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Wednesday, February 1

How times have changed
As I write this, I am listening to some Elgar. I recall this music being particularly instrumental in my enjoyment of a problem I once solved in my last job. Instrumental... geddit... no...? is this thing on? Anyway, the problem I had to solve was that a particular database operation was taking something like 2 hours. The problem for the customer was that this was the sort of operation he liked to do daily - or more often if he could. There simply weren't that many 2 hour blocks in the day. So, I decided to speed it up. Not by using the database in a more optimal way - no it wasn't going to be that simple - no I decided to speed it up by writing my own database engine to store his information (or at least this particular subset of the data). I used a technique which had been part of my university course. However, I was lucky to even remember that the technique existed, since I hadn't attended those lectures (despite the fact that I was meant to). I think it was the fact that this thing came up in the exam which really nailed it in my mind. So, I had to learn it for real from the internet and use it in what came to be production code.

Where does the Elgar fit in?

While I was doing the time-trails of this new method, I used a test program which had a neat progress bar on it to show how far through the simulated lengthy operation it had gone. I was testing various methods against each other. The winner was the B-Tree (which I'd had to implement and learn the hard way). As the progress meter (which was broken into blocks) marched up to 100% at speed, it did so to the accompaniment of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance march. This wasn't some sort of auditory hallucination - I was listening to the aforementioned march on my headphones and it happened to be in time with the progress meter.

Sitting here and listening to the same music, with an industrial-strength computer problem to solve in my new job... well, it seems that times have changed and yet have also stayed the same.

What the...?
Last night I went to fill up with petrol. I drove my car to pump 7 of the petrol station and parked behind the Hyundai that was at the pump. I waited patiently for several minutes for the driver to pay for his petrol and return to his car. Nothing. Then I noticed that there was nobody standing in a queue in the shop. I moved my car to the adjacent pump, which required me to dispense the fuel from the opposite side of the car to the fuel tank. I don't like doing that, especially when the hose is not on a reel, and therefore, is of a limited length. However, I managed to get the nozzle into the tank (ooer) and get about 3/4 of a tank's worth of fuel in before I got too irritated with the constant cut-out of the pump. It didn't like the nozzle being inserted facing down (nor did I like a hose-full of petrol splashing down my car onto the floor when I brought the nozzle into this position!).

Confused by the deserted car, I did the responsible thing and alerted the petrol station staff of its presence. There were two people serving. A woman and a man. The woman was confused by the question - "Any idea what's going on with the car at pump 7?". After careful contemplation she said to the man - "Manjit, where's your car parked?". He replied, without a hint of regret "Pump 7." He then added - "I normally park it at pump 1, but that was busy."

This man was behind the counter of the petrol station and had chosen to park his car at one of the station's pumps. For the night. I was scarcely able to believe what I was hearing. Tight-lipped, I asked again - "You parked your car at a pump?". "Yes," he replied, "but I normally use pump 1, but it was busy." I was flabbergasted - there may or may not have been the word sorry issued by the person who was taking my money for the petrol I'd had to painfully put into the car in an inconvenient manner after an inconvenient wait. I explained to them that I had waited behind the car at pump 7, given that I wanted to use that pump and all the others were also in use. Nothing.

WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON!!! There are two clear issues that these people simply didn't grasp. Firstly, they're blocking one eight of the station's capacity to dispense fuel. Secondly, they wasted my time and really REALLY REEEALLLLY PISSED ME OFF! How bloody stupid is that!? I mean. Seriously!? And no apology! And no checking out of the window occasionally to check that there's no innocent motorist stuck behind the car that was foolishly parked in A STUPID STUPID STUPID STUPID PLACE.

The petrol station has parking spaces in addition to bits of tarmac adjacent to pumps!

Oh, how I've changed!
There were times when I would have blown my top at such stupidity. I would have made the person involved very clear how I felt and I would have probably been right in my assertions about what constitutes common-sense, but quite wrong in my approach. As it happens, I think that we're far too polite as a nation. Being tight-lipped, or tutting in a restrained way (either inwardly or to a close friend) is about the limit for most decent people in British society... so we end up standing by and allowing horrible things to happen because we're too frightened to stand-up for our sense of right and wrong.

The other day my girlfriend and I were driving past was looked like a domestic fight between a big fellow and his girlfriend. It looked like he was giving her a beating on the floor. The word domestic here is perhaps a crazy euphemism that comes from our culture - "oh, never mind the violence, it was just domestic". Anyway, we drove past, because we noticed the events while travelling at around 28 mph on a busy road. However, in the few seconds that followed we discussed whether we should go back and intercede. If there was someone being beaten up, we didn't want to be the people who let it happen unchecked. So we went back.

The thing is that a lot of other people drove on by. Perhaps they were afraid of being involved in someone else's business at their own personal loss, or perhaps their sense of repression meant that they could only judge if something was right or wrong, rather than do anything about it.

I've said it before (I think) and I'll say it again. People are, on the whole, decent. When we arrived at the scene (by this time, the big fellow had left), another couple, walking past, had also stopped. Between the four of us, we did our best to help the woman, who was either staunchly obfuscating the situation (talking about falling over on the way home) or was just a confused woman that we'd all tried to help. It's even possible that the big man who looked like he might have been putting the boot in, may have been trying to help her too. Once our help had been refused, we had to walk away. But at least all four of us were decent enough people to try to help someone who looked to be vulnerable and in trouble.

So, standing up for things is a good thing. Especially when it involves putting yourself forward when something needs sorting out. However, I've been more inclined to be horrible and outspoken in the past and it hasn't really made me into a better person. Perhaps it's good that I'm more inclined to hold my temper in company these days. When the woman crashed into my car on Monday morning, I had a moment of pissed-off-edness. I had this in the car. I gave the wheel a whack (after stopping the car) and collected my thoughts. What would I like to happen if it had been my girlfriend who had accidentally hit a random stranger. Well, this happened to her once and the guy was really horrible to her. So, I wasn't horrible. Instead, I walked calmly out to the driver and was pleasant to her. I asked her if she was ok. I got her contact details and suggested we talk about it later when we'd calmed down. There was no point in getting annoyed.

But the petrol station incident really really annoyed me. More than getting hit by a car that was being driven by someone who wasn't paying attention. I think it was the fact that the petrol station people were being bloody stupid. The guy in his car made a decision to specifically park in a way that could only be classed as selfish and stupid. There were other alternatives (even parking a few feet further forward on pump 7, so that a car could still use that pump) - or parking elsewhere. Like not in my way!

Yet, I managed to remain calm - though I became sullen - when faced with the idiocy. I had a petrol station shop with about 4 other customers in. I am not frightened to make myself the centre of attention and I could quite easily have drawn a crowd around this situation. A combination of taking the piss out of the guy for his foolishness and acting like someone who had just had their time wasted would have probably gotten support from the other people there. Or maybe it would not have done. We British types don't like to make a show of ourselves. Perhaps that cultural thing supressed my rage. Or perhaps I've grown up since the days of my youth when I'd get excitable and make my opinion truly known.

How I used to be
I'll relate this story for reference. I'm not supporting my actions, nor do I want to suggest that I feel I was totally wrong. The events happened on a road near where I used to live in Newcastle. The road has chicanes and give way junctions near them. I was driving through one of these junctions and discovered that it was not possible. A car had parked on the wrong side of the road at the give way junction. As a result, if there was a car at the give way bit, then the oncoming traffic couldn't actually get through the junction - as a result, the person at the give way bit couldn't either. This deadlock was caused by someone parking stupidly. After reversing down the road to clear the blockage, I parked my car a few feet down the road and went to find the driver of this car.

The driver turned out to be a middle-aged woman with her young daughter in the car. She'd been dropping her mother off at her mother's house. I pointed out the problem with the parking. She said that she'd not planned to be too long. I pointed out that it didn't matter if she was only going to be a few minutes - she'd blocked an entire road. She should move her car and not park it there again. She said she was trying to save her mother a walk. I pointed out that she only needed to move her car about 8 feet for the problem not to exist. She was adamant that she'd done nothing wrong.

I then explained to her loudly that she was an idiot. I also pointed out that I regretted having to say this in front of her daughter, but it was probably for the best that her daughter discovered that her mother was an idiot. I was very angry and obnoxious. I was younger and more impetuous than I am now.

Maybe I was bullied at school too much and have an overactive injustice gland.

Greed and the price of Friends
Following on from some earlier comments I've made about evolution in humans and how it's now our cultural values that seem to be evolving, rather than our biological systems, I've noticed that a good example of evolution is in economics. Arbitrary values are assigned to things - these are mitigated by practical things (like how much it really costs to make something) and are then inflated by perceived value and deflated by availability/competition.

So, ebay is quite an interesting thing to look at from this point of view. We are currently trying to get a copy of the now deleted Friends Series 10 Skyline edition DVD box set. You can buy Friends Series 10 in a different edition for about £20 from several shops... but it wouldn't match. Ebay is a good place to look for such things. However, ebay has a small number of suppliers and can sometimes have a demand that exceeds the supply. As soon as this happens, the prices go mental, as they're partially set by the bidders. In addition, the price conditioning is also done by the sellers, who work out how much they think people should be paying, based on the recent history, and make outrageous claims about how much the item is "worth".

So, recently, the entire 10 series of Friends in this edition - all the box sets - 239 episodes - went for around £120. We just want series 10. However, a bit of a run on people buying this series means that Series 10 is individually on sale from some sellers at the fixed price of £140. £140! Ok. So people might pay that. Good luck to them. It's logically only worth about £20 with maybe an extra premium for the fact that this is a rare edition which matches the packaging of the other 9 series we already have. So, we'll just wait for the price to come down. The higher prices are attracting more sellers, some of whom are doing the decent thing and putting a low start price, so the buyers can pretty much decide how much effort and money it's worth.

Welcome to the story a seller called Lynne7 (or something like that). She put an item for sale at 1p - it said "I have all friends box sets - anyone want to buy them". That's not an item for sale. That's just an advert. I got in touch - "What are you doing?" she explained it was an advert to see if she could work out how much the DVDs were worth - surely that's what bidding is about!? Anyway her method was to advertise it this way to get interest. Then she could get sealed bids by email, tell people how high the price was getting and then, when she'd decided who was stupid enough to pay a high price, she'd put the DVDs on for sale at that fixed price and alert the buyer who she thought was stupid enough to go and buy it.

When I last emailed her she valued series 10 at £85. It's worth £20! Seriously... if that!

Anyway. Last night I got a notification from her that she'd finally put the items for sale. So I had a look. She wanted £500 for the whole collection. £500! That's over £2 per episode. When some of the box sets go for about £8 each. It's only series 10 that is notionally rare... even that's not true. You can buy them all new from HMV for under £140 in total, and you can get imported editions (with a tiny bit of asian writing on the front) for about £50 for the lot.

£500!

Five hundred!

There's a facility in ebay to give your "best offer" to a fixed price auction. I wrote an email to her offering her £23 for the lot. I thought it was quite an amusing way to stand up to her greed... but I didn't send the mail. It amused me to write it.

Dao daddle dah doh doh da dao doh
I've been watching a fair old bit of Friends recently. It's rather good.

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