May 27 2017

Book review: The Man Who Ate the Zoo by Richard Girling

AteTheZooA second birthday book: The Man Who Ate the Zoo by Richard Girling is the biography of Francis (Frank) Buckland who lived 1826-80 and can best be described as a naturalist populariser. His father William Buckland was a famous naturalist, and also Dean of Westminster.

The book is chronological in its layout, starting with something of Buckland’s father William Buckland. Who coined the term coprolites to describe fossilised faeces. An early geologist he was also a theologian, rising to become the Dean of Westminster and by this connection his son Frank was exposed to the best in society from a young age.

Girling writes less of Buckland’s mother but there is a rather poignant letter to him from her as he leaves at the age of five to go to boarding school. It is loving but bemoans his impatience and lack of obedience, a letter I might write to my own son!

Buckland’s life at school and then university was unremarkable from an academic point of view but rather exotic. At school he seems to have spent a great deal of time dissecting any number of animals which came under his hand including numerous domestic cats. At the time this appears to have been unusual but no cause for concern. At university he kept something of a menagerie including a bear, named Tiglath-Pileser.

Following university Buckland trained as a surgeon, travelling to Paris in 1849 to dissect victims of cholera, who were in ample supply – the disease killed 19,000 people in that city. After training he joined the Life Guards in London as a surgeon. This does not appear to have been an onerous job since he managed to write a great deal during this time and dissect pretty much what he wanted.

He left the army in 1863, and took up residence in Albany Street, close to London Zoo and married Hannah Papps, who had borne him a child some years previously, out of wedlock – which would have been scandalous at the time. The child, Physie (Francis John), died at the age of four and a half.

Writing then became Buckland’s career. He published Curiosities of Natural History and wrote copious articles for periodicals such as The Field. The house at Albany Street played host to the famous and the “freakish”. Buckland’s interest in nature extended to the unusual in humans: giants, dwarves, hairy women and Siamese twins. Somewhat quaintly the author claims we no longer have the terrible freak shows of Victorian times. I suggest he peruse a few documentaries on TV! 

Buckland was a member of the British Acclimatisation Society whose purpose was introducing new domestic animals into the United Kingdom for the purposes of feeding the masses more cheaply, or better for the same sum. This led to a life of eating all manner of strange and exotic creatures. Perhaps happily little came of their investigations.

Buckland was appointed Inspector of Fisheries in 1867. This started in inland waters where he travelled the country inspecting salmon rivers and also worked on fish farming, eventually sending salmon eggs around the world to populate New Zealand rivers. He was keen to restore the inland waterways to make them liveable for salmon both in terms of their cleanliness and the infrastructure in them – putting salmon ladders beside man-made weirs. Subsequently he worked on marine fisheries. His final substantial work was a report on marine fisheries: Report on the sea fisheries of England and Wales.

The Victorian period was a time of change, early in the 19th century the first animal protection legislation was enacted and towards the end there was a growing realisation of the impact of man on the environment. In a way Report on sea fisheries was a swansong to the old way of thinking, it put forward the idea that the sea fisheries were effectively limitless in their capacity but called for more research into these critical food animals.

Buckland, and his father, lived in the time of Charles Darwin although his father died before the publication of On the Origin of Species  in 1859. The origins of life had been a topic of scientific interest to which both Bucklands made their contribution, on the side of the what we would now call the Creationists.

I couldn’t help thinking of Michael Faraday and David Attenborough when reading about Frank Buckland, neither can claim to be the greatest of scientists but their impact through communicating a wonder of science and nature (and a genuine deep knowledge of them) has been enormous.

The Man Who Ate the Zoo is a pleasant enough read, Buckland is an interesting character and left a legacy in fisheries research. 

May 18 2017

Book review: BDD in Action by John Ferguson Smart

bddinactionBack to technical reading with this book BDD in Action by John Ferguson Smart. BDD stands for Behaviour Driven Development, a relatively new technique for specifying software requirements.

Behaviour Driven Development is an evolution of the Agile software development methodology which has project managers writing “stories” to describe features, and sees developers writing automated tests to guide the writing of code – this part is called “test driven development”. In behaviour driven development the project manager, along with their colleagues who may be business analysts, testers and developers, write structured, but still “natural language”, acceptance criteria which are translated into tests that are executed automatically.

Behaviour Driven Development was invented by Dan North whilst at Thoughtworks in London, there he wrote the first BDD test framework, JBehave and defined the language of the tests, called Gherkin. Gherkin looks like this:

Scenario: Register for online banking

Given that bill wants to register for online banking

When he submits his application online

Then his application should be created in a pending state

And he should be sent a PDF contract to sign by email

The scenario describes the feature that we are trying to implement, and the Given-When-Then steps describe the test, Given is the setup, When is an action and Then is the expected outcome. The developer writes so called “step definitions” which map to these steps and the BDD test framework arranges the running of the tests and the collection of results. There is a bit more to Gherkin than the snippet above encompasses, it can provide named variables and values, and even tables of values and outputs to be fed to the tests.

Subsequently BDD frameworks have been written for other languages, such as Lettuce for Python, SpecFlow for .NET and Cucumber for Ruby. There are higher level tools such as Thucydides and Cucumber Reports. These tools can be used to generate so-called “Living Documentation” where the documentation is guaranteed to describe the developed application because it describes the tests around which the application was built. Of course it is possible to write poorly considered tests and thus poor living documentation but the alternative is writing documentation completely divorced from code.

Reading the paragraph above I can see that for non-developers the choice of names may seem a bit whacky but that’s a foible of developers. I still have no idea how to pronounce Thucydides and my spelling of it is erratic.

BDD in Action describes all of this process including the non-technical parts of writing the test scenarios, and the execution of those scenarios using appropriate tools. It takes care to present examples across the range of languages and BDD frameworks. This is quite useful since it exposes some of how the different languages work and also shows the various dialects of Gherkin. BDD in Action also covers processes such as continuous integration and integration testing using Selenium.

As someone currently more on the developer side of the fence, rather than the (non-coding) project manager BDD seems to add additional layers of complexity since now I need a library to link my BDD style tests to actual code, and whilst I’m at it I may also include a test-runner library and a library for writing unit tests in BDD style (such as spock).

I’ve had some experience of managing Agile development and with that hat on BDD feels more promising, in principle I can now capture capabilities and feature requirements with my stakeholders in a language that my developers can run as code. Ideally BDD makes the project manager and stakeholders discuss the requirements in the form of explicit examples which the developers will code against. 

BDD in Action has reminded why I haven’t spent much time using Java: everything is buried deep in directories, there are curly brackets everywhere and lots of boilerplate!

I suspect I won’t be using BDD in my current work but I’ll keep it in the back of my mind for when the need arises. Even without the tooling it is a different way of talking to stakeholders about requirements. From a technical point of view I’m thinking of switching my test naming conventions to methods like test_that_this_function_does_something arranged in classes named like WhenIWantToDoThisThing, as proposed in the text.  

In keeping with my newfound sensitivity to the lack of women in technical writing, I scanned the acknowledgements for women and found Liz Keogh – who is also mentioned a number of times in the text as an experienced practioner of BDD. You can find Liz Keogh here. I did look for books on BDD written by women but I could find none.

If you want to know what Behaviour Driven Design is about, and you want to get a feel for how it looks technically in practice (without a firm commitment to any development language or libraries) then BDD in Action is a good place to start.

May 06 2017

Book review: Where the Animals Go by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti

animalsgoIt is becoming a tradition for me to receive a beautiful James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti coffee table book for my birthday. A couple of years ago it was The Information Capital, this year it was Where the Animals Go.

Where the Animals Go is a collection of stories and visualisations all relating to the tracking of animals, each story occupies at most a few pages and is accompanied by a couple of maps which trace the paths of one or more of the species in question across the earth. The maps are beautiful.

The book starts with an introduction which covers the evolution of animal tracking technology. The bulk tracking of the movement of animals on an hourly or faster basis has become easier with the advent of commodity GPS devices since the 1990s. Some of these raw data are now being published on aggregation websites such as Movebank.

Precursors to these GPS tracking systems are old-fashioned bird-ringing – a passive technique which relies on recapture of animals and has been around since the early 19th century. The Argos system relies on data from tags being transmitted to a small constellation of satellites – it has lower temporary and spatial resolution than GPS. There are also radio and acoustic tracking methods which have been around from the sixties.

In the text we discover how ants have been tracked in an artificial nest using tiny bar codes, and Daphnia zooplankton have been tracked with fluorescent nanoparticles in a tiny aquarium. Penguin colonies have been identified, and numbers estimated, from satellite imagery of the guano (posh word for poo) that they stand amidst.

I must admit to being a bit of an enthusiast for tracking myself, particularly when out skiing or walking. I used use GPS to geotag my photographs – parenthood has put a stop to such pursuits. I started using GPS about 10 years ago when the process was a bit clunky both in terms of the hardware and the software to process tracks. Nowadays I can record a GPS track on my watch or a mobile phone. So I can easily see how advances in technology relate to advances in the study of animal movement with GPS sensors becoming feasible for ever smaller animals.

After introducing the technology there are then three parts covering animals on the land, in the water and in the air.

The tracks of troops of baboons seemed most similar to the tracks of my Alpine skiing holidays. In this study a number of baboons from the same troop were tracked, this made it possible to see something of the leadership, or otherwise, behaviour of the baboons but this is actually unusual – in most cases a small number of individuals from a group are tracked.

Most entertaining are the tracks of animals who have been relocated for human convenience, and promptly return to the place from whence they came – pythons and crocodiles are in this group. Sadly, I suspect this type of behaviour does not end well for the animals concerned.

Related to this are those animals who live in close proximity to humans and find their why blocked by major highways, mountain lions in California – for example. Animal tracking can show the degree to which major highways cause a problem, and also show the way to solutions in providing corridors.

Sometimes tracking clears animals of what humans consider to be mis-deeds – the tracking, by acoustic sensors, of sharks in Hawaii falls into this category. More benignly it has been discovered that oilbirds in Venezuela did not simply foray out of their nesting caves at night and return at dawn, thus failing to carry out vital ecosystem services such as dispersing seeds. Instead GPS tracking showed that they spent days out in the forest foraging, and roosting in trees.

Generally the animals portrayed are depicted moving in a plane (mathematically speaking) across the land but sometimes they break out into the third dimension – an example is vultures spiralling upwards on thermals. Hang-gliding friends I know would be interested in this. Also included are the bar-headed geese, who migrate across the Himalayas, it turns out they generally stick to the lowest altitudes they can get away with, however they still exhibit great endurance in high altitude flying.

The accompanying text provides detail on what we see in the maps, and also some human interest in the scientists who collected the data.

Another beautiful book, and the references are sufficient for you to go and find out more about any of the individual stories. There is a dedicated website where you can see excerpts of Where the Animals Go.  

Apr 23 2017

Book review: Man of Iron by Julian Glover

This review is on man-of-ironMan of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover. Telford fits in with my interest in the Industrial Revolution, which are longstanding – in my very early teens my first stay at a hotel was in Ironbridge for a weekend of visiting the museums in that area. More recently I moved to Chester which is not that far from the famous Pontscysyllte Aqueduct and the Menai bridge and London to Holyhead roads, all works Telford was involved in.

Telford was born in Eskdale in the Scottish Borders in 1757, a tightknit rural community from which a number of great names have emerged  – William Pulteney (formerly William Johnstone) key amongst them, as an early patron of Telford. His father, a shepherd, died shortly after he was born.

He originally apprenticed as a stonemason in Eskdale before travelling to Edinburgh and London, where he worked on the refurbishment of Somerset House. He next worked in Portsmouth where he started to be involved in architectural design. He moved to Shropshire to become (eventually) county surveyor in 1786, where he was engaged in a wide range of projects.

As we head into the 1790’s the projects he is involved in expand enormously. Starting with the Ellesmere Canal, which includes the Pontscysyllte Aqueduct. Originally it was intended as a lower level, stone structure with locks taking the canal into the valley, at one point it was proposed that it should carry a rail-way. However, when the moment came the economy and lightness of iron led to the high level structure we see today.

Telford then went on to an enormous construction project in Scotland including harbours, the Calendonian Canal, numerous bridges and roads which necessitated extensive biannual visits over a period of 20 years or so. This project was put in place by the government, keen to see development in the Highlands, and later in the period having more cash to fund such work having finished fighting the French.

In common with William Smith, who made the first geological map of Britain, and Erasmus Darwin he was tremendously mobile forever travelling at a time when travel was hard. (Both of these men were his contemporaries). Telford knew the Darwin family and admired Erasmus Darwin’s “The Loves of Plants”, an epic scientific poem (a genre that has long fallen into disuse). In his earlier years Telford turned his hand to (not particularly good) poetry in the manner of Robert Burns who again was also a contemporary and was born not far from Eskdale.

In addition to this he directed the construction of the London to Holyhead road including the Menai Bridge, and with spurs along the North Wales coast to Conwy. He also planned the Göta Canal which crosses Sweden from the North to the Baltic Seas. The book includes a lengthy appendix listing his works (and the resident engineers on those projects, where relevant), I did consider mapping all these works but decided the list was too long!

Much of his inner motivation we learn from his correspondence with Andrew Little, a boyhood friend which sadly ends in 1803 with the death at age 48 of Little. Telford never married and there is scarcely a hint of any relationships with any women, Glover suggests in passing that his relationship with Little may have been very deep.

In his correspondence with Little we see Telford’s voracious appetite for continuous learning, but also a degree of cunning in his ambitions. He is not just a skilled technician in his fields but also a skilled worker of contacts, and project manager. He had a keen eye for his progress.

There’s some discussion in the book as to how much we should consider the projects he was involved in as his individual successes or as part of a team. This seems to me to be something of a trap, we tend to seek out the hero, the individual in any venture rather than truly appreciate the team effort. Think for example the way in which individual footballers are adulated. This carries over into histories of science and engineering, much of popular history of science is about the “great man” rather than the broader sweep or the group effort. Telford was no doubt technically able across a wide range of topics, he knew how to work his patrons, and he seems an excellent project manager. It’s clear there were often others like William Jessop who were notionally his superior for projects such as the Ellesmere Port canal and some of the Scottish work and likewise he had strong independent subordinates, particularly in Scotland, who delivered the work. Often biographers seems to fall into the trap of considering their subject “not sufficiently recognised”.

Telford died in 1834, a somewhat diminished figure. By that time the railways were starting to spread across the country and they would soon displace the canals and roads that had been his life’s work. I can’t help thinking that the projects that he worked on such as the Menai Bridge, the London – Holyhead road and the Ellesmere Canal demonstrated that the railway lines which were to come were feasible, if not always economically viable. Many times whilst reading this book I googled for the bridges he had built and found them still standing, sometimes still in use, sometimes by-passed by newer versions built to carry traffic unimaginable 200 years ago. Nevertheless they represent an impressive legacy. 

Apr 08 2017

Book Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

hidden_figuresHidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of Africa American women who worked as “computers” at NASA and its predecessor NACA during and after the Second World War.

In a first, this means I am currently reading both fiction and non-fiction by African-American women. (I’m also reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler)

The Hidden Figures worked initially in the West Area Computing Group at the NACA Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, which did reseach on aircraft and then rocket design. The Computing groups carried out calculations at the behest of engineers from around the Centre, this was at a time when calculation was manual or semi-manual compared to today. Over time they were co-opted directly into research groups, some of them to ultimately become engineers. The West Computing group was mirrored by the East Area Computing Group – comprised of white women.

There is some history for women acting as “computers”, and the necessity of World War II led to the government taking on Africa American women for the job, in face of historic segregation. For African American women this was a rare opportunity, until then the only recourse for African American woman with advanced training in maths was teaching. For a very few the Computing group ultimately acted as a stepping stone to working as an engineer.

Shetterly sees these women as a vanguard to the African Americans in the modern US who have every opportunity open to them. This jars a little to me when I see constant news from the US of, for example black people being more likely to be killed by the police, or a senior African American being brought together by the President with the policeman that aggressively interviewed him on his doorstep because the house looked too nice to belong to a black man. Or African Americans being purposefully disenfranchised.

The shocking thing to me, as a Brit, was the degree to which US society was absolutely, formally segregated on racial grounds. In Virginia, where this story is set, segregation was preserved by the Democratic Party (perhaps some explanation as to why African Americans are not necessarily whole-heartedly Democrats). In Prince Edward County, Virginia they went as far as shutting down all the public schools for 5 years in order that black and white children would not be educated together – white children were given grants to study at private schools. Britain may have been racist in the past, it may still be racist today but it never enshrined it so deeply and widely into law.

In response to this Africa Americans ran a parallel community, segregation didn’t end because the segregation laws were repealed. It ended because African Americans saw the end of those laws as a door ajar which needed a serious push to pass through. Thus when Rosa Parks sat on the bus, Katherine Goble (from this book) went to university and Ruby Bridges went to school they didn’t do so entirely alone. They had the support of their community and the organisation of the NAACP to help them. They had to be twice as good as a white person to get the same job. At the same time they also saw themselves as representatives of their race, and examples to their children.

When you look at a man the age of Donald Trump, 70, it’s worth bearing in mind that his teenage years were spent during the end of segregation by law and his parents were the white generation which fought so hard to keep it.

The focus of the book is mainly the personal lives, and ambitions of the women. There is some description of the work they, and the Research Centre did, but not in any great depth. The book highlights again the transformative effect of, particularly, the Second World War on society in the US. The seeds of theses changes could be seen after the First World War. This mirrors similar changes in society in the UK.

Once “computing” became the realm of high capital machinery the importance of women as computers waned, high capital machinery being the preserve of men. We see the consequences of this even now.

The book finishes with the part Katherine Johnson, in particular, played in John Glenn’s first trip into orbit and her subsequent work on the Apollo moon landing and Apollo 13 recovery. Shetterly emphasises the legacy of this group of women that normalised the idea that Africa American women could ultimately become engineers, scientists or any other sort of professional.

Interestingly my wife and I disagreed on the prominence of the men on the cover of the book (see above). She thought they were central and thus important, I thought they were small and thus unimportant. In the text the men are bit-part players, they are husbands and sons, or drift in and out of the narrative having spoken their line.

Older posts «