When 140 characters would be considered a luxury

My cousin found this among my late aunt’s effects recently… it’s the telegram she received in Sussex from the small town in Kenya where I was born. Phone calls were, of course, basically impossible.

telegram

How communications have changed in one lifetime!

My next electric vehicle?

I missed this when it came out nearly a year ago…

More information on their Indiegogo page and at Modobag.com.

Hillary Blofeld?

Wow! I thought Hillary Clinton was just an American politician. But according to Donald Trump last night, she’s some kind of global potentate: a villain that would be rejected by Bond film producers as far too implausible:

After four years of Hillary Clinton, what do we have?

ISIS has spread across the region, and the world.

Libya is in ruins, and our Ambassador and his staff were left helpless to die at the hands of savage killers.

Iraq is in chaos.

Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons.

Syria is engulfed in a civil war and a refugee crisis that now threatens the West.

After fifteen years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before.

This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.

What’s really shocking is that, on top of doing all that, she also used the wrong SMTP server!

You don’t need just one Mount Olympus

The London 2012 Olympics was, in my opinion, the biggest waste of taxpayers’ money to have occurred in my lifetime. For the amount it cost, we could have employed 500 teachers for nearly 1000 years. I’m not saying that the games shouldn’t have happened — there seem to be lots of people who enjoy watching other people jump into piles of sand — I simply think that it should have been funded entirely from the ticket prices and TV advertising.

It is, of course, entirely predictable — the Olympics is a financial disaster for almost every country that hosts it — but it’s less of a disaster for countries like the UK who have enough cash that they can take it in their stride. But when countries like Brazil, who have much more trouble funding their health services than we do, take it on, it probably moves from being stupid to being downright immoral.

So Paul Christesen’s article, Making the case for a new Olympic model, makes a lot of sense to me, and should not only dramatically cut costs, but should also reduce the large number of (essentially abandoned) stadia — I’ve visited quite a few of them — still standing around the world as monuments to the folly of politicians past. Actually, follies is a good word for them! Understandable follies, perhaps — Panem et circenses and all that, if you’ll excuse my mixing of classical references — but follies nonetheless.

It would be good for the Olympics to continue to exist, but for heaven’s sake, let’s do it in a way that makes sense in the modern world.

What’s in a name?

Many years ago, I was helping a local church with a project which involved a database of the participating parishioners. This was stored in the columns of a spreadsheet, and occasionally printed out strange things in the lists of names – like ‘1/6’, or ‘1/5/05’. Most bizarre.

I eventually uncovered the problem: one of the members of the congregation was named ‘June’. Another was called ‘May’. And when they had been imported into the spreadsheet, it was being far too clever for its own good! I found out just before adding a nice lady whose name was ‘April’…

Even my simple double-barrelled surname causes some problems: a surprising number of systems can’t cope with hyphenated names. For a while I seemed to be undergoing a lot of security checks at airports, which one member of staff suggested might be because my passport had a hyphen in my name, but the airline systems invariably did not, so I never matched up as expected. The US Patent Office gets similarly confused, and in some search engines, a ‘minus’ indicates an exclusion, so if you search for ‘Stafford-Fraser’ you are guaranteed never to get me because I have a ‘Fraser’ in my name. Sigh. I don’t envy those who have names with more complicated punctuation…

Unusual initials, while general handy, also have their downsides. I could never get a good personalised license plate for my car, for example, because Qs are deemed to be too easily confused with Os or zeroes in the UK and are not allowed (except in a few very specific circumstances). My friend Brian Robinson told me about an occasion when his son Xavier was excluded from something at school, if I remember correctly, because they mistook his initial, ‘X’, as a cross indicating he was crossed off the list!

So it’s appropriate that it was Brian who forwarded a Wired article by someone with a problem I hadn’t previously considered: his surname causes much more confusion for many computer systems than mine, because his name is Christopher Null.

Optimising the size of Docker containers

Or ‘Optimizing the size of Docker containers’, in case people from America or from Oxford are Googling for it…

For Docker users, here are a couple of tricks when writing Dockerfiles which can help keep the resulting container images to a more manageable size.

Also available on Vimeo here.

Things you thought you knew

Neil deGrasse Tyson is just superb. This video has (a) some ads that pop up that you’ll want to dismiss and (b) a microphone glitch early on so you’ll need to wait until he swaps mics. But trust me, it’s worth the effort.

The Cabinet of Dr Addenbrooke

John Addenbrooke, founder of the famous Cambridge hospital, was a fellow of St Catharine’s College around the start of the 18th century. One of the treasures in the college’s collection is his medicine cabinet, which has 27 drawers of assorted shapes and sizes.

20160621-180458142-Edit-900

If you open these, in the rather gloomy lighting of the room, you see some dusty items under dusty glass, and it’s hard to make out anything of much interest.

However, the college now has some funding to get the contents properly catalogued, and, since I’ve been doing a bit more professional photography recently, they hired me to take some photos of the interior. I set up a lighting rig, and the librarian and I carefully removed the glass panels covering most of the drawers. Under proper lighting, the contents came alive.

Addenbrooke Drawer 5

Addenbrooke Drawer 4

There are seeds, powders, bones, fossils, stone axe-heads; even a wooden clog in one of them!

Addenbrooke Drawer 20

Addenbrooke Drawer 26

The full details will appear on the college website once the experts have done their job identifying the contents. My thanks to the college for permission to publish a few images here.

Addenbrooke Drawer 4

I can’t wait to find out what some of these are, and where they came from!

Addenbrooke Drawer 8

Anyone recognise anything?

Addenbrooke Drawer 1

One thing I realised, when I got home, is that I needed to wash my hands thoroughly, since, for all I knew, I’d been spending the afternoon dusting my fingers in 300-year-old arsenic, or worse!

Facebreak

Well, having failed to stick to my earlier promise to spend less time on Facebook, I’m having another go. I don’t want to abandon my account completely but this time I’ve changed my password to something I don’t know. We’ll see if that helps!

I think the credentials that I use for cross-posting from my blog will still work. This will be a test!

The problem is that many of my friends (the European ones, anyway) are talking about nothing but Brexit, and I find it hard not to join in. (I’m also more moderate on it than some, and this distresses some of my friends who hold strong views in either direction!)

There’s a very good reason why polite society has always discouraged sex, politics, or religion as topics for the dinner table. Few people appear to great advantage when discussing them, and it’s very easy to alienate accidentally those with whom you would otherwise have no disagreement. I think it’s wise to absent myself from the table until other topics return to the fore. God knows there’s no shortage of Brexit news everywhere else!

Since Facebook uses clever systems to order and filter the posts it presents to you, it would be nice if you could tweak it to promote or demote particular topics. “Show me more/fewer posts like this.” I remember a few years back a friend complained that too much of my output concerned Lord of the Rings, for example. But I don’t think such a filter system exists, so if you want to stay on the system you’re left only with the option of un-friending people: something I don’t want to do. I just don’t care, for example, about discussions about Icelandic football teams and can’t contribute anything useful, even if I may value the participants’ views on everything else. They probably feel the same about my views on Peter Jackson’s movies.

Now you might say that coping with this is just part of normal social interactions at the pub. But Facebook is like a large pub where you have to hear everybody’s conversations at the same volume without the normal subtle clues that give hints about the hearers’ enthusiasm. And since it only offers you the option of chucking people out of your pub, I think, I’ll take the alternative of stepping outside for a bit until things are a bit less smoky! I’ll be back soon, I’m sure. Have fun while I’m away!

Using nginx as a load-balancing proxy with the Docker service-scaling facilities

There’s a geeky title for you! But it might help anyone Googling for those keywords…

Recent versions of Docker have many nice new facilities. Here’s a demo of how you can use the service-scaling to run multiple instances of your app back-end, and Nginx as a front-end proxy, while keeping track of them using the round-robin DNS facility built in to the Docker engine.

All demonstrated in a few lines of code on my laptop, using the new Docker for Mac.

Also available on YouTube.

With thanks to Jeppe Toustrup for some helpful hints. Have a look at his page for more detailed information. Also see the Docker channel on YouTube for lots of talks from the recent DockerCon.

Software security and the new app platform

As regular readers will know, my car has a programming interface which, sadly, is not officially supported by BMW. Still, it lets me create some little apps to improve the daily experience of car ownership; not something I’ve really been able to do with any previous cars. We’ve come a long way from some of my earliest ones, where I spent most of my time straightening bent carburettor needles and replacing leaf springs!

car_lock_checkMy latest hack is a little script which runs periodically on one of my servers and checks whether the car has been stationary for more than 15 mins. If so, and the windows, sun roof or doors are open or unlocked, it sends a notification to my phone. This is partly for security reasons, but mostly because the British weather has been sending us hourly alternate bursts of sunroof-opening heat and torrential downpours! Of course, if I’m not near the car at the time, I can lock it remotely.

One of the many things I find appealing about the move to electric cars is that the actual mechanics become so much simpler. I no longer have an exhaust pipe, a clutch or gearbox, an oil sump or filter, head gaskets or piston rings. The motor isn’t much larger than a melon, and the batteries can be made in various shapes and sizes to fit the layout of the vehicle. In my case, I have a flat floor, with no propshaft tunnel or gear lever to get in the way. Reconfiguring such a design to be a van, a campervan, a flatbed truck, or whatever, is much less of a challenge now.

As the complexity of the mechanics goes down and the flexibility goes up, I think software, both inside and outside the car, is going to play an ever more important role in our experience of it.

The automotive industry has become interesting again, for the first time in many decades.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser