Thursday, December 2, 2010

Telescope Flashback

The weather has been cloudy and wet here for the last day or so. Last night at around 10 p.m. local time, I opened my front door, torch in hand to investigate a noise and was taken aback by the sight. The weather was foggy, with a fine drizzle, low cloud cover and the light from the torch reached out as a visible beam in the mist.

The sight reminded me intensely of walking from the accommodation lodge to the main dome of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, hoping that the weather would lift to give us a clear sky. I note that the AAO has changed its name from "Anglo Australian Observatory" to "Australian Astronomical Observatory", reflecting the change in the funding paradigm for the observatory over the past few years.

I have mixed personal feelings about the AAT. I had some great times there in the control room taking data, walking the catwalks to check the weather, looking out over the Warrumbungle National Park. However, the last time I was there was cut short after I ended up at the local hospital ha
ving had what turned out to be a panic attack. Not long after this was the diagnosis that I had chronic issues with anxiety.

So standing and looking out my front door left me feeling intensely depressed, a mixture of disappointment, regret and mild anger, I think. Funny how that is where my mind went to. On the plus side, there was no visible cause of the noise. And the agapanthus are finally flowering.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Travel Scares Me

It is a fact that travel can kill you in numerous ways. Disease, violence and of course, accident. And this kind of thing on the news doesn't help my attitude.

I have an aversion to travel. Not just air travel; travel of all kinds. Short trips, long trips, plane, train or automobile. Not only that, I worry intensely when people I know travel. This second-order worry is worse when the person I know is specifically coming to visit me, as if anything that happens is my fault.

I know now that these are manifestations of the chronic stress from which I suffer. A common symptom of stress and anxiety is being unwilling to take acceptable risks - such as travel. I know that travel is usually safe, but all the time leading up to travelling is a nightmare. Endless procrastination in deciding whether or not to commit to travelling is common. Sleepless nights beforehand also occur. Incidentally, once I am travelling, the stress usually disappears. For example, I get very nervous before flying, but once in the air, I am fine.

Medication helps, but in the end, travelling is still inherently difficult for me. As much as I am trying to manage stress and anxiety in various aspects, the prospect of travelling (or others travelling) worries me intensely. Things like engines blowing up on aircraft don't help. Rolls-Royce, get it together; you're not helping!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sitcom Smarts?

I find I have been watching less and less television as time goes by. Not entirely sure why that is, but it probably has a lot to do with the fact that I perceive the majority of television these days to be time-wasting garbage. Note that I mentioned that it is what I perceive to be the case. I make a decision that my time is better spent doing almost anything else than watching the pseudo-reality product-placement craptaculars that pass for popular television these days. But what do I know? While I think that something like MasterChef is nothing more than a glorified advertorial spiced up with faux-drama about who will go and who will stay (a staple of the glorified cruelty-based talent show), it is undoubtedly popular and is making somebody some serious wedge.

Not that the so-called reality television genre is the sole dune in the Tatooine of 2010 television. Drama and comedy seem to elude my interest. How many times can the Law & Order franchise go back to the well. And what the hell is the appeal of something like Scrubs (I can't even bring myself to link to that)? I don't get it. And as much as I like Hugh Laurie, I don't get House. And as a grumpy misanthrope, you might think I could perhaps relate?

But one of the problems with not watching television much is that you do miss some of the programs you might be interested in. I didn't know about Firefly until it had been shown, cancelled and brought out on DVD. A similar thing is true of The Big Bang Theory, which is the subject of this post. I bet you're glad I finally got to the point. But the show is in its fourth season, and I've only just discovered it, so to speak.

I know - big surprise. I like SciFi (the genre, not necessarily the Pay TV channel - seriously how in the name of all that is holy can Medium be a SciFi show), work with computer networks and have my own neurotic problems. In addition, it could be depressingly argued that I identify with specific aspects of at least three of the four male characters (I totally disavow any similarities to Howard) and that is why I like the show. I don't like breaking my routine (Sheldon), I am uncomfortable around women (Raj), and am endlessly insecure about most aspects of my life (Leonard)*. I am going to move on now before I get too maudlin and start batting on about loneliness and misery...

All of that could be taken as read, but when you break it down, the show is a pretty typical sitcom, with the type of character dynamics which are easily recognizable if you take the specific situation out of the equation. So why do I like it, and having found it downloaded the whole three completed season and watched them as my evening viewing straight through for a couple of weeks? Two reasons.

Firstly, the characters are great. I don't know much about acting, direction or writing, but I really enjoy the character portrayals. It could be argued that the characters are simply extrapolations of the stereotypical nerd portrayals that have been around for years. I don't necessarily agree. However, I do believe that the casting was spot-on and I really do like the specific portrayals by all of the actors in the cast.

Second, the science. I like watching the show, listening to a back-and-forth about a scientific discussion and either thinking, "yes, I know about that" and then further thinking how cool it is that I know that (for a given value of cool). Alternatively, something comes up that I don't know about and that then leads me to spend inordinate amounts of time looking up stuff on the Internet and following where the trail leads.

To that end, the Bad Astronomy Blog** had a link today to a blog where one of the science advisors to the show describes the science used in each show. Check it out. It is awesome.

Oh, and there is a third reason I like the show. It makes me laugh. Not much does that for me any more. I didn't need to do any of the analysis leading up to this revelation. It is enough that it makes me laugh.

Thank you Bill Prady and Chuck Lorre.

* I am putting in a short moratorium on links right now - just previewed the post and it is probably getting tedious.
** Moratorium Off.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cool Project

This would have to be one of the coolest science projects I've ever seen. These guys sent a HD camera and an iPhone for GPS tracking into space (100,000 feet). Something I would never contemplate - not only risking losing the HD camera and iPhone, but I'd be concerned releasing a weather balloon potentially into occupied airspace, or having it come down on someone.

Oh well, I guess that is why they did it and I didn't.

So whether or not it is irresponsible or foolhardy, I don't care. I reckon it is awesome.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Too many trips to the well, or am I getting old?

A couple of weeks ago, I bought the fifth installment of the Sid Meier Civilization series. I have played all four of the previous incarnations of Civilization, and I enjoyed them all. They are the type of game I like. My reflexes aren't good enough for fighting games or first-person shooters. Some real-time strategy games are OK, but at the higher levels I find I just can't keep clicking fast enough.

So the city builder and strategy genres are more my speed.

However, I have only spent a couple of hours with Civ 5. I really don't know what the problem is. The graphics are good, the tweaks in gameplay from the previous versions seem good in theory and it is not fundamentally different at its core than the previous versions. It isn't fun.

I don't know what to make of it. Personally, I reckon that the issue lies with me rather than the game. A couple hours into the game, I could not see myself sitting there four hours hence. It felt like busy work. Now to some degree the Civ games become busy work if you micromanage your civilization, but it was not like the feeling I got straight out of the box with Civ 5. Maybe I've outgrown the Civ franchise, or maybe the franchise itself is not different enough of interesting enough to hold my interest any more.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Follow the damn (supermarket) rules

OK, they may not be rules, but they are common courtesy. I have seen all of these in the space of one thirty minute period this past week. Maybe I am just a holdover from a past era, or maybe I am a grumpy misanthrope but these are some of the reasons I hate going to shopping centres in general and the supermarket in general.

First, traffic flow. I know that you may not be on a public road, but please follow the markings and rules in the shopping centre car park. I hate it when I follow the left-turn only signs and other markings (i.e. following the rules) and do a lap of the nearly-full car park only to beaten to the empty space by someone who ignored the rules and turned right against the flow to grab that spot. People like that should have to do a drive-through penalty. Or have their licence cancelled.

Next, once you find a free space, you discover that someone has left a shopping trolley in the empty space. Of course, I appreciate that your time is so important that you can't spare sixty seconds to take the trolley back to the space provided for it, and consequently you must inconvenience both the next person along to that space and the poor minimum-wage sucker who has to lug these things back to the entry to the supermarket. Show a bit of human decency. Inconsiderate so-and-so.

Finally, I'm unloading my trolley at the checkout. Along comes a customer who decides that my checkout line is actually the entrance to the supermarket, rather than the conveniently placed and marked entrance. Can't you even read?

Now you may think that all of these infractions of the supermarket social conventions are harmless; that nobody is hurt. I don't care. We live in a society, where for everybody's benefit we follow rules and conventions. These little things may not make the world a better place or make life-and-death differences, but they do make a necessary task for everyone a little more pleasant.

Don't get me started on people who cross the road ten metres away from a perfectly serviceable pedestrian crossing or set of lights...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Painting some Space Marines

On Saturday, with not a lot to do, I thought I would sit down and paint a couple of Space Marines. I have posted before about my Warhammer 40K painting, which I do as stress relief.

I haven't done much in a while, and I've had three Space Marines undercoated and sitting on the shelf. The miniatures are only about three inches high, and some of the detail is quite fine. I still don't quite have the brush control to make them look as good as I would like. While nowhere near good enough to put on display, I like to think that they would be acceptable enough to use in gameplay.

I have only done a few miniatures, and all have been using the Ultramarines colour scheme. Next, I would like to branch out and try some others.

It was quite annoying trying to take a photo of these two miniatures. My $90 Cybershot camera would not focus for me, and I could not find an option to do a manual focus. I almost pulled out the old Nikon SLR, but for a lack of film. I suppose you get what you pay for with digital cameras.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Date Claimer

Mark your calendars. July 12, 2011 is an auspicious date. This is the day that the planet Neptune will complete its first full orbit since its discovery on September 23, 1846.

Neptune has an orbital period of 164.79 Earth years, so it will be nudging back into the place it was when it was sighted near where Le Verrier predicted it to be. It won't be in the same place in the sky as that night, though, as the Earth will be in a different point in its orbit.

Things move slow out where the Sun is weak and things are cold.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Bit of a Delay

It has been a while since I've posted. Things were busy last week with helping with organizing the Carnival Parade, and Mum and Dad are staying with me for a few days. I will have a longer post sometime soon.

Friday, September 10, 2010

David Mitchell on the Act of Giving Flowers

I think David Mitchell's Soapbox is great. I identify with quite a lot of what he says. Maybe that is a bad thing? A shame about the adverts that top and tail the videos, but someone has to pay the talent. He is on the telly after all.

Monday, September 6, 2010

On Open-Source Documentation

So I am sitting in the office. I've spent the morning reading documentation on the Shibboleth middleware I am implementing while I wait for another department to build my hardware. Outside it is a cool, clear day.

In here, my levels of frustration have waxed and waned through the morning. Why is open-source software so poorly documented? Especially open-source software that relies on other open-source software. Implementing this thing has been like trying to put together a jigsaw, only all of the pieces come from different puzzles with different pictures on the boxes.

Change one piece and you need to trim that puzzle piece with a pair of scissors. Now I am a fine one to talk; I am sure that more that a little of my documentation is sub-par. But my expectations were higher than that when working with this product.

Were my expectations unrealistic? I went back and forth on that for a while, but what amazed me was that thinking back on the commercial software I have used in the past, I realized that more often than not, their documentation sucked, too. I am most familiar with Cisco products. Before my exile to project Siberia, I used CatOS, IOS, WLC software, Cisco ACS, CiscoWorks and so on. Invariably, the documentation for the software sucked. Especially if you wanted to do something which is not quite turn-key. Not that the products had limitations in the area I was investigating, mind you, just that the documentation was geared towards the turn-key solution.

Thus the realization dawned that the documentation didn't so much suck, it was just that I wasn't the audience for the easy-to-find documentation. The documentation needs to address the majority of cases, not the exceptional outlier. This is fundamentally different from internal documentation often demanded by management - highly specialized to the specific implementation you are doing, so that systems can be replicated. In some cases documentation so detailed that the network could be rebuilt by the last surviving janitor after the nuclear holocaust.

So after lunch, I am going to cut the documentation some slack, and lower some of the expectations. Sometimes you have to do the heavy lifting yourself. And maybe I'll put my implementation notes up on the web for someone else to whine about.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cricket Down the Drain

Once again, cricket is plunged into scandal and controversy by a betting scheme. The game whose very name is a byword for fair play is once again maligned. Gideon Haigh as always is insightful in pointing out the endemic problems in the administration of the game and the social inequities that lead some teams to be more susceptible than others.

Now, I am not naive enough to think that cricket has never been sullied by poor behaviour or poor sportsmanship. A hundred years ago, W. G. Grace was quite a rotter in many respects; as money-hungry a specimen as any modern-day gouger. And I am sure that some of the poorly paid cricketers who gave up jobs to go on tour were tempted by the bookmakers' chequebooks.

What makes me wonder is the phenomenon of spot fixing. That this ball will be a no ball, or that player will come in earlier in the order in a 20-20 match. Obviously a game like cricket is ripe for this kind of side-betting, and quite often it seems that this kind of thing can be done without affecting the outcome of a game. It is apparent to me that so many other sports could be prone to this kind of thing, too.

In baseball, the third pitch of the second inning will go in the dirt, or be a change-up. The pitcher will try a pick-off at first 3 times in a row, not two. In snooker, instead of clearing the colours, a player will miss the blue. The green will be potted at least once in the top left corner. In American football, the offensive team "accidentally" lets the clock run out on a play.

It goes on and on. I can conjure up dozens of examples like this, and in places where people will bet on two flies crawling up a window, I am sure that this kind of thing goes on. Thus, how easy is it to convince a player to cooperate for a cut of the action? Now a major-league pitcher on millions a year would usually not be vulnerable. But how about a first-year rookie on minimum wage? "Come on, you aren't throwing the game. You are just going to do the following small thing, nobody will know, and you are in for 20%". And indeed, how do you detect things like this? Unless a participant gets stupid, or somebody talks, that wild pitch, that unusual call will sail on by, unremarked, while somewhere, someone gets swindled.

I suppose in a jurisdiction where spot betting is legal, so be it. People are free to throw their money away, and bet on whatever they want. But it seems to me that spot betting is so open to undetected manipulation, that an honest punter has an even chance that they will get done over as comprehensively as if the croupier had handed over a pair of loaded dice.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Painting as Stress Relief

While this post is mostly to test out putting images into a post, I think I ought to explain the picture.

I suffer from stress and anxiety. I am a world-class worrier.

A while ago I took some time off work, and during that time, started painting Warhammer 40,000 models. I have no discer
nible artistic ability. Art is the one subject I almost failed when forced to take it in Grade 8. However, using a small brush and needing to paint fine detail certainly focuses the mind and shuts out the rest of the world.

Nothing about this Dreadnought model is original, and to some degree it is a bit like paint-by-numbers at the moment. One day I might try something original. I do have some Space Marines undercoated, and in the next couple weeks, I might start on them.

I've never played the Warhammer tabletop games, although I did play the Dawn of War computer game. When I was much younger, I did play Battletech and my brother and I had a few plastic Battlemechs, but they have mostly disappeared over time. I don't think I will really get into the games, but the local store that carries the models will occasionally get my patronage.

Half-Way to Nowhere

There are many situations where patience is a virtue. I remember when the Olympics were awarded to Sydney. It seemed so far away in time - seven years of waiting for two weeks of action.

However, in those seven years there was frantic activity and promotion, building to a crescendo of two weeks in September 2000 which most people in this country look back on fondly. No doubt those directly involved in the organization and staging also feel a great sense of pride and achievement.

On January 19, 2006, another great waiting game began. Nine years of waiting for eight weeks of frantic activity. Unfortunately this great endeavour is not as well publicized and looking in from the outside there appear to be long periods of not much going on. And the facts are that so many things could have, and still could, go wrong and render all the waiting futile.

I am talking about the New Horizons Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. The New Horizons probe is about half way to Pluto, where for about four weeks either side of closest approach, it will be able to produce images superior to the best Hubble images of Pluto.

In 1989 when I was seventeen, the ABC presented a program where we watched and waited for the first images from the closest approach of Voyager 2 to Neptune. We saw the beautiful blue of the atmosphere and the Great Dark Spot. I am hoping that something like this will happen again in 2015, although sadly I fear it will be relegated to the Internet, and people will complain that the whole thing was anti-climactic. This is because in contrast with the spectacular gas and ice giants, Pluto may not offer up the spectacle that will entrance the general public. It is scientifically interesting and important, but I can foresee as the encounter approaches the media devolving into the argument about Pluto's planetary status and if the images aren't spectacular enough more whining about the waste of money on NASA and space exploration.

Personally, I don't care about any of that. I don't care if the media doesn't appreciate the science or the engineering or the sense of achievement of those involved in the mission (OK, that is a lie - I do care, but I am pessimistic). I want these next five years to go by uneventfully for the team operating New Horizons, and for eight weeks in 2015, I want to share in the experience of watching images that have taken hours to arrive from billions of miles away, marvel in the engineering achievement, and await the scientific insights into the farthest solar system body (planet, minor planet or whatever) yet visited.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Counting Heads

I have been reading a lot about the 2010 Federal Election. Of course, without some of the online sources available, sometimes the pickings are a bit thin. Even thinner than the pickings, though, is the breadth of opinion one finds in various newspaper comment sections and blog comments. I've come to the conclusion that while various news outlets are not necessarily overtly politically biased (to my generous eye, anyway), the readers and followers of said outlets invariably are. Andrew Bolt's blog seems populated by right-wing climate sceptics and what in the US would be called libertarians, while the ABC's blog site The Drum seems overrun with left-leaning Labor and Green followers.

One common feature I have noticed amongst these commentariats, and one of the most remarkable things I have seen in the aftermath of the election and the frankly quite interesting and engrossing numbers game that has evolved is the ignorance about how the Australian Electoral System works. In addition, it seems that so many people, including some presenters I have seen on the more "info-tainment" free-to-air channels don't understand how the Government is formed or the role of the Governor-General and the history of such things. While sometimes these things do seem a bit arcane, and are probably not all that interesting, except to people like me, they are part of the cornerstone of Australian Government and like it or not, the results of these uninteresting and arcane processes will end up affecting people's lives on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps the lack of education in what used to be called Social Studies or Civics is to blame. Or maybe people just don't care. In the instant-result world we live in, they want to know who won, who lost, and then move on to "what is the next dish on Master Chef" or some other sixty-minute advertorial.

The other commonality is that I am seeing are people on all sides of the ideological divides complaining that the preferential voting system is "unfair" (that is, we didn't win with it this time). Then there is the other complaint about compulsory voting being unfair, undemocratic, or that compulsory voting means that the stupid and the ignorant come out to vote. Of course the stupid and the ignorant seem to always support the other side, and "something should be done", as if disenfranchisement is the logical solution. The reality is that all voting systems have problems, and "proper representation" or "fair representation" to some degree depends on what criteria you use to determine this. And compulsory voting has both its good points and its drawbacks.

I don't know the answers as to what is fair or just or best. What I do know is that an engaged electorate who understand the system should be best-placed to decide these things for themselves. And to that end, education is not the answer, but may be an answer.

The Australian Electoral Commission web site has some great resources, including a couple of videos that explain the counting of votes in both Houses. (I love how the Senate votes are counted). And Wikipedia, the font of some knowledge (much of it accurate) has a starting point on different types of voting systems.

Welcome to the jungle

So blogging.


I work in technology as a network engineer but I have been slow to take up the new technology. I don't Twitter, nor do I do Facebook, My Space, or any of the other social media. Never blogged, and I don't maintain a homepage. As Jubal Early would say, does that seem right to you?

Perhaps it is a generational thing. My first computer was a TRS-80. I remember my first modem. At University, we used a mainframe and Lynx was the broswer of choice for the new-fangled HTTP protocol.

I certainly know that I still type out full words in SMS messages and email. I still prefer my old Blackberry with the wheel on the side over the newer trackball models, although I'm probably not so averse to touchscreens and gestures.

As a fairly conservative, reserved and anti-conflict individual, I am probably also very wary about an online presence. Though not scarred by the flamewars of the usenet era, they certainly convinced me that one should keep their head below the parapet. Opinions matter, but am I prepared to have mine out there - will I look a fool, am I just being dumb, what do other people think? Is my opinion worth anything?

Probably it is not. But with a billion other primates hammering away on a billion keyoards, generating gigabytes of gibberish (with a few jewels thrown in), who is going to notice? My interests include computer networking, astronomy and, of all things, elections. So, these are the things I want to talk about. Maybe this thing will die in a ditch after I lose interest; maybe it won't. I guess I'll wait and see.