WebObjects Course: Ray Butterworth's Journal

The following entries were written each evening as a summary of my experiences during the day. As such, they are extremely subjective, and in some cases what is presented as fact might later have been discovered to be a misunderstanding on my part. I have not made any attempt to retroactively correct these errors. Sleep deprivation might also have been a factor in the result.

Please note that I didn't find this Adventure anywhere near as miserable as it might seem from reading this journal. I just happen to have a perverse way of enjoying myself.

2004, Beaconsfield, UK

Saturday February 21

5:30 AM was not a decent time to go out the door on a Saturday morning, but who am I to complain, especially after meeting Gary at the airport and learning that he'd left his home at midnight.

The flight itself was uneventful, except for being packed with people diverted from the airports closed by the east-coast snow storm. We landed at Heathrow at about 9 PM, having been served breakfast and a snack. I would have said that I was somewhat hungry, but Gary had eaten even less, the airline people somehow having lost his request for vegetarian meals.

The travel agent had omitted any details about getting from the airport to the George Hotel in Beaconsfield, and the only obvious choice (short of the several hours it would require to take a train east into London and then another train west past the airport and on to Beaconsfield) was to take a taxi for a flat rate of £61 (over $150). The driver seemed to want to maximize his hourly wage, though he was prevented from getting past 95 MPH by the rear bumper of the car a few inches in front of us. He also had trouble noticing lane markings, especially while phoning the hotel clerk for directions. But he had no trouble finding the hotel, and we arrived there what seemed like shortly before we left the airport.

From the outside, the George Hotel was attractive black and white Tudor-style, in a neighbourhood of similar Tudor and Georgian-style buildings.. But once we got inside, it was apparent that it wasn't just Tudor-style, the building really was that old, built in the late 1400s and expanded and modernized in the late 1700s. My room, two flights up a narrow spiral staircase, with steps placed not so horizontally nor so solidly as I'm used to, comprised what used to be two rooms, but now with a six-foot section of their separating wall knocked out. One could tell that they had been separate rooms, because the original rough hewn beams still encased this opening, including one at floor level, which was painted black in order to make it easier to trip over.

Near the main door was a smaller door for what I thought was a closet. I was half right; upon opening it, I found it to be what the British call a water closet, i.e. a toilet. And that's all it was, a tiny closet with no sink, no window, no anything else. At least it had a row of ventilation holes drilled into the upper part of the door. There was of course another small room containing a bath and sink. I noticed that they both had separate hot and cold taps, and then remembered something I'd once heard, that the British don't believe in closets or mixing-taps.

Instead of a closet, there was a wardrobe, a huge piece of furniture with two tall doors that would open with some effort and noise (the hinges of the bathroom and toilet doors could use some oil too), and which would occasionally swing open and slam into the wooden frame of one of the two beds.

Like the wardrobe, the bed was also ancient, obviously designed at a time when people were much shorter than they are now, as it was a full foot shorter than my own bed at home.

The rooms were furnished with a desk and a number of small tables, chairs, etc., all antiques, as were the two non-functional fire places, and the paintings, plates, framed several-hundred year old legal documents, and other wall decorations. A switch near the door acted as a two-way switch along with one near the bed. The trouble was that instead of controlling one light, they controlled all six of the dim table lamps that lit the two rooms. While this did allow for the unlikely situation of wanting all the lights on except for the bed lamp, it didn't allow for the more desirable opposite situation, which could be achieved only by turning off all five of the other lights individually. But even with all six lights off, the room wasn't totally dark, as the two windows each had a bright floodlight mounted just above them in the soffits outside. This was actually a good feature as it enabled me to better see the shirts I had laid across the black beam in the floor separating the two rooms, thereby preventing several dislocated or broken toes.

By this time Gary and I were more than a little hungry, so we took a walk down the street. We saw many parked cars, but very few pedestrians, and this was downtown, at 10 PM on a Saturday night. The first restaurant we checked was closed, but they had a menu posted so we checked it for future reference. Under appetizers was soup for only £4.00 (i.e. $10), so we moved on to other places, but that $10 bowl of soup proved to be a very common item.

We eventually found a pub advertising burgers at ridiculous prices, but we decided that that was the best we were going to find, went in and sat down at a table. Eventually we realized that there wasn't any table service, so we went to the bar to order, but it seems that pubs don't serve food after 9 PM, perhaps it interferes with getting drunk or something.

Fortunately we had earlier passed a fast food truck, and it was still there, so I bought a chicken on a pita for only £3.50 (almost $10), Gary had some fries, and we stood in the cold damp wind enjoying it at last.

Back in my room, I decided to phone home to let my family know I was here. There was no phone book and the only instructions on the phone were to dial 9 for an outside line, and to phone reception for international dialing codes. But I couldn't ask at the front desk, because by now it had shut down and the staff had gone home. So how is one supposed to make a long-distance call from here? I didn't even know how to do the equivalent of dialing the operator with 0 (I'd seen some local phone numbers beginning with a zero, so I knew it couldn't be that). Fortunately, while looking for the non-existent phone book (antique drawers really can be opened if one uses enough effort), I had come across a British tour guide, and it had a section on telephones, including the facts that one dials 00 to get an international line, and that the country-code for Canada is 1.

So, I dialed 9-00-1-519-etc. and was surprised to hear my mother answer. Then I realized that the only time I ever dial 1-519 is when I call her, and must have dialed her number by reflex. So, I tried again, and finally got through to my wife.

Earlier Gary had asked if they provided Internet access. The answer was yes, but really all that meant was that the phones had a jack where one could plug in one's own modem and phone one's own ISP. And even if we had had a London number to call, the hotel would have charged an additional £.25 per minute surcharge.

Sunday February 22

Gary phoned and I said I'd meet him for breakfast in 15 minutes. The fabulous breakfast provided by the hotel comprised a glass of orange juice and a bowl of cereal, and if one asked for it there was toast too, but what can one expect for only $21? Gary was somewhat protein deficient, so ordered two eggs instead. Two eggs means just that, none of the extras that one might normally expect. But what can one expect for only an extra £7 plus tax. At $10 an egg, it's almost a bargain.

We were staying in Old Town, and the WebObjects course was to be taught in New Town. Old Town was a stretch of very old buildings containing hotels, restaurants, antique stores, stock brokers, and various other expensive and trendy commodities and services. New Town (so called because it was built in the 1800s when the railway was built and passed too far away from the existing town centre) had more commercial shopping, with grocery stores, a car dealer (Mercedes Benz), bookshops, etc. The real-estate agencies listed houses for several hundred thousand to well over a million pounds (that's just under a million dollars to several million dollars). (Our course instructor later told Gary that Beaconsfield is the most expensive real estate area in the UK.) The road connecting Old Town and New Town was mostly residential, with a few day-care centres and a prep-school. Everything else in the area was parkland, forest, golf course, and very exclusive housing estates. Neither Old Town nor New Town had anything resembling fast-food, so we chose a restaurant for lunch. Even without ordering the $10 soup, it cost £23 (nearly $30, each). To make it worse, the amazingly small serving of roast beef with horse-radish scented mayonnaise wasn't exactly impressive.

This area is definitely not a suitable place for people taking a course to be staying. The whole area is designed for wealthy professionals and tourists. Just eating costs a fortune. All the restaurants have menus that look like the ones we might go to for a special occasion,, except that the prices are slightly higher. But that's equating pounds and dollars. When you multiply those high prices by two and a half, things get ridiculous.

As for the hotel, if one were a tourist staying for a night or two, the atmosphere, the antiques, the strange quirks and features of the old building might generate awe and amazement, or it might cause enjoyment and amusement. But it's hard to imagine someone wanting to stay at such a place for seven nights in a row. The initial appeal (of a 16th century building upgraded to 19th century standards) quickly wears off, and soon becomes more than a little annoying. And if one stops to think how much one is paying for this annoyance, it becomes absurd.

In the afternoon, I wandered around a few stores comparing prices. Upscale things are too expensive for me to consider, but for ordinary items, there is an amazingly close correspondence to Canadian prices (if one ignores the two and a half times exchange rate). A can of beans is 69p, a can of pop is 60p, a loaf of bread is a pound, pistachio nuts are £10/kg, Pringles are £1.49, and [English] muffins 4/£1 (vs. 6/$1 in Canada). Even coffee shops seem so familiar; the prices being almost identical to those in Canada (except for the £ vs. the $). To survive, one simply has to ignore the currency sign; thinking that a cup of coffee costs $4 ($6 - $8 in a restaurant) makes life just too difficult.

For dinner, we went early to the pub that yesterday had stopped serving food at 9PM, and ordered the relatively inexpensive but in fact very expensive burgers. But it turns out that today they stopped serving food at 4PM. That makes sense; stop the food just before dinner time.

So we went to another restaurant. Skipping the appetizers and ignoring the dessert, the one-course meal cost us only £24 ($30 each). Somehow or other, checking the pub and eating this meal, both within a stone's throw of our hotel, took us nearly 2 hours.

It's amazing how one can eat a week's worth of food in one day and, as I write this, feel hungry not long afterward.

Monday February 23

We had another $21 breakfast of toast and cereal, and headed out to the WebObjects course. We got there in plenty of time (especially since we hadn't realized that the first day of the course starts an hour later than normal) and were pretty sure we had the right building, but couldn't find the company listed in the business directory in the lobby.

Someone thought he knew where it was and took us to a reception area after showing us where we could help ourselves to coffee etc. After a while, we went back down to the lobby to see if anyone else was going to show up (and in case we had been waiting in the wrong office).

Eventually Liz, the instructor's partner/wife arrived and took us upstairs to the same reception area. It seems that they simply rent office space there whenever they need to, and so of course wouldn't be listed in the lobby business directory.

The first hour or two were a presentation of how the various WebObjects components, web servers, etc. interact. I'm pretty sure we were all (i.e. all three of us) familiar with that. At least I was enough so that I had serious trouble not falling asleep.

But then Paul gave us an exercise to try, and the fun began. It seems that I've never used a Mac before, and so spent far more time learning that than learning Web Objects. It was somewhat like running a race with a brick tied to one foot. At $2000 a day, I guess that must be a good use of MFCF's money, otherwise I suppose they'd have provided me with a Mac to practice on before sending me on this course. The others had already had some experience with WebObjects before, so tie a brick to my other foot too. And if I had a third foot, that one could get the same treatment; the keyboard didn't have the familiar layout, and I'm a touch typist (how often does one use the <return> and <shift> keys anyway?). On the other hand, OS-X is implemented as a Mac simulator running on a UNIX machine, so I was able to cheat and use the command-line interface for some things, thereby bypassing having to learn how to do it the Mac way.

Tuesday February 24

At the front desk I asked that they not bother to make up my room today, but they assured me that that wasn't possible. They were required to open and tie back the curtains, turn on the lights I wanted off, and move the pillows etc. back to where I didn't want them.

Another $42 for our toast and cereal, and we went to the course office to get a head start on the day (well Gary anyway, I needed the time to catch up). We got in okay, but the meeting room that contained the Macs was locked, so we ended up waiting for an hour anyway.

There was a lot of new material again, but since I was so inexperienced, I didn't have the slightest idea which parts were important knowledge, and which parts would have been obvious to anyone that has ever worked with WebObjects. For Gary this is a beneficial course; when various topics are introduced, he relates it to his couple of years experience and can speed through the exercises or discover: Ah, so that's the right way of doing that! I knew there had to be an easier way., but for me, it really is a waste of time, with learning the basics of using a Mac taking up a significant amount of time.

I asked the instructor if he'd ever considered flying to North America to give a course, and he seemed more than willing, but no one had ever asked him. So why didn't we? It sure would have saved a lot of money and aggravation, and been a lot easier for everyone.

Wednesday February 25

We didn't bother going early today, having the toast and cereal at 8, but still ended up waiting 15 minutes for someone to open the door. I seem to be catching up with the others in the exercises, but most of my problems and stupid questions are still about the Mac, and some about Java. The WebObjects itself doesn't seem to be that difficult, but I suspect I'm missing a lot of the more subtle and arcane parts that are what I think this course is supposed to be all about. We all stayed until after 6 tonight.

Beaconsfield itself has to be one of the most boring places I've been, having only two separate strips of non-residential streets. (Though don't take that to mean that I was bored; I wasn't.) Even if the shops didn't close early, there still wouldn't be much of interest. There's almost nothing that sells clothing, sporting goods, videos, appliances, etc., except for extremely high-end products. I'm not likely to buy a shirt for more than what I'd pay for a whole suit, and the one store that sold audio equipment had stereo systems in the many thousands to tens of thousands of dollars range, more than a little out of my ballpark, so perhaps it's a good thing that the shops are always closed. There's absolutely nothing in the way of entertainment (why bother when the locals can drive to London), and how many expensive dinners can one eat in a night? Oh well, only three more nights to go.

Thursday February 26

Gary is now ahead of the rest of us (all two of us) with the exercises, but the instructor says the class is running behind normal. Oh well.

My brain is already saturated, so I don't know how much I'm going to learn tomorrow. When Gary and Bill (the guy from California) talk about their past experiences with WebObjects (or almost any other web-related topic) most of what they say is beyond me. I don't know how late we stayed today, but by the time we finished dinner and got back to the hotel it was almost 9 PM.

Rather than eating the pub food, we went to an Indian restaurant. It was good, but even having a single dish with no dessert cost about $70 each. I hope MFCF appreciates how much we're saving them by walking to and from the course site; ten taxi rides would probably bankrupt the University. And it's a good thing Gary and I normally don't eat much for breakfast or lunch.

Friday February 27

It snowed last night, somewhat of a blizzard for these parts. A few millimetres of white covered everything as we walked to class, but it was all gone an hour or so later.

None of us finished the assignments, but amazingly we all got our diplomas, suitable for framing or lining bird cages. The course and the instructor were actually quite good, and I think Gary got a lot out of it. Too bad so much of it was wasted on me. I'm pretty sure I'd have gotten a lot more out of spending an hour or two each day for the next month or so going through the exercises by myself, especially since, if I'm supposed to know this stuff, that's what I'm going to have to do anyway. Oh well.

We discovered that there actually is a bus between here and the airport. That should save some money over the taxi. Gary checked out of the hotel today, and is going to meet his wife at the airport. He had to stand in the cold for quite some time waiting for the bus, but at least it's still daylight; I'll be doing the same thing tomorrow morning at 6 AM (that's 1 AM Waterloo time).

I've spent 7 days here, and have seen almost nothing of the country (where supposedly I was born), only two small stretches of town lined with shops that close at 5 PM, even on Friday, and that sell very little that I would want and nothing I could afford. I guess I get to save money by not buying any gifts or souvenirs.

Saturday February 28

Up at 5:30 (that's 30 minutes after midnight according to the Waterloo clock that I have to readjust to. And yes, there really is a bus. It's noticeably slower than the taxi, but even more noticeably cheaper, £5 rather than £61. Too bad the travel agent didn't tell us about it. Bill took the bus with me, but he's continuing on into London for an extra day because of his travel agent's mistake. And we pay them for this service?

I had to miss the $21 breakfast that they charged us as part of the room rate, but somehow I didn't really miss it; $12 for a bagel sandwich and a coffee at the airport seemed like a bargain in comparison.

The rest of the trip back was uneventful, except for the announcement just before landing that instead of returning the headsets, we should keep them for the next time we fly with Air Canada. Those that were returned were simply thrown into the garbage. This is a new policy since a week ago?

My brain works in strange ways. Without any conscious thinking about it, I seem to understand the course material better today than I did yesterday. Perhaps if I just ignore it for another week or two, I'll understand it all. Or maybe I'm simply forgetting the parts I didn't understand.

Sunday February 29

I had no trouble at all sleeping until what would be nearly 2 PM English time. I guess my body never did really switch to that time zone last week, which would explain the difficulty I had going to sleep each night (just try getting 8 hours sleep starting at 6 or 7 PM).

But I do seem to have an even better feeling for WebObjects today than yesterday; something is finally happening with it inside my brain. By tomorrow I'll probably understand enough that I'll be prepared to take the course, and then be in a position to ask questions about the aspects I don't understand, and thereby benefit form having a course instructor (it seems to me that the whole point of taking such a course is to have the benefit of a knowledgeable instructor that can answer questions not covered by the course notes and exercises). Unfortunately, it's a week too late for that. Oh well.

The course was good at teaching how to do things, but it assumed (quite reasonably), that one would already know what it was that one wanted to do, and what purpose one was trying to achieve. Other participants generally have a background with interactive web and database activities (why else would they be taking the course?), and so have a preexisting framework on which to hang the new knowledge. I imagine most of them have previous WebObjects experience and simply need someone to fill in the aspects they are missing and to confirm and clarify the parts that they are already familiar with. Unfortunately, that certainly doesn't describe my situation.

I still don't understand the purpose of my taking this course. For me to be of any benefit at all, I'm going to have to spend considerable time regularly using WebObjects over a long period of time. Can MFCF really afford to remove my time from what I'm doing now? Given how tiny the CS secession has left us, I find it difficult to understand how we can afford even one person dedicated to web support (and that's not even for content management) let alone shifting more people to the task. I'd really like to know what MFCF management sees MFCF doing a year or two from now. I certainly don't have much of an image in mind, so I hope they do.