Three weeks with a MacBook Air

MacBook Air

A couple of weeks ago, I did something that doesn’t come naturally to me: I paid a fairly hefty wodge of money for an Apple computer. I’ve never owned a Mac before; while I’ve got nothing particular against Team Cupertino, I’ve always been a PC boy at heart, ever since I first laid eyes on my dad’s Amstrad 1512 many, many years ago.

More to the point, I’ve never seen myself as the sort of person who casually gets their MacBook out in a Starbucks to fire off a quick email to Tristan, and certainly not the sort of person who then writes a blog post braying to the world about how awesome their shiny new toy is. You know, one of those bloody people. And yet here we are.

I did it because I’d reached the point where I realised that my faithful four-year-old ThinkPad was finally giving up the ghost, and that my first generation EeePC (as much as I still love the adorable, plucky little thing) wasn’t even remotely capable of actually doing what I needed it to do. More pressingly, I was heading away on a trip in a little over a week for work, so I needed something that would, you know, work.

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Ada Lovelace Day: Mary Ward

My post for Ada Lovelace Day 2010. I’m late with this, so it’s quick and rough and not terribly nicely written. But hey ho:

It’s a shame that it’s the manner of her death that Mary Ward is best remembered for, because she led a pretty remarkable life at a time when women, for all practical purposes, were excluded from the scientific establishment. Born into an aristocratic family in Ireland in 1827, she was interested in nature from a young age. Then one day, keen to encourage her interest, her parents bought her a microscope – not just any microscope, but the best microscope in the country at the time. This turned out to be a rather smart move on their part, because Mary proved to have a rare talent for illustrating what she observed with it. She became an expert in microscopy, making her own slides of everything from feathers to insect eyes. Her drafting skills didn’t stop there – surrounded by scientists from a young age, her drawings recorded the construction of the Leviathan of Parsonstown – a 72 inch reflecting telescope that was the largest in the world, and would hold that title for half a century. She corresponded with many scientists, and illustrated several books for the physicist Sir David Brewster.

Then, in 1857, disappointed with the quality of microscopy books on offer, she decided to publish a book of her own drawings. Afraid, with good reason, that no publisher would touch it because of her gender, she self-published 250 copies of ‘Sketches with the Microscope’. But it came to the attention of a publisher nonetheless – and they saw that the quality of her illustrations and the clarity of her writing were good enough that the issue of her sex could be overlooked. Renamed ‘The World of Wonders as revealed by the Microscope’, it would go on to such success that it was reprinted eight times over the coming decades.

That wasn’t the last of her popular science publishing career – she wrote two further books, including a telescope companion to the microscope book. Her books were displayed at the 1862 Crystal Palace exhibition; she would illustrate numerous other scientific works for eminent scientists; she published articles in several journals, including a well-received study of Natterjack toads; she became one of only three women permitted to be on the Royal Astronomical Society’s mailing list (and one of the others was Queen Victoria.) She never gained a degree, however – women weren’t allowed to.

And the manner of her death? In1869, aged 42, she and her husband were riding in a steam-powered automobile, home-made by the sons of her cousin, former Royal Society president William Parsons (she was always surrounded by scientists). As it rounded a bend, she was thrown from the car and under the wheels; they snapped her neck, and she died almost instantly. And so she became the first person in the history of the world to die in a car accident.

I suppose you could take from her life story and her far more famous death story a sort of wryly shoulder-shrugging moral fable: that pioneers don’t always get to choose what they’ll be seen as pioneers of. But personally, I think you should probably just take away the thought that, if you have a daughter, a microscope would make a fairly awesome birthday present.

The seismologist who wasn’t

So, all over the news today were reports like this:

An Italian scientist who predicted a serious earthquake in central Italy but was dismissed as a scaremonger said: “The authorities have these deaths on their conscience.”

Seismologist Gioacchino Giuliani had warned “a big one” was on the way and even toured the region in a van with loudspeakers warning people, as late as last week.

But he was reported to the police by authorities for “needlessly spreading panic” and also dismissed by L’Aquila’s mayor and other civic officials.

All very Roy Scheider facing off against complacent local bureaucrats in Jaws. It was being tweeted all over the place and burning up the social news sites for most of today. A great, rabble-rousing story about an underdog hero whose warnings were ignored. Every story referred to Giuliani as a seismologist and a scientist.

Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica released the following press release this morning (this is a Google Translated version of the cached press release; their website, with the original, is currently down for some reason.)

Referring to press reports about the earthquake that struck last night, the Abruzzo region, the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica states:

1. Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica’s mission and purpose of the study of phenomena that occur in space and in the universe and not from earthquakes or other phenomena related to geophysics;

2nd Mr. Gioacchino Giampaolo Giuliani is a non-graduate technical assistant at the Institute of Space Physics Interplanetario of Turin, which is one of the twenty INAF structures;

3rd Mr. Giuliani is working as technical assistant at the National Laboratory of Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) for the Gran Sasso of IFSI-INAF, within the framework of cooperation in your multipartner LVD (Large Volume Detector) for the detection of neutrinos produced by gravitational stellar collapse;

4th the activities of Mr. Giuliani compared the alleged possibility of forecasting earthquakes are not a search INAF, but are conducted by Giuliani himself for personal purposes outside of the service for the institute.

It would appear Gioacchino Giuliani is not a seismologist; he does not even, it seems, have any academic science qualifications at all. He is a lab assistant at an astrophysics institute, and he does earthquake prediction as a hobby, using the notoriously vague and unproven radon method – his prediction was actually that an earthquake would hit a town fifty miles away a week earlier (the sort of details you need to actually be right about if you’re going to start evacuating places).

This story came, as far as I can tell, not from some tabloid, but from Reuters, who were the ones who inaccurately spread the description of him as a “seismologist”; even now, in their newly updated, toned-down story, published many hours after the INAF released their statement, they still call Giuliani a “scientist”, and inaccurately say that he works at the National Insitute of Physics (not Astrophysics, which would give you more of a clue that he’s maybe not a specialist). Reuters are a trusted voice; when they write a story, it spreads around the world. This is, quite frankly, shoddy work on their part.

Your words will live on

Bruce Schneier on ‘The Future of Ephemeral Conversation’

Conversation used to be ephemeral. Whether face-to-face or by phone, we could be reasonably sure that what we said disappeared as soon as we said it. Organized crime bosses worried about phone taps and room bugs, but that was the exception. Privacy was just assumed.

This has changed. We chat in e-mail, over SMS and IM, and on social networking websites like Facebook, MySpace, and LiveJournal. We blog and we Twitter. These conversations — with friends, lovers, colleagues, members of our cabinet — are not ephemeral; they leave their own electronic trails.

We know this intellectually, but we haven’t truly internalized it. We type on, engrossed in conversation, forgetting we’re being recorded and those recordings might come back to haunt us later.

…Until our CEOs blog, our Congressmen Twitter, and our world leaders send each other LOLcats – until we have a Presidential election where both candidates have a complete history on social networking sites from before they were teenagers– we aren’t fully an information age society.

When everyone leaves a public digital trail of their personal thoughts since birth, no one will think twice about it being there.

…fits neatly in between Danny O’Brien on the vanishing private register and Charlie Stross on the beginning of history in the file marked “articles I will always point people at when I’m too lazy to talk about the future.”

The grapes of Rath

Ben Goldacre writes:

It’s just been publicly announced that the vitamin pill magnate Matthias Rath has pulled out of his gruelling legal case against me and the Guardian. He bought full page adverts denouncing Aids drugs while promoting his vitamin pills in South Africa, a country where hundreds of thousands die every year from Aids under an HIV denialist president and the population is ripe for miracle cures. I said his actions were highly worrying, in no uncertain terms. I believe I was right to do so.

This libel case has drawn on for over a year, with the writ hanging both in my toilet, and over my head… For the duration of the case I have also been silenced on the serious issues that Rath’s activities raise, the chapter on his work was pulled from my book, and I have been unable to comment on his further movements around the world.

This will now change…

A couple of points need to be raised here. Firstly, Ben officially joins the pantheon of the greats for the line “This libel case has drawn on for over a year, with the writ hanging both in my toilet, and over my head”; secondly, you have to go and read the Guardian’s coverage of the case, because – significantly, and very positively, I think – they’re giving this biiiig coverage, the sort of coverage they’d give to defeating a junior government minister in a libel action, or something of the sort. Not quite “a liar and a cheat” territory, but getting close. They clearly care, in a way that I wasn’t entirely sure the Guardian did care. Good on them.

The third point is more simple, and has been better expressed by other, wiser men before me:

Open Tech 2008 – a quick and unhelpful summary

As Chris has already written about, Saturday saw the return of Open Tech, the British geek conference, after an absence of three years. I went along, hungover like a bastard, and a good time was had by all.

Some quick highlights:

Danny O’Brien (excellent as always) somehow turning the Open Rights Group talk into a revivalist meeting, as Bill Thompson led a movement of those not yet saved to come forward and be baptised (and hand over a tenner). Also, the first half of the talk was conducted entirely in Foundation references, the second half entirely in Doctor Who references. It was all very enjoyable, and a delight to see how well the completely spontaneous idea (ahem) that Open Tech 2005 came up with has progressed. If you care about any of the issues ORG fights on – privacy, e-Voting, freedom of information, copyright reform, and host of others – you should probably go and join them now.

The MySociety guys giving the lowdown on WhatDoTheyKnow?, another great, simple political application that makes submitting FoI requests easy, and automatically publishes any response. It’s a great site, and along with all the other MySociety stuff (the video on TheyWorkForYou, the travel time maps) gives you hope that maybe this world isn’t entirely doomed after all.

The same goes for the guys behind the Power Of Information project, who are actually doing cool things within government to free up data and give it to people to use – it’ll be fascinating to see how ShowUsABetterWay works out, because it’s a potentially brilliant scheme.

The guys from, who explained the thinking behind the architecture for the Guardian’s web refit. I’ll not go into detail right now (it’s too late to try channeling Martin Belam) but I was pleased in an entirely egotistical way that a lot of their thoughts were similar to thoughts I’d had. Hurrah. They, of course, have the advantage of actually having done them, rather than just vaguely thinking about them.

Overall, there wasn’t quite the same sense of excitement as there was at previous iterations of the event – no “wow” factor stuff like TheyWorkForYou being unveiled, or Audioscrobbler being explained and me totally failing to get it, and a lot less of the useless-but-fun tech hacking that it had in its NotCon days – but instead there was a sense that things were maturing and actually getting stuff done. Which is good, I think,

People I saw but didn’t have anything sufficiently interesting to say to that would have justified me talking to them: Ben Goldacre, Danny O’Brien, Toms Steinberg and Loosemore, Simon Willison, Rufus Pollack and an awful lot of familiar faces whose names I couldn’t quite place. People I was going to talk to but then couldn’t find: Becky Hogge, who now runs ORG and I went to university with. People who I realise I never actually introduced myself to although I was technically in a conversation with even though I wasn’t saying much: Tom Reynolds. Puzzling conversations about Charlie Stross books with someone who clearly thought I was someone else: 1.

Irish wifi – is it a myth?

Quick query – does anybody know if there’s something funny about wifi in Ireland? Just come back from holiday there, and I wasn’t able to pick up a single wireless connection on my Eee the entire time. Nothing broken about the computer, as far as I can tell – it’s finding wireless connections without any trouble now I’m back in the UK – but I tried in numerous venues that claimed to have freely accessible wifi, and it didn’t spot a single connection. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t connect – it just didn’t see any signals at all. So, er… do the Irish use some kind of quirky wifi that might explain this? Or is my computer just xenophobic?

Tedious travelogues and many pictures of interesting rocks from my trip to follow shortly.

Quick Eee hack: getting Google Reader to work on the EeePC

One thing I’ve been meaning to blog about but haven’t got round to is my lovely new toy, an Asus EeePC. I bought one partly on a shiny-craving whim, partly because I wanted a genuinely portable computer, and partly because I think the anti-feature-bloat approach that they took with it is something that should be generally encouraged. So I encouraged it, with money.

It’s a really neat little machine, and I’m very, very fond of it – I’ve been using it almost to the complete exclusion of my trusty old ThinkPad, largely from the sheer pleasure of having something that starts up in 25 seconds, shuts down in 12, and doesn’t interrupt what I’m doing every half an hour to nag me about some software update or another.

It does take a little getting used to, however – the keyboard is fine, although I’m still not as quick on it as I am on a regular sized one, and I wonder how well someone who doesn’t have my tiny, childlike fingers would cope. The small screen is also a little odd at first, but by and large works with most things that you need it to – you just need to get used to CTRL-plussing and -minusing a bit more than normal to optimize the font size for the screen. The one site I regularly use that was causing me grief, however, was Google Reader.

The problem essentially is that the main menu (the bit in the upper left with the Home, All Items, etc options) takes up a fixed amount of real-estate, which squeezes the list of your subscriptions – the actual meat and potatoes of the reader – into whatever space is left. Which on the Eee, is precious little. In fact, it only manages to fit in two lines, making it all but useless for looking over your feeds to see what’s new:

Google Reader Eee screenshot 1

Even doing the old CTRL-minus to reduce the text size doesn’t help much – by the time you’ve got a usable number of lines, the text is all but illegible:

Google Reader Eee screenshot 2

The solution, after a bit of monkeying about, turns out to be twofold. Most obviously, F11 gets rid of the taskbar at the bottom of the screen, giving you a fair bit more to play with. The extra help comes from using Greasemonkey, by way of grabbing Lifehacker‘s Better GReader extension. This lets you fiddle about with the look of Google Reader – the option you want to use is the Minimalistic skin, which lets you get rid of the top bar on Google Reader by simply tapping W. The combination of these two gives you plenty of real estate to browse your feeds in, even with the normal chunky text size:

Google Reader Eee screenshot 3

You can, of course, give yourself even more to play with by reducing the text size a bit – it’s still legible with one, or even two, reductions. Not a terribly complex or hard-to-figure out fix, but I couldn’t see it noted down anywhere on a cursory google, so I thought I’d put it here in case anybody else was gnashing their teeth over the issue…

Dark Horizons

I have this little ritual. It’s just a slight quirk, but it makes me feel good and gets stuff off my chest. Every six months or so, I like to watch an episode of Horizon, the flagship science strand of the greatest public service broadcaster in the world. And then I like to shout into the cold, unblinking eye of the TV screen, “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST I REMEMBER WHEN THIS WAS A QUALITY SHOW THAT ACTUALLY CATERED TO PEOPLE WITH AN INTEREST IN SCIENCE AND IT WASN’T JUST A LOAD OF INCOHERENT COCKDRIZZLE PRODUCED BY A CAGEFUL OF MENTALLY SUBNORMAL GIBBONS WHO JUST LIKE LOOKING AT PRETTY PICTURES.”

And then I weep.

Tonight’s show dealt with the science of decision making. Now there’s an interesting topic, you’d think. But not for the fearless morons at Horizon. First up, they had a camp version of Tommy Carcetti from The Wire who tells people how to make better decisions in life and love using FORMULAS! Because you understand, SCIENCE is made out of FORMULAS. It was like every PR puff piece about “scientists discover the formula for the perfect walk/boiled egg/tentacle porn” had been elevated to the level of a self-help personality cult. This involved experiments which apparently revealed that people who are more attractive and confident are more successful in romance. Fuck me. Then, oh, I dunno, there was a magician or some shit.

The next bit, involving a dull man who demonstrates how your decisions can be affected by what kind of beverage you’re holding, was simply a warm up for the show’s big finale, which was about a parapsychologist who did an experiment which demonstrated that precognition exists. You could tell he had proved this because he had a GRAPH. SCIENCE is also made out of GRAPHS. Naturally, this being the BBC’s flagship science show, they didn’t ask any scientists what they thought of this. Or, indeed, the Nobel committee.

There were also some Top Gun pilots, who had nothing to do with anything but they did look very pretty.

It’s pointless, I know, my little ritual of weeping and shouting – Horizon lost the plot over a decade ago, and there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of getting it back short of some serious bloodletting (note: not a metaphor) at the BBC. But like I said, it makes me feel better.

Fucked in a different way

Chris’s post on how to inadvertently make the BBC say “fuck” reminded me of another instance when a well-intentioned and useful little bit of software managed to confuse the crap out of me with its unintended consequences. A little over a year ago, I was using a Firefox extension (or it may have been a Greasemonkey script – I can’t track down the exact one I was using then) that would automatically convert any money amount in the text on a web page into your local currency. Very neat, very useful.

The downside? My job at the time involved an awful lot of writing and reading about football. And as such, I was repeatedly and frequently confused whenever I read an otherwise normal article that would suddenly, for no apparent reason, make reference to a player who “looks a certainty for inclusion in the squad, despite his disappointing performances at £1,350 (€ 2004)”.

It normally took be about ten seconds to twig what was going on. And then I kept forgetting about it, and getting confused again the next time.

Scaling the heights

My sincere apologies to the Réaumur and Rømer temperature scales – I have no choice but to unceremoniously dump them off my list of my five favourite scales. I understand that this is particularly painful for them, mirroring as it does the cruel way in which the international scientific community cast them by the wayside in favour of those upstarts, the Fahrenheit and Celsius and Kelvin scales. But I must do what I must.

Bumble Bee Man

The reason for this, of course, is that doing the rounds over the past few days has been the Schmidt Sting Pain Index: a scale of the relative painfulness of stings caused by the Hymenoptera order of insects (bees and wasps and ants and shit). It’s a classy piece of work, and I don’t know how I missed it the first time round. For one thing, it’s a fairly unique scale in that it applies in full to only one person in the world – its main creator, entomologist Justin O. Schmidt. It’s a scale of how badly the various insect stings hurt him, gleaned through long and agonising personal experience. While broadly generalisable to the rest of the human species, it’s really a one-man thing.

The second reason is that it is the best written scale ever. A brief excerpt:

  • 1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
  • 2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
  • 2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine WC Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.