Monday, 31 January 2011

Byte magazine

So Byte Magazine is coming back. Byte, for those who do not know, was probably the pre-eminent technical computer magazine. Between 1975 and 1998 it gave in-depth technical articles that were accessible to the layman. Unlike all other magazines, it actually gave you the technical detail about the latest computer technology.

We have a large pile of IEEE publications in our living room. They are fascinating reading, but the titles detail the problem: "Graphene transitors for the masses", 'Applications of Voltage and Current Unity Gain Cells in Nodal Admittance Matrix Expansion", and who could forget the amazing "Putting memory into Circuit Elements: Memrositors, Memcapacitors and Meminductors"?

The problem is obvious: you need a massive amount of background knowledge to even start reading the articles.

Byte magazine acted as a primer between general computing knowledge and the technical nitty-gritty. It gave you a springboard that allowed you to access more detailed information; it did not dumb-down the topics and treated the reader as an adult.

My uni's library was stocked with every issue of Byte (going back, I think, as far as the first issue). Major new developments in computing were covered in this accessible format; for this reason if I wanted to know about something, for instance pipelining in processors, I would search out the issue of Byte that introduced that particular topic. It was always better than the other books in the library.

Yet it failed, and with it went a way to teach computing to the masses. I have yet to find a website that comes near the accessibility of the Byte articles; take the article on instruction pipelines on Wikipedia as an example. It would be almost impenetrable for someone who did not already have a great deal of knowledge.

Unfortunately I doubt that the new Byte will be anything like the old beast. I can but hope.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Heathrow capacity

So the Government say that they are considering fining Heathrow if travel chaos occurs in the future due to snow or other reasons.

This is farcical.

The way I see it, the owners of Heathrow, BAA, are trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. Heathrow is operating at 98% of capacity, meaning that there is no spare capacity. As I mentioned in a previous post, this means that there is little slack in the system and delays propagate down.

So the Government has come up with the wheeze to fine them if there are delays. Yet the main causal problem is that of capacity, and that same Government is refusing a third runway or even the building of a brand-new airport. This means that if the fine is set high enough to really have an effect, then the operators will try to avoid them. Something will have to give, and that will be capacity.

There will be less flights from Heathrow, and as it will be illegal to place this burden on just one airport or airport operator, other airports will look at what they can do to avoid the fines. Prices for passengers will consequently increase - maybe not by much, but certainly a little.

Of course, this does not mean that the Ferrovial Group, the ultimate owners of BAA and Heathrow, are investing enough in the infrastructure of their airports. But that is a different issue to the one the Government is failing to target.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

The sinking of HMS Invincible

One of the oddest conspiracy theories is that, during the Falklands War, HMS Invincible was sunk by the Argentinian air force. Proponents of this theory can be seen vehemently arguing their position in various dark places on the web, for instance here, on MilitaryForums and on Abovetopsecret. There is even a video reconstruction of the alleged sinking, accompanied with suitably patriotic music.

It is obvious patent rubbish for all number of reasons; it would have been exceptionally difficult to cover up the loss of an aircraft carrier, and the same number of carriers returned to Portsmouth as went out. Unlike the sinking of HMS Dasher in World War II, the Falklands War was fought in the glare of the media and TV cameras. The conspiracy theory becomes increasingly convoluted as the theorists reluctantly accept these points, altering the theory to the extent of having the Americans build a 'secret' Invincible class carrier.

One of the funniest of these alterations was when someone pointed out that, if the theory is correct, the wreck should still be in the waters around the Falklands. The answer was hilarious: the British have secretly raised the wreck and taken it for dismantling. All in secret, without anyone seeing the operation.

The loss of the Falklands war is still an open sore with many Argentinians. This leads some to understandably try to counteract the loss of face. Believing that they sunk the British flagship - and that the British have kept it secret to avoid embarrassment - fits the bill.

In attempting to save face, they are just making themselves seem ridiculous.

If it is true - and I have to consume a great deal of alcohol to even contemplate it - then Thatcher's government should be congratulated on a perfect example of deception and media manipulation. Of course, that shows how impossible it is....

Friday, 28 January 2011

So I'm autistic...

We thought we'd try a slightly dubious on-line autism test (available here via Wired)
The average score of a control group was 16.4. 80% of those with autism or similar disorders scored over 32.
Sounds fine, right?

Sencan scored 27.
I scored 38.

I'm introverted and (sometimes) intensely focussed, but autistic... no way ;-)

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The size of the US economy

There has been much talk recently about the threat the US economy is under from the Chinese dragon. Much of this talk has been sensible and based on facts and figures, whilst much has been vitriolic and even racist in nature.

Therefore it is sometimes beneficial to retreat and look at the core assumptions. This figure in a recent Economist gave me pause for thought. It shows a map of the USA, with each state's GDP compared to that of an entire country. For instance, California's GDP lies between that of Italy and Brazil (with the usual caveats about exchange rates). Texas's GDP is only slightly less than that of Russia. It is an amazing and thought-provoking diagram.

According to the IMF (via Wikipedia...), China's GDP is 5,745,133 million dollars, compared to America's 14,624,184 and the combined EU's 16,106,896. California's GDP alone is nearly a third that of China's.

Of course, China's economy is currently growing at an exceptional rate whilst those of the EU and the US are largely static. China's success story has been amazing (as has, incidentally, Brazil's), but that does not mean that it will continue to grow at the same rate. China's structural instabilities will grow with its economy, and the Chinese leaders will need to perform deft management of the population to stop severe growing pains. 

America will remain the world's pre-eminent economy for at least a decade, possibly two. It has time to look into the factors that are making segments of its economy uncompetitive and fix those problems. But they do need to look and fix; complaining about the amazing rise of the Chinese dragon will not help them.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The bonefields of Volvograd

The story of the Volvograd bonefields horrifies me. I say story, because its mere existence is still debated to this day. The claims first emerged in a book called  "Aftermath: The Remnants of War", where the author claims to have visited a field near Volograd (nee Stalingrad). There, he found a vast area containing the bones of German soldiers still lying on the ground. Walter Seledec describes the horror as quoted on the quikmaneuvers website:
"There you are, standing beside an open field, and you are confronted with things you cannot believe, things you have never seen in your life, things you would not think possible in this day and age. There in the open fields, all the way to the horizon, are the skeletons of human beings, just lying there in the open fields. I dont mean a few. There are hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands...Human remains lying in the fields. Human skeletons as far as the eye can see."
The many photographs that Seledec took have preserved the horror for all time. In those photographs, "...(to) the distant horizon...(the) surface is littered with the remains of human skeletons--arms, legs, pelvic bones, skulls, an occasional rib... large piles of bones...fragments, shell cases, and an undetonated projectile; a rusted machine gun; a battered metal container...Skulls...hundreds of them, thousands of them, Just lying around out there in the open fields...Skulls lie in helmets, decayed bones still stand in boots, on the spines hang the identity tags...No cross. No wreath. This unknown soldier never made it into a mass grave. Today, he lies on the steppe outside Volgograd exactly as he fell fifty years ago. His shirt and uniform buttons still lie between his ribs."
Evidence of these fields are sparse. Apparently the photographs have never come to light, and the Russians deny all knowledge. They do admit to having buried many bodies since the 1990's, but the number and scale of these burials is unknown.

What is definite is that vast numbers of German and Russian soldiers must have died in the area. The fact that such a bone field could have existed is horrifying enough, whether it existed or not. People are not debating its existence because it was impossible; after all,at Stalingrad the Germans lost an estimated 750,000 killed, missing or wounded, and the Russians 478,000 killed or missing.

Just pause to think about those numbers, of the hopes and dreams that the (mostly young) men would have had. Of the wives, sweethearts and children left behind. So much human potential wiped out. Stalin once famously said: "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic". It is important for everyone to ensure that a million deaths is seen as a million individual tragedies; one million grieving mothers, one million grieving sweethearts.

The vast majority of these men would have been innocent; they had no choice but to fight for one of the murderous tyrants Stalin and Hitler were different sides of the same coin, and neither side believed in the concept of the conscientious objector.

We should never forget that war, whilst sometimes necessary, is always horrific.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011


A couple of views from yesterday morning, taken from the Lymington to Yarmouth ferry.

The platform is the Royal Lymington Yacht Club's starting platform.

What a great way to start a day's walk.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Phone hacking

I could write a great deal about phone hacking, but will not for fear of my blood pressure.

Let me just say that concentrating on News International is wrong, as the Guardian well knows.

But I will express astonishment at the news that Gordon Brown believes that his mobile phone was hacked whilst he was in Government.

Firstly, there should be a clarification. The reports state that the reporters were doing - and paying someone to do - was simply log into people's voicemail using the default codes. When a voicemail account gets set up, it is given a default access code. It is up to the individual user to change the access code when they receive the phone.

If you use your voicemail - or believe that anyone will leave anything interesting on it - then you should change the code. Some users even disable the code, meaning that anyone who has your phone number can access the voicemail.

We had a Chancellor and PM who could not even perform this simplest of security measures. Who also was magically unaware that people in his closest circle - including some in his office - were smearing members of the opposition.

The man really is incompetent.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Personal privacy versus public secrecy

The Assange and Wikileaks controversy is rumbling on, as it undoubtedly will for months to come. Assange is making all sorts of allegations, as indeed allegations (both serious and ludicrous) have been made against him.

One of the greatest defences that the fans of Wikileaks give for the en-mass release of the information is that public secrecy is bad, whilst personal privacy is good. Yet that simple statement ignores the vast overlap there is between the two.

Let me make one thing clear: most of the diplomatic cables released so far have been tittle-tattle of the highest order, with little that has been truly surprising. The real surprise would have been if the surrounding Arab states were in favour of Iran's nuclear program. So Prince Edward said something indiscreet at a party - so what? Nothing of any lasting significance has been revealed.

The boundary between public and private are opaque at best. If I were to go into the street outside my house and scream my deepest secrets, it would be hard for me to claim that they were private. What happens if I was having an affair with my local MP? The affair would be a private matter to me, yet it may well be in the public interest for it to be revealed.

Another example: if I write to my constituency MP with a problem, then I have all rights to expect that correspondence to remain secret; she would have to ask my permission before making it public. Yet the same argument being used by WikiLeak's supporters could be used against correspondence between MPs and constituents: after all, there could be something juicy in there.

There are two main reasons for a government to keep secrets: because they believe that the release of the information could harm the national interest, and because they believe that the release of information could harm their interest. I fully support the former, whilst the latter is hard to justify.

Yet WikiLeaks are releasing both.

There is another significant problem: the Guardian are one of five international newspapers that have visibility of the cables early, and they seem to be releasing mostly information that embarrass the Tories and the Liberal Democrats rather than Labour. The first thing they released about Brown was his support for Gary McKinnon (a cause that is popular with many, wrongly in my opinion). Compare this with the long list of things they have released about the Tories, including the American's concerns about Cameron's and Osborne's inexperience. Yet they have been remarkably quiet about what the diplomats were saying about Brown.

This bias can easily be seen in the searchable database of the information they have released so far. There is a great deal of information about the Royals, the Conservatives and even the Lib Dems, yet much less about Labour. This is particularly surprising as Labour were in power during the vast majority of the period that the cables refer to.

Compare this with the Telegraph (a supposedly right-wing newspaper) - when they released details of the MPs expenses, they released juicy details of Labour on the first day, and the Conservatives on the second. After that the revelations were seemingly made at random.

Likewise, the puerile campaigns by hacker group Anonymous to target companies like Mastercard - who have withdrawn support for WikiLeaks - are utterly self-defeating. Many people who may have some sympathy with WikiLeaks will be disgusted by what they are doing. As Guido Fawkes said: why do Anonymous and the others concentrate on upsetting truly authoritarian governments?

'Personal privacy' and 'public secrecy' are great buzzwords. Unfortunately life is more complex than these simple phrases allow for.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Scare story of the day...

I awoke yesterday to Scottish MP, Angus Robertson, saying that security at the Olympics would be put at risk because of the government's cancellation of the Nimrod MR4A aircraft. Apparently the nine aircraft were due to play a key role in counter-terrorism for the event. The media have made a big deal out of his comments.

This sparked a few questions in my mind. The Olympics are going to be in July and August 2012. Yet the Nimrod was only going to be reaching Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in October 2012. Which is, I think you will agree, after the Olympics. (IOC is the time when a system can be used in a minimally useful deployable form).

Therefore he is worried that a system that would not have been ready in time will not be available for use.

There is always the possibility that the planes could have been used before IOC was reached, but would the Government really have wanted planes that they knew were acknowledged as not being ready flying over and around London at any time, yet alone during such a major event? Then again, given the delays that the project had suffered already (it was originally called Nimrod 2000), and other problems, we cannot be sure of the 2012 IOC date either. Only two planes had been delivered to the RAF before the cancellation.

The Nimrod MR4A debacle has been painful for so many reasons, and not just the cost. Yet the loss of the Nimrods means that there are operational requirements that we will not be able to fill. The government will have to look into this as a matter of urgency. This will not be easy; the American's project to fill similar requirements, the Boeing P8 Poseidon, is allegedly facing significant problems.

Of course, this stupid fear story might have more to do with the fact that Angus Robertson's constituency includes RAF Kinloss, the Nimrod's base, which is due for closure.

The media should have seen through in an instant and asked Robertson some pertinent questions. Instead they just went for the quick sensationalist headlines. It could be that he is right, although I doubt it; he should say *what* roles he says the (non-operations) Nimrods were going to be used for.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Soon, we may all be able to walk through Grimsby Docks...

... or perhaps not.

The following quote from the BBC website is appearing oh-so often and is starting to annoy me.
Walkers are set to be able to walk around the whole coast of Great Britain
Because, of course, I never walked around the coast of Great Britain, and neither did all of these people.

I am in favour of increasing access to the coast. I am not necessarily in favour of spending at least £50 million in a bureaucratic chase to create an over-engineered motorway. Part of the fun for me was to find routes around the places where there were no paths.

Of course, it will not be a complete path around the entire coast. Military ranges will necessarily have restrictions, as will docks, refineries, gardens, caravan, parks and all manner of other obstacles. These exemptions will have major effects on whether or not long diversions inland will be needed.

I did a quick analysis of the initial stretch of path planned around Weymouth Bay and blogged about it here and here. The plans were not as bad as I had feared, but the proof will be in the pudding.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

How things work

How things work (in the manner of Stephen Fry)

Part 1: The Pedometer
The pedometer is one of the most lovely inventions of our age. The old-fashioned and wasteful GPS has been utterly replaced in outdoor pursuits and other arenas of most marvellous human activity by peachy pedometers. Not only are they the pinnacle of human endeavour, but they also require virtually no battery power, running off something as simple as a watch battery for a positive eternity of years.

So how do they work? (Oh, I love sounding like that all-round good egg Robert Llewelwyn.) To push a metaphor a pinch too far, a bunch of the best boffiny scientists the world could find got together for a hush-hush chinwag in Budapest. Their mission: to develop a positional and velocity-determining unit that would not need any of those expensive, messy and dreadfully inconvenient satellites.

Take a close look at any of these pretty little bundles. You may notice a little indent looking remarkably like a hole; perhaps it is even disguised with a little screw. Well, my bundles of unperpetuated joy, that is really the disguised black-glass bifurcated lens of a laser. The laser beams down to a foot; generally the left. The signal splits into two; one part of which bounces back to the hole. The other half bounces over to the right foot and back up to the unit. Using some of the infinite marvels of what I like to call mathematics, the timing between the return of the two signals can be used to generate the distance and angle between the two pedestrianising items. These figures allows the unit to keep track of your position and the distance walked. (*)

Yet there is more: the technology developed by the virtuoso scientists have found far more wonderful uses. Blu-ray players use a derated version of the laser used in the pedometers. The swarthy lasers are used in all cars, the data being transmitted by the imponderable wonders of wireless to speed cameras. And that stupendously fabulous sat-nav in your car? The antique GPS technology is so expensive that manufacturers use the exotic pedometer technology instead. And that is why there are so many of the aforementioned speed cameras scattered around out lascivious leafy lanes and curvy cul-de-sacs - they transmit signals to the GPS units to give the units up-to-date positions.

As usual with technology, there is a price. The electrons and magic that whiz around within a pedometer are as fragile as a Peking Poodle; just a smidgen too much aggressiveness and they will break. If you hear even a decibel of rattle then it is broken and will not grant you the accurate illumination that you doubtless so richly deserve.

But, my friends, the more astute amongst you may have noted that you can only access speed and distance on your consumer-grade body-hugging units. That is because a cabal of governments have agreed to remove the position-determining from the units that you, or even I, dear reader, can spend out hard-earned coinage on. That is why a bunch of equally-Einsteinian engineers have been developing an app - Fryshbull - for the stupendous iPhone. I recommend that you download it soon; we're going IPO soon and I need the libidinous notes to fill my mattress (oh bother, I shouldn't have mentioned that, what's the delete gesture on this damned thing)...

(*) I actually used this explanation on one of my friends at university. He utterly believed it.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Another 787 delay and cigar tubes

It has just been announced that the first deliveries of the Boeing 787 plane will occur in the third quarter of this year, an extra delay of at least seven months from the last announced date. This brings the delay in first deliveries to well over three years (see timeline), and is reducing the advantage they had over Airbus's competitor, the A350, which is now due for delivery to customers sometime after the middle of 2013.

Add to this the strong rumours that Boeing has been selling the planes at under cost price, and you can see that the company has some major problems. The missteps the company has made will be studied for many years and will undoubtedly fuel many engineering and business PhD theses.

Airbus is still smarting with the problems that it had with the A380 launch a few years ago; delivery delays are still propagating downwards, and they have only recently got the planes' production in order. Boeing's problems with the 787 are far worse and varied in cause, the latest being an electrical fire that occurred just before Christmas, necessitating a redesign of some of the electrical subsystems.

The downside of these problems is that I doubt that either Airbus or Boeing will want to start another brand-new passenger plane development once the A350/787 are in service; the development process is just too expensive. Instead, we will see existing planes evolving, in the way Boeing has kept the 747 going for over 40 years Just this week Airbus have launched the A320neo project to update their popular A320 design with new engines and other minor alterations. There were strong rumours that they would announce the development of a replacement for the A320, but that has now been kicked into the long grass.

Boeing in particular are keen to show pictures and videos of futuristic designs such as the Blended Wing Body (BWB). Unfortunately it looks as though such designs do not promise enough of an advantage over our current cigar tube-fuselages to make them worth developing for passenger use alone. These two massive companies have well and truly had their fingers burnt.

Boeing and Airbus will only launch a new plane development in the next fifteen years if a military requirement appears, or if other aerospace firms start threatening their markets. Several companies are producing competitive passenger planes; the Russians have just launched the Sukhoi Superjet 100, the Chinese are developing the COMAC C919 and Bombardier have the C-Series. All of these new planes, however, are relatively small when compared to the 787 or A350, yet alone the 747 or A380.

It took Airbus from 1967 to 1972 to build the A300, and another few decades to be in a position to build the A380. Planes have become ever more complex, especially with the modern In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) systems, and the barrier to entry in the market are ever steeper.

We will be flying in our cigar tubes for a few decades yet.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

A tent without poles

There is an interesting article on Gizmodo about a tent without poles - instead it uses inflatable air beams that support the entire structure.

Another firm, NEMO, do inflatable backpacking tents weighing as little as 0.9kg. The main advantage that I can see is that the pack size is tiny when compared to tents that use poles. Additionally, I am quite impressed with their smallest pump - it weighs only 3.8 ounces (107 grams).

The weight, pack size and price all seem competitive with more conventional tents. I can imagine it will be much less stable in high winds, though, and instead of broken poles you may suffer from punctures. To be fair, the inflatable bags they use can easily be replaced.

I wonder if this is a technology in search of a solution? Does anyone have any experience with these tents (*), and are they any good?

(*) Of course, it could be that these products are well-known amongst walkers. I do not read the magazines or go on group walks, so I could have totally missed it.

Monday, 17 January 2011

What a gas!

Please watch this video from New York. The homeowner had a gas company drill near his property to use a gas extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. He claims that a consequence of the fracking is that his drinking water can be ignited.

This video absolutely stunned me. Of course such a video is not proof, but it definitely needs independently investigating. Fracking involves pumping water and/or chemicals down into the ground under pressure to break the rock and release the gas. It is a technique that could massively increase the amount of gas available for use. As is often the case, however, we do not get anything for free. It is claimed that the fracturing can release gas and the pumped chemicals into the groundwater, from where it can be drawn into wells.

A documentary film, Gasland, is released today. Its tagline is telling: "Can you light your water on fire?" The situation is, of course, more complex than it first seems - it is alleged that tests of some of these phenomena show that the gas is biogenic (natural) rather than from reservoirs.

This is important to the UK as a firm is about to start extracting gas from the sea off Blackpool using this very same fracking technique.

This brings a simple question to mind: would the executives of the companies involved drink the water coming out of this man's tap? I guess not; I certainly would not out of choice. If the gas company is responsible (and this should be easily provable by studying the isotopes of the gas), then they should be responsible for putting it right.

But neither should this be used as a reason to stop such development. The company developing off Blackpool should be thoroughly open about the chemicals and techniques they are using (as they appeared to be on Radio 4 this morning), and also release geological data. In return environmentalists should be honest about their agendas and congratulate companies that display such openness.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Planning for failure.

Years ago I heard a story - possibly apocryphal - about the emergent electronics industry in the sixties. A large American company wanted to get the contract for building some of the Saturn V / Apollo hardware. They worked on their proposal, costed it and got ready for the meeting with NASA.

They were surprised to find that the NASA team was mostly comprised of engineers. This team sat through the company's slick presentation without comment until the end, when they were asked if they had any questions. One of the NASA engineers asked a simple question: "How does it fail?"

The company's marketing men were shocked and did not have an answer. They had prepared for the meeting with lots of questions relating to cost, timescales and capabilities, but this first question totally stumped them.

So why did NASA want to know how it would fail? And why was it their first question? The answer is simple: they trusted the company to meet the specification requested; after all, that was their job. However, they wanted to ensure that if it failed it would not damage any of the other components made by other companies.

After that, the company always had engineers in their meetings with NASA, and always made sure they knew how failure of their devices would affect the rest of the system.

Many of the common bugs in computer programs are caused by the programmer not planning for failure.

Let us take one simple and common instruction in the C programming language. malloc() allocates an area of memory for use by the programmer. On the vast majority of occasions it will succeed, returning a pointer to the memory. However, sometimes it will fail. It is common to see code where the programmer does not check for this failure case. The reason is checking for all possible failures takes time, and programmers are more interested in the cases where it works.

For instance, the following line of code, whilst nominally correct, will have me tearing my hair out:
int *broken_ptr = malloc(20);

A better example would be the following:
int *good_ptr = malloc(20 * sizeof(*good_ptr));
if (good_ptr == NULL)
  // Failed to allocate memory, must recover.
  // We can now do something.
  // We have finished with the buffer. Free the memory.
  free (good_ptr);
  good_ptr = NULL;

Even a non-programmer can see that the second example takes far longer to write and requires much more thought. It is, however, much better code (although still not perfect). In particular the programmer will need to consider exactly how to recover from the failure to allocate the memory. Unfortunately, misuse of malloc() in C is a prominent cause of programming bugs.

Similar problems can be seen in many other forms of engineering. It can be seen when 'cascade failures' occur; the failure of one part of a system causes other parts to fail in a cascade. This particularly occurs in power transmission systems, and engineers strive to design against it.

The key is to give engineers the time to design and implement systems fully. It is relatively trivial to get a system working; the real work lies in making it work properly in all cases, including the unforeseen.

Saturday, 15 January 2011


A Gizmodo article has the text of a suicide note written by a programmer called Bill Zeller. This could be voyeuristic, but in this case it is both sad and, in my opinion important, reading.

No-one knew that Bill had been abused as a child. The note details the veil of darkness that the events cast over the rest of his life, including both physical and mental travails. In particular, it shows the way it made it almost impossible for him to form long-lasting relationships.

The whole article is worth a read. He has asked for it to be reproduced in its entirety, and I will therefore not quote from it. Needless to say it is unusual to hear someone eloquently detail the way that abuse has changed their lives, leading them to take the ultimate action.

I have no doubt that there are thousands of people like Bill in this country, yet alone the world. We have to help them to  find a way to deal with their past without destroying themselves. The past cannot be altered; we can only deal with the future.

What is more, abusers (and I include low-level abuse such as bullying in this) have to understand that their actions are not just of the moment; they linger amongst their victims. I have known too many people, both male and female, who have been sexually, physically or mentally abused; in one case all three. Several of these people have significant problems in later life, directly caused by the abuse.

RIP Bill Zeller.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Assange case has just got nastier.

I have been closely watching the Julian Assange case over the last few months. It is impossible at the current time to know what the truth is, especially as there is so much FUD being thrown about - rumours about the state of Swedish law, claims and counter-claims about whether the charges were initially dropped, etc. People appear to have made up their minds with few facts on the table, and are fervently trying to make the facts fit their pre-formed opinions.

I believe that it is everyone's responsibility to be sensible when discussing the case. That is why this blog post (*) makes my blood boil. In an article headed with the totally biased title, 'The name of Julian Assange’s other false rape accuser is ......' (I have removed the woman's name), the writer not only names the woman, but also posts pictures of her.

I am on record as being in favour of both the victim and accused having anonymity until such time as a conviction occurs; anonymity for just one party seems unjust to me. However, that does not mean that the opposite is true; that both parties should be named.

The blog post is an awful rant that runs counter to justice, using phrases such as 'stalkerish groupie' with abandon. The writer is someone who has no idea of the effect that rape claims - just or unjust - can have on all the parties involved. He has made up his mind, and is on a campaign with the fervour of a religious zealot.

I would like to ask the author of the post why he thinks people need to know the accuser's name? What good can posting pictures of her possibly do, except to place her under added stress and pain? I believe that this post places her life (and that of the other woman) in further danger. Some of the comments on the blog post are frankly sickening.

The truth about the Assange case is out there, but I doubt we will ever know the truth...

(*) I was in two minds about whether or not I should link to the post: on one hand it makes it more likely for the woman's name to be spread further; on the other, it allows people to read the post and make up their own minds. In the end I decided on the latter. Unfortunately the link will also increase the guy's google ranking...

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Jared Loughner

The media is becoming increasingly hysterical about Jared Loughner's assassination attempt on the Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. An attempt, it should be added, that was so incompetent that whilst the target thankfully survived, six other people were killed and many injured.

Prominent Democrats have made tenuous connections between Sarah Palin and the shooting, and the Republicans have pointed out that the Democrats are hardly averse to such behaviour (for instance, Obama himself saying ''If they bring a knife to a fight, then we bring a gun"). Guns are so engrained in American culture that such martial talk is inevitable on all sides.

Slugger O'Toole goes into this in more detail.

It seems to me that blame needs to be pointed in one direction only: at Jared Loughner himself. It was therefore with interest that I discovered this morning that it is more than likely that Loughner was a member of the conspiracy theory website, Above Top Secret. The rest of this post assumes that this belief is correct.

I have read ATS for some years now. It is a dark and often amusing corner of the Internet, and comprises of a series of forums. Some, like the advanced aircraft forum, have knowledgeable people contributing snippets of information not commonly available elsewhere. Others, like the 911 and 2012 forums, are worth reading just to see the way people can wrap themselves in layers of flawed analysis and false logic. It makes for reading that is both hilarious and distinctly worrying.

The website has admitted that Loughner was probably a member, and have commendably listed all the posts made under what is believed to be Loughner's alias.

It makes fascinating reading. One of the topics he created says that the space shuttle cannot fly with a crew. Another posits that the entire Mars Rover project is faked. His posts and comments show someone who seems to barely have a grip on reality, yet alone logic. For instance take these two gems:
I don't believe it's possible to send the mars rover to mars. 
I don't believe it's possible to stabilize communication from mars to earth. 
I think we can safely say that both of these are extraordinary claims, and require extraordinary proof. Yet he makes no attempt to prove them. He has decided something and uses them as a basis for a conspiracy theory.

The posts portray Loughner as a troubled man, and one for whom reality appears to have been a stranger. His command of English was so poor that I actually found it hard to believe that it was his main language.

The shuttle post is particularly interesting as it gives a possible direct connection between Loughner and Gifford, and one that is far stronger than Palin's targeted map. Gifford's husband is Mark Kelly, an astronaut on the shuttle program and who is due to be the commander of the last planned shuttle flight later in the year. Is it inconceivable that someone who believes the shuttle program is faked would attempt to get at the wife of an astronaut on that program, especially when she is also a local politician? It is certainly a much more direct connection than the sickening slurs against Palin.

Toning down political rhetoric is to be commended; I doubt it will happen. But the blame for this issue lies with Jared and the entire culture he lives in, not stupid comments made by politicians.

Sometimes there are no easy answers.

I wish Gifford and all of the injured a speedy recovery.

Edit: 13/01/2011, 14.30
It appears that this was not Loughner's first contact with the Giffords. In 2007 he submitted the following written question to her:
“What is government if words have no meaning?”
Apparently he was unsatisfied with her answer. Which is sad, because I am not sure what answer I would give to such a malformed question. Perhaps: "Government is actions, not words." But that is weak.

Given this, it could be that his rants against the shuttle were caused because Gifford's husband was a shuttle commander.

It is looking increasingly unlikely that a campaign poster caused this.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Rambling thoughts on wind and power generation, part 4

There was never going to be a fourth part to this rambling, but comments on- and off-line have rather forced my hand. This section will go into what I believe environmentalists should do.

Firstly, let me say that most environmentalists I have met have had their hearts in the right place. They care deeply about the environment, and many are guided by their own personal morals. I may disagree with some of what they say, but much of it makes sense. (And let's face it: there is no one environmental movement, and there are many disagreements between environmentalists about the way forward).

Having got that unheralded unanimity out of the way, this is what I think they should do.

All interested parties (i.e. the government, environmentalists and even armchair commenters such as myself) should sit down and produce detailed figures of where they foresee our power coming from by 2021 and 2031. In doing so, they are only allowed to reduce the maximum power used by the country by 10% (history has shown that efficiency savings are swamped by new uses for power). Their figures should include costs and risks.

Again, I would recommend David MacKay's book, 'Sustainable energy without the hot air' for anyone wanting to start on this process. At the very least you will learn a great deal about the issues. Knowledge is key - I have certainly learnt a great deal as I have written these posts. Try to throw your preconceptions into the long grass as you do the work, and try out various scenarios. Of course this is exceptionally hard to do in practice.

If anyone wants to decrease the available power by more than 10% then they need to explain:
  • What the coping strategies will be (i.e. how to ensure that our economic and social life can continue with that reduced power).
  • What the effect of that change will be with respect to the world's total energy consumption.
I read with interest the Green Party's manifesto at the last election. Amongst more sensible proposals (e.g. introducing smart meters), the 'energy' section contains the following:
Prioritise the new 3 Rs: Remove, Reduce, Replace. First remove demand altogether where possible (e.g. by stopping the carbonintensive activity altogether, or by true zerocarbon technology); then reduce demand (e.g. by energy-efficiency measures); then switch to renewables for whatever energy need is left.
I would like to know what 'true zerocarbon technology' is, as it does not currently exist in any form for many industries. Just look at the problem with electric cars: the range of such cars are far too low to be usable for most people, and the charging time is prohibitive. There is currently no acceptable replacement for the petrol and diesel engine. This is called betting the future on the unknown ('oh, something will come along...'). It may, but it may not, and possibly not in the required timescale. Even if we all moved to electric cars tomorrow, we will need a way to generate the power for them. The only solution is for us to all travel less, and it will be a brave politician to demand this of his or her electorate.

Stopping carbonintensive activity is also immensely difficult. Fort instance, do they want to ban the use of cement (responsible for about 5% of man-made CO2 emissions)? If so, how does that conflict with their other manifesto commitments, for instance to build new houses? Can we build high-speed rail without cement?

Reducing demand is economically dangerous. How do you reduce demand? Agriculture is a major source of CO2 emissions, yet how do we reduce demand and still feed the world's population? Oh, and the environmentalists will not let us use genetic modification to increase yields either.

Additionally, they say:
Aim to obtain about half our energy from renewable sources by 2020 and ensure that emissions from power generation are zero by 2030.
Yet they do not give details of how we will meet these targets without risking massive social upheaval (remember, there is only nine years before 2020). Saying 'build more windfarms!' is not a solution.

It seems to me that few in the environmental movement are being honest about their plans. Frankly, their sums do not appear to add up.

The energy section of the Green Party manifesto details their obsession with carbon, and nothing about how to mitigate the effect that their policies will have on the population. Whilst depressingly vague on the form these amazing zerocarbon technologies will take, it contains an entire section detailing their reasoning against nuclear power. This includes the staggering claim that, as doubling nuclear power would only reduce carbon emissions by 8%, it is not worth doing. They also say that consumers would have to pay for nuclear reactors, yet they conveniently forget that consumers are already paying excesses for renewable power (indeed, they want to increase such payments by increasing the feed-in tariffs).

It was not an energy policy; it was a series of wishes wrapped up in an unsustainable package.

The environmentalists need to come up with full solutions, including figures, risks and costs, rather than just sniping from the sidelines. Only then can there be true debate. MacKay has made a good stab at some of this (see chapter 27 of his book, where he details five possible low-carbon plans - page 212 shows these in comparison). None of these plans are perfect. I have yet to see similar breakdowns from the Green Party, Greenpeace or any of the other campaigners. (*)

If they cannot come up with the figures then their comments should be treated as a small part of a much larger whole.

(*) It would be interesting to see a website that takes MacKay's work and allows the user to build his or her personal energy policy for the country. Each decision could come with estimated costs and risks. At the very least it would give people an indication of the awful complexity of the issues. It could also give you CO2 emission totals and the geopolitical problems (e.g. of getting oil from the Middle East, or solar power from northern Africa). There is something similar to this that can be downloaded from the website, although based on Excel (**). Unfortunately it does require more than a little knowledge to use. A little extra work should get it there.

(**) This is a freakilly powerful Excel spreadsheet, and shows the power of this brilliant package. As a further aside, I once worked with a project manager who had written a comprehensive project management system in Excel. It was amazing, but I could never quite get my head around it.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Rambling thoughts on wind and power generation, part 3

As I stated in part 1, our nation is faced with two significant energy problems.
  • Global warming
  • Energy security
In the first and second parts of this post I concentrated on wind power. In this part I will talk about energy security.

So what is energy security? As is often the case, the term covers a series of issues. Firstly, it means that we have to have continuity of the raw sources of our energy. In the case of traditional power stations, it means we need uninterrupted supplies of gas, coal and oil, allowing us to generate power for end-users at an economic price. This is a problem as much of our gas and oil comes from countries that whose governments are far from stable, and supply is subject to the whims of their governments.

Secondly, it means that we have to be able to generate enough power to meet our requirements. It is no good having enough oil and gas if our generation and refinery capacity is too low. This is an issue as power stations built in the seventies and eighties reach the end of their lifespan.

Our politicians and media are concentrating almost solely on global warming, and little on energy security. This is a problem as energy security poses a much more significant threat to our way of life than global warming. Prolonged brown-outs (reduction in voltage to conserve power) and blackouts (power cuts) were common in the 1970s.  Unfortunately many people (including the National Grid chief) say we are heading towards blackouts by 2015. The Economist has a very good article about this. Some experts I have talked to say that blackouts will occur in some parts of the country in the next year or two.

It takes many years to bring a new power plant on-line, and we need to be planning for the problems now. The Labour government cynically kept on kicking this issue into the long grass, and it is now far too late to prevent it from happening. I hope I am wrong, but one of the issues at the next election will be a looming energy crisis. And the coalition government will be getting the blame for Labour's cowardliness, especially in relation to power generation.

However, the coalition are not blameless. They are continuing the last Government's plans that make it uneconomical for companies to build new power plants. Several Trent Valley power stations (e.g. Willington) were going to be rebuilt, but many of these plans have been thrown into doubt by the economics. Compare this with wind farms, which receive massive subsidies from the public. At the same time, our existing power stations are being targeted by green activists, making it harder for councils and the government to grant planning permissions for new build plants.

The ideal would be for us to rely on a varied combination of power sources. Wind power would be a part of this, as would tidal, hydro and wave. However, with the best will in the world these renewable sources will come nowhere near matching our requirements.

All politicians (indeed, anyone) who profess knowledge on this subject should read and digest David MacKay's book 'Sustainable Energy - without the hot air'. It is available free on-line, or a hard-copy version can be bought from Amazon. It is so easy to come up with soundbites about this subject, but MacKay's book honestly describes the complexity of the issues in a readable manner. What is more, he tries to show how hard it is to meet the country's energy requirements from each source. I do not agree with everything within, but it is undoubtedly a vitally important read.

So what steps would I like to see the government make to improve energy security?
  • Firstly, the Government should set a per-capita target for power requirements in twenty years time. 
  • Secondly, they should work out what proportion of this energy should come from each source.
  • Thirdly, they should make it economical for the power generators to build that capacity.
  • Fourthly, we should invest in research and development of other energy sources (e.g. new nuclear designs and wave power).
  • Fifthly, we should reduce the usage of oil and gas in power generation. We have to reduce the usage of gas from Russia and oil from the Middle East.
Power generation should be seen as a critical issue for our country. Many people say that the free market should be allowed to just get on with it; that may or may not work. What is not working is the current situation, where the government are interfering with the markets and forcing them onto a path (wind) that could never supply enough power to the country. We either let the markets rule, or control them more. The current halfway house is a farce.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Rambling thoughts on wind and power generation, part 2

A turbine blade outside the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight
In part 1 I discussed whether the environmental benefits of wind power generation were worth the environmental disadvantages. I thought that I would try and find some figures for the efficiency of wind power, especially in comparison with the environmentalist's hated figure, nuclear.

Many people claim that wind power is inefficient; after all, it is obviously at the whim of the wind, and no power can be generated when there is no wind.

So how bad is the situation? I have read many claims over the years, either stating that they are very efficient or terribly inefficient; naturally enough, environmentalists tend towards the former.

So what is the truth? A letter in issue 1278 of Private Eye gave me a useful pointer. A company called Elexon monitors the power usage in Britain. Its day-by-day reports  can be found at (note, this website does not seem to work in Chrome, but works in IE 8). Scroll down the page to 'Peak Wind Generation Forecast'.

There is a great deal of interesting information on this page, but one thing that stands out is the variability of power generated by the wind farms metered by Elexon. They currently estimate that 2.4GW of power can be generated by such wind farms; currently (07/01) 406MW, or one sixth of the installed capacity, is estimated as being generated. Tomorrow it should be 1263 MW, or one half of installed capacity.

As can be seen, these figures are risible.

It should be remembered that whilst the maximum installed capacity of 2.4 GW is double the 1.2GW generated by the Sizewell B power station, the actual power generated can be far less. Think about this for a moment: *all* the installed wind power in the country can generate only double what one of our nuclear power stations generate. Think of the 3,000 wind turbines on land and out at sea, and realise how there is no chance of wind providing anything near all of our power.

So what about cost? Sizewell B cost £2 billion to build, and was designed to produce power at about 8 pence per kWh, including construction costs. It is believed that modern designs will allow the costs of nuclear power to be reduced significantly.

Modern designs are estimated to cost 2.3 pence per kWh, including decommissioning costs. In comparison, wind power is estimated to cost 3.7pence per kWh for onshore wind and 5.5 pence per kWh for offshore wind. Such figures should always be taken with a pinch of salt as the devil is truly in the details, but it shows the problem of wind power. Not only can we not generate enough power using wind, but the power we do generate is massively costly.

The sad thing is that successive governments have seen fit to reduce the skillsets available in this country to the degree that we will need to buy nuclear reactor designs from other countries. The situation is not much better in respect to wind power, where the majority of turbines are being constructed abroad. (*)

The answer seems obvious to me: nuclear is far better, if only because of the sheer reliability of its base-load generation. The French realise this, yet we are going down the road towards installing as much wind power as possible. In my opinion this is a mistake that British consumers will pay for in the future.

The Vestas R&D facility under construction
(*) There was a great deal of fuss in the media when Vestas closed down their factory making turbine blades on the Isle of Wight last year. Imagine my surprise when I walked beside the Medina River last week and found a truly massive new building being built by... Vestas. It is part of a £50 million research and development complex. Although it will not employ as many people as the old manufacturing plant, it surely is a welcome development.

The scale of the building was quite something to behold.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Rambling thoughts on wind and power generation, part 1

There is a lot of talk on the outdoor blogs about the number and size of windfarms being created in the Scottish mountains; Alan Sloman has written a number of excellent articles about a new wind farm in the Monadhliath range of hills.

Not being able to better his prose, and also not having a particular knowledge of that area of Scotland, I thought that I would look at the problem from other angles. Mainly: is it actually worth building wind farms?

What problems are we trying to solve in building wind farms? Put simply, our nation is faced with two significant energy-related problems:
  • Global warming
  • Energy security
Unfortunately, wind power does little to solve either of these. Wind power is intermittent in nature, whilst energy use is cyclical according to time of day and season. For much of the time we will have nowhere near enough power to meet demand. Part 2 will look into this a little further.

The answer, according to environmentalists, is to store the power for when it is needed. This is done in various places, such as the Ffestiniog and Dinorwig pump-storage schemes in Wales. These pump water up to reservoirs using electricity during the night, when there is a surplus of cheap power, and release it at times of peak demand. I have heard claims that we just need to build more of these. There are several obvious problems with this:
  • There are few sites suitable for such schemes; you need a large height difference between the storage reservoirs and the generating plant, and the upper lake needs to be large to store the water. 
  • Building such schemes are hardly green; a million tonnes of concrete were used at Dinorwig. Building large lakes in our upland areas also has obvious environmental consequences.
  • They depend on cheap electricity to pump the water up; wind power is hardly cheap and is currently massively subsidised.
Of course, there are proposals for other means of storing energy, for instance molten salt storage. However these have only been built on a small scale, and there are a number of concerns about them, including pollution. We cannot bet the future on untried technologies.

We need maximum power in winter and yet, as happened recently, the cold weather coincided with low wind speeds. Therefore the wind farms were at low efficiency when we needed them most. This means that we will either need a massive over-capacity of wind power, some form of (currently untested at scale) power storage mechanism, or more traditional power plants to provide back-up power.

There is also the issue of how inefficient wind power is.According to the Telegraph, an area of land the size of Wales will need to be covered with turbines to generate just one-sixth of the country's energy needs. From this, it is clear that wind power is not the answer to either of the two problems that face us.

We need more honesty in the debate. What I would like to see are publicly-available and honest (*) figures about the power generated by wind farms compared to their stated capacity. Fortunately we have such figures (see part 2).

Wind farms have other problems. People campaigning against wind farms are often called NIMBYs, sometimes rightly. However such name-calling does not hide the fact that, in many cases, they have a point. Our uplands are precious, and anything that permanently alters them should only be done with care. It would be exceptionally hard for me to get planning permission to build a cottage in Brassington in Derbyshire, yet the Government are allowing four massive 102-metre tall turbines to be built nearby. A house can have negligible visible impact on a landscape; these turbines will be visible for miles around.

I was once told by a Greenpeace representative that, if necessary, windfarms could be dismantled and the wilderness reinstated. He was assuming that the turbines just sat on large blocks of concrete that could be easily removed. That may be the case; but it does not account for the miles of haul roads and power lines that are needed for construction and maintenance of the turbines, or to distribute the power. It may not be fashionable to say so, but this is a significant form of pollution of some of our most precious places.

I am not against all wind farms; off-shore ones may be useful (and expensive). But given the manifest disadvantages of wind, we really have to weigh the advantages of wind against the disadvantages on a case-by-case basis. The Scottish Government in particular is failing in this regard.

It seems to me that many proponents of wind power are looking at the advantages and ignoring the disadvantages. They think 'green' as being solely about power, and not about wildernesses.

 Will future generations thank us for destroying some of the last wildernesses in Britain in a perhaps-pointless quest for 'green' energy? I think not.

(*) I say honest, because figures have been massaged in the past. Solar installations in Spain have been accused of fraud. In one case, investigators noticed that a solar power plant was impossibly generating significant power at night. It turns out that as solar power generators can charge more for their power, they were using diesel generators to produce electricity and selling it at higher cost, pocketing the profit and defrauding the public.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Rubbish, part 2

I did a walk on the Isle of Wight earlier this week. I arrived in Cowes on the FastJet, and the first thing I noticed were hundreds of rubbish bags strewn around. Some houses had ten bags on the street outside them, and many bags stank despite the cold weather. The whole of West Cowes was a mess (in contrast, East Cowes on the other side of the Medina was relatively litter-free).

We must have been lucky in Romsey; our collections were little delayed by the bad weather. But I wonder why the situation has been so different on the Isle of Wight. It looks like the collections were hit by the snow, but that was before Christmas.

I wonder if people can sue the council for littering by not collecting the rubbish? After all, the council can sue people who leave their rubbish on the streets for too long...

Friday, 7 January 2011

Rubbish, part 1

Seen before Christmas beside a path outside Wimborne Minster in Dorset: a neat line of plastic bags all containing dog faeces. The owners had obviously bagged up the contents and dropped them again the moment they reached the edge of town.

This reminds me of the famous seawall between Teignmouth and Dawlish. A few years ago the wall separating the walkway from the railway was lined with frequent bags; people were bagging up the dog droppings and could not be bothered carrying them back with them.

Perhaps the council should provide dog bins in such areas. But a lack of such bins does not excuse such littering.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The future of computing?

The big tech news today is that Microsoft have announced that the next version of their operating system, Windows 8, will run on ARM as well as Intel chips. This is the first time for years that any of the main versions of Windows will be made available for non-Intel chips.

This is a big thing. Over the last couple of years both Apple and Google have been working to reduce the gap between mobile phones on one hand and fully-fledged desktop computers on the other. Smartphones, netbooks, tablets and laptops are all part of this process. Apple and especially Google hope that this convergence will give them a toehold into Microsoft's market; Microsoft are concerned that the market for traditional computers is going to reduce.

Microsoft's problem is that the majority of these new devices are battery powered, and Intel chips traditionally have very poor power consumption. Instead, manufacturers are using chips designed by Cambridge company ARM.

ARM is very different beast from Intel, and was a pioneer fabless semiconductor company. Whilst Intel design and manufacture their own chips, ARM design chips and associated components, and license these designs to other manufacturers. Therefore relatively small companies can take ARM designs and modify them for their own purposes, for instance by adding USB controllers or network interfaces. This means that one chip can provide almost an entire system, called a System-on-Chip (SoC), reducing cost and power consumption in comparison to an Intel design.

It is therefore newsworthy that in a demo at the industry show CES, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed an ARM SoC-powered computer running an early version of Windows 8 and Microsoft Word.

It is quite impressive that Windows - traditionally seen as being so tied to Intel that the term 'Wintel' was coined for the combination - had been made to work on a radically different platform so quickly. He also demonstrated printing a document, something that Apple does not support on many of its products. It indicates that the longstanding rumours that Microsoft have been building - if not selling - Windows on other systems are correct (doing this can make testing much easier).

There are dangers for Microsoft. As I have said before, Apple have a much easier job with their software due to the fact that they control the hardware. In contrast, Microsoft will be increasing the amount and types of hardware that they support. I foresee that Microsoft will be working exceptionally closely with the chip manufacturers to help get Windows working with their SoCs.

Then there is the problem that Windows has traditionally been a very 'heavy' operating system; it is fully-featured, but that means it consumes a great deal of resources such as RAM and processor power. Microsoft will have to look at ways of reducing this footprint by enabling parts to be cut out. For instance a tablet computer may have no need for code relating to a keyboard and mouse. Microsoft have been working towards this and other footprint problems for some time; witness the way that Windows 7 boots and shuts down much faster than XP.

The vast majority of third-party software will need altering to work on an ARM-based system, and it is questionable whether companies such as Adobe, Sage and others will want to support other platforms. Yet such a move may open many more markets for their products. It will be a difficult decision for some of them to make. Again, Microsoft has a brilliant development platform that may make altering the software relatively painless.

Another problem is the interface. Windows is based around a keyboard and mouse combination; Apple have done a superb job in inventing other interfaces. The handwriting-based Newton did not sell well in the 1990s, but the touch-based interface used by the iPhone and iPad is superb. Microsoft will have an interesting job creating an interface system that will work on multiple paradigms.

They have targeted such markets before; for instance nearly ten years ago I worked on a set-top box that ran on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system (abbreviated by all the engineers to the apt name WinCE). WinCE and their other cut-down operating systems have never really taken off as they are very different beasts from Microsoft's desktop operating systems.

Despite these problems, I think Microsoft may well succeed. Windows, although hated by many enthusiasts, is an extremely good software platform, and Microsoft Office is unrivalled. Business in particular might like small platform devices running exactly the same industry-standard software as their desktops. That is something that Apple, Google or Linux cannot currently offer.

We are living in interesting times.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Apple has problems again.

As someone who has worked extensively in high technology, I am well aware of how easy it is for bugs to creep into both the operating system and applications. That is why it is so important for testing to be at the heart of any software company.

So it is hardly a surprise that a bug has struck some Apple users when alarms on their iPhones failed to trigger. This is the latest in a series of bugs that have afflicted their alarm system.

Alarms are notoriously difficult to get right - what appears simple (just fire off an alarm at the appropriate moment) becomes infuriatingly complex when repeats, sleep, snooze, time zones, leap years, daylight saving, differing calenders, standby, user configuration, leap seconds (and more) are taken into account. However, it is far from rocket science.

Leap years alone seem almost impossible for some people to get right. From memory the rules are as follows:

  • If a year is divisible by 4 (e.g. 2004) then it is a leap year.
  • Unless it is divisible by 100 (e.g. 1900), in which case it is not.
  • Unless it is divisible by 400 (e.g. 2000), in which case it is.

Believe me, I've had to code this logic a fair few times! Yet even Sony got this wrong in their Playstation 3, where 2010 was marked as being a leap year. Microsoft and others have also had problems with this simple formula.

Even something as simple as alarms matter; people rely on alarms for a whole multitude of reasons. An alarm failing to go off can cause real problems. If something is coded, even if it is an extra, then it should be fit for purpose. I am amazed that a company the size of Apple has got this so wrong.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Internet is for...

With hat-tip to my wonderful wife:

Not necessarily safe for work, or sanity, or indeed anything else.

Oh, and apparently the original version:

I will never watch Sesame Street in the same way again.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The weather this winter

This winter has been unseasonably early and cold, both in Northern Europe and the US.

It has been known for some time that volcanic eruptions can alter the climate in the short-term - for instance the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991 is credited as having affected the global temperature the following winter.

The 1815 Tambora eruption is said to have reduced global temperatures by three degrees Celsius, and to have caused the 'year without a summer'. The same happened after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, after which global temperatures decreased by 1.2 degrees, an effect that lasted for several years.

The atmospheric effects of these explosions were seen in the form of vivid sunsets all over the world. Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' possibly shows the skies seen over Norway after the Krakatoa explosion. Likewise, Turner's painting 'Chichester Canal' might have been influenced by the skies after the Tambora explosion.

So global temperature can be decreased by the type of eruption, and the effects can last for many years. So would anyone bet against the unseasonable weather having been acerbated by the eruption of the Icelandic Eyjafjallajokull volcano in April and May this year? Did it throw enough dust into the high atmosphere to cause this cold weather?

Wikipedia says it threw out 250 million tons of tephra. In comparison, Krakatoa threw out an estimated 20 cubic kilometres of tephra. Although tons and kilometres are not readily interchangeable, it is obvious that Krakatoa's eruption was several orders of magnitude larger. (*) However, was Eyjafjallajokull's eruption large enough to cause our current weather? 

Perhaps this is a connection too far, and I am most certainly not a climatologist. Cause and effect are always hard to discern in complex systems like the climate, even after the event. But I would not bet against the eruption having had some effect.

(*) Some non-reliable websites have the amount of tephra thrown out by Eyjafjallajokull as about 140 million cubic metres (0.14 cubic kilometres, or less than 1% of the mass thrown out by Krakatoa). If this is correct, then it was a much smaller eruption. Of course, not all of the tephra would have got into the atmosphere.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

In praise of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

This Christmas I was glued to the TV for the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. This year the topic was 'size matter', presented by the spectacularly-named Dr Mark Miodownik.

This year it moved back to its spiritual home on the BBC, but was unfortunately reduced from five to three episodes.

Being of a relatively scientific bent, there was little that was new to me in this year's presentation. Despite this, it was still fascinating stuff. Science is notoriously difficult to present to children, yet the lectures never fail to arrange complex topics into a form that children can comprehend. Strangely, I never fail to learn something, even if it is something long forgotten.

For instance, take the last of this year's three programs. It went from why some materials look like solids but are actually liquids, to how mountains sink into the earth's mantle, to the limits of skyscrapers height and carbon nanotubes to space elevators. All of this was told in an accessible manner without a single equation.

These lectures have been running since 1825, and the names of some of the presenters go through the luminaries of British and world science: Michael Faraday, John TyndallFrank Whittle (strangely talking about petroleum and not the jet engine), the genius Eric Laithwaite, Desmond Morris, David Attenborough, Heinz Wolff, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Kevin Warwick and Susan Greenfield, amongst others. Each series of lectures have been televised since 1966. Google Books has a potted history of the lectures.

Faraday started the lectures to teach children about science; a pioneering ambition, especially for those pre-Victorian times. Children still dominate the audience, and the presenter often encourages them to take part in experiments.

It is so easy to dumb down science - something that the media never fail to achieve with sensationalist headlines. It is therefore somewhat amazing that the Royal Institution manage to make science accessible without dumbing it down. I can only hope it will continue in a world where the truly good science programs - QED, Horizon, and Equinox - have all disappeared.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Happy New Year

Just a quick note to wish everyone a wonderful New Year. I hope that 2011 brings you all wealth and happiness.

So how did I see in the New Year? Answer: fumbling about in the garage changing fuses.

Start as you mean to go on, I say.