katsmeat: (Thankful)


Ray Bradbury at a NASA symposium (organised by Carl Sagan) dedicated to the imminent arrival of Mariner 9 at Mars, 1971.

Nothing more to say, really.
katsmeat: (Crazy)
Goddammmmm British weather.

I've been up since 4:30 am to catch the transit of Venus. And I had to watch it via a webcast from Tromsø. The solar projecting, viewing thingy I built is now only good for sunspots.

Meh.
katsmeat: (Indescribable)
Today, 2pm to 8pm, I'm getting a final assessment from the Snowsport England person as a snowboard instructor. I'm taking my mind off it by doing some soldering.

I feel like I'm doing my MSc viva again, but without the funny clothes.

Actually that's not true. This is snowboarding, so it's different funny clothes.
katsmeat: (Default)
WE Johns small number of Science Fiction books tend to get overlooked in amongst his fairly prolific output of Biggles and Worrals adventures. I get the feeling his heart wasn't really in it – possibly they were something he opportunistically had a go at in the late 50's, when the Biggles, World War 2 thing was starting to seem old hat and Sputnik had caught the public imagination.

But I just found a copy of The Man Who Vanished into Space (1963) in a charity shop. According to the blurb "Professor Brane and the crew of the spaceship Tavona are amazed when they discover the body they found floating in deep space is that of a Highland gamekeeper".

Well, I'd be amazed as well. But damn it, I really want to find out what was up with the gamekeeper. Unfortunately, it's a nice copy with a clean DJ so the C.Shop wants £19 for it. It'll forever remain a mystery unless I find a tatty pb.
katsmeat: (Default)
In 1973, the rocket–scientist John D. Clark,Note 1 actually a propulsion chemist, published a book called Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants. I've seen it on spaceflight and rocketry bibliographies, but never held an actual copy as the few out there in the wild change hand on ABEBooks for US$400 or more. This is why I was quite happy to find a pdf (just Google the title).

It's a remarkable combination of snarky commentary, and deadpan anecdotes of breathtakingly dangerous chemistry. It's in the vein of Things I Won't Work With. Except Dr Clark actually was working with them.

Below is his Description of Chlorine Triflouride. I'm light on chemistry but, in essence, it's a much better oxidiser than oxygen, therefore it'll happily burn materials that are already oxidised and you've been brought up to think can't actually burn. You know... sand, glass, asbestos. If some spilled on you, it wouldn't burn your skin in the normal sense of a chemical–burn, it'd burn you in the sense of actually combusting you. Naturally, there'd be the bonus of clouds of toxic, Fluorine nasties while it did this.

”It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It is hypergolicNote 2 with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water-with which it reacts explosively. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals-steel, copper, aluminium, etc.-because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminium keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.”


He then goes on to describe the time a stainless-steel tank fractured, 900kg of ClF3 got dumped onto the floor in one big splash and the concrete floor, followed by the gravel under the building, caught fire. It is the only time I've ever cringed while reading a scientific work.

Recommended.

Note 1: And Science-fiction author. Though I can't help thinking his job had to be more exciting than his fiction.

Note 2: Self-igniting
katsmeat: (BadHairDay)
A few days ago, a friend sent me this, a clip from the BBC Nature unit.



With a little detective work on his part and a little local knowledge on mine, we worked out the location, and I mooched out there yesterday evening before sunset to take a look.

And.... well, that was an awful lot of corvidae. I don't have much to contribute as the presenter's word-pictures and the film clip's picture-pictures describe the scene more or less completely. Before sunset, the birds steadily gathered in the small copse of trees you can see, slightly south-west of the railway stationNote 1, flying in in ones or twos, or groups up to 20 or so, making a heck of a row about it. Then, about 20 minutes after sunset, when the sky was rapidly darkening, they took off in two enormous waves, flying directly over me and heading for the woodland to the east of the station to roost. There were a few stragglers, the ones who were clearly not paying attention when all the others were leaving, and the small copse of trees was empty and quiet.

I think this is one of those things to file under "Always to be remembered". I only wish my friend could have been there as he absolutely loves crows.

Note 1. Buckenham Railway station is mildly interesting for being one of the least used in the United Kingdom
katsmeat: (BadHairDay)
My life status.

I'm still working for a (reasonably big) percentage of shares of a company that (as yet) doesn't exist. So I'm therefore not getting paid. Yet I'm confident about prospects as the staff consists of two UEA Profs and an ex-UEA prof who retired early so he could sue the university over a patent rights dispute; I think there are enough brains on hand to pull this off.

We are looking to be about a year away from a sell-able product so I'm currently funding my
lifestyle by being a "job-seeker". Though I actually am one. For example, I just applied to the British Antarctic Survey for an 8 week contract to count Antarctic fur seals. Not with winter clothing and a clipboard, thankfully. But by examining aerial photographs of the South Georgia coastline and counting the 2m-long grey blobs. However, for this task, their desire for experience in CorelDraw has flummoxed me slightly as I can't even begin to imagine why that product is best suited form something which seems to require little more than an image viewer.

Of course I claimed I had said experience, on the basis that if I'm called for interview, I can learn enough CorelDraw, quickly enough to blag it. And besides, I'm getting now getting the hang of basic image recognition algorithms, so the optimal way of doing it would probably be just to spend the first week writing a Matlab script to scan the pictures automatically. Possibly the best strategy would be to mention this at the interview, and offer to do it for four-weeks-worth of the salary they're offering.

In other news, I can now to pull off a backside 180 with a reasonably degree of consistency (managed eight in a row on X-mas eve before the outcome of number nine made me wonder if there was possibly a better way of spending the evening) Unfortunately, the board grab you see at 0.28 remains on the to-do list. A snowboard lesson last night made me think I'm starting to get the hang of the whole, instructing business as some bloke who was consistently falling over, stopped falling over after I talked to him – that on its own was worth 5 minutes of smug preening.

I read all 2000 plus episodes of Girl Genius in one insanely long sitting between Christmas and New Year (recommended) and have started writing fan-fic again. Or at least, I'm attempting to finish the story that died in its tracks about five years ago, thanks to monumental writer's block. And I've nearly got Conway's Game of Life implemented on an Arduino, driving a set of 8x8 LED matrices.

All very interesting and diverse, yet re-reading this post has me wondering if "social life" is an aspect of my existence that could use attention.
katsmeat: (Default)
A couple of days ago, I had a brief, IRC conversion with somebody about old Atlases. I mentioned that I had a copy of the 1922 edition of the Times Atlas of the World, about the size of a broadsheet newspaper and the thickness of a phone book.

I bought it for £25 from a second hand book dealer a bit after the millennium. Bizarrely, I had no interest in it as a collector's item - my plan was to use have as a work of reference. I had the theory that most things would be unchanged aside from different national borders, bigger cities and African county names no longer having "British" after them in brackets. These seemed acceptable compromises given that a modern edition would be four times the price and wouldn't even begin to approach the old one's quality of printing and binding.

However, Google maps has made it redundant even as a reference and I hadn't thought about it months. But the conversation prompted me to have a poke around and see if it was worth anything.

It was then I found a filthy, desecrating, ********, ******, piece of **** dealer, who had hacked one up to sell the maps individually for framing and, from his other eBay auctions, seems to make a habit of doing this to old atlases. The antiquary in me wanted to slice him up in the same manner; although the Slytherin in me reflected that the destructive greed of dealers only serves to make my one, complete and in good condition, ever rarer and (hopefully) more valuable. I thought no more about it.

Only last night, I dreamt that somebody had done that to mine. I left it outside (I think to let it get some air) and came back to find all the maps neatly sliced out. This put me in a state of screaming outrage until I suddenly woke up.

The point of this story is that I find it utterly fascinating that something that occupied my attention for about 10 minutes is able to trigger a lengthy dream about it two nights later.
katsmeat: (Default)
Oh man... I just did a google search for sprintf binary, to remind my self of the syntax for sprintf. As it's been at least a week since I used it and I have a goldfish's memory for code syntax.

And the top hits was this - matlab object tracking. Wich is actually highly relevant to the work I'm doing.

http://gibbs.engr.ccny.cuny.edu/technical/Tracking/RoachTrack.php

OK... the startup isn't interesed in cockroaches per se, but it's close enough.
katsmeat: (Crazy)
In Cambridge today, for a Mathworks symposium thingy on using Matlab with instrumentation. The first few talks were a succession of blokes from Aglent Technologies going on and on about using Matlab to talk with verious boxes they make, using SCPI (I showed up an 40 minutes late and spent quite a while baffled as to who or what "skippy" was) and IVI-com drivers (No idea. At these things, I tend not to manage more than writing the words down. I later use a copy of the Powerpoint and Google to work out what it was all about).

Aglent osciloscopes seem darnably impressive given they can pull in about 40 giga-samples per second. But it was all of absolutely zero relevance to me - I felt like somebody who wanted a rowing-boat, being given a full-on hard-sell by an ocean-liner dealer (they're about £50,000 a pop.) However, the final 20 minutes of the last afternoon talk was very useful. And there was free lunch, so it was not quite a wasted day.

Oddly, I never realized how dark parts of Cambridge are. At about 5:30ish, I popped along Trinity Street, to take a look in Heffer's Bookshop. I noticed there were comparatively few street lights, and they were quite dim, positively amaemic, especially outside Trinity College.

I found the effect very pleasing. However, I think this will simply cause me simmering annoyance at other places, which seem screechingly over-lit by comparason.
katsmeat: (Default)
As today is Ada Lovelace day....

Can I draw your attention to Beatrice Shilling? Most books on the Spitfire will give her a paragraph; Gunston's, well-regarded book on aircraft engines gives her a bit more, as so it damn-well should.

Her fascinating life deserves a better memorial than some pub-name in Farnborough.
katsmeat: (Default)
The snowboard lesson I took on Monday went well. Though without the slightly surreal note of last week's one – an airship circling overhead. That made it an effort to keep my attention on the lesson as I really really like airships.

Today, I was doing a few errands and popped into an antique/bric-a-brac shop I'd passed before, but never gone into. In such places, I have the tiresome tendency to emit excited squeals, pick up some peculiar looking metal object and triumphantly exclaim "I know what this is!" Such was the case with a brass bottle, about a foot long, with a pump handle on one end and a nozzle in the other. This was a Pyrene, Carbon Tetrachloride fire extinguisher; these were once widely used but have been obsolete since the 40's. Search eBay for "Pyrene" and you'll find lots - they're not rare.

Now CCl4 had many uses, but is especially good at putting out fires. Although a problem is that heat converts it into phosgene (See Chemical Warfare in World War One), so it's best if the person pumping the extinguisher holds their breath. Even without heat, it's an especially nasty hepatotoxin, it's a neurotoxin and toxic to the kidneys; it's almost certainly a carcinogen. It's volatile so if any is spilled anywhere near you, you'll be breathing it (the downsides of having a pump thing, that sprays about a litre into the air as a fine mist, can be seen) and it can be absorbed through the skin. It has been universally banned for many decades so the eBay listings tend to emphasise the point that the antique extinguishers they're selling are *** empty ***.

You likely guessed where this was going - the one I picked up was heavy and had fluid sloshing about inside. You likely also guessed that "Fuckety! fuckety! FUCK FUCK FUCK!" were my thoughts as I (very carefully) put it down again.

"You know those tetrachloride fire extinguishers are full of quite nasty stuff" were my first words to the man behind the counter. He said nothing; I don't think he liked me, in fact I would call his expression baleful. So I left the shop ASAP. I wanted to ask the price of a stereoscopic range-finder*, which I suddenly decided my life would be incomplete without. But I lacked the courage given the way he looked at me. Though I have a vague feeling if I call Environmental Health about this one, it'll possibly provoke a response that involves a specialist fire-crew and haz-mat suits, I don't know.

* Covered in German text and is absolutely identical to the one held by the bloke in the foreground of this picture. So it's provenance is fairly certain
katsmeat: (Default)
Norwich is currently running a heritage week. Which amounts to the public getting let in to see old things that they don't normally. A fairly sizable chunk of the city centre consists of 17th and 18th century buildings stuck on top of medieval cellars and undercrofts. So an awful lot of outwardly dull shops have interesting, hidden nooks and crannys normally only seen by the minimum-wage, pimply-faced teens that work there.

Today I dropped in to look at the bell-ringing chamber in the church of St Peter Mancroft, and got a reasonably interesting talk on the bell ringing that has been going on there since the 17th century. I also had a bash at ringing one of the smaller bells. This is, BTW, damnably hard work and makes the fact they ring the bells continuously for four hour peals quite impressive. In 1734, they rang the bells for 8 hours, in an event still known as the "Bloody Peal" because of the state of the ropes when they finished. You'll be unamazed to learn that 18th and 19th century ringers had a reputation for being complete piss-heads who were always having rows with the church vicars. The vicars needed somebody to ring their bells, but often disliked the ringers' frequent lack of respectability. If the traditions had been kept up, I would have expected the modern crop to have a bit less of the "middle-aged, middle class" about them and a smidgen more or the "biker-gang".

I am now tempted with the idea of taking up bell ringing. This is odd as music making is something that normally creeps me slightly. Perhaps it's because I'm from a 100% non-musical family and avoided it as much as possible in school, but to me playing music carries an air of alien unknowableness. Sheet-music looks incomprehensible and hence slightly sinister; "eldrich" is a good word.

But of course, change ringing isn't music; it's pulling ropes in a complicated, mathematical sequence, so that's OK. Plus, you're technically playing an instrument that's 300 years old, weighs two tons, and could (in theory) kill you if it all goes go badly wrong. That seems to offer certain indefinable things that a banjo or a piccolo simply can't.

I will consider the matter, as I feel reluctant to start something new unless I know there's a sporting chance I can commit to it (the unused climbing shoes in the bottom of my wardrobe are still an embarrassment to me).
katsmeat: (BadHairDay)
I spent the evening attempting to pull off a snowboard frontside 360 (click here and some bloke called "Doug" will tell you all about them).

For some reason, I kept on being reminded of that Douglas Adams, Hitch-Hikers' quote, about how the art of flying is to repeatedly throw yourself at the ground until you learn how to miss.
katsmeat: (Default)
I've just been offered money.

A ex-UEA professor has offered me a percentage of a project he's working on, in exchange for doing the software, approx. 6 months work.

I'll not say much, except the idea is to use clever software to extend the capabilities of certain pre-existing, lab instrumentation. The notion is that the manufacturer, who the Prof knows well, will jump at the chance to make their kit more versatile and sellable with virtually no costly engineering changes. People in white lab-coats will (we hope) be queuing around the block to buy for £30K, a bench-top box with functionality that currently costs £100K to buy. The idea isn't tied to that particular manufacturer's instrument, BTW; there is a plan B if they say no. The Prof has a decent background in this kind of thing - he's already got 16 patents (I checked) and a decent amount of experience in running spin-off companies, turning research into cash.

Only, all this is making be feel quite terrified and quite out of my depth. Certainly having low self-esteem, plus something I'd characterise as Imposter syndrome in bucket loads doesn't help when negotiating for money. It all amounts to the bad habit of catastrophically undervaluing my time and effort.

We only had an informal discussion, but I'll have to nail down what I'd get in cash terms (he implied about £1.5K per unit sold). And figure what to do about getting some kind of contract (about which I know exactly zero). My percentage is being offered instead of payment up-front and ,since I am actually living at home, I have near-zero living costs and could theoretically do it. Though I am inclined to ask for:

  • My name to be jointly on the patent (purely for CV points and bragging rights).

  • A small, monthly amount of cash in hand as pocket money.

  • A higher percentage. Not that I'd expect it, but just because I have the idea you never take what you're first offered when negotating and that I'll be doing something idiotically wrong if I don't haggle like I'm buying a carpet in the Cairo souq.

katsmeat: (BadHairDay)
On Tuesday, on impulse, I bought an 1895 Baedecker guide as a present for somebody. Despite being 116 years out of date, it wasn't fantastically expensive as (with a few exceptions) they're not especially rare. Plus I knew the bookseller so I got a small discount.

The General Advice to the Traveler, however, is utterly fantastic. It is so completely Merchant-Ivory-Lucy-Honeychurch-Room-With-a-View it's untrue. There's advice on hiring horses and mules, how much I should expect to pay for a day's hire of either a single–horse carriage or a carriage-and-pair, how to convert temperature measured in Réaumur into Fahrenheit and the useful tip that English gold coins are readily accepted at full value in the larger towns. It also tells me:

Travelers who are not fastidious as to their table-companions may find excellent cuisine, together with moderate charges at the hotels frequented by commercial travellers.


Two or three gentlemen journeying together may travel more economically than a single tourist, but the presence of ladies generally adds considerably to the expense of the party.


Sketching, photographing or making notes near fortified places sometimes exposes innocent travelers to disagreeable suspicions or worse, and should therfore be avoided.


Oddly, this last one reminded me of a quote from Jerome K Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel, a comic novel about three Englishmen doing a cycle-tour in Germany, published at about the same time as the Baedecker. The narrator is pointing out that although the advice he gives is always good, things never seem to work out well for the advisee, his book should therefore under no circumstances be treated as a guide.
If I instruct a man as to the best route between London and Rome, he loses his luggage in Switzerland, or is nearly shipwrecked off Dover. If I counsel him in the purchase of a camera, he gets run in by the German police for photographing fortresses.

So pre-1914, when Europe was an armed tinderbox, as the metaphor-mixing clichiests tell us, it must've been fairly common for there to be unpleasant incidents involving unworldly, British tourists, watercolour sketch pads, picturesque but sensitive border areas and suspicious gendarmes. So much so it became a comedy trope.
katsmeat: (Default)
Yesterday, I was reading a newspaper account of the death of Captain Lisa Head, an army bomb disposal specialist. The article mentioned the work she did was similar to that portrayed in the movie, The Hurt Locker.

Before that, I'd come across an old article from The Times. Apparently the Nazis sold Enigma code cipher machines to Franco during the Spanish Civil war, and these were a significant contribution to his victory over the Spanish Republicans. A cache of 26 of the machines (now rare and valuable) had been discovered in an attic in a Spanish army headquarters, untouched for decades and in perfect condition.

The article concludes: "British efforts to crack the Enigma code used by Germany were dramatised in the 2001 film Enigma, starring Kate Winslet."

WHAT THE HELL!

Has the culture now become so debased, so imbecilic, that people are incapable understanding the context of anyting unless it's linked somehow to a movie or a celebrity? I wonder how long before an report on, for example, Suriname has to be spiked because nobody in the newsroom can think of a movie set there, or any professional footballer who can call the country his birthplace.

I feel I should now start paying more attention to sociology. Clearly the celebrification of all aspects of society (no cause is important unless a movie actor endorses it) is an ongoing trend that shows no sign of stopping. I would like to know why it's happening.
katsmeat: (BadHairDay)
Bugger!

My broadband has been iffy for a while (I suspect noise on the phone lines in the house). It was bad yesterday, so I quickly threw in a bid on a Thomson stem on my watch list, as I knew the auction was ending soon and wasn't sure how long my connection would stay up.

I conformed the bid, and 10 seconds later realized that wasn't the one I wanted!. It's a 120mm, 5 degree one that was only on my watch-list so I could get an idea of how much they went for. I want the 130mm, 15 degree one that's actually finishing today.

*Mutters viciously*
katsmeat: (Default)
On Tuesday, I was in Cambridge for the first time in about eight months - Mathworks were running a Matlab symposium at the Cavendish Laboratory, the Department of Physics. It was free to attend and there literally was free lunch, who could possibly say no? I attended two boring and pointless talks (one of which was from Mathwork's UK Head), one sort-of OK talk, and two fascinating and usefull ones. Both of these were given by this woman, which implies I really, really ought to start reading her blog.

In these things, the lecturers tend to have a small stockpile of branded merchendise, to hand out as a pat on the head to any audience member who asks a good question, answers a lecturer's question or points out a mistake. And I got one! A Mathworks USB stick!

My thought process when this happened went something along the lines of... "OMG! Did I really just answer that? I'm so clever! I'm utterly briliant! And here's the bloke walking over to hand me the USB stick. Now politely say thank-you, smile modestly on the outside, grin like a maniac on the inside...

And it's a 1Gb. Oh, wow. Thanks. Jeez, have you had a box of these sitting forgotten at the bottom of a cupboard since 2005?"


So yes, my gratitude seems to last like snow under a flamethrower.

The Cavendish is interesting - incandescently prestigous (29 Nobels according to Wikipedia) yet the buildings look remarkably shabby (they're big on damp-stained ceiling tiles and peeling paint). One gets the impression of buildings built cheaply in 1960-something, that have been since continually chopped, altered and added-to as requirements change. Each time done as quickly and cheaply as possible. There's an vague air of "we don't care about appearances, because we don't have to care about apearances."

There are, however, lots of interesting glass cases, filled with aparatus used by varous exceptionally_famous phycists. I assume these were the things the Science Museum didn't want when they were clearing out the person in question's office or lab after death or retirement. They have the nice tradition of having a rows of annual, group photos of the department's research students. Impressively, I was familiar with about 1 in 20 of the names - Cockcroft, Walton, Blackett, Thompson, Watson, Crick, Bragg, Rutherford. If I didn't know the person, I was at least aware of the name in connection with some rule, law or equation.

After it was over, I took a quick wander through the town, mainly popping through those bookshops that are still open, but not buying anything. Then home.
katsmeat: (Crazy)
This morining, I woke to find I could not turn off the alarm clock. No matter which buttons I pressed, of how many times I pressed them, it kept shrilly beeping. Feeling not up to a destructive solution to the problem (and lacking any kind of blunt instrument) I gave up and lay back on the bed, trying to somehow block it out.

This was the point at which I actually did wake up.

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