Posts tagged with seattle

From somewhere small: Transport in the USA (well, Seattle)

Just over three years ago I packed up my Guernsey life to come and work for Microsoft in Washington. I thought it might be fun to share some things I’ve learnt. This one is about transport.

Customs & immigration

Be prepared for cross-referenced questions and mandatory fingerprinting to make you feel like a replicant even though you’ve done nothing wrong and your eyes don’t glow in the dark. The gatekeepers at immigration are all-powerful and take their job seriously so you should too as I found out when I had a case of the giggles.

Some countries need a Visa to visit and while the UK (and Guernsey) doesn’t if you’re coming not to visit but to work you’ll require a work visa. Mine took a mountain of paperwork and a lot of work (for Microsoft) to get an all-important H1-B which means you have “mad skills we need”. The application is filed before April 1st and if there aren’t too many applications that year (there is a limit) and everything is ok you start work on October 1st for 3-years (extendable to 6).

Once approved you get an I-95 card stamped into your passport. You turn this in when you fly out of the country but if you’re driving up to Canada and coming back soon they may let you keep it. Scan it after you arrive and don’t lose it as it takes over 3 months to get a replacement and they’ll need the number as they can’t look up.

The TSA

The Transport Service Authority are the guys and gals tasked with keeping air travel safe.

Taking off shoes is compulsory because somebody hid a bomb in a shoe. Liquids are only allowed in tiny quantities because somebody planned a liquid bomb and many airports want to bombard you with x-rays or technologies to peek beneath your clothes because somebody blew up his underwear.

The Americans are pushing back against this last-threat-chasing approach and loss of dignity but Congress have no idea what it’s like as they fly private charter flights. For now you can at opt-out of the potentially dangerous x-ray and backscatter machines.

Airports

US airports are much like everywhere – full of shops and restaurants for you to roam while you wait – but feel less crammed than Heathrow or Gatwick (with the exception of JFK).

Seattle’s main airport (SeaTac) has free WiFi which is unusual but welcome – it has that in common with Guernsey’s airport.

Rail

Trains in the US were a casualty in the love affair with cars. The routes and timetables are limited with high fares high and long journey times. The lack of investment is quite apparent and a real shame as it’s hard to watch the beautiful country and road at the same time.

Esteemed entrepreneur and philanthropist Warren Buffet is pouring money into rail – whether this is an investment or a charitable donation time will tell.

Bus

Busses are regular and punctual in Seattle and some offer free WiFi. The reserved lanes let them blast past the traffic at busy times and even the non-express routes can be quicker than driving at peak times.

The time-table at each stop lists not when the bus will arrive but when it starts the route from somewhere else which save printing a time-table for each stop but also renders it useless. Fire up your mobile device with an app or Google Maps although the latter throws curve-balls (and not just for buses). I wondered if was a ploy to disrupt the Microsofties but a visit to San Francisco showed it just as confused in their own backyard.

Anyone hoping to catch a bus in downtown Seattle should be aware that many routes downtown are inside a large underground tunnel beneath the roads and the entrances are not clearly visible.

Roads

Do people drive SUVs because of the potholes or do they cause them?

The naming and numbering system is simple and the biggest begin with I for interstate because they span more than one state. In Seattle this includes the I-5 which starts at Mexico, comes up through California and Oregon and right through Seattle before turning into the BC99 at the Canadian border and on towards Vancouver. We also have the I-405 which runs parallel to the I-5 but only from Seattle to California and the I-90 (not to be confused with the immigration form of the same name) which starts in Seattle and spans across to Boston on the east coast. Interstates are like English motorways and there is nothing like them Guernsey.

Highways are smaller and get just a number. The most popular here are the 405 that runs north-south parallel with the I-5 for a while but on the east-side and the 520 east-west between downtown Seattle and Redmond via Microsoft HQ which runs almost parallel with the I-90. Both the 520 and the I-90 cross Lake Washington which sits beautifully, if a little inconveniently, between downtown Seattle and “Eastside” where everything else exists. They are comparable with dual-carriage ways and there is nothing like them in Guernsey… well, maybe the 50 meters leading up to the town roundabout.

Traffic

The speed limit in Guernsey is 35mph so getting comfortable with 60mph can take months. I’m never sure it will feel completely natural but there’s nothing wrong with being alert and edgy on these roads.

Driving at 60mph means I want to leave the proper distance between myself and the car in front. Unfortunately that space will immediately be filled by three cars and a semi-articulated truck. There is no sweet spot where you get good stopping distance nobody will fill.

Be aware that people drive with little concern for their own safety let alone yours.

Lights

Many towns and cities are laid out on a grid and almost every intersection has traffic lights.  I wondered why so many sit on highway traffic jams when smaller roads exist and now I know it is impossible to keep momentum through the grid.

You do get to turn right at red lights after stopping and yielding though – unless a sign says otherwise.

Everyone here goes through on orange and call it ‘squeezing the orange’. Don’t squeeze too hard though or it’ll be red and you’ll find a souvenir to capture the moment for prosperity arriving in the mail and a bill for $70.

License

Get a license as soon as you arrive even if you don’t intend to drive. Rental companies are confused by a Guernsey driving license, bars only accept passports and US drivers licenses and insurance takes how long you’ve had a US license into consideration. Domestic flights require government ID and carrying your passport everywhere is a liability given how hard it is to replace your passport, I-94 and visa. Trust me on that.

The test is easy. Sit down in front of a PC for traffic rules and regulations (most of which are like the UK except regarding school buses.

The DMV is efficient once you get to the front but getting there can run to hours so Go to their web site, find all the offices and keep an eye on wait times for a few days to spot a good time and location. If you can’t find one go and pick up your number, subtract 15 minutes from the wait time and then go and have lunch, meet friends, start a family and then come back and take your turn. In my case it was 2 hours better spent elsewhere.

Insurance

Is going to be expensive at first – your maximum no-claims-bonus isn’t going to help so get that license early.

With more people comes more danger and add in crazy hospital costs and litigation the policies will need high limits and people should be careful on the roads. They’re not in both cases.

Accidents

Accidents are common and we sat in traffic for over 45 minutes while somebody had a Car-B-Q (car on fire).

As a pedestrian I’ve been almost hit 3 times. Some factors I suspect are:

  • Rear windshield (windscreen) wipers are rare – drivers never look behind
  • Orange turn signals (indicators) are often absent – a flashing red brake light is much less obvious
  • Automatic and cruise controls exist – concentrate on anything but driving
  • SUVs, minivans and trucks obscure the visibility of all around them – and give a false sense of safety
  • Drink driving is less strict – many will happily drive after a few
  • Lack of spacial awareness – also a problem in supermarkets with carts (trolleys)

Automatic vs manual

Driving on the ‘right’ side of the road isn’t difficult. The steering wheel can still opposite the curb so all is well unless you drive an import (don’t) and it is easy for the entire left-side of your body to fall asleep with nothing to do. The hard part is remembering to look left first then right when arriving at a junction.

All rentals are automatic.

If you do buy a manual (or stick as they like to call it) then choice disappears quickly, fuel economy improves and resale gets harder. We went with a Subaru Impreza for AWD winter ski trips and a hatchback for transporting stuff. You’d be shocked at how few models support manual AWD hatchbacks that aren’t an SUV here.

Don’t let this put you off, it’s a great place to live, work or just visit… but bring a raincoat.

[)amien

ALT.NET Seattle

One of the cool things about living in Seattle is the sheer number of passionate developers around. Whether you’re dropping into offices, heading across campus for lunch, meeting downtown for music and beer or in my case last month taking a Saturday out to participate in ALT.NET Seattle, there are ideas, enthusiasm and discussions with great developers to be had everywhere.

The ALT.NET event was particularly interesting. If you didn’t already know the name encapsulates:

  • the desire to improve the art, process, individual and product
  • the understanding that the right tool for the job doesn’t always ship with the .NET

The event follows the same minimal up-front planning modern development practices enjoy relying on talented people and simple structure to achieving something great in a short space of time.1

This open-spaces format involves a small deck of cards to write topics you’d like to talk about on and a board with rooms and times to drop them into. I was surprised at how well the event unfolded (bar one session that veered off-course) given our unplanned attempts at the Guernsey developer group always resulted in five people having dinner in a bar :)

I had an enjoyable day and my thanks go to Brad Wilson (ASP.NET) for driving and listening to my nostalgic 8-bit discussion with fellow Brit Ade Miller (p&p) who previously worked at Future Publishing (Your Sinclair magazine). I’m now messing around with a .NET based Spectrum emulator I started years ago and I’m going to blame him for that.

The best news is that there are more events planned for the coming months:

  • January 17th normal format, location TBA
  • February – provisionally the 7th, regular format, location TBA

ALT.NET Seattle 2009 Conference

This is the big one immediately preceding the MVP Summit by running February 27th to March 1st at Digipen in Redmond. Glenn Block has more details.

Registration will open on Tuesday, 6pm (GMT-8), attendance is free and spaces are limited so get in quick!

Consider joining the Seattle area ALT.NET group or ALT.NET Facebook group for more details or to get involved.

[)amien

1And as either Glen or Brad said with a nod to the end-of-credits bit in Ferris Bueller – “When it’s over it’s over. Go home already.”

Recent activities and inactivities

It has been a crazy couple of months between moving home, spending a week in Seattle and a couple of days in Holland for my real day job (the source of income!)

It was a little too close to my USA trip which has meant I’ve missed my niece trick-or-treating for the first time since I returned to Guernsey 3 years ago which leaves me a little sad. I guess I should be grateful for not being hit with jet-lag and the fact I’m surviving just fine on 5.5 hours of sleep a day which tonight is in a cubicle hotel…

As you can imagine the fun projects I get involved with in my own time have suffered somewhat although I’ve really tried to at least keep the blog posts flowing. Here’s a quick update on things:

SubSonic

I’ve committed the final piece of my refactoring to make the coding languages abstracted. To add additional programming language support you can now just implement the ICodeLanguage interface and add knowledge of it to the CodeLanguageFactory class. The command line and web interface tools will all just magically work with a recompilation.

Rob Conery is now under the employ of Microsoft and will be aligning SubSonic with their MVC efforts. I hope this support of open-source projects is a trend Microsoft are keen to continue.

AnkhSVN

This great add-in for Visual Studio provides Subversion integration continues to face competition from the commercial VisualSVN front and I had an interesting discussion with Aaron Jensen about performance with large projects and some relating to moving.

I have some UI work checked-in to trunk and we are likely to move to a better model for integrating with the Solution Explorer to address these issues that would require we drop Visual Studio 2003 support which is looking quite likely. Various things are moving forward on this project so keep an eye on it!

Envy Code R

I’ve not touched Envy Code R since the PR6.1 release but to be honest this tends to be the way I work with it. Nothing for weeks then 15 hours over a weekend gets it to the next release. Unlike code I find it difficult to jump in and out whilst being productive and consistent. Perhaps when I’ve worked on a bunch I’ll be able to but this is still my first scalable font.

The plan is to add all the essential box-drawing characters for code page 850, extend the # sign (should we slant this in the non-italic version?), increase the curves on { and } and adjust the comma to make it less like a slightly deformed dot. I’m open to suggestions as to whether the .,;: characters should in fact revert back to be square dots rather than round ones… again, leave comments if you have an opinion. I’m not sure whether I would extend this squaring back to the dots on ij! etc.

I’m hoping to get preview 7 out within the next couple of weeks and if that goes well then consider a more liberal license to allow bundling etc. as I’ve had a couple of enquiries.

Silk Companion icons #1

Preview of some icons in Silk Companion #1My pack of addition Silk style icons has suffered as I find it impossible to draw on the move requiring instead a comfortable desk and a proper mouse to draw. As I no longer have a desk at home this means staying late in the office or throwing my lunchtimes at them.

The temptation is to just release the 352 icons as they currently are and produce another set at a later date. The alternative would mean a release some times over the next 1-3 weeks when the number finally reaches the proposed 500 mark.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions, leave a comment!

[)amien