January 2012 Archives

Sat Jan 14 15:51:37 EST 2012

The Bedside Book Of Geometry

I've finished another book. This one is The Bedside Book Of Geometry. It's a fairly light read and probably needs a Year 12 or so understanding of mathematics to enjoy. It starts with constructions with compass and straightedge and covering all manner of interestinng topics. Space-filling curves, fractals, map colourings, graph theory and the golden ratio all get a mention. Interleaved with the mathematical concepts are biographies of various mathematicians from Euclid to Grigori Perelman and Martin Gardner.

Each page is presented beautifully and it's clear that whoever laid out the book knew what they were doing. Almost every topic and bigraphy is given two pages, a large chunk of which is assigned to side-bars and diagrams. This is especially important in the compass and straightedge constructions, but every topic benefits greatly from its diagrams.

My main complaint with the book is that it's too short. Most topics end quite abruptly just as they're getting interesting. Adding a second page to each topic wouldn't go astray, but the number of topics would need to be reduced. Otherwise, this pleasant little volume would become an intimidating tome.

Would I recommend it? Sure, but probably only to mathematically inclined non-mathematicians. I fear it'd be a bit too demanding otherwise.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: readings

Sat Jan 14 12:45:10 EST 2012

Wild Dayz

Another voyage complete, another delayed post. This time, we took a bunch of Venturers who were in Tasmania for their Venture (called Wild Dayz this year) on a five-day voyage. The performed exceptionally well, and it's worth trying to understand why. The number of people (within Scouts) who sign off on their permission forms is apparently quite high, so the best people are the ones most likely to be selected. Further, the Venturers would be used to going into unfamiliar situations and doing cool stuff, so I would expect them to adapt quickly.

I never took the camera out during the voyage, which was a shame. There was some really beautiful sights along the way, but I was on watch and couldn't go below. I was up the rigging furling a sail during a squall, and one of the rainbows looked like it ended on a bulk carrier at anchor nearby. Leprechauns have apparently upgraded their logistics.

I did get one photo once we finished the voyage. At sea, the bilges are checked every half-hour so we're not taken by surprise if something unusual starts happening. (Each of the ship's watertight compartments has a bilge beneath it, where liquid eventually drains into.) Even though we have alarms that trigger if the bilges fill, we make the trainees check them because it's part of the ship's routine. On the last day, one of the trainees drew this:

Check All The Bilges

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: windeward_bound

Sun Jan 1 20:31:58 EST 2012

Inside Steve's Brain

Last year, Steve Jobs died. As Richard Stallman wrote, "I'm not glad that he's dead, but I am glad that he's gone". As a self-confessed Free Software Hippie, Steve stood and Apple stands opposed to a number of principles that I hold dear: software freedom and the right to tinker with your own devices among them. When a friend recommended this book to me, I immediately added it to my reading list; I need to study my enemy and see what I can learn.

Naturally, the book is very flattering towards Apple and Steve. Apple's famous secrecy is described in exciting terms, likening it to a spy agency with individual cells working in the dark. (Apparently only four people knew the name of the first iPod before its launch.) Other companies (e.g., Sony) are described as having their talent locked into silos, unable to combine that talent to produce anything comparable to Apple's offerings. Even so, that level of secrecy means that staff will have difficulty combining assets. Apple discovered that it held the trademark for the iPod after the name was chosen for its music player. (It was going to be the name for an aborted internet kiosk project.)

Even so, the stories of Steve make me wonder how anything got done at all. One chapter describes Apple's retail stores and the thought process that went into their layout. Ron Johnson mentions to Steve that the proposed layout of the stores is all wrong; the Mac and its peripherals need to be seen together to give the idea of the digital hub. Steve responds by yelling at Johnson and storming off to his office, coming back an hour later to admit that he was wrong. Steve's outbursts are mentioned many times in the book and I don't understand how Apple avoided degenerating into a "cover-your-ass" culture as a result. Steve (and a small number of Apple staff called "Friends of Steve") were handled by general staff with extreme caution, and staff were known to report to each other when one was nearby.

Some of my best work has come from impassioned debate with friends or coworkers, but I don't see how that makes screaming at your employees a good motivational tool. Steve sounded like a control freak who had a very low opinion of everyone else (an example of high praise: "This is the first evidence of three-digit intelligence at Apple that I've seen yet."). The result was a company full of very smart people who could stand the heat, at least for a little while. I don't expect the real workforce to be some kind of hippie love-in, but I hope that an environment that caustic is not a prerequisite for high-performance work.

Steve's control of every facet of a product is something he considered essential to the user's experience. The original iPhone didn't even have native code apps, to prevent "bozos" from writing "crap" that would make the phone frustrating to use. Unfortunately, customers don't yet realise that they should care about freedom and openness, so the App Store has been a huge success. Time and time again (OK, Apple backed off on this one after huge outcry) developers have been burned by building upon these proprietary platforms and I hope to see them turn to Free alternatives. Without the developers, the user experience cannot be sustained forever.

Unfortunately, the out-of-the-box-experience of Free Software is still sub-par (although hugely improved in recent years). For instance, my microphone will only capture if one of its channels is set to zero. I have no idea why. The iPhone's success proves that the average user doesn't (yet) care about Software Freedom. A good experience is critical to Freeing users and retaining them long enough to teach them the philosophy. The GNU project knew this years ago, when its Free replacements of basic system utilities had additional features or were easier to use than the default, proprietary versions.

The runaway success of these semi-closed app marketplaces (which people call "open", with a straight face) are part of a battle over general purpose computing which we cannot afford to lose.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: readings

Sun Jan 1 14:27:47 EST 2012

Sydney to Hobart

Wow. What a week. With all the yachts coming in, we've had to move out of our usual berth on Elizabeth Street, because it now looks like this:

Elizabeth Street Pier

We ran a special trip to meet the first yachts over the finish line. My camera never does justice to wide shots, but there were boats everywhere. It's funny, really. Everyone turns out to watch the end of this big sailing race, so the air's full of diesel fumes and the sound of engines and news helicopters.

Yachts Inbound

Through sheer luck, I was one of the harness crew for that day, and after casting off the t'gallant, spent a fair amount of time watching the ships from aloft. Lady Nelson was out and enjoying the spectacle, along with some pirates:

Lady Nelson Pirate

As everyone knows by now, it was a duel between Wild Oats and Investec Loyal...

Investec Loyal Wild Oats

... but Loyal won the day. The smoke is from the signal at the finish line.

Finish Line

A couple of days later, Jessica Watson's Ella Bache" turned up. I honestly don't know what they were thinking with that colour scheme and sail print.

Ella Bache

Once everyone came in, pretty much every metre of wharf space was taken. Loyal was tied up right next to an official-looking tent, probably for easy access during ceremonies, but it made it quite easy to rubberneck:

Investec Loyal (Closeup) King's Pier Marina

There were a few entrants with cool concepts going. Wasabi's colour scheme is quite appropriate.

Wasabi Optimus Prime

I thought having your yacht turn into a giant robot would've been against the race rules.

Each night, we tied up behind the Taste Festival, out of everyone's way. It was the perfect vantage point to watch the New Year's Eve fireworks. (Staying at Waterman's Dock would expose us to too much drunken foot traffic.) I haven't seen a fireworks show for a while but this one was pretty good. It went on for about 15 minutes and some of the crackers exploded into heart shapes and smiley faces. I didn't know they could make those.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: windeward_bound