Category Archives: News

BINKY? PRATCHETT’S HOURGLASS IS EMPTY… BUGGER

Terry Pratchett enjoying a Guinness at honorar...
Terry Pratchett enjoying a Guinness at honorary degree ceremony at Trinity College Dublin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A man with a big scythe and mounted on an impossibly white steed arrived to pick up the soul of one Sir Terry Pratchett, aged 66 today. Pratchett, for those who’ve lived in a literary black hole for the last thirty years or so, was the genius behind the Discworld novels and all the history, back story and associated paraphernalia with the fantasy land he’d created.

I was introduced to Discworld by a handful of friends at school who latched on to them a little earlier than I did – Indy and Richard were the main guilty parties if I remember correctly. From reading The Colour of Magic I was hooked.

Annoyingly Terry Pratchett was a hugely prodigious author, chucking out a couple of books a year which made collecting his works quite pricey. On the other hand, they were almost without exception work paying for. Some of my favourite reads of all time flowed from his wonderfully creative mind, including Good Omens which he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman.

What made his work stand out, to me, was the way he wrote rather than what he wrote. The fantasy world he created was as good as any other which flowed from the pens and keyboards of many an author but his humorous style was second to none. With a bevy of pop culture references in his novels (annotated guides appeared on the internet many years ago which I downloaded, printed and promptly lost while at university), there was an extra layer to the stories which gave them an extra level of re-readability.

What I truly appreciated about him, though, was his eagerness to engage with his readers. Along with Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett took to the internet with aplomb in its earlier days as a publicly accessible network and regularly posted on alt.fan.pratchett, a newsgroup on the old usenet system. I remember him asking questions about the physics surrounding someone randomly teleporting from one place to another, and the input from respondents was used in (I think) The Last Continent.

He regularly did signing tours and would sign anything and everything he was given… with a different quote in each. I attended two signings in one day in Leeds many years ago, between which I think he signed about 15 books I had. Each one annotated “Best Wishes”, “More Best Wishes”, “Son of Best Wishes” and so on. He added drawings and stamps to his repertoire as the years went on.

And then he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

One of the most active and creative literary minds of our generation was being eaten away from within. A more cruel punishment for a person I cannot imagine. Yet, despite this, he ploughed on. He still had stories to tell and no damn debilitating mental condition was going to stop him.

Utilising copious notes and voice recognition software to allow him to keep track of the plots while writing as quickly as possible, and with the aid of friends and family, his output slowed but did not stop. Did he need to write more to pay the mortgage? No. He wrote because he was good at it, enjoyed it an – most importantly – other people got happiness from something he did. And also to piss off the Alzheimer’s, a condition he called an “embuggerance”.

And now that creative mind has ceased to function. News was released some months ago that his daughter Rhianna would take over the Discworld when her father passed, and on her capable (trust me, I’ve read some of her stuff) shoulders that responsibility now lies.

Thank you, PTerry (sic). Thank you for seventy-plus novels of laughs. Thank you for being one of many people who engendered in me a genuine love for the written word and how beautifully it can be crafted.

Enjoy that final ride on Binky. Such a brilliant moniker that we named our last dog after him. I just wish your hourglass had been that bit bigger.

A Just Giving page donating to the Research Institute for the Care of Older People (RICE) has been set up in his memory: https://www.justgiving.com/Terry-Pratchett/

Facebook whingers

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...
Facefart

Loving all the people who don’t like the new facebook “we can use your posts, comments and images in adverts” policies being touted, and who think that simply posting that “I do not give you permission…” etc. is enough to prevent this.

Sorry folks, by using facebook (for free, remember) you agree to *their* terms and conditions. If you don’t agree to them, then you can’t use the service. It’s not an “agreement” in that you sit down over a pint and discuss one-to-one how you’re going to use the service (for free) and then walk off after a handshake.

Facebook provide you with a contract to which you must agree to use their service. Part of that contract is that they are permitted to *change* that contract as long as they give fair notice (they seem to think 7 days is fair). If you don’t agree to the contract (in whole or in part), you don’t use the service. That’s the agreement.

Frankly, I think it’s a storm in a teacup. The example of usage they’ve mentioned is, for instance, an advert for a venue underneath which they may place a post from one of your friends who’s been there before. A post/picture you’ll already have seen as you’re on their friends list. They aren’t taking stuff you’ve posted to a limited audience (friends, groups…) and posting them publicly.

Get over it, or get out. Good luck gaining as large an audience or following on Google+ with its echoing walls.

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I support the EDL!

The _real_ EDL!

That’s right. I’m fully behind the English Disco Lovers, a small organisation which has set out to undermine the English Defence League (a bunch of Neanderthal racists) by stealing their initials and – instead – promoting togetherness and harmony through the power of disco!

Their first aim was to gain more “likes” on Facebook than the knuckle-draggers, something they succeeded in doing today. Pretty impressive given that they only set up the facebook page around the new year. At the time of writing, Disco is winning on the “likes” with 18,075 against the low-lifes’ paltry 15,112 or 18,050 depending on which if their two pages you look at. The latter, with the higher score, is a Wikipedia page whereas the former is the “active / official” one.

Anything that gives racists (especially those with very dodgy criminal records) one in the eye is worth supporting, especially when it’s done with no real malice, a sense of humour and D-I-S-C-O!

For more information, check out the real EDL’s page 😉 With luck, the more links and the more clicks, the higher up Google’s rankings they’ll get as well!

UPDATE (6th Feb): There is an EDL (skinhead bottomfeeder version) “community” on facebook as well, with around 38,605 likes. EDL (disco) has 19,982 as I write this. Get liking!

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UKIP – are they all racist and homophobic?

UK Independence Party
UK Independence Party – Hatred R Us? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A nice article in the Mirror outing some of the scum in UKIP (a British “UK Independence Party” which originally claimed to have the simple aim to keep the UK out of Europe), including some senior party members.

Douglas Denny from the Bognor Regis branch had the following to say about gay people on the party’s “Private Message Board”:

“I just wish they would keep their ­homosexual nature and practices to ­themselves and stop trying to ram it down my throat telling me they are ‘normal’ when they are not.”

He then complained to the Mirror, who published his comments, by saying: “Private forums and private posts should stay private.”

This raises several points I would like to make:

  • As well as being a homophobe, he has a wonderful ability to pick the right words to make it so easy to lampoon him. “…ram it down my throat”, indeed! Priceless.
  • I have never had a gay person try to convince me to “convert” or in any way try to change my mind about what is a private thing. This is because, on the whole, gay people don’t do this! Unlike certain organisations (usually churches) that try to convince gay people that they’re mentally screwed up and try to “fix” them, gay rights activities are pretty much limited to pride marches and the like which are a simple means of saying “We’re proud of who we are and happy to be that way, just leave us the hell alone to do what we want in privacy.” The only reason gay people try to shove anything (figuratively!) down anyone else’s throat is in reaction to being vilified by small-minded dick-weasels like Mr Denny.
  • Mr Denny has less concept of privacy on the internet than many 12 year olds that I teach. Claiming that a “private forum should be private” is akin to saying that “if I am chatting to my friends in the pub then I shouldn’t be held accountable for anything that a passer-by could overhear”. If you put it on the internet, don’t expect it to be in the least bit private. Ever. Keep your hate speech to lamp-lit conversations in little run-down houses with the curtains drawn where it belongs.

And I’m not even going to start on the likes of Dr Julia Gasper who reckons that gays are also more likely to want to engage in bestiality. Frankly, looking like her, the only chance she has of getting lucky is to find someone with a predilection for bulldogs with facial injuries.

Or the other member (un-named) who thinks that black people are more likely to be schizophrenic because they smoke more weed.

These people got 16% of the vote last time out? Come on, they’re so utterly hate-filled that even the Tories don’t want to partner up with them. That should speak for itself. When the leader of a party so self-centred as the Conservatives has a leader who labels you as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, you really should just give up.

Mind you, as a nation we can’t really hold out heads up high. I think we still have two elected members of the European Council who are also in the BNP. How the hell did that happen?

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We are awesome

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Mars Science Laboratory Guided Entry at Mars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not just talking about you and I, or the family or whatever. I mean us. The human race.

Look at what happened at 05:21GMT this morning. We deposited a new robot on the surface of Mars.

OK, so far so “heard it before”. But this is the largest machine we’ve placed there yet, weighing over a ton. And then you get into how we even got the thing there. It wasn’t “dropped” – it was lowered gently.

It takes about 14 minutes for radio signals sent from Mars to reach Earth, so there was no real way this could be done by some guy piloting it with a joystick. The entire thing was automatic.

In the 7 minutes it takes from the craft hitting the Martian atmosphere, it had to be slowed right down to near-stationary and its payload deposited on the surface. All without someone directly controlling it, or being able to override anything if anything happened and in an environment we can’t fully test on Earth.

This video on NASA’s website covers the details in 5 minutes, but briefly:

First off, the craft has to be guided as it ploughs through the upper atmosphere to ensure it lands where it’s supposed to. The calculations involved in this are incredible, ensuring that it starts to enter the atmosphere at the right time based on forecasting the position of the planet in relation to ours at the time we launched the original rocket from Earth so that we knew what the craft would be aiming at. The module will be jostled during its travel as it heats up to incredible temperatures while the on-board computers keep it on target using directional rockets.

The atmosphere on Mars is 100 times “thinner” than that of Earth. That mean there’s enough that the craft has to take it into account while it descends, but not enough to help with slowing the thing down to as large an extent as it would here. As a result, the largest parachute NASA have ever fabricated is put into use, slowing the craft from 1000mph to something more manageable. This parachute needs to withstand 65000lbs (29500kg) or force, yet only weighs 100lbs (45kg) itself.

Once the parachute is deployed, the heatshield on the base of the unit “pops” off exposing RADAR equipment which takes speed and distance readings for the next stage of the landing.

The parachute does a great job, but only slows the unit down to 200mph. Still far too fast for a safe landing. Instead, rockets will be used to slow its descent over the final stages. The parachute is detached and the rockets first of all push the main unit sideways, away from it to ensure that the two don’t become entangled.

While still ensuring the lander is travelling towards the designated site, the rockets further slow the descent to something more manageable.

However, we have one final problem. Mars is covered in very fine dust. If the rockets were used to take the actual exploratory unit right down to the surface, so much dust would be kicked up that visibility would be nill and there would be a significant risk of the mechanics and electronics being damages.

This is where it gets really cool.

At 20m above the surface, safe from kicking up that cloud, the rocket unit hovers. Then lowers the actual wheeled exploratory unit on a “skycrane”, winching it down to the surface at a slow speed. It allows it to touch down and settle, then disconnects and flies off to crash elsewhere so that it won’t get in the way of the planned examination of the planet’s surface.

All of this automated control is the result of 500,000 lines of computer code.

We did this. Human beings did this.

We foresaw every possible problem. We built rockets and units and mechanics and a host of other devices and bundled them into a package the size of a small truck. We then shoved a means of generating power, sensors, RADAR, propulsion and more into a unit the size of a small hatchback car. And then we flung the whole lot into space, managing to land it on a pre-determined spot the size of our back garden a distance of 140 million miles (250 million km) away.

We worked all of those final stage problems out to the extent that we could give instructions to a computer to handle everything. 500,000 lines of code sounds like a lot, but when you consider all the calculations and instructions necessary to hit the levels of precision necessary it’s paltry.

In a week that also sees the Olympics going on, the geek in me is overjoyed to see science grabbing the headlines for a few hours. I’m convinced the landing was scheduled for the early hours so it wouldn’t have to compete with any of the events at the Games!

Between both events, they demonstrate the pinnacles of human achievement both physical and intellectual.

I say again. We – Are – Awesome.

As a race, we are capable of so much. We waste a lot of our potential or expend it on stupid things like wars, but when we actually put the effort in these are the things of which we are capable. To be able to point at the staff of NASA, or the athletes breaking record after record, it gives our children something to go “wow” at – and hopefully the desire to emulate and exceed these achievements.

[Please excuse any glaring inaccuracies in the numbers in this post – I’ve used very rough figures and averages for some of them, and any cockups will be mine]

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