Thursday, June 15, 2006

Ten minutes never to be forgotten

By John Stafford

Up to that point Charles had been enjoying the conference. A good hotel of the old style, rather than the efficient modern upmarket MacDonald’s. Varied menu, which enabled him to stick to his diet most of the time, then drop it suddenly after a glass of wine. Old friends to catch up with. And he had been specially invited as a guest, so there was no bill to pay. Even the papers were interesting for an event about Metadata in Database Normalisation. It wasn’t a subject he knew well, but a little homework on the Internet had prepared him to understand the speakers. Yes it was good up to that point.

This lunch was his second meal with Anna. She was a colleague from fifteen years before, though he hoped they would have a more interesting relationship by the end of the day. Their conversation about the Pilgrim Trail to Compostela was interrupted by the Conference secretary at Charles’s side.

“We hoped you would be joining us at the top table for this meal,” he was murmuring.
“That’s very kind of you, Barry. I wonder if I might join you at dinner instead, since as you can see, I’ve already started a conversation with this delightful lady.”
“As you wish, Charles. It’s just that we like to make ourselves more familiar with our afternoon speakers over lunch. Of course …”
Charles didn’t hear the rest of the Secretary’s polite withdrawal. HE HAD JUST SAID THAT CHARLES WAS THE AFTERNOON SPEAKER. What the hell was he supposed to be speaking about?

“Do you happen to have your programme with you?” he asked Anna.
She rifled through her handbag and produced what had been a glossy A4 until folded into an A7 lump. “Yes. Quite an honour for you. I didn’t realise you were giving a paper.”
“Nor did I unfortunately. What’s it on?”
“You’re on straight after lunch. Charles Metcalf: Metadata in application integration. It’s a ten minute review of the field, preparatory for the other speakers, and your own main contribution at, um, four o’clock.”
“Didn’t you know you were presenting on that?”
“I didn’t know I was performing at all. Although I did wonder why I hadn’t paid to come. Know anything about it?”
“As much as anyone. It’s not been a problem until recently. It’s to do with the particular problems of exposing database structures to the open web.”

Charles was a practised public speaker. He had given a sermon once in a Baptist church on the pleasures of single malt whiskies without offending anyone. He could wing it. “I wonder if I might try your patience by using my Blackberry at the table? I’d like to Google a while.”
“Be my guest. David Linthicum’s the man to look up.” Five minutes and he had enough to speak about. He didn’t actually understand much of it, but then he didn’t know much about Scotch either.

There was some kind of fuss at the top table. Barry was involved in some kind of confrontation with a dome-headed little man. Papers were being sorted and produced as evidence, and other conference officials summoned to give evidence. Finally, the secretary strode over to Charles’s table once more, leaving the interloper fuming at the head of the room.
“I’m so terribly sorry, sir, but the gentleman is insisting that he is Charles Metcalf and that you are an impostor. He wants to know why he hasn’t been invited to the top table.”
“I assure you that I am Charles Metcalf. Look, here’s my credit card, my conference pass, all that. It may well be, of course, that he is also Charles Metcalf. But after all, you invited me to speak, not him. Shall the three of us discuss this over coffee?”
As he returned to the other man and Charles got up to take his leave of Anna, she pulled his sleeve.
“It’s a simple case of mistaken identity. Just give in gracefully.”
“What, and give up my free place?”
She giggled. “See you at dinner, then, if you like.”
“I like. You’ll see me on the podium first.”

It was a friendly discussion, in which they were duly amazed that there were two metadata experts called Charles Metcalf who hadn’t heard of each other, let alone met. “It’s the spelling. You Americans write Normalisation with a Z instead of an S,” Charles suggested, and this seemed to satisfy them for no particular reason. They came to a compromise. The dome-head agreed to do the main lecture and Charles did the ten minutes, mostly about American and British spelling and its problem for normalisation of metadata. He paid tribute to David Linthicum, the only expert he had heard of, and somehow brought in both single malt and Compostela. Which is where he and Anna planned at dinner to go later in the month, if the American didn’t get the ticket by mistake.

Copyright © John Stafford 2006

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Dip into Bath

Sir Isaac Pitman has a memorial in Bath Abbey. If you are over 50, you may know that he invented shorthand, which enabled newspaper reporters and secretaries to write things down fast, in the days when there was still such a thing as a reporter or secretary. You are probably under 50, aren't you? In this case you would not be interested in Bath Abbey, because it's the best bit. Unless you like modern embroidery or fan vaulting? Thought not. The Pump Room, a very expensive restaurant full of German Jane Austen fans, and the Roman Baths are in the same square. Whatever you do, don't be caught by the Full English Breakfast 2 pounds 75 in the cafe opposite. I didn't want breakfast, but it made it look like a cheap place and I spent 1 pound 99 on a cup of tea. Coffee was much dearer. Retro Cafe, round the other side of the Abbey, was much better and is the home of the Mole listings magazine.
The Roman Baths isn't cheap, but it's the best thing in Bath, and is much better value for money than I thought it would be. They lend you a very large mp3 player that you hold up to your ear and choose the track number according to signs on the wall. You don't have to read labels and you do find out the significance of what might otherwise look like bits of stone. The Romans dipped in it, and Jane Austen's lot drank it. So can you, at 50 pence a glass. Don't be tempted to drink the stuff that's actually in the bath though - it's more dangerous than drinking your own bath water.
Bath has lots of other attractions. Visitors from the US will want to see the American Museum, which I'm told is brilliant. I wasn't there for long, though, and didn't get to see it. I can't tell you about the nightlife because, hell, I am over 50.