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Transatlantic

Started: 2016-10-24 08:06:36

Submitted: 2016-10-24 12:03:05

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator flies to London to visit the other half of his team

As a Site Reliability Engineer, my team has twelve-hour pager shifts in which one person has primary responsibility for getting notified when something goes wrong with our service, and taking whatever action is necessary to identify, fix, escalate, or ignore the problem. The teams operate on a 'follow-the-sun' model, paired with sister teams on another continent with a time zone that allows them to take the other half of the clock. Most of the sister teams for North America SREs are located in Europe; some are located in Australia. My sister team is located in London.

Coordinating with a sister team a third of the way around the planet is tricky, especially when their time zone has been deliberately chosen so that they can be awake while we're asleep. We have a weekly video conference call to try to keep in sync, but it's a little awkward to see a bunch of pixelated faces on a screen and try to keep them straight and figure out what they're all working on.

One solution to this problem is to make an explicit goal of visiting each other's sites at least once a year or so. A bunch of people from the London office have visited San Francisco, giving me the chance to meet them, but there were other people I hadn't met, and it's handy to see them in their native habitat. (It never hurts that I work for a company that has discovered the secret to printing money on the Internet, so there's some spare money laying around to send engineers to visit foreign offices, especially with a coherent business reason.) Once I'd ramped up and went on-call, I started casting about on my schedule to figure out the best time to go visit. The summer was filled up by the logistics of moving my household to San Francisco, changing au pairs, Kiesa getting a job, settling Calvin into school, national parks to visit, two weddings, and a funeral. By the time I could scrape together enough contiguous free time to go to London it was October. (Kiesa was officially jealous, which I completely understand. I'm kind of jealous of myself, if that's possible.)

I decided that, if I were going to get a free trip to visit London, I'd want to play tourist on the side. I ended up scheduling a week-long working week in London, with the weekends devoted to playing tourist, and the adjoining week days for traveling. I booked an evening flight from San Francisco direct to London, operated by United in a 777-200, leaving San Francisco on the evening of Thursday, 13 October; arriving in London the following afternoon. Flying time was ten hours, wheels-up to wheels-down; with an eight-hour time change that meant a subjective eighteen-hour flight.

I left work early on Thursday afternoon to drop by home, pick up my suitcase, and head to the airport. I ended up at home before Kiesa; she's begun taking BART to Caltrain to her job at the public library in Mountain View, which is technically more time-consuming than driving but doesn't involve sitting stuck in traffic on I-280, so she can get other useful stuff done on the train. I met her on the platform at Glen Park BART -- her train arrived two minutes before mine departed, giving me the chance to see her (briefly) before leaving.

This was my first international departure from San Francisco, so this was my first chance to experience San Francisco's shiny international terminal as a departing international passenger. (I did have one domestic flight to Denver depart the international terminal, which confused some of my fellow passengers until I pointed out that the aircraft had just arrived from Mexico, but I didn't check a bag that time so I skipped the big ticket hall.)

My flight boarded on time, but we sat for more than an hour at the gate waiting for maintenance to load an updated navigation database -- it had apparently expired that day, and no one had bothered to update it while the plane was sitting at the gate for several hours earlier that day. It took a maintenance guy with the right laptop with the right software and cable to update the navigation database. (I amused myself by posting pictures I'd taken the previous weekend at Fleet Week.) Then we had to wait almost another hour after United's central scheduling computers crashed so they couldn't be sure we'd filled out all of the necessary paperwork. (Though I doubt the airline industry likes the term 'crash' for this sort of incident. I couldn't help but wonder what their SLO is, and think they needed more SREs.)

Eva Air 777 at SFO
Eva Air 777 at SFO

At length we took off and headed onward to London on a rough approximation of the Great Circle Route. The flight was, at best, one-third full back in Economy Plus*, so after dinner I got to stretch out on the three seats next to me to try to go to sleep, which was not entirely unlike a lie-flat seat but not nearly as long (or as comfortable).

[* My employer won't pay for business class outright; instead they have a somewhat-complicated system involving giving a budget particular trips and letting travelers take credits on the savings on future trips. This was my first trip so I didn't have any extra credits to apply. I got a free upgrade to premium economy after getting the lowest-tier premier status on United after my spate of international trips earlier this year.]

One artifact of my schedule that I didn't fully appreciate while booking my flight was that an evening departure from San Francisco meant I wouldn't get to start off my sleep schedule on my new time zone -- by the time the (delayed) flight took off and the flight attendants had cleared dinner it was time for breakfast in London -- and that was my first chance to go to sleep.

I ended up sleeping, more or less, most of the time between the meal services, about six hours, though that meant waking up at 14:00 London time. The map showed the plane flying over Ireland, but all I could see was clouds between me and the ground until we began descending towards Heathrow.

N783UA wing descending over the English countryside
N783UA wing descending over the English countryside

My position on row 29, towards the back of the mid-fuselage Economy Plus cabin gave me a better view of the wing than the countryside.

N783UA wing descending over the English countryside
N783UA wing descending over the English countryside

I watched the flaps deploy as we executed a large S curve over southern England, and the flaperon behave with a mind of its own.

N783UA wing descending over Windsor Castle
N783UA wing descending over Windsor Castle

I accidentally took a picture of half of Windsor Castle under my plane's wing, though I didn't realize what I'd done (or try to line up a second shot in which one could actually see the castle) until it was too late.

We landed, disembarked, and made our way to immigration, following a long maze of winding, but brightly-lit, corridors between the satellite concourse and the main terminal. The immigration officer asked a few basic questions, then stamped my passport admitting me to the country.

I picked up my bag and headed out into the arrivals hall. I stopped at a Heathrow Express terminal and bought a return ticket. I found the train station, at the end of a maze of underground tunnels, and caught the express train traveling to Paddington Station. My phone's GPS receiver reported the train going 100 mph on the Great Western Main Line.

Paddington Station
Paddington Station

At Paddington I bought an Oyster Card, after trying (and failing) to make a chip-and-pin transaction on my Barclays card; I allegedly had a PIN assigned, but the card wanted me to make a transaction at a human-attended chip terminal (presumably in the UK, since I've been using the card for years) and rejected my PIN, so I had to pay in cash. I caught the Bakerloo line to Waterloo, then queued to buy a ticket on the Southwestern service to Portsmouth.

Several years ago I discovered that HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship from his famous naval victory at Trafalgar, was on display in dry dock in Portsmouth. I immediately bumped Portsmouth (and Victory) to the top of my list of places I had to visit, but opportunities to actually do so proved elusive until now.

I grabbed a snack at a coffee shop in the train station, then caught the next train for Portsmouth, departing at 18:30. It turned out to be a crowded commuter train with no luggage space that I could find; I had to stand with my suitcase in the vestibule in front of the doors until enough commuters had gotten off to give me a seat. Most of the commuters got off at Woking, the first stop, and most of the rest of them got off within the first several stops, giving me the opportunity to sit down.

Two hours later the train made it most of the way to Portsmouth when the guard* came on the intercom to announce that there were signaling problems in the Portsmouth area, explaining why were stopped on the tracks. Some time later, while we were stopped at a station in the outskirts of Portsmouth, he suggested that we jump across the platform to catch the other train waiting there, which was also going to Portsmouth and actually had a green signal and had a better chance at making it there. I followed his advice and presently arrived in Portsmouth.

[* British for 'conductor'; on this service he didn't check tickets because they were checked by the fare gates in Waterloo Station, but he did walk up and down the train attending to the needs of customers and generally making sure the doors closed so the driver knew when to depart.]

I found my hotel a short walk from the station, a Holiday Inn Express at Gunwharf Quays, a site formerly used by the Royal Army as a shipping depot before being rendered surplus and turned over to redevelopment as an upscale outdoor shopping mall. I checked in, found my room on the first floor (after reminding myself that the UK uses zero-based counting for floor numbers -- the first floor is above the ground floor), and headed out around 21:00 to a nearby Pizza Express for supper. After travelling it didn't matter how jet-lagged I was or what time it was back home; I fell asleep quickly.

Having the source code is the difference between buying a house and
renting an apartment.
- Brian Behlendorf, original Apache development team leader