Monday, 28 July 2008

Frederik Pohl, Science Fiction and Google Book Search

May's Dad bought her a sci-fi book last Christmas, which I duly pinched and read first. The book was "Gateway" by Frederik Pohl, and it was spectacularly good. Published in 1977, it's a sci-fi book that's more about people and relationships than it is about technology and as such it's barely aged at all. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I've decided to read some more Pohl books, moving onto "Man Plus" which I got from Winchester Library.

The premise of "Man Plus" is that the human race are getting close to ruining Earth and so the Americans have decided to send a man to Mars. To do this, they start with a human and then heavily cyborgify him, including fitting cyborg eyes. The first attempt fails spectacularly because the poor human brain can't deal with the overwhelming amount of input coming from the sweet new cyborg eyes and gently explodes. On the 2nd attempt they decided to run the output from the cyborg eyes through a computer to mediate the huge range seen by the eyes into a form that the human brain can deal with and process. Check this out:

"... the prosthetic and surgical teams began doing things that had never been done to any human being before. His entire nervous system was revised and all the major pathways connected with coupling devices that led to the big computer downstairs. That was an all purpose IBM 3070. It took up half a room and still did not have enough capacity to do all the jobs demanded of it. It was only an interim hookup. Two thousand miles away, in upstate New York, the IBM factory was putting together a special-purpose computer that would fit into a backpack."

"... The backpack computer was rated at 99.9999999999999 percent reliable in every component, but there were something like 108 components. There was a lot of backup, and a full panoply of cross-input paths so that failure of even three or four major subsystems would leave enough capacity to keep Roger going. But that wasn't good enough. Analysis showed that there was one chance in ten of critical-path failure within half a Martian year. So, the decision was made to construct, launch, and orbit around Mars a full-size 3070, replicating all the functions of the backpack computer in triplicate."

Proper amazing scenes right there. Both "Gateway" and "Man Plus" are getting a strong recommend from me.

To write this post I thumbed through the book for about 10 minutes trying to find the sections I wanted to quote, and then remembered reading about Google Book Search. The goal of this Google project is to digitize every book in existence and make it available and searchable online. After initial outrage from the publishing houses, increasing numbers are signing up to make 20% of each book readable for free online because they've realised that doing so drives printed book sales.

So, to make this post I used Google Book Search to find the search term '3070' within the book and tell me which pages in the book to look at, brilliant!

Looking further, I discovered that as well as searching all books, you can also search only for books that are available partially or fully online. Very very cool.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Driving in Glasgow

I was up in Glasgow last week and was quite taken with the usage of the electronic road signs in the area. The displayed messages ranged from the pedestrian:

to the obvious:

through to the downright esoteric:

I haven't seen such far reaching use of electronic roadside signs before, so I've devised 3 theories as to why it may be different to other locations:
  1. Some 'clever' chappy noticed that sign utilisation was low and implemented a plan to increase usage.
  2. People in Glasgow don't drive too well and require reminders about driving basics.
  3. Like me, visitors to Glasgow will be driving rented Kia Cee'd's from Hertz with the indicators on the wrong side of the wheel and will be so confused by the wipers coming on every time they try and change lane that they need all the help they can get.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Efficient Dynamics (or uptime vs start time)

Last week Jamie's girlfriend's Mini was in the garage and as such he was driving around in a new 120D SE. He was so taken with the "Efficient Dynamics" that he took me out for a spin at lunch to experience it. When you pull up to the lights and flick into neutral, the engine stops, leaving behind an eerily quiet cabin which is actually a little disconcerting. Then, as soon as you put the clutch it, the engine gives a little cough and switches instantly back on. I remember being taught that starting a car engine is a resource hungry operation, now either technology has advanced a lot or huge start up cost is an urban myth. Either way, I was left wondering just exactly what they've done and how they've done it. So much so that I read some more about all the cool features included in the Efficient Dynamics package.

I also got to thinking (briefly) how the engine modifications to enable super-fast start up time are analogous with the JVM changes in support of IBM's new WebSphere sMash initiative.

Also, it's a bold and welcome move that BMW have rolled out Efficient Dynamics across the majority of their model range, it's a move that not only benefits the environment but also helps the consumer by lower company car tax (stop/start cheats the CO2 numbers) and increasing fuel economy. Impressive stuff.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Late to the party: Halo 3 Theatre

I've been replaying Halo 3 co-op on Legendary with Basement and andyw and thought I'd post a few screenies from the almost-great theatre mode.

After me and Rich spent a fair while time trying to recreate the mastery of this, we finally gave up and settled on a more conventional method of taking out a scarab, or so we thought...

1. Something wicked this way comes...

2. What's tha?

3. I can haz?

4. Where's that weak spot then? Hold on, I think I can make that!
5. Travelling... so... s l o w l y

6. Yes, made it. In ur face Elite.

7. See ya, core!

8. Teh winz.

The theatre mode in Halo 3 that enabled me to take those screens is a great idea, but flawed in execution. For Campaign mode, you can only move forward through a movie, not rewind, and the fast forward function tops out a 4x. As you can imagine, gathering these screens took me a little while!

Monday, 14 July 2008

Ocado - stupid name, impressive service

I'm something of a stickler for customer service, but credit where credit is due, Ocado are impressive. We decided to give them a go based on their Tesco Price Match policy on branded goods and also because RSI related issues have made carrying heavy shopping a bit of a ball ache. Sign up was simple and the web site works well - once you've checked out your order you can even go back later to add items as you think of them. They have the required selection of 1/2 price, bogof and 3 for 2 deals and the "you may also like" is pretty accurate. Delivery can be picked in 1hr slots throughout the day and night, all at varying price points and a little green van icon even shows you when the van will be in your area so that you can help them reduce their amount of travel and save the planet.

The emailed receipt contains a .ics calendar file for you to import and they stay in touch with friendly reminder text messages, check this one out: "Dear Mr Poultney. Welcome to Ocado. Here's a little reminder of your 8pm-9pm order. It will be delivered by Tony in Strawberry Van KF53... You have no missing items."

Here's Tony's van:

Your order arrives in colour-coded bio-degradable bags, green for freezer, orange for fridge and purple for cupboard and Ocado ask that you return your bags to the driver of your next delivery. Also included was a welcome pack including a 35g bar of Lindt dark chocolate and a voucher for a free bottle of wine with our next order over £40 before the 28th of July. Way to impress and guarantee repeat business, Ocado clearly get that it's little things that make all the difference.

Also, basement jacks neatly pointed out that RewardNow (available to IBMer and probably other corporate employees) offers an 8.5% discount on Ocado/Waitrose/John Lewis vouchers meaning that we can get a little extra free with each order on top of all the nice things Ocado have given us.

There have only been 2 minor flies in the ointment:
1. Tony was fully an hour and a half early so we missed his first visit.
2. Bruised strawberries, I've requested a refund on the web site (very easy) and they'll action in the next 72 hours.

I think we may now be Ocado devotees. Going to the supermarket is now officially for nOObs.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

A note on: Travel

I got picked up at 6.30am last Sunday to fly out to Miami and am now blogging from the IBM site in Boca Raton. I flew with American Airlines for the first time in ages, and it was crappy. I was told at check-in that I had an exit row, but that turned out to be a big lie and I was in the middle of a row. On realisation of this, rather than sitting straight down, I hovered until almost everyone else was sat down and then swooped on a spare aisle seat which made the flight just bearable. In flight I got a rude reminder of what a grumpy bunch the AA cabin crew are; they're all getting a bit long in the tooth and make you feel like anything you ask for is a real inconvenience to them. As a serial stander on flights, watching them nattering in the back of the plane it seemed like they were way more interested in their own activities (eating, reading, sudoku, gossiping) than in helping passengers have a pleasant experience.

What was my point? Oh yeah, pleasant experience. Here's some of the things that help to contribute to my comfort and enjoyment when travelling:

Nike Dri-Fit tees - cool when it's hot, hot when it's cool, these are very flexible and keep me comfortable. One of these and a micro fleece and you're pretty much set for anything.

Shure EC3 headphones - wearing these with the foam sleeves results in a combination of ear plugs and headphones which block out external noise so you can keep your volume down low and your ears relaxed. As an added benefit, you can't hear people talking to you so they're good for nOOb avoidance too.

OGIO Street laptop pack - this sweet rucksack has a plethora of pockets and is a really nice size to manage everything you need for 1 or 2 nights away. I have an Extreme Blue branded one courtesy of Matt Whitbourne.

Ear plugs -this is a trick I learnt from May. Always, always, always take earplugs. Then no matter where you end up you can shut out the world and get some sleep.

Samsonite Sahora Spinner luggage - When I were a boy, suitcases didn't even have wheels, now they have 4 wheels. Once you've tried a case with 4 wheels there's no going back; 4 wheels means you can gently push rather than drag your case and also spin it round and round hilariously as you walk.

Clinique Travel Essentials - it's cool to take care of your face, so I use Clinique's cleansing/shaving/moisturising gear in less than 100ml containers so they can go in my hand luggage.

Back to American Airlines - they have this slogan: "We know why you fly". I can only assume they've interpreted why I fly as because I enjoy being served by surly staff, watching badly dubbed "films" and eating not very nice food. I prefer my own interpretation which is "because work make me".

Friday, 4 July 2008

Half year flying milage

Here's a few stats about my air travel in the first half of the year. Distances are derived from the excellent (if a little old school) Great Circle Mapper.

Total miles: 27293
Total flights: 20 (20% Personal - 80% Business)
Destinations: Munich (3), Frankfurt (2), Berlin (1), Las Vegas (1), Jersey (1), Manchester (1), Vancouver (1).

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Status: June

(I managed to lose the first 5 days here - Facebook has a fairly short memory it seems)

June 6
12:15am Tim is digging Barefoot's cover of Born Slippy.
10:22am Tim is so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night.
5:55pm Tim is unreasonably excited by having an Oyster card.
11:54pm Tim is disappointed with Summer Strallen's overacting but well pleased w ith encountering Dave Seaman in Mal London. Shame it was 4-6.

June 7
6:25pm Tim is defending his title as Tesco Basingstoke charity quiz supremo.

June 8
10:45pm Tim is sad the weekend is over.

June 9
5:56pm Tim is en route to Heathrow, going to Germany. Again.
11:27pm Tim is in Munich, has joined the Holiday Inn loyalty card to get a free drink (No Booze June has a new "working abroad" exception) and has ordered pillo w #2.

June 10
5:39pm Tim is at Munich airport admiring other people's luggage, ah Mandarina Du ck.
8:33pm Tim is back at LHR, pondering the whereabouts of his taxi.

June 11
1:23pm Tim finds parking in Winchester and then catching a train unusable.
11:42pm Tim is now exposed to the stock markets.

June 12
8:13pm Tim is overdrawn through zealous investment.

June 14
3:25pm Tim is still skint.

June 15
2:15pm Tim is operation tidy up.

June 16
2:20pm Tim is uninspired today.

June 17
9:49am Tim is preparing his letter to the Chancellor.
6:23pm Tim is disappointed that Mozilla can't handle the traffic.

June 18
12:23am Tim is rocking Firefox3 - and participated in the world record attempt.
5:01pm Tim is glad he's got a massage tonight.
8:01pm Tim is debating

June 21
3:14pm Tim is rocking a new haircut, gratis. Thanks Tom.
8:50pm Tim is impressed by Nicotine Smile.

June 22
12:17pm Tim is at Hillier checking out Art in the Garden's ridiculous prices.
8:25pm Tim is watching EUFOR become
11:46pm Tim is awake now awake now waaaaaah.

June 23
9:53am Tim is back on the foils.

June 24
7:55pm Tim is back home.

June 27
9:41am Tim is concerned that Labour have been beaten by the BNP in Henley.
2:13pm Tim is working on some IP.
7:57pm Tim is waiting for Fin/Marl to go to sleep.

June 28
4:27pm Tim is tired out from running about in the park and getting elbow dropped by small children.

June 29
12:27am Tim is waiting on Sasha.
3:39pm Tim shopping for Kettles.
6:28pm Tim playing Halo3.
11:50pm Tim is filled with haloumi.

June 30
2:29pm Tim got one of those out of the blue recruitment phone calls.
11:53pm Tim just watched the Assasination of Jesse James.