Jez Higgins

Freelance software generalist
software created
extended or repaired


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Wednesday 16 May 2018 The Forest Road Reader, No 2.6 : Thumbs Out

I'm 4823/24ths you know.

Prompted by my friends at Beware of the Leopard, I've recently reread The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I am, as you'll have noted, of that age where the Hitchhiker's Guide has been, pretty much, part of my entire life. I was first introduced to it by the television series, at my Dad's prompting I think, then read the book, then the subsequent books as they were published. Someone at school had tapes of the radio series, and they were passed around samizdat style. Of course as a 12 year old growing up in the middle of Norfolk all the jokes about council bureaucracy, getting drunk, and struggling to find one's place in the world completely passed me by, but I could recognise that it was funny. It clearly had jokes in it, I just didn't get them. Obviously I would never have admitted that because, at school, we all thought we were frightfully cool and clever for knowing about The Hitchhiker's Guide. It was our thing (replacing our previous thing, Not The Nine O'Clock News, until it was in turn replaced as our thing by The Black Adder). The fact it was on TV and you could walk into a bookshop and pick a copy up off the shelves in no way flagged to us that millions of other people were also enjoying it too.

As I've revisited the Guide, in its manifest forms, over the years, it's become progressively funnier and bleaker. Whether this is because I recognise the world is as Adams described it, or that the world has becomes more Adamsian, well, there's a PhD in there somewhere (which, once written, we'd get a computer to read for us because we're too busy doing something else). By some coincidence (although of course in an infinite universe the probably of anything happening rapidly approaches 1), the radio series is currently being repeated, so I've taken the opportunity to listen again. It was reasonably fresh in my mind, as I last listened to it maybe only three years ago, sharing headphones with Harry (who was then pretty much exactly the age I was when I first heard it) on long slow train trip home back from Fishguard, but even so I was completely caught out by the ending of the first series. You know the drill, Arthur and Ford, stuck on the prehistoric Earth with the B Arc Golgafrinchams, trying to teach the Neanderthals Scrabble. It's pretty downbeat, but this time round, I found the pathetic futility of it all really quite crushing. I was out walking my dogs at the time, and I just burst into tears in the street.

So, yea, thanks guys.



Tagged hitchhikers-guide, trains, douglas-adams, john-lloyd, and screaming-females

Sunday 06 May 2018 The Forest Road Reader, No 2.5 : Travelling at the Speed of Thought

One of the odd little side-effects of having worked in a university lab,even if a slightly wacky university and as a member of the technical rather than academic staff, is that I have academic publications.

  • Brilliant D. R., Morse A. D., Higgins J., Franchi I. A., and Pillinger C. T., 1994. The 15N-rich Low-Temperature Nitrogen Component in Lunar Soils; an Ammonia Related Species? Abstracts of the 25th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held in Houston, TX, 14-18 March 1994, pp. 173-174.
    • I actually have no idea why my name is on that paper. I have some vague recollection of maybe going over the analysis with Debbie (that's Brilliant D.R), more to comment on the statistics rather that the chemsity, but I'm really not sure. I'm pretty certain she was the one who put my and Morsey's (that's Morse A.D.) names on the list of authors though, so hurrah for her. Franchi's name would go on because he was her supervisor, and Colin's name (Pillinger C.T.) because he was head of department and oversaw everything. Such was the way of universities.
  • Harris, A.J.L., Swabey, S.E.J. and Higgins, J., 1995. Automated thresholding of active lavas using AVHRR data. Int. J. Remote Sensing, 16(18), 3681-3686.
    • I'd completely forgotton about this paper, to which my contribution was a bit of Excel spreadsheeting, but sometimes autoGoogling springs unexpected results. In fact, I'm not sure I've seen an actual print copy of this or the Brilliant paper.
  • Higgins, J. and Harris, A.J.L., 1997. VAST: a program to locate and analyse volcanic thermal anomalies automatically from remotely sensed data. Computers and Geosciences, 23(6), 627-645.
    • I wrote the code included in the paper, but only because Andy asked me to. He also wrote the paper and submitted it, so I ended up lead author because I did him a favour. He did later tell me this program had saved him approximately 9 months of hand calculation, which allowed him to bag a post-doc at this University of Hawaii. He ended up staying there for about 20 years, and is now at Université Clermont Auvergne in France. There's a lesson there about the direct effect our software can have on people's lives. Andy was a brilliant student and would have had a great career regardless of what I'd done, but two decades on an island paradise? Maybe not.

I left the Open University in the summer of 1994, so only one of these papers actually made it out in to the world while I was there. That last one was fully three years after I'd left, and probably a good 18 months after I'd last spoken to Andy. It was a slow old process and that kind of delay wasn't uncommon, which was something of a pain in the arse for the people whose livelihoods depend on getting things out and published.

Things move rather quicker these days, because in an unexpected turn of events I suddenly have a fourth academic publication in press -

As ever, I didn't do any of the actual work of putting the paper together, although I did write the software described therein.

The whole process from we could submit a paper to here it is took about four weeks, which is a remarkable improvement over three+ years. In another startling change, you can get to read it without forking over a massive fee. If you're interested in blockchain applications which aren't massive scams and might even be of some public good, do give it a read. It's a pleasingly short and clear explanation of what we're doing.


Tagged academia

Friday 27 April 2018 The Forest Road Reader, No 2.4 : Skyfall

This is a lovely picture. I'm not sure there's anyone who doesn't grin their face off when they're holding a meteorite, even those who's job it is to work on this stuff all the time.

After I'd been working at the Planetary Science Unit for a year or so, I went back to my old university department to give a here's a graduate talking about his job talk. Colin allowed me to take a meteorite from the unit's collection with me, and Phil furnished me with a small stone, maybe a couple of inches long to take with me. It was a fragment sawn from a larger meteorite, originally recovered from the northern Sahara. It had desert varnish on the exterior face with flecks of nickel-iron visible on the cut faces. It was, as these things go, an entirely uninteresting and unimportant meteorite. During my talk, as I described what meteoritics was and the analysis we did told us, I gave the meteorite to someone in the front row to look at and pass along. It took an age for it to pass through the audience and back round to the front, and a little bubble of silence followed it through the room. There's something really profound about holding in your hand something that's been unchanged for four and half billion years, something that might even be older than this planet, that gives you a connection to the very birth of the solar system. If you get the chance, take it, savour it.



Tagged meteoritics

Monday 23 April 2018 The Forest Road Reader, No 2.3 : A Festival of Cucumbers

Went into the office on Friday morning and spent a good twenty or thirty minutes trying to remember what the hell I'd been doing when I finished up on Wednesday afternoon. I'd written notes expressly to remind me, but it just seemed so long ago.

I'm not usually quite so flaky (or at least I don't think so), but Thursday had been unusually large and long. At the invitation of Seb, I'd got up at 4:30 to head down to sunny Shoreditch, London's beating digital heart or some such, to spent the day at Cukenfest, a single track conference devoted to all things Cucumber. Turns out all things Cucumber is a pretty broad remit. Cucumber itself is a piece of software, a tool to help support behaviour-driven development.

Behaviour-driven development, BDD to its friends, is an approach to the age old problem of making sure the software we write is the right software - right in the sense that it's does what the people using it need it to do, rather than in the sense of doesn't have any bugs. The biggest problem in software is, of course, that knowing what you want is quite tricky, communicating what you do know to someone else is even trickier, and, over time and in response to the work you're doing, your understanding will change anyway.

The conference sessions were all quite short and, I realise now, none of them were about Cucumber itself. They were about techniques and processes and approaches rather than technology. As ever with a conference, there was a lot to take in, and I'm still chewing it over. That might take some time - I think I'm still digesting the first conference I ever went to and that was 18 years ago. One of the things I found most curious was there weren't many programmers there. There were product owners, project managers, and testing & QA people, but hardly any programmers. I'm not quite sure what that means, although I'm pretty sure I wasn't in the wrong place. Maybe those product owners and QA managers should have brought their programmers with them?

Around 11 that evening, as I hoofed up the last stretch home, my cheap Chinese fitness tracker had some kind of spasm, buzzing around and flashing a little animation. I think it might have been trying to tell me, that if nothing else, I had won at walking that day.



Tagged cucumber, walking, netball, and shoreditch

Friday 13 April 2018 The Forest Road Reader, No 2.2 : Schemes of Work

So arrived, via a trip with Daniel to the University of Exeter, which I would totally go to if I was unexpectedly 18 again, in Bristol for the ACCU Conference. Tomorrow, Chris and I will deliver the talk which we had not and have not fully prepared. I've been to this conference 13 or 14 times, perhaps more, in the last 18 years and never arrived a day early before. I swore to myself I wouldn't end up five pints down before it had even begun, but, well, let's just move on.

The talk which Chris and I hadn't etc etc went off pretty well, if slightly shambolicly. Chris brought all kinds of nice props - an actual Amstrad (although sadly we couldn't hook it to a screen), some magazines, his A level coursework, and more. I sort of drove it, and we extemporised on various things we'd learned over our respective careers. Our lack of preparation bit us in the bum a bit as we had far too much to say, even though we'd missed out or had simply forgotten lots of what we'd intended, and pretty much crashed the bongs, ending by very briefly flashing through the code we'd written. In my original sketch, I imagined that would take half the session but it got perhaps 5 minutes. People, more of whom came than I was expecting, seemed to enjoy what we'd done though, so that's the main thing. Thanks to them for coming, and thanks to Chris for playing along.

It's almost always true that when you speak at an event there's at least one other talk on that you would like to see yourself. This year, the talk I most wanted to see was Andy Balaam's session on Scheme. He's always interesting, and I bet this was session, which took place in the room next to Chris and I as we bumbled our way along, was great. By way of consolation, I did have a lovely conversation with Andy the following afternoon. The conference dinner was the same evening during which Rob told me about parametric oil rig design, which sounds just like magic frankly, and Jim talked, with joy, about the wonders of the early semaphore and telegraph systems. Those Victorians, man, they were amazing.

As I write, I'm on the concourse of Temple Meads Station, another example of Victorian audaciousness. A 227 tonne lump of turn-of-the-millenium train will be trundling me home, on this our 25th wedding anniversary, soon.


  • Shout out, as the young people have it, to my boy Jon, who has left academia to become a big-data-web-analytics-tech-wonk. It sounds like he's enjoying himself, which is good, but I'm also sorry he felt he couldn't stay at his university job. We need good academics, and right now we need good digital culture and social media academics more than we ever have before.
  • If you like a nice falafel wrap, and if you don't what even are you doing here, Kitchen of Anatolia and Edna's Kitchen, at the east and west ends of Bristol's Castle Park respectively, are both worth a visit.
  • My man, and we'd both cringe if I ever addressed him as such, Robert Brook has a podcast. It falls pretty squarely in the white-dudes-talking-about-stuff space, but for me it's leaning more to the oh-that's-interesting rather than the jesus-christ-will-one-of-you-get-the-fucking-point-did-you-even-prepare-for-this-at-all end of the spectrum. I accept, though, there's a fine and exceptionally subjective distinction between those extremes.
  • Further ornithological pleasingness - a jay swooping and disappearing into a knot of trees at Moseley Bog, a goldfinch in the pleached limes by St Peter's Church in Bristol.

Tagged talk, exeter, bristol, accu, and ornithology
Older posts are available in the archive or through tags.


Jez Higgins

Freelance software generalist
software created
extended or repaired

Older posts are available in the archive or through tags.

Feed

Follow me on Twitter
My code on GitHub

Contact
About