Sunday, 30 November 2014

SF book review: The Martian

Andy Weir.
The Martian.
Del Rey. 2014

The third Mars mission has had to evacuate and return home because of a dangerously strong storm. Due to a freak accident, Mark Watney is left for dead. But he’s not dead. And now he’s alone on Mars, without enough food, air, or energy to last the many months it would take rescue to arrive. Not that he can call for help. Nevertheless, he is an engineer…

This is a great adventure of engineer versus planet, in the old tradition: Apollo 13 meets Gravity meets A Fall of Moondust.

Watney is competent and resourceful, and he does have resources to be resourceful with: all the equipment the crew left behind when they abandoned Mars. Mars keeps throwing problems at him, and he keeps figuring out solutions, knowing that the first problem he can't solve will kill him for sure.

What makes this fun is all the engineering (although I’m sure it’s much harder than shown here); the little acid comments Watney keeps making about the entertainment choices of his departed crewmates; and the potatoes.

I am surprised that Watney didn’t realise that Earth would be able to see that he was still alive, but much of the rest of it rings sufficiently true to make this a thrilling adventure across the Red Planet.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

book review: Quiet

Susan Cain.
Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.
Penguin. 2012

Most of the Western world, and certainly the USA, is organised not only expecting but requiring everyone to be an extrovert. This is very tough on the large minority of the population who are actually introverts. Why are scientists and other thinkers required to go out and “sell” themselves and their ideas, whereas salespeople are not similarly required to reflect and ponder? Rather than advocating some form of “cure” for this minority, Susan Cain (a self-acknowledged introvert) sets out how these quiet ones can provide a positive benefit (because actually thinking about things is beneficial!) and how they can better organise parts of their work and social life to cope with being surrounded by their extrovert peers.

There’s lots of good stuff here, from the history of how the world became extrovert-focussed and so dismissive of introverts, the myth of leaders needing to be extroverts, how to nurture introvert (and extrovert) children, how introversion and shyness are not the same thing, why introverts make better long term investors, and much more.

If you prefer to recharge your mental batteries alone rather than at a party, or have a partner, friend or colleague who does, you should read this book.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

sequestering carbon, several books at a time XXXVI

This batch we got the hard way: walking in to shops, picking books off the shelves, and physically carrying them home.

After visiting the Lego BRICK event at the ExCel, we popped into central London, first to Foyles, then to Forbidden Planet.  The Lego event explains some of the purchases...

Foyles has moved a few yards down Charing Cross Road from when I was there last.  The shop that is now in its old location has made excellent reuse of its name:

The new Foyles is rather different in style from the way it used to be.  To be fair, it had been changing even in its previous location.  But I well remember the eccentric shelving by publisher, and the three separate queues (to get the books wrapped and stored, then to pay, and then to collect the paid-for books).  Now there is only one queue, and the shelving is less idiosyncratic.  However, I did fail to find the books on Python and Processing in the Programming Languages section: the Python books were mainly under Web (and the Nutshell volumes under O'Reilly, the publisher!), and the Processing books were with Graphics.  But that’s more a problem of having to have a single physical hierarchy.

Books are heavy.

Friday, 28 November 2014

bricks galore

Today was a holiday in London, at the Lego BRICK 2014 festival, in the ExCel.  (That’s the same huge building as the SF WorldCon this summer, but in a different huge hall.)

There were some tremendous pieces, like Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey
There was a good display of the latest generation of Lego Mindstorms, EV3, including a robot scorpion

and the Cubestormer, the record-breaking Rubik’s cube solver:

watch it in action on YouTube – don’t blink!
Not everything was a massive construction.  Some smaller pieces helped demonstrate the versitility.

the Platonic solids
Small bricks are just large pixels, so there were many pictures on display.  My favourite was this transition of millennia:

Lego Lascaux, complete with Lego prehistoric artists
the original, for comparison

It’s easier to do things like this with the large palette of colours available today.

a far cry from the old black, white, red, blue, yellow and green...
Trains were much in evidence, combining two standard passions.  Possibly my favourite was the nested train systems:

nested train systems
The upper small oval track system was itself mounted on two trains, one running on the lower large oval track, the other on the central narrow blue oval.  That itself was fun and clever, but then we spotted that lower train had a wagon hosting a tiny train running on its own little track, too!

It wasn’t just the Lego itself that was a blast from the past.

Thunderbirds Are Go!
It all started getting a bit self-referential with the merchandising, though:

the videogame based on the movie based on the toy
full circle: the toy based on the movie based on the toy

We had a great time looking at all the displays, and also bought about £10 worth of bits (given the price of the entrance tickets, and the train fares, it was quite an expensive £10 purchase). Being a Friday, it wasn’t too crowded; I expect the Saturday will be packed.

Also, I can highly recommend the ExCel’s Orange and Chocolate muffins: they are delicious, and go brilliantly with the coffee.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Evernote Business cards

I posted the following query to the Evernote Life community on Google+

I’ve recently gone Premium (for the upload), and have just tried the Business Card function.

The resulting note is horrible, because the field where I can add my own notes isn’t a fully functional space – eg, I can’t paste a link to the note of the meeting where I met the person (except as a full URL, not as an “internal” green link); I can’t paste a photo of the person; I can’t even change the font/colour of the text!

So I copied the note contents into a new “ordinary” note, then made all these edits.

Why is everyone raving about this?  What am I missing?

(No, I’m not connected to LinkedIn; I’m not a member, and don’t intend to change that.)

I got several helpful suggestions, plus confirmation that I was not missing something: for some reason, this restriction is the designed behaviour!

The suggestion I have adopted is to use the merge function to merge the business card note with another note containing the extra information I want (or, as I discovered, just with a blank new note).  The result is a fully editable note, but with the business card information left in its formatted state.

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Monday, 24 November 2014

first frost


car bonnet, closeup, 9:30am

Saturday, 22 November 2014

on not reinventing the wheel

Standards for Scientific Graphic Presentation is a lovely article by Jure Triglav on rediscovering best practice standards (from a document from 1914!) for displaying scientific figures.

(via writeLaTeX)

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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Design in the Park

I was at a two day workshop on Design: Shape & Structure in Leeds this week.  Part of the event involved technical conversations in small groups as we walked around the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Some of the sculpture I liked very much:

Ursula von Rydingsvard
Some was fun:

Marialuisa Tadei, Octopus, 2011

Some I thought was a bit pretentious:

Richard Long, Red Slate Line, 1986 (part of “walking as art”)

And a lot more I didn’t photograph.

At one point I was reminded of the amazing abilities of the human eye.  The two photographs below are of the exact same scene (as you can see from the shape of the treetops), one focused on the ground, one on the sky:

14:30 GMT, and the sun is already that low…
The shot on the left has a greatly over-exposed sky; the one on the right has a very underexposed foreground.  Yet to my eye at the time, the foreground appeared as in the shot on the left, whilst the sky looked like the one on the right (in fact, it was the glorious sunbeams that made me take the shot).  I am sure I could have got a better photo with something a bit more sophisticated than my phone-camera, of course.

As we were leaving, I spotted this very square tree, looking almost like a sculpture itself:

what growth rules result in this shape?
As a way of getting to know the research interests of the other members of the workshop, of getting fresh air, and of getting muddy shoes, I can highly recommend this walk-and-talk approach.

Monday, 17 November 2014


The view walking down from the car park this morning: tree in sunbeam.

8:02 GMT, Heslington East Campus, York

Sunday, 16 November 2014

TV review: Doctor Who, new season 8

Season review: I kissed the Master, and I liked it

We are back to the days when the Doctor was a grownup, not one of the lads. Peter Capaldi is an older, grimmer, angrier Doctor, and a better actor, adding depth to the character, and pulling better performances from Jenna Coleman (Clara), too.

There were a few clunkers of episodes this season, and it was a pity it started with one. Despite the ever-welcome presence of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax (when are they getting their own series?), Deep Breath was just trying too hard. And the less said about Kill the Moon, the better.

The little arc teasers running through the season culminated in a two part finale, with its grandiose, but rather sick, premise. Since I found Danny Pink rather uncharismatic, I couldn’t get that upset by his part in the finale, only with its shattering conclusion (see what happens when you aren’t honest with each other?).

Then the finale lost its nerve, with that little advert for the Christmas special.

For all my SF TV reviews, see my main website.

Friday, 14 November 2014

only time will tell

I like this clever tautology, to potentially infinite regress…

it’s right angle o’clock

(via Hiroki Sayama via Tim Hutton)

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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Seriously ESA, WTF?

I’m really excited by Rosetta and the Philae landing on comet 67P/Churyumox-Gerasimenko today.

Philae landed on this!

Seriously ESA, WTF?

The Business Insider article puts it clearly:
Taylor recently participated in a live online chat with the Wall Street Journal in which he was asked how he gained acceptance in such a respected field while sporting sleeve-length tattoos. 
He responded, "The people I work with don't judge me by my looks but only by the work I have done and can do. Simple." 
If only women could hope to someday be judged that way too. 

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bangers and mashup

Makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

(via BoingBoing)

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Monday, 10 November 2014

sequestering carbon, several books at a time XXXIV

The latest batch:

The Home Plumbing Manual is in response to a leak that has now been fixed, but we hope to be better prepared next time.

I have already blogged on the Beta Life book launch.

Cobra Guardian arrived a while ago in a rather sorry state; it has since been sitting under a heavy weight to become a little less bent, but still has an interesting curve to its cover.

Friday, 7 November 2014

strange new worlds

Look at the image below, from Sean Carroll’s blog, and try to work out the idea, before reading the answer in the comments there.

what’s special about this world?

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Sunday, 2 November 2014

who’s idea is it anyway?

After solving our recent book storage problem, we decided to tackle the lack of storage in the bedroom.  We had a wall with a couple of old bookshelves, a tatty old chest of drawers, and a small ottoman, with everything piled higgledy-piggledy.  We decided to to replace these with some proper wardrobes.

Googling around, we came across something that looked plausible, from Ikea.  Not being previous Ikea-ites, this required a bit more research before splashing out.  I was a bit dubious, frankly, so one evening after work I drove over to the Leeds Ikea, and wandered the maze of twisty little caverns, snapping photos of the installations we had identified via the web.  We looked these over at the weekend, and decided they seemed fine.

There’s also a spiffy little online design tool, so we played around with various options for quite some time, before deciding on a configuration.  This was great, as we ended up with something quite different from our original ideas.  We ordered it, paid an extra £35 for delivery, and sat back to wait.

that’s a lot of flat-pack
Six carcasses, 16 drawers, 8 baskets, and 22 shelves take up surprising little space when packed flat.

The first weekend we tackled construction, we managed to erect two of the carcasses.

two down, four to go
The first one took us two hours to build.  The instructions are all pictorial, and quite clear (although do require careful peering in places to see orientations), but we went slowly at first to ensure no mistakes.  By the time we built the final carcass, a couple of weeks later, we were down to less than half an hour.

ready for the shelves (the ice cream cartons are to hold the various fixings)
Once we had connected the carcasses together, and attached them to the wall, they were rock steady.  All that remained was installing the shelves and drawers.

the finished construction, awaiting content
The drawers were the most complicated to assemble, so again we started slowly and carefully, but by the 16th, we were fairly ripping along.

I was very impressed with the build quality.  Sure, the “wood” is laminate over fibreboard, but the fixings are solid, and everything fits together snugly, solidly, and firmly.

Given the number of carcasses, shelves, and drawers, we managed some small process improvements as we went.  One of these was rather peculiar.  On the bottom of each drawer are a couple of plastic clips that hold the drawer on the runners.  The instructions say to install the clip after the drawer is placed on the runners; this is quite fiddly to do.  As we were assembling the drawers for the second small carcass, Charles said: “let’s put the plastic bits in before we install the drawers”.  So I took the drawer we’d just assembled, turned it over, and pushed the clips in place.  “Oh, I meant the plastic bits for the shelves, but that looks a good idea.”  It was: it made the drawers much easier to install.

So, it was a good idea, but who actually had it?  I was just following what I thought Charles had suggested; he was actually suggesting something quite different!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

go pro

I’ve been using Evernote for a couple of years now.  I started out using is as a lab daybook, as a clippings commonplace book, and for taking notes at science fiction cons and at scientific conferences.  After following Jamie Todd Rubin’s excellent Going Paperless blog tips, I’ve been increasing my use of Evernote for everything: bills, manuals, tracking online purchases, travel expenses, presentation slides, everything.  Like all such things, the more content I store in it, the more useful it becomes.

With this ever-extending use, I’ve found myself hovering precariously close to my free version 60MB monthly upload limit these last few months.  So today, I crossed over, and went Premium. £35 a year is less than 10p a day, and given how much I use Evernote for everything now, that’s just peanuts.

So I was looking forward to my monthly limit being upgraded to 1GB.  But when I clicked sync to refresh the usage counter, I discovered it is now 4GB a month.  Wow!

I’m fairly confident my usage won’t change enough to start hovering close to that limit!  I may start archiving some past paper material, though, so you never know…