I suppose it is not very tactful of me to be flown eight thousand miles to the far side of the world, be wined and dined by my counterparts, and given an exclusive tour of the countryside around this exotic landscape, even though it looks just like the Yorkshire Dales, and have nothing to give in return. But this was the situation I was confronted with when I flew the furthest I had ever been in the 1990’s to Argentina. Not very intrepid by many people’s standards, but when you consider that I was flown half way round the world for five days, not bad going.
Imagine being asked to go to Argentina for a week. There aren’t many jobs where you get that opportunity. I had about two days to get ready. I was supposed to go out and demonstrate a new piece of software we were developing called the NOM. It stood for NOAA Operations Manager, NOAA being one of the weather satellites we gleaned environmental information from. The project was subject to a lot of delays and the staff at NRI were now coining NOM as Non-Operational Manager or Nightmare On Medway. It wasn’t completely finished, but I was told to go and show off the prototype to these people in Cordoba, Argentina. The problem was that the software only worked on one type of file. Those who aren’t familiar with computers are probably nodding off now but I shall pursue this because it has deep and meaningful strands that I shall pick up later. Satellite images are just rows of numbers like any other computer code, and just as with other computing packages, there are various ways you can store these numbers. In a word processing package, these could be ASCII, text only, text only with line breaks, rich text, etc etc. Please, please try and stay awake, this won’t go on much longer. Just the same with satellite images; you have various ways to store these numbers. The format of files this NOM software works off did not match the format of the files they captured from their own satellite receiving station in Cordoba. So, we had asked a student, James, in Bradford to put together a computer program which would convert the file from one to another. He had spent weeks on this, because he wasn’t getting paid much, it was a low priority and about as much fun as watching fungus grow between you toes, and less cultured.
We had a bit of money to pay for my travel and subsistence to get to Cordoba, and work said I could take five days uncommissioned, so I decide to go for it. It was nearly St Andrew’s Night and, having Scottish connections I had booked a ticket at the Liverpool St Andrew’s Society Dinner with my parents for the Friday 30th, so I booked a flight where I would return to Chatham on the Thursday night to give me a chance to get an early enough train to Liverpool not to be too exhausted for the evening’s entertainment. . I left on the Thursday before; the travelling would be twenty four hours either way, so I was left with five straight days in Cordoba, two of which would be the weekend. I really had to pack as much in as possible to those three days, the software demonstration, some advice about using remote sensing to look at insect habitats and suggest potential ways forward for business. The software was the key, so I was a bit worried on the Monday before I left that it had not arrived.
I rang up James in Bradford, no reply. I sent him an email, saying the floppy disk must be in the post before Tuesday evening at the latest. Otherwise, just email it to me. Although this was only in 1996, it was still a fairly untried method of communication for mere mortals like myself, and my computer was so slow that it would probably take longer to download a large file than to send it snail mail, but I was beginning to get desperate.
The arrangements for the whole trip were a bit dubious. I like to be in control of my travel arrangements and find it difficult to cope when I’m supposed to be trusting another. My tickets were being paid from Argentina and could not be posted to me. They would instead be left at the Aerolineas Argentinas desk in Heathrow Terminal Three. I hated the thought that I was to travel all the away up to Heathrow three hours before my flight and collect my tickets. If something went wrong, I could do little about it.
Nothing happened, but when I phoned James again, I got the reply that he would definitely have it ready soon. I said my flight left at 9:30 p.m. I needed to be at the airport by 7:30, I needed to leave NRI by 5 at the latest so as to make sure there was enough slack to get through London during the rush hour.
Thursday morning arrived and no software. I kept myself busy preparing other material. Lunchtime approached. Nothing. I rang James, no answer. I was now seriously stressed and ready to bus up to Bradford to personally strangle this guy. Two thirty, an email arrived. I downloaded the file and put it on a floppy disk. I didn‘t have time to test it, I packed it into the suitcase I had brought to work and ordered a taxi to the station.
I arrived at Heathrow on time and went through the hectic Terminal 3 check in area. Searching for the Aerolineas Argentinas Desk, I saw a queue a mile long. I was hot and bothered, despite it being late November. I waited for a while, trying to compose myself. Airports are the places I hate most. Flying never bothers me, but airports are despicable places that threaten. A customs official approached me and I thought, eh up, this is it, I’ll be done for taking illegal software through the airport. He asked in his politest voice, “Could I please see inside your luggage, sir.” And then added, as if it made it any better “I’ll see that you get to the front of the queue for this”.
As usual when confronted with this, I didn’t have the proper papers to hand. I have got better at this, I now usually know what officials ask for, and always wear a shirt with a top pocket to keep most of them in. It makes it far less hassle than fumbling through several zippers or emptying document wallets and back pockets of loose change, sweet wrappers and condoms, er whoops, don’t know how that got there… sort of thing.
He searched through the clean clothes and documents. I suppose they spread these jobs out; sometimes you do the people going out, with clean neatly folded clothes and usual full bottles of sun cream and medical kits. Then you have to do the incoming, where the clothes are crumpled and dirty (sometimes unhygenically dirty), the tubes of sun cream are half squozen and there are some dodgy looking bits of stuff at the bottom and, excuse me sir, will you come into this room, accompanied by the snap of a surgical glove being fitted to a powdered hand…..
He found nothing, as he already suspected but I had fantasised that something somehow had got in there. He then started taking me to my desk. I remembered that I didn’t have my ticket, so I asked him to take me to THAT desk, where the ticket, to my great relief, was there and I went straight up to the check in counter. To the disgruntlement of the long queue still formed behind the desk, I was checked in and was relaxing amongst the duty free shops far faster that I would have done if I hadn’t been stopped by the customs guy..
I boarded the Jumbo Jet at the far end of one of the piers (Terminal Three’s long distance piers are like a forgotten corner of this busy airport, you feel like you have walked half the way to your destination by the time you get to the plane). I settled down and we took off. We were scheduled to stop in Madrid about Midnight, so nothing much was done on the European leg. I was pretty fed up when we were told to get out of the plane at Madrid for it to be cleaned, and stumbled around the near empty terminal building, cold and inhospitable, the duty free shops closed. We reboarded, then were served with dinner, then shown a film and I nodded off about three in the morning, UK time.