Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Warning! Warning! New Laptop Encountered!


    So at last my new company computer arrived. And, like all competent technology users, I carefully perused the operating manual before starting it up the first time. You never know, it might say something important. And what I found has made me wonder if I actually dare use it at all.

    For a start, the machine is supposed to be a Windows 8 equipped touch-screen laptop, but amongst the dire warnings on the “Safety Precautions” page is this:

    Perhaps the latest update to Windows incorporates voice recognition or mind-reading capabilities instead. Though, I’m not sure the machine is actually a laptop at all. It also says:

    Obviously that’s why they have to call them “Notebooks” now. It’s probably some EU directive designed to protect careless users from “hot leg syndrome”. In fact there’s even a section labeled “DC Fan Warning” on page 5 of the manual that says “the DC Fan is a moving part that may cause DANGER” (their capitals) and that you should “ensure you keep your body from the moving fan blades”. I reckon you’d need to have a body even smaller than a size zero fashion model, or at least have very thin fingers, to fit through the grille.

    But, moving on, there’s also useful advice for that situation when you have a problem with your domestic heating system, and decide to email the supplier to ask for advice:

    And should you decide, after all these warnings, to take a chance and use the computer there’s also some additional precautions you should take when selecting USB leads and other peripherals. For example, it seems that I should only use leads that are made here in the UK rather than any that might be classed as “foreign”:

    Mind you, because the computer was (like every other item of technology I own) made in China, maybe it means I should only use Chinese leads and peripherals.  Or does it mean that I CAN carefully insert foreign objects into it, and it’s only a problem when I carelessly or brutally “shove” them into the machine?

    And then, last of all, it says that “incorrect installation of battery may cause explosion and damage”. Perhaps I should get our ‘Elf and Safety people to have a good look at the machine first before I risk my life (and sanity) by switching it on...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Monkeys, Castles, Seals, and the Seaside


    With our Big Data guide now finished (at least for the preview release) I managed to grab a few days off to clear my head of pigs, ants, beehives, and furry yellow elephants. And to try and figure out where we go next on the Azure guidance path. Mind you, much of my vacation time seems to have involved meeting several other types of wildlife.

    It started with a trip to Monkey Forest. Compared to Monkey World in Dorset, which we visited some while back, it’s much less dramatic; but still worth a visit. It’s basically what it says on the tin - a forest with a hundred or so Barbary macaques roaming freely.

    They’re docile creatures that seem quite happy to have humans wandering around, and - unlike the wild monkeys you see in places like Gibraltar that steal handbags and sunglasses - they are neither aggressive nor noisy (in fact, mostly they seem to be asleep). However, a few did manage to stay awake long enough to have their photos taken, including several very young ones that are as lively as you’d expect. And most did show some signs of activity at feeding time, as you can see in the photos here.

    Another day out was to Ripley Castle, a place my wife had seen on TV and wanted to visit. As there’s a town called Ripley only a few miles away from our house I gladly agreed, thinking it would save me fuel and a long trip in the car. Except that the Ripley with the castle is in North Yorkshire instead. It’s a “planned village” that was built by the owner of the castle and is a heritage area, so it’s still very old-world and historical. And very pretty.

    The castle itself is part occupied by the owners, but has large sections available for weddings and other functions, beautiful gardens, a deer park (though we never saw any deer), and a superb selection of rooms that are part of a guided tour. The lady guide was excellent and the historical tour was fascinating, including tales of visits by kings and by Oliver Cromwell and his army. And interesting details of the huge range of artifacts on show, including the fact that in bygone times shoes were not made as a left and right pair - you just bought two the same and wore them till they fitted your feet (or until your feet fitted them).

    Our final trip of the week was to the delightfully named seaside town of Mablethorpe. We have a rule in our house that you can’t have a holiday unless you get to see the sea at some point. My wife had never been to Mablethorpe so it was a voyage of adventure for her. Though, purely by chance, we parked the car next to the Mablethorpe Seal Sanctuary and Wildlife Park. So it was immediately obvious where we’d start our adventure.

    And I have to say I was surprised to find how extensive it turned out to be. The entry price was just a few pounds, but - as well as the seals we expected to see – there’s a tour through pre-history that shows how the area evolved over the last 300 million years, followed by a wide range of rescued birds and animals including owls, ostrich, various seabirds, lynx, meerkats, and more. And monkeys, just in case we hadn’t seen enough already.

    The only real downside of the week was discovering that the unusual badger that comes to visit us at home had been killed (probably hit by a car). We’ve been watching him for a while on our garden and tree cameras. Mostly we see him at night illuminated by the infra-red lights, and so the pictures are monochrome rather than color. But it’s clear that he didn’t have the usual black stripes of other badgers; instead he seems almost albino. As you can see from the photo below, taken after his demise, he really was an unusual color.

    We’d be interested to hear from anyone who has seen badgers like this, or can provide any more information. Perhaps, with luck, we’ll see some similar colored cubs visiting later this year...


  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    The Moving Hoover Hooveth


    Would you buy a vacuum cleaner just for your cat to play with? After my wife watched some videos on YouTube where kittens were chasing and sitting on top of one of those robotic UFO-shaped vacuum cleaners, I was informed in no uncertain terms that we should have one for our two cats to play with.

    And by happy coincidence it was coming up to my wife’s birthday, so it seemed like an obvious gift choice. But here’s the problem – these days it seems like giving household necessities as gifts is a thing of the past. If I bought my wife a new ironing board as a Christmas present I’m sure I’d be in the dog-house.

    Is this something that’s gradually changed over the years? I can remember, many years ago when I worked in a hardware store, that our Christmas window displays were full of useful gift ideas. Power tools, a lawnmower, or a toolbox complete with a comprehensive range of wood screws for him; and for her a washing machine, the latest design in enamel saucepans, and deluxe sets of clear cookware. And, of course, an ironing board.

    But casting fears aside, and taking my chance in the domestic relationship stakes, I bought an iRobot cleaner and presented it to my good lady on the day. And, thankfully, she was delighted. However, the nub of this week’s post is that, having added yet another computer-controlled example of modern technology to our household, I can’t just relax. As a typical geek, I need to know how it works.

    OK, so I know that it learns the shape of rooms by bumping into things. But the fact that it slows right down before it bumps into something indicates there must be some other sensors in use. And how does it find its way back to the charging station when it’s not in line of sight? From memory? It’s not as though it follows any pattern that you can figure out as it seemingly randomly navigates its way from room to room. And every now and then it flashes up a message that it’s “spot cleaning” some area. How does it recognise the bits that need extra cleaning?

    So much for thinking it would save me time. Instead of hoovering myself, now I have to follow it around pondering on the program it’s running and trying to figure out how it does it. It even seems to have a sense if fun. After pushing the tray containing the cats’ food dishes into the middle of the hallway, much to the chagrin of the cat who was watching at the time, it managed to find one of the table tennis balls the cats occasionally deign to pat across the floor. For several minutes it carefully nudged the ball across the lounge carpet, into the hall, and finally lost it under a cupboard.

    Maybe, after a few days, it won’t bother cleaning the floor and will just play ball with the cats instead. I could have bought them a clockwork mouse for a fraction of the price…


  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    An Insight Into The Future Of Data Analysis?


    It seems like everything is "HD" these days. Your laptop has a "high density" plastic case, your car has a "heavy duty" battery, and your TV has a "high definition" picture. So I guess it's only to be expected that your data analysis tools will be "highly distributed". And at last we're "happily done" with our guide to HDInsight.

    Yep, after several months fighting with Microsoft's Big Data solution we've shipped the first version of our guide to Windows Azure HDInsight, based on the current preview release. It's been one of the most troublesome guides in terms of figuring out the structure and the content boundaries; and interfacing with the exciting world of open source technologies (as I ruminated about just a few weeks ago). But we got it all together in the end.

    Our guide contains the obligatory "What is Big Data" section, as well as describing how HDInsight integrates with the rest of the Microsoft data platform. Then there's a chapter about loading data, one about performing queries and transformations, and one about consuming the data. From there on in the guide discusses automating the whole data analysis process; plus the usual management and monitoring topics as well.

    What's likely to be of most interest to developers, however, are the scenario chapters and associated code examples that show how you can use HDInsight in four distinct ways: as an experimental platform for investigating interesting data, as an extract/transform/load (ETL) mechanism for data validation and cleansing, as a data warehouse that you can turn on and off on demand, and as a data source for your existing enterprise business intelligence (BI) systems.

    Here's our tube map for the guide:


    Unlike most other books and guides, we've concentrated on integration of HDInsight with your existing business processes, and combining it with data analysis and visualization tools such as Power View and GeoFlow, as part of an end-to-end solution. Yes, it's Microsoft-centric - but, hey, that's who pays my wages...


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