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Posts Tagged ‘activities’

Classic Fighters

April 17, 2017 Leave a comment

On Saturday I went to the Classic Fighters Omaka 2017 air show in Blenheim, New Zealand. I had been intending on going to this show since it first started, but being at the opposite end of the island I just never quite made it. This year I was visting my in-laws in Nelson, so I thought the 90 minute journey to Marlborough would be worth it.

And despite the bad weather a lot of New Zealand (including Marlborough) has experienced recently, the day was brilliant. There were almost no clouds, a light (to moderate) wind, and a temperature of 22 degrees. Great conditions for watching warbirds (although maybe a bit less wind would have been good).

I have been to the other big South Island, New Zealand air show, Warbirds Over Wanaka, several times in the past, and have put reports from all of these, including photos and movies on my web site, so I will do the same for this one over the next few days.

Both air shows have a variety of aircraft, but Wanaka seems to specialise in World War II planes and Omaka in World War I. So there were plenty of Fokker Triplanes, Sopwith Camels, and other aircraft from that era (all replicas, of course) plus Spitfires, a Corsair, a Kittyhawk, and some Yaks from World War II.

My favourite display was the Yak 3 Steadfast, powered by the 1750hp Pratt and Whitney R2000 radial engine and capable of over 650 kilometers per hour. It had smoke generators on both wing tips and left twin smoke trails which formed all sorts of cool patterns and smoke rings in the deep blue sky.

The saddest part of the show (apart from it taking over an hour to drive the 100 meters to the car park exit) was the A-4 Skyhawk sitting in a hangar. This one had it’s engine stripped out of it to use as a spare part when the other New Zealand Air Force Skyhawks were sold.

I remember watching the Skyhawk displays in Wanaka back in the 1996, 1998, and 2000 shows and they were awesome. Of course, they were a bit of an obsolete aircraft by American standards, but at least the NZ planes had updated avionics and weapons systems.

So I’m glad I went to the trouble of watching this show. I really didn’t like it quite as much as the best Wanaka shows, but it was still very good. My only regret is that I didn’t get there a little bit earlier because I missed some of the first WWI displays.

As I said above, I will have a report on this show with photos and videos on my main web site (ojb.nz) in the next few days so check there if you are interested (and I apologise in advance if it takes longer – it’s surprising how much time the photo and video processing, researching facts, and general writing of those reports takes).

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The Internet is Best!

March 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I hear a lot of debate about whether the internet is making us dumb, uninformed, or more close-minded. The problems with a lot of these debates are these: first, saying the internet has resulted in the same outcome for everyone is too simplistic; second, these opinions are usually offered with no justification other than it is just “common sense” or “obvious”; and third, whatever the deficiencies of the internet, is it better or worse than not having an internet?

There is no doubt that some people could be said to be more dumb as the result of their internet use. By “dumb” I mean being badly informed (believing things which are unlikely to be true) or not knowing basic information at all, and by “internet use” I mean all internet services people use to gather information: web sites, blogs, news services, email newsletters, podcasts, videos, etc.

How can this happen when information is so ubiquitous? Well information isn’t knowledge, or at least it isn’t necessarily truth, and it certainly isn’t always useful. It is like the study (which was unreplicated so should be viewed with some suspicion) showing that people who watch Fox News are worse informed about news than people who watch no news at all.

That study demonstrates three interesting points: first, people can be given information but gather no useful knowledge as a result; second, non-internet sources can be just as bad a source as the internet itself; and third, this study (being unreplicated and politically loaded) might itself be an example of an information source which is potentially misleading.

So clearly any information source can potentially make people dumber. Before the internet people might have been made dumber by reading printed political newsletters, or watching trashy TV, or by listening to a single opinion at the dinner table, or by reading just one type of book.

And some people will mis-use information sources where others will gain a lot by using the same source. Some will get dumber while others get a lot smarter by using the same sources.

And (despite the Fox News study above) if the alternative to having an information source which can be mis-used is having no information source at all, then I think taking the flawed source is the best option.

Anecdotes should be used with extreme caution, but I’m going to provide some anyway, because this is a blog, not a scientific paper. I’m going to say why I think the internet is a good thing from my own, personal perspective.

I’m interested in everything. I don’t have a truly deep knowledge about anything but I like to think I have a better than average knowledge about most things. My hero amongst Greek philosophers is Eratosthenes, who was sometimes known as “Beta”. This was because he was second best at everything (beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet which I can recite in full, by the way).

The internet is a great way to learn a moderate amount about many things. Actually, it’s also a great way to learn a lot about one thing too, as long as you are careful about your sources, and it is a great way to learn nothing about everything.

I work in a university and I get into many discussions with people who are experts in a wide range of different subjects. Obviously I cannot match an expert’s knowledge about their precise area but I seem to be able to at least have a sensible discussion, and ask meaningful questions.

For example, in recent times I have discussed the political situation in the US, early American punk bands, the use of drones and digital photography in marine science, social science study design, the history of Apple computers, and probably many others I can’t recall right now.

I hate not knowing things, so when I hear a new word, or a new idea, I immediately Google it on my phone. Later, when I have time, I retrieve that search on my tablet or computer and read a bit more about it. I did this recently with the Gibbard-Satterhwaite Theorem (a mathematical theorem which involves the fairness of voting systems) which was mentioned in a podcast I was listening to.

Last night I was randomly browsing YouTube and came across some videos of extreme engines being started and run. I’ve never seen so much flame and smoke, and heard so much awesome noise. But now I know a bit about big and unusual engine designs!

The videos only ran for 5 or 10 minutes each (I watched 3) so you might say they were quite superficial. A proper TV documentary on big engines would probably have lasted an hour and had far more detail, as well as having a more credible source, but even if a documentary like that exists, would I have seen it? Would I have had an hour free? What would have made me seek out such an odd topic?

The great thing about the internet is not necessarily the depth of its information but just how much there is. I could have watched hundreds of movies on big engines if I had the time. And there are more technical, detailed, mathematical treatments of those subjects if I want them. But the key point is that I would probably know nothing about the subject if the internet didn’t exist.

Here’s a few other topics I have got interested in thanks to YouTube: maths (the numberphile series is excellent), debating religion (I’m a sucker for an atheist experience video, or anything by Christopher Hitchens), darts (who knew the sport of darts could be so dramatic?), snooker (because that’s what happens after darts), Russian jet fighters, Formula 1 engines, classic British comedy (Fawlty Towers, Father Ted, etc).

What would I do if I wasn’t doing that? Watching conventional TV maybe? Now what were my options there: a local “current affairs” program with the intellectual level of an orangutan (with apologies to our great ape cousins), some frivolous reality TV nonsense, a really un-funny American sitcom? Whatever faults the internet has, it sure is a lot better than any of that!

Pokemon No!

July 30, 2016 Leave a comment

I am a proud computer (and general technology) geek and I see all things geeky as being a big part of my culture. So I don’t really identify much with my nationality of New Zealander, or of traditional Pacific or Maori values (I’m not Maori anyway but many people still think that should be part of my culture), or of the standard interests of my compatriots like rugby, outdoor activities, or beer – well OK, maybe I do identify with the beer!

Being a geek transcends national boundaries and traditional values. I go almost everywhere with my 4 main Apple products: a MacBook Pro laptop, an iPad Pro, an iPhone 6S, and an Apple Watch. They are all brilliant products and I do use them all every day.

For me, the main aspects of being a geek involve “living on the internet” and sourcing most of my information from technology sources, and participating in geek events and activities.

By “living on the internet” I mean that I can’t (or maybe just don’t) go for any period of time (I mean a few hours) without participating in social media, checking internet information sources (general news, new products, etc), or seeking out random material on new subjects from sites such as Quora.

I mainly stay informed not by watching TV (although I still do watch TV news once per day) or listening to radio news (again, I do spend a small amount of time on that too) but by listening to streaming material and podcasts. In fact, podcasts are my main source of information because I can listen to them at any time, avoid most advertising, and listen again to anything which was particularly interesting.

And finally there are the events and activities. Yeah, I mainly mean games. I freely admit that I spend some time every day playing computer games. Sometimes it is only 5 minutes but it is usually more, and sometimes a lot more. Some people think a mature (OK, maybe getting on towards “old”) person like me shouldn’t be doing that and that I should “grow up”. Needless to say I think these people are talking crap.

And so we come to the main subject of this post, the latest computer (or more accurately phone and tablet) game phenomenon: Pokemon GO. The game was released first in the US, Australia, and New Zealand and instantly became a huge hit. Of course, since it was a major new component of geek culture, I felt I should be playing it, but I didn’t want it to become a big obsession.

And I think I did well avoiding it for almost 3 days, but yes, I’m playing it now, with moderate intensity (level 17 after a couple of weeks). Today I explained the gameplay to an older person who never plays games and he asked: but what is the point? Well, there is no real, practical point of course, but I could ask that about a lot of things.

For example, if an alien landed and I took him to a rugby game he might ask what’s the point of those guys running around throwing a ball to each other. Obviously, there’s no point. And what’s the point of sitting in front of a TV and watching some tripe like “The Block” or some crappy sopa opera? Again, there’s no point. In reality, what’s the point of living? Well, let’s not go there until I do another post about philosophy.

So anyone who criticises playing computer games because they have no practical point should think a little bit more about what they are really saying and why.

And there’s another factor in all of this that bugs me too. It’s the fact that almost universally the people who criticise games like Pokemon GO not only have never played them but know almost nothing about them either. They are just letting their petty biases and ignorance inform their opinions. It’s quite pathetic, really.

So to all those people who criticise me for playing Pokemon GO, Real Racing 3 (level 162 after many years play, and yes, it is the greatest game of all time), Clash of Clans (level 110 after 4 years play), and a few others, I say get the hell over it. And if you do want to criticise me just get a bit better informed first. And maybe you should stop all those pointless habits you have (and that I don’t criticise you for) like watching junk programs on TV.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go find some more Pokemon. Gotta catch ’em all!

A Reason for the Season

December 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Well, Christmas is over for another year so I guess it’s about time I spoiled the holiday spirit with one of my curmudgeonly blog posts. We are often asked by the more traditional groups in society to remember the “reason for the season” but what is this and does a reason even exist?

Well no, I don’t think so. I think several reasons exist – one of which is the one the traditionalists are thinking of – but there’s no longer just one reason (and maybe there never was).

So let’s get it out of the way now: the most usually cited reason for the season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the symbolic founder of the Christian Church. As you might have guessed, I have a few comments to make about this particular reason…

First, no one really knows whether Jesus even existed. In fact I believe there are very good reasons to say he didn’t; however I realise that the majority of historians disagree with me on this one. The big problem is that it’s not a simple case of him existing or not existing. The idea that Jesus existed in the way described in the Bible is ridiculous and most historians agree that didn’t happen, but there are some reasons to think the myths might be based on a real person or maybe several people. So if the Jesus myth described in the Bible is very loosely based on real events does that mean he existed or not? It’s somewhere in between.

Second, the birth story is hopelessly confused and contradictory. Prophecy indicated Jesus should be born in Bethlehem but the story already indicated Nazareth so a non-existent census had to be evoked to try to reconcile this. There’s also the non-existent star mentioned in only one gospel, the contradictory virgin myth, the fact that no one knows the day, month or even year of the birth, etc, etc. So choosing December 25 seems to be totally arbitrary (or is it? see below).

Third, Christmas, along with all the other known traditions, dogma, and myths associated with Christianity, only appeared decades or centuries after the alleged events occurred (or, in most cases, didn’t occur) and the special days all seem to be borrowed from earlier traditions. Christmas is clearly a mid-winter celebration, for example, and Easter originally came from a spring or fertility ritual.

But if the birth of Jesus isn’t the reason then what is? In most countries the number of people reporting that they think of Christmas in the traditional, religious sense is shrinking. Christmas for many is about a break from work, time with family, an excuse to buy stuff, or just a summer (southern hemisphere) holiday.

So there is not just one reason, there are many: traditional, modern, religious, family related, consumerist, etc. Many Christians arrogantly assume theirs is the only reason but that isn’t true – it isn’t even the first. If we want to celebrate the original reason let’s go back to pagan rituals like Saturnalia, in fact the descriptions of those sound pretty cool (lots of drinking and sex).

Christians are welcome to their reason, no matter how silly it is, and I’ll stick to mine (enjoying summer, relaxation, drinking, etc) if they don’t mind. At least mine is based on reality.

Foundation

June 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Recently I decided to “re-read” some classic science fiction books. Because I don’t have a lot of spare time to actually read I usually now listen to audiobooks instead because I can do this while driving, walking from place to place at work, etc. In fact the first book I listened to took up a bit more than a journey to Wanaka (about 3 hours) and back for some computer work I did there.

So what was the first book? Well why not start with one of the true classics from the golden age of science fiction: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. I listened to the first book in the trilogy a few weeks ago and just finished the second, “Foundation and Empire” yesterday. Well, that’s nice, you might say, but what’s the point? Yes, I do have one…

There were a few things that stood out about the books: first, the anachronisms which are probably inevitable in a book which is 60 years old (the first book was published in 1952), no matter how forward-thinking the author was; and second, how relevant the story is in a political, social, and economic sense.

It’s even more interesting to observe the modern political relevance when you consider the book was based on ideas from “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, a book written in the 1700s about events from years before that. Maybe the basics of human nature never change even though the technology does.

So let me get the anachronisms out of the way first. Because I am interested in technology I found these rather disconcerting although they didn’t really spoil the story and deeper message of the book.

Here’s an example: messages were sent in small metal containers and secured using a physical lock mechanism, and information was stored physically on some sort of film. We have already moved on from that!

Also, smoking was a normal part of most of the characters’ life. We have moved on from that as well.

And finally there was a vague feeling of sexism because the female characters (with one possible exception) were not treated with much respect. I’m not one to get too worried about political correctness but this was too obvious to ignore.

In fact, like many science fiction stories, the characterisation was a bit weak in places. But that isn’t necessarily as bad as it might seem because science fiction is often more primarily involved with ideas, speculation, and technology rather than characters.

So to move on to the areas where the story is still very relevant. I continually found myself comparing the political and social events in the story with what was happening in the world today, especially in relation to dominant civilisations becoming “old” and “tired”.

In the fictional world of “Foundation” the old Empire became bureaucratic, undemocratic, conservative, and un-innovative. In the real world the Romans became complacent and inwards looking and their empire fell, so did the British, and now the American (economic) empire is looking insecure. The parallels are obvious.

But in the second book, “Foundation and Empire”, the Foundation itself becomes what the Empire was. It also becomes undemocratic and authoritarian. And even if the original plan works the ultimate aim is to create a new Empire to replace the old. Why an Empire? That mode of government had already failed and would fail again. Why not explore better forms of organisation? Again the failure of imagination regretfully matches the real world.

An interesting minor theme I noticed in the second book is how incompetent leaders distrust competence in their underlings. The emperor effectively ensures his own defeat because of his paranoia about a successful general. Of course, his paranoia is in some ways justified because previous emperors had been assassinated by senior military figures! But in the real world similar events happen. Even if there is no conscious effort to stifle the innovative efforts of a leader’s subordinates it often works out that way effectively because of excessive use of authority, indecision, and bureaucracy.

In authoritarian regimes treason becomes the most serious crime possible. And in many cases treason is defined as not doing what the supreme leader wants. But in the book one character questions this view and states he serves his society, not its leader. It is like one of my favourite quotes from American essayist Edward Abbey: “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government”. Again, the relevance to the real world is uncomfortably obvious.

Finally there is is the issue of faith. Religion seems to be a thing of the past in this universe. As an exclamation of surprise or frustration the characters say “Galaxy!” instead of “God!”. But there is faith, especially in Hari Seldon (the orignal scientist responsible for the plan to recover from the inevitable collapse of the empire) and that almost leads to disaster when people rely on their “saviour” instead of thinking for themselves. The relevance to the real world? Well, I think further comment is unnecessary.

I will complete the original Foundation Trilogy when I listen to the third book soon. After the original books Asimov wrote sequels and prequels and I may or may not listen to those. There are interesting comparisons which can be made between the Foundation series and the Star Wars movies. Except Star Wars doesn’t really invoke any sense of surprise in its plot twists, and while both Foundation and Star Wars can be a bit weak in their character development at least Foundation has that deeper level of political relevance. Maybe the difference between the two in itself indicates the dumbing down of our society (or empire if you wish) and heralds its inevitable demise.

But if the Empire will fail, where’s our Foundation?

Science and Art

August 29, 2014 Leave a comment

My loyal readers might have noticed that I haven’t written a blog post for a while despite the abundance of source material I could have used. There is a simple explanation for this: I am working on too many other projects just at the moment and have tended to spend time on those instead. Contrary to what you might think I do spend a reasonable amount of time researching, writing, and revising each blog post and they’re not just tossed together in 5 minutes!

Most of what I am working on currently are programming projects which all seem to have become critical at the same time. But that doesn’t really worry me because (and I’m sorry if this sounds really geeky) programming is fun. It’s one of those rare creative activities which results in something which is actually useful (well, at least in most cases).

When I create a new system (and my current projects all involve web-based databases and apps written using PHP and MySQL) I like to create something which is easier to use, more reliable, faster, and just generally more elegant than the alternatives. There are some pretty impressive web-based systems out there now but there is a much greater number of truly terrible ones, so in general I just hope to raise the average a bit.

It’s quite amusing using another person’s web system and noticing all the design and functional errors they have made and smugly thinking “amateurs! my projects never suffer from that problem!” Of course, I shouldn’t be too smart because every system has its faults.

As I have said in the past, programming is a great combination of art and science, or at least it should be because both are required to get the best outcome. The art component doesn’t just involve superficial factors like graphics and typography, it is deeper than that and requires creation of a friendly, logical, and flexible user interaction. The science component should be obvious: programs must be technically correct, perform calculations accurately, but also more subtly be fault tolerant, easy to enhance, and interact with other systems properly.

All of this is not easy to achieve and I have made plenty of mistakes myself, so it is even better when something does magically come together in a positive way. And that description is significant because the way I work a project is an evolving, organic thing which often changes form and function as it progresses. I always have a plan, diagrams for the database structure, flow diagrams for the general functional flow of the program, and technical notes on how certain functions should be performed before I start coding, but by the time the project is finished all of these have changed.

And I am often asked to write technical documentation while I am creating a new system but that is useless because I change the details so often that it’s better just to write that documentation when the project is complete.

When I look back at old projects I am sometimes amused at the naive techniques I used “back in the day” but more often I am quite amazed at some of the awesome, complex code and clever techniques I have used. It’s not usually that I set out to write really clever, complex code, it’s more that as more functions and features evolved the code became more and more impressive. But it is too easy in that situation to let things become convoluted and clumsy. In that case I toss that section out and start again. Sometimes my systems take a little bit longer to complete but they always work properly!

And that brings me to my last design philosophy. I don’t re-use a lot of code, I rarely recycle libraries and classes, and I definitely avoid using other people’s code. Also I don’t use rapid prototyping tools and I don’t use graphical tools to create markup code like HTML. No, it’s all done “on the bare metal”.

In fact that’s not really true, or course. I was recently tidying up some shelves in my office and found some old machine code programs I wrote back on the 80s. Now that was really coding on the bare metal! Multiplying two numbers together was a big job in that environment (the 6502 had no multiply instruction) so PHP and hand-coded HTML are pure luxury compared with that!

Well that’s enough talking about it, it’s time to get back to doing it. I’ve got a nasty bit of database backup code to debug right now. Some sort of privileges error I think, time for some science and not so much art.

What Did I Learn?

July 6, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m writing this blog entry in Sydney Airport as I return from a computer conference. At the conference we spent a lot of time discussing integrating Apple products into corporate environments, and there was a fair bit of general musing regarding the way IT support is changing, and I thought why not discuss some of that here. So, what did I learn?

First there is the great news about how Apple products are now being welcomed into the corporate world where in the past they would have been completely rejected.

Of course, this was an Apple conference so I would expect the spin to be positive towards Apple, but this is not the first time I have heard this sort of thing, so maybe it really does have some merit. And my experience working in an increasingly corporate university – although one which has always been more Apple-centric than most – is that iPads and iPhones have lead the way for Macs to start a small but significant invasion into areas they were previously unwelcome.

An unexpected question about this trend is: do I really like it? In the past Apple has always been the underdog, the maverick, the winner against all odds, and I sort of liked that. It was nice to succeed with Apple products despite the objections and lack of support from more the conservative IT staff. Now it’s no big deal any more. Maybe it’s just too easy? Actually, I don’t really mean that because, despite the fact that there are probably more Apple products than any other, in many organisations corporate infrastructures still tend to be Windows PC focussed.

So the second trend I saw come up in almost every presentation is that the days of central control and very inflexible rules are over… or should be. The user is now the key focus and if central IT management don’t like that then they should get used to it or get another job.

I do have to say that this has been my attitude “forever”. I have always been client focussed and have found ways to circumvent the rules when necessary. So if this trend is real then maybe my life will be easier in this way too. Honestly though, all the fun will be gone!

I’ve got to say here that I’m not against rules per se, but I prefer to see rules more as strong guidelines which should be used as a good starting position rather than commandments carved in stone. There should be enough flexibility within them to allow for optimum outcomes even when rules aren’t strictly followed.

The third trend is possibly too obvious to even present here, but I will anyway. It’s that conventional computers, especially desktop machines, are on the way out and the majority of users are moving to mobile platforms: laptops, tablets, and smart phones.

Being a mega-Apple geek I took all three devices: my MacBook Pro 15″ laptop, my iPar Air, and my iPhone 5 to Australia with me. While they all do “the same thing” to some extent I did find myself using all three for almost equal amounts of time, so if I needed to leave one behind it would be really hard to decide which one!

While I was away I did some email, a bit of gaming, wrote one blog entry, and stored travel and conference documents on the iPad; I did some email, web browsing, wrote another blog entry, and did some programming on the laptop; and did a whole pile of communications (iMessage mainly), looked up information on the web, and did navigation (mainly using the Tom Tom GPS) on the iPhone.

Now that I consider the matter, I probably could have used just the iPad for everything, if I was prepared to put up with a few inconveniences, and that is the point. Most people are much “lighter” users than me, especially when they are away from home, so an iPad would probably be quite satisfactory for them, especially when considering its light weight and excellent battery life.

So those are the non-technical tidbits I picked up, and based on that here’s what I predict in the near future: lot’s of Apple iPhones, iPads, and maybe iWatches will be run in corporations with minimal unnecessary restrictions. Truly, a golden age awaits us!