Terry Pratchett has died

Today I read with great sorrow that my favorite living author is no longer living. Terry Pratchett, creator of the wonderful, satirical Discworld books has passed on from this turtle to the afterlife. I do hope Death let Terry ride on Binky at the end.

I’ll be wearing lilac (at least in my thoughts) today.

Addendum – if you notice a new response header from my web server, this is what’s going on.


Thirty minutes left before impact. The ship’s main engines had been destroyed when the last of the separatists rammed them in a suicide attack, so there was no hope of repair. The lifeboats were gone – some from getting the passengers off and others from damage during the battle. Now there were a handful of crew members left and no way to get off the doomed vessel as it followed its trajectory according to the inexorable laws of gravity, a course that would see it soon crash into the surface of Mars.

The comm system still worked, though, so the crew had gathered on the bridge to send their final farewells to the relay station in Cydonia. There were five of them there, mostly senior officers, but also a cabin boy. His name was Ibrahim and he was the most out of place among them. He was only 19 and this was just his second voyage as part of the crew. Being attacked by Marsies was not what he’d expected when he signed up to work on a transport ship ferrying people and cargo to and from Earth. He was nervous – the captain could see it in his eyes and his hands were shaking a little bit.

She turned to the view screen. “Are you recording this Cydonia?”

“Roger, Rosy Dawn, you guys can start when you are ready” came the reply.

“My name is Cynthia Fellows, captain of the transport MSS Rosy Dawn, Sirtis registry T75A6N. We were about to leave orbit for Earth when a flight of separatist interceptors decloaked and attacked us. We defeated them after an intense fight, but our damage has left us drifting out of control with a rapidly decaying orbit. Special commendation for specialist Emile LePen who shot down two of the enemy before being killed. Special Commendation for Ibrahim Sawalha who greatly assisted in the orderly evacuation of the passengers and who gave up his own spot on a lifeboat for a fellow crewman. Would you like to go next Ibrahim?”

The young man had looked up when his name was first mentioned and he seemed bewildered at being singled out for special mention like that, but he smiled weakly and seemed to lose some of the nervousness that been haunting him, a small hint of pride creeping over his face instead. “Thank you, Captain”. He faced the view screen.

“My name is Ibrahim Sawalha and I’m just a cabin boy. I haven’t even been part of the crew very long, but it’s been an honor to work here. I’ve learned so much and I really want to move up … ” He paused. “Anyway, Mum, dad, Ayesha, Salah – I love you all. I wish I could come home to you – I even have presents for you from Mars! But now, well, just remember me, OK? Remember the good times, like when we all went to Tahrir for the centenary celebration. Do you remember me carrying you on my shoulders Salah? Do you remember seeing the parade and the fireworks? We had such a good time…”

Executive officer Fergueson spoke up. “You need to keep it short so everyone has a chance to speak, son.”

“Right. Sorry. Well, I love you guys. Always remember that. Allahu Akbar!”

A sandy haired man went next. “I’m the ships purser, Steve Hackett. I can’t say that I ever expected an end like this – I’d always assumed I’d work in merchant shipping another ten years or so and then retire somewhere, but I guess that isn’t meant to be. I don’t really have any family to speak of, but I’d like to send a message to an old friend, Egon Ramis, the supply chief on the USS Lexington. Have a drink for me, Egghead! I’ll miss our next reunion, so I won’t get a chance to have my revenge on you for that last game night. Oh well. Hmmm … I don’t have a will, so I guess give all my money to the ZG Veterans Association. Keep ’em Flying!”

There was a pause. Captain Fellows looked at the chief engineer who was busy working at the navigation console. The captain could guess what she was doing. “Alicia, do you want to go next?”

“I’m busy” came the terse reply.

Fergueson stepped up next. “I am the executive officer of the Rosy Dawn, a position I’ve held for the past 14 months. It has been an honor and privilege to serve with her crew, and with Captain Fellows. To my wife, Stella, all I can say is I love you very much. I’d hoped to see you next month when we reached Earth, but I guess that isn’t happening now. I … really love you.

“Lillian, you be a good girl and take care of yourself. Daddy loves you and I’m really, really sorry about this. I want so much to see you grow up”. His voice became strained. “I want to see you go to school, and grow up and get married, and have children of your own. I just want so much to hold you in my arms right now! Remember me, Lily. Remember Daddy, and take care of Mommy, OK? She’s going to need you to be a big girl now, OK? Bye, bye.”

The XO stepped back. Only the engineer remained, but she was still working furiously at the nav console.

“Alicia?” asked the captain.

“I’m busy. I don’t have anyone to say goodbye to anyway. And I’m busy.”

Captain Fellows looked over the console. It showed the ships current orbit – well it’s descent, really. The ship was already in the upper reaches of the atmosphere and the autopilot had started making slight attitude adjustments to keep the ship from spinning as air resistance tried to turn it. Displayed on the screen were several other courses, too – all of them still crashing, but some faster, some slower, and some at shallower angles.

“What do you have?”

The engineer finally turned around to face the others, the sweat glistening off the dark skin of her forehead. “I’m almost certain we can use the maneuvering thrusters to slow our descent enough to allow us to come down intact. We’ll hit hard, make no mistake, and everyone should be in pressure suits because I’m sure the hull will crack, but I’m also sure we can survive.”

“Those projections on the screen don’t look very survivable.”

“I still haven’t figured out the details. I need just a bit more time. Everyone get suited up while I work it out!”

A voice came over the comm system from Cydonia. “Rosy Dawn, did I hear right? Are you going to try for a soft landing? We’ve got rescue teams standing by.”

Everyone turned to look at the captain with hope and fear on their faces. There were tears in the XO’s eyes, and a terrible sadness in Ibrahim’s face. Only Alicia seemed different, with her fierce and defiant look.

“Yes, Cydonia”, said the Captain, “we are going to try for a soft landing. As soft as can be, at least. Everyone get suited up.”

Four of them left the bridge to go aft to the crew common room, where they normally relaxed when off duty. There was a small galley for preparing snacks and light meals, several entertainment consoles, corridors leading off to other parts of the ship, and here was also where the lifeboats for the bridge crew were accessed. They were gone now, but there were still a few pressure suits in storage lockers next to the boat hatches. Fergueson, Hackett, and Sawalha began suiting up while Captain Fellows took two suits and went back forward into the bridge. She shut the door behind her.

“Tell me what our chance are. Realistically.”

Alicia turned and stared at her captain hard for a moment. “Not good. It’s a long shot. Really long, in fact, but we do have a chance. We lost a lot of forward velocity from maneuvering during the fight, which is why we’re going down in the first place, but if we can kill the rest of our forward v then all we have to worry about is slowing our free fall enough. After that it’s really just a matter of trusting the hull to hold up on impact. It’s not made for it, but it is a good, solid design. We do have a chance!”

The captain had been pulling on the pressure suit while listening – a single piece jumpsuit design with a detachable helmet. The skin of the suit was designed to tighten up once you had everything on and you activated the controls. It wasn’t comfortable or very functional if you had to move around much, but it could save your life in an emergency, and that was all it really needed to do.

Sealing the front of her suit she said “get suited up now and I’ll take the controls and get us slowing down.”

“OK” said Alica as she got up, “just use the forward thrusters to drop as much speed as you can, but watch the fuel gauge. We lost pressure in two tanks during the attack and we’re going to need at least 70% of our remaining reserves for the descent.”

The captain keyed the all-ship intercom “Everyone grab hold of something – I’m about to engage the thrusters and you’ll experience G towards the front of the ship. Once you’re suited up get back to the bridge and strap in to a chair. Thrust in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… now.”

The forward maneuvering thrusters, normally used only in short bursts to make tiny adjustments in position, now came on at full power and stayed there, pushing the ship backwards to slow it’s speed around the planet. Even though they weren’t made for much force, they still managed to create about 1/4 G, and the crew found themselves using the handholds on the walls as the now climbed “down” into the bridge.

A minute passed. Two. Three. Everyone was seated now except Alicia who was still getting into her suit while working against the oddly directed weight. Finally the captain shut off the thrusters “We’re at the fuel reserve limit now.” Alicia looked at the console – not enough! They still were going a little too fast. At this rate they’d have a ground speed of about 125 km/hr when they touched down. She glanced at the captain who merely gave a little sardonic grin and ordered everyone to get their helmets on and rebreathers activated.

“Eight minutes until we land” she said.

“Land? That sounds optimistic” said Fergueson.

“Maybe it is, but I’ll take it” she replied. There really wasn’t anything to do at this point but hope for a miracle, so she might as well be optimistic no matter what. She turned the ship into a belly flop to maximize their air resistance, and brought the landing thrusters online. These had more kick than the maneuvering thrusters, and the crew found themselves pressed into their seats with more than 1.3 G of force as the thrust reached maximum output. Still, they were coming in awfully fast.

The tension among the crew was palpable as the ship began its final descent. Ibrahim quietly muttered a prayer while the captain piloted the ship and the XO monitored the various status boards. The engineer kept a constant check on the course and made occasional comments to the captain to increase or decrease thrust. The purser sat silently and stared at the cockpit window.

We’re getting a lot of heat buildup in main engineering and on the upper deck” said the XO.

“Not surprising” said Alicia, “we took a lot of damage to those areas in the fight, so there’s bound to be hull damage. I’m sealing the interior bulkheads in case something happens.”

“Has anyone noticed the glow outside the window?” asked the purser. “It almost looks like we’re on fire.”

“Well in a sense we are”, said the captain. “Normally we reenter nice and slow and fly down to the surface under power, but now we’re coming in way too fast and friction is heating up the hull.”

“Is that bad?” he asked nervously.

“Yes, but there’s nothing we can do that we aren’t already doing.”

They were starting to hear noises now too. A rushing sound as air sped past the hull, and metallic groans and strains from the ship itself as it reacted to the unaccustomed stresses of the rapid descent. Suddenly there was a dull crashing noise and the whole ship shuddered as an alarm went off.

“What was that?” asked the purser, a hint of panic in his voice.

The XO replied “we’ve lost atmosphere in the engine room. Bulkheads are holding, though.”

“I guess the cactus on my desk isn’t going to like that” said Alicia.

“That’s not funny” snarled the purser!

“Focus people” ordered the captain. “We’re half way down. What’s our trajectory looking like?”

The engineer looked at the console. “We’re still coming in too fast, forward velocity.”

“OK, I’m going to realign and hit the forward thrusters again.” They felt the forces around them shift again as the ship turned nose first into its dive and the front engines came on again to slow it’s speed.

“What’s that red light?” asked Ibrahim.

“It’s the overheat warning on the forward thrusters” said the XO. “You might want to back off on them, Captain.”

“Keep monitoring them. I need to ride them as long as I can to cut our speed, otherwise…”

There was a flash and boom as something exploded outside on the front of the ship. Everyone was jerked in their seats as the thrusters cut out.

“TF1 is out. TF2 has shut down automatically”. I’ll see if I can override it” said the XO.

“We’re going to die” said the purser quietly, “that’s all there is to it.” He turned and looked at the cabin boy and repeated a little louder “we’re going to die.”

“Shut the fuck up, Steve” said Alicia.

“Don’t worry Mr Hackett” said Ibrahim. “Allah is watching over us and nothing happens save by his will. Put your faith in God and let Him guide us down.”

“Captain, I’ve got a yellow light on 3 of the landing thrusters” said the XO.

“Roger” she replied”. “We’re almost down now.”

“It doesn’t matter because we’re going to die!”

“Shut up, Steve! V 312 vertical, 175 horizontal. Altitude 1.2 klicks.”

“Screw it. Override thruster safeties”

“I don’t want to die!”

“Can it!”

“Ya sin. By the wise Qur’an surely you are one of the Messengers upon the straight path…”

“Thruster TL4 offline. TL5 offline.”

“Brace for impact in 5… 4… 3… 2…”

On working from home

I am currently going through a period of working from home as a result of circumstances beyond my control. At first it was difficult for me, but as time has gone by, I’ve begun to adapt and see how to make it work, and I think I’ve learned some things that I can carry over into my regular work once I’m back in the office.

Recently my car broke down in a major way – it needed a new engine. Unfortunately, the process of getting it fixed has stretched on now for almost a month. For the first 2 1/2 weeks I had a rental car, but I’m afraid the repairs are expenseive enough and came at a bad enough time that I eventually decided that I could no longer afford to keep the rental car. Thankfully, my company is willing to let us work from home from time to time, so for the past week now I’ve been doing just that. The experience has been quite eye opening.

I’ve occasionally done this before, but just for a day at a time when some special circumstance dictated, such as a less serious car problem, or feeling ill. At those times I never quite got the hang of it – I felt restless and unsure of what to do. I’m very much a creature of habit, so working from home left me out of my element in several ways, from how I communicate with co-workers, to just the physical computer I was working at. Everything was different and it left me floundering a bit as I tried to asssert some order over my circumstances. I also had to adjust my workflow a great deal – my fairly low speed Internet connection at home, combined with the VPN to work, meant I just didn’t have enough bandwidth to run my usual GUI based editor over the network, for example, so I ended up working entirely with text mode tools. I can’t say those were very productive days.

This past week started out the same way. I felt frustrated and limited by the slower network connection to our development systems, and by the text mode tools I have to use. I felt limited in my ability to communicate with people, which proved especially frustrating on the first couple of days when I had to work together with a colleague to help him resolve problems in getting an instance of one of our major systems up and running in his development environment. Those first two days I ended up crashing in bed for a nap as soon as I could after working hours, because I was just felt worn down.

Another problem was simply being at home on my own personal computer. The environment around me screamed out that I should be relaxing and goofing off. My games seemed to glare at me from their icons. My cats would jump on my desk and demand attention. My bed would call out to me to come take a nap! Oh the siren call of playing hooky was strong, and Odysseus-like I had to be virtually tied to my chair at first in order to push through. It didn’t help at all that we were at the end of a sprint and the number of tasks needing to be done was rapidly dwindling.

But then, something changed. I started to establish a new routine. To begin with, I didn’t have an hour long commute to deal with so I was able to get a little more sleep in the morning, which was great for me since no matter how much sleep I do or do not get, I always have trouble waking up if it’s too early in the morning. Since my company uses Google Apps for our internal communications, we started using Hangouts for meetings, which helped establish a bit of a workplace sensibility again and made communication easier. I started getting more comfortable working with the text mode version of Emacs to edit my code, so that important aspect of work clicked into place too. And as the cats became accustomed to my presence during the day, even they started leaving me alone. In short, all the frustrations and distractions receeded into the background and I began to be actually productive again.

In fact, I’d say that in one way I became more productive than usual. I’m a very introverted person which has the practical result that I’m not very talkative at work. I’m also noise sensitive, so when I’m at work I usually wear headphones almost all the time to control my sonic environment, and while this should not logically have any effect, I think it tends to discourage others from approaching me about things. I wish it were otherwise, but I can’t control the actions of other people. Working from home, though, meant communicating with people mostly through text chat systems (except in meetings, as mentioned above). I enjoy that! I think I’ve spent more time typing to people this past week than any week spent in the office, and as a result I’d say that I’ve actually communicated better and more often while working at home than while physically in the office. This is a lesson that I’ll be taking back to the office with me; being an introvert doesn’t have to mean being uncommunicative.

Another thing that working from home has shown me is that I really hate the lunch schedule at my office. The company provides catered meals each day, which seems like a nice perk, but lunch is served about two hours earlier than I’d like. Working from home meant that I could eat when I actually felt hungry rather than forcing myself to eat on someone elses schedule, and this in turn seems to have helped my productivity since I’m more focused and concentrated as a result. I’m better able to plan my activities and maintain my mental alertness rather than experience post-lunch sleepiness from having eaten too much in too short a span of time. (Breakfast at 8am and lunch at 11 am just doesn’t work for me – lunch at 2 pm is more what I need.) I think I’m going to start taking my lunch with me to work.

This brief adventure in working from home has helped me to clarify how I need to organize my day in order to be more productive, and also has taught me a communication strategy that works better with my personality and I look forward to applying these lessons once I get my car back and return to a normal work environment.

New menu entry: Programming Philosophy

I’ve always been both amused and sometimes actually enlightened by the various philosophy parodies available online expressing the wisdom of programming. The Tao of Programming in particular has been a comfort to me at times when dealing with seemingly arbitrary corporate shenanigans. I’ve even had a chance to use it to help calm down junior co-workers from time to time by sharing it’s wisdom with them. It can be a great tool for turning irritated bewilderment into laughing acceptance.

Check out the new menu item and enjoy the humor and sage advice of the programming masters.

Kiki’s Delivery Service and other films

I just watched Kiki’s Delivery Service. I’d never seen it before, but I’m a fan of Hayao Miyazaki, so it’s been on my list of films to see for a while now. I wouldn’t say this was his greatest work, but I quite enjoyed it. It’s a nice feel good coming of age story, and it very much fits in with Miyazaki’s canon. It’s the story of a young witch who goes off to a strange city to serve a year long training period on her own away from her family. Along the way she has to deal with a crisis of confidence and learn how to overcome her own self doubts.

I watched the movie in the Disney English dub, which I understand to be somewhat different from the original Japanese, but I was cooking and eating dinner at the time and couldn’t be constantly looking at the screen to read subtitles. Normally I prefer to watch Japanese films in the original language with subtitles. I don’t speak Japanese at all, but I find it pleasant to hear the voices of the original actors even when I can’t understand them. I look forward to rewatching the film in the original language when I have time.

My taste in movies is probably odd to most people. I really enjoy Japanese amination – anime – and animation in general. Whenever Disney or Pixar put out a new release I tend to be there in the theatre, and on the rare occasions that a Japanese film shows up in the US theatres I can be counted on to see it. As a result, I tend to see a lot of “kids” movies, and I have no embarrassment from this. There are a lot of really good movies that are ostensibly made for children but which really carry universal themes. Big Hero Six and Frozen are a couple of movies from the past year that fall into this category.

I also like serious dramatic films, too. The Wind Rises is a film that falls into both categories – serious dramatic anime – and another in that category would be Grave of the Fireflies. (If you’ve not seen that I highly recommend it, but be warned – it is very sad and may leave you feeling depressed after watching it. I’m not kidding.)

Outside the realm of animation, I like epics. The Lord of the Rings trilogy from Peter Jackson was incredible, but then I’m a huge Tolkien fan, so it was natural that I’d gravitate to those films. My favorite films of all time tend to be the great epics of the 50’s and 60’s: Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, The Ten Commandments.

I also find myself drawn to films by certain directors. David Lean and Hayao Miyazaki obviously, but also Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, and when I was younger Woody Allen, though I’ve not kept up with his recent work.

I suppose I have no special message for this post – I just had a pleasant evening watching a good movie and wanted to share the warm fuzzy thoughts it engendered.

I caught a nebula!

Tonight the skies were a bit more clear, so I tried talking photos of M42, the Great Nebula in Orion. It’s not exactly a Hubble image, but it’s at least recognizable. I tried experimenting with different settings on my camera and lens to see what worked best.

This image was taken with

  • Camera: Canon 50D
  • Lens: Minolta MC Tele Rokkor HF, plus Fotodiox MD-EOS adapter
  • f-stop: 8
  • Exposure: 17s

Pleaides – more experiments in astrophotography

So lately I’ve become more curious about what kinds of photos of the stars I can make with my equipment. Tonight, clouds moved in fairly early, so I wasn’t able to do much, but I did get this image of the Pleaides.

A few things I note are, in no particular order:

  • The image was made with a Canon 50D using a Minolta 300mm lens (and a Minolta-Canon adapter).
  • The camera was mounted piggy-back on my Orion StarBlast 4.5 EQ telscope.
  • This was about a 10 second exposure.
  • It shows off the chromatic aberration of the lens I was using.
  • I’m in a heavily light polluted area, so that also affects the image quality.
  • I had a blast doing this and I want to make more images!