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Wednesday, 26 March 2014
Filed under Rants,.

The coolest four seconds I will never see.

So Chris Hadfield did a TED talk last week. If you haven't watched it, check it out.

The highlight of this talk, for me, is a point about three minutes in where he's talking about the Space Shuttle. About how, as the clock counts down to lift off, the parts of the ship progressively wake up. About how you can feel the ship move into position, until the whole thing is ready to leave the planet.

And then he shows my favourite part.

If you've played Kerbal Space Program, you will know that there's a peculiar quirk of solid boosters of the type used by the Shuttle. Essentially, they're massive fireworks, and once you light them, in the words of the KSP interface, they Cannot Be ShutDown! So if you're launching a machine that uses both these big dumb oversized fireworks and a set of complex and slightly finnicky liquid fueled rocket engines, *just in case you light up the ones you know you can shut down first. Specifically, about four seconds first.

Those four seconds are my favourite part of the shuttle program.

I know that the Shuttle was expensive. I know that, despite an okay actual safety record, the risks involved in the program were massive. I know that it never really achieved its target 50 launches per year and the resulting cheap access to space.

But that four seconds - the flash of ignition, the way the engine bells settle into place, and then the entire magnificent machine just sitting there, on the pad, waiting. It sounds silly, but it is as if the Shuttle is alive, and this is the moment where, if it was, it would be saying, "Alright. I'm ready. Let's go to space."

Usually this is followed immediately by the part where I grin like an idiot, and grab anyone who's nearby*, and say, "Look! Look how cool this stuff is!"

I guess, if you want to take the dorky anthropomorphisation, there's a certain satisfaction in seeing something doing the thing it was designed for. And despite the setbacks of the rest of the program, that's what the shuttle was for. It wasn't a converted ballistic missile. It wasn't a satellite launcher that happened to have humans on board. It was a machine which had been designed, as its sole purpose, to take a handful of humans (and occasionally some of their neat stuff) to space. And above - or perhaps despite - everything else, that's what made it a seriously cool spaceship.

*Usually nobody, because I usually save my watching HD videos of spaceship launches for like two in the morning.

1 comments

Monday, 10 March 2014
Filed under Pensive Randomness,IRL,.

Phones

So in September of last year I bought a smartphone. Specifically, a Nokia Lumia 520, but to be honest the specifics aren't really important. Up until last year I'd been pretty resistant to the idea of getting a smartphone, and ironically, up until I got one I wasn't really sure why.

Before that, I'd been using a very durable Nokia "feature phone" - which is a polite way of saying dumbphone. It had a tricked out predictive text library, a sweet lanyard loop thingy for putting dangly things on, and was just barely capable of browsing the web. In a weird kind of way, I liked it. It had the same kind of slightly retro appeal that a Gameboy has, only less fun.

Here's the strange part though. Despite my repeated insistence that I didn't need a smartphone, and that the Nokia and my laptop between them managed to do all my stuff, I still tried to use this thing like a smartphone. It had all my music on it. It had Google Maps on it. I even had an SSH client crammed on there somehow - which is ridiculous, because a phone keypad is easily the worst possible way to interact with a command line. Of course, rather than making me realise that I clearly wanted more from my phone than this thing could properly handle, the fact that it could handle it at all seemed to make me even more insistent that it did everything I needed, and that a proper smartphone would be an unnecessary distraction.

And then it lost its ability to read from the SD card. As much as I'd like to claim this made me realise how much I'd been abusing this poor thing, it didn't. It really just made me want to get a new phone.

If there's one thing they teach you in communication studies, it's that technology has consequences on people. Or possibly is the consequences of people. I never really did sort that out to my satisfaction.

Anyway, here are some of the consequences I noticed when I joined the ranks of the ensmartphoned.

Firstly, everything I had been trying to force out of my dumbphone became immediately easier. It was like stretching after a very long flight in during which you were confined to a 12-button keypad and all the flight attendants were helpfully trying to finish your sentences. Or something. It was glorious. Even such a mundane task, seemingly mastered decades ago by everyone else in the world, like texting, showed instant improvement. Which is to say, I actually started reading and answering my messages.

As an inevitable result of this, I immediately lost all ability to self moderate, and for the period of about three weeks, became one of those hollow texting phone zombies.

Many pixels have been spilled arguing about this, which seems a bit pointless. Maybe it's just because I'm new, and don't have bad habits or a nigh-compulsive need to check all the things, but self moderation was not really difficult to learn.

The next thing I noticed was the lure of photography. Even though the smartphone has the same megapixels as the dumbphone, I've started generating a lot more photos than I did before. Which, actually, is nice. A browseable, timestamped, geotagged collection of just... stuff... is a really nice thing to be able to flick back through.

Don't even get me started on Snapchat. I'll just say this: it turns out that conversational, ephemeral, enforced low-effort, annotated photographs are a really fun way to talk to people, and I'm going to stop writing like this now because I sound like an absolute wanker.

The phone has taken over a bunch of functionality which I used to do on the computer. Stuff like late light video streaming, late night webpage reading, late night Reddit browsing (actually, it's the reason I got reddit. I find the app way nicer than the website.)

Pretty much anything that's not a complex task - which, I guess, means it doesn't involve multiple steps, or multiple programs, or multiple tabs, or basically anything that requires programs talking nicely to each other. Because for a lot of that functionality it's actually much faster and easier. Then again, I'd never try composing long-form anything on it. Or coding. Or image editing, beyond like, cropping. Or browsing in the sense of opening a kajillion tabs, like researching.

So what?

So, it's a screen. I'd argue that the computer is still defined by the keyboard, and the smartphone is defined by the screen. Computers, mainly, invite you to smash keys like a maddened author or a badass hacker. Whereas a flat, featureless bit of glass is really inviting to be poked with a finger. I guess while computers are hand-sized, smartphones are thumb-sized. You really do just use your thumbs. It's a much smaller amount of content to work with at a time.

The traditional split is 'screens for consuming, keyboards for making'. Which has an element of truth to it, but it's also about the size - you can only usefully do one thing at a time, really, but that size also gives it portability. The overall effect, between the size and the data connection, is that you have omnipresent and rapid, but shallow, access to... stuff. I think the word I'm looking for is 'ambient'. There's this great article about twitter being a social sixth sense, and that's a good analogy. Smartphones are another sense. They're not a window into something deep and incredible, like a computer. They're a layer, of something shallow (almost ephemeral) but omnipresent. They aren't a window into the internet, they're an element of reality with amazing utility. They ensconce you more firmly in here and now rather than zoning you out of it. They supplement conversation and interaction, rather than suppressing it like computers tend to.

Essentially, they're augmented reality.

Having been thrown into this pretty much head first, I can say this with certainty - stuff like google glass will catch on. The people who reckon it's stupid don't realise that they're already living in an augmented universe because they're just too used to it.

This stuff is only going to get more and more pervasive. Will it have disastrous consequences on the nature of human society? Well, maybe. I'm better now though. I reply to texts. I have a calendar. I think despite what people feel, an augmented existence will probably be pretty great. Not that it doesn't create problems, like the fact that a significant proportion of the world can't get in on it, or the fact that I can't remember my keys without it. And not that unplugging* isn't awesome. But, on the whole, I think the future is gonna be pretty rad.

*it's ironic, because wireless is a thing.

0 comments

Friday, 07 March 2014
Filed under IRL,.

Take a deep breath.

Oh wow. What the heck happened to Februrary?

Okay, so let me tell you about last month.

Last month actually begins in December. Last time I was giving blood, they asked me if I wanted to give donating plasma a try.

(This was literally while I was donating. I had a needle sticking out of my arm and everything.)

"Sure," I said, "Book me in whenever you like."

The guy comes back, and says, "Well, we have one on the 21st, but the system says that's your birthday..." And he sort of trailed off.

"Nope," I say jauntily, "That should be fine. Nothing much planned for that week anyway."

Famous last words.

Fast forward to January. Specifically Monday, January 20th, where our tale begins in earnest. I'm at an internship. My birthday is tomorrow, and I'll be in here then as well. My plasma appointment has been moved to Thursday, as has, by an odd chain of events, my birthday party. A little tight, but not impossible, I think. Then the phone rings.

I don't answer it of course. That would be rude. I spend 20 minutes later on playing phone chasey, and eventually I figure out who it was.

"Hi. This is Jane from Scitech, calling about your interview last week."

(Oh yeah, I'd had an interview the week before. I made balloon rockets for it. It was pretty rad.)

"We'd like to offer you a job on the Science Squad."

"Wow, that's awesome," I say.

"Would you like a moment to think about it? You can call ba-"

"No! I mean, yes! Of course I'll take it."

And since that point, I have seemingly not had a chance to breathe, let alone stop and take stock. But it seems absurd to me that my life has taken this awesome 45 degree twist to the right and is twisting merrily towards a very reasonable approximation of an actual career, and I haven't written any of it down - despite the fact that said career looks to be in the field of writing.

In my defence, it has only been-

It's been a month?

And then some?

Huh.

So here is the situation, as it stands.

Two days a week, I'm doing an internship. It's slightly outside my field, but fascinating nonetheless. As part of this internship I do things like transcribe interviews, and also go to events and publish articles about those events on websites.

I don't know how much long this is going to go on for, but while it does, it's awesome.

occasionally also pretty much your standard internship. yknow. trexes everywhere.

Then there's Scitech. I've over the last six-ish weeks, I've experimented with 3D printing. I've solved a cryptic crossword clue for the first time. I've wrangled toddlers and parents with prams, and mastered the mysteries of a truly arcane parking arrangement. I've replicated a dozen scenes from other people's vac-work using nothing but hand puppets, and I've taken a class of pre-primary kids on what I'm pretty sure was not just my first excursion, but their first too. I've had the odd and gratifying experience of waking up in the morning and actually looking forward to going to work. I don't know how to quantify this experience for you in ways that don't involve a long string of expletives followed by the word 'awesome'.

Which is good, because I seem to be spending an awful lot of time there. One thing they don't seem to teach you in school time management - sure, you get pretty good at it on a micro scale, but not so much on a macro scale, with things like how to arrange your week without the scaffold of an institutional timetable to shape it. They never tell you, for example, how important weekends are. As a noob to adulthood, I have not properly been factoring this kind of time in. You know, the kind of time you use to, like, do shopping, and washing, and paying the instalments on your growing sleep debt.

(For context: I've been living at my dad's by myself for a while. Living by myself isn't new, doing so on an appreciably larger budget is pretty novel. Like, it turns out that paying slightly more for groceries that are closer to your house is not a scam, it's actually very convenient, because the groceries are closer to your house, and ain't nobody got time to go traipsing around markets and stuff all the time.)

The other fairly significant thing that happened - and somehow, happened in the same week as donating plasma and starting two jobs - was that I turned 21. That wasn't even in February. It was honestly probably one of the best birthdays I've ever had. It was fun and comfortable and not actually that crazy. Except possibly for the part where we were the last ones left in the bar and broke a glass on the way out.

closing time

(If you were there, then please accept this very late 'thanks for coming. Seriously, it was great.)

I guess the moral, here, is that-

huh.

Okay.

I guess the moral is that sometimes things move pretty quickly, and that if you want a record of them, you have to just stop and do it. Even if that means racking up sleep debt. I know that's not an amazing note to finish on, but at least it's accurate. And right now, I think accurate is about as good as it's going to get.

Thanks, and goodnight.

0 comments

Monday, 27 January 2014
Filed under Code?, IRL, Books,.

The Stack.

So there's this concept in computer programming called a stack. A stack is a particular way of arranging bits of data in a sort of list. The interesting thing about stacks, though, is that not only do they do stuff in order, but you can only work at one end of that order. It's a type of structure called LIFO, which stands for Last In, First Out. Which means basically what it says: the most recent item on the stack is the only one you can write to ("push") or read off ("pop"), so whatever you put in last is the first thing you get back out.

Stacks are useful for a lot of things. One of the slightly unintuitive ones is reversing the order of a list, without having to (directly, at least) implement a bunch of counting and ordering code. If you've ever taken a bunch of things from one pile, and put them one by one on another only to find that the thing from the top is now,on the bottom, you'll understand the basic principle.

The point that I'm trying to make here is that sometimes computer scientists spend a lot of time and effort trying to recreate in code something that's utterly second nature in the physical world.

The reason I bring this up, is that over the last nine-ish months, I've been stacking books in my bedroom. Occasionally I put one on the stack and then read it straight away (see: Matter) but most of the time they got buried because I was a little busy.

POP POP!

The practical upshot of this is that I have a perfectly reverse time-ordered pile of books.

This is not actually ideal. Mostly because it means that the bottom book, Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman, may never actually get read. Which is bad, because not only is it surely a very good book, but it's also a book I was lent by somebody else, who would probably like it back one day.

So, we need to pop these books off the stack, one by one, and push them onto a new stack. The upside is that these books are now in ordinary chronological order, and so will be read from the oldest first.

Uh, push push?

The downside, which depending on how you look at it, may also be an upside, is that it's slightly more difficult to add new stuff to the pile. Which, oddly, is a difficulty which is possibly translated into the programming version of stacks too, albeit not intentionally. I mean, I think (at a pretty low level at least) it's easier to add stuff to the end of a sequence than the start, but I don't actually know enough about memory allocation and stuff to say for sure.

The actual point of this exercise was this: here is my reading list for 2014. It's not quite the fifty book challenge, but if I can have an empty stack (although strictly speaking it's now a queue) by the end of the year, well, I'll be pretty pleased with myself.

3 comments

Wednesday, 01 January 2014
Filed under Wut.,.

2014

So the last thing I wrote here was a little on the deep end. Which is fine. It's my blog. I do what I want. But it did leave me feeling that I needed to follow it up with something equally profound and symbolic, which is not actually very easy.

But January first is one of those dates which despite being utterly unremarkable in every other respect, automatically gives anything done on it a totally undeserved sense of gravitas.

In order to ruthlessly exploit this effect, I'm posting this. It's like the blogging equivalent of one of those little marker-y things they used to put in index card files before people stopped using index card files, because seriously, who uses index card files? It has no meaning on its own, but is an excellent way of separating your Ps from your Qs. Where P in this case is a slightly melodromatic retrospective, and Q is a thing I've been wanting to write for at least a month about smartphones, but couldn't because it didn't feel right.

Anyway. May your 2014 be well-delineated and filled with good fortune and overly laboured metaphors.

Happy new year.

0 comments

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