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The Most Brilliant Science Graphic I Have Ever Seen January 5, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in biology, Perceptions.
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The below link takes you to an absolutely fantastic interactive demonstration of the relative size of everything. Everything. Stop reading this and go look at it, when it finishes loading, move the blue blob at the bottom of the screen left and right.

The Relative_scale_of_everything

The raw web link is:

http://www.primaxstudio.com/stuff/scale_of_universe/scale-of-universe-v1.swf

The web page says scale_of_the_universe but it should be relative_scale_of_everything_in_the_universe. Did you go look at it? NO!?! If it’s because you have seen it before then fair enough – otherwise stop reading this stupid blog and Look At It! NOW! GO ON!!!

Yes, I do think it is good.

I have to thank Neil Chandler for his tweet about this web page which led me to look at it. Neil and I talked about relative sizes of things in the pub towards the end of last year, in one of the Oracle London Beers sessions. I think it was Neil himself who suggested we should convert MB, GB and TB into time to get a real feel for the size of data we are talking about, you know, when we chuck the phrases GB and TB around with abandon. Think of 1KB as a second. A small amount of time for what is now regarded as a small amount of data – This blog so far is around 1.2kb of letters. Given this scale:

1KB = 1 second. About the time it takes to blink 5, possibly 6 times, as fast as you can.
1MB = Just under 17 minutes. Time enough to cook fish fingers and chips from scratch.
1GB = 11 and a half days. 1KB->1GB is 1 second -> 1.5 weeks.
1TB = Just under 32 years. Yes, from birth to old enough to see your first returning computer fad.
1PB = pretty much all of known human history, cave paintings and Egyptian pyramids excepting, as the Phoenicians invented writing about 1150BC ago.

The wonderful thing about the web page this blog is about is that you can scan in and out and see the relative sizes of things, step by step, nice and slowly. Like how small our sun is compared to proper big ones and how the Earth is maybe not quite as small compared to Saturn as you thought. At the other end of the scale, how small a HIV virus is and how it compares to the pits in a CD and the tiniest of transistors on a silicon chip. I’m particularly struck by the size of DNA compared to a human red blood cell, as in how relatively large DNA is. Red blood cells are pretty big cells and yet all human cells (except, ahem, red blood cells) have 3.2 billion letters of DNA in each and every one of them. That’s some packaging, as cells have a lot of other stuff in there too.
{NB, do remember that the zooming in and out is logarithmic and not linear, so things that are close to each other in the graphic are more different than first appears, especially when the image becomes large and in effect covers a wide part of the screen}

Down at the sub-atomic scale there are a fair number of gaps, where one graphic is pretty much off the scale before the next one resolves from a dot to anything discernable, but that is what it’s like down that end of things. Besides. It’s so small it’s hard to “look around” as there is nothing small enough (like, lightwaves went by several orders of magnitude ago) to look around with.

My one criticism? It’s a shame Blue Whale did not make it into the show :-)

I actually had flashbacks looking at this web page. I remember, back in the mid-70′s I think, going to the cinema. Back then, you still had ‘B’ shows, a short film, cartoon or something before the main event. I no longer have a clue what the main event was, but the ‘B’ movie fascinated me. I think it started with a boy fishing next to a pond and it zoomed in to a mosquito on his arm, then into the skin and through the layers of tissue to blood vessels, to a blood cell… you get the idea, eventually to an atom. Some of the “zooming in” where it swapped between real footage was poor but it was 1970 or so and we knew no better. It then quickly zoomed back out to the boy, then to an aerial view of the field, out to birds-eye… satellite-like…the earth… solar system… I think it stopped at milky way. I wish I knew what that documentary was called or how to find it on the web…

{Update, see comments. Someone links to the film. I know I looked for this film a few years back and I did have a quick look again before I posted this message. I did not immediately find it but someone else did, in 10 seconds via Google. Shows how rubbish I am at using web searches…}

My laptop has a Bug July 20, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in biology.
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My laptop is suffering from bugs, and I’m not talking software.

It is warm and sunny here in the Southeast of England, which is not always the case during the British Summer, and I am suffering an invasion of little insects. Specifically Thrips or Thunderbugs. They are called Thunderbugs as they are supposed to appear in numbers when a thunderstorm is brewing. Like most Old Wives Tales it is utter rubbish. But kind of true too…

If you do not know, a thrip is usually a small insect about 0.15 mm wide and maybe 0.4mm long. So small, but visible. About the size of this:

,

Yep, a coma on an average LCD panel. And that is where the problem is. One has got into my laptop and under my screen and it is sure to die. It is currently scurrying around at the far left of the screen and I’m considering a mercy killing before it wanders further across the screen into prime acreage. I had this before on my old laptop. In that case it died in the middle of the screen and for ever more has looked suspiciously like a coma, or single ‘quote’, causing me confusion when it falls on top of emails, word documents and…. code. It really was a pain when it came to code. Even now, if I use that old machine it sometimes catches me out. It can merge with a letter in new and exciting ways, to subtly change a word or command.

I’m obviously not alone, a quick web search threw up some other people complaining of the same issue.

And of course it is a common knowledge that “bugs” in computing really did start out as insects getting fried in the electronics and valves of the very first machines in the mid-20th century. I wonder if that is really true or just another old myth? James Higgins seems to think it is real and who am I to doubt him. He has a photo of the evidence after all.

Friday Philosophy – CABs {an expensive way to get nowhere?} March 11, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in biology, development, Friday Philosophy, Management.
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A few years ago, my wife and I went to New York for a holiday. We got a cab from the airport into Manhattan. It was an expensive way to see, at great length, some of the more uninteresting automobile transit routes through New York. We arrived at our hotel a great deal later than we anticipated. And with a lot of our paper dollars no longer in our possession.

I’ve also taken cabs through London, usually at the weekend to get back to Liverpool Street Station. The trip is generally quick, painless and not too expensive, no matter what bit of London is currently being dug up. Those black-cab drivers know their stuff.

Of course, the CABs I refer to in the title of this Friday Philosophy are not private cars for hire. In this context CAB is Change Advisory Board. A term that can make grown developers weep. If you do not know, the Change Advisory Board is a group of people who look at the changes that are planed for a computer system and decide if they are fit for release. My personal experience of them has been similar to my experience of the taxi variety, though sadly more of the New York than London experience.

You might expect me to now sink into a diatribe {ie extended rant} about how I hate CABs. Well, I don’t. CABs can be a part of a valuable and highly worthwhile process control mechanism. Just as proper QA is core to any mature software development process, so CABs are important in getting informed, talented stakeholders to review proposed changes. They check for overall system impact, clashes with other proposed changes that individual development streams may be unaware of, use their own {hopefully deep and wide} experience to consider the changes and to verify Due Diligence has been invoked {that last one is a bit of a minefield and where, I believe, many CABs fail}.

Sadly, though this is often the aim, the end result is too often a bunch of uninformed and technically naive politicos trying to wield power, using the CAB meeting as an extended game of management chess.

I’ve seen CABs trade changes. “I’ll let you have X if I can have Y and Z”. I’ve seen CABs turn down changes because the form had spelling mistakes in it. I’ve seen CABs object to a change that will save the company 5 million pounds a day because it lacked one signature.

That last one just stopped me in my tracks {I’m not exaggerating either, if anything I am underplaying the cost impact of that decision. I saw the figures and I wasted a couple of days of my life checking, 5 million pounds a day was the least I felt I could prove.} We are talking about enough money every day to pay the salary of everyone on the CAB for several years. And they blocked it because the DBA team had not signed off the change. No effort was made to address the lack of the signature in any way, the change was just refused.

The DBA Team had not signed off the change because the one and only DBA Team Leader who was allowed to sign off was on holiday for two weeks. They needed that holiday too, for other but I suspect linked reasons.

Now, I knew the DBA Team Lead and he was a good bloke, he knew his stuff and he was not paid 5 million pounds a day. His deputy was paid even less but was no less talented but she was not allowed to sign off the change as she was not the DBA Team Lead.

That was a CAB gone very wrong. The process of the CAB had been allowed to over-rule good business sense. It was also overruling general and technical sense, but that really is secondary to what keeps the business making a profit.

I’ve seen the opposite of course, technical teams that just apply whatever changes they feel are fit, with no oversight or CAB. To be honest, this less controlled process seem to mess up less often than a poor CAB process as the technicians know they are the ones who will spend the weekend fixing a mess if one occurs. But that mess up will occur eventually, if control is lacking, and the bigger and more complex the IT environment, the greater the chance of the mess up.

So, I feel CABs are good, no make that Great, if you have the right people on them and you have a sensible cascade of authority so one person being away does not block the system. That is quite a bit harder to put in place than a simple “Dave A, John, Andrea, Alex, Raj, Dave P, Mal, Malcolm and Sarah have final signoff” which most CABs effecively become.

But there is one last fault of CABs I want to highlight. They tend to treat all changes in the same way and all changes are not the same. Upgrading the underlying OS is not the same as adding a cardinality hint to one Business Objects report.

If your CAB or change process treat the two above examples the same, then your CAB or change process is broken. Now, in all IT “rules of thumb” there is an exception. In this case, I am truly struggling to think of one. My feeling is that if your change process treats an OS upgrade the same as adding a hint to a report, it is not fit for purpose.

Those are my main issue with CABs. They should be of significant business importance, but nearly always they are implemented with one process to deal with all situations and then get taken over by people with an “Office Politics” agenda as opposed to a “Getting the best job we can reasonably expect done” agenda.

I’m very passionate about this and I have a way I hope can throw this issue into context, an analogy.

Ask yourself this senario.
You go to your doctor with a niggly cough you have had for a week OR you go to your doctor because you almost passed out each day you got out of bed for the last three days.
If your doctor treated you the same for both sets of symptoms, would you be happy with that doctor?

Why are all IT changes handled by most CABs in exactly the same way?

(BTW if you ever almost collapse when you get out of the bed in the morning, do NOT go to work, go instead to your doctor and ask them for a full medical and if he/she does not take blood pressure readings and order a full blood chemisty test, go find a new doctor.)

The Sneaky WHAT Strategy!? June 15, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in biology, Perceptions.
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OK, I can’t resist any more, I have to write a Blog about this. I apologise up front for any offence I cause anyone, it is not intended.

There has been a bit of a thread between my and Richard Foote’s blog about the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is his post on it. The Dunning Kruger effect (Jonathan Lewis told us what it was called) is where people have an over-inflated opinion of their own ability. Since the names of behavioral traits came up, I have been unable to get something out of my mind.

When I was at college I studied Zoology. In one lecture on animal behaviour we were told about the “Sneaky Fuck3r Strategy”. Yes, you read it right, that is what it is called. {I’ve stuck a ’3′ in there as I’m concerned I’ll blow up some web filters}.

It was described in the context of Red Deer. A single dominant male has a harem of females during the breeding season. Other big, strong males will challenge the Dominant Stag and, if they win, will take over the harem. So, this one Stag has all the lady deer at his disposal, only challenged by similarly large, aggressive males.

Well, not quite. What sometimes happens is that, when the dominant stag is fighting off a challenge, one of the younger stags will sneak into the herd and mate with one of the females. Thus the term “Sneaky Fuck3r strategy”. Genetic testing shows that quite a few of the deer born are not fathered by the dominant male!

The one little twist added during my lecture was that it had been observed that one young male, male(A), would go and challenge the dominant stag whilst another young male(B) snuck into the herd. Then, a while later Male(B) would challenge the stag and Male(A) would have his turn. I don’t know if that was an unsubstantiated embellishment but is suggests smart as well as sneaky.

I really thought she was pulling our legs about the name, but the lecturer wasn’t. It is a real term, used by real zoologists, though mostly UK-based. You can google it but I won’t blame you if you want to wait until you are not at work to do so!

Many people lay the credit for the name to John Maynard Smith But this article with Tim Clutton-Brockhas an excellent description of the situation {click on “show Transcript” and I suggest you search for the word “sneaky”}. I am not clear if Tim did the original work on the subject though. For some reason I can’t fathom, wikipedia does not mention the strategy in it’s entries for either scientist…

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