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Four Hours over London

Started: 2005-07-06 21:11:15

Submitted: 2005-07-06 23:09:58

Visibility: World-readable

Friday, 24 June 2005

My last day at Xaar, and my last full day in the United Kingdom, began like most others this week: A hotel wake-up call at 0700, a shower, and an overpriced buffet breakfast. As I returned to my room after breakfast, I spotted Keith in the lobby; he was ten minutes early to our 0815 rendezvous because traffic was lighter than he expected.

At Xaar, I had only my list of action items to work through before I could depart for good and enter "rabid tourist with camcorder" mode. Unfortunately, this involved mounting a new print head to the Drop Watcher and trying to get it to work properly so we could measure both rows of drops at once. This took much longer than it should have; the ink system had died on us again, and we had to re-tune the new print head to get it to work properly. I put together a nozzle location file and successfully got it to jump between the first and second row of nozzles, 4.2 mm apart. (This turned out to be far greater than the depth of field of our camera (which I really should know), so both rows of drops would fire at once and only the one we were focused on would be visible.)

I grabbed a "Suitable for Vegetarians" sandwich from one of the sandwich service trucks that made its way around the Science Park and worked through lunch, eager to finish everything I needed as fast as possible.

After a few hours of poking, prodding, and beating, we ended up getting everything to work, except that the first and second row wouldn't fire at the same time; the first row lead the second row by about 20 μs, which would make a significant difference in the measured velocity. For a brief moment I thought Xaar would throw a fit and I'd end up sticking around for another n days to implement the ability for our software to detect the time of drop ejection, which would make it possible to measure the entire print head at once without human intervention. (Although if that were possible, we'd quickly run into trouble with the camera lens clouding up by the vast quantity of ink ejected out of the print head; after just one-sixth of the print head (all that could be measured at once automatically), the on-screen contrast was significantly degraded.) The back of my mind contemplated the scenario and concluded that I'd flatly refuse to work tomorrow, although Sunday would be up for negotiation.

After a bit more prodding, and trying to understand what we were really looking at, Xaar decided they'd be happy enough having to reset the measurements six times for a single print head. I documented everything I did so they can reproduce it, made sure I had everything I wanted off their system, checked the train timetable into London, figured out I could check a bag at Kings Cross Station, and departed Xaar at 1600. Not really the whole day I was going for, and especially frustrating since I did maybe an hour of real work in eight hours at Xaar today, but it would have to do.

I walked a few blocks to the closest bus stop as dark clouds hung ominously in the west. I took the Citi 1 bus through Cambridge to the train station. Going through the centre of the city, the bus took longer than it really should have; had I wanted to spend the money on a taxi I could have cut down my trip significantly. Any extra time in London probably would have been worth it, but I wasn't willing to actually do it. It started raining half way to the station; when we stopped at the station I had to run fifty meters through pouring ran into the crowded station.

Inside, I located the queue to buy tickets and stepped into it before I noticed the automatic credit-card-accepting machine on the opposite side of the lobby. I trudged through the masses of humanity, punched the appropriate buttons to get a return trip into London. With my ticket in hand, I headed out to the platform and tried to figure out when the next train was destined to depart and where to find it. I looked up just in time to see the 1645 Cambridge Cruiser pulling out of the station, out of my reach.

I had half an hour before the next express train departed. (I could have caught a slower train that would actually arrive after the next express train would; this was the train I caught out of London last Sunday afternoon.) I dropped by the grocery store annex in the station and bought supper: a pre-packaged sandwich, two 250 ml bottles of orange juice (one I drank and one I saved for breakfast on the plane, although I realized a bit late that it wasn't pasteurized), and a single serving of cherries from the US.

I finished eating in time to see my train pull into the station and disgorge its passengers into the rain, fifty meters down the platform from the edge of the roof. I stood with a hundred other passengers on the platform, safely under the roof, and could feel the crowd trying to figure out if we should go out into the rain to catch the train or if it would come to us. Five minutes before its scheduled departure, catching the train won out over staying dry; I followed the herd into the rain only to discover that the train would in fact come to us; it started rolling towards the sheltered platform just as I reached it. Feeling thoroughly silly, I returned to the shelter and boarded the train. I grabbed a window seat on the right side of the train. The train was pretty full, which didn't give me any space to spread out.

The train departed at 1715 as scheduled for the forty-five minute trip into London. I read Rick Steves' London 2005 to try to figure out what I wanted to see in the limited time I had available. Every once and a while I did the silly tourist thing and pointed my camcorder out the window, trying not to be too conspicuous around the natives.

The train rolled into London's Kings Cross station at 1800. My first mission was to check my notebook bag; I didn't have the time to take it back to my hotel after work. Kings Cross had a left luggage counter off track 8 (which I actually knew where it was, since that was the track I boarded my train to Cambridge on at the beginning of the week); for £5.50 they x-rayed my bag, hand-searched it, took it off into their deeper recesses, and handed me a receipt. I noticed a sign citing "the recent incident in Madrid" as a reason why all mobile phones must be turned off.

My first mission was to see the outside of the British Library, home to two copies of the Magna Carta, two Gutenberg Bibles, and the only surviving copy of the poem Beowulf. I knew it would be closed, but since it was at the top of my list I had to see it. Three blocks from Kings Cross, in the light rain, I saw the massive entrance gate, inscribed with the words "British Library", and the statue of Isaac Newton in the courtyard.

My next mission was to take the Underground to Westminster. I queued to buy my ticket and was handed an unlimited day pass by a departing passenger. I wasn't exactly sure if it was good; I handed it to the guy behind me when he expressed interest in it, who seemed to be a native and have a much better idea what he was doing. A scruffy homeless guy canvased the line offering an apparently-expired card for £2, which no one was stupid enough to buy.

Once I had a legitimately-purchased card in hand, I headed into the bowels of the Underground station. I consulted the map and concluded that the Circle route, clockwise, would take me to Westminster with a minimum of effort. The train, once it came, was crowded, but I managed to get a seat to relieve the twin blisters growing on my feet. A woman who sat next to me worked on a SuDoku puzzle from The Daily SuDoku, a site I printed puzzles from before leaving the US. Looking over her shoulder I was able to deduce several numbers before she did.

I left the Underground at Westminster and immediately saw the single most recognizable icon of London: Big Ben. The rain had stopped, leaving the street a bit damp in the evening overcast light. I took a minute to gain my bearings and consult my tour guide. The first thing I wanted to see was Rodin's Burghers of Calais, since I remember seeing another casting of the same sculpture in a sculpture garden at Stanford University. I stopped first at a stereotypical red telephone booth and called Kiesa. It was after 1900 BST, which meant it was a bit after noon MDT. I swiped my credit card and somehow managed to remember Kiesa's mobile phone number.

I did the "silly tourist with camcorder" thing as I walked past Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, found the Burghers of Calais, saw Winston Churchill's statue and a few protestors in Parliament Square, walked out to Westminster Bridge across the Thames, walked up Whitehall, past #10 Downing Street and the Ministry of Defense, and into Trafalgar Square. (I didn't realize until later that 2005 is the 200th anniversary of Lord Nelson's defeat of the French and Spanish armada at Trafalgar, which the MoD is playing up as much as it possibly can.)

With Rick Steves' Westminster Walk complete, I had seen everything I really expected to see in London; anything else was a bonus. I wandered roughly east in an attempt to find a tube station; I eventually located one but didn't really want to wait the seven minutes listed before the next train came, so I left the station and ended up back in Trafalgar Square. I headed roughly east again for half a kilometer until I realized I was walking parallel the Circle route. My blisters were going crazy; I had to almost limp to keep from aggravating them too much, which had the unfortunate side effect of straining my left leg as I walked. I cut south, towards the Thames, and managed to catch a train a kilometer or two east to the Tower of London. I found a handy vantage point to look at the vast former prison complex on the north banks of the Thames. It was after dark, but the Tower and all of the surrounding buildings were lit. I took one last shot of me as a talking head in London, ate a Power Bar for supper (part two), and caught the Circle Line anti-clockwise back to Kings Cross Station.

I picked up my notebook and headed to track 10 to catch the train back to Cambridge. Just before I reached the secondary tracks, separate from the eight main tracks, I saw a sign reading "Track 9 3/4" above a blank brick wall and the last four inches of a luggage cart sticking out of the wall. A fellow passenger realized the Harry Potter reference and grabbed the cart for a handy photo op. (Wikipedia later revealed to me that J. K. Rowling actually intended the station to be nearby Euston station, but the actual station, with renumbered tracks, was used to film the movies.)

I left London at 2200 after four hours in the city. It wasn't enough to really see anything, only enough to whet my appetite for a hypothetical future trip. My train arrived in Cambridge a bit before 2300. I took a £11 taxi to my hotel, packed my dirty laundry into my suitcase, requested a 0530 wakeup call, half an hour before my 0600 departure to Gatwick to head home. My English Adventure had drawn to a close; all that was left was to go home.