Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Geek Musings II: On bootstraps...

...and projects with ridiculously long timeframes.

A thought struck me the other morning while I was lying in bed; dozing in that hazy zone of comfort where the inspiratons* fly.

The last edition of Scientific American had an article on space tethers: those bits of wire that spacecraft can trail out and use to pull themselves out of a planet's gravitational well by courtesy of said planet's magnetic field.

My thought took a barely proved concept several hundred steps further and applied it to the Earth.

You see, current estimates have it that life on the ole' ball of mud has probably got another billion years or so to strut its time upon the stage. By then, the sun will be about 10% brighter, and the habitable zone will have migrated out beyond Earth's current orbit.

Yes, indeed! Forget political elections, terrorists, environmental degradation, global warming, or asteroid strikes: we've got real problems to start worrying about!!

But it's all right I've got it covered!

My solution involves attaching a space tether to the farside of the Moon (firmly, and for aesthetic purposes: it won't be visible there), and using it to hoist the Moon into a higher orbit 'round the sun (dragging the Earth along with it). In this way, we stay in the habitable zone much longer.

A few excerpts from the back of the envelope:
  • I don't know the necessary rate, but say we want to boost Earth's orbit by about 10 million km every 100 million years.
  • That's about 100 metres each year (for comparison, tectonic plates cruise at ~ 0.1% that rate)
...I'll work on it a bit more over the next millenia or so. Meantime, can I go back to sleep now?

* Read Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters.... Oh no! Google has no matches for 'Pratchett inspiratons' . I've heard of Googlewhacks, but has anyone coined a word for this new phenomenon yet? How about:
  • googleghosts,
  • nulgles...
It is later than I thought!

Thursday, August 26, 2004

I am not Athena.

*Sigh!* I thought, as I hung the phone up on yet another unsuccessful interview:

'Your resume looks great, but the java...?'

In truth, they had a point. My java experience is not great. Pretty well non-existent actually, but it's not from want of trying. The trouble is, how do you gain experience in a skill when you don't get the opportunity to gain experience? Catch 22!

Maybe I should have tried harder 7-8 years ago, when java was first coming into use. The trouble was, back then, the average company had never heard of java. They did C++, or C, or (shudder) VB. And then, things changed. Overnight, it seemed that everyone wanted java. What was more, they wanted three years experience worth. Nothing else would do.

'But... what d'you mean by three years experience? What sort of skills are expected?' I asked one of the agencies filtering out the nonconformists. '...the sort of skill expected of someone with three years experience!' came the reasoned response. They had clearly never heard of circular logic. (or maybe they had...)

The thing that really irks me about all this is that it doesn't actually take much effort to switch languages. I have used C++ for many more than the standard three years and, in the past, I have managed to pick up and run with Object Pascal, Visual Basic, Python, and C#, in a very short time. But, if you don't fit the mould, forget it! (I might add that the company referred to at the start of this little piece did have a need for real java skills, so can't really be faulted here: and I still have faint hopes...).

This has been fulminating for a while, and I have actually got around to publishing an antipattern on the topic (AnAthena). Meantime, I will probably have to be resigned to the fact that I somehow missed the java wave.

... and settle down to wait for the Python one!

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Geek Musings I

Exponential scales are amazingly concise number representations. So concise that you can begin to believe you can actually comprehend some of the numbers bandied about.
For instance, modern physics theories suggest that the universe consists of a quantum foam, whose graininess (bubbliness?) is referred to as the 'Planck Length', and is about 1E-43 metres. Neat when put like that, isn't it?

Try it like this:
0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 metres

That looks a bit more bubbly but, even if I missed out a zero here or there, it's still only a half line of text.

Now consider what we think of as ordinary matter. The smallest component would be the proton, whose diameter is typically 1E-15 m, or (more bubbly?):
0.000000000000001 metres.

If you've ever theought about this at all, you would probably just lump these values in under the 'very, very, small' category. Relative neighbours, regardless of the fact that a proton is 1E28 times greater than the Planck length. ie:
10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times greater.

(These things really are best expressed in Chinese, where they can stream vertically up from the bottom of the glass, don't you think?)

Where all this is leading to is a relative comparison. Let's take piece of the ultimate Planck bubbly, and blow it up by 28 orders of magnitude to the size of a real proton. On the same scale, a proton would be 1E(28-15) = 1E13 metres in diameter.

Put another way, that's a sphere about the size of Jupiter's orbit.

You could fit an awful of protons in a space like that!

It just goes to show you know even less than you think!

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Brussel Sprout Diplomacy

When it comes to mealtimes, our little household is fairly omnivorous.
Of course, there are some exceptions:
  • ... little Missy has decided that cheese is off the menu (and cauliflower, depending on who's offering it)
  • ... my wife (henceforth referred to as P) isn't too keen on brocolli (nothing to do with George Bush Snr's tastes, I might add)
  • ...and I cannot stand brussel sprouts!
Since I am usually the one who does the greengrocery shopping, it means that said vegetable is almost never in the house.
However, I must confess that I have been a bit liberal with the brocolli of late, and P has been putting her foot down. This gave me pause to consider:
  • Little Missy's never had brussel sprouts,
  • I don't have to have the things
  • LM has just joined in the discussion with a firm request for Brussel Sprouts
I suppose it is incumbent on parents to give their offspring new experiences.

Last shopping day, I went and bought some Brussel Sprouts. (*sigh* the things we do!)
The response from LM was ... diplomatic. A few cautious nibbles, and 'what have we here?' noises. So, it will probably take another tasting to establish which parent she takes after in this area.

footnote: If LM ever expresses a passion for broad beans, she's out of luck: both of her parents detest them!

Thursday, August 19, 2004

This 'ere is a Wattle...

I decided to take a couple of days break from work this week to do some things around the house. One of my tasks was to clean the upstairs windows. Not having been done for several years, it is quite surprising that any light manages to filter through.
Anyway, once I did manage to get the windows back into a state where I could peer out again, I noticed that the large blackwood wattle (that would dominate our garden were it not for the even larger peppermint gum growing next to it) was in full bloom and putting on a spectacular display of pale gold.

'Oh, hang spring cleaning!' said the mole

Well, there was a hint of spring on the air! So, I took a break from my break, and went to take a few photos for posterity. It was worth the hayfever.

Now, I have a confession to make: no digital camera! (I think my geek certificate expired some time ago.) I still intend to get the photos posted to this blog one day.
(As indeed, I now have....finally!! - Nov 12)

Which is what suggested the title. For those who don't realise, it's from a Monty Python sketch; the one about the Australian University:

This 'ere is a wattle,
The symbol of our land.
Yer can put it in a bottle,
or hold it in yer hand!
Australia! Australia! Australia!
We love yer!
(crack a tube, Bruce!)

I know , those who didn't realise probably didn't want to!

That I feel it incumbent on me to explain Monty Python quotes!
Ah, these are sad times for a shrubber to ply his trade!

(alright, so I'm quoting from that one from memory!)

It never stops.

We were at a party last weekend. Children were dashing about with little Missy in hot pursuit. Whenever she tired of that, there was always a nice, big aerobics ball to push around.
So, I spent a good fraction of the evening worrying that she would:
  1. get trodden on
  2. trip over
  3. lose control of the the ball and end up doing squashed hedgehog impersonations.
I might add that none of the above options eventuated, and she had a fine old time.

Presumably, at some point, I will think that she's big enough do all this stuff without seeming to be continually on the brink of disaster. Hopefully, it will happen before she's old enough to glare at me disgustedly whilst saying 'Da-ah-ad!

My in-laws have just celebrated their diamond anniversary, and were consulted on this matter. They answered that it took at least sixty years. Not a good sign!

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Lest we forget...

With a federal election due in the next few months (forget that US sideshow!) , I notice that a few political chickens are being released to see if they'll come home to roost.

One issue in particular that needs to be given strong consideration is the Truth Overboard affair. For those non-Australians who might have been distracted by more riveting events on Sep. 11, 2001, this incident needs to be given a bit of context, so bear with me.

In 1996, a certain independent member for Oxley got up on her hind legs and delivered a maiden speech which bought our attitudes towards immigration and racism firmly into focus. It was disappointing to see the wave of redneck adulation which met this speech. It was downright alarming to note the silence with which the Howard government initially reacted; for it was not the silence of disapproval. In time, as her views became more clearly rabid, the government did denounce Hanson, she went on to found her own party, and more or less self-destructed.
However, I remember that initial silence.

In 2001, the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, picked up a boatload of refugees and attempted to bring them to Christmas Island, where they could apply for refugee status in Australia. Admission was refused. In fact, the incident triggered a huge flurry as offshore reefs and territories were listed as Exclusion Zones. The events of September 11 overtook these unfortunates, and made it much easier to demonise them as Al Qaeda moles.

This rhetoric became ever more shrill as election time drew near, culminating in a report that children were being deliberately being thrown overboard by refugees in order to force the Australian coastguard to take them in. It was latched on to by the then government as proof that these people were deserving of no sympathy, and that being put in remote Guantanamo Bay-like detention centres was really too good for them.

Questions were being asked about the accuracy of this report on the eve of the 2001 election, the government nevertheless brazened it out and, in the atmosphere of uncertainty following Sep 11, won. The report was subsequently found to be false. The politicians insisted that they were misinformed, but it revealed their xenophobia in stark detail. The best interpretation I can put on it is that they wanted to believe the report.

We are now three years on from those events. Another election is imminent, and it is being alleged that Howard was well aware of the falsehood of the Children Overboard report. To me, the timing of this revelation is unimportant. For I remember.

I can only hope that other people also remember.

Monday, August 16, 2004

You lose...

At pretty much the same time as my last posting, I was involved in a discussion of how our internal Document Management System was going. As happens with these things, discussion had gotten rather heated over the nitty gritty. In particular, the document file naming conventions had a few glitches to iron out, and was raising my ire.

The standard being using calls for the project names and official release numbers to be included as prefixes to the file name. Apart from the bizarre but acceptable notion of continually updating the filename (a hangover from not so olden times, when files were being stored in a flat directory) I took exception to the use of prefixes. My argument went like this:
  • The really useful, standout bit of a filename is its verbally descriptive nature.
  • Adding a monotonous prefix (with unique index number) hides this information from casual browsing
  • It is difficult to sort on name usefully for the same reason
  • Put the indexing as a suffix, if you must have it in the name
Consider how it would look if I started all my blogs with the formula 'Randomised_nnnn_'. Very spontaneous!

So here we have (I think) a reasoned argument. It lists objections, why I object, and alternatives.
The response ( a depressingly familiar one, alas!) was along the lines of:
  • we do it this way
  • the standard requires it
  • the standard does not get changed. (axiomatic)
Oh well! Can't win them all! Maybe I should learn to recognise windmills from a bit further away!

However, since this is my blog, I get to have the last word. So, consider this:
  • A standard's business is to state what is to be done
  • A good standard will also discuss why it is to be done
  • A bad standard will stipulate how it is to be done

Friday, August 13, 2004

You win...

Dear reader, Apologies for the rambling nature of this blog. I appear to have had a bit to get off my chest here. Probably something to do with freeing up my 'flow of thoughts'...

Have I mentioned what I do for a living? For the record, I am a long defunct physicist turned software engineer. This seems to be a common occurrence: I've met a number of people who migrated into the IT industry after studying something else. One could revise the old saw:
'Those who can, do.
Those who can't, program!'

Maybe I'm being too harsh here. I happen to think I'm pretty good at what I do (now, if only others would recognise this!!)

Have I mentioned why I've started this Blog? A number of reasons come to mind:
  • a way to jot down thoughts I have, and thereby clarify my thinking.
  • a way to free up my flow of thoughts: a useful exercise for an avowed introvert like moi. (You may have noticed the tightish editting so, not today)
  • a place to stand on a soapbox and howl abuse into the void.

Mostly though, the thing that got me going was boredom. I have been doing the same thing at work for months now. It's of some importance, I know. But it is also profoundly repetitive.
...and so boring!

OK! there is a reason for this preamble, and I'd better get to it before today's blog becomes too much of a couch session.
The devil finds work for idle hands, 'tis said. In my case, he found me some subversive literature to read.

Subversive? Ooh! do tell!

It was 'Agile Software Methodologies' by Alastair Cockburn. (check Amazon for more details)

Subversive? Oh, yeah! Inspired by what I found to be a lucid and wide ranging account of how one might run a software project with tight deadlines and moving goalposts, I offered to give a brief talk at one our in-house seminars, only to be told that it wouldn't be appropriate.

...The person who told me this is actually quite intelligent but, if you've ever worked in a large company (come to think of it, in most companies!) you will realise how insular and conservative middle management can get. Focussed as they are on budgets and project schedules, the introduction of any new idea is viewed as threatening (let alone the questioning of existing practices... but more on that some other time)

The ironic thing, of course, is that agile methodologies are intended to alleviate precisely the sort of pressures that middle management find themselves under. Of course, we're talking risk analysis here. People under pressure are going to stick with something they know will get them over the line. They won't take unnecessary risks. Unfortunately, it seems the habit tends to get ingrained, even between projects.

However, this story does have an upside. Some time later, when another manager was bewailing how all our projects were over time, over budget.. etc. etc. I raised the topic again, and this time got a nibble. I even managed to lend him my copy.

The other day, I asked how he was going with it. I fully expected him not to have got around to it but was pleasantly surprised to learn that he not only had been dipping into it (it's that sort of book) but was finding it as interesting as I had done.

So, here's hoping!

...Now, for some truly subversive literature, try 'The Seven Day Weekend' by Ricardo Semler...

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

'Dat my letter!' (and 25 to go)

At the tender age of two, my daughter appears intent on registering a patent for her initial, which happens to be the letter 'E'.

Given that Australia is set to sign a free trade deal with US, by which means we would acquire the US patent system, and given that , from what I've heard, said system is so overloaded as to have effectively rendered 'Prior Art' a thing of the past, this could lead to a lot of creative writing in future!

...Speaking of which, I've seen a lot of comment about the urgent need to overhaul the patent system, but little on what could/should be done. Any thoughts out there in the back paddock?

Monday, August 09, 2004

Lonely as a cloud...

The weather can be a fascinating subject. I once spent a week in a Minnesota apartment watching a satellite's eye view of the North American cloud system swirling around: a continual cold, dry blast coming down from the North, and severe blizzards passing just to the south to dump meters of snow on the eastern seaboard.
Oh dear! I hear you say. This guy really does need to get out more! Maybe, but there was a reason other than a comment on the content of US daytime television, : I had chicken pox, but that's another tale.
Anyway, this little pleasure has since become much more accessible and personalised. If you live in Australia (and, I suspect, several other places) you can check the weather radar maps at the Bureau of Meteorology. These update every 10 minutes or so, and are very useful if you want to know whether it's going to stay fine for the next half hour, or whether a weather front to inspire The Day After Tomorrow is bearing down on you.

...or even if it's worth while hanging out the washing, as I did last Saturday. It was a cold, dull day, and had been raining overnight. But a quick check of the Melbourne map showed the last rain band moving off over the hills to the east, and only a few brief showers coming in. OK, I'll risk it, and then go do the grocery shopping, thought I.

There is an iconic cartoon by Leunig that depicts a family blissfully watching a beautiful sunset streaming through the window...on the TV. The irony of this was not lost on me, as I spent the next hour slipping from shop to shop pursued by a continuous downpour. It just goes to show that there's nothing like sticking your head out of the window occasionally!

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

First steps

However far they go ever on, all roads have a beginning.
I have no idea where this one will lead; which is, in part, why I've chosen to call this journal 'Randomised' .
There were other ideas: 'detritus' was one. The rationale was to do with how much of what we know of former lives are to be found in rubbish tips, and pieces of trivia like personal diaries (handwritten or electronic...).
Hence 'the detritus of history'.
However, someone beat me to it! I suppose this is to be expected in a community of 6 + billion souls!
In a way, that's rather daunting. I'm sure we all have 'original' thoughts and viewpoints we want to tell others about. But, being confronted by an audience that big is enough to give anyone stage fright (blog fright!??)
Actually, I don't have a clue how many people will stop by and read this. A better analogy is going for a pee in the back paddock. The landscape may seem empty, but who knows who (or what) is out there, lurking?
To those of you that are out there, I can only hope you find these musings moderately entertaining.
...and that some future historians find some useful detritus.