Saturday, 25 August 2012

Goodbye, Neil - And Thank You

The sad death of Neil Armstrong today is a salutary reminder that soon there will be no living person on this planet who has walked on the surface of another world. A select band of heroes, one of the most exclusive clubs ever to have existed, will be gone - with no prospect of anyone filling their boots for a long time to come. It's a sobering thought, and it got me reflecting on what Neil and the other Apollo astronauts have meant to me over the course of my life.

First, you have to understand that I have an appalling memory. I mean appalling: bad enough for me to sometimes wonder whether I have early-onset Alzheimer's. So if I remember something from my childhood, you can be sure that it made a damned big impression on me. As you can probably guess, my earliest memory, out of the very few fragments that I've retained from my early years, is of Neil setting foot on the Moon. I don't recall whether we were at our neighbours' house to watch footage on the TV or they were at ours, but we were definitely together. I was too young to appreciate the true significance of what was happening, of course, but I do recall a palpable sense of excitement.

This was the beginning of a childhood fascination with space exploration. The single memory I have of infant school was of being asked to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up and then draw pictures of our future selves. Needless to say, I wrote that I wanted to be an astronaut. My words and my picture of me in a spacesuit were put into a booklet with a red cover, which was then cut out into the shape of a rocket.

Another memory I have, probably dating back to the end of Apollo programme, was of cutting out coupons from the back of cereal packets to send off for a book about the Moon and the Apollo missions. I remember being fascinated by photographs in the book showing the damage done to the Apollo 13 command module. A couple of years after that, I recall being taken to a lecture on astrophotography by my uncle Harry, who worked for Kodak - providers of the film that the astronauts used in their Hasselblad cameras. Harry gave me a set of glossy prints, a selection of the best photos taken by Neil and the others who walked on the lunar surface.

This passion for space (admittedly in conjunction with an insatiable curiosity about the quantum world) ultimately led me to study Physics at university. And when I found myself staying in academia to embark on a PhD, I suppose it was inevitable that my research should involve the study of objects in the solar system - of the Moon itself but also of other worlds, other surfaces yet to bear a human footprint.

Me at the business end of a
Saturn V rocket in 1988
Although I didn't stay working in this field for very long after finishing my PhD, life having pulled me in another direction, I have treasured memories of my time as a space scientist. I enjoyed trips to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for conferences, even got to visit the USSR and see the site of Yuri Gagarin's fatal plane crash (something that very few foreigners had been able to do at the time). And I got to meet an Apollo astronaut face to face, courtesy of my PhD supervisor who had done his PhD during the Apollo days and knew a few of them.

Eventually, I morphed from a physicist studying planetary surfaces into a computer scientist (sort of), but that fascination with solar system exploration and the exploits of astronauts has never left me and it continues to have an emotional impact. I get goosebumps when seeing the latest images from spacecraft visiting other worlds. I felt that rush of joy from JPL scientists when Curiosity touched down successfully. And to this day, I can't watch Ron Howard's excellent Apollo 13 without getting a lump in my throat at the end.

So thank you, Neil and thanks to your Apollo comrades, too. Thank you for inspiring me and a whole generation of young people who were growing up in the late 60s and early 70s. Thank you for giving me a passion for science and sense of direction in my nascent academic career. I wouldn't be where I am today without you.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Google Nexus 7: First Thoughts

My Google Nexus 7 tablet arrived a couple of days ago and I thought I'd write my first blog entry in a long while to share my initial thoughts on it.

The first thing that grabs you on getting it out of the box is its size. The Nexus 7 is about the same dimensions as my third-generation Kindle. Unless you have very small hands, you should be able to hold it comfortably in one hand - making it a quite different beast to Apple's iPad.

After unboxing, the next step is to charge it. The Nexus 7 will charge from a PC's USB port via the supplied micro-USB to USB cable, but for best results use of the mains power adapter also supplied with the tablet is recommended. Before plugging in, you will need to attach the power connection pins appropriate to your locale to the adapter.

With my Nexus plugged in and charging, I powered it up to complete the set-up procedure. Taking a leaf out of Amazon's book, Google will preconfigure the device with details of your Google account - assuming that you bought it from Google Play. Hence, set-up was almost as simple as just entering my Google account password. I say 'almost' because a critical part of set-up is configuring the wireless connection. If your wireless network uses MAC address filtering like mine does, you'll come unstuck at this point, because the tablet doesn't advertise its MAC address here, nor does it seem to provide any way of skipping this step or backing out of the set-up procedure. I searched in vain for a MAC address on the packaging, then resorted to temporarily disabling filtering.

Aside from this minor wrinkle, set-up was straightforward. Within a few minutes the Nexus had downloaded an OS update, installation of which necessitated a reboot. Then there was the customary updating of installed apps, familiar to any Android user. Then, finally, it was time to play!

The Nexus' hardware certainly seems well-suited to running Android's latest incarnation, Jelly Bean. The user interface feels snappy and responsive. The display seems to be extremely good - sharp and clear - both for text-based applications and for things such as HD movies. I've no idea how it compares with the latest iPad. I would imagine that the iPad is superior, but at twice the price you'd expect it to be! The Nexus is certainly good enough in this respect for my purposes.

I'm also encouraged by the battery life - currently at 41% after two evenings and a morning of fairly intensive use that included plenty of Internet activity as well as game playing and viewing of videos.

You get the standard set of apps on the device to start with, but of course can easily download more via Google Play - for which you currently get a very welcome £15 of credit. Less welcome were the two pieces of free content that came with the tablet: a Jeffrey Archer 'novel' (removal of which was pretty much my first priority after set-up) and the movie Transformers: Dark Of The Moon. The latter served its purpose as a way of assessing display quality, but I can't see myself watching any more of it, to be honest!

All in all, I'm very pleased with the Nexus. I wouldn't consider myself as falling within the obvious target market for a tablet and therefore wasn't seduced by the iPad, figuring that I couldn't justify spending that much given the use I would make of it (and also being put off by Apple's 'walled garden' approach). But the Nexus is very pleasant to use for email, social networking, casual web activity, gaming, etc, and seems to offer excellent value for money at the moment.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Playing With The Pangolin: Upgrading To Ubuntu 12.04

Last night, I took the plunge and upgraded my Samsung NC10 netbook to Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, the "Precise Pangolin". Technically, this was a fresh install over the top of the pre-existing Ubuntu 11.04, rather than an upgrade of that older version, but I digress...

As is generally the case these days with Ubuntu, installation itself was a largely painless affair. The only wrinkle happened part-way through the initial sequence of dialogs that sets everything up for installation, where the netbook's trackpad was suddenly and mysteriously disabled. Fortunately, plugging in a USB mouse proved to be a suitable workaround, and the trackpad came back to life following the post-installation reboot. One cute addition to the installation procedure is the inclusion of a Twitter feed of happy customers tweeting their thanks to the Ubuntu devs (sadly - but perhaps understandably, given the potential for abuse - not a live feed).

So what's it like?

Overall, I'm impressed. It feels slicker and more polished than the 11.04 that I'm used to, as you would expect given the 12 months of work that the upgrade represents. Unity is maturing nicely (bar the issue discussed below) and lenses are becoming much more useful. The HUD, a last minute addition that allows keyboard-driven searching of menu options for the in-focus application, looks like it could be extremely handy for power users, who often favour the keyboard over the mouse. So far, I've encountered only one bug: a regression in the code for setting screen brightness. In 11.04 I could use key presses to increase or decrease brightness over a number of discrete steps, but now I get only maximum brightness or the two lowest settings. There's a PPA with a samsung-backlight package that might solve this.

There is one fly in the ointment, though. In 11.04, the launcher would hide automatically and then slide into view when the pointer neared the left edge of screen. However, testing with novice users has revealed that this behaviour is confusing, so in 12.04 it has been removed entirely. Yes, that's right: removed entirely. Not made an option, with 'always visible' as the default, but removed entirely.

I find this really disappointing. I'm not a Unity hater - quite the opposite, in fact. And I'm not one of those people who dislikes change: when the buttons infamously moved from the top-right corner of windows to the top-left, I wasn't bothered in the slightest. And I take the point that Unity should not be confusing for newcomers; I'm all for simplicity. But this feature was very useful for those of us who own netbooks, where screen real-estate is a precious commodity. I've benefited from auto-hide for the past 12 months, but now find that I can no longer take advantage of it. My experience has degraded so that the experience of another category of user can improve.

It would be simple to solve this: just provide auto-hide as an option. Bury it deeply if you like, so that inexperienced users are unlikely to find it and enable the feature accidentally, but provide the option so that those of us who want it can have it.

I'm hoping there might be a change of heart on this, or that a suitable setting might find its way into one of the Unity tweaking apps that are out there. I don't really want to start messing around with a forked Unity if I can help it.

In the meantime, I'll shrink the launcher a little - not too much, or it will become difficult to see the various notifications associated with the buttons. And I'll run applications in Full Screen mode if they have that ability.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Impact of Computer Science

Hmm, been a while since I last blogged in any meaningful way - and I had such high hopes for this blog, too! I promise I'll be better over the summer.

Anyway, I feel moved to post about something I came across just this morning: a project to place the names of victims of 9/11 on a memorial in New York. The concept for the memorial was that names should be arranged not alphabetically, but rather according to where people were and who they were with when they died - linking victims through "meaningful adjacencies", in the words of the architect. It's a wonderful idea, but how could such a thing be achieved?

This is, of course, precisely the kind of problem that computer scientists like to tackle. I won't go into the details here, other than to note that guy implementing this, Jer Thorp, made some interesting use of Processing for the visualisation of victim relationships and name placement. You can read Jer's blog entry if you want to know more.

What strikes me most about this work is that it represents a very human and emotionally significant application of computer science. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that CS makes an impact only by improving technology, but this little project demonstrates brilliantly that it has the capacity to connect with human beings more directly than that.

Thursday, 31 March 2011