Last Sunday I did my usual biennial visit to the Warbirds Over Wanaka air show. I left about 7.30 in the morning and was there by about 10.30. Yes, I did a bit of “low flying” getting there (I won’t mention my maximum speed here) and got my first speeding fine for about 2 years. But I just see the occasional speeding fine as an added cost of driving. I know other people who have been let off with a warning for doing more than I did, so the whole thing is just not fair! (See my other blog entries for similar experiences of “Fred”.)
Once I got there I enjoyed the low flying of the various aircraft on display. I don’t think the show was quite as good as some in the past but it was still well worth attending, even though a lot of what was shown I had already seen in past shows.
One of my favourite planes is the Hawker Hunter and that flew at the show. I also saw a few planes I hadn’t seen before, such as the Avenger, Fokker D.VIII, Strikemaster, and Agusta 109 helicopter.
I did my usual photography, both still and video, and got some pretty brilliant photos (and I say that with all appropriate modesty). My report on the show, with photos, videos, and commentary is here.
I’m not going to comment on the pathetic excuse for a budget our (New Zealand) government had the temerity to release today. I’ll think about it for a while and then comment. Maybe after that time I will have seen some merit in it, or more likely it will seem even worse than it does now!
No, in this entry I want to comment on something far more positive: how well my server transition went yesterday. For a few years now my main web server has been an old Power Mac G4 and I wanted to upgrade to something slightly more modern: a Power Mac G5 (yes, I did say it was only slightly more modern).
The problem is that my server runs 8 web sites, although only one is very substantial, and has many databases running in the background. There are also some custom configurations it requires to run. Of course I wanted the web sites to be down for the minimum amount of time during the transition. Oh, and to make things slightly more complicated I had to do all this in my spare time between doing “real work”.
There was one factor on my side though: I was using Macs!
As you can probably tell from my triumphant tone (and the title of this blog) it worked really well! All of the web sites are running correctly. The databases (including this blogging system) are all running as expected, and the new system is significantly faster than the old one (although the upstream speed of my internet connection is still a bit slow for this purpose).
So I installed new hardware, a much more modern operating system, new versions of PHP, MySQL, and Apache, and the latest versions of all the web sites, plus I maintained the data (over a million records) from all of the databases with a total down time of about 2 minutes. And now, 24 hours later, I haven’t found any problems.
So that’s my happy computer story. On most days I encounter enough weird computer problems which I have to waste a lot of time to solve, so it’s nice to win for a change!
Over the years I have bought a lot of computer books. I’ve bought books about programming and other practical technical subjects, textbooks I used when I was a computer science student, and lots of magazines and other material about general computer subjects. They have been sitting on a bookshelf in our spare room and I haven’t used any of them for years.
Today we needed to clear some space and I went through the books and realised that they were almost all useless. The hardware, the programming languages, the application programs, and most of the techniques have changed so much that practically none of the books were relevant any more.
Not only that but I don’t use traditional books any more. All of my technical documentation, my reference material, and my user manuals are stored on my computer as PDFs and other formats. And my fiction books and magazines are on my iPad in electronic formats like EPUB. I really do seem to have made significant progress towards achieving a paperless life.
Some simple calculations show just how efficient computer storage really is. A 1 terabyte drive (not huge by modern standards) can store 1 million average size books. Sure, I agree that is just text (based on 2K per page and 500 pages per book) and graphics would require significantly more storage, but the basic principle is clear: one drive can store a lot more than the total knowledge of the ancient world found at the Great Library of Alexandria – and I currently have 10 drives!
When I was looking through the old material I realised that things have progressed greatly in most ways but I also realised there was a lot of older stuff which was actually really good and is either no longer available or has become unfashionable in some way.
One example is Hypercard, Apple’s program which was extremely popular for making “stacks” which performed many varied tasks. Hypercard was a great fast development environment with a scripting language which was both easy to use and powerful. And while I’m on the subject of programming languages, I still think Pascal is better than C! But I never liked some of the other older languages much so the three programming manuals for COBOL I had never got much use!
I’m not sure whether electronic books are better than paper books from an environmental or sustainability perspective. I’m not sure whether ebooks are more natural or pleasant to use than paper books. But I am certain that ebooks are a lot easier to search and a lot easier to keep up to date. And they are certainly a lot easier to store!
I have been writing this blog for a long time – since before most people even knew what a blog is in fact. My first blog entry was written over 7 years ago in April 2003. Since then I have written well over 1000 entries which are the equivalent of about 900 A4 pages of text. Then there’s all the comments: over 2600 on my main blog (which I wrote about half of) plus many more on other blogging sites I publish the same information on.
So writing blog entries is a big commitment and one that I can’t keep up with at all times. There are so many interesting issues I want to comment on: from new discoveries that our universe might be part of a multiverse to the (inaccurately reported) news that Richard Dawkins wants to arrest the Pope!
But I have been blogging less recently and that will probably continue for a while because I have so many other commitments which I need to use my spare time pursuing. I’m afraid that most of them are work related: web sites, databases, and other geeky computer stuff, but hopefully that will lessen as time passes and I might get back to the “glory days” of mid 2008 when I wrote something almost every day.
So really it’s not that I’ve got nothing to say but more that I don’t have time to say it. Or at least not in a reasonably lucid form which has been reasonably thoroughly checked and is backed up with at least a basic amount of research. So I’ll get on with that work now and get back to the Pope being arrested later – hopefully in the near future.
Yesterday I went to the Warbirds Over Wanaka air show. The show is run every second year (at Wanaka airport, Otago, New Zealand) and I attend most years (although I didn’t go last time). As well as enjoying watching the aircraft (which is one of my interests) it’s also a great opportunity to take some interesting photos, and photographing fast moving objects is usually quite challenging.
I took several hundred photos and quite a bit of standard definition and high definition video and I will use some of these in the report I will write for my web site. I already have reports for the same show in 1992, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2004, and 2006.
Originally the show specialised in World War II era aircraft but more recently there has been a much wider range displayed. In 2006 these ranged from the 1918 Bleriot capable of 70 kilometers per hour to the F-111 from the Australian Air Force which is capable of about 3000! An impressive change in just 50 years.
There’s usually a rare fighter shown at each show. In the past there was a Messerschmitt Me 109, Polikarpov I-16s, a Hawker Hurricane, and the Russian Yak 3 and LA9. This year there was a Japanese Zero. There are also the more common P-51 Mustangs, Spitfires, Corsair and Kittyhawks which appear every year – yes, I know, I hate to to call the Spitfire “common”!
The Lithuanian aerobatics pilot Yurgis Kairys has made an appearance at several shows and he was there again this year flying a crazy and spectacular series of maneuvers in the aircraft he designed himself. That’s always a highlight.
The RNZAF put on a good display (especially considering it doesn’t even have a fighter wing any more) with its Seasprite and Iroquois helicopters, Orion and Hercules transport planes, its parachute team, and various other aircraft.
The New Zealand Air Force may lack spectacular fighters but Australia certainly doesn’t. The RAAF sent 4 F/A-18 Hornets and they were just awesome! They flew in unexpectedly and they fly fast so they are well ahead of their sound. They just arrive without warning, fly over, then the sound hits you. On a fast, low pass over the airfield the sound is just indescribable.
My report on the show, including photos, sound and movies, will be on my web site (the airshow section is here) in the next week or two (it’s hard to find time to work on this between other projects) so if you are interested in this sort of stuff stay tuned.
Yesterday I was sitting in one of the cafes we have distributed around the campus of the university I work at writing some notes on Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, when an odd person came up to me and claimed: “he’s a real dork you know”. I enquired: “who do you mean, Richard Dawkins? What’s the problem?” but by that time he had scuttled away.
So it seems that Dawkins’ influence is significant with all kinds of different people. I have no idea what this particular individual’s problem was – presumably he was some sort of religious freak who didn’t like criticism of his beliefs – and its unfortunate I couldn’t have got some more details. Actually, now that I think about it more, maybe its fortunate I didn’t engage this person in debate because I suspect he might not have made much sense (so much for universities being the center for informed intellectual debate!)
Anyway, if you are interested in the subject, my brief summary of some of the highlights from the book (which is actually well written and very readable) is here. If you have any comments please leave them in the discussion system, but please make it a bit more consequential than an ad hominem attack on the author!
For the second time in the last few weeks I have taken a few days off and disappeared away for a short break. This time it was Queenstown and I’m afraid we struck a second period of bad weather (just like the trip to Nelson at the beginning of the month). To make things worse I didn’t have a reliable internet connection and not even 3G cell phone coverage, so I couldn’t even connect at a decent speed through my iPhone.
Queenstown is a nice place to visit and we did manage to do our traditional trip on the gondola to the top of the hill and do a few runs on the luge there. We even experienced a few flakes of snow at the top although it wasn’t really as cold as that might indicate.
Of course I had some computer work to do while I was there but most of the time we just relaxed. There was one aspect of the stay in Queenstown I want to discuss here though. The friend who provided the accommodation is a fundamentalist Christian and there is always a lot of religious material in the house we stay in as well as some new apologetics DVDs he wanted me to watch.
So I watched one of the DVDs which supposedly showed that evolution was untrue and bad for science. Naturally it was mostly nonsense although it was slightly more sophisticated than most of the material of that sort I have seen. When I read or watch this sort of stuff I usually make a few notes so that I can make a response but I thought why not this time put the critique of the DVD on-line. So I have started a new section of my web site for criticisms of this sort of material which will be available soon.
While I was doing this my 16 year old daughter decided she was going to read the Bible. None of my family are religious but, as I have said many times in the past, there’s no harm in reading a religious book. I know that some religious families ban non-religious material and I would be just as bad if I didn’t encourage curiosity about the Bible.
I am an atheist and frequently criticise the Bible but I really tried to encourage an open approach on this occasion. Even so, my daughter just couldn’t believe what she was reading. Not surprisingly she started at the beginning and read the Old Testament stories like the creation myth, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters, Abraham, etc.
The conclusion she reached was that the stories were quite fascinating to read (even if they are a bit violent and risque) but no one with any common sense would really believe they were true. If a teenager can see this then why can’t the fundy Christians!
I did point out that there are hidden meanings behind the basic stories but when I had to explain what they were I realised that they are nothing particularly worthwhile. What’s the story behind creation? Nothing. Its just an attempted explanation of the origin of the universe and life from a primitive tribe and, apart from its value as fiction (which is very little), there’s no great hidden meaning there.
And the other stories are similar. They just seem to be on the same theme of being obedient to god or you (and a lot of innocents) will be killed. Not much of a message there really. And the stories all seem to have a lot more violence and sexual content than you would expect in a religious work!
Sure I agree that I’m only criticising the start of the Old Testament here and that there is a lot more worthwhile philosophy in the New Testament. But the NT is also awkward to read, and of very little literary or philosophical value in my opinion. Anyone genuinely interested in mythology, philosophy or literature would do a lot better to look elsewhere.
In the past some religious friends have accused me of deliberately turning my family against religion or even endangering their relationship with god (or something similar). In my defence I would say that I really do encourage them to explore these issues and think about it for themselves. I actually defended the Bible because my daughter’s initial impression was that its a pile of crap. OK, it is in some ways, but read it as fun mythology or as an intriguing examination of the minds of the writers thousands of years ago and it becomes quite different.
As far as spoiling their relationship with God. Well I would expect most gods would be smart enough to notice that a person had been lead astray by someone like me and really if he decides to punish them with eternal torment because of that then he really isn’t much of a god and deserves all the derision we can aim at him.
Yesterday I returned from a 5 day trip to Nelson and back (a distance of about 1600 kilometers). Nelson is a great holiday destination but on this occasion the reason for the visit was to collect a car for my daughter and to make some improvements to an accounting program I created for my mother-in-law – its very important to get that right!
Actually its just as well the main purpose wasn’t a holiday because the weather was fairly terrible. Nelson has a reputation for having good weather (it generally has the highest sunshine hours in New Zealand) but on this occasion there was almost continuous heavy rain and fairly cool temperatures. It wasn’t so good yesterday when we got back to Dunedin either but today the weather has returned to pleasant spring conditions.
I usually write a few blog entries even when I am away from home but on this occasion I didn’t because I had a technical problem with my web site. I was horrified to receive an email (on my iPhone) as I was travelling north saying the web site couldn’t be contacted. I didn’t worry too much because sometimes there are problems with the links to the rest of the world and I expected it to fix itself fairly quickly.
Unfortunately it didn’t and I diagnosed the fault as a problem with my ADSL router. That was locked inside the house and I was away for 5 days so my web server was unavailable for that long. This is not the standard of professionalism I usually have (my up-time is usually better than some real web hosting services) but I will rearrange my home network so the modem can be restarted from the basement (which is more accessible) so I can phone someone and ask them to fix things in the unlikely (I hope) event it happens again.
I hasten to point out that my good old reliable Mac servers kept running perfectly and they have had 100% uptime over the last few years they have been running. It was my modem (usually very reliable itself) which had got confused.
Knowing my servers were unavailable was a bit of a worry because I was constantly trying to think of a clever way to fix things by “remote control” but apart from that the trip was successful. We did have 2 pleasant breaks overnight at Hanmer Springs on the way to and from Nelson and sitting in the hot pools while admiring the mountain scenery tends to make you forget (temporarily at least) about technical issues like web server problems.
So it was back to work today with about 300 email messages to deal with and various other IT related problems to solve. Playing with computers is fun but sometimes I’d rather be back at Hanmer Springs. I particularly want to take my telescope up there some time because the night sky is just superb, although on this occasion the Moon and some light cloud would have made observing a bit of a waste of time.
Now that my daughter has a car we now have three at home. To make matters worse my wife has won a new car in a competition so we will have 4 tomorrow. It might be time to thin out the fleet a bit, I think!
We have already found a couple of enhancements which would be helpful in the accounting program so another visit to Nelson seems likely, but that won’t be until Christmas. I do have a few more days off coming up soon for a short visit to Queenstown (yes, I have some computer work to do there too) so I really must re-arrange the network before that happens. Whether the servers are on or off line isn’t exactly critical but I always think if you’re going to run a web service you need to aim for the best reliability possible.
There was a real chance that today would have been the third day in a row that I hadn’t written a blog entry! I try to miss only one day maximum, after two days I start to get a bit anxious. Three days without blogging would be a disaster!
So what has lead to this most unexpected lack of dedication on my part? Actually I have been involved with a couple of interesting projects recently which have used up so much time that I’ve not had a chance to write a blog entry.
Making graphs is fun because they look pretty and users tend to react positively to them because of that. Its also a good demonstration of how its possible to do almost anything in a web browser now – things which could only be done in “real” programs in the past.
The other big thing which has been using up time is a science fair project I have been helping my son with (well actually I’m more than just helping but that’s common enough with these things). The project is to test the power output and economy of batteries.
I set up a cool experimental system with a webcam capturing a time-lapse movie to monitor some torches we set up. Four torches used four different types of battery and we monitored them for several days to day how long they would last.
I thought maybe 2 or 3 days would be enough so I set the time lapse to do a frame every 5 minutes for 5 days. After 5 days even the cheap batteries were still going strong so I had to start another set of 5 days. Eventually the torches went for more than a week. Its amazing how long even AAA batteries will power those high efficiency LEDs.
The second experiment was to test batteries in a high drain device. I thought a model RC car would be good for this so we decided to run one (an Aston Martin DB9 – you might as well have some class) around a 40 meter track I set up. The first batteries did about 25 laps and I thought the alkaline batteries might double that. Well the car took off like a rocket – twice as fast – and was still going 200 laps later. The more expensive alkalines powered the car for over 11 kilometers which took almost 2 hours to complete!
I stored the results, did the analysis, and drew the graphs using Numbers – Apple’s new spreadsheet program – and it was so nice. So much easier to use than Excel although it still lacks some of Excel’s advanced features. So I now use Pages instead of Word, KeyNote instead of PowerPoint, and Numbers insetad of Excel. So I’m completely free of badly designed Microsoft software. That’s computing nirvana!
Every now and again I post an entry here talking about a new toy I have bought. For many years now (like about 30) I have been a serious amateur photographer. Technology moves on and its worth updating camera equipment every 2 or 3 years so now was the time to do it again.
In fact the time to do it was near the end of last year but my previous attempt at updating my camera went terribly wrong! As I have commented on in the past I am a great fan of on-line auction sites, mainly TradeMe, New Zealand’s main (almost only) site.
Last year I bought a new camera and lens on TradeMe and paid up my NZ$2300 (good cameras aren’t cheap) and patiently waited for the camera to arrive. After a few days it became obvious something was wrong and it turned out the whole thing was a scam run by a trader who is currently being prosecuted by police.
I have always used Canon cameras but that camera was a Nikon (a D90) which I chose because it had features Canon didn’t have at the time. Since then Canon has introduced an even better (and cheaper) camera than the Nikon which I have also bought on TradeMe. As long as it turns up in the next few days I will be happy. Every day delay will be a cause of concern!
But really on-line auctions are fairly safe. I have bought thousands of dollars worth of gadgets on-line and only been ripped off once. It was unfortunate that the rip-off involved one of the most expensive items I bought though!
So what progress has digital photography made since my last camera? Well quite a lot actually. My previous camera was a Canon EOS 350D, an 8 megapixel digital SLR, and its still a very fine camera, even 3 years after I bought it. Its fast and reliable and can produce brilliant quality images.
The new camera (an EOS 500D) has a few advantages though. First, it has almost twice as many pixels (but I have never seen more pixels as necessarily critical). More importantly it has a high definition movie mode, live preview, better low light performance, a much bigger and better display, an image stabilised lens, and a few other enhancements.
Ironically this has given the dSLR feature parity with many compact cameras which have had most of those features (in some form) all along! But compact cameras really just can’t compete for real photography. I had to use two of them (a Canon and a Kodak) recently and the speed, responsiveness, flexibility and quality was rubbish compared with even my old dSLR. In ideal conditions (plenty of light, slow moving objects, etc) they are OK but push the limits even slightly and they often don’t work well at all.
A great example of the superiority of the SLR was an air show I took photos at a few years back. The previous show I had used a fairly advanced (at the time) compact camera (a Canon G6) and the photos were OK but lack of magnification (with just a 4x zoom), inferior performance at higher sensitivity settings, and slow general responsiveness meant none of my photos were that great.
When I used the SLR instead things were so much better. The speed meant all the aircraft were right in the middle of the frame instead of escaping out the front! And the long telephoto (equivalent 450mm) meant I could zoom right into the action, including shots of the pilots actually sitting in the aircraft.
So when the 500D turns up (it will this time because I have used a reliable trader) I expect that my photos will be even better, especially in low light, but also I should be able to create some nice high definition movies. They should look great on my plasma TV!
I do have a lot of expensive toys but at least I use them a lot. The previous camera had done 15,000 photos (Canon say the shutter is good for over 100,000) so it go a lot of work. I also upgraded my telephoto zoom lens which I had been using for 25 years. It still worked fine but I got the opportunity to do a minor upgrade for almost nothing so I took it.
I’ve owned a lot of Canon (film and digital) cameras over the years: An AL-1, an A-1, two T-90s (that’s another story), and EOS-5, an EOS 350D and now the EOS 500D. They have all been brilliantly reliable and easy to use. If the 500D is up to this standard I will be happy enough! I’ll do a review once I’ve used it for a few weeks.