Missing coding

English: Programmer
English: Programmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever been engaged in an intellectual activity where the hours whizz by much faster than you think, as you puzzle over and round the issues while feeling an intense pleasure that makes the rest of the world seem less important?  This what is called “flow” and, generally, it is what I feel when I am coding.

I am not the world’s greatest coder, to be honest I am little better than average (though doing the MSc at Birkbeck made me so much better than I used to be). The pleasure doesn’t come from having a natural skill that means I can write hundreds of lines at a single sitting: like a typical programmer, if I got 20 fully debugged lines out a day, every day, I would count that as decent performance.

But lately I haven’t done any coding at all (apart from a few lines of scripting in the office to ensure SMB mounts are automatic and such like). Instead I have read a lot of computer science papers and spent a lot of time working on a presentation I need to make and a literature review that will come after.

But I miss the coding, and I am missing it more every day.

Now, coding is also very more-ish. If you code to scratch an itch then chances are you make yourself itchy by coding. So earlier this year I wrote a Groovy/Java hex editor – Hexxed – after I wrote a Linux filesystem where I could not find a hex editor that did what I wanted to do, and so on.

So, even as I puzzle about whether I should write some code just for the sake of a mental stretch, I also wonder what I would write.

Getting booted from Wikipedia

A short article on “Binsic Is Not Sinclair Instruction Code” (BINSIC), my BASIC-like interpreter/DSL for Groovy faces getting deleted from Wikipedia on the grounds of lack-of-notability.

It would not be right or proper for me to intervene to stop this, but if you have been a BINSIC user then a proper third-party reference to it (followed by a clearance of the deletion message in the prescribed manner) would be very much appreciated.

The BINSIC article does not generate much traffic here (perhaps a visit a day), so I admit it is not a particularly important project in the world of computer science, but I hope it has been fun for at least a few people and it is worth keeping as a link to a quick and easy way to get BASIC on your computer.

Parallella multicore board

When Kickstarter began I thought the whole idea a bit silly – why would people put up money for a project when they take all the risk and get little reward?

I suppose I still think that way, but I have just pledged $119 to support the development of the “Parallella” multicore board – that money will get me a 16 core device if it ever gets built, but you have to be realistic about these things and say that, in reality, I have just given away the money.

But, as I am studying for a PhD in the very technology that the Parallella targets – multicore systems – it seemed like I should take the risk. As the project has now passed its $750,000 funding target they will be taking the money.

University Education – Free for Everyone?

University Education – Free for Everyone?.

Paul Greatrix writes on the debate on “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) and what they might mean for higher education.

Personally I am pretty sceptical about MOOCs – the idea of free, high-quality, courses being available online is a great one, but as Paul writes (or quotes others writing) it hardly replaces the university experience.

In any case the phenomenon of universities being degree factories – something that rightly worries many in Britain and elsewhere – is hardly answered by taking commodification of degrees to an extreme.

Another reason to steer clear of @AmazonKindle

As I have reported before, the Amazon Kindle is a lousy product.

What is more, I have repeatedly asked Amazon for an explanation as to why they are selling e-books which are plainly not fit for purpose, but I have had no reply at all.

Now, according to the Guardian, we read that Amazon are using their dominance of the e-book market to gouge money off publishers.

Uses for a Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi
Raspberry Pi (Photo credit: CesarCardoso)

I think I have found a permanent use for my Raspberry Pi – replacing what was once my utility (squid proxy, web, email, ntp, smb, dns) server.

This was a commodity desktop box, first built in 2005, running Ubuntu desktop server (I built it before the server version was available). Earlier this year it suffered some sort of hardware failure and became very ill and I finally switched off about a month ago. By then all the other users in the house had stopped using the proxy, which was the main benefit, as it was so unreliable.

So far I have only implemented the proxy (though ntp comes ‘for free’ via the raspbian distribution) and it seems fine. I have a 1TB USB disk attached to it so have plenty of space to get the other stuff done too.


Into the void

Voyager 1 is currently within the heliosheath ...
Voyager 1 is currently within the heliosheath and approaching interstellar space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Voyager 1 was launched in September 1977 and is now on the verge of truly entering interstellar space. Expect an announcement any time that this has indeed happened.

The fact that the satellite is still functioning and returning useful scientific data to Earth is a truly magnificent engineering achievement. Indeed there are good grounds for suggesting that the Voyager missions (Voyager 2 is also still functioning) are the most cost effective parts of the whole history of human space exploration.

Maybe it is time to think about building vehicles specifically with the aim of exploring the interstellar medium? Out there we could possibly find out a lot about the galaxy’s physics and that could help with other questions about the nature and formation of the universe.

Eta Carinae: humanity’s death sentence?

Drawing of a massive star collapsing to form a...
Drawing of a massive star collapsing to form a black hole. Energy released as jets along the axis of rotation forms a gamma ray burst that lasts from a few milliseconds to minutes. Such an event within several thousand light years of Earth could disrupt the biosphere by wiping out half of the ozone layer, creating nitrogen dioxide and potentially cause a mass extinction. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Probably not, thankfully. But this super massive star system, some 7,500 light years from earth (i.e., very roughly about 500 million times further away from us than the Sun) could really be some sort of threat.

New discoveries in astronomy suggest we could find out quite soon – any day now (and for next few thousand years) – just how dangerous it is. Indeed, for reasons I discuss below, sooner might be better than later.

At the core of Eta Carinae is a very massive star, perhaps the biggest in our galaxy, at about 30 solar masses. Stars of this size burn their basic nuclear fuel so quickly that they cannot generate enough internal pressure for very long to stave off gravity. A time comes when they start to collapse under their own weight – a process which, like a stone in free fall, accelerates. But as it does, it also drives up the star’s core temperature to ever higher values burning up elements in a fusion ‘reactor’ and indeed every element on Earth heavier than iron was generated in this way – before eventually triggering a supernova.

Such a supernova would see the star shed mass and emit more radiation than the rest of the galaxy combined. But even that would not stop the star’s collapse, which would continue at an ever accelerating rate and lead to an emission of the most deadly form of radiation known – a gamma ray burst – as the remnant heads towards becoming a black hole.

If such a burst hit the Earth then the consequences could be absolutely devastating – damaging our atmosphere as well as potentially exposing any one on the side of the planet facing the burst to huge quantities of ionising radiation (how much we do not know, as this has not happened, at least in human timescales).

Gamma ray bursts are believed to be emitted in the direction of the polar axes of rotation of the collapsing star and so if Eta Carinae were to blow tonight (or rather this night, 7,500 years ago) we would almost certainly be okay, given that we do not think those currently point anywhere near us.

The exploding star would, though, turn night into day for perhaps a few weeks or months. But the unknown factor is how the Eta Carinae system might change over time:  it is a binary system and the energy released as the star’s collapse began could upset the apple cart.

So why bring all this up now? Well, as reported in this week’s New Scientist, astronomers have confirmed that a star in a distant (67 million light years away) galaxy which recently was seen to go supernova exploded just three years after a so-called “supernova imposter” event when it shed a small but significant proportion of its mass. This is just the second time such a phenomenon has been observed by professional astronomers.

Eta Carinae was seen to flare up not two years ago but in the 1840s. Perhaps we are now 170 years overdue on the biggest fireworks display ever seen?

Not all astronomers agree. Some suggest Eta Carinae still has some many thousands of years to go before it starts to run out of fuel and so begins its final collapse. The truth is, we just do not know.

The great dumbing down debate

Standard matrix in mathematics
Standard matrix in mathematics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was a bit surprised to find this blog linked from a discussion forum via an entry that said I had proved that Maths ‘A’ level had dumbed down. I don’t think I have done any such thing – as I am not equipped to do so.

Of course, I’d love to be able to suggest my B grade from 1984 was equivalent to an A* today but on what basis? (And, of course, another bit wants me to say today’s kids, like my own daughters, are way ahead of where we were, but that’s not backed by evidence either.)

The only comments I had – on the lower marked questions – were that they were very similar indeed to questions that might appear on today’s papers. Nobody has yet passed comment on the higher marked question.

As to my own “dumbing down” – actually once I studied the questions a bit and despite the mess I made of the higher marked question – I came to realise that while I was very rusty none of this was really over my head (as an actual maths graduate said she found one of the easier questions beyond her without the aid of an external reference I don’t feel too disheartened by that.)

If I hadn’t been accepted on to the PhD I probably would have applied to do Maths at undergrad level at Birkbeck – my interest was sufficiently piqued by the MSc in Computer Science – and part of me even now thinks that’s what I really should have done…