Sunday, 30 October 2011

An artefact

I love seeing strange things, scenes or items that grab my interest and get my mind going.

One such thing occurred as a result of a stroll along the Waveney on Wednesday. There had just been a heavy shower and a rainbow appeared across the river. I took a couple of quick snaps, but when I got home I discovered an artefact on the pictures:

Immediately before

The artefact
The artefact close-up
The rainbow's colour smear does not appear on the photo taken a few seconds before, or the one immediately after. As far as I can recall the sun was somewhere behind me. I cannot recall seeing it at the time, so I am guessing it is something to do with the photographic process.

So does anyone have any ideas what may have caused it?

(an aside: this blog post led to a debate between Sencan and myself about whether 'artifact' or 'artefect' is correct in UK English. It turns out that both are applicable, although 'artefact' is preferred. We are that sad).

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Tape out

My wife has been at Company X for about nine months now, and is undergoing a process that is known as 'tape out'. It is a time of extreme stress.

After a computer chip has been designed, the plans are sent off to a fabrication plant for samples to be made. These are then received back and tested before going to production. Unfortunately fabrication is a time-consuming process and production slots have to be booked many months' in advance. This all adds up to a wait of many months to see if your chip works; if it does not then you have to find the fault, fix it and go through the whole hellish process once again.

This means that it is important for the plans that are sent to the fabrication plant is as near perfect as possible. I am lucky; in software we can almost always do a change and see the effects of that change within a few minutes. In my wife's job it can take months and cost a small fortune.

I once was involved with a team of people working on a digital chip. The first ten samples came back from the fabrication plant on a Monday morning; no time was wasted in placing some into test boards. The news quickly spread: they were Dead On Arrival and would not even power up. I watched during the week as the engineers got increasingly frantic until, on the Thursday afternoon, they discovered the problem. The fault was not with the design but with the manufacture (*). I have rarely seen engineers more highly stressed.

So what is 'tape out'? Imagine a chip as being a bunch of lines representing the circuits. The final plans of a chip form a spaghetti-like mess of interconnecting lines called a 'mask'. In the early days of silicon chips the scale was so large that the mask could be altered by simply adding black sticky tape - you literally got the tape out. Although modern techniques have long outgrown this method the term is still used to represent the point at which the chip is finally designed.

Tape-out is an incredible stressful period for everyone involved. Any mistakes that are left after that stage may not be found for many months, delay the project by many more and cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds. Incredibly intelligent people have left the industry because they cannot cope with the stress of tape-out and the wait for the chips to return. To compensate, tape-out is also a time of slap-up dinners for the development team and any hangers-on who might come along :-)

The construction of a chip is an immensely complex process; terms such as photolithography, finite barrier quantum wells and valence bands all add up to form a nearly-impenetrable barrier to comprehension. This is true for the design of digital chips; it is triply so for designers of analogue chips such as my wife. Digital chips are digital; they belong in the domain of ones and zeroes. Analogue chips are variable and utterly indeterminate; they are designed by magicians and witches.

So this note is a rather long-winded way to say to my wife how much I am so proud of her, how much I am amazed by what she does for a job. Not only is she a witch, but she is a damned good witch.

And not many husbands could get away with saying that...

(*) The silicon part of a chip sits in a piece of material (often plastic) called packaging that connects it to the outside world. The chips had been packaged 90 degrees out of orientation, meaning that the pins did not line up. It was someone else's problem and, even better, it was easy to fix...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

16 new walks on my website...

Sixteen new walks are on my website, in which I:
  • Start the Angles Way
  • Complete the Viking Way
  • Walk the Great Glen Way
  • Walk the Speyside Way
  • Walk Hadrian's Wall Path
No. Location Distance (m) Date Walked
932Hadrian's Wall Path: Newcastle to Wallsend and on to Cullercoats 17.2 27/09/2011
931Hadrian's Wall Path: Chollerford to Newcastle 26.9 26/09/2011
930Hadrian's Wall Path: Greenhead to Chollerford 20.2 25/09/2011
929Hadrian's Wall Path: Carlisle to Greenhead 22.2 24/09/2011
928Hadrian's Wall Path: Bowness-on-Solway to Carlisle 15.5 23/09/2011
927Speyside Way: Cromdale to Aviemore 21.2 21/09/2011
926Speyside Way: Cromdale to Aberlour 23.0 20/09/2011
925Speyside Way: Buckie to Aberlour 26.2 19/09/2011
924Great Glen Way: Drumnadrochit to Inverness 20.4 17/09/2011
923Great Glen Way: Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit 15.0 16/09/2011
922Great Glen Way: Laggan to Invermoriston 20.1 15/09/2011
921Great Glen Way: Fort William to Laggan 23.8 14/09/2011
920Viking Way: Barnetby le Wold to Barton Upon HUmber, and across the bridges 19.4 31/08/2011
919Viking Way: Market Rasen to Tealby and Barnetby le Wold 21.9 30/08/2011
918Viking Way: Donington on Bain to Tealby and back 22.0 29/08/2011
917Angles Way: Thetford to Diss 23.6 19/08/2011

I'm intending to take things a little easier now that the winter months are approaching, but I'd still like to get another couple of hundred miles done before Christmas. If my lovely, gorgeous wife allows me, of course...

Monday, 17 October 2011

Happy 100th birthday...

... to the Middlesbrough Transporter bridge.

I have never been over it, but passed it during my coastal walk nine yeas ago. It is a fascinating structure (as is the other example in Britain at Newport in South Wales). It's good to know that the old gal has life in her still.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Dennis Ritchie, RIP

With the media obsessing over the sad news of Steve Jobs's death, the passing of a man who had much more of an effect on the computer industry has gone virtually unnoticed.

You will certainly not have heard of Dennis Ritchie. His was not a household name, and he was not eulogised in the same way as Jobs. Yet he undoubtedly altered the world. I first heard of him when learning the programming language, 'C'. The bible on the earliest incarnations of the language was known colloquially as 'K&R'. As you may have guessed, the 'R' refers to Ritchie, who co-authored the book with fellow engineer Brian Kernighan.

Ritchie created the C programming language whilst working at Bell Labs in the early 1970s and, later, co-wrote the Unix operating system with Ken Thompson. C and its successor C++ are two of the most popular programming languages in use today, and Unix is used in a massive number of devices (even Apple's computers are based upon it).

Both inventions are far from flawless. They were created in the 1970s, when the computing world was very different. The C programming language is particularly flawed, and its extreme flexibility makes it difficult to write secure software. Yet that same flexibility led to its success, whilst many other technically superior languages have come and gone.

Someone once told me: "Anyone can program in Java, but C is for real men". If that is true, then Ritchie was a God.

The Register had a good obituary of the great man.

RIP Dennis Ritchie, and thank you.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

I'm in trouble.

My wife didn't appreciate my comments about her baking.

Yep, I'm definitely in trouble...

Friday, 7 October 2011

Nothing says fail like cliff fail...

Just watch this video, showing the failure of a cliff in North Cornwall:

Absolutely spectacular.


Paddy Considine's new film, Tyrannosaur, is out today. It stars Peter Mullan (Children of Men, Harry Potter) and Olivia Colman (Peep Show) in a gritty story of violence, friendship and love.

Rotten tomatoes has given the film a rather stellar 91%. So if you have a spare hour and a half and want to see an intelligent film, then you could do worse. It has certainly has better reviews than Johnny English Reborn.

Why, you may ask, am I mentioning a film that I have not seen? There is an ulterior motive: my cousin, Dan Baker, co-wrote the music for the film. Sadly it does not appear to be showing on many screens, so I might be making a journey into London soon...