Born Sleepy

March 25, 2011

Whilst proof reading my previous blog post, I was reminded of how much I really don’t like the theme I’m using on this blog!

When I split it off from my main Elegant Chaos site, I grabbed this theme as a quick way of differentiating the two.

I really must get round to replacing it with something better… something… designed?

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No doubt there’s a lot that I don’t understand, but a few things seem really weird, with the benefit of hindsight. 

A lot has been made of how earthquake proof these stations were, and yet it seems that it was probably the tsunami that buggered up the backup generators. I’m no seismologist, but even I know that earthquakes and tsunamis tend to go hand in hand when you’re on the coast. So what exactly was the plan? Surely they must have thought about it, so what went wrong?

It also seems quite common for nuclear power stations to contain multiple reactors. Presumably there’s an argument for this, based on minimising the number of sites, and sharing infrastructure. Presumably there’s also a large nimby factor which makes it much more likely that a second reactor gets sighted where there’s already one. That said, isn’t it Pretty Fucking Obvious that the last thing you want to be next to, if you’re trying to battle with a malfunctioning nuclear reactor, is another (possibly malfunctioning) reactor?

Another thing that is puzzling me is that that the reactors apparently shut down automatically in response to the earthquake, and yet this seems to have been a large part of the problem. Presumably it was the automatic shutdown with caused the loss of power to the cooling systems, thus requiring the backup generators which then went wrong or ran out of fuel or whatever actually happened. Yet the failure of the cooling systems seems to have been a relatively slow process. Admittedly it might have been a lot quicker if the reactors hadn’t shut down, but it still seems a bit arse-about-tit to shut them down before knowing what is wrong, thus precipitating the very disaster you are trying to prevent. 

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March 18, 2011

As a computer programmer, science fiction fan, card carrying geek, you might be forgiven for assuming that I’d be in favour of nuclear power. It’s shiny, sexy, the future. It’s the appliance of science. What’s not to like?

In fact, the opposite is true - for as long as I can remember, I’ve been against it.

Perhaps this is just due to my inherent pessimism, but I’d like to think that it’s an intelligent response to the balance of risks and benefits. One thing I can definitely say is that it’s an opinion heavily influenced by my experience as a computer programmer.

Writing software is a strange hybrid of art, craft, science, but it most definitely involves engineering. When you make software, you’re effectively building very complex machines, albeit ones without much in the way of physical manifestation.

Like any engineering discipline, you have to make hundreds of decisions based on what you want to happen, think will happen, fear might happen, definitely want to avoid happening. You typically have a plan, and a way to put it into action, but you also know that your assumptions might be wrong. You have to design for situations where some data is missing, or too big, or the wrong format. You have to cope with the computer running out of space, or going to sleep, or randomly being reset half way through the program’s execution.

How well you do this ultimately determines how solid your software is. There are other factors that also influence whether it’s good software, but it definitely won’t be good if it isn’t solid.

What programming teaches you is that reliable engineering is very hard to achieve. No matter how good you are, and how sensible your methodologies may be, you are endlessly reminded of how bad you are at correctly guessing exactly what is going to happen. Programs go wrong - all the time. Testing is a major part of the process, and testing is always breaking things. More to the point, things that have been exhaustively tested are always breaking as soon as they get out of the test lab and into the real world.

Programmers are endlessly claiming to have it all sorted out and to know that their code definitely works (the smart ones claim it to themselves, quietly, but they still do it). They are endlessly proven wrong. I’m not talking about stupid people here. I’m talking about mostly young, mostly male, often very smart people. Admittedly people who sometimes find personal hygiene and interpersonal communication skills a bit of a challenge, but seriously, scarily clever people - smart enough to be rocket scientists, or… nuclear engineers…

The scary thing is how many of these very clever programmers are possessed with an abundance of testosterone and hubris, and a distinct lack of humility and perspective. Again and again they tend to say things like “that can never happen”, “we thought of all the possibilities”, “we’ve tested it extensively”.

If you’re smart, you learn not to think like this after a while. You also learn to be very, very sceptical when you come across people who do. Luckily, most of these people write word processors and computer games. Admittedly, some of them write software for nuclear power stations, which ought to give us pause for thought. Even they aren’t the ones I’m really worried about though. Software is a lot easier to test than hardware, but the same mindset is prevalent in both. The people I’m really scared about are the ones who are making the hardware…

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January 11, 2011

I’ve been enjoying reading Kevin MacNeil’s “The Stornoway Way”. It’s a funny book, and one thing that’s been amusing me is the regular disparaging references to “The English”.

To “The Scots”, of course, “The English” are the cause of all that’s wrong with the world. I recognise the sentiment. Strangely, as soon as you step over the border, the target becomes Southern Ponces. Approach Watford, and Southerners become Londoner Wankers. Enter London, pause for a while for a slight detour as you debate the relative merits of North vs South, or East vs West, and you’ll eventually settle on a target of Rich Buggers, or perhaps Posh Twats. Which is fair enough of course - those bastards really are to blame for everything.

Though I was born and raised in London, and will soon be a permanent resident of Stornoway, you’d be more likely to hit me if you aimed your ire at “fecking computer programmers”, or maybe “beardy blokes who like rock music”.

English, I am. The English? Away wi ye! I’ll no be tarred wi that particular brush…

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December 16, 2010

As I’m now selling software from my website, and as I’m also planning to relocate to Stornoway in the next few months, I decided that it was time that I moved it off the trusty Mac Mini that sits under my desk here, and back onto some sort of remotely hosted service.

After taking advice from a number of people I went for Linode, which comes highly recommended*.

So far the transition has been fairly painless, and the linode service seems very easy to set up. Migrating my server contents is not trivial as I have multiple virtual hosts with a variety of configurations, but hopefully I’ve got it pretty much done now, and the DNS records should be updating as we speak to point to the new server.

If you notice any broken links on the site in the next few days, please let me know, since I have taken the opportunity to move one or two things around and I’m almost certain to have missed an update somewhere…

  • disclaimer: that link is a referral link - if you sign up to Linode with it, I get a bit of cash off my bill. Go on, you know you want to…
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