Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    More Night-time Wildlife


    As summer continues to exhibit its typical level of weather unpredictability here in Ye Olde England, the effects of our harsh spring have faded and everything is in bloom as though nothing untoward had happened. Everywhere you look, the countryside in this part of our green and pleasant land seems to be at its best.

    Even the usual populations of bees and butterflies are evident, despite warning from experts that their existence was under threat. Though there is a marked shortage of people's favourite insect - the red and black spotted ladybird - due, they say, to the low number of aphids compared to previous years. And, although we recently had a spell of very hot and dry weather, even the lawns are looking pristine; while the assorted shrubs in my garden are defeating any attempt to keep them under control. From my "alternative office", a desk in the conservatory, even the dull days are filled with the wonderful sights and sounds of an English summer.

    Best of all, however, is the confirmation that our local wildlife has survived the winter and still considers our garden to be a welcome stop on their night-time (and sometimes daytime) travels. The local fox family seems to have produced two cubs this year, rather than the more usual three, and there's evidence of young badgers in the woods next door. Though, so far, none of the light-coloured variety like the one we sadly lost some weeks ago.

    As usual, my wildlife camera has been keeping watch. This time I set it to movie mode rather than still picture mode. The results aren't perfect at night because it takes a couple of seconds to start up the infra-red LEDs and stabilize the picture after detecting movement. And, typically, only one in fifty of the movies captures anything of interest - especially when we seem to be on the main route that all of our neighbours' cats use during their night-time constitutionals.

    But, in case you are interested, I've posted a short video of extracts. The quality is not great, as the original was over 60 MB as so I reduced the frame size to make it more manageable. See if you can figure out what is shown in the first two clips; something scooting down and back up a small shrub, and then what might be a bat flying slowly past the camera.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    The Little Bang Theory?


    According to a news item this week it seems that both CBS television and the City of London may need to do some serious rebranding, and they might even have to rename the Hubble Space Telescope. Though mathematicians and physicists will no doubt be pleased because now they won’t have to invent weird stuff to make their equations work at the instant of creation.   

    According to the article, some scientists and astronomers are coming round to the opinion of Christof Wetterich at Heidelberg University that there never was a "Big Bang" - instead, Edwin Hubble was wrong and the Universe is pretty much static and is not expanding. Christof suggests that the red shift in the color of stars, which Hubble used as proof of the expansion, is due instead to changes in atomic mass rather than acceleration away from us.

    Therefore the Universe couldn’t have started from a singularity that exploded. Though they do admit that it might be a combination of the two factors; the Universe is slowly expanding as well as the atoms in it changing their mass. So, maybe there was a Big Bang but - like a car running out of petrol - everything gradually came to a stop. Perhaps this lends support to Stephen Hawkins suggestion that the Universe will stop expanding and start to contract again, leading to the Big Crunch where everything goes back to being a singular point - and then explodes in a new Big Bang.

    But I suppose it will make space travel much simpler in the future. Instead of worrying how humans will survive the long journey to the nearest solar system, we can just wait till it comes nearer...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Soft Drink Cans and a Man Named Norman


    So I finally got round to reading Bill Bryson's book "A Short History of Nearly Everything". OK, so it's not quite as entertaining as some of his travel guides, but it is amazingly full of things that make you go "Wow" and "Can you believe it?" I especially liked the bits about soft drink cans and a man named Norman.

    I can vaguely remember learning about Avogadro's Number (the number of molecules in a couple of grams of hydrogen) when I was studying chemistry a great many years ago, and I know it's a big number. A really big number. Much bigger that the kind of numbers we computer people usually play with. And the book also shows how bad we are at explaining how big our numbers are.

    For example, we often talk about the lack of publicly available IPv4 addresses and explain that the new IPv6 mechanism will provide enough for everyone on the planet to have a trillion each. Unless you can envisage how many people live on this planet, and what a trillion looks like, it's all pretty uninformative. But when you hear how Avogadro's Number is described in the book you get a much more realistic impression of its size. Supposedly, when converted into the same number of soft drink cans, there would be enough to cover the entire planet with a stack two hundred miles high. Now you really get that "big number" feeling.

    Bill's book also talks a lot about biology, and illustrates how flighty and unreliable we computer programmers are. We casually skip from one technology to another, flip between programming languages, and wander through the forests of patterns and frameworks that make our life easy. It just demonstrates how little real concentration we have compared to the guy named Norman who worked in the Natural History Museum in London.

    Norman steadfastly spent forty-two years studying one species of plant, St. John's Wort. And after he retired he still came into work one day a week to continue his task. Imagine what it would be like if you had to spend most of your working life just producing better implementations of the Singleton design pattern.

    Still it could be worse. I read in the newspaper this week that the team at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider think they've discovered a whole new Standard Model on which all physics is based, possibly rendering the old one obsolete. You have to feel sorry for Peter Higgs, who's been waiting nearly fifty years for them to find a Higgs boson

    Now someone has to tell him that actually it's all just wiggly bits of string...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Learning to Walk Again


    This week has been an interesting combination of learning and re-acquaintance opportunities. Learning because I finally got fully switched over to Windows 8, at the same time as discovering how many parts of your body are involved in the simple act of walking.

    A couple of weeks ago I suffered a reoccurrence of the trapped nerve syndrome associated with sciatica, which left me hobbling about with a stick like the old man I guess I’m turning into. The process of walking across a room became a whole new re-acquaintance experience, which clearly identified all of the muscles and tendons that delineate the upright posture of the human race from the four-legged approach used by most of the rest of the animal kingdom. And it’s an experience I really don’t want to repeat.

    Meanwhile, the concurrent learning experience has been with Windows 8 and Office 365, now that my new company computer has arrived (yes, I did decide it was safe to use despite the warnings from last week). Coincidently, my non-work email provider upgraded their systems last week so that I’m now on Exchange Server 2013. In both cases it’s been like learning to walk again as I figure out how to do things in Windows 8, Office 2013, and the Outlook Web App, which were second nature in previous versions.

    For example, I prefer to turn off the Preview pane and open messages in a new window to avoid downloading all the crud in the junk emails in my Inbox. However, I can’t get Outlook Web App to open the next message when I close the current one, no matter what option settings I choose. And when I reply to a message it leaves the existing one open instead of closing it automatically. Previous versions of Outlook Web Access managed to do this. And as much as I’ve got used to the Modern interface style, the shortcut menu looks very odd without capitalized words. I’m not sure why, but it seems to make it harder to find the option you want.

    In Office 2013 I’ve generally come to terms with the new version of Word, which is the application I use most. But this week I tackled Visio for the first time, and it hurt. Screen updates seem really slow, and often all I get when dragging items is a grey outline. OK, so the computer isn’t the fastest in the world (Intel Core 2 Duo and on-board graphics) but it managed OK in Visio 2010. And just drawing a simple line arrow the first time took ages until I discovered that they’ve moved them to the “Connector” option in the ribbon.

    So even after a week of creating documents and schematics I often still feel like I’m lost in Office 2013. Compared to the changes between earlier versions (such as from 2007 to 2010), the latest upgrade sometimes seems like a step too far. Colleagues who have been switched for a while say they find the new version easier to use, and more productive, but I suspect it will take some time before I’m fully competent with it. I wonder if the typical learning process means everything seems harder at first as you try to do things the way you’re accustomed to, and before you discover the new way to do them that provides the productivity increase.

    But I am converting nicely to Windows 8, though like many people I do miss the Start button in the desktop. Hitting the Windows key and then Windows key + Q to get the search box just to start an application seems a retrograde step, and I’m looking forward to the 8.1 refresh that will solve this. Otherwise, all was going really well until I came to install our custom Word add-in that we use to generate p&p documents. The installer politely informed me that it needed .NET 3.5, and helpfully provided a link to download it. Except that you can’t do this on Windows 8; you have to enable .NET 3.5 in the “Turn Windows features on and off” section of the Programs and Features dialog.   

    So I do this and get error 0x800F0906 (download failure). It seems that it’s a common problem with .NET 3.5 and many other Windows 8 features if, like me, you use Windows Software Update Service (WSUS) to manage patching machines on your network. The solution (and a description of why it occurs) is provided in this blog post. You need to change the Group Policy setting named “Specify settings for optional component installation and component repair”, which is located under Computer Configuration\Administrative Templates\System, to Enabled and then set the “Contact Windows Update directly to download repair content instead of Windows Server Update Service (WSUS)” checkbox. If your domain controllers still run Windows Server 2008 you’ll have to apply the Group Policy setting locally on each Windows 8 computer.

    And if you are considering choosing between sciatica and a Windows/Office upgrade, I’d suggest that the latter. It’s far less painful…

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