Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Trip to England for OWASP AppSec Europe

For everyone except co-workers: yes, I went to England without telling any of you about it beforehand. I'm sneaky like that.

I knew that people would have written me about stuff that I should do while over there, and then I wouldn't have any chance to do it anyway. I had only two extra-curricular goals for this trip (real ale and Indian food) and I accomplished both.

Warning: this blog post contains nothing about what was discussed at the conference. It is solely about my travel experience, and that in turns consists mostly of complaining.

As usual when I travel and lose net access, I have stored up several days worth of blogging in a text file for uploading later. Because all this was written without access to Google, there are places where I could've provided links to stuff but didn't, and I'm not going to bother to go add them now. Maybe Google itself will take of that when it crawls this page.

thursday 19:30 CST

O'Hare. No free wi-fi that I can find. Only the for-pay T-mobile stuff at Starbucks, and I ain't playing that. Halfway through a three layover.

Tried to sleep on the plane from ATL, couldn't. Currently sitting at a bar in the airport, drinking so that it might make me sleep on the flight to London. I have to catch some sleep on that flight or I'll be ruined for the whole trip.

I sat next to the gate for a while, watching people queue up for the flights before mine. A guy was walking around looking at the floors like he had lost something, or he was casing the joint. Turns out his laptop needed to be recharged and he was looking for an AC outlet.

Currently on TV: "Jake in Progress".

20:00 CST

Spent some time talking to a soldier on his way back from Germany to St. Louis. He wasn't in uniform. He said that the army no longer allows you to travel in uniform on international flights, or something like that. So I only have his word, his haircut, and the fact that his wallet had a "Bad to the Bone" design on it that he is actually in the military. This is a total change from pre-9/11 (or maybe even pre-Iraq) when it was mandatory to be in uniform while travelling. I saw a number of servicepeople in uniform in ATL; maybe they were travelling within the U.S. so the old rules still apply.

He's a smoker and said that Germany is a lot more lax about smoking in airports and other spaces than the US has become. He left to go have a ciggie before his flight home. He's entitled to it; he's spent the past few years defending the freedom of people like Hatch to restrict his freedom to smoke.

Currently on my second beer. At seven dollars a pop I don't think I can afford any more. For this amount of money I could've been on the internet all this time. I had a scotch to start off but switched to beer because it's the second sleepiest of beverages, right after red wine.

How's it go? Scotch after beer, kicked in the rear; Beer after scotch, kicked in the crotch ?

Currently on TV: "Tru Calling"


Currently on TV: CNN

My tolerance for alchohol is pretty low in my old age. I'm actually slightly drunk right now. Not drunk enough to find Christiane Amonpour attractive, but drunk enough to want to blog about that fact.

I hope I'm at the right gate; the guy who issued my boarding passes was in a hurry and for various reasons had to write the gate number in by hand, and his handwriting is terrible. Fortunately everyone who works in an airport (even if you work at McDonalds in the airport, like Fabian Velasco who sold me my double cheese burger tonight) has to wear a badge with their whole name in plain public view, so if I end up in the wrong place I can blame Neal Simpson in Atlanta. The family off to my right SOUNDS British, and the woman on my left if reading a magazine article that somehow involves Princess Di, so maybe I'm on the right track.

There are people here playing games on their cell phones. I only have a little bit of battery left, becuse I forgot to put my phone on the charger at work today and I used it for business while on MARTA. I'm trying to decide if playing Galaxian is worth depleting the batteries for the duration of the trip; I didn't bring my charger and I also don't have a 110-220 voltage adaptor, so this laptop's battery better last too.

I tell ya, the IBM thinkpad is quite possibly the toughest little brick of a laptop outside of Apple and their Reardon-Metal contraptions. Hooboy, "Atlas Shrugged" references; I must be drunker than I thought.


When you're stuck with a non-networked PC, you tend to poke around and notice stuff you wouldn't otherwise notice. Like the fact that Harvest sets the Windows "HOME" variable to point to the directory where it is installed! And leaves it set like that permanently, so that other programs have to deal with it. How wrong is that??!!

Saturday, 7:14 BST

If you notice I missed a whole day.

My plan of drinking before the flight didn't work. Thursday night was mostly sleepless. The main thing it did was ensure frequent trips to the lavoratory.

Speaking of which, arriving at Heathrow at about 11:30, the first real impression I got of the place (and England in general) was the toilets. You know the first thing you do after getting off a plane is go to the restroom! Both the actual toilet itself and the stall it was in were smaller than the American equivalent. Not so small as to be difficult to deal with, but... compact feeling. They are like that everywhere I've been here so far, and not only the restrooms are like that but bedrooms (which I'll get to in a minute), beds, etc. Americans just tend to demand more space than the people of any other country, not because we're actually larger (we may be the fattest but I don't think we're any taller or anything), but that we just like a lot of elbow room.

I took bus 441 to the college. A family who was waiting for a bus (either 441 or another) got tired of waiting and decided to go get a taxi. This is how I learned that apparently the f-word is a whole lot weaker over here, something that parents can say in front of their children.. "let's get a f***ing taxi, then!".

The bus went through so many roundabouts that I completely lost all sense of direction and was genuinely surprised that we didn't end up just circling around and around the airport. I've read that roundabouts are catching on in America. We'll see.
(There was always a traffic circle at 17th street and 17th avenue in Tuscaloosa. There was a church in the middle of it.)

Nevertheless we somehow eventually made it to Egham and the Royal Holloway University of London. The conference and the associated accomodations are in the Founder's Building, the original 19th century college before it expanded out into the surrounding areas.

By this time it was about 15:00. I explained who I was and what I was there for, and the young lady (speaking with a mix of Asian and British accents) gave me an envelope with "309" written on it and a key inside. Room 309 turns out to be a small, plain dorm room the likes of which I haven't seen since college. There's a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a sink. Oh, and a radiator. No internet connection, no phone jack even. The only indication that we have reached the 20th, let alone the 21st century, is the electric lighting. Even the sink is old.

I decided to go walk back to the town of Egham, through which the bus had passed on the way here. It was a longer walk than I was expecting, but then again I'm out of shape and I need the excercise. Apparently the students here walk it all the time
and think little of it. A map next to the college's security office shows that you must live more than 1.5 miles from the center of campus before you will be issued a parking permit.

In Egham I came upon a place called "The Crown", which offers two things I was very interested in: free wi-fi, and Real Ale.

So I was actually on the 'Net for a while and therefore had the opportunity to post all this to the blog, but instead used the time to catch up on email from work and to email my family to inform them that I was still alive.

After some fish and chips and two pints of Ale (one of which was "Archers of Swindon", the other I'm struggling to remember. Both heavenly stuff... smooth, fruity without being over-sweet, non-bubbly without tasting flat.. the beer of our ancestors.. the beer of the gods), I finally mustered up the strength to walk back to my room. The walk seemed even longer this time, since it was now mainly uphill. And it was getting increasingly cold and a damp, dank, wind was blowing. I stumbled into my room somewhere around 17:30 or 18:00 and promptly went to bed. Except for bathroom breaks (this being a dorm, there is no private toilet in the room.. go down the hall just like when I was in Mallet!) and a few interruptions, I slept until 6:00 the next day (Saturday, the day on which I'm writing this).

One such interruption was when I woke up at 1:00 or 2:00 and was very thirsty. I remembered seeing a coke machine downstairs.

I gathered up all the British coinage that I'd collected the previous day, and went down to see if I had what it took to get a drink from that machine. The drinks cost 90 pence. You put in a pound and get back a 10 in change.

Now unable to sleep, I decided to go for a midnight vadding session around this pseudo-Rennaissance (built in Victorian days to look like something from Henry VIII days), very Hogwart's-looking place. There are two amost identical looking courtyards called the Founder's Quad and the Queen's Quad. They are distinguished by the statues in the middle of the yard. One has a statue of Mr. Hollway and Mrs. Holloway, the other a statue of Victoria. From across the Queen's Quad, I spotted some chairs and what appeard to be a completely white woman sitting in one of them. At 2:00 in the morning this was sufficiently ghostly in appearance to send me back to straight back to my room. This morning I went back and it turns out to be a 19th century marble sculpure, slightly larger than life size, of "Erinna", a young woman in Ancient Greece who wanted to join Sappho's circle but who was not allowed by her parents. The statue shows her sitting bored and despondent, and also mostly naked. It was apparently the "sculptor's dying wish" that this particular work be displayed at the college. This being a woman's college at the time, there's just something perverted about that. The words "naked and petrified.." come to mind. (Wish they had hot grits here.) The marble has recently be restored to the point where it absolutely shines, hence the ghostly appearance last night. I'm kicking myself for not having a camera; the battery on my camera phone is way too low for taking pictures, and as discussed earlier I don't have any way to recharge it.


Been in sessions all day, except for lunch. The lecture hall, like the rest of the building, is not particularly climate controlled. At all times it's either too hot or too cold. The tea/coffee table is also located outside, so you really only can get refills between sessions. Early in the morning they had a young lady (probably a student at the college) actually out there in the freezing weather serving tea, but apparently she froze to death after about an hour or so because the next time I went back she was gone.

There's supposed to be wi-fi in here but I can't get it to work. The school has too many layers of PPPOE and VPN that they expect you to jump through. One of the presenters had to re-write his slide show on the fly because he couldn't get his slides from the Internet. They keynote speech was actually given remotely: someone here held up a cell phone to the microphone so that the guy on the other end of the phone could be heard over the PA system.

Btw, I've noticed that Coke tastes a little different over here. The label doesn't say anything about high-fructose corn syrup, that most ubiquitous of commercial sweeteners in the US. It just says "sugar". Maybe they still don't grow much maize over here... heh, it's only been known to the European world for 500 years. I bet the sugar in British coke comes from beets or something weird like that. Also, the label on British Coke categorizes caffeine as a "flavouring". The caffeine is there for the *taste*?

Sunday 4/10, 9:02

Yesterday after the end of the sessions, the urge to take pictures became too strong. I was told that the College Shop sold one-time-use cameras, but the shop was Yesterday closed. So I walked back down to Egham. I got one at the BP station (yes, they have BP over here.. it's British Petroleum!). I also went to the bathroom there. There was a red string hanging down from the ceiling next to the toilet. Assuming that it might be a way for the handicapped to flush the toilet, I pulled it. A red LED on the ceiling came on, and a high-pitched alarm sounded. I seem to have set off some kind of "help, I've fallen into the toilet!" alarm. There was a black button on the wall labelled "RESET". I pressed it, and the alarm stopped. As I walked out, no one in the store seemed to have been disturbed by it.

Back on the campus, I took pictures of the building, the statues, and even some of the surrounding plant life. It was late in the day and pretty cloudy, and most of the stuff I was taking pictures of was out of flash range, so we'll see how they turn out.

Dinner at the Wheat Sheaf hotel. An upscale, larger, but otherwise similar meal of Fish and Chips. In spite of having a sign out front that said "Chef & Brewer", they do not brew any beer there. They had a couple of things that I've never seen in the States, but not any Real Ale. The difference from what I'd had the night before could not have been more obvious. Compared to the smooth, sweet, drinkable ale at the Crown, the ale at the Wheat Sheaf was harsh and bitter. In other words, most of the bad things that people typically assume to be an inevitable part of the taste of beer are not native to the drink at all, but a side effect of modern processes. Remember your first sip of beer when you were young? You probably hated it. If it had been
real ale, this might not have been the case.

This, however, didn't stop me from having several pints, even though they weren't included in the meal and I had to buy them for 2.50 a pop.

Last night before dinner I also spent some time talking to the bus driver and noted that this area was not nearly as rural as I had expected. It's basically suburban, and even a fair bit denser than some of what is considered suburbs in America. I tried to explain the American phenomenon of exurban sprawl, but I just don't know if there's anything in England with which to compare places like the outskirts of Atlanta. Related concepts that I wasn't able to get across included big box stores, the decline of main street business districts in the late 20th century, and the good and bad points of new gentrification. (Good: restaurants. Bad: it takes many, many years before gentrification brings a nice clean Kroger. Before that it's all just places like Junkman's Daughter)

More vadding last night. Visited the 5th floor (the highest in this building) which seems conspicuously 20th century, almost industrial, in it's non-design. My guess is that it was built out in what had previously been attic space. Because of being so close to the roof, the hallway's ceiling is slanted on one side. Consequently the doors are shaped like this:

  / _ |
 / |_||
 |    |
 |o   |
 |    |

The "short" wall of the hallway is lined with metal doors, like the kind of doors that have fuseboxes and such behind them, all locked. Occasionally there are tiny oval-shaped windows that are sort of up in the ceiling. At the end of the hall there
are more windows that overlook part of the roof, most of which don't open, but I found one that does. Roof, here I come! (Just kidding!)

The stairs that connect the 4th to the 5th floor are the only wooden stairs here. All the rest are either stone or metal. The sudden shift in style when you go up those stairs is like something from a video game, where you might turn a corner and suddenly find that you've gone from a medeaval dungeon to a space station, or vice versa.

The metal stairs, by the way, are located in the round "turrets" at the corners of the building. They are spiral, fairly narrow, and somewhat scary to use. They are marked as a fire escape route. Remember the scene on The Office where there's a fire drill and David and Gareth carry the woman in the wheelchair halfway down the stairs before giving up and leaving her there, without telling her that it's not a real fire? Well, they wouldn't have even got started on these stairs.

Currently sitting in sessions. The desk you sit at in here is slanted, like the desks you probably remember from elementary school. It is slanted at such an angle that a tea cup will side right off of it. You can, however, put the teacup in the old inkwell!


Today while standing outside the dining hall, someone noticed a chain hanging down from the roof. Several people wondered what would happen if you pulled on it, or if you could climb up it. It was pointed out that although this place seems strange now, it's design was very practical when it was built: the courtyard design is so that every room has windows; there are no "inside" rooms. There are windows of all shapes and sizes, about as many windows as they could have without weakening the walls. All this of course because the place designed before electric lighting. Again, the large number of chimneys that gives the roof such a crowded look is there for a reason: every single room has it's own fireplace. At some later point they seem to have added steam heat into the place and blocked up all the fireplaces. There still isn't any forced-air central heat, let alone air conditioning.

After the conference ended, I walked back into Egham one more time with Jim Canup. Seeing dandelions growing by the sidewalk, he pointed out that there had been dandelion greens in the salad at lunch today. I seem to recall that dandelions were
initially imported into the U.S. for eating purposes, by the British during colonial times. We ate at an Indian restaurant, the name of which I already can't remember. I ordered "Chicken Balti". Balti is, IIRC, an "Indian" dish that was actually invented in England, just like all the "Chinese" and "Mexican" foods that are really native to the U.S.A. It was excellent.

Funny thing is, I almost regret going to a nice Indian restaurant with real tablecloths and such.. it would have been educational to go to the sorts of places where drunken pub-crawlers order "curry" at 2 in morning. Maybe I'll do that next time when I come back with the wife.

Spent some time in the university's library before it closed for the night. Reading about the origins of the names of the letters of the alphabet. Not sure how I ended up with that book. No, I can't tell you much of what it said because it all went in one ear and out the other. I need to Google this later. Also was reading a book about the history of the English language, and one fact that stuck in my head was that in the 16th century Scots (the same dialect, I think, that Robert Burns would later use?) was widely considered a separate language from English.

I had actually gone to bed for the night when I realized that I needed change for the bus tomorrow. All I had left was under 1 pound's worth of British coins, and some American $20 bills. I somehow doubt the bus takes credit cards. Looking out my
window I could see a NatWest bank branch, which may or may not be open. I figured that even if it wasn't an all-night operation at least I could find out what time they open, so I walked on over there. Turns out that the lobby where the ATM is, is open all night. I got a ten pound note out of the ATM and then immediately ran it into the changemaker machine.

Disappointingly, it was only able to give 50-pence coins (20 of them) and no pound coins. Btw, at some point while I've been here I seem to have collected both Canadian and *US* quarters in change. Presumably people were using them as 10 pence coins.
The Canadian quarter at least has the Queen's head on it; not sure what the excuse for the U.S. coin is.


Couldn't sleep. Hungry. Got up and walked down the street to "The Monkey's Forehead", which apparently serves exactly the sort of low-rent curry I was talking about. Except that they close at 22:30 on Sundays. And they won't re-open for breakfast
until 10:30, long after I've gone to the airport. Oh well. After so much hunting around that it almost qualifies as vadding, I asked the security guard where the snack machines are. He said they're in the "boob tube", which is a glassed-in formerly outdoor walkway along the edge of the Queen's Quad. There was actually a machine that vends hot ramen noodles, but I'm not feeling quite enough like a college student to do that. So Cadbury's it is. And Dr. Pepper. I swear I can taste the beets.

The laptop's battery is getting low, so I probably won't be writing anymore until I'm back in the States.

4/11 10:53

I lied. One more before the battery dies. I am currently sitting at Heathrow's terminal. I was about to get something to eat, but they just had some sort of a fire drill that caused all the restaurants to close! It looks like they're about to get back to normal soon. This is a totally different side of Heathrow than what I saw on Friday. The arrivals area, where you had to stand in line to get your passport stamped, looked felt and smelled like being at the DMV. The departures area, where all the duty-free shopping is, must the fanciest swankiest airport terminal I've ever soon. It's nicer than a lot of malls. Apparently the British are much nicer to you when you are leaving their country than when you are coming here.

One more thing, the famous "take your laptop out of it's case" rule at airport security doesn't appear to apply outside the U.S.

4/12 7:55

Back at work. Yesterday I was very concerned that I wasn't going to have time to get through Customs at O'Hare in time to get to my connecting flight. I had to fill out a form stating what I was bringing into the U.S. with me from the UK, and that it did not include various things including meat. Turns out that they just take your word for it, they don't actually inspect your bags to find out. So it went a smoother than I expected.