherent dangers of the area (yes Jennifer, “escaped lion”  makes me react with “it’s a little concerning” also), Numbers 2 and 3 sons have decided to go to college there and Number 3 will live in Number 2’s house. I’m not sure that I planned ahead that far when I was their ages, but it’ll be nice to have somewhere sunny for me to visit when I’m in my dotage.

Well, it’s been hard to be so far away from family for all these years and it’ll be good to be back in England, just a drive away from siblings and their own families, and a short flight away from parents. I smell an extended summer vacation  for three lucky boys and four mixed-fortune grandparents! If they need me, I’ll be windsurfing or summit.

Anyhoo, in retrospect it was a simple business to move over here, though it didn’t seem so at the time. There was the paperwork and bureaucratic waiting game of the visa process for me, but that aside there was just some furniture, some boxes, and an airplane ticket. In ten years it seems that you can pick up a lot of possessions — a cat, a couple of cars, a TV or two, three kids, an artificial Christmas tree … the list seems to be endless. The tree aside they all require their own confusing set of paperwork or other accoutrements. Importing a car is no easy matter, and anything electrical requires transformers and converters and whatnot. We have to find a school for the cat, get the kids vaccinated and into quaranteen kennels, and get new passports for both. It’s a confusing business that will take our organisational skills to a whole new level.

Plus, we’ll be missing out on several years’ worth of East Enders when we move, but with the local PBS station only broadcasting two episodes a week we weren’t catching up. Just to give you an idea of how far behind we are, Tom just died trying to save whats-his-name from the fire in the Slaters’ house that Little Mo accidentally started after what-his-name doused the place in petrol with the intention of scaring Little Mo into staying with him. The bastard. Still, Tom had that tumor so he wasn’t going to be around much longer. And that new manager at the Old Vic is obviously a bad sort.

Trevor, that was his name. The guy with the petrol.

So, there is enough to be done with this move that I didn’t feel that I could juggle personal and work commitments for the next three months, so I left XM Satellite Radio almost on the last day of the year and I now kid myself that I will be a Gentleman of Leisure for a while. XM and Sirius satellite radio companies are now but a single entity so there’s a certain amount of merging and sorting and whatnot to be done, and many challenges ahead that I really couldn’t have put all of my energies into. It’s been interesting to see how two companies that were pretty much the only ones of their kind in the country are similar in some ways and poles-apart in others. I can certainly say that there were many organisational and philisophical differences in the two IT organisations, which were almost complete opposites of each other in many aspects. And that’s all I have to say about that :)

I’ll miss much of it, of course. I worked with some people there who I hope to be in touch with for many years, some of them in strange foreign countries full of poison frogs and monkeys. Oh, they’d deny it if you asked them straight, but if you work ’em for 40 hours straight they’ll confess it all. Really, we’d lure people to lovely Washington DC with promises of an easy couple of weeks getting to know us and helping out with a few things here and there, then work them relentlessly every single day and return a wornout husk of a person to their next of kin — a mere hollow shell. “On the way out I passed Henrique at Sao Paolo airport — I thought he was a homeless guy! What did you do to him?”. A real and unsolicited testimonial from one of our wonderful developers in Curitiba.

Good times. I’ll miss those crazy Brazilians and the special Anglo-Saxon vocabulary we used on a daily basis to keep ourselves sane.

Moving along … aside from that whole “relocating to a different continent” thing, I have a number of other pursuits to keep me entertained.

Firstly, I have a little list of technical topics to write about. Some parallelism things,  some SQL stuff. I’d also like to get more familiar with Oracle’s other data warehousing technologies, so I’ll be fiddling with them as well. I had a brief and not very technical encounter with OBIEE a year or so ago (the same project that destroyed poor Henrique, I think) and the architecture was very appealing (Henrique might differ). It’s one of those “why yes, that seems like it would work very nicely” ways of doing things that I’m keen to know more about. Also, after around ten years of working with Informatica it will be interesting to see how Oracle’s own data warehouse ETL toolset handles. I dipped my toe in that water many years ago but at that stage I think that I was looking at a less than mature application, and I’ve been hearing good things about itfor a while now. Time to take that plunge.

Secondly, there’s that whole  “gained X pounds in weight while living in America” thing to deal with. Giving up the smokes, working too many sedentary hours, and the dining-out culture have really done a number on my waistline. A sparkly new membership at the enormous local fitness club makes me wonder why I didn’t do this before, and hopefully will help me get to grips with that. I’m no fan of that sort of thing (“what is this strange salty fluid exuding from my pores?”), but it has to be done. It’s been OK so far. You know, bearable.

Lastly, the kids will be out of day care and under Direct Parental Supervision. Now that should really be interesting.

However before all of that begins I’m off to the UK and Spain for a couple of weeks first, reminding friends and family what it will be like to have us back within unexpected-visit range and giving them a last chance to change names and move to a different city. I like to think of it as a Mental Health Vacation for me to decompress from a couple of years of rather hard and stressful work, and to get me refreshed for the next few months of what will doubtless be one of my more interesting years of family life.

“Happy New Year”, everyone.

Big News … round here, anyway

So it turns out that the proposed merger between XM Satellite Radio (my employer) and Sirius Satellite Radio was just approved by the Department of Justice. Just the FCC to go now.

Interesting times ahead … and a bunch of stuff I was working on is probably going to get cancelled, with a bit of luck. On the other hand, a different bunch of really complex stuff is certainly going to go ahead. You win some, you lose some.

Oh well, at least it’s good to have an idea where you’re going.

More Commuting Notes

What an extraordinarily interesting day, and what an interesting place XM is to work at … not that I did much real work today. A lot of paperwork and meeting people and reading documentation, but by the end of the day I was starting to lose my feeling of being a complete waste of space, and seeing where I can make a contribution. Perhaps by arranging a two-week inspection of one of the offshore development teams … in Brazil, perhaps :)

Now, anyone who has ever had to persuade their boss to let them put a pair of headphones on at work would be interested, though maybe not surprised, to hear that at XM is seems to be practically sacriligeous not to be wearing them. Everyone’s desk seems to sport some high-tech satellite radio — rather a long trip for the signal to take considering that the programs are broadcast just 100 yards away and uplinked from a couple of generously proportioned dishes on the roof. I’ll have to take in my own Nexus 25 tomorrow – not as flash as some but I’ll compensate with Grado SR80‘s to restore my already weak credibility. I get the feeling that I might not be cool enough to work at XM :(

And as for the commuting … I caught the 6pm shuttle and stepped in the door at home at 7:08pm … not too shabby, I thought. This whole working-for-a-living thing might not be too bad after all.

Notes From a Commuter

So here I sit at Union Station, the very image of the modern urban professional, drinking Starbucxks coffee and tapping away at a keyboard until it’s time to hop on the little shuttle bus to XM. It seems that to make an eight o’clock arrival in the office I’ll be dropping the kids off at daycare at 6:30am just as it opens. This morning I had a house full of tiny people wandering around in their underpants, yawning and blinking and slumping suddenly to the floor for a little rest. I can see that bed time is going to have to move up by a half-hour or so, and not just for them either.

I had a plan to avoid the parking problems at the metro station by taking the kids to daycare then returning home and riding the motorbike the three  miles to the station. However the guaranteed free spot couldn’t make up for the sheer hassle of  changing at home and at the station, and risking bad weather on the way back. It also seems like a false economy to park an unlocked motorcycle outside a metro station all day in order to save $3.75 in parking fees. If I spend a few hundred bucks on a lock and another hard case to store stuff in then I’ll recoup those saved parking fees inside of three years though, so maybe I’ll run up a quick spreadsheet :)

In the end I abandoned that in favour of an unneccessarily early arrival at the metro and hence at Union Station, followed by a couple of swift coffees until I turn up for my first day at a civilised 9:30.

Union station is a pleasant surprise. Shops, architecture and travel all rolled up into one elegant package. Policemen zipping around on Segways give the place a certain panache as well, contrasting nicely with the posters advertising the “Southwest Chief”, the “Empire Builder”, the “California Zephyr” and other evocatively named train routes. I’ll have to remember my camera next time.

Ho hum … another “tall skim latte” for me and I’ll see if I can track down a copy of The Economist. See you later, wage slaves! Oh wait .. that’s me as well.

My Last Day of Freedom/Boredom

After a little hiatus from work of a few weeks that saw me through the process of moving and getting the kids settled in new schols etc. I am now enjoying my last day of freedom as an unemployed person by sitting on my deck in the unseasonable sunshine of northern Virginia, watching the cat watch the squirrels, who are also watching the cat. Lunch with SWMBO was enabled by a death-defying motorcycle ride into the vehicular heart of darkness Inside The Beltway – no fatalities were incurred, although my pulse quickened a few times. Note to self: the locals appear to be immune to the effects of high-visibility outerwear on motorcyclists.

Tomorrow I start a new position as a “Senior Manager for Business Intelligence Development”. I just know I’m going to have trouble fitting that into a space on a form at some point in the future. “Sen Mgr Bus Int Devlp”? “Sn Mgr BI Dev”? “SnMgrBID”? “SMBID”?

This abbreviation dilemma is courtesy of XM Satellite Radio — if the name seems familiar to non-North American readers then you might have seen it mentioned here. If the name is unfamiliar to North American readers then leave details of your demographic and I’ll have a word with the marketing department — expect a phone call. Also, have a look here for some behind the scenes insight.

XM is an interesting and fairly new company which you can read something of here. Long story short, they (I suppose from tomorrow I’ll be saying “we”) use geostationary satellites to beam over 100 radio channels across the North American continent. Very high-tech stuff. I’ve been a subscriber for a while and it saved my sanity during the 1,600 mile journey from Colorado, I don’t mind saying. That is when I didn’t have the kids in the car watching movies — at those points I was generally beyond saving.

So tomorrow I get my first experience of a big city commute since I lived in London and travelled daily to the Strand. The DC Metro seems to be a rather better experience than the London Underground though – a $250 fine for eating or drinking on it ought to be enough to keep the litter/fire-in-tunnel problem to a manageable level. I’m at the end of the Orange line, living in Fairfax, so at least the trains will be empty when they arrive, and I’ll be able to catch up on a ten-year backlog of reading.

As for the job, it sounds rather high-falutin’ but in fact has a strong hands-on technical element — I’ll not be forgetting how to logon the database or anything, and XM is a 100% Oracle environment database-wise, I’m glad to say. So the blog will continue without interuption, though possibly with a scope expanded to include self-indulgent whining about travel.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Got to go get a haircut to make myself look semi-repectable for the first day :D

Born Again Virgin(ian)

Some weeks ago, at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, I submerged into a world of long freeways, gas stations, fast food, good and bad hotels, and a couple of timezone changes. I resurfaced in Fairfax, Virginia 1,620 miles and a few days later with a sense of disorientation, new schools for the kids, the potential of an exciting new professional opportunity, and the sound of birdsong in my ears.

I’m a big fan of Virginia so far, although I was very keen on Colorado also. I’ll miss the mountains, the cool dry air, the endless sunshine and my Sunday morning motorcycle rides into the mountains to the Donut Mill to bring back breakfast for the family. I’m not looking forward to the local humidity, the insects and the heat, but to see so many trees, birds and little mammals is a delight. The cat is very interested in those also – he’s out of practice at hunting but looks ready to get back into the game. Wildlife beware.

I managed to skip the hard work of supervising the household packing by virtue of a daytrip to Washington DC for an interview, followed by two days at the RMOUG Training Days 2007 where I presented a paper on Linux 2.6 I/O Schedulers for Oracle Data Warehousing — to say that it’s a niche subject is quite th understatement, so an attendance of around twenty was well above my expectations. I managed to duck out of some of the unpacking by attending the Hotsos Symposium in Dallas TX last week, which was just about as much of a brain-melter as last year through the intensity of the technical presentations and the long hours at the bar in the evening. “Symposium” is derived from an ancient Greek term for “drinking party”, as it happens.

Today I’m at home with a sick-but-sleeping three year-old so I suppose I’d better get some unpacking done then. When I get a moment I’ll write up something about a dynamic sampling epiphany I had recently – try not to burst with the anticipatory excitment.

Thinking of Sydney

Sydney Aldridge, my grandfather’s brother, that is.

He was born in Islington, London in 1896 as the first child of Samuel and Jessie. Samuel had moved from Froxfield in Wiltshire to London sometime between 1881 and 1891, staying at first with the family of his sister Elizabeth Fowler at No. 7 Chalfont Rd, and moving to live with Jessie at No. 20. Like many of his family Samuel was a groom, and carried his trade to London where he worked with the brewers’ and undertakers’ horses.

Sydney was presumably born at No. 20 Chalfont Rd, and in 1900 my grandfather Ernest was born in the same house.

In 1914 Sydney was 18, and joined the 1st Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment at Tidworth, becoming Private Sydney Aldridge No. 5684.. Old family ties presumably brought him back there rather than one of the London regiments.

At 6:05am on Wednesday 5th of August 1914 the battalion received a wire stating that war had broken out with Germany. The batallion had begun mobilising in reponse to a wire received late the previous afternoon, a process that was to take the normal four days. The battalion left Tidworth on two trains on Thursday August 13th, numbering 1014 men of all ranks. They embarked on the SS South Western (sunk in1918) and the SS Princess Ena at Southampton that evening — the horses had to be boxed and slung, and all wheels and axles removed from the wagons. I wonder whether Sydney worked on that? The Battalion arrived and disembarked at Rouen, France the next day.

After a train journey and a series of night marches the battalion advanced across the River Loisne at La Couture on the 13th October, driving back the enemy at the cost of nine men killed and eight wounded. This was the beginning of their fight in the Battle of La Bassée.

They saw no action on the 14th despite an alarm at 6:10 pm, nor on the 15th. On the night of the 16th they advanced about five miles to Neuve Chapelle, relieving the S. Lancashires at the Bois de Biez southeast of the town — a difficult task on a very dark night with a new moon. On Saturday the 17th they started advancing at 6am, reaching Ligny-le-Grand at 10:30am and coming into contact again with the enemy. Overnight the battalion entrenched east of the village, and had suffered eighteen wounded.

The next day the battalion attempted to advance but only progressed 200-300 yards against a reinforced enemy, and despite another push at dusk they made little progress in the face of shelling, star shells, a search light and burning hay ricks. Three men were killed and twenty-two wounded.

On Monday October the 19th, ninety-two years ago tomorrow, the battalion war diary reads … “A & B Coys made a little ground but, shell and rifle fire very heavy. 2nd Lieut Lloyd succeeded in making a lodgement with one platoon of D Coy in the outskirts of ILLIES and was joined by 2nd Lieut Rose with his platoon. At dusk, enemy fired a rick close to B Coy line which prevented wounded and dead being brought in till late. Rain helped keep the fire down. Enemy used heavy guns during the afternoon. 2nd Lieuts Lloyd and Rose withdrew as their effectual support impossible.”

Sydney Aldridge was among twelve men killed, and twenty-one men were also wounded. He is commemorated with 13,478 other soldiers at Le Touret Memorial to the Missing, 286 of them from the 1st bn. of the Wiltshires.

His death came three days before the 14th birthday of his brother Ernest, so the telegram must have had quite an impact on the family. I can’t imagine that they thought then that the war would last long enough for Ernest to join the Army as well — as it happened he joined the Kings Royal Rifle Corps shortly after his eighteenth birthday but on the last day of the war. He served in India and the Northwest frontier, where he was apparantly disguised as an officer occasionally so that he could compete in the officer’s pistol shooting team. Here he is in an unknown location at an unknown time:

He didn’t talk about his brother, but then he didn’t really talk about much else either.

So one common “character assessment” question seems to be “If you could go back in time to talk to someone then who would you choose?”, or “If you could have dinner with five people from the past, who would they be?”. I think that the standard answers are supposed to be Einstein, Jesus, maybe a philosopher or two. Never mind all the famous people though, I think that Sydney would be at the top of my list — it’d be good to catch up on some of the old family gossip.