Archive for June, 2005

No screws

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Imagine what the world would be like if the screw thread hadn't been invented. (That's just an example - it could just as well be something else that is similarly obvious-with-hindsight and is in everyday use, but it was screwing in wall anchors the other day that made me think of it.) The screw thread isn't really used much in nature (as far as I know) apart from on a very small scale so it is kind of plausible that somewhere out there there could be an alien species at a similar level of technology to us who just never thought of the concept of screw threads. It could be that (even despite having invented all sorts of other things) their minds are built in just such a way that the concept would never occur to them without having seen it. Maybe that when faced with the problem of converting linear motion into rotary motion, they use some other device (like the rack and pinion) or just somehow evade the problem altogether (by using nails instead, for example).

Now let's turn this hypothetical thought on its head and wonder if there could be some similarly simple and useful concept that we have just never thought of, that some alien species uses every day for all sorts of purposes. Some device that would easily solve all sorts of problems that we solve in much more complicated ways, just because nobody ever thought of the easy way of doing it. I imagine that when we do eventually make contact with intelligent alien species, that there will be all sorts of such "oh why didn't we think of that" moments (possibly on both sides, especially if it's a mutual first-contact situation). Probabably nothing as simple as the screw thread, but potentially all sorts of slightly more obscure things. Just one reason why the SETI project could pay big dividends if it is ever successful.

Things seen on the side of the road

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005

I was on the bus from Redmond to Seattle last week (thus redeeming myself environmentally, at least for a day) and it was going very slowly because people don't know how to merge out of the bus lanes. I found myself staring out of the window at the hard shoulder in the sort of way that you can't do when you're driving (even very slowly). I'm quite amazed at the collection of junk that can be seen there. Amongst the things I noticed were:
A bolt (which looked like the sort of thing that I would be extremely worried about if it were to fall off of my car at speed)
Two pillows
Several (very tatty looking) books
A shoe
Cardboard boxes
A small plastic alligator

I can't help wondering who the owner of the plastic alligator was and how upset he (or indeed she) was about losing the alligator. Maybe a rival sibling tormented the owner by throwing it out. Maybe the kid just didn't like the toy and decided to do a scientific experiment to see what happened to plastic alligators that get thrown out of the window of a car speeding down the freeway.

I spent most of today writing a long email explaining the workings of a significant chunk of the code I've been working on for the past 2.5 years or so, so that my successor can (hopefully) understand it. Kind of interesting to reflect back on a large project like that.

Yesterday I fixed two things: a mouse which had been dropped one too many times and had some loose connections and the knife magnet which had fallen off of the wall due to my not knowing much about DIY. I always find fixing things very satisfying when the job is well done.


Wednesday, June 15th, 2005

What's up with the silly little stickers they put on apples? I can understand the principle (supermarkets need some way for the checkout operators to determine exactly what sort of apple you're buying) but the organic Braeburn apples I bought the other day from QFC have stickers on them which seem to go out of their way to be difficult to remove. They have little perforations in them which means that if you grab hold of one part of the sticker and pull, the sticker just tears into at least 3 pieces.

Normally when stickers have perforations like that it's a tamper-proofing method - it's really difficult to remove the stickers without tearing them so they are good for situations where it's important to prove that the sticker has not been moved. But apples? Where the primary design consideration should be "easy to remove"? Are they worried that somebody might remove the stickers and put it them on the cheaper, non-organic apples? It makes no sense, no sense at all I tell you!

Seven deadly sins

Sunday, June 12th, 2005

I've never really liked the original 7 deadly sins.

Pride. What's wrong with taking pride in doing a good job at something? Without pride we would have no impetus to ever doing anything above the mediocre. I think the original idea behind this is that excessive belief in one's own abilities could interfere with one's recognition of the "supreme grace of God". But if God is so supreme why would He feel the need to limit our belief in our own abilities? Surely nobody is so proud that they think they can do anything that God can supposedly do? Also, take a look at modern technology today. We do things without thinking that would have been “in the realm of the Gods” a couple of thousand years ago. Without the pride of the creators of that technology, we would still be living in the dark ages.

Envy. Whilst there is such a thing as destructive envy I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. Envy can inspire one to greatness. If I see someone else who has something that I want I am inspired to better myself so that I can have one too. It’s only destructive if you try to take away something someone else has so that you can have it instead. But in that case it’s the taking (the action) that should be the sin rather than the envy which was the inspiration for it.

Gluttony. I can definitely see how this could be considered a sin in times or places where food was scarcer than it is now – eating more than you needed could mean someone else ended up starving. But that’s simply not true in today’s world. Enough food is grown to feed the whole world – huge amounts of food are destroyed every day. The problem is getting it to people who need it, not people eating more than their fair share. Now conceivably some people could eat less, spend less money on food and donate the spare money to charities which would feed the hungry. But in practice that wouldn’t happen – rather than donating the spare money to charity people would put it towards their next holiday or the house remodeling account. The sin there is lack of charity (selfishness) rather than gluttony.

Lust. That is a perfectly natural and wholesome phenomenon. We have evolved to lust in order to propagate the species. Without lust we would have no impetus to reproduce, or at the very least we would just reproduce with the first willing participant who came along rather than with somebody we are actually attracted to. Now again it is possible to take things too far and go around raping people but again the sin there would be the action rather than the feeling which inspired it. Denying lust is denying our own nature and doesn’t do anybody any good.

Anger. This one has inspired plenty of bad things but also (perhaps surprisingly) plenty of good things. Anger at some injustice inspires the injustice to be corrected. Without anger against tyrants, those tyrants would be running the planet. Unchecked anger (like so many other unchecked things) can be bad but again it is a natural emotion and has its purpose if we avoid being controlled by it (as most of us can).

Greed. Kind of redundant given that the same ideas are covered in Envy, Gluttony and Lust. Greed is nothing more than wanting to improve oneself (albeit materialistically) and without people wanting material goods much of the industry which sustains our society would collapse.

Sloth. In the field in which I work, laziness is a highly prized quality – if you can write a program to automate some repetitious task and save effort in the long run that is a very good thing. One can also avoid having to answer questions about that program by documenting it well. In both cases the world is better off in the long run. As most disciplines could in principle be automated this applies to fields other than programming too.

Here’s my proposal for a better set of sins for the modern age: Hate, Thoughtlessness, Boredom, Guilt, Insincerity, Cowardice and Regret.

Hate. Specifically, hate for hate’s sake – hate for no reason (or no reason that holds up to scrutiny). Much evil in the world comes from people hating people who are different somehow, or come from a different place or who believe different things to the hater.

Thoughtlessness. Be thoughtful in all you do, and the people who interact with you will thank you for it. If you’re thoughtless you will be inconsiderate of the lives of people around you and make them miserable. If everybody was thoughtful of others the world would be a much better place.

Boredom. If you’re bored you’re wasting your life. Do something constructive with that time – there’s much more to do in this universe (more books to read, more programs to write, more games to play) that you’ll ever have time for so make the most of what little time you have. Get rid of anything in your life that you find boring. If your job bores you, leave it and find something better to do, something that utilizes your unique talents better. If you don’t think you have any unique talents, spend some of that time you would be spending bored developing some. If there’s some job that bores everybody who tries it, it should probably be automated but won’t be as long as there are people who are prepared to do boring work for less money than it would take to do that automation.

Guilt. Some may find this an odd thing to consider a sin (especially Catholics, who seem to thrive on it). There are two types of guilt: (1) feeling guilty about something you have no control over and (2) feeling guilty about something that you do have control over. In neither case is guilt constructive. If your guilt is of type (1), get over it already because there’s nothing you can do. If your guilt is of type (2), just get on with doing the thing you’re feeling guilty about not doing. Guilt can generally be replaced with a “to do list”, avoiding a lot of stress and emotional baggage.

Insincerity. Life is too short for lying. While a little white lie may save feelings in the short term, it doesn’t help the person being lied to make better choices in the future. And in the long term, lies about anything important are always found out. Always be sincere in what you do and that sincerity will be recognized and respected - you will get a reputation as someone who can always be trusted to say what they really mean.

Cowardice. While some cowardice (avoidance of things which are likely to injure or kill you) is sensible, too many people are afraid of doing things just because they’re difficult, because they might fail, or from an over-inflated sense of the danger that is involved. The greatest rewards in life come from doing things which may seem terrifying at first, like moving to a new continent to start a new job, or asking out someone you’ve admired from afar. Cowering in the corner will get you nothing except a wasted life.

Regret. As with guilt, there are two types of regret – regret about something that you have no control over and regret if about something that you do have control over. If you have the means, fix it so that you no longer have that regret. If you don’t, well there isn’t much you can do but always try to live your life in such that way that at the end you will able to say that you regret nothing. Whenever there’s a decision to make – to do something or not to do something, think to yourself “am I more likely to regret doing this, or to regret not doing it”.

Fans and walks

Saturday, June 11th, 2005

Grrr, the IT group at work forcefully rebooted one of my work machines to install a patch, giving me only half an hour's notice and no opportunity to say "no, later". Trouble is, that machine has a fan problem (okay, a pen lid stuck in a non-essential fan to stop it rotating because it rattles) and whenever it reboots it sits at the BIOS screen saying "Fan failure - press F1 to continue" until I (or someone else) physically goes into my office and presses F1. There doesn't seem to be any way to disable this fan check. Fortunately I'm going out that way anyway this evening but it is still a bother.

I had a very pleasant walk to work and back yesterday through the arboretum (apart from the fact that it rained on me in Redmond). It was nice to leave my car at home for once but the entire journey took 70 minutes each way so I don't think I can afford the time to do that every day. I could shave quite a bit off that by cycling to the bus stop instead of walking but the walk through the woods was the best bit - I ought to try to find time to do that walk every week or two.

Yes, it's another "people in Seattle can't drive" rant - feel free to skip

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

Normally when I drive to work I'm sensible - I keep an eye on the Seattle traffic website and leave work either before the rush hour starts or after it finishes so I don't have to sit in traffic for ages. Today I wasn't. It got to about 4:30 and I didn't have anything else to do so I thought "Ok, I'll set off for home. Yeah I'll be sitting in traffic for a while but my car has air conditioning, I can listen to the radio and just sit and relax. It'll only take maybe twice the 20 minutes it usually does." To cut a long story short I was stuck on 520 for the best part of an hour and it wasn't relaxing because it wasn't just slow it was continuous stopping and starting so I keep concentrating.

If only every driver would just try to accelerate and brake more gently than the driver of the car in front and match their average speed we wouldn't have this problem and traffic would be better all around but no - everyone has to slam on the accelerator as soon as a tiny gap opens up (so that no-one can merge into it) and then slam on the brake at the last possible moment to avoid a crash. Very annoying.

Anyway, next time I am tempted to drive home during the rush hour I hope I remember how annoying it is and don't. Maybe this experience will encourage me to take the bus to work instead.

Work, skies and Doctor Who

Wednesday, June 8th, 2005

I kicked ass at work today. Not only did I make all the changes I said I was going to make to the performance regression prevention system analysis program but I even wrote a some beautiful documentation about it, complete with colours and screenshots. Now I just have to sit back and wait for the praise to pour in.

This week's Fark Farktography contest has some incredible sky pictures. I have to confess that I am slightly addicted to Fark. Not enough to want to post anything or to get a TotalFark account, thank goodness.

Miss Gennie and I just finished watching last month's Doctor Who two-parter ("The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances"). I have to say that that was one of the best pieces of TV sci-fi I have seen in a long time. It was brilliantly written, kept me guessing all the way through and was really quite creepy and scary in places. That show just keeps getting better and better. I can't believe we only have 3 episodes left to watch in the series.

Three books

Tuesday, June 7th, 2005

I have been meaning to post this for quite some time now. Three books I read recently (well, more like 5 months ago), all of which have something in common - they might just change the way you think about the universe.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Just about everything in this book has been done before but it's still quite something to see so many diverse branches of science presented in a compact, accessible format like that. And the descriptions of truly ancient forms of life that can still be found in remote areas of Australia today is really fascinating.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. A great idea well executed, and many people elsewhere on the web have written much about this book so I won't go into great length about it. But there is one part in particular which really made me think - the part about how the mind and consciousness works. This was really fascinating to me since in my opinion the mystery of consciousness is one of the great mysteries of the universe but the hero of this book says (effectively) "oh, this is how it works" and describes a very coherent theory in a very matter of fact way.

One of Us by Michael Marshall Smith. Smith is a British novelist who writes brilliant science fiction novels which are incredibly imaginative and superbly paced but also very very gory, gratuitously violent and disturbing. Actually "One of Us" is probably less gory and violent than the other two novels of his that I have read ("Only Forward" and "Spares") but still only recommended for the non-squeamish people. To say how this book explains the mysteries of the universe would be to give away the ending so I won't say any more about it here.

Godlessness and a twitchy eye

Monday, June 6th, 2005

My right eyelid has been twitching uncontrollably for several days now. I understand this is often caused by stress but I don't feel too stressed out and I have been sleeping well. I was a bit stressed out for a couple of days last week so maybe it just takes time to de-twitch.

I very much enjoyed listening to last week's episode of "This American Life" - I highly recommend it. Especially the second act, which is a very funny and thought provoking piece of writing well read.

Photos and no cars

Sunday, June 5th, 2005

It's about time I started posting on this thing again.

Here's a picture of me from sometime around 1982-1983:

(the girl on the right is Alice, a childhood friend).

And here's one of Miss Gennie:

I was looking at a fascinating website the other day - It's all about city design, specifically how to design cities in such a way that cars are not necessary. The six lobe reference design is particularly interesting, as is the design library which contains pictures of lots of interesting elements of (mostly European) cities designed without cars in mind. While I appreciate the convenience of having a car, I think on the whole I would prefer to live somewhere where having one isn't necessary (especially if no-one else there had one either so that the problems of car noise, pollution and getting run over would be eliminated.) When I was living in Cambridge I never felt the need to have a car and always thought how much nicer it would be if more of the streets were pedestrianized.