Bubble architecture – 6

The French have finally done it better!

Continuing the series, this is the bubble enclosed railway station of King’s Cross in London,

As you can see from my blog post here, this attempt at bubble architecture falls considerable short of what the French were able to achieve in Strasbourg, a masterpiece.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as global warming causes temperatures to rise, we’ll see more and more examples of this, just like frogs boiling to death in water that is very gradually heated.

Modified Silvester Method

This is something you don’t see everyday!

Well, in fact, a sign like this giving basic instructions in CPR is probably something you do see everyday, such as this sign I saw in a train station in France:

But what you don’t see everyday is the part of the sign giving instructions in the use of the Modified Silvester Method:

I’d never heard about this before – so I looked it up. It is not a version of CPR (which affects the movement of blood) but rather artificial respiration (getting the lungs to inflate and deflate).  I am not sure if this method is actually taught or encouraged anymore, and the date on the sign points to its age:


The landscape of milk

I’m currently in a project where I am designing and documenting various IT architectures and landscapes: organizational, applications, infrastructure.

So while in this very “IT landscape frame of mind” I stumbled across this very interesting diagram on Wikipedia,

I think it’s just brilliant!  I’ve always been interested in the vast number of milk products – even more so after living in Eastern Europe and Western Europe and seeing products (such as quark and saline cheese) that are not available in the U.S.

And it is wonderful that someone could classify all the milk products in this way, to create a very colorful and easy-to-understand visual taxonomy.

Ask Mr. Tradecraft – 3

Dear Mr. Tradecraft,

I landed an upcoming assignment beginning 6 weeks from today, but for reasons I can‘t mention, I‘ll need to disguise myself. Any advice? – Disguised Operator Needs Good Lessons from Experts.


Dear DONGLE, Cancel the contract. I won‘t operate with a different persona without a minimum 4 months solid prep time, 24×7.  The hair, the clothes, the look, the speech – that‘s the easy bit. But the walk is the key. We all have our own natural walk, and learning to walk differently – to carry yourself differently – that‘s the hard bit. You’ll need a minimum of 4 months living the persona full time to develop the muscle memory, and to keep it throughout any stress situation.

Dear Mr. Tradecraft,

Ken has mentioned in his blog all the different areas you’ve worked in. What is the hardest and most challenging?– Secret Person Yearning

Dear SPY, The clandestine world has many specialties and sub-disciplines, but one stands far, far apart from the others: Cut-Out: getting a physical “thing” from Place A to Place B with absolutely, positively no trace-ability. Oh, I’ve dabbled in this from time to time, and I rarely turn down a straightforward contract. But for the big stuff – the political dossiers, the nuclear plans, the CD of videos showing CIA torture scenes – nothing less than a purebred, died-in-the-wool CU master will do. A top earner in this discipline easily earns fifty times what I bring down. But it takes decades of hard work and experience to get to this level. Today, there are only three well-known international, freelancing CU masters at this level. Four, if you count one in the Mossad.

Note from Ken: I’ve known him for years, but I never know when I’ll hear from him. Gladly, he’s back, not sure for how long, and I hope he has time to start emptying his mailbox.

After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.


Is the slashed zero now dead?

Things change, and in the field of Information Science they change faster than most.  A delightful story of change is provided on the homepage of perhaps the world’s most famous computer scientist, Donald Knuth:

A note on email versus e-mail

Newly coined nonce words of English are often spelled with a hyphen, but the hyphen disappears when the words become widely used. For example, people used to write “non-zero” and “soft-ware” instead of “nonzero” and “software”; the same trend has occurred for hundreds of other words. Thus it’s high time for everybody to stop using the archaic spelling “e-mail”. Think of how many keystrokes you will save in your lifetime if you stop now! The form “email” has been well established in England for several years, so I am amazed to see Americans being overly conservative in this regard. (Of course, “email” has been a familiar word in France, Germany, and the Netherlands much longer than in England — but for an entirely different reason.)

I’d like to single out something similar, probably only known to those of us (like me!) whose history of Information Technology and computers pre-dated with the development of computer monitors: the first application I used was on a teletype machine at a laboratory at U.C. Berkeley.

Slashed O

When programmers started programming in the days even before punched cards, zero’s and one’s were so important  – and in those days, numbers were far more important and frequently used than letters. Therefore, programmers and also typesetters most frequently wrote “slashed o” instead of the letter O, in order to distinguish the uncommonly used letter from the very commonly used number.

If you look on Google you can find many examples of this, usually images of very old computer manuals, like this:


Slashed Zero

At some point after the introduction of high level computer languages, the letter O became more important than the number zero, so programmers use “slashed 0” instead of the number zero, in order to distinguish the uncommonly used number from the very commonly used letter.

Here is a good example of what that looks like:


0 = O: Leave it to the fonts, high resolution displays, and good eyes

Today, it seems rare to see the slashed zero anymore. The computer fonts used in many editors make it very difficult to distinguish between “oh” and “zero” – usually relying on highlighting the entire word or variable when the programmers application developers get it wrong.

I don’t know when the slashed zero fell out of use, but it would be nice if some language scholars have studied and document this before it disappears from human memory.

FYI, most programmers application developers I know not only do not use this convention, but also have never heard of it – so it goes to show you how quickly things change and the past is forgotten!



How does anything start?

A guest blog, by Paul Cottingham

“Write me a guest blog,” Ken said. “Me?” I said. “Yes,” Ken said. “OK,” I said. What a fool, I think to myself, not Ken, ME! I agree to something I have not done in years – WRITE! Well, strictly not true, I write most weekends just not in this fashion but I will explain this one day. I am 51-year-old father of two, married to Carole for 25 years, I work in IT and I live in a small city in Yorkshire, England called York and from the age of 14 I wanted to be a rock star, well, sort of. I suppose what I want in life is the same as most others: I want to be happy in what I do and hopefully make other people happy also and if I can use a modicum of my talents to make people happy then it’s job done.

Let me explain. Back in 1979 I was friendly with two local kids and we discovered we liked the same music. We had moved into post-punk era of Joy Division, Durutti Column, Marine Girls and – some may disagree as they were in the punk era but for me as they extended life beyond punk – The Clash. Kicking around the neighbourhood one long summer day in the school holidays, Iain the elder of the trio suggested we should form a band. No hesitation from Pete and myself – we both spluttered out, brilliant! We had no clue how to play, no clue what instruments we would play, no clue how we would perform this task of forming a band. We just knew this was what we should do. Iain had a Clash poster above his bed and they were photographed for their first album with the three of them stood in an alley looking cool into the camera. Sold! That’s us, we are cool, we can be in a band, we can do it! Now all we had to do was go figure out how we could rule the world with our smouldering coolness and amazing music.

Hold on though, we looked at each other and paused. It was a little bit like that moment in The Graduate and a part of a scene that folks often do not notice right at the end of the movie, when Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman and Elaine, played by Katharine Ross, leap on to the bus and all the passengers look back at the couple whom have just run from the wedding in an act of spontaneous euphoric love. They too stop and look at each other, pretty much like we were right now, and realise the gravity of their actions, what have we done? Well, maybe not quite as dramatic and romantic as that but nonetheless to a 14-year-old kid whose only goal in life was to look cool and play a little football or soccer as our brothers from across the pond would say and have Sandra Pearson as my girlfriend this was a big deal and we are not backing down now.

It is 1979, Summer, three bored kids with 5 weeks of school holidays ahead of them, on the cusp of being the best band in the world, with no instruments, no talent (that we know of), no record deal but heaps of enthusiasm and smouldering coolness. What could possibly go wrong?

. . . to be continued.

Paul Cottingham is one of those amazing senior IT leaders you run into all too infrequently: he has an innate sense for true leadership, and out of an interest in the well-being of his team he won’t stop until he has everyone fully motivated and pulling together. Paul is an accomplished musician who’s original compositions and multi-instrument production work is regularly aired on international radio programs such as the BBC. You can find links to his music here: (add link).


Did I accidentally discover a new Einstein?

I am not the world’s biggest fan of museums, but I had a frightening, emotional reaction at the Einstein Museum in Bern, Museum, when I looked at this grammar school photo of Einstein’s class:

My reaction was frightening and emotional, because all of the dozens of schoolchildren at staring emotionless and straight faced at the camera, with only one notable exception: the young Einstein is smiling:

Interestingly, I’ve noticed this one time before. At a large Indian wedding a group of small children asked me to take their picture with my digital camera. After reviewing the picture some years later, I realized that only one of the children was smiling:

Could it be my path crossed with the next Albert Einstein?

Sighting of the top secret AURORA spy plane over Switzerland!

OK, I don’t know if it is or if it isn’t, but here’s a snap I took with my mobile phone in Bern, pointed east towards Geneva and France:

What you can see in the center are tiny bits of contrails – in fact, there were many more of them but they started to disappear by the time I could get out my mobile phone and take the snap.

These “doughnuts on a rope” are the tell-tale signature of something called a scramjet engine.  And the only suspected vehicle thought to sport a scramjet engine is the top secret Aurora hypersonic spy plane.  Did I find one in the skies over Switzerland?

Interestingly, although the existance of the Aurora hypersonic spy plane has never been confirmed by the U.S. government, in fact scramjet engines are very well known. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a top program for aviation engineering, and a good friend of mine told me a story about them testing a scramjet engine in a large hangar – in which a dog was accidentally locked into the hangar. After the test they discovered the dog, dead – but the amazing part is that all his bones were liquified by the intense sonic pressure waves of the scramjet engine.

The beans of Umberto Eco

This is Umberto Eco,

But these were not his beans:

Umberto Eco, who recently died in 2016, was well-known to many people as the author of some truly mind blowing books, such as Foucault’s Pendulum and the Name of the Rose (which became a movie starring Sean Connery).

Not being his beans, this was also not his bean and sausage soup,

That was my bean and sausage soup, and it turned out rather delicious.

But Umberto said a lot of very interesting things in an essay he wrote about beans, in which he argued that these little easy-to-store, easy-to-grow, easy-to-transport bundles of life saving energy had a revolutionary effect on Europe in the Middle Ages:

So when, in the 10th century, the cultivation of legumes began to spread, it had a profound effect on Europe. Working people were able to eat more protein; as a result, they became more robust, lived longer, created more children and repopulated a continent.

We believe that the inventions and the discoveries that have changed our lives depend on complex machines. But the fact is, we are still here — I mean we Europeans, but also those descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Spanish conquistadors — because of beans. Without beans, the European population would not have doubled within a few centuries, today we would not number in the hundreds of millions and some of us, including even readers of this article, would not exist. Some philosophers say that this would be better, but I am not sure everyone agrees.

Perpetual pursuit of the perfect purse

A guest blog, by Arlene Ritley

Hello, my name is Arlene.  And yes I am addicted to buying new purses and handbags.

I currently have, at last count, at least fifteen handbags.  Some are very expensive and come with their own dust bag.  Others are fine leather ones I purchased at discount, paying very little considering the quality of the leather and trim.  Some are made of fabric not to be used when we have inclement weather.

Some people make fun of me – “What! Another purse?”  I simply laugh it off and say I really needed a new one.  I often give them as gifts for birthdays or Christmas.  I fool myself into thinking all my women friends are just waiting for a new handbag.

I have given much thought as to when this obsession had started.  I have come to the conclusion that it started when I was about seven or eight years old making my First Holy Communion.  My mom and I went shopping to buy a communion dress and veil.  But along with the ensemble there was a very small white purse with a gold religious emblem sewn on the front with a prayer book inside.  How could you not feel special carrying this purse?

But like all items people obsess over, the euphoric feeling doesn’t last long.  And before you know it you will find me in the handbag section of the department store.

BUT – this all changed.  Finally, finally I found the one purse that fulfills my every requirement.  It is large but not too large.  It has an opening on the outside for a cell phone plus a charger.  Once I open the zipper of the main compartment I find six compartments to hold everything I need.  I’ll never have to buy another purse again!

(Who am I kidding?  Just thinking about not purchasing another purse makes my hands shake; I feel dizzy, nauseated and agitated.  Am I addicted – you bet your bottom dollar I am.)


This guest blog was submitted by Arlene Ritley, an editor with the Island Moon Newspaper – one of South Texas’s largest community newspapers.


Urban Mysteries – 1

There are a number of urban mysteries for me.

One mystery is why they paint tall structures with red and white.

This is a snap I took of a transmission tower in Alsace in France:

And this is a snap I took of a nuclear cooling tower in New York:

The mystery is why different countries use exactly the same approach?  Is this an international ISO standard?

(By the way, that big dome in the photo above is the enclosure to the nuclear reactor. I was only around 20 years old at the time, but I had a security clearance to work on the so-called operations deck from which they directly controlled the reactor.  I was quite probably the youngest person in America to have this clearance. It was quite cool because there was a retina scanner to get in, and once you entered you walked into a metal cage. Once in the cage, one guard pointed a gun at you while the other checked your badge.  This was the 1980’s, the Cold War was in full swing, and they didn’t take any chances.)

Transitory Things – 1

This morning I was impressed when I caught a glimpse of the traffic gates closing due to an oncoming tram. And it caused me to start wondering: are there many “transitory things” that I can capture, as they fleetingly move between one stable state and the next?  Just like these barricades – no longer up, but not yet down.

I’ll keep thinking about this, and if I find some more examples, I’ll show them in my blog.

Incredibly amazing Frick

I could not believe my eyes when I went to Frick and saw – for the first time in Switzerland – and probably for only the third or fourth time in all of Europe – a real, American style strip mall!

And not only that, but it even had an Asian restaurant to boot!

Unbelievably, while I was taking this picture a vintage Cadillac rolled up next to me, the driver got out and started to make some repairs under the hood.

You can’t get more American than that!

Unbelievably disappointing Frick

First things first, I want to be crystal clear so nobody is confused. This is not a real dinosaur:

The dinosaurs all died out a long time ago. This is just a big model of a dinosaur.

OK, having got that out of the way, now to “Frick the Disappointing.” Before you get to Frick, you pass all sorts of signs on the Autobahn that say Dinosaur discovery place and Dinosaur museum – and you get curious and decide to go visit this strange place called Frick. As you turn off the Autobahn, a big friendly dinosaur is there to greet you – and now you really start to get excited!  This is going to be really something special, you think to yourself!

And then, suddenly, all at once, when you drive into downtown Frick – nothing. Nada. Zilch.  No little dinos lining the streets.  No “Dino Kebabs” for sale in the Turkish kepab  shops.  Even if you want to get to the dinosaur museum it is a huge challenge: you can’t see the sign until you pass it.

As part of my sense of civic duty, I want to make a Frick-Tip:  Turn Frick into something exciting. Get a few more dinos lining the streets.  Have the kebap places sell “Dino Kebaps.”  Open a souvenir shop selling “Dino Frick” T-Shirts and little plastic dinosaurs.  Here is a good example.

IT – Does anything ever change?

Around 20 years ago, when struggling to decide if I should shift from a career as a research physicist to a career in IT, I was impressed with the idea that IT changed faster than physics – so I expected a more dynamic, exciting field. What little did I know!

In 1973 my father was editor of the world’s first IT magazine, and he wrote an article entitled “To rollout successful systems, first debug the people problem.”  I’m still trying to find a copy to post. It was all about management of change when introducing new IT systems, and the article is 100% valid today.

A few years later in 1975 an IBM engineer, Fred Brooks, wrote a fabulous book entitled “The Mythical Man Month” containing his wisdom and advice for software engineering projects:

After nearly 45 years, hardly any of the most important core principles has changed. The author himself writes in his newest addition:

In preparing my update, I was struck by how few of the propositions have been critiqued, proven, or disproven by ongoing software research and experience.

So I guess IT has the best of both worlds: new technologies are cool (I was impressed how my Apple MacBook actually logged into my FitBit scale – not the other way around!), new methodologies are exciting (even Agile is now ancient!), but just like in physics, the core principles don’t change.


Germany’s highest bridge

This is it, from a close-up viewpoint:

And this is it, from an artistic viewpoint:

And this is it, from a viewpoint where you can really appreciate how tall it is:


Finished in 1979, this is the Kochertalbrücke (Kocher Valley Bridge),  and at 178 m (or 574 feet) it was, until 2004, the highest bridge in Europe. Remember that the Golden Gate Bridge, in comparison, is only  220 feet, so this bridge is just over double the height.

If you like photographs of bridges, you’ll find a number of them that I’ve tried to capture in my blog.

What I find totally amazing about this bridge is the complete silence underneath it.  The traffic deck is so high in the air, none of the sounds of the passing vehicles can be heard from the ground.

A different face of Switzerland

Most non-Swiss people I know – including many who have made Switzerland their home – think of Switzerland as exclusively land of the rich.  And indeed, it tops the charts as one of the world’s most expensive countries.

But people often overlook the fact that not everyone in Switzerland is as affluent as your typical Zürich resident or Geneve resident. In particular, there are still many rural areas, often isolated in tiny villages and hamlets in the Swiss Alps, where the income and standard of living is somewhat less.

In order to help these regions, the Swiss grocery store Coop operates a collection of donation stations, where people can donate old clothes and shoes, like this one:

Additionally, they have a terrific website that gives full details about the various projects they support to improve the lives of many people in these remote mountain villages.

Where did Punjabi go?

I came across the following image, which (if true) is quite an interesting way to display the data:

I am no language expert, but it surprised me that I didn’t see Punjabi, which appears in most lists as part of the Top 10, such as the current list from Wikipedia:

Interestingly, I’d never heard of Lahnda before, and when I looked it up I learned it is a dialect of Punjabi.

The Mythical Man Month

I rarely do book reviews, but in this case I couldn’t help.

Back in 1975 I was 10 years old, and an IBM engineer, Fred Brooks, wrote a fabulous book entitled “The Mythical Man Month” containing his wisdom and advice for software engineering projects:

The title of the book comes from an important observation he made about software engineering: if you add more people to a late software project, you’re like to make it even later!  But in addition there fabulous observations about other topics, like prototyping, the different between software development for projects and software development for products, and the like.

It’s just amazing: after nearly 45 years, hardly any of the most important core principles has changed. The author himself writes in his newest addition:

In preparing my update, I was struck by how few of the propositions have been critiqued, proven, or disproven by ongoing software research and experience.

Augusta Raurica and User Experience (UX)

User Experience – sometimes referred to as UX – is defined as encompassing all aspects of an end-user’s interaction with e.g. an IT system or, for example, a company, its services, and its products.  And although you might not think about it, museums can provide a wonderful insight into the field of UX.

I’ve recently blogged about a wonderful collection of Roman ruins scattered in the Swiss countryside, Augusta Raurica.

What’s really a nice touch is that many of the walking paths have markers that explain about the history of the site:

The displays are a combination of old ones dating back to just after World War II, and relatively new ones.

Now here comes the truly interesting part.  The older displays are written in both German and French, and they contain extremely dry, extremely boring historical facts, as this example shows.

The newer displays are written in German, French, and English – and they use a very simple type of writing, and they contain topics that are interesting to a wide variety of people, especially including younger audiences:

It makes you stop and think about who designed the original displays and why.  Were people many years ago more literate and interested in boring historical facts?  Or is there simply more attention paid today to the user experience?