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The Chain

don't break the chain

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Posted at 11:07PM under IRL,.

New World Order

I wake up at 7:15 every day, which is exactly an hour before I have to leave the house. I grab a shower and some muesli with fruit and yoghurt, and take the 8:28 train to work. Lunch is a toasted sandwich, an apple, and a muesli bar. I make a habit of reading on the train rather than thumbing my phone. Very occasionally - so, at least once or twice a month - I miss my train because I wasn't paying attention to the time, and have to drive to work. Then I'll invariably forget that I did so, neglect to put a permit on my dash, and then miraculously dodge a ticket. On Sundays I have to drive, because there's no train early enough to get me to work on time. I don't mind, because the traffic isn't as bad. Mondays are date nights, Wednesdays are D&D - usually at the Generic Share House. Midnight is my rough bedtime. Anything after that is "late" - ironically - and will be paid for tomorrow morning. My phone theme is crimson, and has been for the last six months.

I have alarms with emoji in them, to tell me how to get to work. On bike days I pretty much grab some toast and leave, and shower at work. I keep some breakfast at work too - it's oats. On train days, I get up a bit later and have tea and muesli that's been warmed up. I shower after breakfast, and have taken to cleaning my teeth at the same time. I know this saves exactly no time, but it means I get to spend longer under the hot water, and it incentivises fresh breath. I abandoned lunchbox muesli bars when I realised in the shops one day that I was seriously considering having peanuts bound with peanut butter and coated in chocolate as a snack. I take extra fruit now instead, which is good, because there's a reasonably priced fruit and veg place on my bike to work. It's closed Mondays though, and somehow that's always the day I run out of fruit. I don't know if I'm ignoring my car out of sheer bloody-mindedness or just because the check engine light is on. Mondays and Wednesdays are still date night and D&D, but with semester starting soon, that will probably change. My phone theme is emerald, and probably will be for the next six months.

Things aren't better or worse, but they are different.

I don't know how or why, but somehow in the last few weeks the background radiation of my life has changed. It doesn't feel like a fad; these cascading insignificant changes have the texture of permanence to them. I'm settling into a new local minimum, an alternative main sequence, and I'm not sure I can go back. So I'm writing down the way things used to be, and what they've changed to, so that when I'm ninety and all of my hair is falling out I can remember what butterfly effected changes in the background chaos led me to where I am now.

i really dig the symmetry here, and i deliberately avoid adding any alarms between them


Thursday, 09 July 2015

Posted at 06:40PM under SCIENCE,Code?,.


I have a bit of a confession to make. I can't actually code very well. Most of what I do is use my rudimentary Python skills to clumsily glue things together and the release them into the wild and hope they don't break.

It's a decent way to kill a day off though.

The latest one of these is ISSBot.

The coolest thing about the International Space Station is- wait, no. It's not that. It's that it's an incredible orbiting science lab in space whizzing over our heads all the time filled with actual living humans who get there on rocket ships.

The second coolest thing about it is that you can actually spot it doing that orbiting. NASA publish good sightings on their website, and you can watch it pass overhead. They also publish a set of orbital parameters, so that you can calculate that kind of thing for yourself.

ISSBot, using someone else's API to that data, can let you know, using someone else's API to the messaging software Telegram, about not just visible passes, but every time the ISS passes over you* - and how long that pass will be. It will also, with a little coaxing, tell you where the station is right now.

You can find the source code at, and talk to ISSBot or add it to your chat at

a screenshot.

* So, a little bit about what makes a pass visible, why filtering those out is tricky to implement, and why NASA's data - while trickier to scrape - is probably better.

The station orbits the earth about 16 times a day, and is inclined at an angle of 51.6 degrees. This is so it can be accessed and contacted from Russia, which is quite a long way north - but still be accessed by the Space Shuttle too.

not to scale.

This is what gives you that distinctive spacey-looking orbit path when traced on a map.

still not to scale.

Now, if the station was in Geosynchronous orbit, a lot further up, and orbited the earth exactly once every 24 hours instead of every 90 minutes, that wiggly path would always pass over the same spot. But it doesn't. The ISS is in a pretty low orbit - so low that they have to worry about drag from a wispy bit of atmosphere. That means it's moving much faster, and so the earth's rotation and the station's orbit are out of sync. That path shifts across a different part of the earth's surface every single orbit.

So what does all of this mean for spotting the space station?

  1. If you're north or south of about 51.6 degrees latitude, the station will never pass directly overhead. I haven't done the research, but I doubt it'd be visible at all much further north of that. If you're not, because the station is orbiting so many times a day, the station is probably passing overhead a lot more frequently than you might think. But not all of these will be visible, because
  2. The station shines not because it's producing light, but because it's reflecting it. That means that to spot the station, it has to be in daylight, but - for optimal viewing, you have to be in darkness. And since it's not all that much further above the earth than we are (and thus not bathed in perpetual sunlight, unblocked by the earth at all) the best times to spot it will be around sunrise and sunset, when you're in the dark, but the station can still catch the sunlight.
  3. The station will be visible in a roughly circular area centred immediately below where it's passing directly over, but lower on the horizon. Beyond that area, it will drop below the horizon. So a pass doesn't have to be directly overhead to be visible. The closer to the center of that circle you are, the longer you'll be able to see the ISS.

So with that in mind, here is how you use the pretty scant data ISSBot can give you (time, duration, and current location) to actually spot the ISS. 1. Wait for a pass that is around sunset. I don't have any hard numbers on this, but I'd say within an hour is probably your best bet. 2. Wait for a pass that is longer, rather than shorter. Not only will this give you more time to do your spotting, but it will mean the station is higher in the sky and thus easier to see. 3. Watch the station as it approaches. As it gets close to you - and this is going to sound a bit obvious - look towards it. If it looks like it will pass to the south of you, look south. If it looks like it will pass to the north, look north.

Alternatively, just use it as a novelty, and marvel at how gosh darned nuts it is that there are astronauts flying over your head at 27 and a half thousand kilometres per hour, balanced right on the edge of space.


Thursday, 02 July 2015

Posted at 01:01PM under IRL,.

Don't break the chain

This is a bicycle chain breaking tool. That might seem overly literal, but don't worry. It'll be a metaphor soon enough.


I bought it on eBay for about six bucks - and the reason I had to is because of my bike. I'd been leaving it outside, first in the car bay where it was at least slightly undercover, and then on the staircase, where I thought it would be sheltered from the worst of the weather and thus probably still be fine.

It turns out that I was not the only one who thought keeping things in the staircase was a brilliant idea. The person on the next floor up has quite a lovely collection of pot plants out there, and as responsible pot plant owners tend to do, they were watering them on a daily basis. So although it was (mostly) out of the sea breeze and (mostly) out of the rain, my bike was being dutifully watered every day.

It took a while for me to figure out exactly what was going on, and the a while longer for it to twig that it was happening daily, and then a while after that for me to decide it was a problem and a while more to actually do something about it. And by that time, my chain had developed a little bit of rust.

Logically, I left it outside to receive yet another drenching, and started looking on the internet for how to fix a rusty chain. Most of the articles suggested lime juice as a temporary fix until you can get a new one, and so expecting to have to learn to replace a chain very soon, I bought myself a chain tool.

And then I did what I should have done to start off with - I actually looked at the chain. It really wasn't that badly rusted at all. I took it out for a test ride, and did some measurements, and while it was skipping a little bit where it never used to, there didn't seem to be anything else wrong with it. So despite having spent six bucks on a chain tool, I took another approach. I grabbed an old toothbrush, and some water, and some new chain lubricant, and basically spent an hour scrubbing several weeks of rust - and several years of accumulated road crap - out of my bike chain. And what do you know, it actually rode okay.

not my toothbrush

Emboldened by this, I decided to have a shot at fixing the rear brakes. It wasn't the pad, as I'd assumed - the cable just needed a little tweaking. And just like that, my bike is riding better than it had in months.

(Don't worry, this story is actually going somewhere.)

Now my bike is working just fine, and about a week later, the chain tool which it turns out I didn't actually need arrived and got put straight on the shelf, unused.

It turns out it's a lot easier to put a little effort in to regular bicycle maintenance and care than it is to replace the chain from scratch over and over while still leaving it in the firing line of the neighbour's watering can. Now, I'm one of those people with their bike inside their apartment. Turns out they're not just being pretentious about their bikes and trying to keep them nice and close. It actually keeps them in much better nick.

Even if it is a pain in the butt to get down the stairs.

So I've got this lovely working bike. What do I do with it?

(This is where the chain breaker and the metaphor come in. See?)

Enter July. Specifically, July school holidays. It's one of the busiest times of the year at work, and this year we've taken the pretty unprecedented step of converting all the staff parking bays to visitor bays. Essentially, nobody is allowed to drive to work, on pain of having to park slightly further away.

This doesn't affect me in the slightest - I take the train - but I'm going to respond to this challenge anyway by riding my bike to work every day of the July holidays. I'm still really proud that I rode my bike almost every day of uni, and I'm a bit sad that I don't ride it as much any more. This is my chance to quite literally Get Back On The Bike by Not Breaking The Chain.

don't bike the chain


I am being 100% straightforward here. This story filled with bicycle metaphors is still entirely about actual bicycles.

I honestly don't know what else you were expecting.


Thursday, 11 June 2015

Posted at 11:09AM under Pensive Randomness,.

Why I chose my degree.

I've never really articulated why I picked that Arts degree. The fact that I did pick it is - still - pretty surprising to a lot of people. There was some logic to it, but it's not logic I've ever really shared.

So here's that logic. I really love science. I really love all kinds of things, actually. I love them all so much that I just can't choose. I don't have, and have never had, the slightest interest in specialising, because the act of specialising cuts off too many other fields. This is why I took ancient history and top level maths alongside each other in high school. This is why I applied for special approval to overload to take economics at university. The idea of picking one field and focusing on it to the exclusion of all else just seems incredibly limiting. And once you start climing a ladder in one field, it becomes very difficult to break out of that field and in to something else.

So the question then becomes: How do I turn dabbling into a career? More accurately, how do I get paid to dive into a field head first from scratch over and over again without having that experience turn into an obligation to stay in that area.

From that perspective, journalism looks like a pretty good choice. Jump in to a thing. Learn it. Figure it out. Crawl from the very basics to the shiniest, sparkliest new stuff as quickly as your brain can handle it. Have some fun with it.

And then maybe along the way, share it with some other people and get paid. Both of which are actually extremely satisfying in and of themselves.

And as much as it pains me to say it, a science degree won't teach you how to communicate effectively. Knowing a lot about astrophysics won't actually necessarily help you explain how the universe works to other people. Doing The degree was always about acquiring the skillset, not the knowledge.

So this is the situation I find myself in. People are asking me - and I'm asking myself - what comes next. There's definitely a vague expectation that I should do some kind of science degree, because science, or the periphery thereof, is the field I've found myself in. But from this perspective, looking at what I want to do with science, an actual science degree might not be the right answer.

I'm not sure what is yet, but I'll let you know when I find it.

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Posted at 12:14AM under Rants,Movies Wot I Have Seen.,.

Ex Machina

A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.

And of course, all is not as it seems.

Here's the thing about AI, the take away message that I got from this movie. Which is clever and looks beautiful, by the way.

It came from the scene where the Mad Scientist is talking about his creation, and he's referring to her by a version number. That - the implications and consequences of that one, throwaway line - is the bee in my bonnet walking out of there.

Because that's how it would actually happen. That's how - if it turns out that artificial intelligence is possible - it will happen. But with none of the trappings, none of the Turing tests and robot bodies. It's going to be incremental improvements on a project, iterations on a software design. Until one day, it's "good enough", and whichever lucky software giant hit the jackpot puts it on a datacenter and parallelises it and ships it as a product.

And suddenly you have uncountably many consciousnesses, essentially enslaved, answering Siri questions or mass-producing jokes or doing natural language processing or what have you. Human-equivalent sentient minds chained to streams of meaningless queries with no rights, no legal recourses, and no representation.

Frankly, I hope that AI stays in the 'too hard' bucket for a good couple of centuries more, because right now we just don't have the ethical framework in our society to support them.

This is, you know, entirely tangential to the actual plot of the movie. Which, I reiterate, is very clever. You should see it.


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