The mystery of the garbage lady

Last year, my good friend and colleague Sarah transfered from the Redmond offices to Microsoft UK in Reading. One of her most popular lunchtime stories is the mystery of the garbage lady, which she finally got around to posting on her blog.

Some of my other favorite stories from her blog:

A colleague of mine experienced the phenomenon of clouded geography in reverse. He was temporarily assigned to Microsoft UK and while living there had occasion to drive out to Wales. He pulled out his handy road map and studied it: "Okay, I need to take this highway west, over the mountain range, and then take that exit, and then I'll be there." He hopped in his car and started driving.

After a while he started getting nervous. It was getting late, and he still hadn't reached the mountain range yet. He started worrying that the people he was meeting at the destination would be concerned when he failed to show up on time. (I guess he picked up the British habit of worrying about other people being worried.)

And then he saw the exit, and boom, he was at his destination.

Afterwards, he went back to the map to see what happened.

The first issue was one of scale. His map was of all of Great Britain, and he assumed that the scale of such a map was comparable to maps of large areas of the United States. A route that goes halfway across a large map, say a map of the state of Washington, will take a few hours to cover. The UK is comparatively much more compact. From Reading, you can get to the Welsh border in 90 minutes.

The second issue was one of geography. What was notated on the map as a mountain range was, to someone more familiar with the mountains of western North America, just a hill.

Comments (11)
  1. ::Wendy:: says:

    Nitpickers corner warning.


    I’m going to take extreme umbridge at a cycle ride up a hillside in Redmond being compared to what is pressumably the Cotsolds.  Technically they are hills, and labelled as such on maps,  but as anyone who has seen, walked or cycled the cotswolds will tell you they are distinctly more hilly then any hill in the Bellevue/Redmond area.  Tush.

    2) Reading to Wales 90mins.  It really does depend on so many things because of the high density of traffic,  the numberous alternative road routes and where-abouts in Wales you want to go.  Reading-Wales on the M4 on a bank-holiday weekend in 90mins.  I seriously doubt it.  I’ve done that run at approximately that time when leaving in the evening at 11pm,  virutally no traffic and the possibility of travelling at the speed limit (not recommended).

    Now the bag-lady story,  that is a hoot!

  2. Steve says:

    Here’s a wikipedia link to the mountains nearest the M4. Note the glaciation on the northern corries. There is a track through the centre of the range that the romans built as part of their attempts "to suppress the insurgency". 2000 years on it still hasn’t been tarmaced over and is an excellent MTB ride. If you head out from Reading onto "The Ridgeway" you have a pre-roman dirt track to take you all the way to wales. Now, where in the PNW do you have anything historic to compare with that?

  3. Not a sheep farmer says:

    "From Reading, you can get to the Welsh border in 90 minutes."

    This is really bad information. The reason it is bad is because to start from Reading you have to *be* in Reading.

  4. This mountain/hill thing reminds me of the delicious film "The Englishman who went up a hill but came down a mountain". Little known, but a small gem if you like period films or the really fine (and a bit ironic) English humor. And, of course, as its title implies, it treats about hills, mountains and their differences. In Wales.

  5. Richard says:

    "The reason it is bad is because to start from Reading you have to *be* in Reading."

    Reading’s not so bad, if the only reason you’re there is in order to leave…

  6. Anon says:

    That stuff about the memories is an interesting take on how the brain works.

    The thing here, is that just because we live in a quaint little country, does not mean we don’t do satellite navigation. I mean you can get TomTom (to) Go with your groceries in Sainsburys.

    That’s Kroger to you!

  7. Narr says:

    just because we live in a quaint little country,

    does not mean we don’t do satellite navigation.

    From the stories that make the news you certainly do have problems doing satnav if you drive through a ford without a snorkel, drive past the "bridge out" signs and off a bridge that’s out, take a bus under a bridge that’s marked to be lower than the top of your bus, or pick the treacherous low-speed goat path over a paved road. Just saying, since you brought it up.

  8. Smirk says:

    Now, where in the PNW do you have anything historic to compare with that?

    Ohhh, just about any place you are standing.  Dig into just about any hill, or pick through silt at any river, and you’l turn up Clovis points that are 10,000 to 15,000 years old.

    But Steve, what does that have to do with anything?  Or did you just need to let us know that the UK has an awful lot of history?

  9. Anon says:


    Ah yes, but that’s because the satellites are US DoD! (perhaps)


  10. Chaz says:

    I love that part of the country, but it certainly isn’t mountains. Talking of the Ridgeway reminds me of the deeply atmospheric (500 year old) Wayland’s Smithy, just by White Horse Hill. A place that lingers in the back of the mind forever.

    btw, I’d have thought that the Severn bridge would be a fairly indicator that you were crossing into Wales?

  11. Mark Baker says:


    Chaz, The Severn Bridge is entirely in England. The nearby Wye Bridge crosses the border, which goes up the river Wye at that point.

    But these days you’ll only cross either of these if you turn off onto the M48. The M4 goes across the Second Severn Crossing, and this does indeed go across the border, as it’s further south than the point where the Wye flows into the Severn.


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