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Miserable Dark Days of Winter Relieved by Data

This post is all about my fascination with short day times and hits on my blog on the topic, it is not even to do with why the day time is so short in the UK, Europe & US right now. This is nothing to do with Oracle databases or working in IT – go elsewhere and look at eg XKCD or Dilbert now if that is your thing…

The BBC has “Stolen” my Interesting Shortest Day Facts

Today, the 21st December 2014, is the “shortest day” in the Western Hemisphere this year, the day in which the period of daylight is shortest (it’s the 22nd if the last Leap Year is more than 2 years ago).

I’ve blogged before about how the evenings start drawing out BEFORE the shortest day and, despite it not being an Oracle technical post and was also one of my first posts {when almost no one came by}, it gets a modest but interesting number of hits. If you look at the below graphs (sorry, it’s not as clear as it could be unless you click on the image), you will see there is a burst of hits at the end of the year and a smaller rise in interest at the middle of the year.

Friday Philosophy – Tosh Talked About Technology

Sometimes I can become slightly annoyed by the silly way the media puts out total tosh and twaddle(*) that over-states the impact or drawbacks about technology (and science ( and especially medicine (and pretty much anything the media decides to talk about)))). Occasionally I get very vexed indeed.

My attention was drawn to some such thing about SSDs (solid State Discs) via a tweet by Gwen Shapira yesterday {I make no statement about her opinion in this in any way, I’m just thanking her for the tweet}. According to Computerworld

SSDs have a ‘bleak’ future, researchers say

The Most Brilliant Science Graphic I Have Ever Seen

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...

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.

Friday Philosophy – The start of Computing

This week I finally made a visit to Bletchley Park in the middle of England. Sue and I have been meaning to go there for several years, it is the site of the British code-breaking efforts during the second world war and, despite difficulties getting any funding, there has been a growing museum there for a number of years. {Hopefully, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, granted only this month, will secure it’s future}.

Why is Bletchley Park so significant? Well, for us IT-types it is significant because Alan Turing did a lot of work there and it was the home of Colossus, one of the very first electrical, programmable computers. More generally of interrest, their efforts and success in cracking enemy ciphers during WW2 were incredibly important and beneficial to the UK and the rest of the allies.

In this post, I am not going to touch on Colossus or Alan Turing, but rather a machine called the “Bombe”. The Bombe was used to help discover the daily settings of the German Enigma machines, used for decrypting nearly all German and Italian radio messages. All the Bombes were destroyed after the war (at least, all the UK ones were) to help keep secret the work done to crack the cyphers – but at Bletchley Park the volunteers have recreated one. Just like the working model of Babbage’s Difference Engine, it looks more like a work of art than a machine. Here is a slightly rough video I took of it in action:

My slightly rough video of the bombe

{OK, if you want a better video try a clearer video by someone else.}

I had a chat with the gentleman you see in both videos about the machine and he explained something that the tour we had just been on did not make clear – the Bombe is a parallel processing unit. Enigma machines have three wheels. There are banks of three coloured disks in the bombe (see the picture below). eg, in the middle bank the top row of disks are black, middle are yellow and bottom are red. Each vertical set of three disks, black-yellow-red, is the equivalent of a single “enigma machine”. Each trio of disks is set to different starting positions, based on educated guesses as to what the likely start positions for a given message might be. The colour of the disk matches, I think, one of the known sets of wheels the enigma machines could be set up with. The machine is then set to run the encrypted message through up to 36 “Enigmas” at once. If the output exceeds a certain level of sense (in this case quite crucially, no letter is every encrypted back to itself) then the settings might be correct and are worth further investigation. This machine has been set up with the top set of “Enigmas” not in place, either to demonstrate the workings or because the machine is set up for one of the more complex deciphering attempts where only some of the banks can be used.


This is the bombe seen from the front

The reason the chap I was talking to really became fascinated with this machine is that, back in about 1999, a home PC programmed to do this work was no faster than the original electro-mechanical machines from 1944 were supposed to have taken. So as an engineer he wanted to help build one and find out why it was so fast. This struck a chord with me because back in the late 1990′s I came across several examples of bespoke computers designed to do specific jobs (either stuff to do with natural gas calorific value, DNA matching or protein folding), but by 2000, 2002 they had all been abandoned as a general PC could be programmed to be just as fast as these bespoke machines – because bespoke means specialist means longer and more costly development time means less bangs for your buck.

Admittedly the Bombe is only doing one task, but it did it incredibly fast, in parallel, and as a part of the whole deciphering process that some of the best minds of their time had come up with (part of the reason the Bletchley Park site was chosen was that it was equidistant between Oxford and Cambridge and, at that time, there were direct train links. {Thanks, Dr Beeching}. ).

Tuning and reliability was as important then as it is now. In the below picture of the back of the machine (sorry about the poor quality, it was dim in that room), you can see all the complex wiring in the “door” and, in the back of the machine itself, those three rows of bronze “pipes” are in fact…Pipes. Oil pipes. This is a machine, they quickly realised that it was worth a lot of effort to keep those disks oiled, both for speed and reliability.


All the workings of the Bombe from the back

Talking of reliability, one other thing my guide said to me. These machines are complex and also have some ability to cope with failures or errors built into them. But of course, you needed to know they were working properly. When these machines were built and set up, they came with a set of diagnostic tests. These were designed to push the machine, try the edge cases and to be as susceptible to mechanical error as possible. The first thing you did to a new or maintained machine was run your tests.

1943, you had awesome parallel processing, incredible speed and test-driven development and regression testing. We almost caught up with all of this in the early 21st Century.

Where is Sun?

First of all, may I wish everyone who comes by my blog a heartfelt Happy New Year.
Secondly, I promise I’ll blog more often and more on technical aspects this year than I have for most of 2010.
Thirdly, I’ll admit the title to this blog is nothing to do with the hardware company now owned by Mr Larry Ellison, but is about the huge glowing ball of fire in the sky (which we have not seen a lot of here in England and Wales for the last couple of weeks – not sure about Scotland but I suspect it has been the same). I apologise for the blatantly misleading (and syntactically poor) title.

A quick question for you – It is the depths of winter for most of us, and it has been unusually cold here in the UK and much of Europe. When are we, as a planet, furthest from the Sun during winter? January the 1st? The Shortest day (21st December)? The day the evening start drawing out (December 14th)?
I think many in the Northern Hemisphere will be surprised to learn that we are closest to the sun today (3rd Jan 2011). A mere 147.104 million kilometers from the centre of our solar system. I mentioned this to a few friends and they were all taken aback, thinking we would be furthest from the warmth of the sun at the depths of our winter.

Come the 4th July 2011 it is not only some strange celebration in the US about having made the terrible decision to go it alone in the world {Joke guys!}, but is the day in the year that the Earth is furthest from the sun – 152.097 million kilometers. That is about 3.39% further away and, as the energy we receive from the sun is equal to the square of the distance, does account for a bit of a drop in the energy received. {Surface of a sphere is 4*pi*(R{adius}squared), you can think of the energy from the sun as being spread over the sphere at any given distance}.

Some of you may be wondering why this furthest/closest to the sun does not match the longest/shortest day. As some of you may remember, I explained about the oddities of the shortest day not matching when the nights start drawing out about this time last year. It is because as we spin around our own pole and around the sun, things are complicated by the fact that the earth “leans over” in it’s orbit.

Check out this nice web site where you can state the location and month you want to see sunrise, sunset, day length and (of particular relevance here) the distance from the sun for each day.

I find it interesting that many of the things us most of us see as “common sense” are often not actually right (I always assumed that the shortest day coincided with both the evenings starting to draw out and mornings getting earlier until I stumbled across it when looking at sunset times – I had to go find a nice Astronomer friend to explain it all to me). I also like the fact that a very simple system – a regularly spinning ball circling a large big “fixed point” in a fixed way – throws up some oddities due to little extra considerations that often go overlooked. Isn’t that so like IT?

That lean in the Earth’s angle of spin compared to the plane we revolve around the sun is slowly rotating too, so in a few years (long, long, long after any of us will be around to care) then the furthest point in the orbit will indeed match the northern hemisphere winter. Again like IT, even the oddities keep shifting.

An Essay on Science

Richard Feynman defined science as "the belief in the ignorance of experts." Science begins by questioning established ideas. ...Even those ideas promoted by so-called experts.

The value of science that's obvious to everybody is the chance you might discover some valuable truth that nobody else has discovered before. That's the glamorous idea that might motivate you to begin the hard work that science sometimes requires. Science is also valuable to you when you learn that an established idea, no matter how much you may not like it, really is true after all. That second value of science is not as glamorous, but it's just as important. My little prayer with respect to that possibility is, "If an idea I believe is wrong, please let me find out before anybody else does."

Everyone can do science. Not just "scientists"; all of us. But you need to do science "right," or it's not science. Do it right, and you accumulate a little bit of truth. Do it wrong, and and you've wasted your time, or worse, you've doomed yourself to waste more of your time in the future, too.

The difference between "right" and "wrong" in science is not some snooty, bureaucratic concept. You don't need a license or a blessing to do science right. You just need to ensure that the cause-effect relationships you choose to believe are actually correct. One of the rules for doing science right is that you measure instead of just asserting your opinion.

Different people have different thresholds of skepticism. Some people believe new ideas, whether they're true or false, with very little persuasion. The people who are persuaded easily to believe false things cannot contribute much useful new knowledge to their communities (irrespective of how much they might publish).